Lily (Part forty-nine)

Monday morning’s first light found Lily in her classroom at Covenant. She sat behind her metal desk in a cheap metal swivel chair. The desk was covered with worn paperbacks of Hamlet, Great Expectations, books of poetry, index cards on which she kept notes, Post-its of various colors she had stuck inside books with cross-references, and papers to be graded. Pens and pencils of various colors were in a heavy ceramic coffee cup Mr. Fred Aims bought her as a welcome. On the cup in white letters was stenciled a biblical reference: 2 Cor. 3:6.

Her classroom had one window through which she could see a live oak tree and some of Covenant’s grounds. No other teachers had arrived yet but she had learned that Thomas McDavid arrived early, too. Lily stared at the oak outside. She checked her calendar for the date: March 1. Spring is nearing, she thought, with its attendant rains, richness of upturned soil, life pushing upward.

“Holloa, my young friend! Up early again?”

Lily heard Mr. McDavid’s merry voice and caught the smell of black coffee.

“Good morning, Thomas,” Lily said, smiling. “Yes. How are you?”

“All’s well. We’re looking into some of Caesar’s weaknesses in my classes today.”

“Some other lads, too. Mark Antony and Brutus. Ever heard of’em?” Thomas said, grinning.

“I think I have.”

“Beware those lads from March, right?”

“Something like that, Thomas,” Lily said, laughing.

“Just wanted to check on you, young lady. I’m off to hang out with Julius Caesar and other men closer to my age.”

He sipped from his coffee cup.

“You still on the Mississippi with Pip and Miss Havisham?”

“Well, how about in 19th century England with Pip and Miss Havisham and Denmark with Hamlet?” Lily asked.

“Yes, of course, just like I said.”

“Right, Thomas. Have a good morning, okay?”

Mr. McDavid stepped backwards and looked back up the hallway, then stepped forward again into Lily’s room.

“Ready to tame Covenant’s shrew?” Thomas asked.

“Huh?”

“You will see soon.”

Thomas McDavid departed, leaving only the smell of his black coffee. Suddenly Lily heard the sound of Beth’s heels and the metallic clinking of bracelets.

(To be continued)

Lily (Forty-four)

Aaron was the last to exit the room. His disappearance left a hush in Tim’s Sunday school class. Ruth, the middle sister, departed silently, along with Sarah. Nathanael remained beside Lily in equipoise.

Tim knew to refocus the class on the passage under discussion. “Do you feel sympathy towards Naomi?” Tim asked the class.

Lily wanted Nathanael to speak up but he remained quiet in observation, stolid.

“I do, Tim,” Lily said. “She is not from Moab. She went there with her family with thoughts of it being better than where she had left. And yet—”

“Yes?” Tim said. “Is there more?”

“Well, rather than better fortune for her and her family in Moab, she has experienced misfortune and suffering. Her husband and sons have died. She has two daughters-in-law. And she is battling bitterness towards God because she believed she had done the right things,” Lily said.

Tim nodded and looked out at the class from his stool. Several people nodded silent agreement with Lily’s analysis.

“That seems spot on, Lily.”

“Of course Naomi had a battle to wage. But she needed to just get on with it,” Beth retorted. “Death occurs in our families. I should know. But we must go on. That’s what I would have done.”

Lily felt movement at her elbow. “Beth, how long has my grandfather been dead?” Nathanael asked.

“Why you!” Beth snarled. “This is not about Daddy.”

“Exactly, Beth. This passage about Naomi and Ruth is not about Granddaddy–and it’s not about you either,” Nathanael said.

Lily felt trapped as if among brambles. She looked up at Tim.

“There is much occurring here,” Tim said. “Can we all agree that Naomi had at least a lot to sort out, to battle, to perhaps even learn from?” Almost all of the class appeared to nod in agreement.

“Yet, as Beth brought up, Naomi did continue in spite of death and deep sadness, even in a place where she was an alien,” Tim said.

This seemed to mollify most of the class. Lily wanted Nathanael to say more but he remained silent and composed. Beth sat with her forearms folded across her chest. Her bracelets clanked upon one another in cacophony as the class bell sounded in the hall to dismiss for the worship service.

“May we pray together about what we have seen here this morning?” Tim asked.

