Just call me George Washington. You know, because of the whole cherry tree thing. Although, now that I think about it, that’s more legend than actual historical fact, and considering Washington was a politician, the likelihood of him never telling a lie is drastically more improbable than gas prices ever lowering to less than a dollar again. So maybe I should stick with my real name because I, Molly Jane Osbourne, really do always tell the truth. Unfortunately, unbending honesty isn’t without consequences, a truth I learned the hard way. And no, the irony of that is not lost on me. Never would I have dreamed, when I awoke that sunshiny morning in spring, that storm clouds formed on my horizon. Clouds that bore a distinct resemblance to a certain teacher at a certain Montessori preschool…
* * *
Mrs. Bardowski steepled her fingers over the stack of papers on her desk and gave me a squinty-eyed look. I tried not to squirm under her scrutiny, but I’d never been called to the principal’s office before. Not as a student and certainly not as a teacher. Well, teacher’s assistant. I still had to finish this semester of classes and student teaching before I could take the CBEST and CSET exams and receive my license to teach in the state of California.
Not that I hadn’t been to Mrs. Bardowski’s office before. I’d had my interview in this room at the end of last summer when I’d been hired, and Mrs. Bardowski often conducted morning meetings with all the teachers—there were only five of us total—here. So the pedestal desk with filing cabinets on each side and veneer wood top was familiar. As was the bookcase filled with children’s books—organized by unit subject—on the far wall, metal marquee letters D R E A M perched on the top. The walls were the same eggshell white as the rest of the small, private Montessori preschool and had framed diplomas proudly hanging on them. One day, I’d add mine to the collection.
But this time my presence in the office had a distinct disciplinary flavor. Which made me itch to reach into my bag and raid my emergency stash of leftover mini candy canes from Christmas to overpower the bad taste.
Mrs. Bardowski puffed out a breath and sat back hard in her desk chair, the back bending with her weight as she shook her head at me. “What am I going to do with you, Molly?”
I blinked back a mental image of the sixty-year-old woman with a penchant for wearing oversized silk flowers on her blouses pressing her palms together, looking up to the ceiling, and starting to sing How do you solve a problem like Molly? But Mrs. Bardowski was not the Reverend Mother from The Sound of Music and I, though I loved kids, was no Maria von Trapp. No one, and I meant no one, wanted me to sing. Even my sweet little preschool charges covered their ears if I had to lead out in the months of the year song instead of Mrs. Turner.
“You’re excellent with the kids and they love you.”
I scooted closer to the edge of my seat. “I love them too, ma’am.” And didn’t love cover a multitude of sins? Not that I was confessing to anything but truth-telling, and since when did having integrity become a crime?
Mrs. Bardowski pinched the bridge of her nose. “Yes, I know.” Rubbing the skin between her eyes, she looked at me.
I met her gaze, the bright red poppy pinned over her heart trying to distract me in my peripheral vision.
“But I’m afraid you’ve gone too far this time. I admire your honesty, I really do, but you need to learn to temper your stark truthfulness with common sense.”
Now wasn’t that a bell that had tolled before. Why did people equate a lack of willingness to deceive with a deficiency of sound judgement? I shifted my weight in the chair. “Would you have me lie to the children, ma’am?”
She mumbled something under her breath that I couldn’t make out before gritting her teeth. “No, not lie, but redirection is a very useful tool when dealing with students.”
I leaned forward even farther. Only an inch of my bottom stayed atop the seat, but I needed Mrs. Bardowski to see how earnest I was in this. How much I believed the truth and nothing but the truth (so help me God) was better for everyone. “We are a Montessori school, are we not?”
“Yes.” She nodded grudgingly.
“And is student-led learning not a pillar of the Montessori method? Would Maria Montessori have wanted teachers to redirect a student when their curiosity had been sparked?”
“I see what you’re doing, Molly, but it’s not going to work. Knowledge and discovery need to be appropriate for the child’s age and development.”
I placed my hand palm down on the top of her desk, reaching in her direction as if I could pull her toward my way of thinking. “Who are we to say what a child is ready for? If they ask a question, shouldn’t we be prepared to answer it?”
Mrs. Bardowski didn’t miss a beat. Neither the sunburst-patterned lines around her eyes nor the parentheses around her mouth flinched. She crossed her arms over her chest. “No.”
I blinked, taken aback. No? A student asked a question in the classroom and we as teachers weren’t supposed to answer truthfully?
