Kathryn knew the kids were up to something. The day before, they
surprised her at the dismissal bell with an ambush of hugs that got her
to laugh so hard she could barely breathe—but this time she was ready.
With one eye on the clock, she sat behind her desk at the front of the
classroom and quietly tended to her papers. The children inched forward
in their seats, anxious to pounce, when Kathryn startled them all—she
jumped from behind her desk and rushed after them. They screamed and
scattered to all corners of the room.
Kathryn—Ms. James to the kindergartners—took a swipe at Emma’s
flying ponytail, then she turned to grab Cody and realized, as he slowed
and stumbled into her arms, that he was actually trying to get caught.
He writhed about and protested for everyone to hear, but Kathryn
wouldn’t let go, and when the other children closed ranks to take a
few hugs of their own, Cody held tight to the epicenter of the swarm,
wishing it would go on forever. The look in his eyes as he gazed up at
Kathryn was as innocent as it was beguiling, and she had no problem with
it; she knew exactly how he felt.
A moment of exultant calm followed. Kathryn lowered herself to the floor
and sat cross-legged to catch her breath. The children followed her
there and gathered around like newborn puppies pressing against the
warmth of her. She savored their oddly familiar smells, and it occurred
to her as they rolled about with slit-eyed grins and sniffles that that
these were her children; if she were never to bear a child of her own
she would remain happy and whole.
All at once, the loud dismissal bell rang and a new crescendo of shrieks
and laughter erupted. The children jumped from the floor and hurried
about in all directions before falling in line. Kathryn said a few kind
words to settle them down for the day and asked them to gather their
coats and lunchboxes. When they were all bundled up and ready to go, she
led them outside to a grumbling bus at the curb. Cody was last in line,
the last to climb aboard. Kathryn gave him a pat on the behind as he
struggled to climb the high steps then followed him in to have a look
around. Satisfied that all were safely seated, she nodded to the driver
and stepped back.
A grunt of gears followed a puff of smoke. The children leaned toward
the curbside and tapped against the windows, mouthing unintelligible
farewells in Kathryn’s direction. She waved in return and blew a kiss.
Cody puckered like a goldfish and pressed his lips to the window, but
Kathryn had already turned and started walking back toward the building.
She arrived at her empty classroom once more and sat at her desk to
think about life as it was. The room was quiet and cavernous without the
children in place, the air still brimming with their enthusiasm, and
Kathryn had an idea. From a locked drawer on the left side of her desk,
she removed a composition book titled, A Religion Called Love, and began
to write. It would be her last entry.
The following morning, all five kindergarten classes were taken by bus
to an indoor petting zoo known as the Animal Nursery. The converted
warehouse contained dozens of farm animals separated by rail and post
fencing. The dirt floor was well groomed and covered with straw. A musky
aroma was readily noticeable to the adults but did not seem to bother
the children at all. Kathryn handed each of her students a small white
paper cone filled with dried food pellets to feed the animals as they
Emma was the first to enter the goat’s pen, where she was quickly
seized upon by a family of hungry goats. She giggled nervously as they
fed directly from the paper cone in her hand. They devoured every last
food pellet and the paper cone as well. In a neighboring pen, Cody
befriended a hairy llama with long eyelashes and a crooked, buck-toothed
smile. He ran a hand over its furry mane and decided that they should be
friends. He looked around for Ms. James, but couldn’t find her
Inside the sheep’s pen, a frail little girl named Sarah stumbled
forward onto her knees and spilled her entire cone of pellets. Three
boys burst out laughing at the sight of it—and when Sarah crawled
around and tried to pick up the scattered food pellets, a young ram
butted her in the rear and thrust her face-down onto the dirt.
Immediately, the boys’ laughter intensified, leaving Sarah flat on her
belly, humiliated and distraught.
