I almost felt like I didn’t belong the first few weeks. Many of the faces were only a handful of years younger than me. Some made my nearly beardless face look almost adolescent. I needed two weeks to grow a poor excuse for a five o’clock shadow. I was right out of college, a first-year teacher at a regional public high school. Two English teachers had retired unexpectedly the previous year and the district had only been able to hire a single replacement. I was that lucky new hire.

The small towns the district served were agricultural communities until the early nineteenth century. When nearby cities and larger towns industrialized in the years before the Civil War, farming the poor, rocky soil became less attractive than working in a factory. Farms went to weed, then scrub, eventually second growth forest. Farmers abandoned the fields for the factories and gradually sold off their farms in small parcels. Some old farmhouses, a few old barns, and an apple orchard were all that remained of the area’s agricultural heritage.

The families in the district were mostly middle class to affluent. Few worked locally. Most commuted to two mid-sized cities a short commute away. There were some families that lived in the district only because they had roots going back generations, in many cases to colonial times, and already owned property.

Because the school was still short an English teacher, the entire department was over-loaded. Each teacher in the department had to take on an extra class. My extra course was an honors English literature class. I had one for juniors and another for seniors. Doesn’t sound like much? It meant 200 more lesson plans, 25 more homework assignments to review many nights, six more books to read or reread, 150 more papers to read and grade, and 25 more grades to track, calculate, and report.

The honors students were more of a classroom management problem than other classes. Not because they were necessarily a behavior problem, though they weren’t immune to causing mischief. Because they were bright, they constantly found ways to be challenging. Some assigned readings for the honors courses were considered somewhat controversial. They were intentionally selected to provoke thought and discussion. The goal was to develop critical thinking skills, a skill that would serve students for their entire lives as they dealt with a rapidly and constantly changing world.

Despite the serious nature of some of the topics, humor could sometimes be injected into classroom discussion. I encouraged it, to a point, by injecting the occasional humorous observation about the assigned reading. I had a handful of class-clown candidates among my charges, mostly among the honors students. Quick with a quip or an observation sure to result in howls of laughter. I had one senior girl with a talent for double-entendre. She took delight in embarrassing more modest female classmates, sometimes getting male classmates snickering and squirming in their seats. I tried to maintain some semblance of classroom decorum without sucking the fun out of the room.

It was sometimes difficult to keep a straight face. And there were times when I couldn’t avoid laughing. Occasionally even when a comment was inappropriate. I didn’t often have to tamp things down to maintain control, but it did happen a few times. Sometimes, I’d have a brief after-class discussion with a student to point out a comment had gone too far and there would be consequences if it happened again. Because of my approach, I developed a reputation as that most rare of creatures in a public high school, a challenging and demanding teacher that made learning fun. And was willing to display a sense of humor in class.

About halfway through the first quarter, the teacher’s lounge began falling silent when I entered in the morning before classes began. I found being a somewhat frequent topic of discussion in the teacher’s lounge a little unnerving. Eventually I learned several teachers with significantly more experience had been confronted by some of my students. Students who wanted to know why they couldn’t make class fun like I did. Often the criticisms weren’t fair. How do you make a joke about precalculus? Or the English Reformation? Lincoln was known for humor but there was nothing funny about slavery or the American Civil War.

Colleagues overheard students talking about me in the cafeteria or in the hallway between classes. I was aghast when one of my colleagues grinningly told me he overheard a senior cheerleader tell her girlfriend she’d fuck me in a heartbeat. My classes usually remained as serious and focused as any other. But colleagues whose classrooms were near mine could hear spirited participation that was absent from their classroom. And occasional laughter emanating from my classroom. See the smiles and energy of students leaving my classes. It became apparent my growing popularity with the student body bred a mix of admiration and jealously among my colleagues. Fortunately, the jealousy didn’t breed animosity. My new colleagues seemed to like me. I tried to attribute my popularity to being closer to the students age than any of my colleagues. Most of them didn’t buy it.

