Supernatural
Home Up Finish Line

   

Book One:
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN:
SUPERNATURAL

Written by Rick Archer

 © 2015, Richard Archer
 

 


SUBCHAPTER 76
- OPENING UP

 

Mrs. Ballantyne looked me straight in the eye. 

"Rick, as you have surely guessed, I have told you my story for a reason.  Your unusual story reminds me very much of my own childhood.  I had it tough.  If it weren't for all sorts of lucky breaks, I might be waiting on tables in a Greek restaurant today or taking dictation.  You sack groceries?  Well, guess what?  When I was a kid, I was no stranger to washing dishes. 

But I made it out of there.  I think that if I can overcome adversity, then I bet you can too.  In fact, it looks to me like you are well on your way.  You are one of a kind.  I have been around St. John's a long time and I have never heard of a student working a full-time job after school.  Never.  St. John's students have every privilege imaginable, so I never expected to see a young man like you earning money for college.  Things are tough for you now, but I strongly encourage you to hang in there.  You have too much going for you to stop now."

As Mrs. Ballantyne intended, her story inspired me.  I nodded quietly.  Her words made complete sense.  Here was a woman who had once struggled as a child, but had become successful nevertheless.  Her tough breaks had made her tougher.  Maybe that was where all that self-assurance came from.  If she could make it, I could too.  I received that message loud and clear.

How strange was this turn of events?  Our stories were virtual carbon copies with one major difference.  Mrs. Ballantyne was at the top of the St. John's totem pole while I was at the bottom.  Who would have ever guessed that the most prominent mother at St. John's had come from the same near-orphaned starting point as I did? 

Furthermore, which of us was more surprised to meet the other?  At the time, I wondered why my new friend was willing to share so much with me, a complete stranger.  I was totally mystified by Mrs. Ballantyne's surprising interest in me.  I have to believe Mrs. Ballantyne was just as shocked to hear my story as I was to hear her story.  Never in her wildest imagination would she have guessed that a boy from St. John's could possibly remind her of her own difficult childhood. 

Keep in mind that all this attention left me mystified.  Many of my observations are told from the perspective of the man I became, not from the mindset of the deeply disturbed kid I was on this day.  I was hardly some clever kid wise beyond his years.  Far from it... things went over my head all the time.  Although I never realized it at the time, I imagine Mrs. Ballantyne felt an instant kinship to me and wanted to help.  Why else would she voluntarily share the sensitive details her life story with a boy who was a complete stranger? 

None of these explanations occurred to me at the time.  All I knew was that I felt very privileged to be taken into her confidence.  However, once she reached the conclusion of her story, I expected Mrs. Ballantyne would leave.  Not so.  Mrs. Ballantyne was in no hurry.  She was not finished.

The third phase of our parking lot conversation took a form of counseling.  Mrs. Ballantyne was a very intuitive woman.  Her mother's instinct surely sensed I was reeling and she became concerned about me.

"So, Rick, now that you are about to graduate, what do you think about your time at St. John's?"

I answered her as truthfully as I could.

"Mrs. Ballantyne, I love St. John's more than anything in the entire world.  This school has been my saving grace for many years to the point of replacing my own parents.  I think my teachers are wonderful and I know I am getting an incredible education.  I guess my regret is that I don't feel a part of my classmates.  I sit in the Senior Lounge and listen to their stories, but I feel like an eavesdropper.  I never say anything and I never feel like I belong at my own school."

"It can't be easy fitting in with students who lead a totally different life of wealth and privilege."

She nailed that observation.  I found myself nodding in agreement.  She might be rich, but she understood poor. 

"You are right.  I feel completely outclassed.  The girls don't know I exist and the boys mostly ignore me.  I feel badly out of place and I have turned into a complete hermit.  If it wasn't for class discussions and a couple of friends at lunch, I could go a whole day without saying a word. I am such a loner."

"Why don't you participate in sports?  You are tall and you carry yourself like an athlete.  I bet you could make a lot of friends that way."

Ouch.  Mrs. Ballantyne had just hit another major nerve.  This one hurt a lot, so I had to pause and take a deep breath.  Okay, she asked, so here it goes.  I explained how my blind left eye kept me out of football.  Then I added how much I wanted to try out for the basketball team, but that I decided it was better to keep my job after school.

I glanced at her.  She smiled and indicated I could keep going. 

Now I confided how much I regretted never trying out for the basketball team.  I said that it was the hardest decision I had ever made and that it ate me up inside.  I thought I was a really good player, but I didn't trust the coach.  I explained that I needed this job badly.  Although I was sure I had made the right choice, I was still miserable about it.  I hated missing this one last opportunity to play a sport that I loved so much.  I had something I wanted to prove, but I would never get the chance.  The regret was tearing me apart.

