Her name was Miss Mills. She was twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, and my son was a student in her first ever kindergarten class. He fell in love with her on the first day of school. He never told me this, of course, but a mother always knows. He came home that first day and he sparkled as he told me everything that had happened, how Miss Mills had read them a story from a brightly colored picture book and how he had hung on her every word.
"And I want to get her an apple," he announced.
"An apple?" I asked. I was peeling grapes for his lunch the next day.
"Yes," he said, "it was in the book we read today. The kids, they gave their teacher an apple, and I think it would be a nice thing to do."
"Alright," I said, "we will get some apples. Any kind of apple in particular?"
He thought about it. "A big red one."
The next morning he marched off to school with his big proud apple held delicately out in front of him, and when he came home all he could talk about was how much she had loved her gift, and how he wanted to bring her an apple every single day for the rest of the school year.
So I let him.
She was pretty, in a tired sort of way. Sometimes, when I was picking Jonathan up from school, I would see her off in the distance, leaving her classroom with her giant blue schoolbag slung over her shoulder. She always had a man with her, a great big man who looked like a soldier but moved like a dancer. She would lock the classroom door, he would snake an arm around her shoulders, and the two would be off. Then Jonathan would jump in the car and start talking a mile a minute, spewing forth all his stories from the day, and Miss Mills would be painted in such a shining, golden light that all my negative speculations would disappear.
I finally met Miss Mills at Jonathan's open house. She took me in and sat me down and told me everything a teacher ought to say to a little boy's mother: "Jonathan is a very bright student" and "He is a great addition to our learning environment." She was wearing a coral-colored sweater and as it settled around her elbow, I could see the faint edge of a dark smudge on her upper arm. I tried not to stare at it, but she must have noticed me looking because she tugged down on the sleeve of her sweater and the smudge was lost from sight.
Then she sighed and she looked at me intently and she said, "Mrs. Shepard, every day, Jonathan brings me an apple, and it's a really sweet gesture, but – I thought – it's awfully old-fashioned, don't you think, and – I thought – I don't really need all these apples, it's already been more than my boyfriend and I can finish together!" She laughed and her hand strayed to her coral-colored sleeve again. "I just don't want you to think it's…necessary for him to do this."
I said quietly, "The apple thing was not my idea. It's something Jonathan likes to do."
Miss Mills looked surprised. I stood up to leave. "It was nice to meet you, Miss Mills."
As she reached up to shake my hand, her sleeve fell back down and there was the smudge again, large and open like a flower in bloom. It looked like an apple blossom and for a moment I imagined an apple tree growing from her arm, heavy and laden with fruit. But the apples were wormy and I saw Jonathan reaching up with eager hands, and it occurred to me that as a mother I should never let my son eat anything that would harm him. I should to be the one to protect him from the dangers of this world.
The next morning I didn't give Jonathan an apple. I deliberately woke him up late, and in the flurry of getting ready he didn't even notice. It wasn't until he hopped out of the car, that earnest, trusting smile on his round freckly face, and slammed the door and bounced off towards Miss Mills' classroom that I noticed the guilty hunger gnawing at my stomach.
I couldn't focus all day. All I could think about was Jonathan's face when he realized he didn't have an apple to give Miss Mills. He'd be crushed. He lived for those moments, those brief encounters, the fleeting student-teacher interactions that made him feel complete. Suddenly I realized that it was not my place to protect Jonathan from his own emotions. If Miss Mills was damaged goods, if she had a boyfriend that hurt her, if her apples were rotten and full of worms, and if Jonathan loved her all the same...well, then, I could learn a thing or two from him.
I brought an apple with me when I picked Jonathan up that day. He did not run to the car when he saw me. He shuffled forlornly, with his face turned to the ground. I held out the apple when he opened the door. He face lit up when he saw it. "Go take this to Miss Mills," I said.
I watched as he scampered up to Miss Mills' classroom, almost tripping over his own feet. But he opened the door to a sight he did not want to see. The man was standing in Miss Mills' classroom, his fist raised, his face screwed up in anger. Miss Mills cowered in the corner.
My son stood there, quivering, a tiny sapling in the shadow of a towering tree, and I almost got out of the car to rush to his defense, but he held his ground. The man dropped his hand, shook his head, and stormed off, leaving Jonathan standing alone outside of the classroom.
Miss Mills was crying. Jonathan didn't understand what had just happened, but he understood sorrow. He understood fear. He walked into the classroom and he held out the apple in both hands, a sacred offering, a silent gesture of love and acceptance.
And Miss Mills wiped her eyes, and she smiled, and she took the apple.