Chapter 1: The First Encounter
The Craftsman-style structure on Phillips Drive certainly did not look like a preschool; heck, it didn’t look like any type of school at all, for that matter.
With its low-pitched roof, the column-framed porch and that surrounding white picket fence, North Bay Preschool definitely had more of a domestic feel to it rather than an academic one, which was probably by design; the homely set-up usually resulted in a more effective learning environment, or at least that was the idea. But this method doesn’t work on everyone; naturally, there are always a few children (and parents) who fail to appreciate the school’s overall coziness.
In the case of the Standridge family, it was two out of three; only Robert was actually embracing the first day of preschool with great elation. However, both his wife, Patricia, and the couple’s daughter, Jill, were not so welcoming; the former had been an anxious wreck for an entire week and barely slept the night before, while the latter proved to be a whole other obstacle.
Everything was a challenge for Jill on this particular morning: waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast (nothing says “Back To School” like Cheerios, even if half of it ends up on the kitchen floor), getting into the car, and worst of all, that last one hundred feet from small gravel parking lot to the main entrance of North Bay Preschool (nobody really understood the reason for this name choice, by the way; there was no “North Bay” in town, nor a South Bay, or any bay, for that matter).
The final activity required both Robert and Patricia lifting a fidgety and crying Jill up off the ground, each parent holding onto an arm as they approached the front door; any outside observer could make the easy mistake of thinking that Jill was on her way to a dentist rather than the first day of school.
Ultimately though, the Standridge family reached their destination; this trio ascended the brick porch steps, walked through the doorway (passing under a huge “Welcome!” banner hung above their heads) and entered a small reception area, teary-eyed Jill basically being dragged the whole way.
There were a multitude of cushioned chairs along the near and side walls on the right immediately upon entering; Patricia took a seat with Jill in one of those chairs while Robert perused through several magazines scattered on a corresponding coffee table. After taking a collecting breath, Patricia attempted to comfort Jill and generate some excitement, a task that was becoming increasingly difficult. No matter what Patricia said, Jill continued to cry; moreover, the look of pure reluctance and fear never escaped the girl’s face.
It didn’t take long for Patricia to just stop trying altogether; she lost patience very quickly, and her frustration was now at an all-time high. She called out for her Robert, who was still standing over that coffee table, now reading the latest copy of Sports Illustrated, seemingly oblivious to this relentless tug-of-war going on between his bride of five years and only child.
“For god’s sake, Rob, talk to your daughter,” commanded Patricia sharply. “I can’t deal with her anymore.”
Placing the magazine back where it belonged, Robert scurried over to his family; it’s like the guy suddenly remembered where he was and why what the this family was doing there in the first place.
He could see Patricia constantly tugging on her right ear, which is the woman’s usual maneuver when highly agitated; meanwhile, Jill’s cheeks were almost as red as the velvet carpeting covering this reception area’s floor and the girl had a tight hold of her mother’s right leg.
This was clearly a highly delicate situation and required a very gentle approach; Robert squatted down to be at eye level with Jill, then attempted to encourage and comfort his little girl.
“What’s the matter, honey?” he asked in a high-pitched voice of innocence. “Aren’t you excited for your first day of school?”
The little girl shook her head emphatically; Robert was prepared for that answer though, and pushed on, “But we talked about this, sweetie pie. You’re a big girl now, and all big girls go to school.”
Although still not releasing her firm grip from Patricia’s leg, Jill had now actually stopped crying; Robert viewed this as progress, however small. He then implemented an entirely different strategy: good old optimism.
“I’ll bet you will make tons of friends,” he boasted. “Doesn’t that sound great?”
A quick “No” from Jill immediately answered that, and the little girl’s ensuing self-transport completely underneath Patricia’s seat indicated that Robert had just taken a gigantic step backwards.
Patricia sensed this too, and insisted, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea, honey.” Taking a quick peek under the chair at Jill, who was seated in a fetal position, the mother observed, “Come on, she’s clearly not ready.”