Mrs. Ballantyne nodded in sympathy. 

"I know my children love sports.  Whatever season it is, football, field hockey, doesn't matter.  Playing sports is the highlight of their day."

"That's exactly my point.  I can see how much your son Dana loves to play football and how much pleasure it gives him.  I would give anything to play sports like your children do, but I am so completely on my own that I am forced to find a way to get to college."

"The way I see it, Rick, you had a hard choice to make, but you made the right choice.  College has to be your first priority."

This was absurd.  My own mother didn't know the story about my basketball agony.  Isn't it odd that Mrs. Ballantyne was the only person I ever confessed my disappointment to?  As our conversation reached the twenty minute mark, this woman had learned more about me than any other person in the entire school except for Mr. Curran, my English teacher.  And even he didn't know about the basketball decision.

All this attention was working wonders.  Mrs. Ballantyne asked the right questions and said some very kind things.   I actually wondered if she was a mind reader because she seemed to anticipate my answers.  For the first time in ages, I had actually begun to smile a little.  Not only did it help to get these problems off my chest, it made me feel good to be recognized and complimented by this woman I respected so much.

During our talk, I developed a great appreciation for her ability.  I had long admired Mrs. Ballantyne without really knowing why.  Now that I had encountered her remarkable nurturing skills first-hand, I realized that my instincts about her were accurate all along.   She exuded so much spirit.  I could not believe how much better I felt.  

 


SUBCHAPTER 77
- FAIRY TALE

 

I could tell Mrs. Ballantyne was deliberately trying to reach out to me.  Her intervention was doing wonders for my battered self-esteem.  In fact, now that I had met her, I suppose if I had to ask for one person in the world to come cheer me up, I would ask for Mrs. Ballantyne.  However, there was one problem.  In the Real World, Fairy Godmothers only show up in dreams and fairy tales.

This was no fairy tale.  Mrs. Ballantyne was standing here doing everything in her power to encourage me.  The most perfect person in the world had seemingly appeared out of nowhere carrying a magic wand.  Her very presence defied all credibility. 

This thought created a profound wave of eeriness.   Mrs. Ballantyne had no business being here, did she?  How was it possible that my childhood idol had materialized out of thin air?  And why was she giving me so much attention? 

This conversation was way beyond the ordinary.  Typically an important woman like her would not give me the time of day, but it felt like Mrs. Ballantyne had chosen to adopt me for some reason.  What on earth was the highest prestige woman at my school doing talking to a nobody kid in the middle of nowhere?  I believed I was totally unimportant.  Therefore I could not believe this busy, intense woman had zeroed in on me.  My gratitude was boundless, but I was also in shock. 

Wrapped tight inside my inescapable straitjacket of tension, bitterness, and isolation, this lady had appeared at the exact moment when I felt like my life was completely out of my control.  Seemingly out nowhere this lady had materialized to offer counsel.  From the moment I met her, my misery began to dissipate.  Mrs. Ballantyne had an uncanny ability to encourage me.

This was all very unsettling.  Was this real?  Was I dreaming?  I began to feel like the fairy godmother from Cinderella had come to visit me.  Just to be sure, I looked around the parking lot.  No, I wasn't dreaming.

With each question and each compliment, Mrs. Ballantyne was able to draw me out of my shell. She helped me cheer up for the first time in months.  Just talking to her made me feel like my grim existence was something I could handle.  Her compliments gave me a confidence I hadn't felt in some time.

I was a lost kid who needed praise in the worst way imaginable.  I needed someone to share my problems with.  I needed someone to pat me on the back and tell me to hang in there.  I needed someone to promise me things would work out despite the gloomy skies.

Most of all, I needed a mother. 

Yes, I needed a mother in the worst way possible.  I think we can all agree on that. 

But not my own mother.  I think we can agree on that as well.  So let's pretend a genie appeared and offered me a choice of any woman in the world to drop by and play 'Rick's Mother for a Day'.  

Who would I have picked?  The woman standing before me, of course.  She was my secret choice as the best mother at St. John's.  Therefore the presence of Mrs. Ballantyne seemed like the answer to some unspoken wish.  I needed Mrs. Ballantyne more at this moment than at any other time in my life and... poof... here she was. 

I was not the most worldly kid, but I vaguely knew there were theories about prayers and miracles.  Mrs. Ballantyne's presence felt like the answer to my prayer.  That is exactly how I felt.  There had to be a reason she was here.  Her presence was too important to be an accident.  If I did not know better, there was a supernatural element to this woman's appearance. 

