A community learns what protecting their students really means after the death of a girl.
|The crowded room buzzed with activity as people jockeyed to find a position. In a room designed to seat 60, there was standing room only, and ropes had been erected to hold the crowd at bay. Normally, there would only be a few dedicated individuals.
Randy Kuntz, the president, rapped the gavel to begin the meeting. “Ladies and gentlemen, could we please have some order?” As the room quieted, Randy surveyed the crowd. Beads of sweat popped out over his forehead, and he quickly swiped at them. He could feel the dampness along his dark hairline, and wondered if others could sense his discomfort.
“All right, this session of the West Alexandria School Board is now called to order. Let the record show that all members are present. Do we have any old business?”
“Can we skip all this bureaucratic hogwash and get to the real reason we’re here? We want our kids safe!” The angry voice from the back of the room was lost to a chorus of passionate cries. Several called out, condemning the school board and what they thought of their backbone.
“All right! All right!” Randy held up both hands. “Would we have any objections if we veered from our normal course? Addressed this issue up front?” The four other board members nodded; they too were sweating under the hot lights.
“Let the record show then that the board has agreed to put this matter first on tonight’s agenda. First, let me say how grieved I am that we even have to have this discussion. I have already expressed my personal sympathies to the Habern family on the loss of their daughter, Jenny. As all of you already know, Jenny would have graduated this May. Instead, she was kidnapped and brutally murdered this past March during the annual band trip to Florida. Now, our children have been marching at Disney World every year for the past 25 years. And the question before this board is whether they will be allowed to continue to do so or not. Is there anyone who would like to comment?”
Again, a cacophony erupted, and Randy was once again forced to strike his gavel. “That’s enough! Let’s have some order. If you wish to speak, line up at the mic in the center of the room. That way, we might actually hear what each of you has to say.”
The big burly man who had demanded the board address the issue shouldered his way up to the mic. “Look, we just want a sensible-like plan put in place so that we know that when we send our kids to school they’re safe. This board has done nothin' but drag their feet about makin’ a decision. I mean, little Jenny died three months ago.
"Well, we are here to tell you," he continued. "We don’t need no more out of state trips. If our kids want to march, they can march during the fair or the Apple Festival, where we can keep an eye on ‘em. There are just too many nutsos out there. Let’s keep ‘em home where they’re safe!” Several yesses threatened to drown out further comment. Randy slammed the gavel down, feeling much like a judge in a rowdy court.
“Quiet! Next, please.”
The man stepped back, his eyes blazing with anger. A young girl of about 16 stepped up to the mic. With a trembling hand, she reached up to readjust it to match her 5’3” frame. In her hands, she held a paper that shook violently.
Clearing her throat, she addressed the board, “My name… My name is Amanda Henderson. I’m the president of the student council at West Alexandria High. Our student body wanted to ask this board not to take away our trips.” A few murmurs rose from the audience, and Randy directed a stern look at the offenders. “These… These trips means a lot to us and are an important experience for many of us; for some of us, it’s the first time we have ever even left West Alex. There’s a whole wide-world out there and to not give us a chance to experience it is wrong. Now, we know that many of the parents are worried that what happened to Jenny will happen to us, but that’s just not likely."
Another voice from the back sprung up, “Young lady! You might be willing to take that chance, but I bet your parents aren’t!”
“Thank you, Amanda!” Randy broke in. “We’ll take that into consideration. Next?” As Randy’s eyes lighted on the porcelain features of the next speaker, he groaned. He did not need his wife adding to the already charged atmosphere. “Maddie, what are you doing here?”
“Randy, I know that we discussed how I felt last night, and I know we are not going to agree on this, but I wanted to make sure that the rest of the board also understood. And just because I’m your wife doesn’t mean that I don’t have the right to be heard too.” Maddie's amber eyes drilled Randy, daring him to argue.
“Please,” Lynnette, a good friend and fellow board member spoke up for the first time, “I’d like to hear what Maddie has to say.”
“Thank you, Lynnette. I appreciate your support." Maddie attempted to tuck the short strands of her hair behind one ear—a nervous habit developed years ago when her coal-black hair had shimmered to her waist. "Anyway, I am asking—no I am begging this board to suspend future trips out of state. The very thought of our Cassie getting on the bus and never coming back has been giving me nightmares for months." She pointed an accusatory finger at Randy. "You know, Randy, how many times I’ve woke up crying—crying because I dreamed it was Cassie lying there in that coffin.” Maddie’s voice rose several octaves, and her eyes began to fill with tears. “I just can’t do it. Do you understand me? I can’t do it, and I don’t understand how you can even think about doing it!” Catching her breath in a sob, Maddie turned and pushed her way through the crowd.
But as she threw open the doors at the back of the room, she came face to face with Brenda Habern, Jenny's mother. Brenda’s long brown hair was pulled back off her face in a bun, a few graying strands escaping to frame her face. Devoid of makeup, it was marred by the ravages of grief that would never fade. The two halted and stared at each other for several moments as a hush fell over the room. Brenda reached out and pulled Maddie into a comforting embrace. An embrace born of a pain that only mothers can share—one feared it and the other lived it.
As Brenda pulled back, both women turned to face the room and approached the mic together. Neither woman seemed willing to break the contact, as if both needed the other to move. As Brenda began speaking, her voice quivered with suppressed emotion, “If you all don’t mind, I have something that I would like to say. I mean… I mean it is my daughter that you are discussing, isn’t it?”