Standing up, Robert then asked, “She’s not ready, or you’re not?”
Giving her husband an angry glare, Patricia responded, “Don’t start that again.”
“I’m just saying, you have to let go,” Robert advised. “It’s not going to be any easier if we wait until next year.”
He thought for a moment, rubbing the top of his head with an open palm, then made a suggestion. “I mean, unless you don’t want to do this ever. Maybe she can just stay home for now, and then we can return in twenty years to make her the world’s oldest preschooler.”
In no mood for her husband’s sarcasm, Patricia snapped back, “That’s uncalled for.”
“Sorry.” Gazing around the still empty reception area, Robert said to Patricia, “Look, we have come this far, we might as well give it a shot.” He added, “I didn’t drive all the way over here for nothing.”
“It’s a five minute drive.”
Robert didn’t respond to Patricia’s astute observation, but did squat down again, stretching underneath the chair and kissing his daughter’s forehead. Noticing that Jill had appeared to calm down a bit, the mother took that to be a (hopefully) good sign. She decided to concur with Robert; this was indeed worth a shot.
“Fine, let’s do it,” she breathed.
Rising out of the chair, Patricia followed Robert towards the check-in desk. Jill had re-attached to her leg again, so the mother moved rather slowly; it was like having a fifty-pound weight hanging off one side of her lower body.
As they approached, both Robert and Patricia took a glance at the actual classroom set-up. There was a small grouping of circular tables in the middle, a very large polypropylene rug lining the floor on one side of those tables, plus what appeared to be an arts and crafts area on the opposite side.
Along its back wall were various plants, a humongous fish tank (neither parent could see how many fish were in that tank; or if there were even any fish in there at all), and a stained glass awning window with a wonderful view of the outside recreation space.
From a tour she and Robert went on last spring, Patricia remembered that this recreation space included a jungle gym, sand box, and spacious grass field. There was more to the interior set-up as well, but that part was not visible from where they were standing, so the only way to see it would be physically crossing the threshold and entering that classroom itself; while Robert had absolutely no intention of doing that, the same could not necessarily be said for Patricia.
In any case, they got to the desk and were greeted by a warm, engaging face; this woman was heavyset with wavy black hair, close-set eyes and wearing a one-piece gray pantsuit.
“Hello, I’m Miss Lang!” the woman stated with giddiness. “Welcome to North Bay Preschool! How can I help you?”
Neither Robert nor Patricia (and certainly not Jill) were matching Miss Lang’s enthusiasm, but someone had to answer, so Robert spoke up for the group.
“Hi, checking in for Standridge, please.” He then commenced the introductions, “I’m Robert, this is my wife Patricia, and our daughter, Jill.”
Miss Lang leaned over the counter to get a better look at Jill, who was of course still attached to her mother’s leg; the girl was staring fixedly at this woman who was about to become her teacher. After flashing a pearly white smile, Miss Lang said, “Hello, Jill! How are you, princess?”
Fortunately, Jill was starting to slightly loosen that grip on Patricia’s leg; but this could probably be explained by her current trance-like state rather than sudden contentment. Miss Lang further asked, “Are you ready for your first day, dear?”
Still no answer from Jill, who now regained the sturdy stranglehold on her mother’s lower body; yet she was still visually clasped onto this podgy woman in the gray pantsuit.
Patricia apologized to Miss Lang, then explained, “I’m afraid she’s a little nervous. My daughter’s usually not this shy and quiet, even around strangers.” Despite not adding anything verbally, Robert did nod in complete agreement.
Waving her hand in a dismissive fashion, Jill’s teacher replied, “Aw, no apology necessary. She’s just fine.”
Another smile was directed towards Jill, but the little girl had the same reaction as before; zero words, no blinking, and she was still tenaciously connected to Patricia’s right side.
Miss Lang looked away from Jill, grabbed a clipboard on the countertop, and made several scribbles. “Okay, I have you checked in,” she confirmed to the family. “Have a seat over there, and we’ll call you when class begins.”
