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One to Grow On

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First Day

Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand (large, extra cream, two sugars), Phil Coulson stood in the middle of his classroom, surveying it one last time. Frowning at the small, low tables, he nudged one about six inches more to the right with his leg. Yes, that was better. Now there was a little bit more room to walk between them without encroaching into the circle time area.

His phone beeped with a five minute warning before the bell rang, and Phil drained the last mouthfuls of his coffee and tossed the cup into the trash. His room was ready and as clean as it was going to be until June. The cabinets were stocked with extra juice boxes and packs of animal crackers, spoons, forks and cups, and the closet held stacks of paper (white and colored construction), scissors, glue sticks and just about every craft supply he would need for the year. The wire racks of the library were filled with picture books and early reader books. The tables were freshly scrubbed, small caddies holding thick, newly sharpened pencils (point down) set in the precise center, and the four small chairs at each one tucked neatly underneath. The blackboards and whiteboards were free of any lingering chalk dust and marker. In his desk were piles of stickers, at least three dozen stamps and several boxes of Band-Aids. And on top of it were ten name tags, all with the neatly printed names of his students, just waiting to be set on the tables.

The bell rang, and the din outside of children screaming and laughing died down as they raced to the appropriate lines. The older grades had already been coming to school for a few days, so they knew the routine, and the aides would be helping the kindergarteners. Phil waited off to the side where he could see all the kids enter and they could see him, listening to the muted sound of instructions being given. Then came the steady patter of little feet walking in the hall as students first entered Maria Hill’s room, and then closer and louder as his own class filed in.

“Good morning,” he greeted them warmly. “For now, sit where you want to, and once you’re settled, I’ll explain what’s going on.”

They entered, quiet and almost solemn, looking around the room with wide eyes. They’d been here before, last week during their orientation, but then it had been informal and they’d been with their parents. This was their first day of actual school, not pre-school or day care, and it was often a little overwhelming for them. Phil just hoped none of them were criers. Not that he begrudged five-year olds missing their mothers, but some were inconsolable and he didn’t like that it took all of his attention to calm them down. Unsupervised kids were never a good thing.

There was a brief flurry of movement as they started to choose seats and then changed their minds and darted for new ones. Phil liked giving them their freedom to begin with. It gave him a good idea for personalities and how they would have to be rearranged. Plus, they sometimes arranged themselves with friends he could keep them with—not always, but he liked keeping them with their friends if he could. Eventually, they all settled, and he grabbed the heavily laminated nametags off his desk. During orientation, he’d asked if the kids had nicknames they used, and had put those on the tags since those were what would be going on most of their papers.

The first table, the one closest to his desk, had three kids. He rifled through the tags and pulled the correct three. First was Peggy Carter, dark hair in a bob, ruffled white button shirt, plaid skirt, and honest-to-God Mary Janes with lacy white socks. She smiled brightly as he set the tag down, thanked him, and folded her hands on the table as she looked at the tag. Next to her was Pepper Potts, long, curly strawberry blonde hair in a ponytail with a feathered headband, pink frilly dress, and glittery, strappy sandals. (Phil would never understand why they even made heeled shoes for children.) Pepper thanked him as well, but ignored it in favor of adjusting her headband every few seconds. And the last was Tony Stark, short dark hair neatly gelled into a fauxhawk, dark blue polo shirt, plaid sailing shorts, and one of the most beat up pair of sneakers he’d ever seen. The last item gave Phil pause as he set Tony’s nametag down in front of him. His outfit declared “rich kid” in no uncertain terms, but the sneakers…. Yeah, the sneakers, battered and dirty, screamed “trouble.” Almost immediately, he frowned at the nametag and reached for the pencils in the caddie.

“Ah-ah,” Phil said quickly. “Leave the pencils alone. You don’t need them right now.” Tony pouted, but did as he was told.

