There was no air conditioning in the Edmund School office. That was a luxury other districts could afford, like the one in Lawrence where Molly Driscoll had completed her student teaching the prior spring. No, she thought, I’m in rural Kansas, farm country, amber waves of grain, and all that. Grassroots America. Molly pondered this while using her front teeth to massage a canker sore on the tip of her tongue. The sultry early September summer air from the school office’s only open window seemingly hung over her head like a coming storm.
Molly was sitting on a hardwood chair outside Principal Mamie Kroupa’s office because of Patrick. He was the wild one, if any of the students at Edmund School could be considered wild. It was remarkable—for seventh graders, no less—that they sat attentively in her English and social studies classes with hands folded, the girls in their plaid uniform skirts and the boys in white polos. They grinned as if they knew something she didn’t, but gave her nary a problem. The kids turned in their assignments on time, and their test and quiz scores were, so far anyway, more than acceptable. In other words, a first-year teacher’s dream, which contrasted with the missives of her KU professors about the imperative of establishing disciplinary procedure on day one, and then following through as necessary.
“Expect to follow through,” they’d said. “A lot.”
Patrick maybe was the only exception. Just maybe. True, he did drop a pseudo-smart ass comment during fifth period yesterday, but it had actually made Molly smile inwardly. In truth, it was sort of refreshing to have a middle schooler act like a middle schooler, rather than managing a group of kids who looked like they were attending a sales seminar. She’d shrugged off Patrick’s comment, which had sounded like a thinly veiled attempt to challenge another teacher’s intelligence. To Molly, it didn’t warrant follow-through; she hadn’t even given it a second thought. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.
Patrick arrived in homeroom the next morning with a cast on his right hand and a black eye. And was that a limp Molly noticed? She asked the handsome boy with the brown, wavy hair and long fingers, like a pianist’s, to stay after class for a few minutes. But he had been reticent, mumbling something about not wanting to be late to first-period math. But Molly picked and pried a little, wheedling him with a compliment about his 100% score on the American government quiz. But then again, all of her students got 100. Uncanny. Maybe she wasn’t making her measurements tough enough.
“What happened to you, Patrick?” Molly asked.
His pause was deafening, and the response was weak willed, beaten. “It happened on the farm,” he said, eyes drooping toward the textbooks in his left hand.
“Really?” Molly replied. “Because I think it was something else, and I want to help you. This looks pretty serious, and if another student hurt you, we need to take care of that. I’m going to talk to Miss Kroupa about this, and maybe…”
“No. No!” Patrick fairly wailed at the prospect. “You can’t. Please don’t talk to Miss Kroupa.” Then a half shrug as if to say, You’ll make it worse.
After another pause, he held up his casted right hand and said, “This will heal, and everything will be fine. I’ll do better. You’ll see.” An unconvincing, dubious smile and he left. Molly’s classroom was silent.
I’ll do better.
Molly rolled that phrase around in her mind as she concentrated for a moment on her canker sore and looked down at her sensible black flats. If Patrick had been beaten up—but for what? certainly not what he’d said in class, that didn’t seem plausible—then it needed to be handled, and that might get messy, especially if a parent had been involved. Especially a parent out here.
On one of her in-service days, she walked into school humming a Jay-Z tune, and a group of parents were clucking outside the main office. As she walked by, they stopped and stared at her and picked up their conversation in hushed tones as she ambled down the hall, still watching warily.
Miss Mamie Kroupa’s office door opened. “Miss Driscoll, I understand you need to speak to me?” she said. “Please, come in.”
The chilled air from Miss Kroupa’s window air conditioner socked Molly in the face as she walked in and found another hardwood seat in front of an elegant oak desk, stained chocolate brown.
“This was Daddy’s,” she said, as she rolled her finger along the desk, referring to her father, Edmund Kroupa, the school’s namesake. “He was the principal here for nearly forty years, bless his soul. He made this school, and this town, what it is today. She proudly gestured to a sepia photo on the wall of a dour man in a suit. It was next to a carved wooden plaque with a single word: Patience.
Miss Kroupa was both dowdy and corpulent, and the springs of her leather chair whined as she eased her girth into it. She was dressed in a long flowery dress, vaguely Amish, and her ashen curls looked a little like a bird’s nest—or maybe even a wig. No wedding ring or anything else, like a necklace or a bracelet, that suggested femininity. Molly secretly suspected Miss Kroupa was a lesbian, which was exacerbated by the fact that she seemed to be staring at Molly’s slightly erect nipples due to the coolness of the room.
“What can I do for you, Miss Driscoll?” Miss Kroupa finally said, making a show of sitting up in her chair.
“Well,” Molly started, with a conviction that sounded naïve as that first word crossed her lips, “I’m concerned about one of my students, Patrick Powers, who came to school today with a black eye and a cast on his hand. He said it had happened on his family’s farm, but I don’t know if that’s true. It might have been an after-school fight, but based on the behavior I’ve seen from my students so far, I doubt it. Which leaves a few possibilities, but one in particular troubles me.”
