Finding Kayla Claire: A short story by Jeremy David Stevens
Part 1: Finding Coach Murphy
“Good morning class,” said Coach Murphy as he wrote his name on the dry-erase board. Even at seventy-years old, he was always upbeat and ready to teach every, single day.
This was the first introduction the students of Mrs. Duke’s classroom had to Coach Stephen Murphy. Before becoming a substitute teacher, he’d been retired for about five years, until he’d found out that retirement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He always thought he’d go fishing when he retired, and maybe travel the country in an RV; you know, all those things people say they’ll do when they retire. Lonely and bored, he came back to work as a substitute teacher. But on this day, he had just accepted this position as a long-term substitute at Nannie Berry Elementary.
“As most of you know, Mrs. Duke will be out for the rest of this school year. She had a baby boy over Christmas and she’s going to stay home with him for a while. My name is Coach Murphy. Now, I want to get to meet everybody in just a minute. But first, I want to tell you a little bit about myself and this class.”
As always seems to be the case in the fifth grade, a half a dozen hands were already in the air. He picked one out of the crowd and gestured to her:
“Yes, young lady?”
“What are you a coach of?” Sadie Jones asked him.
“I was a football coach and an English teacher for thirty years,” he said. “I was the head coach for the Johnson City High School Wildcats. We had some pretty good years. Even managed to sneak in two state championship runs over those years. And even though I don’t have a football team anymore, I’m still Coach.”
“So, can we call you ‘Coach?’” she asked.
“Of course,” he said.
“Moving on, I’ve lived long enough to know that there are more important things in life than just subjects,” he continued. “So we’re going to learn about more than just Reading Writing, and Arithmetic in my class. I hope that’s ok with everybody.”
It certainly was. Fifth graders aren’t used to being given much of a choice in these matters, so Coach Murphy was looking back at a whole lot of smiling faces.
Well, there was one boy who wasn’t smiling. In fact, he hadn’t smiled yet that morning. Coach noticed things like that. He would later find out that the boy was a young man named Marshall Preston. Marshall looked to be wearing hand-me-down clothes and shoes, and his blonde hair appeared in need of a haircut.
As he promised, he went around the room and gave each student a turn to introduce themselves. Everybody gave their names. Some told about their pets, and some about their stinky brother or sister. Still others told about their hobbies and their passions. Once Coach Murphy was told a name, it was committed to memory and he never forgot it, and he made it a point to remember what they each told him. He always found that really listening to students earned him a good deal of respect in their eyes.
The first hour or so was spent like this. But before he moved on, he introduced the kids to his two virtues. Every football player and English student who ever had him had heard him pontificate on his two major virtues. Sometimes, it really sunk in and sometimes it went in one ear and out the other.
But that was with high schoolers, he thought. He wondered if it would sink in with any fifth graders.
“The two L’s, legacy and loyalty” he said, and he wrote the two words on the board. “You know, I don’t think there’s anything more important. Does anybody know what legacy means?”
No hands this time.
“Legacy means- what kind of impact can you make on other people in your life? I know it’s difficult to think about your life now because you’re just getting started with it. But that’s why it’s so important to think about your legacy now. How you treat people affects your legacy. How you act when you think no one is looking affects your legacy. You don’t have to be an old man like me to be thinking about things like this.”
Giggles from the class. He laughed along with them.
“Coach Murphy, you’re older than my Paw Paw!” said Nicholas.
More laughter from the class.
“I know it seems impossible that you’ll ever have gray hair and a bum knee like your old Coach Murphy,” he said, smiling. “But, it will happen. So nothing is more important than feeling like you’ve accomplished something when you do get to be my age. And when you do get there, I bet you won’t want to wake up and regret spending your life chasing dollar signs. When you get old, you want to know that your life and work amounted to something. Think about this: If you become a teacher, for example, you may get the chance to work with thousands of kids over a career, and your legacy will be that you had a positive influence over the next generation. One of your students may be the next Maya Angelou, or maybe the next Samuel Clemens.