However, my childlike mind still couldn't understand why was she giving me such an abundance of attention.  Twenty minutes ago, this woman didn't even know I existed and yet here she was counseling me as if I were her own child.  That made no sense. 

Furthermore, why now?  For nine years, I had fixated on this lady.  But not once had this woman noticed me at a small school with confined spaces.  It was beyond improbable that 1,000 direct glances on my part had failed to produce any recognition, yet here in the midst of my worst childhood crisis, Mrs. Ballantyne had appeared out of nowhere to help.  That was very difficult for me to believe possible.

I had no answers to my questions.  All I knew was that this was the moment when I needed an effective mother as much as any time in my entire childhood.   And here she was!  Like a wish come true, my mythical dream mother had just paid me a visit.

I was spooked.  Stuff like this is only supposed to happen in fairy tales. 

Despite these unsettling feelings, I continued to pour out my soul.  Mrs. Ballantyne had earned my trust with her heartfelt life story.  I realized this was no phony society maven standing before me but rather an honest to goodness caring woman.  There was no pretense about her at all.  She was clearly concerned about me, so I let my guard down completely.  There I was, the tough, awkward, anti-social kid who felt unloved... suddenly trusting a woman I hardly knew with my rawest emotions.

I started talking to Mrs. Ballantyne the same way I would talk to Mr. Curran.  I started babbling without hesitation.  I blurted out all sorts of things... how unpopular I was, how poor I was, how lonely I was, how I had never had a date in my life, how ugly I felt.  All sorts of terrible emotions were starting to surface.  I went on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.  One moment I was happy to be talking to her, then I was hurt... or bitter... or sick of feeling sorry for myself.  I was also scared.  Most of all I was scared.  Every day I tried to be tough, but right now I was a scared little boy who needed his mother.  I somehow felt I could trust Mrs. Ballantyne, so I told her everything... except for the Forbidden Subject of course.

I had to hand it to Mrs. Ballantyne.  She allowed me to be vulnerable and pitiful yet somehow found a way to allow me retain my dignity.  Mostly she just listened.  That's all it took.  Her soft touch was dredging up a considerable amount of the terrible poison I kept bottled up inside.  She had that constant smile of encouragement and nodded to let me know she wanted me to continue. 

Mrs. Ballantyne's concern meant a lot to me.  For a young man who felt like a total outsider, the thought that the most important parent at the school actually cared about me was a precious, mind-boggling experience.  The entire time Mrs. Ballantyne just smiled and nodded to let me know it was okay. 

Mrs. Ballantyne's words and presence were having a powerful healing effect on me.  However, I was starting to lose control.  I could barely contain the flood of pent-up emotion that was welling up inside of me.  Tears began rolling down my face and I was having a really hard time not crying out loud.  I felt so exposed, so vulnerable.  I could not believe I had revealed all these awful secrets to a lady I barely knew.  I was terrified I would start sobbing at any moment.  I was right on the edge of completely breaking down.

 


SUBCHAPTER 78
- Into the Twilight Zone

 

At this moment, there was a new development.  The desire to ask Mrs. Ballantyne about Katina's Jones Scholarship had emerged.  I felt very threatened because there was a good chance I would lose my temper or lose my composure.  I did not want to embarrass myself in front of this dignified woman.  

Of all the people in the world I had to lose my scholarship to, why did this cherished prize have to go to this particular woman's daughter?  That in itself was weird beyond weird.  Be that as it may, the woman standing three feet away undoubtedly had the answer to the most burning question of my life.

I was almost certain Mrs. Ballantyne could clear up this mystery that I obsessed over endlessly.  How could I ask her to explain why her daughter got that scholarship and not me and not lose her friendship?   I understood I couldn't ask that question without taking the chance of alienating this lady irretrievably.

But I had to know!! 

A bizarre Civil War erupted in my mind. The Porcupine demanded an explanation and the Puppy Dog pleaded not to bring that subject up. 

While the debate raged, I was still busy pouring my heart out.  My consciousness flipped back and forth between talking to Mrs. Ballantyne and monitoring this internal conflict.  I was having a hard time keeping it together.  My self-control was almost gone.

The Porcupine was winning the struggle.  The Porcupine demanded an answer to the highway robbery that had jeopardized my college hopes.  I was getting closer to bringing up the Forbidden Subject.

Now I felt elements of the Grudge re-surfacing as well.  The Grudge was even meaner than the Porcupine.  The Grudge warned me this woman was not my friend and that this whole conversation was a trick.  This woman had tricked Mr. Salls and now she was tricking me too.  An element of fear emerged.  As my suspicious side kicked in, the tears stopped.  Was she taking me for a ride?  If so, it would break my heart.  I prayed she was the kind of woman I thought she was.  God, I hated being so confused all the time!