The principal, Dr. Sheila Purcell, sat in on a couple of my classes to observe after hearing some colleagues talking about me. I expected the students to more reserved in front of the principal. That was the case in my remedial English class. The junior honors English class got engaged in a spirited discussion about why George sacrificed so much for Lennie, then killed him rather let the mob capture him. She smiled at me when she left to return to her office.

My first review was positive. Dr. Purcell and my department head were pleased with my first quarter results and ecstatic with the feedback they collected. I don’t know how, but Dr. Purcell seemed to know the scuttlebutt about everything in her school, including the cheerleader that claimed she wouldn’t hesitate to have sex with me. When she reviewed a statistical analysis of my students’ first quarter performance, she noted my students’ grades were trending slightly higher than the expected distribution but nothing that suggested I was being too generous. She told me to keep doing what I was doing.

The first parent-teacher conferences were held in mid-October, just before the end of the first quarter. Most were what might be expected. I was very careful not to disparage any student. I confined my feedback strictly to academic performance. A few parents were annoyed that I didn’t have effusive for praise their brilliant progeny. Some listened respectfully, sometimes wearing worried expressions. Other times a smile because their child was doing better than in past years. Some engaged with questions about the curriculum and expectations. Some just listened to my comments and went on their way. Each night one or two didn’t show up for a scheduled appointment.

Only one meeting stood out. Charity Teagarden, a freshman, was from a family that had first settled in the area when it was still a British colony. I knew that only because I read a brief history of the area before accepting the job. Her family figured significantly in the area’s historical narrative. The small historic district that straddled two of the towns was called Teagarden. Teagarden Common, a large multi-use park with a lakeside beach shared by the same two towns, was donated by the family before the Great Depression. There was a Teagarden Road. Teagardens had been politically prominent in the past.

Charity was a sweet, quiet kid. Always clean, neat, and modestly dressed at school. It was obvious her family struggled financially. I heard her teased about her appearance sometimes. Her clothes were dated and a little too big. Unlike some other girls in school, it was difficult to determine what kind of figure she had. She was unquestionably slender. She was pretty but came across as mousy because she never wore make-up. Never dyed her hair purple, blue, green, or any other color. Her dirty-blonde hair needed a cut when the school year began and still hadn’t been cut by parent-teacher conference week. She had friends but was as likely to keep her own company as hang with them.

I had several concerns about Charity. Her work was uneven. At times, she gave me honors student work. Other times, it was so poor an overwhelmed grammar school student might have done better. Homework assignments often were done poorly, incomplete, or not turned in. Attendance stopped just short of being a problem. She rarely participated in class discussions. Her test grades barely averaged C.

I finished a conference with the father of one my more problematic class clowns and walked with him to the hallway to welcome Chastity Teagarden, my last appointment that evening. The plain-looking woman waiting outside my classroom looked tired. Beautiful auburn red hair peeked out of an old Red Sox baseball cap. She wore baggy jeans and a loose sweater under a light jacket. But one look told me she couldn’t possibly be Charity’s mother. I was almost twenty-three. She didn’t look any older than me. When we shook hands we greeted each other by name. She added she was Charity’s older sister.

I told her I’d have to check with the administration before discussing Charity with anyone other than a parent. When she said she was Charity’s legal guardian and had brought the court papers, I motioned her inside and closed the door. We took a seat as I gathered my thoughts for a moment. We discussed Charity’s schoolwork in depth. Chastity was knowledgeable about education and teaching. If a twenty-something woman was legal guardian for a teenage sister, there had to be some serious problems at home. I asked if there anything going on at home that made it difficult for Charity to study. I quickly regretted the question. Chastity fell apart. I learned more about Charity’s home life in the next minutes than I ever expected to.