The implication hung in the air, and Miss Kroupa leaned back in her chair to consider it for a long while. “What would you have me do, Miss Driscoll?” she finally said.
“Well if a parent were involved, doesn’t that warrant an investigation?” Molly countered. “I mean, he’s pretty beat up. A black eye is one thing. But a broken hand, it looks like, is something else.”
“Yes, I saw him in the hallway earlier,” Miss Kroupa’s voice trailed, turning her attention to the plaque. “Pity. But I’m not sure there is much we, as a school, can do.”
Molly had a student back in Lawrence, another seventh-grade boy she suspected was being abused by his father, and after a long talk, her supervising teacher got the school social worker involved. One-two-three and Daddy-o was arrested by the Lawrence PD and charged with battery, among other things. So she knew protocol.
“We don’t have a social worker in this county,” Miss Kroupa said, folding her hands on the desk as if to emphasize the point. “As you’ve probably already surmised, this isn’t a wealthy area like Topeka or Wichita or even Lawrence. For wont of a better phrase, we may as well be on an island. We tend to take care of our problems ourselves.” Then she gestured at the plaque and said, “We use patience. Daddy believed in patience, and it has served us well for decades.”
Molly shifted in her seat, the wood smooth and warming under her plaid skirt. It took a few seconds for the thoughts in her mind to coalesce into a cohesive response, but it did command Miss Kroupa’s attention. She took a breath and forged onward. “With respect, Miss Kroupa, being patient may not be an appropriate response or in the best interest of the boy,” Molly said. “What if Patrick goes home tonight and gets hurt again or worse? Wouldn’t we—this school and its staff, including you and me—be liable if we suspected something was wrong and didn’t report it?”
“Report to whom, exactly?” Miss Kroupa said, then made a grand effort to stand, pushing her chair away so that it banged against the credenza behind her. “The police and the town fathers endorse patience and know it’s this school’s virtue.”
She noticed Molly’s blank stare, hobbled over to the desk’s corner, and leaned against it. Molly could smell Miss Breck hairspray, which immediately took her back years ago to the bathroom in her grandmother’s house in Kansas City. She brushed that thought away, as if the mingling of the two was somehow sour.
“You’re thinking of patience as a noun, my dear,” Miss Kroupa went on, placing fat fingers with stubby, unpainted nails on Molly’s knee. “Here, patience is a verb.” Another blank stare. Miss Kroupa went on, treading without apparent empathy. “You may not realize it quite yet, but you’ve been given a wonderful gift by joining the staff at this school: a job for the rest of your career and a salary commensurate with performance—provided you embrace patience.”
Molly hadn’t planned to spend any more time at Edmund School than was absolutely necessary. She only wanted to pay her dues and then move on to a more palatable job situation back home in Kansas City or Lawrence. Job availability was scarce without the requisite experience, and naturally, you can’t gain experience without a job beyond student teaching. She felt confident she would be able to make that move after a year or two. But layoffs were a constant concern, especially in the urban and suburban districts. In fact, after fifteen years, her supervising teacher had gotten the axe at the conclusion of the school year.
“Find a spot where you can grow,” were his parting words after Molly had cleaned out her desk. “Find a spot, and maybe not even in Kansas, where you can practice your craft and make a difference without worrying about budget cuts all the time. You owe that to yourself and the kids.”
With that advice top of mind, Molly had accepted the position at Edmund School. Country bumpkins might not be so focused on bean counting, she surmised, and plus, she didn’t have to stay long term. Just long enough.
Now things were changing. Guaranteed career employment?
“You are a very talented, very bright teacher,” Miss Kroupa went on. “I saw that in your résumé, your letters of recommendation, and your interviews this summer. Frankly, you are the kind of teacher Daddy used to hire because those teachers never let him down. They prepared our children for the eventuality of being contributing citizens to this county.”
Which was funny to Molly because in a casual conversation with her homeroom students on the first day of school, now two weeks ago, about their career goals, the invariable answer was: “Work on the farm.” Not that farming wasn’t a noble profession, mind you, it’s just that their apparent intellectual capabilities and collective demeanor suggested that they were capable of more. Perhaps a lot more.
Kind of seemed like kids who could change the world someday. If they wanted to.
Check that. If they were allowed to.
“Your opportunity stands before you,” Miss Kroupa said. “A long, happy career of fostering the educational path of some of the brightest children in this state, while being able to pursue your own ends without concern for losing your source of income.”
Molly flashed to the KU School of Education graduation party that spring outside of Pearson Hall complete with streamers, gifts, well wishes and free-flowing booze. She gazed once again at the smiling faces so full of promise, and was forced to admit Miss Kroupa might be right. How many of her fellow graduates were working as baristas or bartenders or anything other than the educators they were trained to be? And for the ones who did make it into the workforce, how many would soon become acquainted with the pink slip, as her own father used to say?
