Chapter 17

I loved learning, but between counseling sessions, attorney appointments, and sleepless nights, I began struggling to maintain my superior grades. Sitting at my desk in the back of Ms. Hardwood’s classroom, I plugged away at unfinished worksheets while the rest of the class enjoyed some time outdoors. Who needs recess? Just a waste of time, anyway, I moped. Trying to focus on the math equation in front of me, my eyes once again wandered off the page. I watched the second hand on the classroom clock tick away my life and released a long, drawn-out sigh. Who am I kidding? This feels like punishment.

Ms. Hardwood’s voice broke through my mental pity party. “So, what does the B stand for?”

I glanced around the empty room then back at Ms. Hardwood. “You talking to me?”

Ms. Hardwood grinned, glancing down at a paper in her hands. “Yes, you. I’ve noticed you sign all your papers ‘Hope B.’ Just wondering what the B stands for.” An amused smile creased the corners of her eyes.

I cocked my head and remained confused. Since the first day of seventh grade, our class had been instructed to place our names in the upper right-hand corner of our assignments, along with our homeroom teacher’s last name and the due date of the assignment. Is this a trick question? I wondered. Venturing a guess, I answered, “Blythe?”

“No. I don’t think so. That’s not it.” She shook her head. Staring at my paper, she acted like a deep mystery would soon reveal itself.

Creases etched my brow. “I’m pretty sure my last name is Blythe,” I affirmed.

“But that’s not what the B stands for,” Ms. Hardwood insisted.

I chuckled, more out of nervousness than humor. “I don’t get it.” Focusing on Ms. Hardwood’s face, I braced myself for the unexpected. “What am I missing?”

Her eyes sparkled, amplifying her smirk. “Hope B what? Hope B happy? Hope B sad? What is God asking Hope to be?”

I mulled over the question for a moment, contemplating the deepness of her inquiry. “I guess I really don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe right now He’s asking me to B a better student. I can’t say my focus has exactly been on learning recently.”

Understanding reflected in her eyes. “Maybe,” she nodded.

Flipping through several sheets of unfinished homework, I allowed the pages to flutter back onto my desk. “Ms. Hardwood?” I paused.

“Yes, Miss Blythe?” She laid down her red pen, giving me her undivided attention.

“Did I give you the answer you were looking for?” Somehow, I feared I had missed the point.

A smile spread across Ms. Hardwood’s face and she chuckled at the seriousness in my voice. “There is no right answer, Kiddo. Just wondering if you had ever thought about what God is calling you to do with your life.”

“Oh.” My response consisted of: One. Flat. Tasteless. Word. That answers a lot.

Perceiving my loss, Ms. Hardwood met my gaze. “You know you don’t need my approval, right? What I think of you doesn’t matter.” She gave me a moment to process the proposal. “I realize you thrive on outward acceptance, but you don’t need mine,” she continued. “The only opinion that matters in your life is God’s—your audience of One. Once you accept His definition of you, all the other stuff just becomes stuff. It no longer defines who you are. God does.” An indescribable peace rested over her words. “Philippians 4, verses 12 and 13. Look it up,” she encouraged.

I pulled out the Bible I kept in my desk and flipped open to the New Testament, reading the words aloud. “…In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” I silently reread the words to ingest their meaning.

“Notice: it says all things, not just some.” Intrigue lit up Ms. Hardwood’s eyes. “Strength, acceptance, and approval come from God, not people.” The nuances of her unwavering faith drew me in. “People will always fail you….”

“But God never will,” I finished. A sudden realization hit me. “Hey, those notes were from you, weren’t they?”

A twinkle in her eye accentuated the grin on her face as she picked up her red pen and reached for another ungraded paper. “Keep looking to God for your answers, Kiddo. That’s where you’re going to find them.” Students started shuffling into the classroom, bringing our conversation to a close.

I slid my math book into my desk and started getting ready for the next class. I can do all things through Him, the words echoed through my mind. There is hope.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Greg watched me with fascination. “You light up when you tell stories about this teacher friend of yours,” he observed. “The two of you must’ve had a special bond.”

