Author’s Note: This is the final story in the Mercy, Indiana series. Thanks to all my readers who found and loved each and every one of these stories. I love all of them and will miss the town and the Dole men very much!
The pig refused to cooperate, creating a problem bigger than Green Acres and Big Valley put together. Jenny Wright needed to kiss this piece of pork in the next two and a half minutes so she could usher her third graders back insidebefore the principal caught her necking with a mammal on the school lawn on a Friday afternoon.
Dr. Margaret Davis was from the old school and didn’t think Jenny’s rewards program for her students’ achievements did much more than waste time. Everyone in town knew the principal was hoping to be appointed superintendent next year, so she’d been cracking down on anything that made heror her schoollook bad. Jenny doubted Dr. Davis would like the pig much.
Heck, even she didn’t like it much right now, and she’d hired it to be her pucker partner.
“Come on over here, Reginald,” she whispered to the rotund pink animal. “One quick kiss and then you can go back to the farm. Nice bowl of slop waiting for you, I hear.”
Reginald grunted, plopping onto the new spring grass. He heaved a sigh and closed his eyes.
The circle of third graders around Jenny began to laugh at the recalcitrant swine. Kissing a pig as a challenge to the kids to read one hundred books before the end of spring term had sounded like a great idea two and a half months ago, when Reginald was wallowing on a farm far away. But now that the pot-bellied three-hundred pound beast was actually here, he didn’t look very appealing.
She’d never be able to eat bacon again, that was for sure.
“Go on, Miss Wright, kiss him!” Jimmy said.
“Kiss the pig! Kiss the pig!” The chant spread through the twenty-five kids like a verbal wave. The April breeze carried it across the school lawn, into the open windows, bringing a few heads out to see what was happening.
She’d made a promise and she’d stick to it. If there was one thing Jenny Wright did, it was keep her promises. Especially to her students.
She tamped down the wave of nausea in her stomach, then came around to Reginald’s face, got down on her knees in her black capris and, before she could think about what she was about to do, pressed her lips to Reginald’s velvety snout.
He snarfled, jerked awake and backed up quick. Then he let out a squeal and dashed toward the bright pink “Animals Where You Want ‘Em” truck. His handler, Ed Spangler, a tall man in overalls and a straw hat, laughed and helped Reginald up the ramp and into the back of the truck. He shut the door, then circled to the front. “Old Reginald hasn’t moved that fast in ten years. Must be one heck of a pucker you got there.”
“Gee, thanks. I think.” Jenny dug her check out of her pocket. “Here you go.”
“Oh, no need to pay me, ma’am. I haven’t laughed that much in ages. Plus, the paper got a snapshot of your date with Reginald. I’d say that free publicity makes us about even.” Ed gestured toward a young man holding a camera and standing across the street. “I thought this might make a good story, so I called the Mercy Daily News myself.” He thumbed the strap of his overalls and nodded.
“This is going to be in the paper?” Oh Lord, her career was over now. Might as well start scouring the Help Wanted section now. If there was anything Dr. Davis disliked more than Jenny’s unconventional teaching methods, it was publicity about Jenny’s teaching methods.
A tension headache began to pound in her temples. She pressed her hands to her head, then tucked her hair behind her ears. She would deal with this later. Preferably after a lot of Tylenol and a huge platter of nachos.
Stuffing the check back into her pocket, she spun on her heel and flapped her arms at her class like a mother goose. “Come on children, back inside.”
“Miss Wright, what’d the pig taste like?” Jimmy Brooks asked.
“Yeah, was he all boogers and slime?” Alex Herman had a fascination with all things nasal. He’d even fashioned a nose for his clay project in art class.
“Eww, Alex. That is so gross.” Lindsay Williams made a face and took a step away from him. “Miss Wright wouldn’t really kiss a slimy pig anyway. She has taste.”
Lindsay shrugged. “I dunno. In animals, I guess.”