Robert and Patricia thanked Miss Lang and returned to the waiting area. Nobody else had entered during this time, so Patricia had the same chair as before; also, she was able to savor the sweet relief of Jill finally releasing that kung-fu grip. The woman started massaging her right leg—hoping to regain some feeling in it—while Robert adjusted the pretty red bow in Jill’s golden blond hair.
“Alrighty,” Jill’s father said. “We’re almost there. How are you holding up?”
While still rubbing the calf area, Patricia responded, “I think she’s doing better now.”
“I was talking to you.”
“Oh. Well, this is the moment I have been dreading since the day she was born.”
“Really? Not for me.” Robert shared, “I’m saving that feeling for the day she brings home her very first boyfriend.”
Patricia rolled her eyes as Robert resumed his reading activities at the coffee table, then saw that Jill had a few fingers in her mouth. The woman tried removing them, but Jill started whining again, so she backed off with a giant sigh of exasperation.
By this point, several more families had arrived, almost simultaneously; they each went to the desk, got checked in, and waited for class to start, just as this Standridge clan had done earlier.
However, Patricia couldn’t help but notice that all of these other kids were calm and well-behaved; frankly, it looked like Jill was the ONLY one who didn’t actually want to be here.
Patricia became a little resentful of those parents, too. Damn, everybody else has it so stinking easy, she thought with an intense rush of bitterness. I really wish Jill were reacting like the other kids.
These envious thoughts were quickly interrupted though, by commotion occurring outside the building. Patricia heard what sounded like a young boy yelling; it wasn’t a scream of terror or fright though, but rather one of enjoyment. This sound was also rising in volume, indicating that the noise’s source was getting closer to North Bay Preschool.
“Let’s go, Dad! We’re almost there!”
A second voice could now be heard, one that sounded older, raspier and much more exhausted. “Stop running, Jack! It hasn’t even started yet!”
The young boy (named Jack, evidently) shouted again, “Come on, move it!” He pointed out, “You’re so slow!”
This older man—father to the young boy (still named Jack)—replied in a drained and weakened tone, “That’s what happens when you get old.”
“I don’t know,” Jack countered. “Sounds like an excuse to me.”
Patricia could hear footsteps rapidly treading up the porch steps; this boy named Jack was about to officially enter North Bay Preschool. Shooting a quick glance in Jill’s direction, Patricia noticed that fingers were no longer in her mouth; additionally, the girl had also stopped crying and was watching the doorway with great fascination.
Apparently, she is just as interested as I am, Patricia realized.
A moment later, that mutual interest was satisfied, as Jack leaped into the reception area like he was shot out of a cannon. This boy was a complete blur while passing under the door frame and landing on both feet, with a little bit of dirt transferring from the soles of his sneakers onto that red velvet carpet.
He finished off like an Olympic gymnast too, even stretching both arms skyward as if posing for judges. That’s when Jack started to celebrate his apparent “victory.”
“Woo! I win! How does it feel, Pops, to get smoked by a 3-year old?”
Jack slowly looked around the reception area to check out his audience; meeting Jill’s eyes, the boy smiled smiled broadly. This caught Patricia by surprise, but not nearly as much as Jill’s reaction did; her daughter smiled right back, the first time this girl had exuded any type of positive emotion all morning.
Piggy-backing off Jack’s room searching, Patricia discovered that she was not the only person watching him; everyone else was doing the same. Parents, children, everybody; all eyes were on this little boy who had just made a grand entrance.
And it wasn’t in the same way that most people pay attention to three-year old kids running around; no, this was different, somehow. People were inevitably drawn to Jack, like moths to a flame; Patricia’s knee-jerk impression was that there appeared to be a rather special quality about this child.
Eventually, the father of this child arrived at the building; gasping for breath and bent over at the waist, with the palms of his hands resting on both kneecaps, he fought to get air back into those lungs. The guy was dressed in a blue collared button-up shirt with a pocket on the left breast, dirt-stained denim jeans held up by a black belt with large circular buckle, a Texas Rangers baseball cap, and light brown work boots.
