A Girl Named Valerie
A Girl Named Valerie
I looked out of the window with a sigh. More rain. Was it ever going to stop?
The rain poured down the windows in steady torrents. I could hear the rain splattering against the rooftop. The steady rhythm sounded like a band of marching soldiers but despite that, I heard several of the children laughing as they raced quickly through the hallways. It was time to go, yet there I remained, sitting uselessly in front of an empty classroom. I looked away from the vacant desks feeling very tired.
What was I doing? Why didn't I go home? I had to make dinner for Charles and Gregory, plus the cat hadn't been fed…and did Gregory clean the litter box like I had asked him this morning?
I gazed at the window again. Through the blurry streams I could make out a bright yellow umbrella passing across the steps that led to the street. I sat taller in my chair and peered through the window in sudden alarm.
The yellow umbrella moved easily through the trees and slowly inched its way up to the curb of the street. The rain water was so heavy and thick against the windows I could barely distinguish anything. But the umbrella was undeniable. It was Valerie.
I jumped from my seat and pressed myself to the window, staring through the blurry streams in vain to see her more clearly. I could only see long lean brown legs and the yellow umbrella covering its owner's back.
The yellow umbrella turned slightly to the left as if surveying that side of the street. Cars were whizzing by at a fantastic speed. I could only make out bright flashes of light through the rain that indicated their presence. The umbrella turned again to the right. My heart was racing. I feared the worst.
A school bus came lumbering along towards the yellow umbrella from the left. It gained speed as it approached view of my window. Just as the bus was feet away from passing the umbrella, I watched in horror as the long lean brown legs jumped into the middle of the street.
"VALERIE!" I screamed, pounding my fist against the glass. "VALERIE, NO!" I shrieked at the top of my lungs.
The bus passed with a blare of its horn, snuffing the yellow umbrella from sight. I leaned against the window with my mouth hanging open. My heart thudded against my chest but I could not feel it. For a moment I thought I would faint, I could no longer breathe. Somehow I found the courage to look back into the now empty street. With gasping breaths I slowly raised my eyes and peered through the rain. I clenched my fists when I saw the yellow umbrella bobbing from the other side of the street. The long lean brown legs skipped up the hill and out of sight from my view. I wobbly moved to my seat and collapsed into it through a gasp.
I looked up in alarm.
Tara Smith, the Spanish teacher from the next room was gazing at me in concern. Her plump frame stood like a beacon in front of my door, and her fuzzy pink sweater seemed to match the color of her face, which was now flushed with emotion. "Leslie, are you all right? I heard a scream and…" she trailed off, catching her breath with a hard swallow.
I tried to smile but I still felt a little shaky. "It's nothing to worry about…I was just…" I licked my lips and tried to make my smile a little wider. "I'm fine, Tara."
"My goodness!" said a new speaker, emerging next to the pink sweater and squinting at me ruefully. "Was that you just then?" it was Melissa Farnon, the algebra teacher. I never liked her very much.
I laughed nervously.
"We heard you all the way down the hall!" snorted the still squinting eyes. "You certainly gave us a scare, Leslie!"
"Very sorry," I laughed nervously again.
"Well, there's a three day weekend I have to start enjoying," spoke Tara, her color had returned to normal at this point and she seemed relieved. "Enjoy your weekend!" the pink sweater disappeared from my door. Melissa Farnon slipped out after her, but not before throwing me another disapproving look on her way out.
I sighed and let myself sink into my chair. My heart was still thudding against my ribcage. I stared at the ceiling as I listened to the rain. When my heart rate was close to normal, I went home. But I couldn't get Valerie from my head.
Valerie Martin was fifteen years old, a freshman in high school and one of my students in my ninth grade English class. She was a different girl. I knew it right away before any of the teachers thought to warn me about her.
Through their gossip I learned her parents divorced when she was thirteen, but then three months after the divorce her mother committed suicide by hanging herself in her bathroom. Valerie was immediately sent into therapy but showed no signs of sorrow or anger. Rumors flew around about the possibility of Valerie's father abusing her but I didn't believe them. She only became an issue to the faculty when a student found her trying to cut open her wrists last month in one of the restrooms. Since then, I've been on edge.
