Home > The Next Best Day(7)

The Next Best Day(7)
Author: Sharon Sala

   There were dozens of people in the halls, all of them walking toward the gymnasium, chattering with each other and calling out to friends as they passed.

   A sudden screech of laughter made Katie jump.

   Classroom doors were banging as lagging students hurried to the gym to get into place. To Katie, it sounded like gunfire.

   The first time it happened, she gasped, and for a moment she was back in that day, looking for a place to hide.

   Boyd saw her turn pale and slipped his hand beneath her elbow.

   “I’m sorry. I didn’t think,” he whispered.

   Katie shook her head. “It’s okay. Just nerves,” she said, then lifted her chin and focused on the cool air from the air-conditioning wafting down the back of her neck.

   Boyd wasn’t fooled. He’d done two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he knew PTSD when he saw it. Katie McGrath was struggling. Maybe it would be better when they got out of the hall.

   “We’re almost there,” he said quietly.

   Katie nodded, blinking back tears. This feeling was awful. She was failing horribly. If she couldn’t get down a school hallway, how would she ever be able to teach here again?

   And then they reached the gymnasium. The bleachers were packed with students and families. The chairs set up concert-style out on the gym floor were for victims and their families.

   Katie assumed she would be sitting there, until the principal led her up on the stage. The moment she started up the steps, she noticed cameramen from local news stations aiming their cameras at her. She was trying to come to terms with being the focus of attention when she heard little voices begin calling out, “Miss Katie! Miss Katie!” and lost it.

   She made herself smile as she turned and waved, but she couldn’t see the faces for the tears.

   Boyd seated Katie next to him, handed her a program, gave her a quick nod, and then moved to the podium.

   “Ladies and gentlemen, students, teachers, and members of the media, thank you all for coming. Six weeks ago today, a tragedy occurred here at Saguaro Elementary. A stranger came onto our property and shot his way into the building, causing great sorrow to all of us. This gathering is to honor and commemorate those wounded and those we lost, and thank you for coming.”

   The big screen above the stage was suddenly awash in color, with the logo of Saguaro Elementary, and as Boyd continued to speak, the images of those he began naming flashed on the screen behind him.

   “As you all know by now, we lost our security officer, Darrin Welsh, a valued member of our staff. He’d been with us for almost eight years, and he lost his life in a valiant effort to stop the shooter. Elena Garza, who had been your principal for thirteen years, called the police then ran out of her office into a blaze of gunfire and died. Coach Aaron Lincoln, who had been your soccer coach and history teacher, died trying to save children caught out in the hall.

   “Ellie Warren, one of our science teachers, had already turned in her paperwork to retire at the end of this school year, and was shot and died in her classroom. And we lost Barbie Thomas, one of our precious fifth grade students, who was looking forward to moving on to middle school.”

   The silence within the walls was broken only by the sounds of weeping. Boyd French cleared his throat and continued, and so did the slide show, as he move on to the recognition of each of the twelve students who’d been wounded, and then the last picture was one of Katie.

   “All of you…those who were not wounded, and those who were…those who we lost, and those who were saved, are heroes because you did everything right. It was the stranger who did everything wrong. But in the midst of all the tragedy, first-grade teacher Katie McGrath shielded two of her students with her body, took the bullets meant for them, and saved their lives, and for that we come today to also honor Miss McGrath. Katie, would you please come forward?”

   Katie stood, her knees shaking. And as she began walking toward the podium, everyone in the gym began chanting her name.

   “Katie! Katie! Katie! Katie!”

   Boyd held up his hand, then pulled a plaque from a shelf beneath the sound system.

   “Katie, on behalf of the Albuquerque public school system and Saguaro Elementary, it is my honor to present this award. It reads: ‘To Katie McGrath, for courage, bravery, and sacrifice in the line of fire.’”

   He handed it to Katie, who was visibly overwhelmed as she clutched it to her.

   “Are you okay to say a few words?” he whispered.

   She nodded, then moved to the microphone and took a deep, shaky breath.

   “Thank you. This is unexpected, and such an honor. But it feels strange to accept an award for doing the same thing every other teacher here was doing that day. We were all putting ourselves between your children and the danger they were in. Every year, your children, who you entrust to our care, become ours for a little while each day. We work hard to make sure they are learning what matters.

   “Some days we want to wring their necks. Some days we are so proud of them for how hard they try. And every day we love them. Enough to die for them, which is what happened here. I don’t know why I’m still here, but all I can assume is that I am supposed to be. Again, thank you for this recognition, and thank you for the hundreds of letters and well-wishes that were sent to me.”

   The audience gave her a standing ovation as she walked back to her chair, wiping tears as she went.

   The principal ended the program with a final announcement.

   “Earlier this morning, we unveiled five wooden benches on the playground. Each bench has a name etched on it to commemorate a precious life that was lost here. Yes, the names will be reminders of our tragedy, but as time passes, the benches will also come to represent a place to rest from the innocence of play, and for teachers to sit while they watch over your children on the playgrounds. We will not forget.

   “Now, this concludes our program. Students, unless your parents are here, you will return to your classes. Parents, if you wish to take your children home with you at this time, they will be excused. Just notify their teachers before you leave with them. And…Katie, I think your class is going back to their room with their parents and teacher in hope that you will stop by to visit with them before you leave.”

   Katie nodded, but she was sick to her stomach. How in the hell was she going to get through this without falling apart?

   ***

   Lila had known nothing about the award, or that Katie was coming to school, and when she saw her walking up on the stage, she could tell by the way she was moving that she was barely holding it together.

   Every time in the past few weeks when she’d mentioned coming back to school, Katie had gone silent, and now, seeing her like this, she understood why. It broke her heart to see her best friend so shattered again, but she knew in her gut that Katie McGrath would not be coming back.

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