A Chance Encounter

Like the few previous posts before it, this is based on a prompt from the book 642 Things to Write About.

Twenty-year-old Janelle Anderson wandered through the mall, randomly popping in and out of stores while her mind also wandered; she felt aimless, adrift, and not sure where to go next. As she exited the store she was in, she flipped her black hair back, a bit more out of her eyes. Her head was half-shaved on one side, and while she loved the look, her hair always fell forward into her eyes, and it had started to become annoying.

Everything seemed annoying these days, though. Her boss had been on her case about everything and nothing was good enough. Whether she was a minute late to work, requested a specific day off, asked for specific shifts, or even asked for overtime, it seemed troublesome. It didn’t matter if she cleared more calls than any of her fellow call center employees or the customer surveys said the customers were happy after she helped them, it wasn’t good enough. Mix in her own feelings of inadequacy from a father who ignored her before walking out completely, not really knowing what she wanted from life, but knowing she wanted more, it was no wonder she felt like she was being carried along at the mercy of the current.

She stood outside Hot Topic, looked around and saw the Dillard’s department store at the end of the wing and traipsed towards it. As she entered Dillard’s, she made a beeline through the cosmetics section to avoid the overpowering smell of the multitude of fragrances, emerged from the overlit cosmetics section by the shoe department, with the men’s shoes on the right and the women’s on the left.

She spotted a man sitting in the men’s section, on a chair near the back wall of shoes. After taking two more steps, Janelle’s brain registered recognition. She turned, looked again and saw it was indeed Mr. Jeffries, her high school English teacher. Sophomore year, if she remembered correctly. She also recalled him being somewhat nice, even encouraging her to write more.

After a moment’s hesitation, she decided to go over and say hello. As she neared Mr. Jeffries, she noticed he was crying, hesitated again, thinking it might be an awkward moment to say hello. And, not understanding why, she decided to go over to him anyway.

David Jeffries was 36 and found himself sitting in a department store, looking at shoes that he couldn’t afford, although that didn’t really matter. Shopping for shoes made him think of his late wife – it had been one of their first dates. His teacher’s salary was barely enough to cover the basics, and his late wife didn’t have insurance when she was involved in a car accident that put her in the hospital for four days before her broken body finally failed. Those four days were the longest of his life, or so he thought. The next six months proved that feeling false; it seemed as if every day after she passed got progressively longer.

The first night after she died was a mixture of sleeping, crying, laying in a nearly catatonic state of exhaustion for an hour, finally falling asleep again, only to repeat the cycle. The emptiness was bottomless for those first few days, and while the depth of loneliness abated, its breadth expanded, taking over every part of his heart. His ambition, desire, and motivation were all gone. The emptiness had even spread to his classroom. Whereas before his students work, while not perfect, could bring a smile to his face, lately, even his best students’ work elicited no response from him. He was depressed, in a funk, knew it, and longed for a way out of the deep hole that trapped him.

“Mr. Jeffries?” Janelle said hesitantly, even though she was relatively certain it was him.

David jerked his head up. He had been staring at a pair of shoes in his hand, lost in thought. He paused, trying to place the face in front of him. Suddenly, he remembered. “Janelle!” he said, a smile replacing the frown that had just been there as he wiped away the tears that had been on his face. “How long has it been? You must have been in my class, what, about three or four years ago now?”

Surprise registered over Janelle’s face. She hadn’t expected Mr. Jeffries to remember her name. “I think so. I graduated in 2018, so that would be about right. How are you doing?”

“Well, I’m guessing you see these tears, so I’ll be honest: it’s been a rough six months,” he said in an embarrassed tone. “I don’t know if you heard, but my wife was killed in a car accident. On one of our first few dates, we’d gone shoe shopping for new shoes for me. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it was one of our best dates. Enough about me, though. How have you been doing since you graduated?”

“Alright, I guess. I’ve been working at a call center, and it’s been a bit tough for me, too. My boss isn’t ever happy with me, and my schedule is a bit difficult. And, my mom has cancer,” she continued with exhaustion in her voice, “and ever since my dad left us, it’s been twice as hard.”

“I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. You’re a good daughter for taking care of her, and I’m sure she appreciates the sacrifices you’re making,” he said. Shifting the subject, he asked, “Did you ever continue your education after high school? I always thought you had some real talent for writing. Whenever I was grading writing assignments, I always looked forward to reading what you had written when I saw yours was the next paper in the stack.”