The Grudge told me to knock all this Fairy Tale crap off.  The Grudge wanted to know how this wealthy woman had persuaded Mr. Salls to give my scholarship to her daughter.  The Grudge wanted to tell this lady that rich people shouldn't push poor kids around.

The Grudge called me a sucker and said it was absurd to think that the mother of the girl who received the scholarship just one week earlier had shown up here by accident.  The Grudge was certain this woman had an agenda and had come here on purpose.  The Grudge said I needed to be on guard.

The Puppy Dog kept pleading that the woman was genuine and my friend.  The Puppy Dog tried to point out my new friend had no idea who I was when we met, so this meeting could not have been deliberate.

And with that, another facet of my consciousness emerged.  Like an out of body experience, some sort of All-Knowing Twilight Zone voice appeared to announce the utter improbability of what was taking place.  This All-Knowing voice reported this entire conversation had entered the dimension of science fiction. 

I nodded involuntarily.  The part of my mind I call "Me" completely agreed there was a mythical, surreal quality to this talk.

• There was no rational way to explain why the single person I considered to be the finest mother on the planet should emerge out of thin air to take a lonely miserable kid under her wing, but that is what had happened.

• There was no earthly reason why the person I held responsible for my Jones scholarship problems should emerge out of thin air for questioning... except that is exactly what had just happened.

• There was no way to explain how weird it felt that the same woman could be both my greatest hero and worst enemy at the same time.

• This woman had no business even being in this place.

• Furthermore, the timing of her appearance was uncanny.  Mrs. Ballantyne could not have appeared at a more important time if she had tried.

• Finally, how was it possible that the most important woman at my school and the least important student had virtually identical childhoods?  And how was it possible that we had made this discovery?


In other words, I had become acutely aware that this entire conversation was overshadowed by a series of highly improbable coincidences.  Everything about this conversation - the significance, the remote place, the timing, our unusual shared background, the intense degree of her interest in me - was weird.

Although this moment was definitely "real", it was hard for me to accept as real.  Whatever was happening defied all laws of probability.  This entire conversation felt like it belonged in the realm of the supernatural.

I understand that a modern reader might have no idea what the Twilight Zone TV show was about, so I will offer a rough idea.  Rod Serling was the narrator.  At the start of every show, Serling gave a synopsis.  Here is how Mr. Serling might have begun an episode about this conversation I was having:

 


 

"Picture a confused young man who has experienced a recent series of deeply painful disappointments.   One day as if by magic, a mythic woman appears from nowhere to console him.  This young man is unable to comprehend the forces that have brought her to his aid. 

This boy is traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.  It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. 

He stands in the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, a place that lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.   This is the dimension of imagination. 

The young man is totally bewildered as he faces a situation well beyond his understanding.   Unbeknownst to him, this young man has entered an area which we call the Twilight Zone."
 

 

With the arrival of the Twilight Zone personality, my consciousness had split into a four-cornered spectacle... 'Me', 'Grudge/Porcupine', 'Puppy Dog', and 'Twilight Zone'. 

The part that was "Me" watched in confusion as one voice after jumped in to offer an opinion on this conversation.  First I listened to the miserable Puppy Dog begging the Grudge and the Porcupine not to attack Mrs. Ballantyne.  Then the angry Grudge took over and argued this woman should be held accountable for jeopardizing my future.   Back and forth. 

Then the All-Knowing Twilight Zone personality spoke up and the other voices hushed in awe.  With the eerie Twilight Zone theme music playing in my head, the All-Knowing voice said this could not be happening, this had to be a dream. 

The Grudge would tell Twilight Zone to shut up, then demand that 'Me' should confront the woman.  "Go ahead, ask her, damn it!  Ask that woman to explain how Katina got that scholarship.  She knows.  Go ahead, Rick, show some guts and demand an answer!"

The Puppy Dog interrupted to plead, "No, no, Rick, don't saying anything!  This woman has been so wonderful.  She has pried things out that even your own mother doesn't know.  She has shown unbelievable kindness.  Please don't bring up this subject; you will lose her friendship forever!"

And then the Twilight Zone music would return and the All-Knowing part of me would intone, "Moments like this cannot possibly take place in the Real World.  This chance meeting defies all laws of probability.  At some point you will awaken and realize you have imagined everything."

Out of all the personalities, I liked Twilight Zone the most.  This All-Knowing voice had a good point.  There was nothing that felt 'real' about this conversation.  Everything that was happening defied all laws of probability. 