She was a very peculiar child, more so than most of the children I saw in my classes. This was understandable given her background, but at times she unnerved me to the point where I found myself feeling slightly fearful of the girl. Valerie wasn't a bad girl. She wasn't frightening in appearance or personality, but she was just so peculiar! She never said a word during class but only gazed at her desk with a faint smile on her lips.
She was a curious distraction, as I always found myself stopping to look at her while I taught class. And without fail, every time I looked at her I found her gazing down into the center of her desk with a faint smile on her face. It was the smile I found unnerving. She never changed expression, never looked up, not once, until the bell rang at the end of class. And even then she moved slowly and deliberately, as if she was walking through a dream.
Valerie was an average student. She turned in her assignments on time and she did mediocre on all of her tests, but something seemed off. I have longed to talk to her one-on-one but I could never bring myself to do it. She wasn't failing the class nor was she distracting the other students, so I didn't have a valid reason for keeping her after class. But still…
I wanted to have a picnic that Sunday. The weather was beautiful and the sun was out. The rain had finally stopped for the first time since the start of spring. My husband and son packed sandwiches and canned juices in a picnic basket and then we headed out to the park.
The sun sparkled in a perfect cloudless sky as I surveyed the hillside with Charles. Gregory had found a group of boys playing soccer and had joined in.
I watched my son with a smile. Gregory's platinum blonde hair flopped around his head as he ran across the grass. He was only eleven, but showed the sure signs of becoming a major athlete someday. Maternal pride raced through my veins as Gregory sent the ball hurling into the goal. It landed with a loud WHACK and I stood up and cheered.
Gregory ignored me and turned to go back up field. He was too absorbed in the game to pay any mind to his beaming mother cheering him on from the top of the hill.
Charles chuckled softly as I returned to my seat. "Do you think he'll continue playing long enough to join the team next year?"
I nodded, still smiling at my son. "He's going to love being on the team next year. He has told me that he wants to play with older boys."
Charles nodded sagely without saying anything.
"For him, the best thing about going into junior high next year will be the soccer team," I said, sipping on a soda.
For a while we watched the game without speaking, and then Charles spoke up again. "Do you want to take a walk?" he asked.
"And leave our stuff?" I looked cautiously around, but the other families on the hill seemed too content in their own conversations to notice.
"Yeah, no one's going to take it," smiled Charles, standing to his feet. He offered me his hand, which I took with a giggle. Holding hands, we descended the hill and turned towards the trail that circled around the park. The trail hugged along the shoreline of the lake. We walked on the grass to avoid getting in the way of the dog-walkers and bicycles speeding on the trail.
I was happy. For the first time in a long while I finally felt like I could relax. I forgot completely about my students and the piles of un-graded papers and tests I left behind before the weekend. I took a deep breath of fresh air and casually looked around the park. I nearly gasped when I saw a yellow umbrella bobbing under a large willow tree several feet ahead. At once I was seized with a sudden desire to turn in the opposite direction.
"What's wrong?" asked Charles, squeezing my hand comfortingly.
I shook my head without speaking, but as we neared the willow my suspicions were confirmed. I saw two long lean brown legs splayed under the yellow umbrella and chipped black fingernails gently twisting the stem of the umbrella back and forth.
We were only several feet away from the willow now but the umbrella hid the owner's face. I was sure it was her but I had to be sure. As we passed I shot a look over my shoulder. From that angle I could see the face clearly. It was Valerie, and she was smiling faintly again while she gazed unseeingly towards the lake.
I stopped in my tracks.
"What's wrong?" Charles asked again, stopping and looking back at me casually.
"Do you see that girl with the yellow umbrella?"
Charles tossed a careless glance towards the willow tree and then shrugged. "Yeah, so?"
"She's one of my students," I said without taking my eyes from the twisting yellow umbrella. After a moment I looked back at my husband. "You should go back to check on our stuff. Besides, Greg might've finished his game by now and might be looking for us."
Charles raised his eyebrows in mute surprise, but then nodded and sauntered back along the trail.
"I'll catch up with you in a minute or so!" I called after him as he went. Charles waved lazily in response and then disappeared behind a throng of joggers coming up the trail. I swallowed hard and uneasily looked back to the willow tree. Valerie was twisting her umbrella with the smile etched upon her lips.
I realized now was the perfect opportunity to talk to her one-on-one. I approached the tree cautiously at first, and then I squared my shoulders and cleared my throat. "Valerie? Is that you, dear?" I said, giving my friendliest smile.