My face warmed with a smile. “You can say that. She was a kindred spirit—kind of like the big sister I never had—and one of the few people who wouldn’t allow me to run away with reality. Some called the emotional rollercoaster a teenage thing. She saw it as one of my character flaws that could be tamed and retrained. I respected her for that.”

Greg straightened in his chair and chuckled. “Those are good friends to have—the kind who are real and always have your back.”

“Yeah, I could always count on her to give me the truth—even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.” I snickered. “Sometimes, it’s hard convincing me I’m wrong.”

Greg flashed a knowing grin. “Only sometimes?”

I tilted my head and playfully raised an eyebrow. “Yes, only sometimes.”

Greg laughed. “OK. Go on.”

I settled back into my seat, stretching my legs out in front of me and tucking my hands under my thighs. “I never questioned Ms. Hardwood’s loyalty, friendship, or love for God. She was genuine—the real deal. That’s why I trusted her.”

“Makes sense,” Greg affirmed. “So, how did your relationship develop from teacher/student in the classroom to having a friendship outside of school?” His curiosity piqued.

Thinking back on our history, June of 1989 came to mind. “Summer, following my seventh-grade year, I ran into Ms. Hardwood at a church-sponsored baseball game. She was sitting on some metal bleachers watching the game, and I was looking for a place to sit….”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Well, funny running into you here,” I commented, holding a berry-blue slushie in my hand. “Mind if I have a seat?”

Ms. Hardwood tipped her soda can, motioning to an open space on the bench next to her. “Go for it,” she offered. “No one’s claimed that spot, yet.”

I smiled, brushing some dirt out of the metal grooves. “Thanks. This’ll work great.” I climbed over the first bench and sat on the second, eyeing the batter at home plate. “I didn’t know you had a life outside of school,” I teased, taking a sip from my straw. “You come here often?”

Ms. Hardwood swiped at some dampness on her forehead and downed a swig of soda. “Every now and again,” she grinned. “Gotta love summer break.”

“Oh, the perks of being a teacher!” I cheesed, flashing my pearly whites.

Ms. Hardwood smirked. “Something like that.”

Taking a large gulp of ice-cold slush, I let out an instant groan. “Ooo, brain freeze!” I scrunched my face into a tight grimace as a strong pain surged through my sinuses and stabbed at my eyes. Widening my eyes as big as they could get, I pressed on my cheekbones, praying the sensation would ease.

Ms. Hardwood didn’t even try to stifle her laugh. “Those can be brutal,” she empathized.

“Yeah, no fun,” I concurred, rubbing at the bridge of my nose.

“So, what brings you out here on this lovely muggy evening?” Ms. Hardwood light-heartedly bantered, swatting at a gnat.

“Same as you, I suppose. Just here, watching the game.” I turned my attention to the field. Surveying the crowd, I noted several rows of families forming a cheer squad on the sidelines. At the back of a chuck wagon, a handful of teenage girls gossiped near the trailer hitch, and coaches compared notes by the dugout. No one stood out or flagged need for alarm; yet, for some reason, I didn’t feel safe letting my guard down.

Ms. Hardwood perceived my apprehension. Glancing over her left shoulder, she followed my gaze. “What’s troubling you?”

I sighed and relaxed my shoulders. “I don’t know. Just a feeling, I guess.”

“A feeling, huh?” She scanned our surroundings—nothing out of the ordinary. “Wanna talk about it?”

I shrugged. “Not sure there’s much to share.” I tapped the rim of my cup with the tip of my thumbnail.

She cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head. “Really? Nothing?”

I raised my shoulders then let them shrink back into place. “Nothing you probably don’t already know about.” Sipping my drink, I allowed the cool liquid to wash away some of the evening heat.

“Give me a try,” Ms. Hardwood encouraged. “You’d probably be surprised at what I don’t know.” A smirk returned to her face.

