Sara Wells sat on the edge of her seat, her note-covered index cards crushed in her damp palms. She didn’t need them anymore, anyway. After an hour in the high school auditorium, waiting her turn to address the school board, she was poised to jump when her name was called. Even though the prospect of speaking in front of the school board scared her to death, she didn’t care. They were going to listen to her.
Her daughter’s future was at stake. Angie’s autism support program had to stay in Summerville. Just like Angie, all Sara needed was a chance to be heard.
The school board president peered across the dimly lit rows of seats. “Sara Wells?”
Sara shot to her feet and walked to the microphone at the end of the aisle. She looked across the stage to the nine school board members, seated in plush leather chairs around a gleaming wooden U-shaped table. She told herself she was just as good as they were. She wasn’t rich and powerful and in control of thousands of lives within the school district, but she was in control of two lives, hers and Angie’s, and that was all that mattered.
“Thank you. I’m here to discuss the proposal that would relocate the Summerville autism support program to Spring Valley.”
She reminded herself to stand straight and throw her shoulders back. The change in posture made her feel just a little taller, and her voice slowly lost the quiver she’d started with. A rote repetition of the facts about autism gave way to the passion she felt for Angie’s program, the teachers, the aides and the therapists–the team–who worked with her. These were the feelings she shared with the school board and the audience, things the average parent took for granted. Things that, four years ago, she didn’t know existed. Thanks to Angie, these things now made up the axis of Sara’s life.
Some of the board members fiddled with their Blackberries while others nodded, as if trying to look interested. Under the glare of the stage lights, most of them looked washed out and old.
All except the man on the far curve of the table. His hair was the color of espresso, and his strong jaw was darkened by a hint of evening stubble. He wore a navy pinstripe suit that looked tailored to fit his solid frame. Through gold-rimmed glasses, his cobalt eyes looked across the stage at her, his gaze so direct that for a moment, she froze in mid-sentence. In all that living color, he didn’t look like he belonged there.
Sara doggedly went on, ignoring the heat of his stare. She was out of breath as she looked around the stage, searching her mind for one more word and coming up with nothing. She waited for a rebuttal, eager for a trigger to inspire her to fight on.
One of the nine people on the stage in front of her was responsible for this absurd proposal. When she found out who, she was going for the jugular.
The man in the navy suit reached for the microphone he shared with the other two board members at his table. His voice echoed through the room like the voice of God, only sexier. “Ms. Wells, I’m William Turner. I myself spoke with the programming directors for both districts, so I can assure you, the programs are equal. You seem to know a lot about Summerville program, but you haven’t said if you’re presenting yourself as an expert in the field of autism education. Do you care to share your professional credentials with the board this evening?”
That was William Turner? The pictures in the paper didn’t do him justice. He didn’t look a thing like his father.
This was his plan?
“I’m not a professional,” she said, shoving the cards in her pocket to give her hands something to do. “But I am the parent of an autistic child, Mr. Turner, and that makes me an expert. I represent a network of families with children on the autism spectrum. The children in the Spring Valley program don’t make progress at the same rate as those in Summerville.”
She tried to keep the mental image of Eric Miller out of her mind. Sweet, affable Eric, who bleated like a sheep when he hit sensory overload. He went to Spring Valley for six years before his mom opted to home-school him. By then, he was locked in; it was too late. The Spring Valley teachers never tried to help him learn to adjust, never offered adaptations to make life easier on him. In five years, Eric would age out of the school system with nowhere to go and the skills to do little more than change channels and make himself a bologna sandwich. Sara could not let Angie become Eric.
“If this proposal goes through,” she went on, “a large group of Summerville taxpayers will very likely relocate out of the district to get services for their kids.” She couldn’t afford that either.
“I haven’t seen any such doomsday reports, Ms. Wells,” he said, his cool poker face grating her nerves. “You say the curriculum at Spring Valley is inferior, but the course material is identical. It’s purchased from the same source company.”
“The materials may be the same, but the execution is not.”
“And you know this because…?”
“Have you seen the program at Spring Valley, Mr. Turner?” she said. “I’m not talking about picking up a phone. Have you walked into their classrooms and witnessed the programs for yourself?”
“No I haven’t, but we’re facing some tough budget choices. My proposal to merge the two programs will have a positive impact on our district’s ability to serve the maximum number of students.”
Sara’s hands trembled. He wasn’t budging, and she couldn’t afford to. “These kids you are so cavalier about are the most vulnerable members of our society. In good conscience, how can you ask them to shoulder this burden for everyone else?”
“Where else do you want us to make cuts, Ms. Wells?”
“I don’t really care, Mr. Turner. Cut back on office supplies. Cut the gardening budget. Hell, cut athletics. Just don’t make these cuts in my daughter’s class.”
Sara drew a breath to continue, but the board president interrupted. “I’m sorry, but the time for rebuttal has expired. Our next–”
Turner held up his hand. “Ms. Heller, I request additional time for questions.”
Janet Heller shook her silver-gray head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Turner, but this is a work session, and the Board needs to review the construction budget for the sports complex tonight. We’re on a very tight schedule. Thank you, Ms. Wells. Mr. Wilcox, next?”
Sara glared at William Turner as she stormed back to her seat. “This isn’t over,” she muttered to herself.