All of that is why I say legacy is one of my two vital virtues.”
This wasn’t just a speech for Coach Murphy. His entire life, the idea of legacy was one of the thoughts that drove him to steer his life in the direction that it went.
“The other virtue is loyalty,” he continued. “Raise your hand if you can tell me what loyalty means.”
A couple of hands went up.
“Hollis,” he said.
“Like, loyalty to America?” he asked.
“Well, that’s one kind of loyalty,” Coach answered. “What about loyalty to your family? Your parents. Your brothers. Your sisters. Your friends?”
Fifth graders are not famous for their ability to sit quietly and listen. But Coach had a way of speaking that commanded their attention. It was day one, roughly hour one, and they were already listening. Coach thought that must be a good sign.
“Think about this – a group of kids on the school bus are making fun of one of your friends who’s not there that day. Do you want to be the kind of person who laughs along with them, even though they’re making fun of your friend? Or do you want to be the kind of person who stands up for your friend, even if the friend never finds out about it? I’m asking because the answer matters.”
“Marshall Preston,” Coach called out. “What do you think?”
“I would never do that to a friend, Coach Murphy,” he said.
Coach studied him, trying to put a finger on what he was reading on Marshall’s face.
“Ok, class,” he said after a moment. “Let’s go ahead and get on with our day. Go ahead and get your math folders out.”
Over the coming weeks, Coach Murphy took a special interest in Marshall. He saw something there.
Coach Murphy found out at the same time the rest of his class found out that they were going to have a new student. Ms. Sherry from the office escorted her to class, and she handed a note to Coach Murphy before she left.
“Class, we have a new student who is going to be joining us today,” Coach said. “Her name is Kayla Claire.”
“Kayla Claire;” he looked at her and said with a nod, “my name is Coach Murphy, and these are your new classmates. Class, everybody say hello to Ms. Kayla Claire.”
There was a raucous mixture of hello’s directed toward Kayla by her new classmates. She was a pretty girl with olive skin and dark hair and eyes. Kayla looked down at the floor, not a fan of the attention.
“Kayla, why don’t you tell us where you’re from?” prodded Coach Murphy.
“I’m from New York,” she said with her heavy Brooklyn accent.
There were a few snickers from the class that were met with an angry look from Coach Murphy. Her accent certainly didn’t go unnoticed in Johnson City, Tennessee.
“Kayla, we have flexible seating arrangements,” he said. “Why don’t you pick a seat and make yourself at home?”
She did as Coach Murphy prepared the English lesson for the day.
As she made her way to her seat, she heard a couple of her new classmates whispering, making fun of her accent.
“Why don’t you just go back to New Yawk,” whispered Sadie Jones, mocking the accent.
Sadie’s group snickered.
Just then, Marshall thought about what Coach Murphy said on the first day of class.
“You want to sit over here?” he asked her, gesturing to the seat next to his.
She accepted the invitation and took a seat beside him.
“I’m Marshall,” he said to her.
Feeling vulnerable and embarrassed, she just wanted the attention to be off of her. She could feel the girls still looking at her. For reasons that even she wouldn’t have been able to explain, she reached over and pinched him on the shoulder as hard as she could.
“Owww,” he whispered.
Some thanks I get for being nice, he thought.
Still, there was something about this new girl. And even though she was clearly combative and started off their friendship with a pinch on the shoulder, he knew he liked her right away.
Finding Huck Finn
Four weeks into the new school semester, Coach Murphy added a new wrinkle to things.
“Ok class, I have something to say that I think you’ll all be excited about,” Coach Murphy announced. “We’re going to have a spring play, and the whole class is going to participate!”
The class roared with enthusiasm.
“Coach Murphy, what is the play about?” asked Sadie.
“We are going to do a play modeled after my favorite book of all time, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!” he said. “Have any of you heard of Huck Finn before?”
