"How'd you get to close to Mr. Hunter, anyway?" Ellie asked on a Friday evening in late August, while they waited on the steps of Joe's building for the man they were discussing to pick them up. They were avoiding a different topic on both their minds: Ellie's departure the next morning to visit her father.
"One day around the beginning of seventh grade, he asked me to stay after class. He told me he'd had my sister and brother before me and didn't feel like they'd lived up to their potential. He said he didn't want to see the same thing happen to me."
Joe recalled that discussion well. "Mahalia and Randolph were two of the brightest students I ever had, but she just wanted to argue with me all the time, and he was too busy trying to impress the girls or make people laugh to get much work done." Joe had smiled at the accuracy of those descriptions.
"So what about you, Joseph? I have another Bennet in my class this year and I have to wonder what kind of student he's going to be."
Joe stared at him, confused. "A good one, I guess. I got good grades last year."
"That's not what I'm talking about. You've done well on your homework so far, so I assume you'll get a good grade in my class. I'm talking about fulfilling your potential, stretching yourself. Your sister liked to argue with me, and I would tell her, 'Prove me wrong. Go do some research and show me how I'm wrong.' She never took me up on that. That was a shame, because I would have welcomed being incorrect if a student had really done the work to prove it."
Joe smiled, remembering. "He challenged me to do extra for class. Like when we were reading about the Bill of Rights in the book, he told me to go to the library and read the whole Constitution and all its amendments for real. Then he asked me to write an essay about what rights I would get rid of and which ones I would keep if it was up to me."
Ellie laughed. "He made us have a discussion in class like that, but we didn't have to write about it. Or go to the library and read the whole Constitution! I can't believe you did so much extra, Joe!"
He grinned. "It was fun."
"Fun?!" She looked incredulous.
"Well, yeah! It made me feel like he really believed in me because he thought I could handle it. And truthfully, some of the stuff he gave me to do was more interesting than the work we were supposed to do for class." Joe remembered Mr. Hunter telling him he wished he could assign all his students the work he gave Joe, but that would require him to stray too far from the curriculum he was required to teach by the board of education.
"What happened after that?" Ellie asked. "You were this glutton for punishment coming by for extra work, even when you weren't in his class anymore?"
Joe laughed. "Kind of. I kept visiting him after school for the rest of junior high. Then because I didn't see him in the summers or when I got to high school, he started inviting me over his house now and then."
"You said he lives over by the art museum, right? It must be mansion, then, like all the other houses around there!"
"Yeah, it's huge, and it's just him and his wife. He has three kids, but they're all grown." Joe's initial visit to Mr. Hunter's house had astounded him. He had never realized that black people who weren't famous athletes or entertainers could live so well.
A horn honked and they looked up to see Mr. Hunter inside a navy blue station wagon, leaning toward the open front passenger window. "I assume you two want to sit in the back together," he said when they approached the car.
Joe grinned. "Yeah. Thanks." He got in and slid behind the driver's seat, and Ellie followed him.
Mr. Hunter, a plump man with a round face, a full head of gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, turned around to face his passengers. "Hey there, young lady," he said to Ellie. "Good to see you again."
Ellie smiled. "Good to see you too, Mr. Hunter."
"How's your summer been?" he asked as he started driving again.
"Pretty good. I'm working one of those boring cleanup crew jobs, but I've been having fun hanging out with Joe."
"Now, don't knock those city jobs. They keep a lot of kids off the streets, and I think any type of summer job teaches young people responsibility. And doesn't a park or school look better after your crew works on it?"
Ellie nodded. "That's true."
Friday evening rush hour traffic was a little slow, so they had time to listen to Mr. Hunter tell them about his summer. He had led several workshops for teachers in training, visited his out-of-state grandchildren, and gone fishing. "Ever fished?" he asked Ellie.
"No," she giggled. "When would I have a chance to fish?"
"I got Joe to go with me once, a couple years ago," Mr. Hunter said. "He got a little squeamish trying to put the worms on the hook."
