She pedaled her bicycle hard down the country lane, trying once again to beat her fastest time, and to get home for dinner before her parents became upset. An old mechanical stopwatch in her pocket counted the seconds. She knew it would take longer this time, as she was coming from farther away than usual, having found a new quiet place down the creek. She was thrilled with her discovery – she knew almost every nook and cranny on her family’s farm, and to discover something she had previously missed was quite an accomplishment. On her ride back, her legs pumping furiously, her fine, straight hair flapping behind her, she struggled with whether or not to tell her parents about her discovery. On the one hand, she wanted to share her excitement, but on the other hand, she realized it would be delicious to have her own secret place to go and dream and read and stare at the sky and wait to become an adult.
She tore up the crunchy gravel driveway to the farmhouse where she lived and where her parents were probably already getting a little bit impatient with her tardiness. Yup, her stopwatch told her, three minutes off her best time, but already ten minutes past dinner time. Still, not too bad!
She skidded up to the front porch, threw her bicycle with a practiced smoothness to the ground, and flung open the screen door. In the heavy, humid Midwest summer, in an old farmhouse with no air conditioning, the long hallway leading along the staircase and back through the kitchen to the rear door was able to set up just enough of an air current to take the edge off of the sometimes oppressive heat. She felt the breeze on her face as she ran in.
“Mom! Dad!” she called. She stopped short, surprised to find them in the living room instead of in the dining room or the kitchen. Her mother sat on the sofa with her face drawn, her hands clasped in her lap. Her father stood beside her, beaming. An odd mixture of crackling excitement and ponderous stillness pervaded the air. She stared from her mom to her dad and back, trying to comprehend what could possibly be going on.
Slowly her mother spoke, “Mil, listen, please sit down.”
“Yes, yes! Sit!” her father chimed in, somehow unaware or unconcerned that his excitement in no way matched his wife’s somber quietness.
“What? What is it?”
“Mil, Honey,” her mom went on, “we’ve had a couple meetings with your principal and some of your teachers.”
From her mother’s tone and posture, Mildred assumed that this must be terrible news that she was about to hear. Was she in trouble for something? She couldn’t imagine what it could be. She always tried her best to be polite, attentive, and responsible. In fact, she was known for it, sometimes even teased by her classmates for being such a goody-goody. Her grades, as well, were always excellent. Surely there couldn’t be a problem with her performance?
“Honey, they’re concerned that they can’t offer you the kind of challenges and opportunities that you need. It’s such a small school. They just don’t have the resources. They’re afraid that you’ll be held back from, what was it they said, from ‘your full potential’ if you stay.”
“Wait, ‘if I stay’? What does that mean? Am I being kicked out?” Mildred demanded, a stabbing shame mixed with indignation welling within her, her face turning bright red. “But I like it there! Don’t they want me?”
“Oh, Mil! Oh, Honey, no! That’s not it at all!” her mother cried, even more upset now to see her daughter’s reaction.
Her father chuckled, still oblivious to what the two women in the room were experiencing. “Mildred, look, this is actually really great! They think you’re great! They want you to go to a better school, a school where you’ll be around other kids like you, as smart as you. Mildred, we’re just so proud of you!”
Mrs Sheffield sniffed while quickly pulling herself together, now in somber but heartfelt concurrence, “Yes, Honey, really, we are so proud of you.”
“But Mom, Dad, I like my school! I like my friends! Where is this new place anyhow? Am I going to have to take a bus? Or, what, are you going to take me there and back every single day? That’s stupid. You’re both always so busy as it is, it would be dumb add to it. Why don’t I just stay where I’m at? That would be the best, really, the best for all of us.”
“Um,” her mother began to respond, a pit forming in her stomach. “It’s… No, we won’t be driving you, and there is no bus. It’s just too far. You’ll… You’ll be staying there. In the dorms.” Her voice trailed off into silence almost before she finished the last word.
“But! But, Mom!”, Mildred pleaded, “That’s a boarding school! I don’t want to go to a stupid, stuck up boarding school!”
“Now, Mildred!” her father nearly barked, his excitement beginning to roll over into displeasure to be greeted by such an unexpected reaction from his daughter. “This is an excellent opportunity. What is not to understand about that?”
Mildred shot him a horrified look of confusion, hurt that he could be so ready to ship her off to some godforsaken place far away from home, the only home she’d ever known. She turned and ran upstairs to her room, slammed the door, and put on her headphones, Disintegration playing loudly enough that it could be heard throughout her bedroom. She crossed her arms tightly across her chest, her lips pressed firmly together.
“She needs to understand…” Mr Sheffield began to say to his wife in exasperation, back downstairs in the living room. He took a few paces from side to side, his eyes on the floor. Then he snapped his head back up and set off to follow after Mildred. He only made one determined step before Mrs Sheffield quietly reached out her hand, gently grabbed his arm.
“Shhhh. Just give her a little time. This really is a big change. It must be a huge shock to her.” Mrs Sheffield smiled reassuringly to her husband, trying to mask her own distress about sending her daughter away, even if it was for a very good reason. “She’ll come around.”
After so many years of marriage and after so many years of raising Mildred together, Mr Sheffield was entirely accustomed to trusting his wife’s instincts and guidance in managing matters of such an emotional nature. He might not have truly understood her reasoning, but he did trust her, and the outcome was usually entirely satisfactory if he waited long enough. Once again now he found himself yielding to her. He let go of his impulse, his impatience to make his daughter see why it was so important what they were doing for her. He sighed deeply. His wife was probably right. Time would probably take care of it. “Why don’t we go ahead and eat,” he said.
Time did indeed take care of everything. Mildred relented and left for school, where she ended up thriving. It really was a world of greater opportunities to learn and to stretch her talents and her intellect. She saw her parents two or three times a month, usually one at a time while the other tended the farm. They spoke often on the phone. In some ways the separation even brought them closer, because the relationship, being squeezed into more regimented time slots, became a direct focus in those moments, less something taken for granted as simply existing, present, but easily ignored because it would still be there in an hour, or the next day. That is not to say that Mildred did not ache with missing her parents, or they her. Tears were regularly shed when a visit began and when it ended. Even Mr Sheffield’s eyes became noticeably moist on more than one occasion.