Miss Kroupa lifted her girth from the corner of the desk, which made a creaking noise much like a sigh of relief. She took two steps to her left and positioned herself next to the carved wooden plaque that read Patience.
“This word,” she said with a vigorous shake of her head, “this word is what Daddy relied on to maintain order in this school, especially when that vile rock and roll made its ugly appearance in the 1950s and when our students tried to rebel against authority a decade later. Through it all, even the advent of the Internet and its myriad temptations, patience has been our guiding principle. And as I said, here in this place, it is a verb, not a noun.”
Miss Kroupa met Molly’s eyes with her own, and they bored into her with electric arc-like precision.
“Are you willing to learn about patience?” Miss Kroupa asked. “Are you willing to learn and understand and join us in creating something wonderful here at Edmund School, the perfect educational environment?” Another pause. “If your answer is yes, then please follow me.”
Molly turned her head and didn’t move. Miss Kroupa seemed to glide behind her, and she placed her pudgy palms on Molly’s shoulders and whispered in her ear: “Come along, Molly. You know in your heart this is the only way.”
Molly’s upper body tensed. She pulled forward and wrenched her body away from the hands that she realized were warm and possibly even perspiring. “Miss Kroupa, this is not appropriate, and…” Molly began before Miss Kroupa dismissed her with a wave that signified a great big pshaw, to use a term from Edmund Kroupa’s era.
“An effective educational environment requires order from the top on down, from myself and the board of education to the lowliest student in your classroom, like young Mr. Powers,” she said, her tone now hard-nosed with resolve and fervency. “Think of this school as a complex ecosystem that is always a hair’s breadth away from collapse if steps aren’t taken to ensure order on a daily basis. Can we at least establish that?”
Molly found it hard to argue that point. She had been told as much in her KU educational theory classes, which is where she learned about classroom management and following through as required.
Miss Kroupa continued, “Daddy believed there was only one way to maintain that perfect state of order and that’s patience. Order requires—I daresay demands—patience, and it’s what you must learn to become a respected faculty member here. The parents of these children, all of whom make up our board of education and this town’s civil servants, are depending on you to do just that.”
“You keep talking about patience, that it’s a verb, not a noun,” Molly said. “But what does that mean?”
“A fair question,” Miss Kroupa said. “I’d rather show you than tell you. If you really want to take that step into a larger world, a veritable educational utopia, please follow me.”
Miss Kroupa opened her office door and waddled past her secretary, Miss Marsh, who didn’t even look up from what she was doing.
“Patience is really about the future,” she said as Molly fell in step next to her, the two striding down the main hallway toward the rear of the school and the verdant acreage beyond. “This town, this county can’t afford mass exodus of its population, or it will die. Our best and brightest must remain, and in some cases, like that of Mr. Powers, they must be compelled.”
Molly could see the black-robed figures through the windows of the back door, their hands clutching what looked like rubber truncheons.
She pushed open the left door with a metallic thud, and under a blazing Indian summer sun stood a terrified fifth-grade girl she only knew as Kayla. The blonde in knee socks and a plaid skirt was being held by two robed, masked figures, one of whom Molly believed was the kindergarten teacher Mrs. Tatum, because of the long, red nails that emerged through bell-bottom sleeves. Ten other teachers, presumably, also masked and robed, formed two lines.
“Mr. Powers thought he’d like to leave this county and attend Kansas State to become a musician,” Miss Kroupa said. “Patience made him see otherwise. As for Miss Kayla here, she had harbored notions of becoming a doctor, but the economic downturn of the last decade did considerable harm to the prospects of her father’s farm. Patience is the only thing that will ensure she stays and fulfills her duty to her family.”
Miss Kroupa held up her forefinger and whipped it from left to right. The robed figures holding Kayla forced her between the two lines and then pushed her forward. She began to run and cowered as the blows rained down. She finally curled up on the ground as each robed figure made a strike with their baton. The young girl’s blonde hair was suddenly streaked pink and then red due to a cut on her forehead.
Kayla lay motionless on the shaggy grass, and Molly could vaguely hear whimpering and indistinguishable blather. It had all happened so quickly that she was stunned.
Molly turned to Miss Kroupa, who was staring proudly at the spectacle. Before she could move, the two robed figures who had been restraining Kayla now huskily grabbed each of Molly’s arms. Apparently her colleagues. “Patience is our virtue, Miss Driscoll,” Miss Kroupa said. “If you are to become one of us, you must learn it, embrace it, and realize it ensures our survival…and yours.”
Molly noticed her canker sore had started to bleed, and with an iron taste in her mouth, the robed figures dragged her toward the two lines that had reformed.