Ellie started cracking up and Joe, embarrassed, made a face. "Don't tell her that!"
Mr. Hunter chuckled. "Now I bet you wouldn't have any problems baiting a hook, would you, Ellie?"
"No, I wouldn't," she answered, grabbing Joe's hand and flashing him a teasing grin.
Joe wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of his girlfriend. "How come you didn't tell her I caught the biggest fish that day?"
"OK, I'll tell her. After Joe got over being scared of the worms, he caught the biggest fish."
"My hero," Ellie said, still laughing.
When they arrived at Mr. Hunter's home, Ellie was a little awed by the size of the red brick house with long white columns flanking the door and full length windows on its façade. The huge front lawn was bordered by gracefully trimmed shrubs and flowers in an array of colors. When Mr. Hunter walked ahead of them to open the front door, Ellie grabbed Joe's arm and whispered, "I thought teachers didn't make a lot of money. How can he live like this?"
Joe shrugged. "His wife is a psychiatrist and I think she earns a lot. And I guess you can do pretty good after you've been teaching a while."
Ellie laughed. She could see that. The man looked like he had been teaching forever.
Mr. Hunter's wife, Dr. Hunter, was as angular as her husband was round. Her hair, still dark or perhaps dyed, was styled in short curls that tapered to a point at the back of her neck. She looked intimidating until she smiled and gave first Joe and then Ellie a warm hug and kiss on the cheek. "Joe is like another son to us," she said. "It's nice to see him having a social life and not just studying and working all the time."
Ellie moved closer to Joe and placed her arm around his waist. "I'm glad I get to be his social life," she said. "He's very special."
Dr. Hunter smiled again. "He is indeed."
Joe had covered his eyes and was shaking his head. "Stop acting so embarrassed," Dr. Hunter chided. "You're among people who love you."
They sat down to a dinner of lasagna, salad and iced tea. The Hunters started talking about current events, and Ellie was surprised to see Joe participating in the conversation as much as the adults. She knew the basic stuff, like that Reagan was president, but beyond that, she didn't follow the news.
Mr. Hunter asked Ellie about her trip to North Carolina, something she hadn't wanted to talk about since it reminded her that she'd be separated from Joe. Upon hearing that her father was in the Army, he shared about his army days during the Korean War, and how he'd used the GI bill to attend college after his service was completed.
"Speaking of college," Dr. Hunter said to Joe, "Henry said that you and he are going to take a drive to Kenyon on Wednesday."
Joe nodded. "Yeah, he's got an interview set up for me and everything. I'm kind of nervous about it, though. I don't know if I have what it takes to get in there."
"Now, we've talked about this, Joe," Mr. Hunter said. "Admissions officers and guidance counselors recommend that students apply to at least one school you're sure to get into, several that are competitive for you, and at least one that's a stretch. Kenyon may be a stretch for you, but it's one that's worth making. I know you can do this. I have total faith in you."
Joe smiled. "All right."
"You'll do fine," Dr. Hunter said. "Just talk to the interviewer about your goals and what you're learning in school, the same way you do with us."
"What about you, Ellie?" Mr. Hunter asked. "Where are you thinking about going to college?"
She hesitated. "I'm not."
"Why not? You should be. A college degree is essential in today's world."
Ellie shrugged. "I guess I never really thought about it much."
"How are your grades?"
Her face was getting hot. "They're okay."
She felt Joe's hand on her knee under the table. "Ellie's in a lot of activities at school. She's in the choir and on the cheerleading squad."
"Well, that's all well and good, but academics should be your priority. What are you planning to do instead of college?"
She looked down at her plate. "Go to cosmetology school," she mumbled.
Mr. Hunter shook his head. "Ellie, come on. You're selling yourself short. Do something that's going to use your brain! Too many young black kids think they're going to make it as a singer or in the NBA instead of valuing education the way they need to!"
Ellie had heard this lecture before, back when she was in Mr. Hunter's class, but never pointed directly at her. Her anger started rising. "I didn't say I wanted to be a singer or something like that! I know that's stupid! My mother's a hair dresser and she makes good money!"
