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Chapter One


 

The end of February wasn’t exactly the best time to start a new teaching job. It was still winter, with the promise of spring well in the distance. Students got restless. Attentions spans dwindled. Interest in math, science and grammar melted away with the snow. Even for a seasoned teacher who knew her students, spring represented a challenge. For a young, idealistic first year teacher the challenge would be even greater.

But Pollyanna Perkins liked a challenge. What’s more, she felt almost divinely called to the unique job of teaching at the one-room schoolhouse in the remote enclave of Pepper’s Hollow. The job had come along just when she’d needed it. And, she had decided, just when the Pepper Hollow School needed her. Pollyanna Perkins didn’t consider herself just any teacher, after all. She’d graduated top of her class from an exclusive private teaching college. Age and maturity had given her an advantage over the younger students; for a number of years she’d worked in the publishing industry before feeling the call to make more of a difference. So she’d decided to pursue her teaching degree and had decided that this job was a sign she’d made the right decision.

By all accounts, Pepper’s Hollow was a simple, if not honest intentional community.  It was not exactly a commune as people all owned their own land and businesses. The people were mainly farmers and craftsmen. Families had gravitated there since the 1920’s and the unique, hardworking culture spawned many articles about how the place had seemed trapped in something of a time warp. The school, which 100% of the town's children attended, was private. It concentrated on the basics. The Three R’s. They still used McGuffey’s Readers. After school, the younger children played while the older ones spent part of their afternoons working as apprentices in one of the crafting or gardening trades offered by the community.

When Pollyanna interviewed via teleconference, for it had been snowing too badly for anyone to reach Pepper’s Hollow. The panel of parents who made the decisions for the school were adamant that their philosophy remain simple.

“We believe in having kids learn a trade before they even think about college,” said the spokesman, a tall sandy-haired man who identified himself as Walt. “So we want the focus kept on the basics. We think what worked for folks in the old days is still the best recipe.”

Pollyanna had bitten her tongue. These people needed her. The basics? One could not compete in today’s world with the basics. They were clearly brainwashing their children. Was it ethical of her to pretend to agree? Probably not, she thought. But she told herself that sometimes, to make a difference, one had to bend the rules a little. If that meant earning the trust of a group of old-fashioned people and working from within to give their kids a better life, then so be it.

So she’d parroted their beliefs and won their trust. It reminded her of her activist days in college when she’d gotten into an anti-feminist group with the sole purpose of writing a scathing article about what a bunch of idiotic throwbacks they were. Maybe, Pollyanna thought, she’d write a book about her experiences in Pepper’s Hollow.

She wasn’t surprised when she’d gotten the job. Had it been a more welcoming time of the year there would have been more competition. But few people wanted to start a job in the middle of the year that required a Snow Cat to get them to their destination.

Pollyanna wasn’t a stranger to harsh conditions. She’s hiked the Adirondacks and even gone trekking in Greenland for a travel piece she’d written. In preparation for the job she spent hours reading about homesteading and the back-to-the-land movement. She felt sure she could walk the walk of the parents of Pepper’s Hollow even as she inspired the kids to something greater.

It wasn’t that she looked down on the lifestyle. It was just that, as the holder of three advanced degrees, she thought it terribly irresponsible for any parent not to consider college for their kids. And she believed if a child was challenged and made to realize their parents might not be right about everything, they would want more for themselves than a future throwing pots, quilting or growing hydroponics vegetables.

And now she was closer than ever to changing those lives.

The air was so cold at the little airstrip where she’d landed that it seemed to crackle. The thermometer read five degrees below zero. Pollyanna had only been standing outside three minutes and already her toes had gone numb.

“I thought someone was supposed to meet me here!” She turned to the pilot, who was dumping her bags in the snow outside the plane.  “Excuse me! I someone meeting me here or not?”

The man glanced at her and dumped another bag on the ground. “It’s 10:30,” he said. “We’re a half hour early.”

Pollyanna glanced at her watch. He was right. “Well yeah,” she said. “But still, whoever is picking me up should have come early just in case.”

“You want some free advice?” The pilot dumped the last bag on the ground at his feet. “You’d be smart not to go getting too bossy with Walt when he gets here.”

“Walt Springer?” He’d been the spokesman for the group that had interviewed Pollyanna.

“Yeah, Walt,” the man replied. “They aren’t used to women acting all uppity.”

For a moment Pollyanna had a hard time thinking of a reply. When it finally came, it was mockingly sweet. “Oh really?” she asked. “Well, I’ll do my best to act like a stupid little housewife, then.”

The pilot regarded her for a moment and then shook his head. “Man,” he said. “They must have been desperate for teachers to hire somebody with an attitude like yours. None of the women in Pepper’s Hollow are stupid, unless there are some I haven’t met. And I’m pretty sure I know all of them. Those girls are tough. And smart. Drop any one of them in the woods tonight and she could take care of herself.”

