Motivated Life Story
Characters from the stories My Love Is Strong and So Blind, which are found in the short story collection,
It Might Have Been and Other Stories.
In this Motivated Life Story, a woman discovers a new source of strength in a most unlikely situation. Expectations upended can offer a fresh perspective.
Walking into the Education Center meeting room at ten-fifty a.m. on a bright June morning, Wendy sighed in weak weariness. What I wouldn’t give for a cheeseburger about now.
At the crack of dawn, she had taken the puppy for a rambunctious walk, made breakfast for five, scarfed down a bowl of cereal, sent her younger kids off to school, kissed her husband goodbye, checked email, and paid bills, cleaned the kitchen and bleached the bathroom within an inch of its life, made a bowl of chicken salad for dinner, and even tossed a load of laundry in the dryer before jogging three blocks over to Main Street. No wonder she felt tired. A Drill Sargent had nothing on her relentless to-do list.
Squaring her shoulders, she faced the unknown, stepped up to the circular table where assorted folks had found seats, and dropped her handbag onto one of the chairs. With determined effort, she shoved the tantalizing image of a succulent burger and crispy fries out of her mind. Stop being so weak! Maybe on my birthday…
She patted her loosy-goosy stomach flab and, with a wrench, realized for the hundredth time that she wasn’t twenty-five anymore. Nor thirty-five… Heck, forty-five was flashing neon lights and glaring at her to pay attention.
She pulled out a chair and tried once again to redirect her thinking. I’ve got four great kids, a wonderful husband, and days when my family actually listens to me. The sink is finally unplugged, the pup’s foot healed up right nice, and the twins enjoyed school this year, unlike their older siblings who often acted as if the morning bus was taking them to a federal prison…
With another mental shake, she appraised the fifteen or so other people in the room. This was her first meet and greet as a volunteer, and she couldn’t help but wonder what motivated the others to come. Civic duty? Christian charity? Court-ordered community service? Quickly she smothered a snort with her hand, hastily pretending it was a sneeze. She considered the assorted group of grey-headed folks more closely. Retirees? Perhaps they just need something to fill their empty—
“Excuse me? Is this seat taken?”
Well dressed, thin, but too angular for Wendy’s taste, a woman with just a tad too much makeup stood waiting, a stiff smile fixed on her face with a determined air of “I want this chair now.”
Instantly on edge, Wendy blinked, straightened, and tugged her over-stuffed purse off the chair. She shoved it down by her feet, out of the way, yet handy if she needed her phone. Why would I need my phone?
The woman dragged out the chair and plopped down with a decided huff.
Wendy controlled a wince and glanced to the side. Uh, oh. Not a happy camper. She looked skyward, though all her gaze met was a cream ceiling with standard fluorescent lighting. Please, Lord, save me from a complain—
“Hate these things. So stupid. A complete waste of my time…know what I mean?”
The strange woman—to be forever remembered as Cranky—radiated irritation.
Wendy swallowed. No full sentences formed, though a babbled attempt at coherent speech was attempted. “I-uh-well-I’m-sorta…Wendy…” She stuck out her hand to cover the awkward moment.
With a wave, the woman bypassed the offer and simply announced, “Nancy. Oh, I’m an old hand at this stuff. No formality with me.” That declaration made, there was little else to say.
Despite the fact that Wendy had done a half-decent job of raising four kids and had the best husband in at least five counties, she suddenly felt about three feet tall and six years old. She clasped her hands and prayed that the orientation would start soon and end quickly.
Nancy pulled a chewy bar from her purse and wrestled the wrapper to death.
Scandalized that a grown woman would pull out food within the sacred confines of an educational setting, Wendy’s nerves got the better of her, and she started to babble again. “I’m new here. Never volunteered like this before, though I was an aid at my kids’ school—”
Nancy was having none of it. She talked around a chew. “Not the same. I taught junior high for thirty-some years. When they offered early retirement, I snatched it! After what I put up with, should’ve gotten combat pay and a medal for every year I put into the system. Know what I mean?”
