She paused in front of the office and drew in a deep breath. She’d have to face Miss Bowen before seeing her students. What would the headmistress say? Then again, maybe Miss Bowen would kick her out, and she wouldn’t have to worry about looking into her students’ eyes.
“Stop slowing down.” Luke yanked her past the office.
“But Miss Bowen. Shouldn’t we—?”
“Nope. This way.”
“The only thing down here is the dining hall....” Her voice trailed off as he pushed open the double doors.
Students crammed into the room, milling about and sitting at tables, eating and talking as an organized sort of chaos filled the room.
She tugged at her hand, but he still didn’t release it. “Luke, I don’t want to be here, not like this.”
He hunkered down, placing his mouth beside her ear. “It’ll be fine.”
“No.” She jerked harder on her hand, but the stubborn man had a grip like iron.
Then MaryAnne, who had been busily eating, looked toward the door and shot from her chair. “Miss Wells! You’re back!”
The rest of the room fell silent, every eye turning to her. Her face heated, and her throat went achingly dry. She turned to go. Luke could continue to hold her hand or release her, but either way, she was plowing through those doors and heading straight back to her private little home.
“Miss Wells, wait!” MaryAnne approached her, as did Meredith and Elaine.
“Mr. Hayes said you would stop by today.” Elaine ducked her head shyly to the side, stray wisps of brown hair tickling her cheek. “So we made these for you.”
She thrust out her hand, a crisp, white envelope caught between her thumb and fingers. Another letter. Elizabeth’s hands trembled too much to even reach out and take it.
Mr. Hayes stroked a palm down her back, then up again, the gesture warm and comforting, but still, she couldn’t stop the shaking that plagued her limbs.
“Why don’t you read it for her, Elaine?” Mr. Hayes’s deep voice settled over the entire room.
Elaine dipped her soft eyelashes down, pink staining both her cheeks as she struggled to get the envelope open and unfold the letter. “Dear Miss Wells...” Her voice carried its usual softness, but the dining hall had fallen so quiet that the words likely reached the farthest corners.
“Growing up, every girl has teachers—not just one, but multiple teachers of different ages and backgrounds who endeavor to impart everything we need to know about womanhood. From this group of myriad women, every so often a teacher comes along who makes a difference in her students’ lives.
“She cares about her students and what she teaches. You can see it in the way her eyes light as she lectures, and the way she agrees to meet students after school for tutoring. You can tell by the smile on her face when she answers questions and gives encouragement, not just about her subject, but life in general. Like the way you said you’d help me apply to Wellesley College for next year, and the way you’ve tutored Samantha Hayes with all that calculus.
“Please know that you’ve been that teacher for me and for my friends. My only complaint is that you teach mathematics instead of composition. Don’t you know composition is a much more interesting subject?
“Thank you so much for all the effort you put into teaching us.”
Elizabeth pressed her eyes shut, unable to meet Elaine’s gaze. The students were thanking her? After what her family had done? She should be thanking them for letting her teach for the past two years, not the other way around.
Another voice rang out; MaryAnne’s strong, clear cadence easily recognizable despite Elizabeth’s closed eyes. Reading her own letter, the girl mentioned advanced algebra and having fun and not wanting her teacher to leave.
Then another voice started and another and another. Mr. Hayes kept one hand on her shoulder and his other on her back, stroking gently as the girls read, gripping tightly whenever tears threatened her. And read the girls did, letter after letter. Twelve of them, until every student in her advanced algebra class, save Samantha, had gotten her say.
Then someone near the doors started to clap. Her eyes flew toward the entrance, and there stood Miss Bowen. She must have entered the dining hall as the letters were being read, but instead of a dour frown crossing her lips, the headmistresses smiled, her eyes shining and even moist.
Someone else started clapping, Dottie McGivern, at the back of the room, a huge smile pasted on her face. Then a student in the middle of the dining hall stood and clapped, and another and another, until the entire room was standing and clapping and making so much noise, she nearly had to cover her ears.