The second table had four kids. He started with Sif Larsson, and so far, she was the most normal girl he had—long, straight dark hair, a sundress and a pair of flats festooned with rhinestones. She said thank you as well, but was more interested in talking to the other kids. Next to her was Bruce Banner, an average looking kid with short hair, if a bit on the thin side, wearing jeans and blue t-shirt. He’d been one of the quiet ones during orientation, and Phil was waiting to see if that was just his nature or if he’d come out of his shell. He said thank you softly and went back to talking to Sif.

Surprisingly, the next one at the table was Bucky Barnes. He was a big kid, not fat, but solid . Like Bruce, he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and the knees of his jeans showed grass stains that were probably permanent at this point. Phil hated to prejudge kids, but Bucky’s size and slightly belligerent set of his brows gave him pause. He didn’t thank Phil, but he did nod his head.

The last kid at the table was the one that actually worried Phil the most: Steve Rogers. Like Bucky was big, Steve was small, and Phil would’ve bet money that he had been a preemie. His blond hair was neatly cut, and he was clean , but his clothes…. They were too big, and worn looking. Definitely hand-me-downs, and since Steve was an only child, they hadn’t come from a sibling. His sneakers were even rattier than Tony’s. Out of all the kids, he was clearly the poorest. His mother, too, when they’d come for orientation, had worn older clothes, faded and slightly frayed at the hems. The looks of disdain from the other parents had been unmistakable. Phil frowned to himself as he set Steve’s tag on the table, genuinely worried about the boy’s welfare. Usually, forms for the free and reduced cost lunch program ended up in the trash given how affluent the suburb was, but Phil was going to put one in Steve’s backpack himself.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Coulson.” Steve’s words were very polite and precisely said, and he met Phil’s gaze with a disturbingly adult look of his own.

Phil nodded at him, and smiled. “You’re very welcome, Steve.”

For right then, he put his worries on the back burner and headed for the last table. First was the last girl, Natasha Romanoff—bright red hair, black t-shirt with Hello Kitty on it, stretchy jean shorts and sneakers. Perfectly normal for a kid. As he set the tag down, he got a closer look at her shirt and blinked. It wasn’t a Hello Kitty shirt. Instead of the white cat, the image was a skull with a little pink bow. Phil closed his eyes for a long moment. He would never understand some parents.

Moving on, he turned to the next boy, Clint Barton. Again, fairly normal-looking, short brown hair, olive green t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Nothing about him warranted any special consideration at the moment, and Phil was hopeful that the quiet kids would help balance out the rambunctious ones.

The last kid at the table Phil had actually been warned about, but not for anything the boy had done. Phil had been cautioned about his parents , and that given how wealthy and involved in the community they were, it would be a good idea not to rock the boat. But for all of the potential havoc he could cause, Thor Fitzwilliam looked like a perfect angel sitting in his seat. And the term angel, Phil thought wryly, was rather apt. He had fair skin, bright blue eyes and long blond hair that just brushed the tops of his shoulders. (Phil wondered if his mother was one of those that refused to cut their kids’ hair.) Like Tony, he was dressed like a rich kid—blindingly white polo shirt, khaki shorts and loafers . And like Bucky, he was a big kid, and Phil hoped that his seemingly sunny disposition was real.

With all the nametags dispersed, and the kids starting to get antsy, Phil clapped his hands once to get their attention. “Good morning,” he said again, watching all the little heads turn in his direction, “and welcome to kindergarten. I got the chance to meet all of you last week, and in case you’ve forgotten my name, it’s Mr. Coulson. If you want, you can call me Mr. C. Before we get started with anything else, I want to go over your morning routine. Don’t worry, we’ll practice every day and you’ll get the hang of it.”

Phil walked them through what they would be doing when they entered. Jackets—when they would be eventually needed—would be hung on the coat hooks and hats and mittens would go in the cubbies above them. Then they would go to their seats, open their backpacks and check their folders. If they had any papers, they would take them out and leave them on their tables, and then wait for Phil to get started with their attendance, milk, and lunch count.

“In a few weeks,” he said, “when you come in, there will be worksheets on your tables. Once you’ve checked your folders, I’ll give you the directions and you’ll work on the papers until it’s time for circle.”