A farmer, Patricia decided. She also couldn’t deny that the guy was actually quite good-looking; a handsome baby-face made him look much younger than whatever his actual age was (basically, this farmer is definitely older than he looked).
In fact, she hated to admit it, but the man was even better looking than her own husband, who was no longer reading Sports Illustrated; either Robert had finished that entire magazine already (very unlikely in such a short time span), or was just as captivated as the rest of these folks inside North Bay Preschool. Patricia determined that it was probably the latter.
Stopping right behind this still bent-over gentleman was a woman, who had just entered. She was dressed a little more formally than him, but also in a rather casual manner; blouse and skirt combination, wedges, and no jewelry other than one wedding band on her left wrist.
Furthermore, this woman was quite attractive in her own right; broad face, a short and narrow jaw, plus beautiful sparkly eyes. Patricia assumed that this was the farmer’s wife and Jack’s mother.
That farmer finally returned to an upright standing position, hands up to his hips, although still panting quite heavily. Turning around, he said to the attractive woman, “Our son has quite the mouth on him.”
This confirmed the relationship that the three of them had with each other. The wife/mother replied, “He’s fine, Kenneth, it’s just his version of self-expression.” She continued, “You should be proud to have a son with so much self-confidence instead of constantly complaining about it.”
“Yeah, remind me to pat myself on the back after I catch my breath and regain some feeling from the waist down.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, honey.”
Looking past the oxygen-deficient man standing there, she said, “Wait here, I’m going to check in.” The woman walked past her husband (Kenneth), grabbed Jack by the hand, and headed towards the desk to see Miss Lang.
The already jovial woman experienced an even more dramatic fervor spike upon seeing who was coming in her direction. “Hello Jack!” she yelped with glee. “Welcome back!”
Miss Lang came around from behind the desk, eagerly approaching Jack and giving him a giant bear hug; wrapping both arms tightly around, she lifted the boy up with sheer ecstasy.
“I’ve missed you so much!” she proclaimed.
After being safely returned to the floor, Jack answered back, “Hi, Miss Lang!” He then stated, “I don’t blame you.”
This generated laughter from Miss Lang, an unrestrained head-tilting snort that temporarily focused attention away from the cause of that laughter, for the first time since he had arrived.
Miss Lang then addressed the boy’s mother. “I truly love your son,” she conceded. “He always brightens my day.”
Smiling, the mother then looked down at her little boy and lovingly rubbed his shoulder. “Yeah, most people do.” She added, “Jack seems to have that effect.”
Doing her usual thing with that clipboard, Miss Lang spoke directly to the lovable three-year old. “Okay sweetie, we’re almost ready to start. Go wait over there for a little bit.”
Jack politely thanked Miss Lang, then followed his mother back towards the waiting area. Looking in Jill’s direction again, he noticed that she was still staring; their eyes met once more, and the boy delivered another smile.
In response, Jill immediately returned the smile, a reaction that yet again resonated quite profoundly with the girl’s mother. Jack got closer to his seated father, then hopped up onto Kenneth’s lap; meanwhile, the mother sat in a chair right next to them.
Patricia regarded this trio for another moment. They appeared to be a very loving family, with two good-looking parents (this kid is going to be a real heart-breaker when he grows up, she thought), and of course one child seemingly drenched in an aura of exceptionalism. Understanding that it was silly to rank families in any way, Patricia still had to acknowledge that at first glance, this trifecta was pretty good.
Thoughts swiftly returned back to that friendly interactions between her daughter and “Jack The Extraordinary.” Robert was now sitting with Jill, so the mother allowed, “I think someone has a crush.”
Robert scoffed at that remark. “Dear God, don’t say that, not yet.” He reminded Patricia, “Come on, she’s only three.” Then a subtle peek aimed for Jill confirmed her naturally still looking over at Jack; this clearly didn’t support his skepticism.
A few minutes went by, with nothing much happening: scattered chit-chat throughout the room, cell phones going off, the sounds of an ambulance speeding by outside, not to mention Jill’s continued eye lock on Jack.