Valerie turned her head up towards me and looked at me, the smile never leaving her face. She looked at me dreamily for a second and then turned her head again to look back at the water. "Hello Mrs. Gardner," she said airily.
"Do you mind if I sit here next to you?" I asked and she shook her head. I sat next to her and looked out to the water. "This is a lovely spot you picked out, Valerie. It's a beautiful day to be out. My family and I are having a picnic up on the hill," I gave the girl a sidelong glance but she was still smiling absently into space. "Are you and your family having a picnic too?"
Valerie shook her head, still smiling.
"So you're alone?"
Valerie nodded, the smile still glued to her face. She began to twist the umbrella between her fingers again.
"Well that's no fun," I said. "Do you often come here by yourself?"
"I come here all the time," Valerie said in the same airy manner. "I like coming here after the park has closed." She turned and looked at me, her brown eyes shining in the light, "I sneak in."
"Really? Well I don't know if that's such a good idea," I said doubtfully. "If you get caught your father might get upset."
Valerie smiled a little wider. She had perfect white teeth and was actually quite charming when she smiled all the way. "My dad is never home, so that isn't a problem," she dreamily turned her umbrella between her fingers, now looking at her shoes.
"Valerie," I said gently, "I've been meaning to talk to you for a while now…" I started.
"Is this about what I did in the bathroom?" Valerie's smile twisted into a sarcastic smirk.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I took a deep breath and gently put my hand on her shoulder. "Valerie, I'm worried about you. Not just me…there are lots of people worried about you at school, honey."
"No," Valerie's smirk began to spread. Her face had suddenly come to life. Her dreamlike manner had evaporated and only a peculiar coolness remained. She gripped the stem of the umbrella in a fist.
I watched her, feeling more and more uneasy. "I just want you to be happy. I care about all of my students and—"
"You thought I had jumped in front of that bus, didn't you?" Valerie interrupted, shooting me a grin.
I stared at her with my mouth open for a moment. After recovering from my initial surprise I looked at her sternly. "What are you talking about?"
Valerie hooded her eyelids over her eyes, appearing very snake-like and smiled a little wider. "I know you saw you me. You were there. You thought I had jumped in front of that bus."
"Valerie," a spark of anger rose in my tone, "why on Earth would you do something like that? You could've gotten hurt!"
She looked back to the water and spun her umbrella between her fingers but I wasn't finished. "You jumped in front of that bus knowing full well that I was watching you? Why would you want to scare me like that? I was worried about you!"
Valerie seemed to be ignoring me. She looked out into the water with an absent expression on her face. The faint smile had returned to her lips.
"Valerie, look at me!" I said sharply, turning her shoulder so that she was facing me.
Her look was now one of fear and surprise, as if I had startled her. She looked into my eyes without speaking. After a moment she smiled faintly at me again. Her eyes were far away and almost lifeless. "It's fun…" she whispered after a while. "Don't you think so too?" she looked dreamily from my face and up into the willow branches.
"What are you talking about?"
"To die…" she answered, smiling vacantly into the sky.
"Valerie!" I shook her shoulder.
"It's fun…I think it's fun," she continued absently. She then looked back into my face and gave me a white-toothed smile. "I like it."
I removed my hand from her shoulder as if suddenly her touch had burned through my hand. "Valerie…" I breathed after a while.
All of a sudden she started laughing. She dropped her umbrella and threw her head back laughing helplessly. I only stared at her. After she had finished laughing she gazed at me with a mischievous eye. "You're fun to mess with, Mrs. Gardner!" she giggled.
I opened my mouth to speak but Valerie had already stood to her feet. She looked down at me with mischievous eyes. "Don't worry, Mrs. Gardner. I'm not going to kill myself. So you can stop losing sleep over it." She plucked her umbrella from the grass and held it above her head. "And you can tell everyone else at school that I'm not going to kill myself, OK? It's kind of annoying how all you teachers keep following me around at school." She smiled cheerily and then turned as if to leave. "Well then, I guess I'll see you on Tuesday. Enjoy your picnic!" she laughed, happily walking away from the willow tree.
I rose to my feet and opened my mouth but there was nothing I could think to say and so I just stood there watching her walk away. I watched as her yellow umbrella disappeared down the trail, feeling defeated and utterly confused.