Kathryn sensed the commotion and rushed toward the sheep’s pen, where
she promptly lifted Sarah from the dirt and carried her out of view. She
cradled the crying girl and gently stroked her hair until the tears
stopped flowing. It didn’t matter to Kathryn that she didn’t
actually know Sarah, whose teacher was apparently elsewhere; she
explained in affectionate terms that young rams are playful and like to
make friends that way. Minutes later, she handed Sarah a new paper cone
and brought her back to the sheep’s pen where, after a moment of
discretion, the child forgave the animal.
Throughout the ordeal, the other kindergarten teachers were oblivious to
the incident; they stood by the entrance discussing their junior
colleague’s relaxed attire and absence of makeup, her choice of
peasant skirts and open sandals. They shared rumors about Kathryn’s
personal life, tales that were largely untrue but amusing
nonetheless—and they were friendly in person but made sport of her in
private, mocking her as sensitive and weak. Only Kathryn’s closest
friends knew that her inner strength belied all superficial assumptions;
she was sensitive, but not weak. She understood the needs of little
children, their adaptation to the social pecking order, their quiet
trepidation of unannounced immersions into new situations, and their
ability to forgive—it seemed to be the reason that Kathryn was so
uniquely suited to be a kindergarten teacher; she was a sponge for their
emotions, a guardian for their needs. She comforted children in ways
that mystified the other teachers. In turn, the children willingly
sought her guidance, long before the insoluble barriers of adolescence
At Kathryn’s urging, Emma took Sarah’s hand and the two girls became
fast friends; they entered the henhouse where a warm red light over an
incubator drew their attention. Emma cupped a yellow chick in her hands
and marveled as it peeped and wriggled about. Sarah stood by, watching
with a huge smile on her face. It seemed for the time being that her
humiliating incident had long passed. The boys who had tormented her
moments earlier found new mischief in the pigpen, where they threw
fistfuls of hard food pellets directly at the pigs’ heads. Frightened
and squealing, the pigs were unable to dodge the sting of the pellets.
Cody stared incredulously, hesitant to laugh along with the others.
Mercifully, a giant shadow emerged and a magnificent Irish Wolf-hound
ambled into view. The tremendous dog, affectionately known as Falkor,
stopped at the center of the petting zoo and allowed the children to pet
his wiry coat. Inching about, sniffing the ground for errant food
pellets, he shoveled his wet nose into the dirt. Cody was awestruck by
the size of the animal—forty inches at the shoulder and nearly seven
feet on his hind legs. Emma and Sarah managed to reach through and pet
him as well, an experience they would never forget.
The best part of the morning, as the children would later attest, was a
spontaneous, live birthing of Holland Lop bunnies, narrated in real time
by a thoughtful attendant. Cody held tight to Kathryn’s hand during
the entire spectacle, a gesture that she didn’t seem to mind. She was
aware of the boy’s needs and the emotions that kept him fastened to
her. There was little doubt in her mind that she was equally available
to the other students—it was a paradox that grown men had similarly
come to learn about Kathryn James: she was at once accessible and
Outside in the parking lot, the bus drivers passed the time with odd
stories and a smoke, amusing themselves with tales of the road and their
dealings with kids over the years—bullies, crybabies, nice kids, shy
kids—and every permutation of parent. A nature vs. nurture discussion
ensued for half an hour until the doors flew open and the children
emerged with broad smiles and souvenirs. Kathryn walked happily among
them, immersed in the joyful simplicity of the moment, unaware that her
professional character had been called into serious question.
The issue began shortly before Christmas when the pastor’s son brought
in a shoebox diorama of the nativity scene, a worthy effort for the five
year old, with a cotton-ball sky, plastic animal figurines and a tiny
cradle at the center. Kathryn had asked him to explain its meaning to
the other children then politely asked him to bring it home. A dozen
finger paintings of winter landscapes and cutout paper snowflakes
adorned the classroom walls that winter, but Kathryn said no to the
nativity scene, a decision that did not go unnoticed.
