BRINGING UP JENNY
Copyright © 2007 by Leah Kelley
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Jenny kept her eyes lowered as she entered the tiny schoolhouse, her limp seeming more pronounced then ever after the long walk from her home to which she’d become unaccustomed over the summer. There came a few giggles from the far corner of the room as she made her way down the aisle toward an empty seat, but she chose to ignore them, instead keeping her eyes on her hands as she slid into the desk third from the front. Her heart seemed lodged in her throat as she fought the urge to run back outside, but she knew it would do her no good. Her father insisted she continue to attend school even though at nearly sixteen she was the oldest student there.
Jenny laid her slate on her desk and opened her book in the pretense of reading when in fact she was praying. More accurately, pleading with the Lord. Their former teacher, Miss Littrell, had finally given up on the rowdy bunch of students and resigned, so now they would have a new schoolteacher. They’d gone through four schoolteachers in Jenny’s years at school, and without exception they’d all looked at Jenny’s failure to learn to read as laziness or rebellion and tried to correct it as such. She’d had her knuckles rapped with a ruler until they were swollen and raw. She’d borne wheals on her legs and welts on her backside. She’d spent hours in the corner wearing a dunce hat, yet still Jenny could not read. Miss Littrell had finally accepted that no amount of discipline would improve Jenny’s reading ability and chose to ignore her rather than try to beat the knowledge into her, an arrangement that suited Jenny just fine.
She swallowed and raised her eyes just as the new schoolteacher came into the building from the side entrance and her heart fell. It was a man this time. She’d never had a male teacher before. Oh Lord. Her eyes flew back to her desk while she worked to still the pounding of her heart.
She stole another glance at the teacher from underneath her lashes. He was a large man and dressed quite casually for a schoolteacher in plain brown trousers and a muslin button-up shirt. While the children chattered and giggled he laid his schoolbag into his chair, pulling from it a pile of books which he laid on the desk, followed by a package of chalk and two erasers. The room became quiet, however, when he pulled a strap from the bag and hung it on the nail that Miss Littrell had used for her calendar.
Jenny’s breath quickened, her eyes fastened to the strap. At least two feet long, it looked to be made of heavy rawhide. A quick glance around her showed she wasn’t the only student imagining that strap wrapped painfully around their bottom. The room was almost ominously quiet as twenty-three pairs of somber adolescent eyes now faced the front.
The new schoolteacher stepped around to lean against his desk with his arms crossed in front of his chest while his keen blue eyes roamed around the classroom.
“My name is Curtis Moreland. I am your new schoolteacher.”
Curt listened as each of his students stood to their feet beside their desk and introduced themselves, trying to recall names even though he knew it would be several days before he’d remember them all. He’d been told upon hiring this was a difficult class. They’d already run several teachers off with their misbehavior; therefore, the board had lured him away from his job at a neighboring town with the promise of a generous salary because he had a reputation for tough discipline as well as exemplary teaching ability.
With what he’d saved from his previous job in addition to the bonus he’d received upon accepting this position, he’d been able to purchase a small farm on the outskirts of town. The son of poor tenant farmers, land ownership had been his dream as long as he remembered. He smiled in contentment. Now at the age of twenty-four, all he had to do was train his students to respect him and he’d be ready to settle down.
A small frown touched his brow as one of his students seemed to take longer than necessary rising to her feet. He wouldn’t tolerate dawdling. But when she finally lifted her wide green eyes, his breath caught. She was lovely. And terribly frightened.
“My name is Jenny Ellison,” she said in a near whisper before she hastened back into her seat.
All through the morning, Curt watched the girl called Jenny work quietly, never looking to the left or the right. She seemed older than the rest of his students. When he checked his record book he learned Jenny was in the eighth grade, the highest grade in the school, and she had been in the eighth grade last year as well.
Jenny’s heart pounded in her ears so loudly she could barely hear. She stared at the reading book that lay open on her desk and tried to make herself concentrate on the words. After two more students it would be her turn to read aloud, and since Mr. Moreland seemed to have no set pattern as to how many paragraphs each student was required to read, Jenny had no way of preparing for her turn.
Her stomach churned while the boy in front of her read from the text as her eyes frantically searched for their place. He read so quickly that after only two or three sentences Jenny was hopelessly lost.