Peggy’s hand shot up in the air, and he called on her. “What do we do when we finish?”

“Well, in the beginning, I don’t think you’ll need to worry. But if you do finish early, I’ll give you a few choices. Maybe a fun sheet to color or let you look at books. Later in the year, you’ll get a chance to work with the manipulatives when you’re done.”

Walking over to the chart on the wall, he showed them where their milk and lunch choices would be displayed, and that when he called their name for attendance, they would come up, bring him any papers they had and their milk and lunch money—envelopes to order tickets would be going home today—make their choices by affixing their names to the appropriate column, bring their backpacks to put next to their coats, and then return to their seats.

“Let’s practice that now,” he said. “Please check your folders.”

Rustling and clattering and chattering filled the room as they unbuckled and unzipped their backpacks and wrestled their folders out. Most were the glossy ones with pictures of kittens and puppies, superheroes and cars, and Phil knew that a majority would be wrecked within the first month or so of school. The only exceptions were Steve’s and Bucky’s, who both had plain, mono-colored folders, the kind you could buy for a penny when they went on sale at the office supply stores. Phil made another mental note.

In short order, filled out forms were strewn across the tables, and Phil gave the kids a reminder to put the folders away, zip their backpacks and hang them on the back of their chairs for now. Then he gave them their hot and cold lunch choices, indicating the pictures, and milk choices, and began calling them one by one, starting with Bruce.

They needed reminders, frequently, as they always did. Phil knew without a doubt that he’d probably still be giving reminders in June. As it was, the next twenty minutes were spent in a litany of:

Bring me your papers first, then choose your lunch. No, if you have a lunch from home, choose “home lunch.” For milk, you can get chocolate, coffee, strawberry or plain. No, I don’t know if you’ll like that. Just choose one you know you like for today. If you have a juice box or water, choose “none.” If you don’t have money, you can charge, but check your backpack first to see if you have a lunch. Backpack!

Eventually, they’d gotten through everything, and all ten kids sat waiting, tables cleared and backpacks away. Phil glanced at the charts quickly, added up the totals and then entered them quickly into the computer. After hitting send, he took a deep breath, stood, and called them all to the rug so they could start circle.

~*~

“How’s your day going?”

Phil looked over at Maria and smiled. They were alone in the teacher’s room, their classes having their specialist now at the end of the day—Phil’s with Mr. Fandral for music and Maria’s with Mr. Hogun for art—and Phil was just sitting in a chair with his head tipped back. “Really well, actually. They seem to be a pretty good group. The first days always tends to be a little hectic. What about yours?”

“Pretty good as well, though I’m definitely going to have to move some seats.”

“Mm,” Phil agreed. “I’m going to leave mine where they are for now and see if they settle, but I can already tell I’m probably going to have to make some changes.”

Maria popped a k-cup in the Keurig machine and looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. He nodded, and when her cup was done brewing, she put in another for him. After fixing their cups, they sat across from each other at one of the tables and went over their plans. They taught the same things, in their own ways, and the classes were entirely self-contained, but they shared projects and activities. One of the ones they started with was apples, using different varieties to go over similarities and differences. And then, of course, letting the kids try them all and making a chart out of their favorites.

Phil looked down at his list. “Do you want to do the apple charts before or after the farm visit?”

“I like it better before,” she said. “I just think it leads better to tackle the fall material if we start with that.”

“All right,” he agreed. “I still have your apple template from last year and I can make copies on Friday and then do the tasting on Monday?”

“That works for me. During snack time, like usual?”

“Yeah. You bought the apples last year, right?”

“Yes, so this year it’s your turn.”

“Okay.” He jotted down a quick note to pick up a half dozen each of red delicious, yellow delicious and granny smith. “Think we should add Braeburns or Galas? They have that mix of color, and might be helpful for when we compare.”

“You’re just saying that because you like them better than the others,” Maria teased.

“Maybe,” he grinned back.

“Sure, why not? Just try to get some with a good mix of color.”

“I think I can manage that.”