“You do not tell a group of three- to six-year-olds that Santa isn’t real—”
I sat up straighter. “But if grown-ups lie to kids, then their faith in our word is shaken. What else might they suspect we lied about? They could conclude that Jesus, like Santa, can’t be seen, and if an adult lied to them about Santa, then perhaps they’re lying about God as well.”
But Mrs. Bardowski continued like I hadn’t said a word. “And you can’t explain to a five-year-old what a tampon is.”
My cheeks heated. Whether from her direct glare or the way she’d said tampon—a two-syllable bark that evoked a guilty sentence all on its own—I wasn’t sure. “In my defense, Cyrus was rummaging around in my bag without permission. I tried to answer his initial inquiry of what the object he was waving around was called and what it was used for with as little detail as possible.”
All the while trying to shield the way he brandished the female hygiene product like a sword, a sure-fire way to attract the other boys. Mrs. Bardowski may think my handling of the situation had been reprehensible, but it could have been so much worse. If Thomas had gotten a glimpse of what he would no doubt have considered a great object to pretend to be a dagger, there could have been a full-fledged duel of menstrual proportions.
I sighed. “He kept asking why. He led the conversation, Mrs. Bardowski.” And didn’t that signal his readiness to learn?
“This is what I mean by common sense, Molly. You tell Cyrus that it isn’t right going through other people’s things and that if he has any questions to ask his mother. Then you go to his mother and explain the events of the day so that she can be prepared to answer Cyrus, not you.”
Easy for Mrs. Bardowski to say. She hadn’t had Cyrus shooting off whys like bullets in a machine gun. And I hadn’t gone into detail. I’d kept everything scientific. The body had different systems. We even taught units on the skeletal and muscular systems. Why did people get all weirded out by reproductive organs?
Besides, I thought most parents had a problem with privacy when they had small kids. As in, they no longer had any. As in, their kids followed them everywhere, even to the bathroom, and picked the lock if the mom even tried to keep them out. How had Cyrus’s mom been able to keep her hygiene products hidden from her son for so long?
I snapped my attention back to Mrs. Bardowski. Her eyebrows were raised expectantly. I rolled my lips between my teeth. I knew what she wanted, but I couldn’t give her the assurances she required—that I would cover the truth in a blanket of, well, what she called common sense but I considered suggestio falsi. Or, for those of us who don’t actually speak Latin, a big fat lie.
I could give her some reassurance though. “There were no mentions of birds, bees, or special hugs. I didn’t use, you know, that three letter word. I didn’t tell him at all how babies are made or where they come from. Just facts. Scientific facts about the human body.”
Whereas her fake poppy pin still appeared as fresh as the day it had come out of the factory, Mrs. Bardowski wilted. She rested her forearms against her desk and looked at me like I was a puppy in the pound and my euthanasia date had come up. “I really hate doing this, Molly, but I’m going to have to let you go.”
My palms felt clammy, and I retracted my hand from Mrs. Bardowski’s desk and laid them in my lap. “You’re…you’re firing me?”
“I am so sorry.”
“For telling the truth?”
Her eyes drooped but held mine. “We both know it isn’t that.”
“I see.” About as well as I could without my glasses. I lifted my hand to make sure the black, vintage-style frames still perched on my nose. They did. The blurriness wasn’t due to my horrid vision problems then.
I blinked and was surprised to feel a single tear glide down my cheek. Notching my chin, I rose, ignoring the tightness in my throat and refusing to draw attention to the tear by wiping at it.
“Thank you for the opportunity to work here, Mrs. Bardowski. The experience has been…enlightening.”
“We wish you only the very best, Molly. I hope you know that.”
Fired. The very best. Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.
I turned, and that’s when I noticed the door to Mrs. Bardowski’s office hadn’t been shut all the way. Which wouldn’t have been a big deal if I hadn’t been sacked and if there wasn’t a very long, very masculine leg leading down to an impressive pair of brown leather chukka boots visible in the three-inch crack between the door and the doorframe.
The curse of my fair skin washed over me, and I knew even without the benefit of a mirror that my cheeks pinkened.
An audience to my humiliation. How par for my course. Oh well. Naught else to be done.
I squared my shoulders and collected my bag while Mrs. Bardowski shimmied around me and pushed the door open the rest of the way.
The man in question rose, as did my gaze. Chukka boots led to starched, gray, fitted slacks, a trim waist cinched with a leather belt and plain silver buckle, and a torso covered by a tailored, gray-and-white pinstriped button-up that hugged the man’s impressive arms like the peel of a banana clings to the fruit.