Their father had disappeared without a word. He left for work early one morning but never showed up at his job. He didn’t return home that evening. His car was found in a supermarket parking lot near his employer. The keys were in the ignition. A train station was only walking distance away. No one had heard from him in years. Their mother took her husband’s disappearance hard. She began to drink. She poured her first drink each day upon arriving home from work and was stumbling drunk by dinner. Their mother didn’t get violent but was demanding. Charity couldn’t bring herself to say no to her mother and would end up spending her evenings catering to her mother’s drunken whims.

Chasity was just twenty-two and had been Charity’s legal guardian for nearly a year. She attended the state university branch, about an hour away, three afternoons and nights a week. She worked two waitress jobs, weekday breakfast shifts at a local diner and weekend evenings in an upscale Italian restaurant near the university. It was easy to understand why Chastity looked tired. And why Charity wasn’t doing as well in school.

I was driving home before I realized my fifteen-minute appointment with Chastity Teagarden had run nearly an hour over. As I drove, I became more concerned about Charity. I knew that there would be students with heart-breaking home situations, but I hadn’t really thought much about it. I was a teacher not a social worker. I was expected to maintain a professional detachment and make referrals to guidance counselors when I learned of a problem. I decided I had to figure out how to help Charity but had no idea where to begin.

I approached the school guidance counselor. She was already familiar with Charity’s home situation. She had sympathy for the girl, but there wasn’t much she could do. Chastity was a responsible adult and was providing everything the state required of a legal guardian. There was no after school program and no funds to start one. I considered offering to let Charity hang out in my classroom after school the nights her sister was in class and then giving her a ride home once her homework was complete. My mentor advised against it. I had an idea after a couple weeks.

My family lived about three hours away in a neighboring state. But my father’s cousin, Brie, lived in one of the towns the district served. She’d left teaching, returned to school and was now the educational administrator for a large hospital system. I called Brie, told her I wanted to ask a favor and invited her to dinner, my treat, to discuss it. I could tell she was suspicious. We’d only spoken a few times since I moved to the area and hadn’t yet got together. We had a relationship more akin to an aunt and nephew than second cousins.

Brie was often blunt. She had a quick wit and a sharp tongue she rarely kept in check. I’d heard people outside the family describe her as prickly. I could see that but there was more to her than some people realized. She could hold her own in an argument with anyone. I always enjoyed hearing her needle my father, a strait-laced radiologist and part-time med school professor, about the dumb shit he did when they were kids. I was sometimes amazed that he survived high school without serious injury. Or incarceration. I loved every minute I spent with her.

Brie was an unapologetic carnivore. I picked her up on a Saturday and took her to a restaurant known to serve the best steaks between Boston and New York. After we ordered a drink, she stared across the top of the menu at me. I could almost hear the gears whirring. I was going to get interrogated. It didn’t take long for her to start.

‘Alright, Evan. What are you up to? Last time I ate here was the night my ex proposed. You must want something big to bring me here for dinner. Especially since I know you’re not hoping to get laid.’ It was vintage Brie. Subtle as a shovel to the back of the head.

Despite expecting to be questioned, I was still caught off-guard. I stumbled through a few unintelligible utterance, before she put down her menu.

Evan,’ she interrupted, ‘just spit it out. I already know it’s a huge favor of some sort. I just can’t for the life of me imagine what you want. The last time you asked a favor you were nine and wanted to hide your mother’s birthday present at my apartment.’

I explained I had a student performing poorly because of a difficult home situation. She needed a place to study without the distraction of an alcoholic mother. The student had a stable influence at home in an older sister. But the sister worked, attended the state university branch, and couldn’t be home all the time. If Brie was willing, the student could take the bus to her house to study a few nights a week. The older sister could pick the student up on her way home from the university she attended. All I asked was a safe, quiet place where she could do her homework without distractions, a few nights a week. Brie wouldn’t have to supervise or drive her home. Just provide a place to study. I knew I was asking her to do a huge favor for someone she didn’t know. I also knew Brie was still a teacher at heart and had some soft spots that could be exploited if approached properly.

Brie waved the waiter away when he approached to take our order. Then turned on the interrogation lights. How old was she? What else did I know about the situation at home? What was the older sister like? The grilling went on for about twenty minutes before she picked up the menu again.