Most of the class members closed their eyes. Many heads leaned forward as if in petition. Beth remained upright on her metal chair. Lily leaned slightly towards Nathanael to feel his presence. He pressed one forearm towards Lily as if in solace, as Tim addressed the God of Naomi.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part forty-three)

“I’m fine,” Lily whispered to Nathanael. Tim’s ways of letting Scripture explain itself captivated Lily. Tim asked questions of his Sunday school class and listened to the class’s responses but he invariably returned to the storyline of Scripture itself. Lily understood herself to teach literature the same way–read the play, novel, or poem; then ask questions about what was read; then return to the texts themselves as their own interpreters.

Lily knew Ruth’s story in Scripture well but Tim’s teaching drew her in once again to the plot. “Okay then,” Nathanael said. Nathanael sensed Lily’s focus.

“Does anyone think we might learn from Naomi’s questioning God like she did?” Tim asked.

“Tim, I think Naomi was wrong to do that. We should just trust that the Lord won’t put more on us than we can bear,” Beth interjected.

Lily pressed her own fingernails into the fleshy parts of her palms. She grimaced at the bromides that passed for biblical theology. She longed for Tim to rebuke Beth. She sat back in her chair again to keep from speaking and to release tension in her hip and lower back. She sensed Nathanael watching her.

“So Naomi was self-pitying, Beth?” Tim asked. “Is that what we should understand the story to be teaching at this point?”

“Well, I just know that God has put me in some really tough situations, Tim. And rather than giving in, I fought back. And I—well, I overcame. Now I try to impart that wisdom to the students I’ve led and counseled over the years at Covenant. I see it as my mission field,” Beth returned. Lily felt some acid rise in the back of her throat. She felt forming vomit.

Movement in the classroom. Suddenly Aaron, Sarah and Ruth rose from their chairs and walked out. Looking up from his Bible, Tim said, “Aaron, is something the matter?”

“Excuse us please, Tim. It is not you,” Aaron said. The class alternatively stared at Aaron and Tim, grasping for explanations. Lily looked straight at Nathanael, who had not moved.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part forty-two)

As if nothing has occurred, Lily thought. This mocks the very name of Christ. And yet we are allowed by God to sit here and partake of her goodies’?

Lily seethed as the rest of the Sunday school class placed Beth’s ceramic dishes onto trays against the back wall of the room, their outsides clean of crumbs.

“Thank you again, Beth, for feeding the class this morning.”

“You guys are so welcome, Tim. I wanted to do it,” Beth said, smiling.

Lily had neither eaten nor drunk anything since the day before. She sat with her right leg over her left in the folding metal chair, waiting.

“This morning I would like to turn our attention to the story of Ruth in the Old Testament,” Tim said. “As you turn there in your Bibles, would anyone like to share any insights into the history of Ruth or things you would like us to discuss?”

Suddenly the sound of bracelets slipping down forearms onto Beth’s masculine hands preceded the voice Lily dreaded.

“Oh Tim, I just love the story of Ruth. It is about a powerful woman God used to accomplish mighty things,” Beth said. “It has always held a special place for me in my walk with the Lord.”

For a moment, Lily contemplated swallowing her own tongue.

“That’s interesting, Beth,” Tim responded. “Can you elaborate on what you mean?”

“Of course,” Beth said. “I just think that Ruth was so important to God because she didn’t leave when others left. She remained with her family. She did not go off. She stayed and God used her to become an even greater woman.” Beth scoped the classroom as she spoke, in case her sisters were present.

Lily felt perspiration begin to form on her forehead but she did not speak.

“That is an interesting take on Ruth as part of the storyline of Scripture, Beth,” Tim said. “Does anyone else have some things you might share about Ruth—either as a woman, per se, or perhaps as part of what God was doing?”

Suddenly four people appeared at the door.

“I’m sorry we are late, Tim.” It was Aaron and Sarah. Ruth walked in beside her sister, and Nathanael entered last.

“No problem, guys. Welcome. Please grab some goodies your sister-in-law brought, and join us. We’re discussing the baker’s namesake,” Tim said.

Lily straightened up in her chair, and patted her forehead to check for perspiration. Nathanael sat next to her. Aaron, Sarah, and Ruth sat adjacent to Nathanael.

“Well, I don’t think Beth is a book of the Bible,” Aaron said, “so I guess that means you’re in Ruth today?”