There was no cosmic way to explain:

•  Why my choice for the world's best mother had suddenly become acting mother to a boy who was a complete stranger.
•  Why the same woman involved with confiscating my scholarship had conveniently appeared for questioning.
•  Why a lady who had no reason to be here showed up in a place where she didn't belong.
•  Why we had never met despite sharing a limited school area occupied by 600 students and faculty.
•
 Why I had never bumped into this lady at my school despite 1,000 opportunities spread over nine years.
•  Why this lady had appeared out of nowhere at the exact time in my life when I needed her the most.
•  Why this lady felt compelled to tell a complete stranger her childhood story.
•
 Why the background of the school's most prestigious parent turned out to be just as miserable as my own.
•  Why this woman had chosen to share such a deeply personal story with a complete stranger.

Any one of those reasons by themselves would have been difficult to explain, but when I lined them up side by side, I was struck by the utter improbability of this moment.   Without a doubt, this conversation had taken on the appearance of a Twilight Zone episode. 

Except for one thing.  This wasn't the Twilight Zone.  This conversation was taking place exactly as I have described it.

 


SUBCHAPTER 79
- THE FORBIDDEN SUBJECT

 

My Twilight Zone sense of wonder aside, I was a huge mess.  I was trying to hold back tears, talk to Mrs. Ballantyne, moderate a fierce argument in my mind, plus contemplate the mysteries of the Universe all at the same time.  Good grief, it felt like my consciousness was splitting into more personalities than Sybil!  My head was spinning.

The pent-up emotion of the Grudge won the battle.  No surprise there... my Jones Scholarship pain was far too great to subdue.  As much as I liked talking to Mrs. Ballantyne, I could not drive the scholarship issue out of my mind.  My entire future had rested on winning that award.  Furthermore, only a single week had passed.  I still had far too much energy on that loss to suppress my troubling thoughts.

I was dying to ask Katina's mother to  tell me why I had lost that scholarship.  I was ready to accept whatever she had to say without argument.  If my cheating mistake was responsible, I had to know.  If it was Katina's leadership angle, I had to know.  If Mr. Salls owed her a huge favor, just tell me and put me out of my misery.  I was desperate to know the answer.

At least one good thing had happened so far.  Thanks to today's conversation, I wasn't remotely angry at Mrs. Ballantyne any more.  Mostly I was just hurt over my neverending run of bad luck.  Mrs. Ballantyne had cheered me up to the point where I could live with losing the scholarship.  However I still wanted to know the reason why Katina got that scholarship instead of me. 

There had to be a reason, but for the life of me I could not figure it out.  Why had a rich kid had been selected over a poor kid for a scholarship based on need?  If I could just understand, I believed I could move on.

I was certain Mrs. Ballantyne could answer that question.  So I opened my mouth to speak.... but no words came out.  Some part of me had kicked in and put on the brakes. My last-second hesitation was based on the chance that Mrs. Ballantyne might take offense at my impertinence.  I was terrified of confrontation and I was scared of losing control.  That same fear of losing control had previously kept me from holding my father accountable for breaking his Sixth Grade Pledge.   I was an introverted kid with no experience at dealing openly with strong people.  No matter how angry I was, I was far too fearful to bring up an inflammatory subject like this, especially with a woman who was so powerful.  If I crossed her, I believed Mrs. Ballantyne could slice me into a million pieces.  So far I had seen no evidence of her legendary sharp tongue, but I also was certain I didn't want to see it.

Therefore, at this point our conversation came to a halt.  I was so worried I might say the wrong thing and offend the lady, I couldn't bring myself to say anything at all.  I was paralyzed with conflict. 

The tears had briefly dried up, but now they returned.  Feeling helpless, I stared down at the pavement with tears of frustration in my eyes.  I shuffled my weight from one foot to the other not knowing what to do or say.   Memories of the lost scholarship, my father's rejection, my bitterness towards my mother, and my years of social isolation at St. John's were overwhelming me.  This conversation had touched on way too many raw nerves.  I was teetering on the verge of sobbing when Mrs. Ballantyne's next words practically knocked me off my feet.

"Did you know that my daughter Katina was just awarded the Jesse Jones Scholarship?"

What did she say?!?!?

A bolt of lightning flashed through me.  Did she really say that?!?  I felt like I had been shocked with a cattle prod.  Just when I was on the verge of crying, I was jolted to attention.  My flood of self-pity vanished in a flash and I became riveted. 

My eyes grew wide with disbelief.  Did Mrs. Ballantyne know this subject was exactly what I had just been thinking about?  Had this woman just read my mind? 

I could not believe Mrs. Ballantyne had the guts to bring up the dangerous subject of the scholarship.  Now the Twilight Zone music started playing again.  I was sure this was a dream.  If this was a dream, when do I start flying? 