Pollyanna nodded, but her expression was mocking. “What would happen if you dropped one of those uneducated women in the middle of a city and told them to provide for themselves without a man’s help?

The pilot regarded her with something between distaste and amusement. “Well, ma’am, they haven’t chosen the city. They’ve chosen the wilderness. But I’m thinking they’d do better in the city than you’ll do out here.”

He tipped his hat to her. “Ma’am…”

Pollyanna watched as the man headed back to his airplane. “Hey,” she said, hurrying after him. “Hey! You aren’t just leaving me here, are you?”

“I sure am!” he responded lightly, hopping into his plane and looking up at the sky. “Storm’s coming. Last thing I want is to get caught in it.”

“But what about me? No one’s here yet!”

The pilot shrugged. “Smart, educated girl like you. I’m sure you can take care of yourself.”

He slammed the door and the rotor of the plane began to spin. Pollyanna stood there, disbelieving what she was seeing. He was leaving her. The plane turned and began to taxi down the runway. A moment later it had taken off and was a speck against the dark gray sky. Pollyanna rubbed her hands together, trying to decide whether to be terrified or relieved. She was uneasy being alone, but at the same time was glad that the pilot would not be there when - or if - she got picked up. She should have held her tongue. If Walt Springer knew what she really thought of them she’d be out of a job.

She heard a rumbling noise and turned. Through the trees she could see a glow. Headlights. She peered through the blowing snow, her teeth chattering, and was soon able to make out a Snow Cat. The machine rumbled towards her. She stomped to keep the blood circulating in her feet and tried not to look as uncomfortable as she felt.

The machine stopped about twenty yards from where she was standing. The door opened and Walt Springer stepped out. He was taller than she’d thought he’d be. Much taller. He was solid, too. Muscular. She could see that even though he wore a heavy jacket.

“Polly Perkins?” he asked.

“Pollyanna Perkins,” she corrected. “You must be Walt Springer.”

“Yep…” He trudged past her. “These your bags?”

“Y-yes.” She followed. “But I can get them.” The taunt of the pilot was still in her ears; she did not want Walt to think she needed help getting her own belongings into the Snow Cat. But by the time she reached them, he’d already gathered half.

“I can get them, really,” she said.

He ignored her. “If you want you can get the smaller ones.”

She stood her ground. “Mr. Springer!”

He turned. “Yes?”

“I’m perfectly capable of carrying my own bags,” she said.

His expression did not change. “That’s good to hear,” he said. And then he turned back and carried the bags to the Snow Cat.

Pollyanna prepared a speech on Respect for Women all the way to the vehicle, but she decided against delivering it. This man represented all that was wrong with uneducated people. Trying to convert him would be a lost cause. But the children - the children she could help.

She climbed into the Snow Cat. It was warm in the cab, but the quarters were cramped.

“How far is it?” she asked.

“Six miles.”

“That’s not far, at least,” she said and he looked at her and laughed.

“Maybe not on paved roads, but on our trails….”

“So how long are we looking at?”

He handed her a Thermos. “You might want to pour yourself some coffee and sip on it to pass the time.”

She took the Thermos. The Snow Cat lurched and groaned and moved back towards the treeline.

“So you have a child in Pepper’s Hollow School?”

“Two,” he said. “Aidan and Kerry. Aidan is eight and Kerry is six.”

“What do you and your wife do?” she asked.

“I’m a metal worker,” he said. “My wife is doing whatever she does since she left. We haven’t heard from her in a year.”

Pollyanna pondered this. She wanted to ask the obvious questions - the ones born of the preconceptions she harbored about the community she’d be calling home until she’d had a lasting impact. Had Walt Springer’s wife left because she’d decided the life was to simplistic - and too unrealistic - for a modern woman?

She waited for him to offer an explanation, but he didn’t.

“So,” she said. “Tell me more about your community.”

He glanced over at her. “There’s not much more to tell you beyond what you already know. We’re a simple community. We subscribe to simple philosophies for ourselves, our families, our way of life. We don’t use much outside technology - no Internet, no smart phones. We have televisions, but only for educational DVD’s.

Pollyanna listened politely.

“Well, just playing devil’s advocate here, but what happens if one of your kids decides they want to leave and go somewhere else? The world expects proficiency in the things you eschew.”

“How hard can those things be if the average college grad knows how to do them?” he asked. “Our kids spend their whole loves learning, Miss Perkins. And I’d wager that what they’ve learned by the time they’re fifteen is more complex than pushing a few buttons.”

Pollyanna bit her tongue and concentrated on the scenery. The mountains around her were rugged. Snow was starting to fall. The ancient pines stood like sentinels guarding the narrow and winding trail.