A dozen hands popped up, and the kids started chattering among themselves.
“I already have a script ready for us. So our next move will be to do the casting. Then once we have a cast, we’ll need to practice. I have already gotten permission to block off thirty-minutes, twice a week to practice lines. But as the play draws nearer, we’ll need to have a few practices after school. And even with that, my actors will need to study at home quite a bit as well. So remember that if you choose to audition for a role. I’m handing out a script for everybody. I want you to take it home and think hard about what role you’d like to play. If you aren’t interested in acting, I have other positions that will need to be filled such as a lighting and stage crew.”
“Marshall Preston,” shouted Coach Murphy across the playground. He gestured for him to come over to where he was sitting, on a bench while supervising recess.
“Yes, sir?” said Marshall as he got close.
“Sit down and join me, won’t you?”
“Ok,” Marshall said. “Am I in trouble, Coach?”
“No, you’re not in trouble Marshall,” said Coach. “I just wanted to talk to you. I talked to your grandmother on the phone today during lunch. She was telling me a little bit about your situation and how you came to live with her.”
That conversation helped Coach Murphy make some sense of some of the observations he’d made about Marshall. Young Marshall had a tough exterior, and when he talked to him, he almost felt like he was talking to someone with the experience of a grown man, even though he was only in the fifth grade. These were some of the reasons Coach Murphy took an interest in him in the first place. A boy that age shouldn’t have that kind of life experience yet.
But underneath that, he was quite a friendly and sensitive young man, Coach had discovered. Marshall got along well with the boys and girls in class. He gathered that Marshall was a boy that the other boys looked up to. He also gathered that the girls in class had taken a liking to him as well, in part due to his tough exterior. But it was clear to Coach Murphy that just the hint of Marshall’s parents was enough to turn on the waterworks. He put his hand on Marshall’s shoulder and paused the conversation long enough to let Marshall catch himself before tears came to the surface.
“I just wanted to tell you that if you ever wanted to talk about your mom and dad, Marshall, I’m happy to listen,” said Coach.
“No, I’m ok,” said Marshall, his tough exterior back.
Coach had an idea that Marshall’s father wasn’t the type of man who talked much about his feelings. And maybe Marshall had an idea that since his father didn’t talk about such things, neither should he.
“Ok, but remember that I’m always here if you change your mind,” Coach said. “So Marshall, which part are you going to try out for in the play?”
“I was looking at the different jobs on the sheet you handed out, and I thought maybe I could just help out with the backstage jobs,” Marshall said. “I’m not sure I belong on a stage acting.”
“Well, I could use a good Assistant Director,” said Coach. “But I hoped you’d try out for the part of Huck Finn, or maybe Jim. I thought maybe learning lines and practicing reading with classmates would help you take your mind off of the more difficult things. Would you think about it for me?”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, and paused for a second before adding; “hey Coach, you know all that stuff you told us about legacy?”
“Yes, what about it?”
“Well,” said Marshall, “you talked about teachers, but, do you think a man who worked as an electrician can still leave a legacy?”
“Do you think that electrician had any kids?” asked Coach.
“Let’s just say he had a son,” Marshall said.
“Well that’s one of the most important kinds of legacies a man can leave,” said Coach.
“It is? How?” asked Marshall.
“It sure is,” said Coach. “That man’s legacy will become how he was remembered by the people around him, especially his family. Especially his son.”
As Marshall left, his seat on the bench was filled by Mrs. Yarger, one of the other fifth grade teachers.
“Hi there!” she said. “We’re all so glad you’re here, Coach Murphy.”
“Thanks, I’m happy to be here,” Coach said. “It’s nice to be back in a classroom full time again, to have a class of my own.”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that you’re the only man teaching at Nannie Berry,” she said. “I’m also sure you’ve noticed that we have a few students who could use a good male role model in their lives.”
“You’re referring to Marshall Preston?” he replied.