Another girl entered the room and had joined Miss Lang behind the desk; she was petite with closely-cropped brown hair, sterling stud earrings, and a name tag attached to the left side of her shirt informed everyone that she went by the name of Ashley.
After a brief conversation between the two ladies, Miss Lang cupped around her mouth and shouted, “Good morning, everyone!”
Chatter quickly stopped, and everyone turned to face the teacher (well, everyone except Jill, who was of course still staring in Jack’s direction). “We’re going to begin now!” She went on, “I’m the teacher, Miss Lang. But parents can feel free to call me Tamika.”
She then pointed to the young girl and explained, “This is my lovely assistant, Ashley. Together, we’re all going to have so much fun!”
Then Miss Lang addressed the kids directly. “Say goodbye to Mommy and Daddy, and let’s all head inside!”
Parents and children exchanged the usual farewell hugs and kisses, then each kid walked into the classroom. A few adults left the reception area and headed outside, but most of them stayed put to see how their respective sons and daughters initially fared.
For the most part, everything was fine. The kids were instantly engaging with each other and quickly getting comfortable in this new setting; Jack in particular was working the room, mingling smoothly with other children.
On the other hand, Jill was not acclimating so well; she found an empty table farthest away from the other classmates, and just sat there quietly. But naturally, the girl continued to watch Jack, as did Patricia, who simply could not remove her eyes from the boy: just like her own daughter.
Curious if her husband felt the same way, Patricia turned to Robert and offered, “You have to admit, the kid has a…a certain… presence about him.”
Robert abruptly shot that down too. “Nah, he’s too young to have a presence. Hell, he probably can’t even spell it.”
Rolling her eyes again (she did that a lot, mostly at Robert’s expense), Patricia then noticed Jack’s parents standing by themselves against an opposite wall. They had a clear view of the classroom, totally secluded from the group. To Patricia, this only added to their overall mystique; she pulled at Robert’s sleeve and urged him to follow.
Upon approaching this intriguing couple, Patricia said the first thing that popped into her head: “Your son is a big star around here, huh?” As soon as those words left her mouth, Patricia experienced regret; she worried that it sounded too caustic.
Fortunately, both of them smiled; the father replied, “Yeah, it seems to be that way everywhere he goes.” He confessed, “Sometimes, it’s a little much though.”
The woman interjected, “Don’t listen to him, it’s not a big deal. Jack just has a presence, that’s all.” Nodding, Patricia then shot a very satisfied glare at her husband; nothing was verbalized, but the look said it all.
I told you so.
The two couples exchanged introductions and pleasantries; Robert and Patricia learned that this woman’s name was Annette (while the family’s last name was Sloan) and that she was a cashier at Go-Go Goods, the town’s local market.
Kenneth also confirmed that he was indeed a farmer (another accurate deduction by Jill’s mother), then asked what Robert and Patricia did. After sharing their respective occupations (Robert did freelance accounting work, while Patricia was a nurse at the local hospital), Jill’s parents returned to the topic at hand.
“Anyway, as you can see, we can’t quite say the same about our little girl.” Patricia said this with a touch of self-pity while feebly pointing towards her daughter, still sitting alone, who had not yet uttered a single word to anyone.
Frankly, Patricia was starting to become embarrassed by this whole thing, and even though he didn’t say anything, she had a feeling that Robert did too; after all, the guy has always been a rather self-conscious individual.
Sensing that Patricia and Robert were beginning to feel ashamed, Annette attempted to cushion the blow. “Oh stop, she’s fine, dear. There’s nothing wrong with being quiet and reserved.” The woman added, “Honestly, sometimes I would prefer it if Jack were that way.”
Patricia gave Annette a quizzical look. “Why is that?”
This answer came from Kenneth; and before a response could occur, he spoke again. “Uh-oh, what’s happening here?”
The other three noticed that Kenneth was no longer looking at any of them; they all followed his gaze and immediately understood what had so suddenly captured the guys attention.
