In the Works

Synopsis

On scholarship at Stonefield Academy, a prestigious New England boarding school, academically gifted seventeen-year-old Leisha has fallen in love with  singing and become close to Ms. Wells, her vocal coach and mentor. So when Ms. Wells suddenly resigns and disappears with no warning or even a forwarding address, Leisha is shocked. And worried.  She needs to track her teacher down, make sure she’s okay.

Cody, a sensitive cellist from an ultra-wealthy conservative white family, insists on helping her. Sparks fly, clues multiply, and romance blossoms, despite the disapproval of their families.

Leisha’s desire to be with Cody and pursue music rather than medicine puts her on a direct collision course with her African-American grandfather, the only parent she’s ever had. But an even more immediate threat looms—because as Leisha draws closer to the truth about her teacher’s disappearance, she puts her own life in grave danger.


Backstory

Years ago, I was standing in line at Port Authority in New York waiting for a bus to Connecticut. A pretty African-American teenage girl stood in front of me clutching a battered-looking suitcase. Her grandmother was with her, and the two were arguing. From their conversation, I gathered that the grandmother was putting her reluctant charge on a bus to attend a boarding school in Connecticut. Her granddaughter didn’t want to leave her old neighborhood and friends. The grandmother, however, was insistent.  Her granddaughter was gifted, had been awarded a scholarship. This was her shot at getting a first class education and a ticket to a better life. As I eavesdropped, I had the sense that this devoted grandmother had poured all of her ambitions and deferred dreams into her young gifted granddaughter.

I thought a lot about what it would be like for this inner city girl to be shipped off to a boarding school attended by predominantly white students from well-to-do families. I imagined that no matter how gifted and smart she was, the culture would seem strange, and there would always be students who treated her as an outsider. I hoped for her sake that she’d find supportive friends and teachers there.

The idea for Leisha, an academically gifted scholarship student from the Bronx attending a prestigious New England boarding school, grew out of the interaction I observed between this grandmother and granddaughter. In Leisha’s case, it is her grandfather who’s raised her and been the only parent she’s ever known. Devoted to his granddaughter, he dreams of her becoming a successful physician. He has her entire future mapped out for her.

The growing conflicts between Leisha and her grandfather as she begins asserting her independence were inspired not only by my own life, but by the experiences of many students I’ve counseled whose parents were not supportive of their passion for the arts. Leisha’s grandfather opposes her interest in pursuing music rather than medicine and certainly doesn’t want her inviting trouble by investigating the disappearance of her missing teacher. Nor does he want her getting involved with Cody, a sensitive white cellist who insists on being her investigative sidekick.

But Leisha falls in love, not only with music, but with Cody. Again, my own experiences in the arts inspired the story of their romance. Despite their racial and socioeconomic differences, Leisha and Cody’s shared love of music draws them together. They are soul mates who share similar values, passions, and dreams.

Finally, I was inspired to write this story because of my African-American grandson, as well as my students of color. They are hungry for books that feature main characters who look like them. As one of my African-American teen beta readers told me, “We’re so sick of being the sidekick!”  I enjoyed shaking things up in this regard. In Leisha’s Song, it’s no accident that it’s the white guy who’s the sidekick and the feisty black girl who’s the hero.


Excerpt

My boots crunched against the salted walkway as I raced across the quad to the performing arts building. The cold stung my face, and I pulled my parka tighter around me. It was close to 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and except for me, the snow-covered campus was deathly still.

When I’d first arrived at Stonefield Academy, the early morning and late night quiet creeped me out. In the Bronx, it’s never quiet. Music blares, cars honk, the subway rattles through—and always, police sirens scream in the middle of the night.

Ordinarily, I’d be buried beneath the purple and yellow afghan my Aunt May had made me. But Ms. Wells had volunteered to coach me and Randall on Saturdays to get ready for regional auditions for NATS, the association for singing teachers. The competition was a big deal if you hoped to move on to nationals and snag a college music scholarship.

This morning, I was first up. I’d really worked hard on the Mozart this week and couldn’t wait to sing it for her. Ms. Wells was demanding, pushy as hell—but oh, she made me feel like I could sing as good as anybody—even compete with kids from all over New England who’d been studying voice for years.

I pushed open the heavy door to the performing arts building and stamped my feet against the mat. My boots squeaked on the linoleum as I hurried down the hall.