“Marshall is one of them, yes,” she said.
“I talked to his grandmother today actually,” said Coach. “She told me about Marshall losing his father last year. She also told me that his mother is having a very tough time coping. It sounds like she’s suffering from a bad case of depression.”
“It’s such a shame,” she said. “Like I said, I just hope you can help by just being here.”
Finding a Friend
Saturday morning, Kayla’s aunt brought her over to Marshall’s house for the first time. It was arranged by Coach Murphy, who thought the two might find that they have some things in common.
Marshall and his Maw Maw Katy were sitting on the front porch waiting for her when she got there.
“Hi Mrs. Johnson,” she said. “Good to meet you.”
“Mrs. Preston,” said Kayla’s aunt, “it’s very good to meet you, too. We only live a street over. Now that they know where each other lives, they can walk back and forth when they want to play.”
“I think these two are going to get along just fine,” said Mrs. Preston. “I’ve heard all about Kayla from Marshall.”
Marshall turned a new shade of red and said, “Maw Maaaaw, please!”
“Yes I hope so,” she said with a bit of a half-hearted smile. The two walked a few feet away to continue the conversation out of earshot. “Her dad was my big brother, you know.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Mrs. Preston said. “And I know how hard it must be for Kayla. How long has it been?”
“Just a couple of months ago now,” she replied. “Kayla was so distraught at first, we didn’t even think she should go to school. Losing her dad is already so hard, and on top of that, she has to move to a completely new world to live with her aunt and uncle in Tennessee, of all places. Thinking about sending her to a brand new school right away just seemed too much. Eventually though, we knew she had to get back to a normal life, at least as much as possible.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what about her mom?” she asked.
“Kayla never knew her,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Before he was NYPD, my brother was career military. But, when Kayla’s mom left, David left the service and got hired on with the police department. He was killed in the line of duty, working a drug bust.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Mrs. Preston. “I guess you probably know, but Marshall lost his dad, too, about a year ago. He’s taken it pretty hard. He used to be so outgoing.”
Mrs. Preston had tears welling up in her eyes, so they cut the conversation.
“Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of each other,” said Mrs. Johnson. “Coach Murphy seemed to think that these two would be good for each other.”
Mrs. Johnson rolled down the window as she pulled out of the driveway and said, “Bye Kayla! Just call if you need me to pick you up!”
Without aunts and grandmothers around, the two fidgeted about, trying to figure out what to say to each other.
“I guess it’s cool that you only live one street over,” Marshall said. “This way we can practice our lines for Huck Finn together.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” she said. Growing up in the big city, Kayla didn’t learn the polite niceties of small-talk that one acquired growing up in Johnson City, Tennessee.
“You don’t talk any more outside of school than you do in school, do you?” he asked.
She just looked down and didn’t say anything.
“You know,’ said Marshall, “you left a bruise on my arm that lasted a week, and I was only trying to help save you from that Sadie Jones.”
“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “But it was my first day, and those girls were making fun of me and… I’m sorry.”
“Well at least you’re talking to me now,” he said.
“Yeah. So have you learned your lines for Huckleberry Finn yet?” she asked him.
“Not yet,” he said. “I’m not much of a reader. That’s why I told Coach Murphy that I just wanted to be a crew member or something. But he insisted that I would be a perfect Huckleberry Finn.”
“Exact same here,” said Kayla. “I asked him how a girl with a Brooklyn accent could possibly be perfect to play Miss Watson, but he insisted.”
Marshall studied her and said, “See, you’re smart. I guess you’ve already read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”
“Well, sure,” she said. “You haven’t?”
“If we haven’t read it in class, then it’s a sure bet I haven’t read it, and even this it’s a little iffy. Plus, it’s not on my family’s summer reading list,” he said sarcastically.
“Well, it was on mine,” she said. “In Brooklyn, going outside to play wasn’t really something that was a regular thing. So my dad really pushed reading.”