"Ellie, I'm not criticizing your mother, I'm talking about you! You have more opportunities than your mother probably did!"
Dr. Hunter put her hand on her husband's arm. "Henry, that's enough."
Her intervention came too late. Ellie felt hot tears piercing her eyes. "I think I'd like to go home now," she said.
They drove back to Longbourn City in near silence. Joe put his arm around Ellie, who leaned against him. She hadn't said anything since announcing her desire to go home. "Mr. Hunter, can you drop us at Ellie's house?" he asked. "I want a chance to say goodbye to her."
"All right," the older man said quietly. "Just tell me which way to go."
When they arrived at Ellie's place, Mr. Hunter turned around. "Ellie, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. But I'm a teacher. That's my calling. And because of that, it really bothers me when I see young people not learning and achieving the way they could."
Ellie nodded but didn't answer.
Mr. Hunter exhaled. "I'll see you Wednesday, Joe. Remember, you can do this."
As soon as he drove off, Ellie turned away from Joe and started running up the steps of her building. "Ellie, wait!" he said. He grabbed her by the arm. "I'm not going to see you for another nine days. Please don't go in yet."
She turned and lashed out at him. "You let him talk about me like a dog and you just sat there and didn't say a word!"
Joe was bewildered. "Ellie, what was I supposed to say? You know what Mr. Hunter's like. And what did he say to you that wasn't true?"
"So you agree with him?" She sounded on the verge of tears. "You think I'm stupid, Joe?"
"Of course not! And Mr. Hunter doesn't think so, either. The reason why he said what he said was because he knows you're not!"
She turned her face away from him and didn't answer. The last thing Joe wanted was to fight with her the day before her trip. He put his arms around her and pressed his cheek against hers. "I love you, Ellie, and I think you're incredible," he said. "You know that, right?"
She lifted her head to look at him. "I think I'm upset because I'm going to miss you so much. Maybe if I wasn't, what Mr. Hunter said wouldn't have bothered me."
He held her chin up with his finger. "I'm going to miss you, too." He lowered his head and kissed her.
"You're going to write me, right?" she said. "And call, if you can?"
"Yeah, I have your father's address and phone number right here." Joe patted his pocket.
"I'll write you, too. And I'll call as soon as I get back on Sunday night. Were you able to get Labor Day off?"
"Yeah. You still want me to come over and meet you at ten?"
Ellie nodded, and then bit her bottom lip. "I don't want to say goodbye, Joe."
He shook his head. "I don't want to say goodbye to you, either."
"Then come here." She took his hand and turned, walking up the steps again. He followed and stepped into the entry way of her building. Ellie unlocked the second door to the inner hallway, which was a little less visible to the outside. From there she pulled him into a corner, where they could kiss deeply and tell each other of their love over and over again without an audience of anyone who happened to pass by on the street.
As always when Ellie and Mitch visited their father, their stepmother Florence planned a full week of activities for them and their younger siblings, including visits to amusement parks and petting zoos, movies, roller skating and go-cart racing. Then there was church for three hours on Sunday and the youth Bible study on Wednesday night that Florence insisted they go to. During their non-planned moments, Mitch loved the chance to give eight-year-old Damien pointers at basketball. Four-year-old Nicole followed Ellie around like a shadow, and Ellie enjoyed braiding her hair and even playing dolls with her.
What she didn't enjoy was that she didn't get any time with her father by herself. Florence was always around. And Florence was nice, but…
But she missed her father. Even though she was spending time with him every day. It sometimes seemed as if he deliberately avoided being alone with the kids from his first marriage, and that his wife's hustle and bustle schedule for them was a welcome relief for him. And it hurt, it really hurt.
On top of that, she missed Joe terribly. Every time he'd tried to call, they had been out, and Florence wouldn't let her call back because she said she didn't want Ellie running up their long-distance bill. Joe's first letter arrived on Wednesday, and it was really short, just saying that work was very busy because of parents doing back-to-school shopping, and that he loved her and missed her. She appreciated reading those words, but wished he had written more. "Men aren't as expressive as women are, Ellie," Florence had said. "You have to get used to it."
