A Date for the Prom

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To the friend I never met, for what might have been, this tale is dedicated.

It began last spring. I knew my grades were good enough for my scholarship, except for my English. I needed an A and at the moment was heading for a poor B at best. Mom and Dad knew I was trying hard and one Friday evening, after supper, Dad asked me if I thought some extra tutoring would help.

“I don’t know, Dad,” I said, “I guess it could help.”

“I think it would,” Dad said, “especially one-on-one, with no other students to get in the way.”

“Well, yeah, I think that would help.”

“Do you know Ms Shillings?” Dad asked.

“I’ve seen her around. Why?”

“She teaches English in Larson High. She’s prepared to take on occasional students for part-time extra tutoring. I had a word with her earlier today and she said she would be prepared to take you on as a student. Saturday afternoons, one until four. It means you’ll miss watching your football, but I think your grade is more important.”

I remember pulling a face, but Dad was right, I needed the grade. “Okay, Dad, when do I start?”

“I thought you’d agree, so you start tomorrow. She says not to take anything except your brain, a notebook and a pen. She has enough books.

Well, the pen and notebook I could manage; the brain I wasn’t sure about, but I duly turned up at her house on Elm at one o’clock next afternoon. It’s difficult, thinking back, to remember my first impression but as far as I can remember now it was fairly neutral.

I expected to see a teacher. Being a Saturday, I expected to see an off-duty teacher, and I guess that’s what I saw. Her hair style has remained pretty much the same while I’ve known her, so what I saw was a woman in her late twenties, although I didn’t know her age then and I still think she looks a lot younger, not tall, slim, with short auburn hair and brown eyes, huge through big round glasses. If I remember right, she was wearing blue jeans, a loose sweatshirt and moccasins.

“Hello,” I said. “My dad said he’d talked to you about tutoring. For my English.”

“Of course,” she said, smiling and opening the door wide. Even then I noticed what a beautiful smile she has. “You must be James Bartlett.”

“I prefer Jim,” I said, “If you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t mind,” she said as she ushered me in and closed the door, “Jim it is. This way then, Jim.” She led the way into what I learned was her den. At the side of the house, not overlooked by any neighbours, it was a big, comfortable room. Two computer terminals were set at right angles in a corner, bookcases covered most of the wall space and there was a big couch in the middle of the room. A table with two chairs was placed beside the window. An insulated coffee jug and two cups were on the table, with cream and sugar.

“Coffee?” she asked, making her way to the jug.

“Please. Just black.”

She poured coffee for us and led the way to the couch. “Sit down,” she said, sitting at one end and tucking her feet neatly under her. “Tell me what you think I can do for you.”

“What I think?”

She nodded. “Please.”

“Well,” I began, “I have the offer of a University scholarship, but it depends on my getting a GPA of 4.5 or better. I’m confident in my other subjects, but I’m weak in English. My English teacher is very helpful, but doesn’t have the time to give me the attention I need. My work isn’t too bad, it’s just not going to be good enough to get the A I need.” I took a sip of my coffee. Good!

“Are you prepared to work hard?” she asked bluntly.

“I want that scholarship. I have to work,” I replied, equally blunt.

She nodded. “All right, let’s get started. On that terminal,” she said, pointing, “you’ll find a test. I want you to complete it. The answers will be registered on my terminal and I’ll mark it on there. You’ll have fifteen minutes for the test.”

And that was the way it began. She marked my test and while she was marking, I was working on the first of the many written assignments she was to give me over the course of the next few weeks. With hindsight it was enjoyable, but I never thought so at the time, as she was always pushing me to my limits. It seemed no time at all before four o’clock came and I was leaving. She even gave me homework!

“Jim,” she said, “I want a written essay from you by Thursday, on why you want to get an A in English. I want the background, I want your reasons for seeking extra tutoring, and I want your reactions to what we’ve done, with reasons, for and against. Thursday. Fifteen hundred words. Drop it in my mailbox.” She smiled. “Cheer up, I think you’ll do it!”

That was the way things went until that memorable Saturday, a few weeks before the Senior Prom. I arrived at Ms. Shillings’ house, as usual, at one. By ten past we were on our coffee and while she was marking my assignment I was taking her revision test. The telephone rang.

“Damn,” she said. “Sorry, Jim. Excuse me for a moment.” She picked up the ‘phone. “Hello? Yes, this is she. Yes. It is? Oh, good. Now, if it’s convenient. Fine, I’ll be there as soon as I can. Thank you. Goodbye.” She turned to me. “Jim, that was the auto repair place. My car’s ready. I need it tomorrow, so I’m going to fetch it. I have another test for you, so what I’ll do, I’ll telephone for a taxi and you can start the test when I leave. It’s intended to take an hour and I should be back before you’re finished. Is that OK?” She smiled. “I don’t think you’ll cheat by looking at the answers, not until you’ve finished.”

I grinned at her. “I need to get an A honestly. Cheating won’t do me any good.”

“Good man. Now excuse me while I get my coat and ring for a taxi.”

Twenty minutes later she left and I started the test. Forty-five minutes after that I finished the test. Five minutes after that, the ‘phone rang. I let her answering machine kick in and was surprised to hear her voice.

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