When she mentioned her dad, it was the first time he had seen her smile in the two-weeks he knew her.
“What happened to your dad?” he asked her. “You came to Johnson City to live with your Aunt and Uncle, but you didn’t say why.”
“He worked for the police department,” she said, fighting back a tear. “He died trying to stop a robbery.”
“I’m sorry, Kayla,” he said genuinely. “What about your mom?”
“I never knew her,” she said. “But that’s ok; I’m not sad about her. You can’t lose something you never had, right?”
“Yeah, I guess not,” he said.
“What about you?” she asked. “I met your grandmother inside. Where are your parents?”
“My dad died, too,” he said, fighting back a tear, “about a year ago. He killed himself.”
He looked at her for a moment, waiting for a response. She was the first person he’s told this information to since it happened. At eleven years old, he probably didn’t even realize how big of a deal that was that he told her.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. So what about your mom.”
He wiped the tears from his shirt sleeve and said, “She’s inside.”
He paused for a minute, this time trying to regain his composure.
“Marshall, we don’t have to…”
He interrupted her, “No, it’s ok. I want to. My mom isn’t taking it as well as I am. She sleeps a lot. Maw Maw says she’s depressed.”
They just sat quietly for a while. They were the only kids in class who had lost a parent, so it shouldn’t be unusual that they’d find comfort in talking about it together.
“So what other books did your dad have you read?” he asked her.
“Lots,” she said. “Fahrenheit 451. Alas, Babylon. A Wrinkle in Time.”
“A Wrinkle in Time?” he asked. “What’s that about?
“Well,” she said. “It’s about a girl named Meg. Her dad is a scientist who works for NASA or the CIA or something, and he’s been missing for months, maybe years. She meets these witches who use a tesseract to travel through space and time to save their dad.”
“I think I want to read that book,” said Marshall.
“I’ll let you borrow mine,” she said. “So anyway, do you wanna practice these lines for Huck Finn now?”
“Not really,” he said. “There’s an old abandoned barn out in those woods. There’s a bunch of scrap pieces of wood and metal.”
Marshall looked directly in her dark eyes.
“You want to build a tesseract?” he said with a smile.
Now they had both seen each other smile for the first time.
So that’s how it happened that two kids, with so much weighing on their hearts and minds, started work building a tesseract.
Marshall went around to the garage and grabbed his dad’s toolbox. Then they tore off into the woods. Marshall led the way to the barn. And they found it, right where he remembered it, still covered with kudzu. No one had likely touched the place in years.
“First,” said Marshall, “let’s gather up all of the wood and metal pieces that we can carry in one place. Once we know what we have to work with, we can come up with an idea for a design.”
Marshall’s excitement made her excited, too.
The two found that their work did help provide some relief to the daily sadness. By the end of the first day, they had done little more than separate piles of metal and wood. But that was ok. Coach Murphy was right. Just being around each other, and having a common goal; that seemed to be enough.
So they met every day after school. And during this time they got no closer to learning their lines to Huck Finn whatsoever. But they did have a structure starting to take place. And the more it started to look like something, the more furiously they worked. It was a large, wooden box. To an adult, it would look like little more than a fort built by two kids in the woods. But, to Marshall and Kayla, it started to look more and more like a tesseract.
They knew from the movies that they needed some type of digital clock. So once they had a basic structure, they acquired one that ran on batteries, and they mounted it on the north wall. Marshall found an old steering wheel in the woods one afternoon, so they mounted that underneath the clock. They both found little odds-and-ends that reminded them of their dads, and they added those to the interior.
One day after school, as the spring school term was drawing to a close, Kayla was a little late, so Marshall went ahead down to the old barn by himself. He looked at what they had created, what they had spent the past month on, and all of a sudden he just realized he’d been fooling himself the whole time. It was just a wooden box with knick-knacks attached to it. He felt silly for every believing, even for a second, that this thing could travel through time. But more importantly, he realized with ultimate finality, that he was never going to see his dad ever again.