Not in men, Jenny thought. As far as love lives went, she’d be willing to bet Reginald had better luck than she did. Finding a man wasn’t high on her priority list right now anyway, not while she was so consumed with her class. All relationships did was complicate her life. Jenny had had enough complications to last her until she was eighty.
“Okay, that’s enough. We need to get back to work.” Jenny pulled open the outside door to her classroom and led the children inside. They took their seats, amid a steady stream of pig chatter and chair squeaking. Then she moved to the front of the room and clapped her hands. After a moment, the children quieted down and faced her. As always, a small thrill of triumph ran through her when her class ran like clockwork. To Jenny, a civilized and orderly class proved she was doing a good job. “Now, you all have done a wonderful job on the first level of the reading challenge. But, we still have a ways to go.”
The class let out a collective groan.
“I’m willing to make it fun,” Jenny said. “If you’re willing to put in the work.”
“Are you going to dye your hair green this time? I really liked the pink,” Jimmy piped up.
“Uh, no. Not this time,” Jenny said. Dr. Davis had nearly gone into cardiac arrest when she’d seen the fuchsia hair Jenny had sported as a first quarter class incentive.
“How about making us another giant ice cream sundae?” Lindsey rubbed her belly. “I didn’t eat dinner at all that day.”
Lindsey’s mother hadn’t been happy about that either. She’d called Dr. Davis to complain, resulting in another black mark on Jenny’s teaching record. “Er, no, no sundaes.”
“Well, what then?” the class asked.
Jenny put on a bright, work-with-me smile. “We could read just for the fun of it!”
“Nah. That’s boring.” Jimmy said. “We want a prize.” Twenty-five nine-year-old heads nodded in agreement.
She’d created a monster. The children now expected rewards for making their class goals.
Maybe Dr. Davis had a point.
No, she refused to entertain that idea. Her third graders needed every boost they could get to raise their reading level. This past winter, Mercy Elementary’s scores in the state achievement tests had come back at their lowest levels in years and the school had been placed on probation. Losing their accreditation was a very real possibility, if something didn’t happen. Jenny couldn’t change every class, but she could darn well change her own.
In the last few years, her class had become her main priority in life. It wasn’t that she’d set out to become the stereotypical spinster elementary school teacher. It had just happened that way, after too many failed relationships and one broken heart that refused to heal. And it was a heck of a lot easier to concentrate on the children than on why Jenny attracted bad dates like steel filings to a magnet.
“I’ll think of something,” she said, rubbing at her temples again and returning her thoughts to the class. As long as it didn’t involve pigs or hair dye, she figured she’d be fine.
“Miss Wright?” the school secretary blurted over the loudspeaker. “Can you come down to the principal’s office please? I’ll have Miss Rhodes cover your class.”
“I’ll be right there,” Jenny said.
Jimmy mouthed “Uh-oh.” The other kids’ eyes got wide. They knew that even for an adult, an impromptu trip to the principal’s office meant only one thingbig trouble.
Debbie Rhodes opened the connecting door between the two third grade classrooms and gave Jenny a sympathetic smile. “Do you think she saw the pig?” she whispered.
“How could she not? He weighed three hundred pounds and arrived in a hot pink truck.” Jenny sighed. “Guess I better go down there and face the wrath of Davis, huh?”
Debbie gave her arm a squeeze. “Good luck.”
If she could have trudged in two-inch pumps, Jenny would have. It was a bit hard to look like she was going to her execution dressed in black capris and white sweater set. So she held her head high, straightened her shoulders and figured if she was going to get fired, she’d go out looking good.
“Dr. Davis would like to see you in her office. She said to shut the door.” Bonnie, the school secretary, gave her a sad smile, as if she knew Jenny was going to enter the lair of the lion and come out like a shredded sock.
Jenny’s spine slumped a little. “Okay.” She crossed to the principal’s office, entered the room, then closed the door behind her.