“All that law school paid off, Aaron,” Tim said, smiling. “I was asking the class what insights about Ruth as a person, or as a woman, per se, or as a character in Scripture, they might have.”

No one spoke for a moment, until finally Tim continued.

“Well, Beth mentioned that Ruth was a powerful woman used mightily by God.”

Nathanael turned his eyes towards Lily without turning his head. Lily cleared her throat and adjusted into a more comfortable position in her chair.

“What actually was the setting of Ruth?” Tim asked.

“Wasn’t it during the time of the judges?” Nathanael asked.

“It was, Nathan. Exactly. So that was the 900s B.C.,” Tim said. “And what was the time period like for the people in the story? Was the nation experiencing a time of blessing by the Lord? Was the nation politically and nationally stable?”

Nathanael and Lily both smiled sadly, and shook their heads, as did several others in class.

“It was not,” Tim said. “As Nathan said, this was the time of the judges. When the story of Ruth opens, we are told right away that there was a famine in the land. And so a man, Elimelech, and his wife, Naomi, and their two sons go in search of better fortune in Moab. Once in Moab, however, Elimelech died. And Naomi is now widowed, with two sons, in a land not her own.

“And then more bad news strikes. Naomi’s sons married Moabite women, but after a while, her two sons die, too. Now Naomi has two daughters-in-law, and she’s still away from her home back in Bethlehem.”

Beth made some motions in her chair when Tim said ‘away from her home’, and adjusted some rings on her hands.

Lily could hear the metallic clink of Beth’s bracelets carried on the air. No one else in the room seemed to stir.

“Tim, this is the part I just love,” Beth interjected. “You see a woman who does not leave her family when times are tough.”

“Ah, you mean Ruth, of course, Beth,” Tim said. “Yes of course, but we are not there yet in the story. At this point, we are still reading of Naomi, of how she felt God was against her, how she felt bitter, et cetera. Is everyone with me?”

Except for Beth, the class nodded in agreement. “At issue here, it seems to me,” Tim said, “is this woman, Naomi, who had gone with her husband and sons to a territory not their own. And yet tragedy had set in—in several ways. For her, she lost her husband, her sons, there’s famine still back in Bethlehem, and now she has a complicated life as a woman in the ancient Near East with two daughters-in-law, and she questions God. Does anyone else in here think that we might do the same thing if God allowed those circumstances in our lives?”

Lily was unaware that she had begun leaning forward in her seat. Gently, Nathanael leaned into Lily’s left shoulder. “You okay?” he whispered.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part forty-one)

“Good morning, Ellen,” Donald said. Turning his right shoulder and hip to Ellen Aims, he hugged her as two friends of many years.

“Good morning, Donald,” Mrs. Aims said.

“And welcome again, Ms. Rood. Nice to see you again,” extending his Jergens-scented right hand.

“Thank you, Donald. Good morning.”

“Will you be returning to Tim’s class? Would you like me to escort you?”

“I’m fine, Donald. I’ll go alone,” Lily said. “But thank you.”

Ellen Aims met some friends in Beulah’s foyer and Donald returned to the front doors to greet other worshipers. Lily turned down the hall towards Tim’s class. Nearing the door, she heard the sounds of coffee cups and small plates–not Styrofoam, but ceramic cups and plates. Lily swallowed, gathered herself, and entered through the door.

“Hello, Lily. Welcome,” Tim said.

“Thank you. Am I late?”

“Not at all. Beth brought some goodies for the class today. Please, come enjoy some.”

Lily suddenly tasted bile on the back of her tongue. Lily pictured Beth’s ravenous fake nails with black polish and her scorched hair, even before she heard the voice.

“Oh hi, Ms. Rood. You came back. Well, I brought treats for our class but you are welcome to some, if you like,” Beth said.

No word of Beth’s cabal at Covenant had penetrated the Sunday school class. Lily feigned a smile towards Beth’s overture but said nothing for now. Lily scanned the room. Where was Nathanael? Or his parents? Or Ruth?

“Everyone, may I have your attention, please?” Beth announced. Again the bile on Lily’s tongue.

“You guys know how much I value our wonderful Sunday school class. My bringing some dishes of breakfast goodies is just to show how much you guys mean to me.”

The clink of Beth’s bracelets, her ruined orange hair. Lily looked for a chair in which to sit.