Jack had left a group of kids and was walking towards the circular tables in the room’s center. Striding right past an empty one, he then sidestepped a chair that was left out of its place after another boy had gotten up from a different table, finally stopping where Jill was sitting.
Placing both elbows on the table, Jack leaned closer to Jill. At first, neither one said anything; instead, both just stared into each other’s eyes, much like they had been doing earlier (only from a much closer distance now).
Watching this transpire, the four parents were experiencing a wide range of emotions; Kenneth was worried, Patricia had anxiety, Annette experienced curiosity, and Robert was just plain confused. All of them walked closer to the two kids, close enough that they would probably be able to hear whatever would be said; if anything was actually said.
Neither Robert nor Patricia were surprised by Jill’s silence; in fact, they weren’t expecting anything less. However, both Kenneth and Annette thought that Jack would have vocalized something by now; they weren’t sure what to make of that, either.
A few more seconds went by, time that felt like over an hour to those four adults watching eagerly from the classroom entryway. Then Jack finally spoke, the first words articulated by either of them.
With both eyes still secured on Jill, he said, “Hello, I’m Jack.” Then he inquired, “What’s your name, darling?”
At first, Jill didn’t answer; heck, she barely even flinched. It looked like the girl was frozen in fear, and Patricia started to grow concerned that Jill was going to faint.
But then a reply was delivered, albeit in a rather timid voice, with only one word being mustered.
Staying quiet for a moment to process that, Jack then cut to the chase. “Well, guess what, Jill? I like you, a lot.”
He acknowledged, “In fact, I have liked you since first seeing you a little while ago. I would very much like to be your friend.”
Reaching out for Jill’s hand, Jack took it in his own and kissed the top; Jill’s face lit up in a way that neither parent had ever seen before.
Likewise, they had also never seen as big of a smile on Jill’s face as the one displayed right now; the girl didn’t exactly pull away from Jack’s grip either, so clearly, she really liked this idea.
But Jack wanted to be sure, so he prompted, “What do you say?”
Jill replied almost immediately, “I like you too. Let’s be friends.”
Then the girl did something that shocked everyone; she got out of her chair, leaned across the table and kissed Jack on the cheek.
These new friends then walked over to the fish tank (apparently there were fish in there after all); just the two of them, holding hands that entire time.
Fighting back tears, Patricia placed a hand on her chest, right by the heart. “Oh my god, how cute was that?”
Each hand covering her mouth, Annette removed them in order to speak. “Absolutely adorable.” She speculated, “I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship,” before glancing over at Patricia and smiling broadly.
Returning both the look and smile, Patricia then made a giant leap of her own. “Or maybe more,” Jill’s mother declared.
Obviously, Patricia knew it was WAY too soon to say something like that, but she just couldn’t help it; the woman had a strong gut feeling that this instinct was accurate.
Kenneth appeared to think so too, but was not nearly as thrilled about it. “Yikes, that can’t be good.” Grimacing in disgust, he turned to Robert, in hopes that the other male in this quartet would show some affirming support on this.
Instead, Robert simply nodded, side-eyed Kenneth while still watching the kids, then remarked, “Well, things just got interesting, didn’t they?”
Now he turned to face Kenneth completely, and extended his right hand. “It looks like we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the near future.”
Standing there for an instant, Kenneth shifting both eyes from Robert to the extended right arm and then over to their hand-holding fish-watching children. He realized that what Robert had said was likely true; the Standridges (Robert, Patricia and Jill) and Sloans (Annette, Kenneth and Jack) were probably going to be a very big part of each other’s lives going forward.
He gripped Robert’s hand firmly, and the two of them shook. Then the two fathers joined their wives (who had already resorted to hugging like long-time friends; it really doesn’t take long for women to show affection towards one another) in watching this special bond blossoming before their very eyes.
Jack now had an arm around Jill, who had her head resting on his right shoulder. They were talking, laughing and truly enjoying one another’s company. Basically, this was the start of a very magical friendship, which was destined to last a lifetime.