“What are you dressed as, John?”
“I’m an astronaut, Miss Millie. I’m a Shooting Star,” John Gibson stated with pride.
It was second-grade fancy dress day at school and their teacher, Millie Atkins, was asking her pupils to describe their outfits.
“Go home, loser,” a voice yelled.
Millie suspected the voice belonged to Mike Rudnicki, who was wearing a Cam Newton Carolina Panthers replica shirt. The kids who could be bothered to pay attention ridiculed and laughed at John.
“Stop laughing, now!” Millie ordered. The room fell silent at once.
John’s beat-up astronaut helmet once graced a football field. It now sported Saran wrap across the faceguard for a visor. Over his shoulders he wore a black backpack with two empty shoe boxes inside to help it resemble an astronaut’s backpack. In his hand he held his space gun. This comprised a toilet-roll tube glued to a small, thin, empty box covered in silver foil to complete the effect.
As he stood in front of his classmates, John was Buck Rogers, Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk rolled into one mighty seven-year-old package and saving the world from Martian invaders at a moment’s notice scored high on his agenda.
Millie continued going around the classroom while many seven-year-old female Kardashian clones introduced themselves.
“Whatever happened to a child’s imagination?” she wondered.
Years ago the children dressed as pirates, cops, soldiers, Wonder Woman and Batman, now they copied rappers and reality TV personalities.
Millie had a soft spot for John. She understood teachers shouldn’t favor one child more than another, but she cared for this little boy. John had no father figure to look up to and none of the privileges other children in his class did not appreciate.
His dad disappeared when he found out Laura, his wife, became pregnant. Laura did her best for John. She worked two jobs Monday through Friday. On Saturdays and Sundays she pulled double shifts at a diner.
Millie resented the way other children sneered at John. She often wondered if this bright, inquisitive boy ever experienced jealousy toward his classmates.
She had discovered jealousy after her husband of 45 years, Cecil, died. Couples walking hand-in-hand as she drove home from school made her jealous. Millie was jealous of them enjoying family meals with their loved ones.
Mike and Cindy Tobin made her envious. They worked at the school and indulged in public displays of affection in front of pupils and staff. They had a special someone, and Millie did not.
She was jealous and lonely.
Millie always gave a prize for the best outfit. She decided it was going to be John this year. At lunchtime, she drove to the nearest toy store and bought a model of the USS Enterprise. She paid more money than normal, but today it felt right. John should have something special for his efforts.
When Millie returned, she noticed John sitting on the corridor floor, crying.
“What happened, John?”
“I slipped and fell,” John sobbed through the tears.
“John, tell me, what happened?”
“The other kids kept laughing at me and I told them to stop,” he sniffed.
“They pushed me around and broke my gun and helmet and ran away. I hate them! I hate them!”
“Do you know what I do when I’m upset, Shooting Star?”
“No, Miss Millie.”
“I play the piano. It cheers me and makes me smile. Do you want to come with me?”
“Yes please,” he replied, wiping his nose on his shirt sleeve.
“Let’s dry those tears. Come with me.”
They walked to the music room and Millie sat John next to her on the piano stool. She lifted the piano lid and John gasped.
“Can you play the piano, Miss Millie?”
The questions came thick and fast.
“What do the white keys do Miss?”
“What do the black keys do?”
“What do the pedals do?”
Millie smiled at his inquisitiveness. She let him hear the sounds each key made. She explained what the white and black keys and pedals did.
He sat in wide-eyed wonder, looking at the keyboard, taking in the sounds.
“Want to play a tune with me, John?”
“Yes please, Miss Millie.”
She showed him which key to play and the tempo she needed. John had natural timing as Millie played a tune around his one-note beat.
“That tune doesn’t have a name. What shall we call it?”
“Let’s call it Shooting Star!”
“What a great name, John.” His smile lit up the music room.
“Was that fun? Are you feeling better, John?”
“Yes, thank you. That was awesome Miss Millie. I can’t wait to tell mom tonight.”
In the afternoon Millie gave John his prize for the best fancy dress outfit. She saw his beaming smile once more. Deep inside she knew this had been an unforgettable day for him.
At home that night, sitting in her favorite armchair, Millie reflected on her day.
“Cecil, young John reminded me today why I love teaching,” she said out loud to herself.
For the first time since losing her husband, Millie felt relaxed and happy. She was so relaxed she fell asleep in the chair and peacefully took her final breath before slipping away, smiling.
Laura took John to visit Millie’s grave after her funeral. As they stood holding hands, he told his mom that Millie was his favorite teacher and how they played the piano together. Holding back the tears he reached into his backpack and placed his USS Enterprise model next to her cross.
“This is for you, Miss Millie. It’s so you can be safe when you fly to heaven. You’re a Shooting Star.”
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