“Really? I remember we had to write several stories in your class. I always thought mine were silly. And when we had to write the ‘suicide essays’ where we had to write and defend a random topic in 10 minutes, I don’t think I did very well.”

“Hmm,” David replied, pausing and thinking for a second. “I don’t remember your final grade in my class, but I can’t believe it was anything less than a B, and I would have expected an A. Do you remember what it was?”

Janelle paused herself and thought back to her sophomore year. “I feel like it was a B, but I’m honestly not sure.”

“Wait a minute!” Mr. Jeffries exclaimed. “I remember it now. I believe you had an A, but you didn’t turn in an assignment that brought you down an entire grade. I specifically remember it, because I thought the topic was perfect for you, and I expected a fantastic story. And when I asked you about it, you didn’t have an answer as to why you didn’t do the assignment. It killed me to have to give you that zero.”

“Yeah,” she said sheepishly. “I remembered. I was mad at you for not letting me turn it in late,” Janelle said. “My mom’s cancer that I mentioned? She was in treatment then, too, and I felt overwhelmed. It’s been in remission, but just came back.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. If I ever had a student I wanted to make an exception for, it was you.” He paused for a second, and then added, “I wish I’d known then. If you’d told me in advance, we could have probably worked something out, but I couldn’t do it after the fact. If I’d made an exception for you, it wouldn’t have been fair to everyone else.  But back to my other question. Did you ever continue with school?”

“No, I didn’t think there was anything in school for me. I remember thinking I couldn’t afford it, and I don’t even know what classes I’d take. It seemed out of reach.”

David sighed. He thought of the guidance counselor at school, Mr. Stevens. He was 58, a year away from retiring, and from what he had seen, he had been doing the minimum needed to get to his retirement and a guaranteed pension. Not that he blamed him; the system was so broken that it could drain the life out of even the most enthusiastic teachers. Fortunately, he was the exception and not the rule. But he had clearly failed Janelle.

David said to Janelle, “I’ll tell you what. I believe in you, and I really do think you have some writing talent, and I’d hate to see you not even try school. If you write that assignment for me that you never turned in, I’ll pay for your first English class at community college. What do you think?”

Of course, as the words were coming out of his mouth, his brain was screaming “You can’t afford this! What are you doing?” But at the same time, the other part of his brain told him that all this young woman needed was someone to believe in her, and give her encouragement. Too many kids had been raised without parents to encourage them, especially fathers. Because no matter how hard a single mom worked, regardless of how fantastic a mom they were, kids still needed fathers or at least a strong male role model. His heart warmed at the thought all his father had done for him.

Janelle looked at him kind of weird, her mind processing his offer. “Why would you do that for me?” she asked a little suspiciously.

“Because, like I said earlier, I always thought that you had a real talent for writing and I’d hate to see it go undeveloped. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll write down my phone number. If you want to take me up on my offer, call me within a week. We’ll meet somewhere – you can pick the place, bring a friend if you want – and I’ll read that assignment. When you enroll, I’ll go to the community college and pay for that English class. Deal?”

Confused as to why someone would do this for her, and still a bit suspicious, she agreed. “OK. But I can pick the place and bring a friend?”

“Absolutely!” he said with enthusiasm, trying to set her at ease.

He wrote down his number, they exchanged goodbyes, and as she walked away, David felt a little alive inside. It was just an inkling of the feeling he felt when one of his students had nailed an assignment, but it was something. As she walked away, Janelle felt encouraged, felt a bit of hope, and felt that perhaps maybe she had a direction to go.

Four Years Later

David sat in the crowd with his new wife, Dawn. While it had taken almost another year to get back to a place where he felt like he could breathe, that encounter with Janelle had been the turning point for him; it had reminded him of the joy he felt in teaching. He’d poured himself back into his teaching, eventually met Dawn, fallen in love, and they’d been married for almost two years.

A man announced “Janelle Anderson, magna cum laude.” Janelle walked purposefully and confidently across the stage, and the man handed her the diploma she had earned. David, Dawn, and Janelle’s mom stood up and cheered.

As she walked across the stage, she thought of all the times she had almost quit, but it always seemed it was those moments Mr. Jeffries had called, out of the blue, to see how she was doing and offer encouragement. And after he’d met Dawn, Janelle thought she would never hear from him again, but instead, she gained a friend and another cheerleader. Who would have thought that a random encounter with someone, let alone a former teacher who was crying in the mall at the sight of a shoe, could change the course of her life?