I recounted the story to the school counselor, a young woman named Janet Shipley with curly red hair and big blue eyes. I had never gone to the counselor before on a student's behalf, but I felt Valerie was an extreme case and needed my help.
"I've spoken with Valerie several times after the bathroom incident," said Janet, tossing her curls over her shoulder. She tapped a pencil nervously against her desk. "It's no good, I'm afraid. I've talked to her father too, and it seems Valerie's psychologist hasn't been getting through to her either. She's a very intelligent young lady. She understands my questions and so answers a certain way to lead me in the wrong direction. A very frustrating and difficult case," she sighed heavily. "She's a chronic liar, it's hard to tell whether she's being serious or manipulative."
I sighed and shook my head. "Is there anything we can do for her? She seems like a sweet girl, really. It tears me up to see her in class. She just stares at her desk with this vacant smile on her face. It's very disturbing."
"I understand, Leslie," Janet gave me a long sympathetic look, "but really, there's not much we can do. No matter how many times I try to get her to talk she always evades or lies. It's extremely difficult to talk to Valerie."
"If we could draw her out of her shell, maybe she'd feel comfortable enough to express herself honestly," I mused aloud.
Janet nodded, still gazing at me sympathetically. "Getting a girl like Valerie to come out of her shell is going to take some time…she'll need years of therapy before that can happen."
I nodded and rose to my feet. I shook the counselor's hand and left.
It was lunch time so the hallways were crowded with lounging teenagers. I threaded through them and returned to my room with a heavy feeling in my heart. I felt badly for the young girl, I really did. She was so young, only fifteen, and yet…
I entered my room and headed straight for my desk. I had sixty papers to grade before the end of the week and already I was feeling tired. I was about to sit when I looked up and noticed a dark figure hunched over one of the desks. I gasped in surprise and nearly jumped out of my skin.
Valerie was sitting in her usual seat, three seats across in the second row. She had an open lunchbox on top of her desk and she stared at me intently without speaking. Her expression was unreadable.
"Valerie!" I said, placing a hand over my cataclysmic heart. "What are you doing here?"
Valerie stared at me without an expression and then looked down in her lunchbox. A black fingernail picked at the corner of a sandwich.
I looked at her for a long moment and then reluctantly sat down behind my desk. Silence gnawed at the room. The only sound came from Valerie clinking a spoon against the desktop.
"Students are only allowed to eat in the cafeteria," I said finally.
Valerie looked up, her expression pained. She bit her lower lip and quickly looked away, and then at once she stood up and starting throwing things back into her lunchbox.
I watched her patiently as she packed her things and stood from her desk. As she was crossing to the door I spoke up again. "However, Valerie, if you want to eat your lunch in here all you have to do is ask."
Valerie tossed me a mean look over her shoulder at the doorway. She turned her back and stepped out of the room, but then stopped in the middle of the hall hesitating.
I pulled out my own lunch and began to look over the papers I needed to grade. In the corner of my eye I saw Valerie still standing in front of the door in the middle of the hall. Her back was to me but I knew she was still hesitating.
I began to grade. After finishing one paper I looked back to the hallway and found she had gone. I was disappointed but not surprised. I continued grading papers until lunch was over. I don't know what compelled Valerie to come to my room that day, but I was pleased that a small part of her felt I was trustworthy enough to eat lunch with.
Summer vacation was just around the corner. The atmosphere was thick with anticipation. The very air in the classrooms reeked of it. It was written all over the children's faces in the way they looked longingly at the wall clock every period.
I especially like the summers because I can spend my summer breaks with Gregory. I knew that once he started junior high, he would want to spend more and more of his time with his friends and less time with his parents. I wanted to make this summer vacation a memorable one.
I saw less and less of Valerie since that day at lunch. Over the weeks, I noticed a steady decline in her attendance. At first, she had only showed up late to my class, but then it eventually progressed to where she didn't show up at all. It seemed she skipped my class and several others, since some teachers reported that she had been in their classes some days when she had been absent in mine.
In class she was just as peculiar as ever, if not more strange. When she did show up to my class, she stared dully ahead at the wall with her hands clasped on top of her desk. She didn't look away from the wall and that faint smile that I had observed earlier in the year was replaced with a slightly puzzled frown. At times she looked very confused and at others she seemed really sad and depressed. I had tried to talk to her after class but she had ignored me each time.
I feared that the lunch incident had pushed her away from me.