They went over a few other things—permission slips for the field trip (which would need to be approved by the office, but as they’d used the same one for the last few years, it shouldn’t be an issue), whether they should bring their classes out to the playground together, and figuring out who had what worksheets.

They’d just finished agreeing the split the copying load when Phil glanced over at the clock. “Ah, back into the fray once more.”

“At least it’s the end of the day.”

“Very true. Now to make sure none of them get on the wrong bus.”

That’s always exciting.”

Back in the classroom, the kids were giving Mr. Fandral an enthusiastic goodbye, and he rolled his eyes at Phil. “Doom’s gonna love this group,” he murmured, turned to the kids couldn’t see him speaking.

“That bad, huh?”

“Nah, they weren’t that bad, just very…excitable.”

“No problems, then?”

“Nope. Aside from having to repeat everything fifty times, they were pretty good. No getting out of their seats constantly or anything.”

“Good. Well, thanks. Take it easy.”

“You, too.”

Getting them settled after Fandral left took a little while, and Phil hurried to get them quieted down so he could go over dismissal procedures. Thor and Tony were his only parent pick-ups this year, and he got them situated first, checking their backpacks to make sure the papers he’d handed out earlier were there. He then explained to everyone that as soon as the intercom came on, they were to be silent . It would take a while for that to actually stick, but not stressing that hard line in the beginning was a bad idea.

He did have to shush them repeatedly, but thankfully they heard Thor and Tony’s names just fine, and he sent them on their way. Then he called the others up. He had them check the big school bus chart one at a time and find their names, making sure they were in the right place. Once they had checked, he showed them where they would be standing, their bus numbers written on cards and taped to the wall near the door, and lined them up, quickly establishing a rotating order of who would get to line up first each day.

Phil stayed with them up front, assuring them that even if they did miss their bus, there was a procedure in place to get them home safely. When each bus was called, he sent them down the hallway, watching as they joined other kids under the watchful eyes of the aides with dismissal duty.

There was an announcement that the last bus, nine, was running late, so Phil was left with just Bucky and Steve in the room. “You guys want to help me clean up?”

“Sure!” Bucky said eagerly, practically throwing his backpack off, Steve slipping his off a moment later.

“Okay. Steve, can you wipe the tables down?” Phil asked, pulling a few Lysol wipes free from the plastic container. “And when he’s done, can you put the chairs up, Bucky?”

Both boys nodded and set to work while Phil erased the white board, and reset all the things in the circle area for tomorrow. “Did you enjoy your first day?”

“Yeah.”

“Yes.”

“How was music?”

“Mr. Fandral’s really fun!” Bucky said quickly, still levering chairs up onto the tables. Steve had finished, so Phil waved him over and let him out the days of the week and weather cards back where they belonged while he wrote out tomorrow’s question of the day.

“That’s good. How did you like it, Steve?”

The smaller boy shrugged. “It was all right.”

“Just all right? I guess music isn’t your favorite, huh?” Steve just shrugged again. “Well, tomorrow is art, so maybe you’ll like that better.”

“I like to draw,” Steve said quietly.

Bucky laughed behind them. “You love to draw. That’s all you ever want to do.”

Steve’s face turned red, and Phil could tell that he was embarrassed, so didn’t push the issue any further. “Well, that’s something to look forward to tomorrow then. Thank you for your help, boys.”

“No problem.”

“You’re welcome.”

The intercom clicked on again, calling their bus, and the two hurried over to grab their bags. “Walk, walk,” Phil urged. “The bus isn’t going to leave without you.” Well, it could , but Phil wasn’t about to let something that traumatic happen to them on the first day.

Bucky tore out of the room, but Steve stopped in the doorway. “Goodbye, Mr. Coulson.”

“Goodbye, Steve. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The boy nodded and dashed out the door behind his friend. Phil smiled as he grabbed his bag and swept his gaze over the room one last time. Everything looked good. He left the lights on for the custodians, and then waved to Jane as he passed her office. Once in his car, he enjoyed the quiet for a moment before starting the engine. It had been a good first day.