“Well, I brought a few things with me that the kid might enjoy using,” she said carefully. “You know, just some simple technology to get them used to at least handling…”

“No.” Suddenly the Snow Cat ground to a halt and he turned to her.

“Miss Perkins,” he said. “Did we not make it clear to you when we conducted the interview that we do not want even ‘simple technology’ to become part of our kids’ lives?”

“W-well yes,” she said. “But I thought…”

“Whatever it was, you thought wrong,” he said. “Or maybe you just assumed that you could come up here and disobey me once you were hired.”

Pollyanna bristled at the word ‘disobey.’

“Excuse me, Mr. Springer, but I am not one of your children.”

“No, but you need to understand that in this community, rules are rules and when they are laid down there are consequences for breaking them. You signed an agreement upon accepting the job in which the rules were stated. Among the first three was that no outside technology would be employed in the teaching of our children. We have all you will need right there in the school.”

His voice was calm but firm. The bravado that Pollyanna felt was melting away. Why had she thought it was even a good idea to test the waters?

“What did you bring?”

She sighed. “A laptop.”

“When we get to our community I’m going to have to ask that you hand it over.”

“But…”

“Look,” he said. “It’s snowing. It’s too late to turn back. You’ve signed a contract and we’re nearly there.” He began to drive, glancing at her as he spoke. “If you want to strike on principle over this, fine. But you won’t eat if you do. Everyone in Pepper’s Hollow has a job, and like it or not yours is teacher, at least until you decide you can get back down the mountain. And judging by this snowfall, it’s going to be a while..”

“I never said I was going to strike,” Pollyanna said indignantly. “And I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Then you shouldn’t mind handing the laptop over when we arrive,” he said.

“Certainly,” Pollyanna said, although inside she was still seething. But she felt a sense of satisfaction, too. She had more than one laptop; she’d give him the older one. The newer one had a wireless card. And then there was her iPad; the kids would love that. But she’d have to wait; she’d not expected Walt Springer to react so have such an intense reaction to what she thought should be every kids’ birthright.

“We have the latest set of encyclopedias and a whole library of other reference material,” he said. “In fact, we have so much that last year we added a little library onto the school.”

There was no mistaking the pride in his voice and Pollyanna felt herself touched in spite of her misgivings.

“Look,” he said. “I know that our ways may seem different to you, but you said in the interview that you had an open mind and Miss Perkins, let me tell you right now that you are going to need it. When I said we were a simple people, I meant just that; we are a simple people. Not only will you not find technology here, but you won’t find political correctness, either. We live in much the way that our forefathers did. We work the land, and families here are led by strong men. And the women accept that in a completely submissive fashion.”

Pollyanna shook her head. “Whoa, wait a minute. What do you mean ‘submissive?’”

The Snow Cat ground around a corner. Ahead in the forest, Pollyanna could see cabins. They looked homey, welcoming. Lights shone golden through the windows.

“Exactly what I said,” he replied. “The women here are submissive….”

“You didn’t say anything about that,” she replied. “And I am not a submissive person, so don’t even think…”

“I’m talking about our wives,” he said. “No one is asking you to be submissive, except to the rules. And I believe you’ve already promised to abide by them.”

“Yes,” she said haltingly.

“So you’ve agreed in your own way to be submissive.”

Snow was falling in huge fat flakes now. Above them, the fir canopies were already getting a coat of white.

“Why do you feel the need to tell me this?” she asked.

Walter Springer guided the Snow Cat into a big pole barn and cut the engine.

“Because,” he said, “the fact that you brought the laptop tells me something about you. It tells me that you may have ulterior motives, and that you weren’t as on board with our philosophy as we’d hoped. We screened our potential teachers for a reason, Miss Perkins. We wanted a teacher here who would replace the one we lost. We wanted a teacher who would support our values, even if she did not completely understand them or agree with them. We wanted someone open-minded, someone who would not betray us.”

“Is that what happened with your former teacher?” she asked. “Did she disagree with the way things were done around here?”

“Not every person understands our way of life,” he said.

“Is that what happened?” she asked again.

They stared at each other through the dim light of the cab.

“If you must know, Miss Perkins, yes. That’s exactly what happened. The teacher you’re replacing betrayed us all. She betrayed our community and she betrayed the children in her care.” He looked away. “Two in particular.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Did you try to work things out with her? I’d like to know, because we may have differences. Communication is important.”

“Every effort that could be made was made,” he replied. “But things will be done differently this time around. I intend to make sure we are not betrayed again, so you can expect me to run a tight ship, Miss Perkins. A very tight ship. And if that ship is rocked, you can expect consequences.”

She grew quiet. “Can I ask one more question? What was the teacher’s name?”

He paused, and for a moment she wasn’t sure if he was going to answer.

“The woman you’re replacing is Melissa Springer,” he said. “She was my wife.”

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