In any case, Valerie was failing my class. She managed to successfully flunk every test. Her homework assignments were either late or forgotten about altogether. I frowned as I looked over the reading quiz Valerie had just finished turning in. I tried to make eye contact with her, but she looked to the ground and scurried back to her desk.
A wave of irritation swept across me as I skimmed her quiz. She had left the majority of the questions blank, and the ones she had answered were completely wrong. I knew Valerie could do better. I looked up from her quiz and looked at her but she was staring dully at the wall. I sighed and put a red 'F' on the top of her quiz. At this rate, she wasn't going to graduate from the ninth grade unless she put some serious time into summer school. I learned from other teachers that she was failing in algebra, history, and Spanish in addition to failing my class.
What was Valerie doing? It was as if she had given up somehow. I made up my mind that a parent teacher conference was in order. I didn't know much good it would accomplish, but I felt I had to try. If I couldn't get through to Valerie, surely her father could.
The next day I found myself sitting in front of Mr. Martin and his daughter.
Valerie aimlessly turned her feet while staring at the floor. Her expression was dull and expressionless. Her father was a tired-looking man in his late thirties. He had deep lines creased across his face and he looked much older than he actually was. He had kind brown eyes and a mustache. He clasped and unclasped his brown hands nervously.
"The office gave me a call while I was at work. I had no idea she's been skipping and failing most of her classes," he spoke hurriedly and nervously.
"I gave her progress reports to send home that have returned back here with your signatures on them, Mr. Martin," I said, eyeing Valerie.
"I don't remember signing anything," Mr. Martin's voice grated. He turned a steely glance towards his daughter but Valerie remained unfazed.
"Valerie," I said gently. "Listen to me, I'm only trying to help you. I've called this parent teacher conference for a reason. I'm worried about your grades and your high school career. At this rate, you're not going to finish ninth grade."
"Valerie, are you listening?" Mr. Martin grated, glaring at his daughter.
If Valerie was listening she was doing a good job of not showing it. She was gnawing absently on a fingernail while looking indifferently up at the ceiling.
"Valerie!" snapped her father angrily. "Listen to what Mrs. Gardner is trying to tell you! She's saying you're going to be held back a year!"
My heart sank. Valerie shrugged her shoulders and continued biting on her nail.
"What's wrong with you?" Mr. Martin gasped frantically. "Why are you doing this, Valerie? Don't you know what you're doing to yourself? This isn't hurting anyone but you! Not your teachers, not me, not anyone! This is your future here!" he turned and looked at me pleadingly. "Is there anything she can do, Mrs. Gardner? Summer school or something to help her pass?"
"Yes," I answered, swallowing. "Summer school and an improvement in grades. I don't know about her other teachers but I'm willing to help Valerie. I want her to pass this class. I'm willing to give her extra credit assignments if she wants to catch up. I think she can manage a 'C' in this class if she works hard."
"Valerie, do you hear that? She's willing to work with you!" Mr. Martin turned pleadingly towards his daughter. He looked at me frantically, "She'll do it. She'll do the extra credit assignments and she'll improve her grades. Now that I know about these progress reports I'll be sure to see them now," he shot Valerie a look and continued. "If she gets a 'C' in this class will she have to take summer school for English?"
"No, Mr. Martin," I answered. "And I think if you talk with the rest of her teachers they'll be willing to make an arrangement for her to avoid summer school. I think you should schedule a meeting with them and see if they can work with you."
"Yes, yes, of course," Mr. Martin wrung his hands nervously.
"Valerie," I said, looking at the girl. "Valerie I need you to do a lot more from now on. You have to show up to my class every day and you have to make sure you turn in your homework. I know you can do much better on your grades, you're not trying enough. I want you to succeed, I really do…so tomorrow in class we can talk about extra credit, OK?"
Valerie removed her eyes from the ceiling and glared at me. Her father nodded vigorously and rose to shake my hand. "Thank you so much, Mrs. Gardner!" he said, throwing a despairing look at his daughter.
I watched them leave with a sinking feeling in my stomach, but I hoped that Valerie could turn things around.
Valerie, I think, hated me. She didn't say a word as I explained her extra credit assignments, she didn't say anything when I praised her on the improvement in her test scores, she didn't say anything at all. She only glared at me. But that didn't faze me. I was proud of her. I always knew she could do much better than she had been doing. She began making 'Bs' on her tests and quizzes and was turning in her homework and extra credit assignments. Slowly but surely, she was turning things around. Valerie was always a very bright child, all of her other teachers have agreed with me on that fact, it was her lack of trying and apathy that resulted in her failing grades.