My eyes lingered, but I forced them upward. One humiliation in the span of a few minutes was enough. I didn’t need this man to catch me ogling his toned physique as well. My complexion adhered to my strict honesty policy. The truth of my thoughts would be written all over my face.
Another system mostly ignored in the elementary years: the endocrine system. Mine was working quite well at the moment, hormones shaking their pompoms like mini cheerleaders in my bloodstream.
I shot my gaze away, swallowed, and then resettled on the man’s face. He had a hint of dark scruff along his chin and jaw, dark half-moons under his gray eyes, and a head of thick hair somewhere between a really deep brown color and true black. Our gazes collided and tangled for a second, pity making the slight downturn at the outer corners of his eyes—not too dissimilar to that of a Bassett puppy—become more prominent.
“Dr. Reed, thank you for coming.” Mrs. Bardowski lifted her arm in invitation to enter her office.
Looking down, I held my bag to my chest and hurried through the hall, trying to outrun the voice in my head—that of my close friend, Amanda, and her slight obsession with a certain medical drama and one of the dreamy characters. If she were here, she’d have already come up with several objectifying nicknames and used them in hashtags all over her social media. #doctordaaaaang #doctorswoony #medicinemanofmydreams
“Hey. Hey, wait up a second.”
My ballet flats paused on the heavy-duty industrial carpeting. I didn’t want to stop. If I stopped, I would notice the students’ artwork I’d hung on the walls only a few hours before. The tissue paper flowers I’d helped six of them create. I’d remember Annabelle telling me I smelled like roses and the excited look in Aiden’s eyes when he wrote his name for the first time without the aid of tracing. I’d remember that I wouldn’t get to see any of my precious students again. Never get to say goodbye to them.
I pressed my finger to the corner of my eye and collected the moisture gathered there before it could fall. Pushing my lips up into a semblance of a smile, I turned toward the man who had followed me down the hall instead of keeping his meeting with Mrs. Bardowski, for whatever reason.
“Dr. Reed, was it?”
He stopped in front of me and offered me his hand. It was easier to look at his sculpted fingers and notice how my dainty limb was nearly engulfed in his than it was to look into his eyes. If I raised my face, he’d know. That Amanda’s voice had been in my head. That I was barely holding it together as the sweet reminders of what I’d lost stared at me from their places on the cinderblock walls.
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on your meeting. I hope you know that.” There seemed to be an edge of remorse to his baritone voice.
The thin, optimistic thread that he hadn’t witnessed me getting fired severed. I hadn’t put much weight on it—and good thing too, or I would be flat on my face after the swift kick in the pants Mrs. Bardowski delivered.
“But did you really explain to a preschooler what a tampon is?”
My gaze snapped up to his eyes. Not a trace of laughter on my account. No hint of censure for a perceived lack of common sense. I wasn’t sure, but he seemed to be waiting. Almost on bated breath. Willing me to confirm that what he’d overheard was correct.
“In scientific terms?” he pressed.
“Yes?” I’m not sure why my answer came out as a question except that I hadn’t pieced together what any of this had to do with him.
“And you were fired? You are, in fact, now seeking employment?”
Well, he didn’t have to sound all happy about it and rub it in my face. I pulled the strap of my bag up over my shoulder and crossed my arms in front of my chest. “Don’t you have a meeting with Mrs. Bardowski? She hates to be kept waiting, you know.”
His lips tipped in a grin, flashing a set of dimples that had been hiding behind his scruff. “Yes, I know. But a moment more of your time and I think she’ll be quite pleased. With me, at least.”
Was that a jab? Was he teasing me and making light of the fact Mrs. Bardowski was not “quite pleased” with me? I narrowed my eyes, and my lips puckered like I had just tasted a sour lemon.
“Oh.” His small smile vanished. “Don’t look at me like that.” The glimmer of hope that I had detected fled, replaced with a tired, haggard expression. Almost like one beaten. Certainly, like one desperate.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t have met under different circumstances, Dr. Reed.” I turned on my heel, eyes down lest more of my students’ proudly displayed projects pricked at my aching heart.
“Wait!” The good-looking doctor’s voice sounded frantic behind me. “I need you, Miss Osbourne.”
Carol award finalist and Selah award winner, Sarah Monzon is a stay-at-home mom who makes up imaginary friends to have adult conversations with (otherwise known as writing novels). As a navy chaplain's wife, she resides wherever the military happens to station her family and enjoys exploring the beauty of the world around her.