Weird. The glass window in Ms. Wells’ door was dark. She was never late. She always said being early was one of the ways she communicated respect for her students. I knew she walked to campus, so it wasn’t like she’d had to drive through the snow.

Could she be meditating in the dark?  Mr. Pridock had given that workshop last month on “releasing your stress through mindful meditation,” and Ms. Wells told us choir students we should give it a try. I tapped on the door softly, waited for a few seconds, and then knocked louder. Nothing.

I checked the bathroom. No sign of her. Then I fished my phone out of my backpack and scrolled through my contacts. She was in here somewhere. She wasn’t big on texting, but she’d called me once or twice about ideas she had for my pieces.

When I found her number and punched it in, her phone went straight to voice mail.

I bit my lip and slid down against the wall to a sitting position. It was drafty in the hallway, so I wrapped my arms tightly around my body. I tried to push away the thoughts that swirled in my brain. Something wasn’t right. In the months I’d worked with her, Ms. Wells had never been a no-show.

By the time Randall arrived half an hour later, I’d abandoned my spot on the ground and was pacing up and down the hall.

“What gives?” he asked.

I shrugged. “She never showed, and she’s not answering her phone.”

He pulled off his ski hat, and pushed his dirty blonde hair out of his eyes. “No shit?” He shifted from foot to foot. His eyes darted around as though she might magically appear if he looked hard enough.

Randall was crazy about Ms. Wells. Literally. Last week, I’d come upstairs from my basement practice room to ask her a question about the Mozart. Randall was arranging a cluster of white roses by her door. The minute he looked up and saw me walking toward him, he took off in the opposite direction. You would have thought I was a cop with a warrant for his arrest.

“Well shit,” he said again after a couple of minutes of awkward silence. “Let me know if you hear anything, okay?”

“Will do. Same for me.”

“I hope this isn’t my fault,” he mumbled, and then wheeled around and shuffled down the hall.

His fault? “What do you mean?” I called to his departing back.

            But he didn’t answer.

I stared after him. Tenors have a rep for being super emotional and temperamental, but why on earth would he blame himself for her not showing?

I wanted to talk to him later, but first, I headed over to Ms. Wells’ apartment building to check on her. I hadn’t been there since she had the Concert Choir over for a Christmas party after our holiday gala. Her place was only two blocks from campus, on the top floor of an old Victorian that had been converted into apartments. I pressed her button in the musty vestibule over and over, but she was either not answering—or she wasn’t there.

Next stop was the Admin building. It was after ten, and Mr. Ainsley, our headmaster, usually came in on Saturday mornings to catch up on paperwork. Every Monday morning, Mrs. McAllister, his assistant, complained to me, her work study student, that she couldn’t find a thing after he’d been in the office by himself.

Anyhow, if anything had happened to Ms. Wells, Mr. Ainsley would know. Those two were as tight as corned beef on rye. Ms. Wells dropped by to see him all the time. Behind his closed door, her laughter rang out like staccato high notes, while his was more of a deep-throated roar.

He was always in a better mood after she’d come by. He’d grab some M & M’s out of the snack drawer (M & M’s were for good days; Kit-Kats were his drug of choice for the bad ones). Then he’d tease Mrs. McAllister about her latest hair color (which she changed at least every other week) or he’d ask me to hit a high C to “prove” I really was a first soprano. I always refused—until one day, he demanded I stop filing and sing him an aria. I decided to call his bluff. So I stood tall and sang my heart out—no warmup, but I nailed that sucker, a Strauss song I’d worked on for weeks.

There was total silence when I finished. “Whoa,” he finally said. “Ms. Wells wasn’t kidding. I see why she insisted we find the money to send you to that competition. Leisha, that voice is a gift from God.”

Mrs. McAllister dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex and choked out, “I had no idea! That was amazing!”

Heat rushed to my face. Truth? I’d had no idea I could sing like that either. Until I met Ms. Wells, I didn’t even know what an aria was. I just knew when I sang, I felt different—like I could fly up and perch on the shoulder of God. Back home, I’d sung a lot of gospel in church, and people said nice things about my voice. But Gramps always told me to pay no mind. “You’re not going  to throw your life away like your mama did singing in some low life club. You are smart, girl. You can be a doctor someday. You hear me?”

