Authors: M.E. Carter
Lindsay laughed and looked at me. “I like you, Adam,” she said. “Why don’t we head into my classroom until the pep rally starts? The kids should be heading this direction any minute and we don’t want to ruin the surprise that you’re here. Um . . . ,” she said, looking out the window at the reporters that were still loitering around. “Unless the surprise has already been ruined.”
She buzzed us in through the security door and led us into her classroom. The center of the room was open and empty, with some marking tape on the floor, presumably to remind the kids where they were to stand while singing. Some chairs with music stands in front of them were off to the side. A closet door was open. Inside I could see all kinds of music-related items on shelves . . . dozens of xylophones, a couple of keyboards, some triangles.
“I see you designed your room after Mr. Whitman’s,” I said. Mr. Whitman had been our choir teacher. He was a notorious pack rat and never threw away anything musical.
“Don’t judge,” Lindsay said. “Music budgets aren’t what they used to be in the schools. This school is lucky to have a music department at all, with all the budget cuts that went through last year.”
I looked at her with what was probably a look of shock. “Really? Are they cutting music out of the schools? I mean, is your job on the line?”
She waved me off like I had asked a ridiculous question and walked over to her desk. “Nah. A lot of the music teachers have to split their time between two campuses now. But I’m the head of the arts program here and I’m on the board that writes all the curriculum for the district, so my job is pretty secure.” She sat down in her rolling chair and crossed her arms. “So tell me the truth, Jay, is there a special girl in your life?”
I turned to glare at Adam as he cracked up like it was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. When I looked back at Lindsay, she was grinning from ear to ear. “Um, no,” I said. “You know that lifestyle isn’t for me, Lin. Never has been. I’d rather sow my wild oats.”
“You’re twenty-nine years old, Jason. Aren’t you tired of oats yet?” she asked.
I looked at her and rolled my eyes. “I like my oats,” I started. “And until a quality woman like yourself falls into my lap, I’m content to keep it that way.”
She shook her head. “Jason, you know I love you, but you need to quit being such a man-whore. Your mama raised you better than that.”
I looked at her and knew she was right. As a single mother, my mom had made me the center of her world for a lot of years. Once I left for college, she started building a life for herself again. Even having a few boyfriends.
I knew she wanted me to have what she’d had with my father. I wanted that, too. But I wasn’t going to force it with anyone. It would happen. Eventually.
Before I could respond, I heard someone else come into the room.
“Well hello, Jason. You seem to be buddy-buddy with this lovely teacher.” She walked over to Lindsay and shook her hand. “I’m April Gill, Channel 5 News.”
Lindsay shook her hand but didn’t say a word. “Just how do you two know each other?” April asked.
Adam jumped in and started guiding April by the arm to the door. “I’m sorry, Ms. Gill, but Mr. Hart isn’t here to answer media questions today. You are welcome to get all the footage you need during the pep rally, but any request for an interview will need to go through me. Do you have my card?” Adam whipped out a business card and held it out to her.
April’s eyes narrowed as she answered Adam. “I have your number already. Thanks Adam,” she said with a chill in her voice. Then she turned and stomped away.
“What was that about?” Lindsay asked me.
I shook my head. “That,” I answered, “Is April Gill. She is a thorn in my side.”
“Why?” Lindsay asked. “Don’t tell me she’s one of the oats! “
I pulled the name tag off my shirt and began absent-mindedly playing with it. “Oh, believe me,” I started, “I do my best to stay far away from that one.”
“We’ve had a lot of problems with her,” Adam said, sitting down in the blue chair right next to mine. “She is notorious in the locker room for buddying up to some of the team. Then she turns on them once she gets some dirt she can turn into a story for the ten o’clock news.”
Lindsay raised an eyebrow. “And it keeps happening? Seriously, Jay, what kind of idiots do you work with?”
I chuckled. “Idiots that get hit in the head a lot on the field.”
We sat around, catching up on life for about thirty minutes before her principal came in to introduce herself and give us a quick rundown on how the pep rally was going to go. Lindsay led me through a door that brought us backstage.
While we waited for our cue, I got to peek through the curtains at roughly seven hundred children sitting on the floor of the cafeteria. They seemed to be equally mixed: black, white and Hispanic - with a few Asian children sprinkled in here and there. It was funny watching how they were all fidgety and couldn’t keep their hands to themselves while they were waiting for the show.
Lindsay had told me Mountain Park was forty-three percent economically disadvantaged. Meaning forty-three percent of all these kids lived in enough poverty that they got to eat lunch for free or a reduced price. That struck me as odd because it didn’t look like any of these kids were poor. They were clean. They were well behaved. They listened well, once they stopped fidgeting. Lindsay said the staff and administration worked really hard to make sure these kids understood that not having a lot of money didn’t mean they weren’t expected to always do their best. And it showed.
Seeing all of that through the curtains really cemented my respect for my friend. I always knew she was amazing. But little did I know she would make such a huge impact in her community. It made me really proud of all she had accomplished.
As Lindsay came out from behind the curtain, I positioned myself for my entrance.
“Hi, kids,” Lindsay said into the microphone. “Welcome back to school! Are you guys excited to have another fantastic year?”
“Yeah!” I heard the kids respond. Lindsay continued.
“It is very important to study hard and always try your best, because your future holds big plans for you. But you can’t get there without hard work and preparation.”
I peeked through the curtains again to see the small faces that were absorbing everything Lindsay was saying. They looked so excited and hopeful about their futures. It made me excited to get to talk to these kids. I needed to show up at more events like this.