"Valerie, good job, you got every single question on this exam correct!" I gushed excitedly, handing the test back to her.
Valerie regarded me stonily for a few seconds before taking the test from me and stuffing the thing carelessly in her backpack.
"You've done really well these last three weeks, Valerie. I'm very proud of you. Your current grade in this class is a 75! You pass!" I smiled.
Valerie looked at the floor with a dull expression. Nothing I ever said to her lately seemed to change that dull expression.
"How have you been doing in your other classes?" I asked excitedly, ignoring her sour silence.
"Fine," she mumbled.
"Have you managed to bring your grades up?"
"I guess," she mumbled.
"That's very exciting!" I laughed. "So will you still have to go to summer school?"
"For algebra," she mumbled, glaring at the floor.
"Well that's pretty good, considering. I'm happy for you. You should be proud of yourself, young lady. You managed to pull through at the last minute, not too many people can pull that off." I smiled encouragingly. "Next year, you'll have to make sure you don't fall so far behind. I'm sure next year you'll be on the honor roll."
Valerie looked up at me without speaking. She glared at me for a moment and then looked away to the wall. She opened her mouth and then quickly shut it. Her expression turned slightly puzzled. I noticed right away that something was bothering her.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
Valerie turned and glared at me again and then looked away. Then smirking, she looked back at me. She didn't say anything. Her brown eyes flashed coldly as she looked at me. "I'm not coming back next year," she announced finally.
"We're moving," she said flatly.
"Moving?" I repeated dumbly.
Valerie nodded her head, still smirking at me. I was at a lost for words. After a moment she spoke again. "We're moving to Pennsylvania. I'm going to a special boarding school."
I recovered from my surprise and showed her a smile. "That's…well you must be excited. I'm sure you'll miss your friends here though. Moving is always so hard," I smiled feebly. I had not expected her to be leaving, and with only a week before school let out I didn't have much time to accustom myself to the idea.
"I'm not going to miss anybody," Valerie looked away again.
"Well, I'll certainly miss you. We must keep in touch," I said.
Valerie slowly turned her eyes towards me. She was glaring at me again. "And why would you want to do that?" she asked in a challenging tone.
I shrugged and smiled. "Well, you're one of my favorite students. You're a very intelligent and interesting young person, and I'll want to keep in touch with you. If you don't want to then you don't have to, but I would like to keep in touch."
Valerie then turned from me and left from the room.
I sighed and looked sadly through my window. I didn't want to accept it, but my gut told me I'd never speak to her again.
The last day came by and went rather quickly. I was going to miss my seniors the most but other than that, the last days of school were usually very exciting.
School had been let out hours ago but I had to pack my things from my room. This didn't take very long, but I was always very slow with packing. Tara Smith, the Spanish teacher popped in to check on me before leaving.
"You're still packing?" she giggled.
"Yes," I answered through a smile. "Unfortunately I've never been very fast at this sort of thing. Enjoy your summer vacation, Tara!"
"Oh yes, and you too! You're going to Hawaii this summer aren't you?"
I grinned and nodded. "Yes, my son Gregory is just going to love it! He's never been to Hawaii," I admitted.
"That's exciting!" smiled Tara, shifting her bulk so that she was halfway out of the door. "Well, Leslie, you take care. Have a good summer!" she smiled, carrying away with her a large cardboard box.
I turned back to my own cardboard box and sighed. I looked around my empty classroom and sighed again. From the light outside, the room looked shadowy and stagnant. It was nearly 5:00pm and the sun was beginning to set. I was pulled from my thoughts from a light knocking on the door. I turned and smiled, expecting Tara again or one of the other neighboring teachers in my hall. Instead I found myself looking at a shy and bashful Valerie.
"Valerie!" I cried in surprise. I had not expected to see her again. "School's been out for about three hours, dear, what is it?"
Valerie cast her eyes down on the floor fidgeting. She wrung the straps of her backpack between her fists and stared at the floor.
"Is everything all right?" I asked, sensing that something was bothering her.
