This story is by Mike Conradt and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Finding Happiness Within
Martha Peebles paced the kitchen floor to quiet her demons. I should do something, thought Martha as she looked out the kitchen sink window. Mandatory retirement from Violet Elementary School made her life irritable and unhappy. Cutbacks, my ass, Martha thought. She regrets using the word ass. It is out of character for her, but times like these warrant a shift in personality.
Martha visualizes the faces of her students. Their eagerness to learn with inquisitive minds ready to soak up all the facts she could give them. Her job as an elementary teacher gave her peace and contentment in her soul and happiness in her heart. Forming the minds of young children gave her more satisfaction than the loneliness and emptiness which now plagues her soul. In her mind, she searches for happiness but finds nothing worth getting out of bed for.
She remembers an invitation to the senior citizen center for coffee, cake, and lively conversation. Considering her state of mind, it might be advantageous to check it out. It’s a short walk downtown, so she thought she would try it.
Martha arrived at the senior citizen center and walked inside. The room is empty, except for a group of women sitting at a large table near the back, quietly speaking.
“Good afternoon,” said Martha approaching the women.
“Oh, come in, Martha. We are glad you could join us. Grab a cup of coffee from the table next to the popcorn maker,” said one of the women.
“Thank you,” said Martha. She filled a Styrofoam cup with coffee and sat down.
“Aren’t you one of the teachers from the school?” asks the woman in the gingham dress.
“Yes, I just retired last spring,” said Martha. “Cutbacks,” shifting uncomfortably in her chair.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” said the woman next to her.
“Well, welcome to our little group,” said the lady in light green pants, two sizes too small.
“We meet each day,” said another woman licking the donut frosting from her fingers. “Would you like a donut?”
“No, thank you,” said Martha waving her hand and smiling.
“It is so sad they forced so many teachers to retire,” said a woman with spots on her blouse.
“It was only three of us, and they offered us a nice package,” said Martha.
“Still, it’s so sad to be forced out like that,” said the woman in the gingham dress. Martha just smiled.
“Yes, it is, and I heard some kids are behind,” said a woman in pink slacks.
“It’s the new superintendent’s fault,” said another woman.
“Did you see how his secretary dresses?” said one of the women.
Martha listened intently, adding little to the conversation. With the coffee gone, the women decided to go. Thank God, thought Martha as she picked up her depressed soul and headed for the door.
Martha left the Senior Citizens Center and stopped at the grocery store to buy ingredients for homemade chocolate cookies. While she shopped, the words from one woman echoed in her mind: some kids were behind in their studies. I could help them, thought Martha, so why not call the principal. After all, he could say yes, which would be great, or he could say no.
Martha pulled out her phone from her purse and called the school. The phone rang at the other end then second thoughts came to mind. Too late.
“Violet Elementary School, this is Beth; what can I do for you,” said Beth, the school secretary.
“Hi Beth, this is Martha,” said Martha nervously.
“Oh, Hi Martha. How are you? We missed you so much,” said Beth excitedly.
“I am doing, actually, very well,” said Martha lying.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” asks Beth.
“Is it possible I can talk to Mr. Martin for a moment?”
“Let me see, he’s busy right now. You could come in later this afternoon, say around two. Mr. Martin has a fifteen-minute opening then, and I am sure he would love to visit with you.”
“That sounds great,” said Martha.
“Great, we’ll see you then,” said Beth. “I can’t wait to see you.”
“Me too,” said Martha.
Martha arrived at Mr. Martin’s outer office early. Beth gave her a big hug and motioned for her to sit down.
“How are things going for you?” asked Beth.
“Just fine, bored at times,” said Martha.
“It’s sad and unjust the way they cut staff,”
“I felt the same way,”
Finally, Mr. Martin peeked his head out and motioned Martha to come in. Her nervousness upends her stomach.
“Good afternoon, Martha; so great to see you. What can I do for you?” said Mr. Martin shaking her hand.
“Good afternoon,” said Martha. “The reason I am here is to explore the idea of a part-time job to help students who are behind in their studies.”
“Well, that is a great idea, but at the present time, we have Mrs. Johnson. She takes care of students who are behind, but we could use a substitute teacher at times.” A sick feeling came to Martha’s stomach. She felt her body sag to the floor.
“Ok, just give me a call when you need a substitute,” said Martha. She rose to leave, fighting back the tears, and walked out of his office, past Beth’s desk, and into the hallway. She stood for a moment, taking a deep breath, and then wiped a tear from her cheek.
On her way home, Martha met an elderly woman who walked with the help of a cane. Her steps were small and carefully placed. Martha recognizes her as Agnes Werner. She lived alone in a barely livable house on the edge of town. She once taught at Violet Elementary.
“Hi Agnes, how are you?” asks Martha. Agnes stopped for a moment and looked up at Martha.
“Well, I am doing fine. The day is beautiful, the birds sing, and I am stiff with arthritis,” said Agnes.
“Oh, I am sorry to hear your arthritis is bothering you.”
“Don’t be. I look forward to the moments when it’s not.”
“Oh. You always have a smile on your face,” said Martha.
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Agnes as she turned to study Martha’s face.
“Walk with me. You are the teacher who just retired,” said Agnes.
“Yes, and I hate every minute of it.”
“Life got you down?”
“I am unhappy. I miss the kids. Life lost its zeal, and I feel sadness and emptiness in my heart,” said Martha.
Agnes thinks for a moment about what Martha said, then smiles. Martha’s unhappy heart can be healed. Finally, Agnes looked up. In Martha’s eyes are tears.
“I have some advice for you, short and sweet,” said Agnes. “You perceive that you need to teach again to be happy, but while you taught, were you not unhappy at times. There is some unhappiness in everything you do. Pick out the unhappiness and keep the rest, much like picking strawberries. You keep the good and throw out the rest. You look for happiness to fill the void in your heart, but if you find it, will you desire more? Desire nothing more than what you have or what you do. Pursue and practice temperance in all things. Happiness does not come by impressing others but by impressing yourself. The path to happiness is littered with unhappy people and the corpses of those who hate.”
Martha glances at Agnes, wondering where her wisdom came from.
“So, you say I need to look within myself,” said Martha.
“Yes. Finding life-long happiness can be no more than living a simple life,” said Agnes.
“It sounds hard. I have been working every day, and now it feels like I have fallen off a cliff,” said Martha.
“I am sure it does. Find new things to do, don’t let your life become a dead branch, stay alive, help the tree grow,” said Agnes.
“Yes,” said Martha as they stopped at a street corner.
“This is where we part company,” said Agnes. ” It’s been pleasant talking with you. Remember to smile.”
“Oh, I didn’t know I was so close to home,” said Martha as she checked her watch.
“I didn’t know time passed by this fast. Thank you for our little talk and words of wisdom,” Martha said, turning to wish Agnes goodbye. Then, a gust of wind came up, blowing the leaves around the sidewalk in a whirlwind. Martha shielded her eyes from the flying leaves looking for Agnes, and then it became calm. Looking around, Martha could not see Agnes anywhere. She was nowhere to be found.
Then Martha could hear the children as they came from school. She smiled as she looked up the street to see them running and chasing each other. Then she remembered what Agnes said, ‘Keep only the good memories and throw out the rest.’ Martha smiled.