“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. and Mrs. Barton.”
Miss Miller’s smile is slightly pained.
“The Waverly Community Schools Board of Education strongly believes that supportive parents are critical to our students’ success."
Laura can feel her husband’s eyes glaze over at Board of Education. Clint Barton has a rather complicated relationship with bureaucracy at the best of times, and that includes the one supposedly responsible for his children’s education. He will happily attend plays, primary sports days and parent teacher consultations, but start quoting corporate mission statements…
Best to get straight to the point, then. Laura puts on her best PTA smile.
“You can absolutely count on us, Miss Miller. What seems to be the problem?”
The teacher steeples her hands for a moment, and looks from one devoted parent to the other.
“I am a little troubled by Cooper’s most recent paper.”
She shuffles through a few brightly coloured exercise books until she locates a purple one. Laura recognizes her son’s neat handwriting even upside-down.
“It’s well enough written, at the appropriate third grade level, and he obviously has a very vivid imagination -- one that should be nurtured...” Miss Miller makes a slight pause, for effect, “...in an appropriate environment.”
Clint raises an eyebrow in that way Laura knows is akin to tightening his bowstring (metaphorically speaking). Whatever the teacher may say about Cooper, it better not be a suggestion that he is anything less than perfect.
Hawks protect their young.
“But?” he asks. Because with the Barton men there’s always a ‘but’, Laura has learned. He’ll want to get that out in the open immediately.
Miss Miller pulls back her shoulders a little, and tries hard not to shiver under Clint’s suddenly arctic glare.
“The children were asked to write three paragraphs about what their fathers did for a living, and why that made them a hero. They weren’t asked to write a fantasy story.”
There’s a minute intake of breath to her right. Laura reaches out and places her hand on Clint’s arm, her message clear: Relax, honey. I’ve got this.
“Why not their mothers?” she asks with the sweetest smile she can muster. (Who was it who had said that the best defense is a good offence?)
“Why did the assignment ask only what the fathers did? I have a job, for example, teleworking for a Government agency. Hazel Watkins’ mom runs the Silverwood Dairy, and Johnny Krajewski’s is the Deputy Sheriff. Mary-Beth Baker’s father is completely out of the picture, and how did this assignment make her feel? So why wouldn’t you ask about the mothers? This is the twenty-first century, even in Iowa.”
To Laura’s relief, she feels Clint relax fractionally, even as Miss Miller tenses up.
“Well,” Miss Miller stammers, “that was the assignment set in the curriculum. To ask what the children’s fathers do for a living, and how it makes them feel.”
“I understand that that was the assignment,” Laura explains patiently, trying very hard not to channel her boss. (Not yet, anyway.) “I’m questioning the inherent validity of this assignment, and your failure to question its deplorable sexism. The children should have been given a choice.”
Miss Miller does her best to recover her composure.
“Well, I may look into your question for future assignments. But in the meantime, I am concerned that your son might be living in a fantasy world, brought on by watching too much inappropriate television.”
She looks from one to the other, calculation in her eyes. Laura’s antennae go off, and she can tell that Clint, too, is shifting in his seat.
“Cooper seems to believe that you are one of those people that supposedly saved New York, and who just destroyed Johannesburg and Slovakia, Mr. Barton.”
“Sokovia,” Clint mutters under his breath, and Laura holds hers for a moment. Luckily Miss Miller does not appear to have heard. (This may not be the best time for a geography lesson, especially when it comes tinged with memories that are still raw.)
“Here, look at this.” Miss Miller’s tone is almost triumphant as she passes over the booklet.
Laura begins to read, with Clint looking over her shoulder.
Laura can feel Clint’s breath huffing in her ears as he tries – and fails -- to suppress a snort. She digs her nails into his arm, but his shoulders start to shake and he is, to all intents and purposes, out of the conversation.
“Really, I don’t think this is all that that funny, Mr. Barton,” Miss Miller says sternly, and there’s a gleam in her eyes. “Clearly, Cooper has difficulties separating reality from fantasy, and the fantasies he has seem to be very specific, and a bit … dark. I would like to recommend someone for him to talk to.”
“Oh, I really don’t think that’s necessary,” Laura says firmly.
Having a discussion about what are suitable topics for conversations at the dinner table, on the other hand … (She can practically hear Maria Hill hissing something about ‘security breach.’)
“He’s just a little boy with, like you said, a vivid imagination. Especially since his Daddy’s name is Clinton, and that Avenger guy is Clint. Every nine-year-old secretly wants his Dad to be a superhero, don’t they?”
She takes a bit of a breath.
“And that was part of the assignment, as I recall. My Daddy’s job makes him a hero? So you can’t be too surprised when one of them goes overboard in their enthusiasm.”
Miss Miller is not to be deterred, though. She mutters something about the last paragraph, demanding an explanation just where that might have come from.
Laura takes umbrage.
“You don’t think that my husband actually kills people for a living?”
To her credit, the woman is prepared to back down -- a bit.
“Of course not. What concerns me is that Cooper is even thinking about these things. Too much television or videogames, maybe?”