“So today, I have a special person here to talk to you about working hard and always trying your best, no matter what. He was my very good friend in school and he’s still my very good friend! Can you please welcome Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman, Jason Hart!”
I walked out from behind the curtain and waved amid squeals and cheers as I made my way to Lindsay and the microphone. I was used to hearing people yelling for me, but it made my chest puff up even more to hear all the kids. Something about it being kids made it more exciting to me.
“You always had a way with a microphone and a crowd,” I said in Lindsay’s ear when I got to where she stood. She rolled her eyes and handed me the microphone.
I looked around at the sea of young faces.
“Hey, guys!” I started. “My name is Jason Hart and I play football for the Dallas Cowboys.”
At that moment, a blur came rushing at me, throwing its arms around my legs.
I looked down to see a brown-haired little boy, probably only six or seven, clinging to my legs and sobbing.
“I love you, Jason. I knew you’d come for my birthday. Thank you for coming to see me. I love you so much. You are my hero.”
I looked at Lindsay who was as wide-eyed as I felt.
What the hell?
“I am so sorry, Mr. Hart,” the principal, Mrs. Teske, said. Again. “We’ve never had a problem with students rushing the stage before. He was just a little . . . emotional.”
I’ll say. Once his teacher was finally able to pry the little boy off me, he sat down with his class and cried for the rest of the pep rally. I spent the next thirty minutes talking about all the hard work it takes to succeed and how even I still did homework in the form of research on other teams. I answered a lot of questions, and listened intently as some of the younger ones misunderstood that asking a question was very different than telling me a story.
Even after a strange beginning, I was still excited to talk to the kids. But I couldn’t tear my eyes off of that little boy.
I could understand part of how he felt. I had had the occasional fan get emotional when meeting me. It came with the territory. I’m sure I would have burst into tears growing up if I had ever met Troy Aikman. But something about this felt very different. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either.
“Who is he, anyway?” I asked.
“His name is Jaxon,” said Lindsay, standing by the door of her classroom with her back against the wall. “Please don’t be freaked out, Jay. He has had some hard life changes recently and I suspect having you here just sent him over the top emotionally.”
I knew better than to ask what “hard life changes” meant. I knew confidentiality was a priority in school nowadays, so I didn’t even bother to ask.
I turned to the principal.
“He said it was his birthday,” I said. She nodded. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to hang out with him in the cafeteria or anything. But do you think I could hang out with him in here for a little bit? Maybe talk football with him?”
This was something I wouldn’t normally ask to do. But there was just something about that kid.
Mrs. Teske shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Can I use your phone, Lindsay?”
While Mrs. Teske walked over to Lindsay’s desk and called down to Jaxon’s classroom, Adam sat down next to me.
“Do you want us to get some pictures? Maybe pick the least annoying reporter out there to get some footage while you talk to this kid?” he asked.
I shook my head. I was just as happy with good PR as the next guy, but that’s not what this was about. I wanted to know what this kid meant about knowing I would come on his birthday. I wanted to know why he was crying so hard. And what kind of life changes could make a little boy react so strongly? Something was making this boy sad and the least I could do was try to make his day. But I wasn’t about to let Adam get into my head about this.
“Nah,” I said. “Those vultures weren’t even supposed to be here. This isn’t about that. Let’s just make sure the little guy is ok and maybe give him an autograph and a picture.”
Adam nodded in agreement. “I’ll make sure to email any pics to the school for him.”
Adam stood up, typing into his phone again when Jaxon walked in the room. When his sad eyes looked up and he saw me, his whole face lit up. He smiled wide and came rushing at me again. Only this time I was ready.
“Hey, little man. How are you?” I asked, bent over at the waist, trying to hug him back.
“This is the best birthday ever,” I heard him respond, muffled through my jeans.
The principal dragged another chair over and coaxed Jaxon into it. I sat down across from him. “I take it you are a football fan?”
“My dad and I always used to watch your games!” he exclaimed. “Do you remember that time when Beau Prince went to kick that field goal and you jumped up and SMACKED it out of the air?” He actually jumped out of the chair with his arm up like he was swatting the football himself.
“And do you remember that time you tackled Terrell James before he could even throw the ball?” I chuckled. I’ve made thousands of plays in my life. Maybe hundreds of thousands if you included middle and high school games. Most of them, I didn’t remember. But that didn’t faze Jaxon one bit. He just kept spouting off every single play he could think of while Adam chuckled in the corner.
“Have you and your dad gone to a game before? Or do you just watch on TV?” I asked him. Man, he was a bundle of energy.
“No,” Jax said, suddenly seeming sad. “We were supposed to go to a game, but we never did. And now I don’t get to watch you on TV anymore.”
“My mom doesn’t watch football so she doesn’t know when any of the games are,” he replied with his eyes downcast.
“Why don’t you ask your dad?” I asked hesitantly.
Jaxon sniffed and kept looking at the floor. “He died. So I only get to watch football when my Pee-paw comes over and turns it on. But he doesn’t come over very much anymore.”
My heart broke. So this was the life change Lindsay was talking about.
Jaxon looked up suddenly. “I told my mom, all I wanted for my birthday was for you to come to see me. She said you didn’t know us and wouldn’t come. But I told her you would. I told her! How did you know it was my birthday?”
I smiled at his question. And maybe a little at his ability to move on from what was obviously a difficult topic, to something as fun as his birthday, with ease.
“Actually, Jaxon,” I said, leaning closer to him, “I didn’t really know it was your birthday.”
“You didn’t?” he asked.
“No. But something made me feel like I really needed to come to your school today. I just had a feeling that I needed to meet someone special. And here you are!”