A Time to Embrace
by Karen Kingsbury
A Time to Embrace
By Karen Kingsbury
THE KID MADE COACH JOHN REYNOLDS NERVOUS.
He was tall and gangly, and he’d been doodling on his notebook since sixth period health class began. Now the hour was almost up, and John could see what the boy was drawing.
A skull and crossbones.
The design was similar to the one stenciled on the kid’s black T-shirt. Similar, also, to the patch sewn on his baggy dark jeans. His hair was dyed jet black and he wore spiked black leather collars around his neck and wrists.
There was no question Nathan Pike was fascinated with darkness. He was a gothic, one of a handful of kids at Marion High School who followed a cultic adherence to the things of doom.
That wasn’t what bothered john.
What bothered him was a little something the boy had scribbled beneath the dark symbolism. One of the words looked like it read death. John couldn’t quite make it out from the front of the classroom, so he paced.
Like he did every Friday night along the stadium sidelines as the school’s varsity football coach, John wandered up and down the rows of students checking their work, handing out bits of instruction or critique where it was needed.
As he made his way toward Nathan’s des, he glanced at the boy’s notebook again. The words scribbled there made John’s blood run cold. Was Nathan serious? These days john could do nothing but assume the student meant what he’d written. John squinted, just to make sure he’d read the words correctly.
Beneath the skull and crossbones, Nathan had written this sentiment: Death to jocks.
John was still staring when Nathan looked up and their eyes met. The boy’s ;were icy and dead, unblinking. Intended to intimidate. Nathan was probably used to people taking one glance and looking away, but John had spent his career around kids like Nathan. Instead of turning, he hesitated, using his eyes to tell Nathan what he could not possibly say at that moment. That the boy was lost, that he was a follower, that the things he’d drawn and the words he’d written were not appropriate and would not be tolerated.
But most important, John hoped his eyes conveyed that he was there for Nathan Pike. The same way he had been there for other like him, the way he would always be there for his students.
Nathan looked away first, shifting his eyes back to his notebook.
John tried to still his racing heart. Doing his best to look unaffected. He returned to the front of the classroom. His students had another ten minutes of seatwork before he would resume his lecture.
He sat down at his des, picked up a pen, and grabbed the closest notepad.
Death to jocks?
Obviously he would have to report what he’d seen to the administration, but as a teacher, what was he supposed to do with that? What if Nathan was serious?
Ever since the shooting tragedies at a handful of schools around the country, most districts had instituted a “red-flag” plan of some sort. Marion High School was no exception the plan had every teacher and employee keeping an eye on the classrooms in their care. If any student or situation seemed troublesome or unusual, the teach or employee was supposed o make a report immediately. Meetings were held once a month to discuss which students might be slipping through the cracks. The telltale signs were obvious; a student bullied by other, despondent, dejected, outcast, angry, or fascinated with death. And particularly students who made threats of violence.
Nathan Pike qualified in every category.
But then, so did 5 percent of the school’s enrollment. Without a specific bit of evidence, there wasn’t much a teacher or administrator could do. The handbook on troubled kids advised teachers to ease the teasing or involve students in school life.
“Talk to them, find out more about them, ask about their hobbies and pastimes,” the principal had told John and the other faculty when thy discussed the handbook. “Perhaps even recommend them for counseling.”
That was all fine and good. The problem was, boys like Nathan Pike didn’t always advertise their plans. Nathan was a senior. John remembered when Nathan first came to Marion High. His freshman and sophomore years Nathan had worn conservative clothes and kept to himself. The change in his image didn’t happen until last year.
The same year the Marion High Eagles won their second state football championship.
John cast a quick glance at Nathan. The boy was doodling again. He doesn’t know I saw the notebook. Otherwise wouldn’t he have sat back in his chair, covered the skull and crossbones, and hidden the horrible words? This wasn’t the first time John had suspected Nathan might be a problem given the boy’s changed image, John had kept a close eye on him since the school year began. He strolled by Nathan’s desk at least once each day and made a point of calling on him, talking to him, or locking eyes with him throughout the hour. John suspected a deep anger burned in the boy’s heart, but today was the first time there’d ever been proof.
John remained still but allowed his gaze to rove around the room. What was different about today? Why would Nathan choose now to write something so hateful?
Then it hit him.
Jake Daniels wasn’t in class.
Suddenly the entire scenario made sense. When Jake was there-no matter where he sat-he found a way to turn his classmates against Nathan.
All names whispered and loosely tossed in Nathan’s direction. When the whispers carried to the front of the classroom, John would raise his eyebrows toward Jake and a handful of other football players in the class.
“That’s enough.” The warning was usually all John had to say. And for a little while, the teasing would stop. But always the careless taunting and cruel words hit their mark. John was sure of it.
Not that Nathan ever let Jake and the others see his pain. The boy ignored all jocks, treated them as though they didn’t exist. Which was probably the best way to get back, at the student athletes who picked on him. Nothing bothered John’s current football players more than being looked over.
That was especially true for Jake Daniels.
No; matter that this year’s team hadn’t earned the accolades that came their way. The fact that the team’s record was worse than any season in recent history mattered little to Jake and his teammates. They believed they were special and they intended to make everyone at school treat them accordingly.
John thought about this year’s team. It was strange, really. They were talented, maybe more so than any other group of kids to come through Marion High. Talk around school was that they had even more going for them than last year’s team when John’s own son Kade