“Really?” I tried to disguise my surprise. “I would’ve figured you were up to date on all the latest with Colleen—especially considering my life has been on display most of the year. Not much in my world is private any more.”

The crowd’s enthusiasm swelled as the batter up rounded first base and took second. Ms. Hardwood scanned the dugout, taking another swig of soda. “I’ve only been on a need-to-know basis,” she answered. “Believe it or not, I haven’t been told a whole lot.”

“Oh?” I watched the new batter hit into the outfield and waited to speak until the second base runner took third. “So, what were you told?”

Ms. Hardwood lowered her voice, thoughtful to protect my privacy. “I believe sometime in January Mr. Murray informed me abuse allegations were being brought against you by the Davis family. He said the Davises claimed that things took place while you were babysitting their daughter, and they were concerned for the little girl’s safety at school.” The metal bench creaked as she shifted her weight. “I was asked to keep an eye on you—not because anyone believed the claims against you, but because administration knew you needed protection from the Davis family. If your teachers always knew your whereabouts, the Davises couldn’t make up stories that would hold up against you in court.”

“Wow! I had no idea.” I nodded with new understanding. “I thought you knew every little detail about my situation—kind of why it’s been hard showing my face at school. Even though the allegations are false, it’s still embarrassing.”

“I’ve never believed Mrs. Davis’ accusations,” Ms. Hardwood confided, “but for the sake of remaining neutral, I’ve never asked questions. I knew all I needed to know.”

Feeling self-conscious, I chuckled. “And what was that?”

“Simple. You were my student, and you needed protection.” She wiped perspiration off her soda can and flicked the water droplets from her fingertips. “I know it annoyed you having someone watching over your every move,” she continued, “but we were all just looking out for your safety.”

I smiled and tried sounding appreciative. “I know. Thank you for that.”

Ms. Hardwood nodded. “Like I told you that day in the bathroom, you are never alone. God didn’t ask you to do this by yourself.”

Emotion crept into my throat, and I fought to keep my feelings from turning into tears. How does she do that? I wondered. She always seems to know what I need to hear, when I need to hear it. I bit down on my lip, watching the pitcher throw a strike.

“So, how are you doing right now?” Ms. Hardwood turned her attention back to the present, acknowledging my heightened sense of awareness.

“I always expect Colleen to show up in the most bizarre places,” I confessed. “I’m never fully off guard—probably never will be. It’s kind of part of who I am now.” The crowd cheered for a home run while I made another visual sweep of the people standing near me. “Dad thinks I’m emotional and overly sensitive,” I went on. “Mom pretends things aren’t as bad as they really are. And me? Well, I just feel crazy all the time.”

Ms. Hardwood pressed her lips together, taking in my answer. “They’re likely just trying to protect you,” she presumed aloud. “I can’t imagine this has been easy for them, either.”

“Maybe,” I shrugged, “but I still deserve to know what’s going on in my life. I’m not a kid any more.”

Eyeing me closely, she asked, “How do you think you’d feel if your mom or dad approached you right now and confided that they, too, believe the Davises are a danger to you?”

My confidence waned. “I don’t know. I’d probably be more scared than I am right now,” I admitted.

“I’m guessing that’s what they’ve been trying to shield you from,” she replied. “No parent wants his or her child to live in fear.”

“But things don’t need to be sugarcoated,” I rebutted. “I’m not fragile. It’s not like I’m gonna fall apart if I know the truth.” I met her gaze, daring her to challenge me. “Answer this. How can I prepare for the worst when all the adults around me keep telling me it won’t happen, and then it does?” Anger welled up inside me from a place I didn’t even know existed. “This is my life. I’m not stupid. I know when information is being withheld from me, and I hate not knowing!”

My instant hostility didn’t faze Ms. Hardwood. Instead, calmness accompanied her words. “You have the right to feel that way,” she acknowledged. “What you’re dealing with is a real part of the natural grieving process. What you’re going through is very normal.”