On Thursday afternoon, they returned hot and exhausted from another day of fun. Mitch and Damien still had enough energy to go outside to play some more, and Nicole was napping. Ellie's father was busy on base, so Florence asked her to help her prepare dinner.
Florence cut up a chicken and floured and seasoned the pieces while Ellie began washing and chopping vegetables for salad. "I'm really glad we have this time to talk, Ellie," her stepmother said. "You're almost a woman now, and it's important for you to have another woman to talk to."
Like my own mother doesn't exist, Ellie thought bitterly.
"Tell me more about Joe," Florence said.
Ellie smiled a little. She loved talking about Joe, even if it was with Florence. "He's really, really nice. He's very responsible. He's been working at the same job for almost a year, and he helps take care of his mother, who's sick. He's really smart, too. He's probably one of the best students at our school."
"Is he a Christian?"
"I guess so."
"You shouldn't have to guess about something like that, Ellie. Does he go to church, or read his Bible?"
As far as Ellie knew, the answer was no, but she didn't want to admit that to Florence. "I don't know."
Florence walked over to the sink to brush the flour off her hands and then wash them. "Ellie… it's important to know. You're young and you've never really dated before, so you might not realize some of the urges young men have. And the only thing keeping those urges under control is having a relationship with the Lord."
Ellie swallowed hard. She didn't like the way this conversation was going. Florence poured cooking oil into a pan and turned on the fire beneath it. "Has he tried to pressure you into doing things you shouldn't?"
"No." That was true. If anything, Ellie had been the one to initiate their physical relationship. And besides, she and Joe had only fooled around together a few times; it wasn't like they had gone all the way.
Florence started frying the chicken. "Well, you haven't been together that long. If he's not a Christian, sooner or later, he's going to. What are you going to do when that happens?"
How am I supposed to answer that! Ellie thought angrily. She was saved from having to respond by the appearance of her father, dressed in fatigue pants and a white T-shirt. At forty-three, Daddy was still very handsome and well-built, and his presence filled Ellie with pride. If a girl's first love is often her father, it had certainly been true for Ellie.
The corporal kissed his wife and then placed an arm around his daughter's shoulder, giving her a squeeze. "Smells good. When will supper be ready?"
"About a half an hour," Florence answered. "Ellie and I have been using this time to talk."
"Yes, we were talking about her relationship with Joe. Apparently, he's not a Christian."
Ellie turned her head so that neither of them could see the look of fury that crossed her face. What right did Florence have to tell her father that?!
Corporal Jameson didn't answer, perhaps waiting for his wife to say more, which she was more than happy to do. "I've been trying to tell her that a young man who's not walking with the Lord will lead her astray."
Ellie couldn't read her father's expression. After a minute, he said, "Listen to her, Ellie. She's right. I was a young man once, and I know."
As much as she hated Florence's judgments, her father's were unbearable. "Daddy, you don't know him! Joe's the nicest boy I know!"
"It's not about nice, baby. Like I said, I was young once. I know what he's thinking about!"
As if it was somehow different from what she was thinking about. Still, she felt compelled to defend Joe, horrified that her father would think badly about him. "That's not true, Daddy. Joe's really kind, and smart, and hardworking. He's planning to go to college, and—"
"If he's going off to college next year, he'll probably try to use you and leave you behind."
Tears of rage filled Ellie's eyes. "No, that's what you did!" She turned and fled the room. She initially thought to run up to the room she shared with her little sister, but not wanting to wake her, she chose the bathroom instead, slamming the door and locking it behind her. She sat down on the floor and started sobbing. I miss you, Joe, she thought. I miss you so much!
She heard a knock at the door. "It's me," Daddy said. "Can I come in and talk to you?"
She waited several minutes, but finally decided to open the door. Her father was still standing outside. He tried to put his arms around her, but she pulled away. He entered instead, lowered the toilet lid, and sat down.
