(A novel by Susan Overturf)
The next morning, I rose early, ate a light breakfast, and dressed for my meeting with the school principal. As a retired teacher, I felt comfortable meeting with colleagues, so I felt no anxiety, but I did want to look my best. I wore my usual comfortable walking shoes, brown slacks, and a brown sweater to match. I decided to dress up a little more than usual, so I put on some silver earrings, and wore, as always, my wedding and engagement rings (I’d never stopped wearing them even after Jake’s death). It was a cool day, but nice for late January, so I wore my brown suede coat, a matching hat, and gloves.
I did not have far to go: Just down Nelson to Bidwell and then two blocks down Bidwell to Pendrell. Lord Roberts Elementary School was an old building, and it looked, sounded, and smelled like most elementary schools: paper snowflakes in the windows, noisy children in the yard, and the odour of sweaty gym shoes in the hall. The children had just entered their rooms for morning classes when I announced myself at the main office. The principal, Samantha Tarry, came out of her office when she heard me introduce myself to the secretary. She greeted me warmly and led me back into her private office and closed the door.
Samantha Tarry was in her mid-40’s, an attractive woman, very tall and thin, and immaculately dressed in a black skirt and jacket with a black-and-white striped blouse. Standing close to six feet tall, I suspect that just her height was enough to intimidate many younger students. She walked around her desk — a large oak one that looked like it had been around since the 1920s — and sat down, and then pointed to a pathetic little chair that was undoubtedly a rejection from the classroom. “I apologize for the chair,” Samantha said. “I have asked the Central Office at least ten times to give me just one decent chair for my office, but I never get one. Instead, I have to scrounge through the school and find whatever I can.”
“That’s all right,” I said, somewhat unsure of that. “This will be fine.” I sat down slowly. The chair looked like it could collapse at any minute. I recalled the number of times I had told my students to not lean back in their chairs. Inevitably, if they did, the chairs would break. I wondered how many times this chair had had a 180-pound Grade 12 student leaning back on it.
As colleagues, Samantha Tarry and I were able to share a preliminary conversation about where, when and what we had taught. We discussed the financial troubles of the beleaguered public school system in British Columbia. As well, it was no doubt inevitable that, during the course of our discussion, we discovered we knew some of the same people in the profession. Samantha seemed young to me to be a principal; I had never worked under a female principal, but more women were going into administration, even before I retired. I sensed that Samantha was a sensitive, efficient, and competent administrator, and I suspected that I would have enjoyed working with her.
Eventually, of course, Samantha wanted to know why I was there. “So, what can I do for you, Dorthea?” she asked.
“I’m trying to find out more about a child who once attended your school: Catherine Fuller. Were you here when she was a student?”
“I was indeed,” Samantha responded quickly. “Such a tragic, tragic case. She was a beautiful and loving child. Why do you want to know about her?”
And so I told my story to Samantha Tarry and when I was finished she said, “It’s an interesting story, Dorthea, and a little scary about that note. Personally, I was always suspicious that something wasn’t right about that. I don’t know if I know anything that can help you, though. What is it that you want to know from me?”
“Well, how well did you know her?” I knew that it was not easy for principals to get to know individual children, but it partly depended on the principal’s willingness to connect and how many students there were in the school. I had worked with principals who never stepped out of their offices, and I had known others who wandered the halls and playgrounds constantly, always talking to the children. I sensed that Samantha might be one of the latter.
Samantha leaned back in her chair and folded her hands together. She stared past me, as though she were seeing Catherine in her mind’s eye. “Well,” Samantha said, “I remember that she was a quiet child. On the playground, she stayed by herself. I sometimes tried to coax her to talk with me, but she was usually unwilling. Since she was only in kindergarten, she was here just in the morning. Her mother brought her to school and picked her up. She didn’t spend much time with the other children.”
“Did you ever see her play with other children on the playground?”
Samantha shook her head. “No, rarely. She just sat on the steps in front of her classroom door. She always seemed lost and lonely. I think once I saw her jump rope with two or three other girls.”
Based on what Samantha was telling me, it seemed unlikely that Catherine had been active enough to have taken a serious fall at school. Still, I had to ask the question. “Do you know about the accident she had here at school on the day she died?”
Samantha Tarry frowned. “There was no accident. We told that to the police then. Mrs. Fuller apparently told the police that Samantha had fallen at school. It’s simply not true.” There was an edge to Samantha’s words; she was clearly angry that the blame for Catherine’s death had been placed on the school and its teachers.
“So you think that the mother made up the story?” I asked.
“Of course, but apparently the authorities believed her because I understand that the final coroner’s report said the injury was the result of a fall at school.”
“Do you think she could have fallen and you just didn’t see it?” I asked.
“That’s a possibility, of course,” Samantha said. “But I am out on that playground before and after school, at recess, and at lunch. We have two teachers on supervision for each shift as well. A minor fall might have gone unnoticed, but if Samantha hit her head hard enough to cause a concussion, I think someone would have known about it.“ Samantha’s sadness would clear on her face.
“Did the coroner’s office speak to you, or were you asked to testify at the inquest?”
“The answer to both questions is no,” Samantha said, clearly disgusted that her opinion and experience had counted for nothing. “I read about the coroner’s report in the paper. I was shocked that the ruling was related to a fall at school. It just didn’t happen. I’m certain of it.”
“Well, despite your certainty, Catherine’s mother is still blaming the school for her daughter’s death. I spoke to her a little while ago.”
“That’s very sad,” Samantha Terry replied. “But I think she has to be hiding something.”
“What about Catherine’s teacher?” I asked. “Could she have told the police about this accident?”
“No, I don’t think so. She and I talked about it often when it happened. We were both certain that Catherine had not been hurt at school.”
“Does Catherine’s teacher still teach here?”
“As a matter of fact, she does. Her name is Grace Brown. She’s been here for years and is near retirement.”
“Could I talk to her?” I felt extremely fortunate to find both the same principal and teacher at the school where Catherine had attended ten years before. In my experience, the vast majority of teachers, and especially, administrators move to new schools within roughly five-to-six-year periods.
Samantha Tarry saw no reason why I couldn’t talk to Grace Brown, so she led me down the hallway to Grace’s classroom. The children were seated on the floor, listening to a story being told to them by a teacher’s aide. Grace was in the far corner of the classroom, mixing up some paints for an art lesson. I knew immediately that this was not a good time to try to talk to her. I asked her if I could come back at lunchtime, and Grace readily agreed, though I could tell she was very curious to know what I wanted to talk to her about. I thanked Samantha Tarry for her help and returned to my apartment. I thought it was possible that Grace Brown might be my best witness yet.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.