Wendy didn’t but she was hesitant to admit any further incompetence.
“Good morning!” The Regional Educational Volunteer Coordinator, Ms. Perez, smiled big, waved with both hands and radiated good health and happiness. Thirty-something, not an ounce overweight, with a touch of makeup perfectly applied, and with an infectious smile, the woman brought the room to order. Everyone came to attention, except for Nancy who leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, and obstinately closed her eyes.
Embarrassment swept over Wendy. She tried to smile bright enough to distract their happy leader from the glowering heap on her left. But Miss Perez didn’t seem in the least dismayed. In fact, Nancy might have turned invisible for all the difference her presence made. Wendy yanked a small notebook from her bag, grabbed a pen from a side pocket, and started to take notes. Here was a true educator who knew how to bring vim and vigor to a room full of strangers and managed to contain a discontented mess. Suddenly, Wendy wasn’t the least hungry for a cheeseburger.
At the close of the orientation, Nancy was the first person on her feet. Without a word or a backward glance, she headed for the exit.
As the other volunteers smiled and waved their goodbyes, then meandered out the door, Wendy hung back. Her spiral notebook was brim full of personal impressions and helpful directions, but she still had one big question. She sidled up to the front where Ms. Perez packed her workbag with the sample books and paperwork that she had reviewed with the orientation volunteers.
Feeling very much like the teacher’s pet who wanted extra attention after class, Wendy plastered a look of friendly independence on her face. “Hi, Ms. Perez, I don’t know if you remember—”
“Wendy! Yes, of course. Thank you so much for coming. I hope the orientation wasn’t too overwhelming. We cover a lot since there are a variety of volunteers here: GED, ESL, family services, literacy…”
‘Oh, wow, no, I mean, I was impressed with everything. Don’t know how you keep everything straight.” She held up her little notebook with a depreciating smile. “I took lots of notes.” Watching Ms. Perez clasp her work bag, Wendy hurried on. “I just wondered how you managed to keep on track with…well, with Nancy ignoring you the way she did. That would’ve completely flummoxed me. Yet, you seemed…”
Ms. Perez slung the thick strap over her shoulder and hefted the workbag off the table. “Ah, Nancy. Yes, I’ve dealt with her before. Never easy but better now.” She offered a conspiratorial wink. “I have my weapons.”
With a slight choke, Wendy stared. “Weapons?”
A shrug and Ms. Perez got down to brass tacks. “If she started interrupting and doing her ‘this is a waste of my valuable time’ commentary, I would simply have announced that she could do her community service orientation next month.” A warrior on the field of victory could not have flashed a more satisfied smile. “She doesn’t want me to say anything directly to her.”
Stunned, Wendy processed the words she had heard carefully, but they didn’t make sense. “Community service?”
Ms. Perez nodded. “As in court-ordered. Her fault. She’s had to do community service a number of times—years apart—but she keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.”
Wendy desperately wanted to ask the nature of said ‘mistakes,’ but she knew that would be indelicate and, besides, it really was none of her business. “I didn’t realize that was part of your program…” She shook her head. “But I still wonder how you managed to stay so cheerful. I mean, Nancy isn’t that different from a lot of people. Can’t see past themselves.” Gloom fell over Wendy at the thought of all the Nancys she knew in life.
Ms. Perez laid a gentle hand on Wendy’s shoulder. “Nancy wasn’t the only court-ordered community service person in the room. Most of them were. But every time I looked over and saw you taking notes, I thought to myself, this isn’t a waste of my day. Some people are motivated to do the right thing for the right reason.” Her smile widening, Ms. Perez nodded to the door. “My littlest one will be home for lunch soon, so I better head out. But it’s great talking with you.”
With the sensation that her personal orientation had just risen to a whole new level, deliciously fresh strength filled Wendy. She nodded and stashed her notebook away. Then she walked shoulder to shoulder with Ms. Perez toward the door.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 17 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of eight.
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