Gwen Willoughby had taught third grade in Port Townsend for thirty years. Long enough so that this year’s class included Gillian Hopkins’s daughter, Tessa. All fall Tessa stood out as a straight-A achiever. Nothing like her mischievous mother, who had been such a terror.
Yet twenty-four years ago, when Gillian was nine, the rules were stricter. Tessa said, “Momma’s thirty-one.”
Ms. Willoughby calculated fast. “That’s correct.”
Unlike disruptive Gillian, Tessa shared Ms. Willoughby’s love of numbers. “They always make sense.”
“Without fail.” The teacher smiled at Gillian’s daughter. Her best students ended the year doing fifth-grade in math.
Once upon a time, Ms. Willoughby started the school day with a prayer. No more. Now they had an approved set of environmental rhymes. Fine. But Ms. Willoughby still read from “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” Who could forbid the up-in-a-swing poem?
Two weeks before Christmas vacation—now winter vacation—Ms. Willoughby used to hang in the middle window a crystal star her father had given her. Bigger than a fist, it cast rainbows throughout the afternoon.
Ms. Willoughby’s star was banished even before the daily prayer. For a while, she hung it from her kitchen window. These days, it lay in a box Ms. Willoughby never opened.
The last day before vacation, Ms. Willoughby heard Tessa, no, Gillian breaking something. Shattering it. Inside the classroom, Gillian and Phoebe were giggling.
“Gillian,” she said. “You broke my star!”
“My name’s Tessa, Mrs. Willoughby. And nothing broke.”
“You shattered my Christmas star.”
“Gillian, bring your chair beside my desk and stay still. Class, if you notice her move, tell me. We’ll listen to music while you work in your workbooks.”
Phoebe said, “But Tessa didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Another word and you can sit here, too. Work in your exercise books.”
Mrs. Willoughby found the CD player and put on the “Nutcracker.” Volume loud.
Sitting still proved impossible, but nobody told Ms. Willoughby when Tessa folded her hands, then sat on them, swayed, and cried.
Ms. Willoughby closed her eyes, listening to Tchaikovsky. Tessa needed to pee. After an hour of crossing her legs and holding on, Tessa asked permission to use the lavatory. Half-asleep, Ms. Willoughby’s head flew forward. “Anyone who broke my star, Gillian, can just hold it in.”
Tessa’s tears turned to sobs, which Ms. Willoughby ignored. She wet a little. Again begged permission and was again denied. Finally, Tessa involuntarily peed a lot. It pooled in her socks and puddled on the floor.
Liam sang, “Tessa wet her pants.”
Ms. Willoughby woke from her daze. “First the star, Gillian, and now this. Stay in the chair.
Not until the real Gillian arrived to see what was keeping Tessa did Ms. Willoughby realize her mistake. Red with anger, the real Gillian said, “How dare you!”
Gillian Hopkins remained furious long after she took Tessa home.
Ms. Willoughby apologized. She couldn’t apologize enough.