As soon as she put the menu down again, the waiter returned. ‘You first,’ Brie told me while she looked at her menu again.

I ordered the big rib-eye with mushrooms, baked potato, and a side of asparagus, balsamic dressing on my salad. Brie ordered a two-hundred-dollar Wagyu rib-eye with all the trimmings and a bottle of wine I was sure would set me back another couple hundred. This check was going to hurt. But if she was making me pay, she hadn’t ruled out what I was asking. At least not yet.

We talked more about Charity over dinner. After the meal Brie told me she’d consider it but wouldn’t say yes just yet. She wanted to meet Charity and her sister. On neutral ground. I suggested a local coffee shop as a suitable meeting place. Brie nixed it.

‘Not a chance, you’ll take us to dinner where we can spend some time to get acquainted. I want to get a sense of them,’ she said with a firm finality. Though I knew it was pointless, I opened my mouth to protest. She put up her hand to stop me. ‘I know your heart’s in the right place, Evan. Do you remember the adage? No good deed goes unpunished. You’re a teacher. Good deeds bite you on the ass and tear out a chunk.’

‘I haven’t discussed this with the student’s sister yet. I don’t know if there will be any interest. I wanted to talk to you first. I don’t know what the sister will think of this proposal. Or if the student will object.’

‘Talk to the older sister. If she’s agreeable, make the arrangements to meet,’ she said as the check arrived.

I wanted to cry when I saw the check. I could kiss my February break ski trip goodbye. Brie just grinned wickedly as I dug into my wallet for my credit card. At least she covered the tip, which was more like what I had expected to spend on dinner.

Monday, I sent a note home with Charity. Chastity called a couple days later. After we talked about my proposal, we set the first Sunday in November for our dinner meeting. When I cried poverty to Brie, she agreed to a popular area seafood restaurant that wouldn’t bust my budget any further.

Brie and I were seated in the waiting areamfor several minutes when Charity and Chastity arrived.

‘Hello, Mr. Berry,’ Charity said shyly. Her hair had been cut. She wore light makeup that let the pretty young girl show. But her appearance was still a far cry from the far too sexy persona of many of her schoolmates. Her clothes were still too big for her. Hand-me downs from her taller, older sister I now realized.

My jaw nearly hit the floor when I turned to greet Chastity. I barely recognized her. Stylish, shoulder-length auburn hair gleamed. Hair that had been mostly hidden by a baseball cap. Blue eyes shined bright behind a wide smile. A bit of carefully applied makeup brought out a beauty that wasn’t discernable when I met her. Her top was a modest, loose fitting, bright blue sweater. Her black skirt was also modest, loose and mid-calf length. She looked incredible.

After the hostess led us to our booth, Brie ushered Chastity into the seat beside her. Charity sat next to me, directly across from Brie. For a moment, Brie glared at me. She was pissed about something, but the scowl disappeared almost immediately. Before she turned to Charity.

Since this was a school-related meal, everyone ordered soft drinks. Charity didn’t like fish. She ordered chicken. Chastity ordered stuffed flounder. I cringed when Brie insisted that I order while she considered the menu. I ordered seared tuna. I wanted to reach across the table and strangle Brie when she ordered twin lobsters.

Dinner was a friendly and relaxed affair, though Charity might not have thought so. Brie didn’t let Charity sit quietly through dinner. She skillfully pried and prodded to find out what Charity was interested in, what she liked about school. She got responses from the usually reticent Charity that surprised me. I learned more about Charity over dinner than I had in two months of school. She was a complicated young lady. Far more mature than her classmates. As I listened, I became convinced that if Brie agreed to provide a suitable environment, Charity wouldn’t improve. She’d thrive. The check was a bargain compared to the steakhouse, though it still hurt. As we left the restaurant, Brie told Chastity she wanted to talk to me on the way home. I assured Chastity I’d be in touch.