Rick Pulver—amazingly young and good-looking for a history teacher, according to the girls at Garden Grove Elementary School—was waiting for his students to settle down after their lunch break. Unlike when he’d been teaching middle school for three years, wondering why he had chosen the teaching profession, he enjoyed teaching these little kids. They were very young and some of them, like Rosemaria Baker, were incredibly smart. Middle school kids were the worst—completely undisciplined, with unbridled energy and hormones on the verge of raging out of control. Trying to teach them anything was not for the faint of heart. Regretfully, soon the students he was looking at now would be just like them.
He waited for the chatter and laughter to die down and picked up a stack of papers on his desk. “I was pleasantly surprised by the essays you wrote on your favorite Civil War historical figures. Many of you actually went beyond plagiarizing the encyclopedia, researched other sources, and wrote compelling, insightful papers. I gave you this assignment because it can get a little boring and pointless to merely memorize names, dates, and places, and then regurgitate it all on a test. I’m not in favor of that kind of teaching, although, unfortunately, that’s what the educational system requires of us these days. So, I choose to risk my neck and push the outer limits of the envelope to actually encourage you all to think for yourselves.” A boy in the second row raised his hand. “Yes, Lenny.”
“What do you mean ‘pushing the outer limits of the envelope’?”
Mr. Pulver waited for a couple of students to stop snickering. “Actually, a good question. Test pilots came up with the expression. It means to go beyond accepted limits of behavior.” Then he quickly added, “But in a good way. In other words, have the courage of your convictions, be willing to stand up to criticism, and do what you think is right and take it as far as you can.”
Pam Lincoln, a plain girl who wore glasses, sat in the front row, was serious as all get out spoke without raising her hand. “They won’t fire you, will they?” She looked worried.
“I hope not. It helps to have friends in high places when you push the outer limits.” Like a father on the board of ed, he added silently to himself. He began to pass out the papers, walking up and down the aisles, making positive comments as he stopped by each student. “As I told you before, I’m going to ask a couple of you to read your papers aloud to the class.” He handed out the last paper to Rosemaria. “We’ll start with you, Rosemaria.”
She looked up at him. “You mean like now?”
Rosemaria stood up, walked to the front of the class holding her paper, and looked out at her classmates—lots of friendly faces, except for a couple of morons who never paid attention. She had known that reading her paper in front of the class was a possibility, so she had practiced in front of the mirror in her bathroom. She couldn’t stand the thought of being boring so, using what acting techniques her mother had shared with her, she had rehearsed her presentation, striving to be understated and yet convey the emotions that Harriet’s life generated within her.
She began to read, starting with Harriet’s most exciting and daring exploits. Her mother had advised her that you always do that to capture the audience’s interest. Then she told them of Harriet’s tragic childhood and described in detail how she escaped from her slave owners, then returned south to rescue other slaves—usually in the dead of winter—and eventually became a Union soldier leading her own troops. Rosemaria recounted how Harriet had continued to work for causes she believed in until the day she died, in a rest home surrounded by family and friends.
She finished reading and looked up at her teacher. She thought that she’d done even better in front of the class than she had in her bathroom and hoped Mr. Pulver thought she’d done well, too. She was happy to see that he was smiling.
“I get the clear feeling that you very much admire Harriet. How did reading about her make you feel on a personal level, Rosemaria?”
“Well, it made me want to try to do something important with my life and not just take up space on this planet. I figured I couldn’t even come close to doing what she did, but now that I heard you talk about pushing the envelope, even though I can’t be like her, I want to push the envelope, too. I just don’t know where I’m going to do it yet.”
“Are there people in your life who you think do that?”
Rosemaria didn’t hesitate. “My dad. He never lets anything stop him when he’s going after a criminal.”
A look of concern flashed over Mr. Pulver’s face. “Is he feeling better?”
“He came home three days ago, and all he can think of is going back to work.”
“That’s understandable. When you spend every day chasing bad guys like your father does, it’s hard to stay home and do nothing. Exceptional work, Rosemaria. You may sit down. Jaime, you’re up next.”
Rosemaria walked to her seat and acknowledged her friends who were giving her thumbs-ups and high fives. She sat down with a feeling of accomplishment. It felt nice being the center of attention. When she was younger, she’d hated having people look at her, but now it was okay. She thought of her mother onstage for two hours and all those lines she had to memorize. Rosemaria shuddered. She didn’t love performing that much. Her mind drifted away from Jaime’s lackluster reading of his paper to planning her birthday party, although it was over a week away. Her father and Priscilla’s mom always had to organize them because even though her mother meant well and said she’d help, Rosemaria always knew it would be up to her and other people. Her dad had insisted that he was ready for a party and looked forward to being surrounded by a little levity for a change. Her mother was back to concentrating on trying to get auditions, not getting any, and being depressed. Only Yvette seemed of any comfort to her. Oh well, Rosemaria had something to look forward to, and nothing could spoil that. She was going to be ten in a week and a half, and now that her father was going to be healthy, life was good.
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