Dr. Davis sat at her desk, all business and primness. Her gray hair was woven into a tight bun, her brown checked suit perfectly pressed. She had on dark framed glasses, a chain dangling from both sides of the lenses. Dr. Davis left nothing to chancenot even losing her glasses.
“Sit down, Miss Wright.” Dr. Davis didn’t bother to look up from her paperwork. “I hear you had a visitor today.”
“Uh, yeah. A really cute pig.” Jenny pasted on her bright smile again. “The kids loved him.”
“It was a distraction from their learning.”
The smile fell a little. “It was a reward for reading a hundred books this term.”
Dr. Davis raised her head. She dropped her glasses to her chest. “Your class read a hundred books?”
“Yes, they did.” Jenny nodded. “They tried some authors for the first time. Even Jimmy Brooks read three and he didn’t read at all before the pig incentive.”
Dr. Davis leaned back in her chair. “You know the school has been placed on probation because of our achievement test scores this year.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
She tapped at her lip with her pen, thinking. “We don’t have much time to bring up our scores if we want to make a difference. You have mentioned to me, several times, that you’d like more support for your program.”
“I do,” Jenny said. “I really think it could work. The children have responded well to incentives and fun.”
“Be that as it may, I’m not entirely sold on your methods thus far. However, I do have to worry about our accreditation. There’s a grant available to the third-grade class that can demonstrate the best growth in reading skills over the school year. It can be used to buy books, computer equipment, whatever you want. I’m quite impressed with what the other teachers are accomplishing using traditional methods…”
Oh no, here it came. She was going to be stuffed back into the plain reading, writing and arithmetic box. No pink hair, no pigs. Nothing fun.
“However, you have done something unusual and had some success,” Dr. Davis said, almost gritting the words out between her teeth. “Time will tell if it will pay off in test scores, but at this point, I’m ready to try almost anything. Your classroom could use that grant and our school needs to retain its accreditation. If we can raise our status, it also makes us eligible for additional state funding. A winning solution for everyone.” Dr. Davis pursed her lips, then released them. “So, with all that in mind…you have my permission to continue with your students.”
Jenny blinked. “I do?”
“Yes, but” Dr. Davis held up a finger. “I don’t want any more animals on the school lawn. No giant desserts in the art room. No painted hair. Instead, I have come up with your next reward.” She gave Jenny a smile that seemed an awful lot like a lion opening his jaws.
“Children like heroes,” she continued. “And we have a local hero who has returned to town.” The smile widened. “Nathaniel Dole.”
“N-N-Nate?” Nate was back? He must be on leave. Since when? And why hadn’t she known?
Because the days when he’d pick up the phone and call her to say he was coming home had passed a long time ago. And yet, a part of her still leapt at the thought of him returning, like some Pavlovian response to his presence.
“Is there something wrong with him?” Dr. Davis asked.
“No, no, not at all,” Jenny said, shaking her head. A little too hard because her hair came out from behind her ears and whipped at her eyes.
I used to be in love with him, but that’s not a problem.
Besides, she was twenty-nine now. All grown up. It had been, what, ten years since she’d seen him last?
Nine years and three months, whispered the little part of her brain that kept track of those kinds of things.
“Good. I think Mr. Dole would be perfect to come in and work with the kids. He’s home on indefinite leave, doesn’t have much to occupy his days right now and he loves children. Think of him as a sort of free aide.” Dr. Davis leaned forward in her chair and slid a paper across the desk. “Here’s his contact information. I’m sure with all those nine-year-olds, you could always use a helping hand.”
The principal had found a box for Jenny. One she couldn’t escape. Not only did she gain tacit approval for her teaching methods, but also a helper for the busy class.
Nate. The one man she’d vowed never to see again. As if by keeping him out of sight, she could blight him from her heart. If the plan had involved anyone but Nate…
“Oh yes, this is going to be wonderful,” Jenny said. Almost as good as kissing the pig.