She stares at Clint, and Laura sees pages of Internet outrage about the Avengers scrolling by her inner eye.
“Of course I know that quiet, rural folk such as Mr. Barton aren’t real killers.”
Clint frowns, and takes the floor in his own defense. Laura steels herself.
“Oh, I don’t know.It’s usually the quiet ones you have to watch out for. There was that pig farmer in Canada, Robert Pickton… And surely you remember Jeffrey Dahmer? He wasn’t rural, but he was quiet.’”
Laura kicks Clint’s foot under the desk. Ouch. (Of course, this would be the day he is wearing steel-toed boots, planning on fixing up the barn.) He does get the hint, though, and adds a qualifier.
“Of course, neither of those guys worked for the government. That I recall.”
The statement just hangs there for a brief, shining moment, before Laura decides it will likely be up to her to regain the high ground.
“So what exactly is the problem here, Miss Miller. Are you concerned that my husband is a serial killer, or that our son has a vivid imagination?”
Clint nods, and Laura realizes with a sense of impending doom that he rather seems to be enjoying the discussion now, and is eager to participate.
“And which, in the eyes of the Board of Education, would be worse? Because I’d be more than happy to go on a killing spree, if that helps to inject the necessary degree of realism. You know, being a supportive parent who wants his child to succeed, and all that.”
Miss Miller is beginning to look to the door, like a trapped animal. Clint isn’t done though.
“I could start with the Waverly Community Schools Board of Education.”
Miss Miller shivers. Laura, for her part, has heard enough.
“That’s not funny, Clinton.”
He gives her his patented ‘personally, I thought it was a riot’ look, but nods obediently.
“No, ma’am, I guess it isn’t.”
Miss Miller titters nervously.
“Oh, what an excellent joke, Mr. Barton. No, I don’t believe that will be necessary.”
“Why don’t you tell Miss Miller here what you do do, honey?” Laura gives Clint’s foot another nudge, this time aimed at the side. “To show her that Cooper deserves a pass on the assignment.”
“What? Oh, sure.”
Clint morphs back into affable gentleman farmer mode.
“I’m a pilot. I fly planes. For Stark Industries. Which may be where Coop gets that whole Avengers thing from. I mean, it’s not like Tony Stark or Captain America would ever turn up at our house, is it?”
Laura picks up the thread with the appropriate amount of fond amusement.
“Yes, could you imagine? Thor? In Iowa? There’s nothing for him here, I should think.”
Miss Miller seems to be on the road towards some kind of acceptance.
“Oh? Well, being a pilot is an exciting profession, Mr. Barton. Something that would capture a nine-year-old boy’s imagination.”
“And I have a sideline in carpentry and home renovations.”
Laura chimes in, “Building that birdhouse definitely made my husband a hero in Cooper’s eyes.”
Clint’s face softens a little.
“Yeah. We’re planning on building a scarecrow next, between now and when the baby is born. As for inappropriate television, I would note that yes, we tend to watch the news. But MSNBC, not Fox. And before you ask, yes, I am pretty good at darts.”
Time to put this thing to bed. Laura does a few quick calculations. Years as a part-time analyst for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fury’s EA do, on occasion, come in handy.
“So, to summarize,” she says. “You expected the children to tell you what their fathers do for a living – and how that turned them into their hero. Well, it’s all there, in Cooper’s paper, isn’t it? Maybe it’s not an A, because he digressed a bit into fantasy, but it should certainly be at least a B-.”
She prepares the deathblow with a smile.
“And I’m prepared to let go for the moment the fact that you do not appear to consider mothers to be worthy of the same attention as fathers. Although, come to think about it, I might raise the issue at the next PTA meeting.”
Miss Miller makes a little sound that almost sounds like a cough; Clint bares his teeth in what can only very loosely be described as a smile.
“I think it should be more like a B+, since he actually tried to spell ‘Chitauri’.“
Miss Miller comes to a decision. She takes the booklet out of Laura’s hands, closes it up and puts it back onto the multi-coloured pile.
“Well, thank you for providing me with a bit of context and background information. I think in light of our little discussion, I do believe a B would be warranted. Just make sure that Cooper learns how to distinguish between real-life heroes, and fictional ones.”
Laura nods, and fervently hopes that Clint beside her can refrain from rolling his eyes – or worse -- until they get back to the van. They get up with as much speed as her pregnant belly and his still-healing injury permit. (Whoever insisted that parents visiting their child’s teacher had to sit in kid-sized chairs ought to be handed over to HYDRA for reconditioning.)
But Miss Miller has apparently decided to become chatty, now that they have arrived at a mutual understanding.
“I suppose we can be grateful that these papers were due before that mess in Slavonia. Who knows what he might have internalized from that, Mr. Barton – having you go after that robot thing with a bow and arrow?”
“Ha, yeah,” says Clint. “That’d be hilarious.”
Miss Miller chuckles at her joke as she escorts them to the door. They’re headed down the corridor when they hear her voice again:
“Oh, one more thing I meant to ask. Who exactly is Auntie Nat?”