"Do you feel like I left you behind?" he said softly.
"YES!" she said petulantly.
"You know, when your mother and I divorced, I didn't have a job. That was one of the problems between us. I was having trouble finding work, and she was supporting us. Then all of a sudden, I have this judge telling me I need to pay child support or I won't be able to see my kids anymore. I did the only thing I could think of that was legal to earn some money, and that was join the Army."
"But then you still couldn't see us, because you were so far away." A tear started running down Ellie's face again.
He hesitantly placed a hand on her arm, and this time she didn't withdraw from it. "I know. I miss you and Mitch all the time."
"You don't act like it. I never get to spend any time with you without Florence and the little kids around."
"Is that what you need?"
"All right, then, let's try to do that. Maybe I can take you and Mitch out to dinner tomorrow night, just the three of us, and then you and I can go out to breakfast alone on Saturday. How does that sound?"
Ellie wiped her face and tried to smile. "I'd like that."
The rest of the trip went better, especially the time Ellie spent one on one with her father. They didn't discuss Joe again until Sunday evening, while they waited to board their flight home. Daddy pulled her aside. "Ellie, about your boyfriend—"
"Daddy, please don't start!"
"Baby, let me say this. I am worried about you. You're too young to be so serious about someone. Even if you mean something to him, if he's thinking about going off to college, he will be leaving you behind. And I don't want you to get hurt."
She didn't answer. Her father embraced her. "I really love you, baby. Don't ever forget that."
She hugged him tightly, upset by his words but not wanting to let him go. "I really love you, too, Daddy."
Joe was sweating, both from nerves and the discomfort of wearing a long-sleeved shirt and tie in ninety degree weather. The last part was alleviated somewhat when he entered the air conditioned office at Kenyon to meet with the interviewer, a tall, forty-ish white man with thinning brown hair. The man introduced himself as Aaron McCall, one of the admissions officers.
Mr. McCall spent the first several minutes describing Kenyon College, its mission, goals and academic programs, before turning the discussion to Joe. "Generally when I do an interview, I have a student's application and transcript in front of me," he said. "Since I don't have yours yet, you'll need to supply me with the information I don't have. So why don't we start with you telling me about your grades and classes."
Joe told him that he had a 3.6 GPA, he was in his school's honors programs, history was his favorite class and science courses were his biggest struggles.
"Have you taken the SAT yet?"
"No. I took the PSAT last year, and I'm taking the ACT in October."
"That's fine; we accept the ACT, too. What were your PSAT scores?"*
"I got a 48 on the verbal and 44 on the math."
Mr. McCall nodded. "That's above average overall, but below average for what we generally accept here at Kenyon. However, you're a student in the Meryton public schools, and haven't had the test prep courses or some of the other advantages many of our applicants have had."
Was that okay or not? With ambiguous answers like that and Mr. McCall's straightforward expression and tone of voice, Joe couldn't tell.
Mr. McCall next asked him about his extracurricular activities, and Joe had to admit he currently wasn't involved in any except for the National Honor Society and the literary magazine, although he had once been on the newspaper staff and the service club. When the admissions officer asked why, Joe told him about having to work to help his family, so he had dropped any activities that required ongoing after school participation. "I'm also trying to save money because unless I get a full scholarship, I probably won't be able to afford to go to college."
The man gave another unsmiling, "deep in thought" nod that did little to ease Joe's tension. "Your mother's disability is an extenuating circumstance," he said.
Enough to overlook my lack of extracurriculuars? Joe wondered. Mr. McCall's monotone gave nothing away.
"What are you hoping to do in the future?" the man continued.
"I think I want to be a teacher."
"Because of Mr. Hunter, who I had for social studies in seventh grade. He was the first person to bring up the possibility of going to college to me. He really made me feel like he believed in me, that I could make it to college, and that I could do great things with my life. I guess you could say he changed my life, and I'd like to be able to do that for other kids."
Mr. McCall nodded again. He asked Joe a few more questions, and then inquired whether or not Mr. Hunter was with him. "Yeah, I mean yes, he's waiting for me in the lobby."