“Of course, Brenda. You have every right to be here. I’m just surprised that’s all. Considering everything you’ve been through, no one expected you to come tonight.” Randy’s insides turned, and he could feel the acid eating away at his stomach. He had known going in that his position was not a popular one, but how could he face Brenda?
“This is nothing, Randy. Nothing compared to the pain I drown in every day. Every waking moment, I can feel it piercing my soul. It’s so vivid. I can hear her, smell her. Sometimes, I even think that I can see her bouncing through the door after school, dumping her bag and shoes in the entryway.” Brenda’s voice broke at this, and she sucked in a ragged breath.
“Do you know how many times I told her not to do that? How many times I threatened to throw the stupid things back out the door?” She shook her head, smiling as a tear trailed its way down her cheek. “But Jenny would just blow me a kiss and tell me she’d get it later. She never did. The other day, I actually put her book bag and shoes in front of the door myself. I guess I just wanted to pretend if only for a few moments.” Brenda’s pause was met with complete silence. Maddie reached out to gently rub her back.
“Brenda, please, you don’t have to do this,” Maddie whispered.
“NO!” Brenda shouted, her voice reverberating throughout the room. “You have to understand what I’ve lost so that you don’t lose sight of what’s important.”
“Brenda, I think we do understand, and our children’s safety is important to all of us. I’m sure that the school board will do what’s necessary to keep our kids safe. Even if they aren’t happy about it.”
“But, Maddie, what about their lives?” Brenda's eyes locked with Maddie's.
“Of course, Brenda,” Randy broke in, his deep brown eyes swimming with compassion as his resolve shattered in the face of a mother’s tears, “Maddie’s right. We’ll keep the kids safe. You have my word on that.”
“No, you don’t understand. I don’t mean their physical safety; I mean what about the joy of their lives?”
“Ummm,” Randy mumbled, “I’m not sure what you’re driving at.”
“Everyone here seems to be concerned that we keep our kids alive, but what about letting them live?”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Randy asked.
“No, it isn’t.” Brenda’s voice rang resolute. “When Jenny came home from school, her presence filled our home, because every moment was lived by her. Even something as mundane as walking in the door was a moment filled with exuberance. And every time she walked out the door, she experienced all this world had to offer. The world was hers for the taking.
"You see, the Florida trip meant so much to Jenny. She talked about almost nothing else for a solid month. She was going to get to see the Smokey Mountains and the ocean and Disney World and Mickey Mouse.” Brenda smiled as another tear made its way down her cheek. “Can you believe that? Mickey Mouse. Here, I brought the picture that her friend took.” Brenda pulled out a gold-framed 8X10. The picture showed a beautiful young girl posing, wrapped in the arms of her hero, Mickey Mouse. Her chestnut hair gleamed in the sunlight, but not nearly as bright as her smile or the sparkle in her big beautiful blue eyes.
“I keep asking myself if I had known what was going to happen would I have let her go? Of course not, what mother would? That monster... he… he raped my baby girl… and then he… he put his hands around her neck and squeezed… squeezed until the little girl I loved… that I gave birth to was gone.” Brenda took several ragged breaths. “You know what horrifies me the most? That the last thing Jenny saw was his face…,” For several heavy moments no sound could be heard except for Brenda’s sobs. As Randy looked around, he realized there were very few dry eyes. His own were suspiciously moist.
“Brenda, I am so sorry," Randy's voice quavered. "I can assure you that this board will not be sending any more kids to Florida. We’ll keep them home safe.”
At this, Brenda raised her head and drew in another ragged breath, “No, Randy that’s not a promise that you can keep.” Brenda’s eyes scanned the room around her, “Everyone keeps acting like this couldn’t happen here. That if Jenny had been marching in the annual Apple Festival parade instead of Florida, she would still be alive. But that’s not really true. This did not happen because Jenny went to Florida; it happened while she was in Florida.
"Do you really think that we are that isolated from evil here in West Alexandria?” Brenda paused, her eyes hard as she swept the room. “What about when Mark Anderson killed his wife and her lover last summer? That happened over on Barren Street. And what about the Foust twins? Have you all forgotten that they were put in foster care because the mother’s boyfriend was molesting them? I suspect that those children were seeing the face of evil every night, don’t you? No, Randy, you can’t promise to keep them safe here.
"So what do you do then? Lock them in a closet? Never let them leave the house without you?” Brenda shook her head. “If you did that, I wonder, would your kids really be living or just existing? I didn’t know what was going to happen when I put Jenny on that bus to Florida because God doesn’t allow us to see the future. He’s pretty smart that way, I guess. If I had known, I would have taken this moment away from Jenny.” Brenda held the photograph up.
“Of course, I’d still have Jenny, but how many other moments would I have stolen from her, because I knew the future was going to hurt? How slowly would I have choked the life from my own child?” Silence reigned. Unable to speak, Randy stared at Brenda.
“The only thing you are basing your decision on today is fear, and God tells us that we should not fear, for He is with us. If this board votes to stop all future trips, then this board will be denying other children the right to experience the joy that life has to offer. An evil soul took that right away from Jenny. Don’t! Don’t do the same thing to the ones we have left.” With tears streaming down her face, Brenda turned away from the mic and made her way to the doors pushing through them.
Randy’s eyes met Maddie’s. For a brief moment, time suspended all motion. Then, Maddie nodded and stepped up to the mic, “I… I withdraw my request. When that bus leaves next April, Cassie will be on it—though I suspect I’ll be on my knees every night that she’s gone.” Only silence greeted her pronouncement.