Mrs. Ballantyne had just escalated the overall improbability of our conversation into some sort of distant universe.   My mother and father never talked directly about problems in this manner.  No one... repeat no one... in my world had the guts to openly discuss a subject as controversial as this.

No one, that is, except Mrs. Ballantyne.  She was apparently fearless.

Now the Grudge jumped back into the saddle.  I felt all kinds of anger whip through me.  It was a stimulus-response reaction to having my hot button pushed.  The Grudge immediately chimed in to make me feel suspicious again.  Did Mrs. Ballantyne have something to do with swiping my scholarship after all?   I couldn't believe Mrs. Ballantyne had the nerve to shove this damn thing right under my nose.  Maybe the Grudge was right.  Maybe Mrs. Ballantyne was just as dangerous as my wicked Stepmother.

But then the Puppy Dog swept in and assured me Mrs. Ballantyne had meant no harm.  Calm down and see what she has to say.

I listened to the Puppy Dog and began to regain control.   The anger had come and gone.  So had the tears.  These emotions had been replaced by intense curiosity. I stood up straight and began making eye contact again.  All right, if Mrs. Ballantyne wants to bring up this subject, bring it on.  This is what I wanted all along.  I was about to get my wish answered... without even having the courage to ask!

Maybe now I would finally know what the hell had gone wrong.  I was very surprised that my temper was gone.  Ordinarily my temper takes quite a while to cool off.  But not this time.  For one thing, I decided the Puppy Dog was right... there was nothing in the lady's statement to suggest she was trying to hurt me or brag about her daughter. 

But the real reason I cooled down so quickly was funny... I was too confused to hold onto my temper.  I was totally shocked that she had brought the Forbidden Subject up on her own!  I did not know what to make of this woman or this conversation.  This conversation had become weirder than UFOs and alien abduction.  As for Mrs. Ballantyne, she had to be from another planet.  I had never met anyone like her in my life.  I just stared at Mrs. Ballantyne with a mixture of confusion and awe.  Maybe a little fear too.  She had powers that I had no explanation for.

My mind raced back to the 4th Grade when I had first seen her.  This woman had the most charisma of any person in the school.  I recalled how all those other ladies in the Mother's Guild would gravitate to her.  That is what had attracted me to her in the first place.  Now I had been given this chance to see her in action, I was gratified to know my instincts about her had been right all along.  

I simply surrendered.  That's right... I gave up and looked around for some sort of white flag to wave.  I had the exact same feeling one might have if Zeus or Hera had strolled down from Olympus to speak to a mere mortal.  I give up; Mrs. Ballantyne had my number.  She had me spinning like a top. 

At the exact moment I had hesitated bringing up the topic of Katina, she had brought up the issue herself.   I was so surprised at the timing of her statement that I actually wondered if she was psychic.  I am not kidding.  I couldn't get over the uncanny timing.

Nor could I believe her boldness.  This was the Forbidden Subject!!   Why did she dare to bring this subject up?  I had considerable anger inside me.  I hate to keep putting myself down, but let's face it, I was a basket case over this damn Scholarship Robbery.  Didn't she realize I might be unstable?  After all, I towered over the woman.  What if I was a hothead?  What would she do if I lost control and slapped her or started raving like a lunatic?  

Most people would guess this was a subject to be avoided.  Not Mrs. Ballantyne.  Like I said, the woman was fearless.   

Noting I was too flabbergasted to say anything, Mrs. Ballantyne didn't bother waiting for a response.  She simply started to tell me the story.  Mrs. Ballantyne said that although it was true her husband was a well-respected doctor, much of his energy was spent in research.

"Rick, people at St. John's are completely fooled by my family.  Big house and all those children at the school... they assume my husband Jay must be as rich as King Midas.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Jay does make a good income, but his pay is fixed University of Texas wages.  Jay studies cancer at MD Anderson.  His Research salary is nowhere near as lucrative as people think.   

In many ways, this research situation works against him because it caps his earnings considerably.  Opposed to the kind of money physicians can make in private practice, Jay has no obvious way to expand his cash flow.  

Despite my family's seeming affluence and nice home, my husband's salary can only stretch so far.  In other words, Rick, there are degrees of rich.  The Ballantyne finances are strictly budgeted.  Money is very tight at home.  My son Michael has always believed he was the poorest kid at the school."

Seeing my eyes stare at her with incredulity, Mrs. Ballantyne laughed.

"I have seen that look before and I know what you are thinking, but I am serious.  My own children think we are out of our league when comes to money.  Michael kept saying right up till the day he graduated, he was the poorest kid at St. John's." 