I heard. But I loved to sing. That was the one thing my mama had left me—my voice. But I didn’t think about doing anything with it. Who ever heard of a singing surgeon? And then one day, Ms. Wells plucked me out of Concert Choir and said, “Come to my studio after classes today. We need to talk.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Lord, was this another chapter? The moment I peeked in Mr. Ainsley’s office, the invisible bands around my stomach squeezed tighter. Mr. Ainsley sat slumped over his desk, his hands pressed against his temples. When I knocked on his door frame, he looked up and gestured me in.

Especially after what happened to Mama, my Aunt May is not a big fan of white men. But even she would have to admit he wasn’t bad-looking—well, for an older dude anyway. He has deep set eyes the color of cornflowers, a cleft in his chin that makes him look real boyish, and thick salt and pepper hair. But today he looked… awful. His skin had taken on a grayish tint, and his cheeks sagged beneath his bloodshot eyes.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir,” I said. My words tumbled out in a rush. “But Ms. Wells, she didn’t show up this morning for coaching sessions, and… and she never blows us off… and I can’t find her. I’m worried.”

“You’d better come on in. Sit down,” he said in a heavy voice, as he gestured toward the high-backed arm chair in front of his mammoth oak desk.  

I sank down and twisted my hands nervously in my lap. Mr. Ainsley’s grim look matched the gloomy faces of the nineteenth century Stonefield founders whose dark portraits hung on the wall behind him. Once I’d asked him why none of the founders were smiling, and he said it wasn’t the fashion in those days. When I first started working in the office, I’d fantasize about painting smiles on their faces to cheer the place up.

He cleared his throat. “I was actually going to call you before I made the announcement to the whole school. I know how closely you’ve been working with Ms. Wells.”

My stomach dropped somewhere around my knees. He paused and ran his hand through his hair, then settled it on the back of his neck as though it was painful to force the words out. “I’m sorry to tell you that this morning, I received an email from Ms. Wells. For personal reasons, she’s resigned, effective immediately.”

Confusion swept over me. For a moment, I couldn’t speak. Finally, I managed to stammer, “Wha… What? B…Bu…But why? Did she say why?”

“Only that it was personal.”

“But… but where did she go?”

He sighed and shook his head. “I wish I could tell you, but she didn’t say. I got a message from the super at her apartment that she left all her belongings, and he wants me to get them out of there, so he can rent the place. Apparently, she’s already gone. No forwarding address—no nothing.  I’m as confused as you are.”

My heart thudded in my chest. “I don’t get it! She was so excited about the choral concert, and working with Randall and me for the auditions. This doesn’t make any sense! We have to find her!”

Mr. Ainsley tapped the cleft in his chin with his index finger and then looked out the window for several seconds before dragging his gaze back to mine. “Sometimes people do things we don’t understand, and we just have to respect their privacy. I know how disappointing this must be, but I want to assure you we’ll locate a replacement as soon as possible. I’ve put in a call to Mr. Wilcox to help us get the ball rolling on an interim search.”

I gritted my teeth. Mr. Wilcox? Great. He was the one person on campus who’d undoubtedly be thrilled Ms. Wells had taken off. Ever since she’d replaced him as chair of the music department, he’d stormed in to the office at least once a month to complain about the direction of the music program. I didn’t have to eavesdrop to figure that out. When he got going, his fog horn of a voice shook the chandeliers in the front office. Anyone with more than six brain cells could figure out why Mr. Ainsley decided to put Ms. Wells in charge of music. She didn’t make you reach for your stash of Kit-Kats after spending five minutes with her.

“So that’s it then?” My voice jumped up an octave. “You’re just going to let her go? She’s one of the best teachers at Stonefield. That’s not just me saying that. You can ask any student who’s ever had her.”

“I agree. I’m sad too, Leisha. She’s been a remarkable colleague.” His lower lip quivered. For a moment, I wanted to comfort him.

Still, he hung out with her. They were friends. Surely he’d know she never would have checked out on her students, on him, on the whole school without saying goodbye.

But I didn’t say that. Gramps had drummed it into my head I had to respect my elders—even when I knew they were dead wrong.

In the deepest part of my gut, I felt it. Something smelled as rank as the garbage left out on the streets back home. And I sure as hell was going to find out what it was.