I stared at her in disbelief. “I’m not sad. I’m angry,” I retorted. “I’m frustrated. I’m confused. I’m…. I’m…. Oh, I don’t know what I am!” I slammed my cup down on the bench, sloshing the liquid, almost causing some of the contents to spill over the top.

Ms. Hardwood gazed over the ballfield, ignoring my outburst. “Sometimes you don’t have to know.” Her statement held soft but sage wisdom.

Tears pooled in my eyes and trickled, unwanted, down my cheeks. “But I need to know. You can’t plan for anything when everything is always changing. That’s an awful way to live.”

Ms. Hardwood turned and looked me in the eye, underlining reality with gentleness. “Those are the times you trust God to know what He’s doing.”

I blotted at my tears with the edge of my sleeve, embarrassed I couldn’t hold back my emotions. “Ms. Hardwood?”

“Yes?” She handed me a napkin, pointing at a stray tear. “Please. Call me Val. Ms. Hardwood is for the classroom. We don’t need formalities here.”

I gave her a funny look then started chuckling through my tears. “Really? Val?”

“Short for Valerie, but yes. My friends call me Val.” She finished her soda then casually placed the can next to her feet.

I wrinkled my nose and ever so slightly shook my head. “That just sounds funny.”

A knowing smirk spread across Val’s face. “Why’s that?”

“Because. You’re Ms. Hardwood,” I stated the obvious. “That’s how I’ve always known you. Val just sounds…uh…weird.”

“You don’t do change very well, do you?” she teased.

I laughed some more, dabbing at the moisture in the corners of my eyes. “I guess not.” I exhaled, releasing built-up tension. “So, Ms. Har…I mean, Val, how did you get to be so smart?” I watched as an incredulous look came over her face.

“Me? Smart? Now there’s something I’ve never been called before. Wise? Maybe if you consider my age and life experience, but smart? I’m not sure that describes me,” she deflected. “I’d like to think God uses me from time to time because of my willingness to be used by Him, but that’s all Him.”

“Oh.” I paused, not meaning any disrespect. “So, how do you know you can trust Him?”

“Who, God?” She smiled a knowing smile. “Experience. Personal, firsthand experience. Guess you could say God has a really good track record with me. He’s proven Himself over and over in my life, never letting me down—not even once. That’s how I know.”

“I see.”

“If you think about it,” she continued, “trials bring us closer to God. So, depending how you look at it, your situation with the Davis family could be viewed as a blessing.”

I felt my eyebrows touch my bangs. “I don’t know if I’d go that far.”

“Why not?” She watched as I processed her question. “Is it because God hasn’t answered your prayers with a yes, or because some of them He’s answered with a no, not right now, or maybe later?” I mentally squirmed under her scrutiny. “I never said God has always answered the way I’ve wanted Him to,” she clarified. “I just said He’s never failed me. Big difference.” Tenderness reflected in her tone, an inexplicable peace mirrored in her eyes.

If only I could trust God like that, I thought, envying her faith.

“When you look back over your life and see how God has lead you,” she continued, “you wouldn’t ask God for it to be any other way. Know why?”

I shook my head. “No. Why?”

“Because God does what God does best. He looks out for His children and only gives them what He knows will deepen their relationship with Him.” Conviction flowed from a sacred place.

I risked sounding nostalgic. “I’m really going to miss being in your class next year,” I confessed. “You always have such great insight.” The harsh, junior high Nazi teacher had somehow broken down barriers and found a warm spot in my heart.

“Bet you wouldn’t have imagined saying that at the beginning of the school year,” she razzed. “Mean ol’ Ms. Hardwood. Strict, unrelenting….”

“With a heart like a marshmallow,” I laughed.

Her eyes twinkled. “Shhh. Don’t let anyone hear you say that. I have a reputation to uphold.” She winked, standing and stretching her legs.

I stood, choosing to stretch a few sore muscles of my own. “I can’t promise anything,” I teased. “This is pretty big news.”

Ms. Hardwood’s demeanor changed as she set her gaze on someone behind me, a familiar voice interrupting our conversation. “Hope?”

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