He sat down with his back against the tesseract, put his face in his arms, and cried. Hard. He’d been fighting back the tears for a year, but for the first time, he let the tears flow freely.
It was at this moment that Kayla walked up, ready to get to work. She’d never seen Marshall crying before.
“Hey,” she said, and sat down beside him. “What’s the matter?”
“This whole thing has just been a joke,” he said. “We’re not really going to travel anywhere, or go to visit anybody in this thing.”
She put her right arm around his shoulder, and grabbed onto his left hand with hers, and cried with him.
The unlikely pair sat in this embrace until they both had a chance to cry it all out. Somehow the experience cleansed them both. When they were done, and they looked at each other, Kayla leaned in and kissed Marshall on the cheek.
“Miss Watson, won’t you stop pecking at me?” said Marshall as Huckleberry Finn, speaking to Kayla as Miss Watson. “I warn’t doing nothing wrong!”
The audience, including Mrs. Preston and Mrs. Johnson, had a good laugh at Marshall’s line.
“Why Huckleberry Finn,” she responded. “Set up straight. I’m going to civilize you yet!”
Another good pop for Kayla.
In fact, the entire play was a success. When it was over, after Marshall and Kayla took their final bows, Coach Murphy came over to congratulate them both.
He put his hand on Marshall’s shoulder.
“I’m proud of you,” he said, and then looked at Kayla. “Both of you.”
“Thanks Coach,” said Marshall.
“And not just for your acting,” he said. “I’ve noticed a real change in the two of you over the past couple of months. You both seem reborn.”
Then he walked off to go talk to the parents.
It had been two weeks since the two embraced outside of their tesseract, and they hadn’t been back since that day. They both knew they would eventually. Maybe they could go talk to their dads there, let them know how things were doing.
“Maybe,” she said, “even though it’s not a real tesseract, it served its purpose anyway.”
“How did it do that?” asked Marshall.
“Well,” she said, “maybe in a weird way, it actually worked, and we visited our dads every day that we were building it.”
“I didn’t think of it that way,” he said. “But it does remind me of him.”
“It reminds me of my dad, too,” she said. “Maybe we can still go down there sometimes… Just to visit?”
She asked, not because she was looking for permission, but because it wouldn’t have been the same if they didn’t visit together.
“I’d like that,” he said.
“Historian Henry Adams once said that A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. I tend to think Coach would agree.
He used to talk a lot about legacy and loyalty. I thought I’d take a minute to honor him by explaining how he embodied these virtues that he held in such high regard.
But, first, let me say it’s been ten years since I first met Coach Stephen Murphy. I was eleven-years-old and lost. My dad had died the year before, and I was fortunate to meet Coach Murphy the following spring, when he came into my life as a substitute teacher. That was the fifth grade.
Coach became my second dad. When I was hurting, he could have told me to suck it up and be a man. But he left his door open to me. He cared. And he introduced me to my best friend and now fiancé, Kayla Claire.
He told me once that he made up his mind when he was a very young man that he wanted to have a positive impact on the next generation. He stayed loyal to that ideal, and to his students, until he was almost eighty-years-old.
Coach didn’t have any biological kids of his own. His legacy that he is leaving behind lies inside of his students.
He told me once that if a teacher is lucky, he may get to teach the next Maya Angelou or Samuel Clemens. I may not be the next Samuel Clemens, but even so, Coach Murphy had a positive impact on me and Kayla both that we are going to carry with us for the rest of our lives.
And I have no doubt that in over forty years if teaching, he had similar a similar impact on thousands of others like me.
Next spring, Kayla and I will graduate from the University of Tennessee, and in the summer, we’re getting married! I’ll have a teaching degree and Kayla will have a degree in nursing.
I decided to follow in his footsteps, but he inspired us both to pursue fields where we could give back and help others.
To me, that’s a legacy worth working towards! Rest in peace, Coach!”