The Dickens Scholar
by Denny Hartford
(The scene opens in a small kitchen. Sue, a young girl of 16, is seated at the table talking with a woman just a few years older than she. This is her older sister, Mandy. The women are drinking a soda and coffee, respectively.)
Mandy: "So, is Mrs. Jenkins still teaching English lit at the high school?"
Sue: "Yeah. But I think they've cut down her class load some because she’s doing some counseling now too.” Sue pauses and then says more slowly, more quietly, “You know, Sis, she asks about you every once in awhile."
Mandy: "Really? That’s nice."
Sue: "Uh huh; she once told me you were one of the brightest students she ever had. She was sure you were going to be an author someday. Or teaching Charles Dickens in some college somewhere. Or both!"
Mandy looks at the ceiling, feeling a little nostalgic. "Well, sometimes life takes turns on you that you don't expect."
Sue: "But you did go on to college, Mandy, and you were doing really well too. And you were having such fun. So why did you?" Sue suddenly realizes that she already knows the answer to the question she was about to ask. She’s a bit embarrassed…for both of them. "Oh, I'm sorry, Sis. I forgot. Jacqueline came along, huh?"
Smiling, Mandy reaches over and gently pats Sue's hand. "Yes. Jacqueline came along."
There are a few uncomfortable moments of silence before Sue speaks again. "Mandy, I know I may be walking out on the ice here, but I've always wondered. With all you had going for you -- I mean, there was the scholarship, being so popular, the cute guys always hanging around. You know, your whole future was right there in front of you. So why did you decide to have a baby and then just give everything up like you did?"
Mandy smiles. "Is that how you see it, Sue? You think I gave everything up?"
Sue: "Well, sure, didn't you? I mean, like Mrs. Jenkins says, you could have done something really important with your life."
Mandy pauses. She pensively looks out the window for several seconds. "Something really important, huh?" There’s another pause as she absentmindedly stirs her coffee. Then with the dawn of another smile, Mandy turns back to her younger sister. "Sue, I don’t have to explain to you about the birds and bees, right?"
Sue: "Huh? Of course not. What do you mean?"
Mandy: "Well, isn't it obvious, honey? My life changed directions because one night after a candlelight dinner and a walk through the pines, I went back to my boyfriend's apartment and we had sex."
Sue: "Yeah, okay. So?"
Mandy: "So, nine months later I'm holding little Jacqueline in my arms. My boyfriend had long since split the scene and there I was, a new mommy. As I said, life takes turns on you."
Sue: "But Sis, before that, you could have done things differently, couldn't you?"
Mandy: "Of course I could. And I certainly should have. But there were his grand promises, the moonlight, the physical yearnings, and too much wine. Everything seemed so right for seduction. I made a decision – not a good one – I know that now. But I made a decision to have sex with a man and there you have it."
Sue: "Why didn't you guys, you know, use some protection?"
Mandy gives a little laugh before answering. "Who says we didn't?"
Sue: "Huh? How's that possible?"
Mandy: "Susie, dear, when you go beyond those so-called sex education classes they lay on you at school, you're going to find out there's a whole lot possible -- even when you think you're playing by the rules."
Sue: "Like what?"
Mandy: "Like how so-called 'safe sex' turns out to be anything but. It’s certainly not much of a safety against contracting hideous diseases. The facts about that are clear as can be. Nor can a pill or a condom or an IUD keep you safe from shame or a broken heart. And finally, Sue, none of those things are even a guarantee against pregnancy. I was on the pill in those days but along came little Jacqueline anyway."
Sue takes that in for a moment. "But after you found out you were pregnant, Sis. Couldn't you have taken, you know, another course of action still?"
Mandy looks intently at her little sister before answering. "Honey, please listen carefully to what I'm saying here because no matter what slogans and sneering clichés you've heard about abortion, there is one clear, undeniable scientific truth about the matter. When a woman becomes pregnant, like I did, she is automatically and irreversibly a mother. That's the deal and there’s no way around it. The only choice available then is whether that mother is going to give a natural, loving birth to a live child or use a poison or hire some abortionist to give birth to a dead child. Sue, honey; I didn't intend to change my life's direction. But when I became a mother, I assumed full the responsibility of being a good one. I thought you knew me well enough to know that a scholarship or a particular job would never be worth taking somebody's very life!"
Stunned a bit, Sue sits in silence and looks down at her folded hands for a few moments. "Other people see it differently, you know."
Mandy: "That's hardly surprising, Sue. I'm telling you how I see it. The science, like I said, is irrefutable. And concerning the other issues involved, things like justice and compassion and morality? Well, Sue, you know where I stand on those things. I couldn't even imagine killing my baby -- any more than you could.”
Sue: "Are you so sure, Mandy?"
Mandy: "Oh, yeah, baby; I'm sure. Ultimately, we’re not talking about feminist mantras here or abstract philosophy or what’s hep with Mrs. Jenkins or anybody else. We’re talking about little babies who have every bit as much right to life, liberty and happiness as anybody. Come on, Sue; I've seen you with Jacqueline. You think the world of her and I have no doubt you’d give your life to save her from harm, let alone something like a dumb scholarship. Right?”
Sue sits in silence for several seconds. Then she leans over and begins to cry. "Mandy, I'm sorry. I’m ashamed of myself for being so shallow. I guess I started to listen to too many other voices. The wrong voices."
Mandy reaches over to hold her hand. "Well, I should have brought this up a long time before this, honey. I'm sorry. Maybe I could have been more of a help."
Sue: "Are you kidding? You're already a huge help to me! You're an inspiration to me, Mandy, and I love and respect you more than anyone. And, of course, you're right. No scholarship or disappointment or pressure could compare to the value of someone like Jackie. Mandy, I'm sorry for listening to Mrs. Jenkins and then second-guessing you like I was. After all, who cares about Charles Dickens anyhow?"
Mandy laughs and hugs her sister. "Are you kidding? I do! Why do you think we started that book club that meets over at The Clovers every month or why I’m taking those online lit courses? I love Dickens and Thackeray and Austen more than ever. And you better believe that some day that niece of yours is gonna' be the best little Dickens scholar you'll ever find!"
Sue gets up and embraces her sister. "Okay, I get it, Sis. Life takes turns. But that doesn't necessarily mean taking a loss, right?"
Mandy: "Exactly, kid! God always gives you whatever strength and wisdom you need to do the right thing. And even if you've made mistakes in the past, He offers forgiveness, brand new starts, and wonderful blessings."
Sue: "Jacqueline is sure proof of that!"
Mandy: "You bet, she is. Hey, finish your Coke and we’ll go see if she's awake yet, okay?"