‘Thank you, Beth, for the breakfast,” Tim said. “I’ve no doubt we appreciated your thoughtfulness.”

Lily felt herself collapse onto a chair. “If we could all wrap up breakfast, we will get started in just a moment,” Tim said.

Members of the class made towards the trash can to throw away their napkins.

“Tim, may I say one more thing?”

“Of course, Beth. Go ahead.”

“If you guys will just clean the outside of the cups and plates, I’ll take care of the rest when I get home after church,” Beth said. “I hope you all enjoyed it.”

Lily tried to swallow but her tongue felt fat in her mouth and tasted of alkaline.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-nine)

Lily gathered her belongings from her desk—books, notebooks, and Post-its she wrote on throughout the day. The air carried the scent of Jergens from Donald standing nearby. The smell reminded Lily of her grandparents—age, wisdom, discernment. “I’m ready, Donald,” she said.

“I hope it is alright that I showed up unannounced, but what I have to tell you cannot wait.”

“Then I am glad you came,” Lily said. “I guess this means all is not well?”

“Perhaps it should wait until we sit down over coffee,” Donald said.

“I’ll meet you there in 15 minutes then, okay?”

“I’ll be there.”

Lily checked her mailbox in the office on her way out–messages to call parents, rosters with students’ names, dates of faculty meetings, and a coffee mug with a Dickens quote: “Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Thomas McDavid had purchased it for her. Lily smiled to herself.

Lily’s mind raced en route to the Cup-n-Saucer. Donald was not nosy, so his coming to Covenant, and to Lily’s classroom, augured serious news. When she pulled into the Cup-n-Saucer’s parking lot, she saw Donald’s profile through the café’s window.

“I already ordered you a coffee,” Donald said upon Lily’s entrance, “is that okay?”

“Of course. But why do I think you didn’t come to Covenant today to ask me to coffee?”
“It’s about Beth,” Donald said. “I’m afraid she has stirred things up for you, and for Covenant.”

“What now?” Lily asked.

“She contacted us on the board to say that her father made a mistake in hiring you.”

“A mistake? Her father made a mistake? What does that even mean?” Lily asked.

“She claims that you had students in your classroom after normal school hours, and that…”

“I was teaching them how to write better. Would she have me teach them on the gym floor in front of the bleachers?”

“I understand, Ms. Rood. But there is more. She is claiming that you left your school in Rook prematurely by breaking your contractual obligations,” Donald said. ‘Moral turpitude’ is the phrase she used.”

“The phrase she used where? To whom?” Lily remonstrated.

“She is going behind the scenes, behind your back, if you will, Ms. Rood. She is talking about you–not just at Covenant, but to the school board, and even about town. Some people, because you are not from here, might believe her. That is the way she works.”

“So I am presumed guilty? Am I hearing this correctly? Her father is the one who hired me, for heaven’s sake!”

Donald fell silent and stared at Lily.

“I don’t understand, Donald. I was recruited by her father…by your friend…Fred Aims. And yet his baby daughter is determined to destroy me. Why?”

“How old are you, Ms. Rood?”

“I’m forty. But what kind of question is that? What does that have to do with what we’re discussing?”

“How old do you think Beth is?” Donald asked.

“A few years younger than I am probably. Why? I don’t understand what you’re driving at, Donald. I came here to teach, to find a few friends, to find a church where I could fit in and serve, and yet…” Lily said.

“Do you think Beth might see your move here differently than you do?”

“What if she does? How is that my concern? I’m no threat to her,” Lily said.

“Do you get along with Sarah and Nathanael?”

“I do. Quite well, actually. Why?”

“How about with Ruth?” Donald continued.

“I do, Donald. Why?”

“And what would you say is your standing with the faculty at Covenant since you came on board?”

“It’s solid, I think, Donald. But why will you not tell me what you’re driving at?” Lily pleaded. “You said she claims her father made a ‘mistake’ and that I’m guilty of ‘moral turpitude.’ I need specifics. What mistake did he make? And will anyone show me my moral turpitude? For heaven’s sake, I drink black coffee and read the classics—how much moral turpitude could I commit?”

“Sarah and Ruth Aims moved off after high school. They eventually returned, but only after a lot of water was under the bridge,” Donald said.