The following week, during a storybook reading about telling the truth,
Emma raised her hand and asked if God is always watching. Kathryn
hesitated, careful to align her response to the story they had just
shared and answered yes, God watches all those who believe. But when
asked if she believes, Kathryn told the truth.
Hardly a provocateur, Kathryn did not subscribe to any particular
religion. She understood the meaning of faith in the lives of others and
considered most of the churchgoing people in town to be decent,
hardworking people—she merely questioned the origins of their faith
and the practice of religion in general. To her way of thinking, she
believed in something more remarkable than religion; she believed in
But not everyone believed in Kathryn. By the time Easter break came
around, the children’s paper snowflakes had been replaced by the
watercolors of spring, and while the other schoolteachers supervised the
dipping of hard boiled eggs into pink and blue dyes, Kathryn brought her
class to the botanical gardens. Her children pledged allegiance to one
nation indivisible, an omission that got the attention of parents and
teachers. Beside the flag were three rules posted at the front of her
Be nice - show respect for all living things.
Be truthful - treat others fairly.
Be responsible - if you make a mess, clean it up.
Such were the lessons that Kathryn imparted each day to her
kindergartners—a simple message of kindness and respect that was
genuinely believable. If her five-year-old students understood and
accepted it, so should their parents, the adults.
But that didn’t happen. When word of her atheist attitude spread, she
was snubbed in the teacher’s lounge, anonymously harassed online and
marginalized by a small but formidable core. At dismissal one Friday
afternoon, she found herself surrounded outside the door of her own
classroom by a throng of angry parents. Confronted by pointed fingers
and accusations, she was forced to field questions from all directions.
What kind of teacher are you? What kind of values are you teaching our
children? You’re a disgrace to the school!
Kathryn flinched, thinking an object had been hurled in her direction.
The brief misperception tugged at her playful sense of humor—she had
nearly smiled but thought better of it. By chance, a security guard was
making his rounds and diffused the situation by his mere presence. He
strolled past the adults, who nodded politely in unison, and when he was
out of sight once more, their angry pitch returned. Don’t put
confusing thoughts in their minds! You don’t have children of your
own, stay away from ours!
Kathryn tried to assure everyone that her personal beliefs were no
threat whatsoever to their children. She insisted that only kindness and
fairness and the Golden Rule were emphasized in class—but their anger
only escalated. Finally, she said, “I’m going home now.” She
squeezed through the fray and turned to say one more thing: “By the
way, if you’re certain that having a religion is required to be a good
teacher, then my religion is love—love for one another—love and
respect for all living things. That is my religion.”
Kathryn walked away from the spectacle that Friday afternoon and made
little of it. She ended her week in the usual way, on the top step of
her cement porch with a cup of green mint chocolate chip ice cream. A
roach clip sat in the porcelain ashtray beside her. “Sugar
Magnolia”echoed in her thoughts. A crescent moon lit a corner of the
sky that evening and she slept well.
The following day, Kathryn’s body was discovered at home with no sign
of forced entry—no evidence of rape or robbery. She was only twenty
eight when it happened, a crime that roused the neighborhood from its
provincial slumber. Neighbors whispered from behind the yellow police
tape that she should have been more careful. A patrol car idled silently
at the curb with lights running. Curious onlookers gathered to see what
was going on, speculating among themselves about the pretty kindergarten
teacher inside. Detectives arrived in short order to ask them what they
had seen or heard, and their responses were predictably useless. No less
than a dozen different stories belied the fact that nobody knew exactly
why Kathryn James was dead or who was responsible.
A five-block area was scoured for evidence. Detectives went door to door
looking for clues. One reclusive neighbor protested for being questioned
more than once, but Detective Robin Noel didn’t care; she was
accustomed to that kind of response.
Excerpted from "A Religion Called Love" by David Trock. Copyright © 2016 by David Trock. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.