I may have been too flustered to speak, but my mind still worked.  That was the most fascinating piece of information I had ever heard.  It also made sense.  This was the first time I had ever considered the possibility that even rich people have to struggle to make ends meet.  

"This might come as a surprise, but every single child in my family is receiving financial aid.  Katina is on scholarship at St. John's just like you."

A huge tingling feeling came over me.  Mrs. Ballantyne was right again.  I was shocked.  I had no idea.

"Someday when you become a father and raise children, you will begin to understand that is very expensive to give a child a good education.  But you will also remember your St. John's education and realize that a good education is the most important gift of all besides love.  Yes, my husband is a successful doctor, but if people only knew!  Based on my husband's salary, it would be impossible to simultaneously send SEVEN children to an expensive private school like St. John's without financial help."

I saw her point.  Thinking about how my father complained about the trouble he had paying for Joy and Charles to attend private school, it had to be exorbitant to give seven children a quality education all at the same time.   I had a hunch Mrs. Ballantyne had just explained why my father was so cheap with me.  Deadbeat Dad refused to help me because his two important children were in private school.  This was quite a revelation.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Ballantyne continued.  She was so animated, I could tell she had considerable energy of her own on this subject.  Not towards me, mind you, but towards someone.  If I didn't know better, she was getting a burden off her chest at the same time as she was enlightening me.

"Furthermore, college is more expensive than St. John's.  My son Michael is already in college at Stanford.  You have no idea how expensive Stanford is.  Thank goodness Michael is brilliant... he is on scholarship.   So is Dana.  Now Katina is ready for college as well.  After that it will be Marina.  Then Christie.  Then George.  Then Lisa.  I lose sleep wondering how we will afford their education.  Things can be so complicated!"

"What do you mean by 'complicated', Mrs. Ballantyne?"

"Katina will need help with her Vanderbilt tuition next year in much the same way that you will need help.  The problem is that college administrators look at our River Oaks address and my husband's position at MD Anderson and jump to the same conclusion as everyone else.  'The Ballantynes must be rich!'

That makes me so mad.  If I hear that one more time, I will scream.  For some reason, all these men can do is see one child at a time, the one applying to their school.  So they tell me my husband makes far too much money to justify a scholarship.  Can't these men divide by seven?  How hard is that?  Believe it or not, Jay's salary will make it difficult for Katina to get a scholarship at Vanderbilt.  The Jones Scholarship is a huge blessing."

At that statement, I did a double-take.  Mrs. Ballantyne had just pointed out her husband's salary was a handicap to Katina's dreams in the exact same way that Deadbeat Dad crippled my own hopes of getting a scholarship.  For the first time, I began to understand that Katina was in a similar fix to me.  I finally had my answer...  Katina had the exact same problem as me... her father's paycheck undermined her chances of getting a scholarship.   

The one thing Mrs. Ballantyne didn't explain was her own role in Katina's award.  It didn't matter.  Although I remained convinced that her political clout had something to do with Katina winning that scholarship instead of me, my sense of fairness had been restored... as long as Katina needed the money too, I could not think of a more worthy candidate.   Grudge or no grudge, I had long admired Katina.

That's all I needed to know.  All this time I was under the assumption that filthy rich and greedy Mrs. Ballantyne wanted Katina to have the prestige.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  I felt embarrassed.  And the truth shall set you free...

I suddenly realized I didn't care any more that I had lost the scholarship.  As my mind adjusted to the new facts, I realized I had no right to blame Mrs. Ballantyne for anything.  She had simply done what a good parent is supposed to do - look out for her children.  As for Mr. Salls, I now understood that Katina was equally deserving.

If someone else had to win, I was glad it was Katina.  I had always liked her.  Katina was the kind of person you could build a world around... decent and talented.  Just like her mother.   Katina was a born leader who contributed her heart and soul to St. John's. 

And what had I contributed?  Not much of anything.  I was too busy working after school.  Oh well.  I shrugged.  The matter was over. 

Now that Mrs. Ballantyne had drained all my negative energy on the Forbidden Subject, this meeting had turned into a Sunday School lesson... "soft words turneth away wrath." 

This lady's sensitive explanation had removed my pain.  I liked Mrs. Ballantyne so much it didn't matter any more.  I could not believe how direct she had been with me.  I had never had someone take an approach like this before and I was very impressed.  I could not help but think how my father avoided the touchy subject of college.  Or how my mother had chosen not to candidly discuss her financial problems that led to the Little Mexico situation.

The comparison in parenting skills was like night and day.  The privilege to witness how this lady handled such a sensitive subject had a dramatic effect on me.  I had literally been given a chance to see how effective it was to bring things out in the open.  By caring enough about me to discuss this risky subject, Mrs. Ballantyne had immeasurably softened the blow of losing the scholarship.  That meant a lot to me.  I really wanted to hug her, but decided that would be inappropriate, so I settled for smiling instead.