“Yes, so I’ve heard. But what does that have to do with me?”

“Beth has been here her whole life. The people know her. For better or worse, she’s part of the soil here. That carries clout with many folks around here. When people move off, even for education, resentment sets in for many locals,” Donald said.

“Okay. I get that. That’s not unusual for small town life. But again, what does that have to do with me? I did not grow up here,” Lily said.

“Exactly. You are not of this soil, at least in some people’s thinking. Beth fears that.”

“You make it sound like the county limit signs mark off people’s worth instead of the state’s geography,” Lily said.

“That is not far from the way some people may see it, Ms. Rood. I’m a farmer; we deal in acres, in boundaries, in rows and furrows.”

“Yes? Go on,” Lily said.

“Beth is a farmer’s daughter.”

“Yes, but so are Sarah and Ruth. So are countless other daughters across the South. What are you saying?”

“Perhaps Beth does not like her acreage being encroached upon, if you will,” Donald said.

“Acreage? That is the way this is seen now? I came to teach, to farm young minds, if you want to use that language. But that is the extent of the agricultural analogy. I am not confrontational by nature; anyone who knows me would tell you that. But I’m being maligned and defamed here, and I don’t deserve it, Donald.”

“Change, shifting of the rows, if you will, is hard, Ms. Rood—especially for some,” Donald said.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-six)

Lily glimpsed her reflection in the glass of the wrestling trophy cabinets in the hallway as she walked the tile hallway towards the counselors’ offices after class. As she entered the offices, Nathanael was straight in front of her. Beth stood to the left within the office; Sarah and Ruth stood to the right side.

“As the counselor of many years, and one who knows Covenant best, she must go. She does not fit here,” Beth said. “Dad brought her here, yes, but now he is gone. As a counselor of many years, the one who has Covenant’s students’ best interests at heart, I know that Ms. Rood is not a good fit for Covenant. She’s not from here, and she seems too friendly with her students, at any rate.”

Stepping forward in the office, Lily spoke. “Is that so, Beth? I don’t fit, you say? What do you mean by that exactly? According to whom? Have I done something unethical or underhanded? If so, I would love to hear about it.”

“You’ve done nothing underhanded, Ms. Rood,” Sarah said. “Once again, our baby sister implies malfeasance by others, never herself.”

The office air erupted with clanging from Beth’s bracelets. “How dare you speak that way of me?” Beth growled. “I will have you know that Donald has talked to Ms. Rood already; I am sure she may know all about your taking leave of this town as soon as you could after graduating. Now you return, Sarah, as if nothing has happened, as if you can legislate us to do your bidding.”

“Ms. Rood, I have no idea whether Donald has spoken to you of our growing up here, or of why I left after graduating high school. Yes, this town witnessed our growing up, our development, and our lives since. Covenant is an outgrowth of Dad’s life after we had been raised,” Sarah said. “Dad was changed after we were gone. Ruth and I left, yes, and we were changed, too.”

“But I remained,” Beth shouted. “I, the youngest of the sisters, remained. I stayed with Mom and Dad through Dad’s struggles. It was not easy being the ba … the youngest. I know you think you both bore the brunt of Dad’s anger, but you have no idea what I went through as the youngest!”

“This is not about you, Beth. Don’t you ever see that?” Ruth spoke for the first time.

“Oh, you! Always Miss Quiet, but I see you!” Beth shouted at Ruth. “I know what you’re up to.”

“She’s up to nothing, Beth. Nor am I,” Sarah said. “We are assembled here for Covenant, and to honor our father’s wishes in bringing in, among others, Ms. Rood, from Rook, and Nathanael, to lead Covenant in keeping with the design.”

 
“Well, I’ll have you know that Covenant’s design is sullied with the likes of Lily Rood here,” Beth shouted. “I made a few calls to her former employer in Rook. Did you all know that she was accused of having students in her classroom after school hours? Is that the kind of teacher Covenant wants?”

Lily’s pride burned. She had tutored struggling students in writing after school for free. She had kept her room open for students to drop by on their own.

“Ms. Rood,” Nathanael said, “please do not respond now. Nothing good will likely come of indulging her.”

“Please excuse me, I’m returning to class,” Lily said, turning quickly.

“Ms. Rood, please let us talk more later, okay?” Nathanael said. But Lily was gone.

(To be continued)