"Why don't you wait outside for a few minutes? Ask him to come in and see me."
After exchanging places with Joe, Mr. Hunter returned to the lobby about ten minutes later, smiling and clapping the anxious boy on the shoulder. "Let's get going and see the campus."
When they started walking through the college grounds, Joe took a deep breath and expressed his fear. "It was awful, wasn't it?"
Mr. Hunter laughed. "Not at all. He was very impressed with you."
Joe's eyes widened. "He didn't act like it!"
Mr. Hunter chuckled again. "He was probably busy thinking and evaluating everything you said, but believe me, he liked what he heard. And listen: you're a minority and first generation to college. They're looking for students like you."
Joe finally allowed himself to smile. "So I really did good?"
"You did an excellent job, just like I knew you would."
The rest of the afternoon was fun, as they toured the campus and ate at a small café located there. When they were in the car on the way home, however, Mr. Hunter switched from his lighthearted good humor to a serious tone. "Joe, I'd like to talk to you about Ellie."
Joe frowned. He'd forgotten how upset she had been that night at his old teacher's home. "Mr. Hunter… I hate to say this, but you made her feel like crap last Friday."
"You know that wasn't my intention, right? I care about all my students, past and present, and I want what's best for their lives."
"That includes you, Joe."
"I know," he repeated.
"Yes, but you might not like what I'm about to say."
Joe looked at him warily.
"Are you serious about Ellie?"
"Yeah, I am," he replied, suddenly feeling defensive. "Why?"
"When I had her as a student, she was a nice, polite girl, but she spent most of her time in class passing notes to her friends. From what I saw on Friday evening, she hasn't really changed much since seventh grade."
"That's not a fair thing to say, Mr. Hunter. You don't know her like I do."
"You knew she wasn't planning to go to college?"
"Yeah, I knew."
"Joe, it was obvious from seeing you two together that you have strong feelings for one another. If you didn't, it probably wouldn't matter. But since you do, I feel like I have to say this. You and Ellie are going in two different directions."
"What do you mean?"
"You're too smart to play dumb. It's one thing to have a good time together over the summer, but what happens when school starts? When you're trying to study for your ACTs or finish your college applications, and she's just thinking about football games and parties?"
"Weren't you always telling me to be more social? Why is it a problem now that I am?"
"Yes, but I hoped that when you chose a girlfriend, you'd pick one who had the same goals you have!"
"It's not like I had all these girls who wanted me," Joe replied sullenly.
"And the one who does like you is beautiful and popular. I understand, Joe. If I was your age, it would be hard for me to turn down someone like Ellie, too. However, you may not believe this now, but when you get to college, you will meet many young women who are just as pretty and have just as much personality as Ellie. But they'll also be as ambitious and achievement-oriented at you are."
"But I love her," Joe protested.
"You think you love her."
"How can you tell me what I feel or don't feel!"
"Joe, I'm saying this because I was seventeen once. When you fall in love for the first time, you think yours is the greatest love in the world and you'll never love anyone else that way. But you're wrong. There are a lot of other young women in this world, and you will fall in love again. But if you and Ellie stay together, I can tell you how this is going to end up. She might start feeling threatened by your success. You might feel embarrassed by her lack of it. She might try to pull you down to her level. Either way, one or both of you will probably get very hurt. And the longer this relationship continues, the more painful it will be when it falls apart. You might want to think about ending it now before it gets that far."
Joe was so mad he couldn't talk for several minutes. When he finally spoke again, he said, "I appreciate everything you've done for me, Mr. Hunter, but you're not my mother or my father. They don't tell me what to do with my life, and you can't either."
* Author's note: The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (American College Test) are two standardized tests taken by American high school students in order to gain admission to universities. The PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) is a shorter version of the SAT, taken by students in 10th and 11th grade. It serves as a practice test for the SAT, and good scores on the PSAT make students candidates for college scholarships and university recruitment.
Any comments? I'm open to feedback, positive or negative!