Valerie lifted her eyes towards mine and opened her mouth. She looked ready to speak but then she clamped her mouth shut and nervously chewed on her lower lip. "Um…" she looked away again. "I just wanted to…thank you for…everything," she said with painstaking caution.
"You're welcome," I beamed. Her unexpected gratitude warmed my heart instantly. "I was happy to help."
Valerie looked up at me and then quickly looked away again. "Not…many people have tried to help…" she trailed off.
"Valerie," I said, placing my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me as if startled. I smiled and patted her shoulder. "You're a wonderful young lady and I know you'll do amazing things. You have to believe that you're worth it because you are," I said gently.
Valerie looked away confusedly and pursed her lips. "Thank you," she said awkwardly.
"No need to thank me, dear," I smiled.
Valerie shifted her backpack and looked at the floor again. "I have to go," she announced to the floor.
"Yes, Valerie, enjoy your summer, and I hope you do well at your new school," I replied, taking my hand from her shoulder.
Valerie remained at the doorway twisting her backpack straps in her fists. She fidgeted and looked up from the floor. She seemed like she wanted to say something else so I waited patiently. It seemed like she was fighting an inner battle within herself, she opened her mouth and then closed it, turned towards the door and then turned back again to face me. After a minute or so of this she paused and opened her mouth again. "Can I…? Do you want to…keep in touch?" she asked finally.
I was beaming again. "Of course!" I laughed. I quickly turned to my desk and scribbled my phone number and email on a slip of paper. I handed the paper back to her and smiled delightedly. "You still have the summer left, so maybe I can take you out to lunch sometime before you leave for Pennsylvania."
Valerie looked up in surprise. Her face looked orange against the light streaming in from the window as she gazed at me bewilderedly, "You'd…do that?" she asked in near whisper.
I laughed again. "Of course, Valerie!"
She looked away awkwardly, swallowed several times and then licked her lips. Her fists twisted her backpack straps nervously. I watched her in mild confusion, wondering what she could possibly say next. Her eyes settled on her feet again. "Can I…? Can I…?" she trailed off, looking up at me pleadingly. "Can I give you…a hug?" she hunched her shoulders, seeming to have suddenly shrunk in size. As if fearing my answer, she immediately turned her eyes towards her feet.
I had not expected a question like that to come out of her so for a moment I looked at her incredulously. Then I laughed again and pulled her into a hug. "Of course you can!" I said happily. She stiffened up at first but then released her guard and hugged me back. She clung to me tightly and didn't move, so I held her for a few long seconds.
"I'm…I'm sorry," Valerie murmured while I held her. Her grip around my waist tightened. "I jumped in front of that bus because I knew you were worried and…no one else seemed to care," her voice broke and she paused a moment before continuing. "I knew if I jumped in front of it you'd worry about me…I…liked it, that you worried…"
"Valerie," I patted her back.
A quiet sob shook her shoulders. "That's why I wanted to eat in your room that one time but then…" she trailed off, wiping away her tears with the back of her hands. "I'm sorry I skipped your class…I did it on purpose, but then you still gave me a chance to pass your class," Valerie sobbed.
I hugged her tighter and stroked her hair. "It's OK to feel upset and confused," I said gently. "You've been through a lot. I understand, Valerie, I know."
"Do you…can you…forgive me?" Valerie pulled away from me to look up in my face. Her eyes were red and puffy and her face was stained with tears. In the fading sunlight, her tears looked like tiny glass beads.
I smiled at her and nodded my head. "Yes, Valerie, of course."
She smiled back, and hugged me again, then she pulled away and scurried back to the doorway. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and grinned at me. "Thank you, Mrs. Gardner," she said through a shy smile.
"Before you leave, make sure you give me a call so I can take you out to lunch or dinner," I said, pointing a finger at her warningly. "If you forget you'll be in serious trouble," I teased with a smile spreading across my face.
Valerie gave a quick nod of her head, still looking very shy and waved. "I won't forget Mrs. Gardner. Enjoy your summer!" she smiled, stepping into the hall.
"Enjoy your summer," I said back and waved.
Valerie's face beamed and then she was gone.
I stared at my cardboard box with the smile still lingering on my face. I took a deep satisfied sigh and looked happily around my empty room. Yes, Valerie was a rather different student, but one of my favorites. I grinned at my window when I saw long lean brown legs jumping and skipping across the street. I didn't see a yellow umbrella this time, but undeniably it was Valerie.