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The children are so excited, mused the principal, Mrs. Randol, I don’t see how Lou doesn’t suspect anything. Lou Ambrose had spent more than half of his seventy-some-odd years teaching at this one school, and his retirement wasn’t brought on by any mental dulling. But he was finally leaving, hard as everyone was finding it to believe. When one alumna, Isabelle Ford, had heard the news, she had actually burst into tears, which was surprising to the principal on the grounds that Isabelle had stoically braved years of shunning from her classmates. Maybe that’s
why she was so close to Lou, Mrs. Randol thought. He was the closest thing she had to a friend here.
Switching off her office light, she left her office, with her heels clicking down the linoleum hallways, and headed for her sedan. She reminded herself to bring Kleenex, because tomorrow’s ceremony, she felt sure, would be very moving.
She had walked by the kindergarten classroom today, and seen them practicing their song, I’m
Proud to be An American, which they would perform for him in honor of his service in the Army.
It made tears rise in her eyes then, thinking about it. Yes, tomorrow would be lovely, a proper
send-off for a man who had given so much to the school.
Isabelle was trying her hardest not to feel angry, but as she readied her outfit for the next day, a blue and white skirt with a plain, white blouse, she couldn’t help wishing this was all a bad dream. Because, yes, she was a long way past her days as Mr. Ambrose’s student (his favorite, she still secretly hoped) but the thought of his
retirement meant the last good thing about that school would disappear. He had been more than an eccentric history teacher to her, he had been a mentor. Sometimes, he seemed to be the only teacher who didn’t mind her acerbic arguments, the only person who didn’t find her bookishness intolerable and unnatural.
And she had gone back to visit, after all. She endured the condescension of the other teachers, their smug looks when she mentioned the Academic Team, but no sports, all so she could see him, have him clap her on the back heartily, and gruffly say, “I guess you turned out all right, after all, eh?” Isabelle realized she had no more reason to
go back there any more. Mr. Ambrose’s retirement shut the door on that part of her childhood. At least she would be at the celebration tomorrow, so she could see him one last time.
Mrs. Randol spent longer than usual perfecting her frosted blond French braid that morning, practicing the gleaming grin she gave the parents at all school functions, as she deftly wove the hair back and forth. It would be a glorious day, she was quite sure. And if any of those 7th grade miscreants had any other ideas, she would see to it the next day that they would be serving detention until they were as old as Mr Ambrose himself. Nothing would ruin this day.
She sipped her morning coffee with inhuman caution as she sped down the curving roads to school. A stain on her suit, on this day of Kodak moments, would just not be fair. When she arrived, she gave a quick nod to the secretary, and sat in her office, answering as many emails as possible before she had to go “rally the troops,” and hype up the kids for their songs and skits.
“All right, boys and girls,” said Mrs. Randol in the breathy voice she thought was soothing and everyone else thought sounded like an older woman trying to be seductive. “Mr. Ambrose will be here in just about five minutes, so sit tight, and try to keep quiet.”
Isabelle was wedged between two other alumnae, girls who had made it their business throughout her years there to let her know that she wasn’t at their level. She started to feel beads of sweat forming on her nose and on her neck, beneath the mane of hair she had coaxed into a ponytail every day for years. It felt like centuries had passed since Mrs. Randol had announced to expect Mr. Ambrose any minute. She was starting to feel sick in the June heat.
“Still think you’re too good to talk to us?” rasped the heavily made up girl on her left.
“What? I didn’t hear you.” she explained, too quickly.
“I asked if you have any friends in your school now,” the girl replied.
With the bitterness that still surprised her with its quickness, Isabelle said, “Well, in that case, yes, I do think I’m too good to talk to you.” She straightened her shoulders and strained her eyes to see the clock. He should be here by now.
She thought about Mr. Ambrose, distracting herself from the questions that were flying at her now, like darts, from both girls. His stories hadn’t always been G-rated, he’d explained prostitution, circumcision, told his war tales and about the times his mother had beaten him with a broom. But she’d learned something from each one. Sometimes,
the lessons were about human nature: prejudice, the way young and old people interact, the importance of having a sense of humor, even about one’s self.
Even when the man was just teaching pure history, he made it interesting. It was another story, an overlapping web of everyone’s lives, not a cut-and-dried series of elections and movements. People had lived and breathed and died for each thing Isabelle learned from Mr. Ambrose, and that was why she couldn’t get enough of it. The only surprise was that in high school, teachers never made it seem that way. She had to do the story telling for herself.
It was an hour after the ceremony was supposed to have started when she saw her former principal scurry into the auditorium, her ridiculous teal shoes clicking as they always did. Without her glasses, Isabelle didn’t notice the tears drying on Mrs. Randol’s face at first.
“Boys and girls,” she heard, “I have some very sad news.”
“Last night, while he was sleeping...”
Not here. Not now. Just not today, God. Tomorrow.
“He’s with Jesus now, and he’s happy.”
How do you know? What do you know? He’s dead.
“He had a long, full life, and he leaves behind only loving thoughts and our prayers.”
Not long enough. Never long enough.