To my surprise, I had completely regained my poise.  I stood up straight and my eyes were dry.  To my relief, my ability to speak had returned as well.  I smiled and said, "You know what, Mrs. Ballantyne, I am glad Katina won that scholarship.  I wish I had won it, but it's okay.  I really appreciate that you took the time to help me understand."

And I meant it.  I spoke from the heart.  I was okay.  I wasn't mad any more.  The world wasn't such a bad place after all.  Forget the Abyss.  It was time to move on.  Even if Houston Community College was my next stop, I had my whole life ahead of me.

The sincerity of my words about Katina meant something to Mrs. Ballantyne, I was sure of it.  Bless her heart, she gave me the oddest smile.  Perhaps Mrs. Ballantyne had felt a little guilty.  She probably had no idea there was some kid out there yearning to win the same award that had gone to Katina.  Plus she had to sense how desperate I had been to win that scholarship. 

Mrs. Ballantyne had made a classy move to take care of me.  I believe it meant a lot to her to know I was okay with what had happened regarding the scholarship. 

Was she indeed psychic?  Perhaps.  Who knows?  Nothing about this woman would surprise me.

More likely, Mrs. Ballantyne was extremely perceptive.  Although I was too young to understand the underlying currents of many aspects of this conversation, my 'older self' imagines Mrs. Ballantyne had correctly guessed that I had strong feelings on the scholarship subject.  It was touching to see how relieved she was to know she had done the right thing by bringing this painful topic out in the open. 

Now that the messy scholarship issue was patched up, Mrs. Ballantyne had the perfect opening to exit.  To my surprise, Mrs. Ballantyne still wasn't finished. 

"Rick, I know you must be worried about money for college, but I wouldn't worry too much.  With your grades, I imagine whichever school you choose will seriously consider you for a scholarship.  I think you have a great chance."

Now my eyes grew wide again.  WHO WAS THIS WOMAN?  The words 'psychic' and 'omniscient' crossed my mind again.

A 'great chance' at what?  Almost afraid to breathe, I asked, "What do you mean, Mrs. Ballantyne?"

Mrs. Ballantyne was more than happy to elaborate. 

"I know quite a bit about how scholarship money works based on my experience with my own children.  In my experience, the combination of great grades and great need will guarantee you at least some scholarship money at practically any well-endowed college in America.  I imagine college loans will bridge any further gap.

I say relax.  I would bet the farm that whatever school you apply to will take care of you.  Stop worrying about money.  It will all take care of itself."

I simply stared at her.  I wasn't convinced.  Mrs. Ballantyne probably didn't know that my father's salary would be a serious handicap to overcome in getting a scholarship.  Yet as I listened to her, I felt encouraged nonetheless.  Maybe she knew something that she wasn't at liberty to tell me.  Had Mr. Salls told her something?  One could only hope.  However I dismissed the thought as wishful thinking.  Mrs. Ballantyne didn't know anything or she would have told me outright.  She was just trying to cheer me up.

After Mrs. Ballantyne finished explaining how college scholarships worked, her work was done.  Mrs. Ballantyne squeezed me on my arm, gave me a smile, then got in her car.  I closed the door for her.  Before she drove off, she rolled down the window. "Please don't worry about the money, Rick.  I promise things will work out for you.

I stared at her car as it pulled out of the parking lot with a sense of awe.  It was like watching the Lone Ranger ride off into the sunset. 

Mrs. Ballantyne's last words echoed in my mind... "I promise things will work out for you."

After Mrs. Ballantyne left, I stood there in the parking lot trying to make sense of it all.  The grudge over the Jones scholarship was gone. My bitter envy towards my classmates had dissipated.  Even my fears about college tuition were gone.  Mrs. Ballantyne's reassurance had left me feeling optimistic. 

I was amazed to discover my nasty cesspool of hate and suspicion had been magically drained.  The weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.  I could barely believe how relieved I felt about everything. 

My darkness was replaced by pure admiration for Mrs. Ballantyne.  I thanked my lucky stars for the good fortune to finally meet this dynamic lady.  Mrs. Ballantyne was quite a person.  Today she had accomplished a miracle.  Now for the first time I finally understood why I had watched her for all those years.  Mrs. Ballantyne was truly a remarkable woman.

What a lucky coincidence it was that she had come to my store today. 

Through her simple act of kindness, Mrs. Ballantyne had saved my life.

 


A MEDITATION ON COINCIDENCE

“
A Coincidence is a small miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous.” -- Irene Hannon
 

 


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: FINISH LINE

 

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