It was Bob Reynolds who brought the news. He had picked it up at the breakfast table, and he ducked out to get to school early so he could tell everybody. He ran into Ned Rayborn and Ray McKay and Pink Stephenson walking together as they always did and demanded, “Know what?”
Pink said, “No, what? Your kid brother wet his pants again?” Bob just said, “They fired Old Buttocks.”
Everybody looked at Ray McKay because his old man was cashier of the other bank and he knew everything before anybody else did. But Ray just said, “Aw, shut up, kid; you’re full of crap.”
Just the same Bob knew it was true, and before noon everybody else knew it was true, and Ray McKay was telling everybody it was because the school board thought that no principal with a name like C. W. Bottoms could enforce discipline.
The kids were pretty sore. Even the tough kids like Mote Salisbury and Tim Healy and Dub McLain, who were always in hot water with the principal, were pretty sore because, when you came right down to it, there was nobody like Old Buttocks. Some of them talked about staging a protest parade downtown. But nothing ever came of it; the first thing anybody knew they were right in the middle of Commencement Week and then they were having Commencement itself and nothing had been done.
Only, seeing Old Bottoms on the stage, they realized they were seeing him maybe for the last time.
Afterwards, they all slipped around to Mr. Bottoms’s house and gave him a songfest. He came out pretty quick and stood on the porch, and after the first song he started to make a speech but before he got halfway through he broke down and began to cry and the first thing anybody knew, all of them were sniffling, or at least rubbing their eyes
After a little bit, Mr. Bottoms got his voice working again and finished his speech; he told them he would always remember 1917 as the happiest year of his life, just as they would remember it as the greatest year El Jardin had ever had.
Then over in the shadows near the front porch Isabelle Heard began to sing El Jardin Forever; she had a clear warm voice that went up and up, and all the kids cleared the tears from their throats and joined in, just as they would if El Jardin had lost a football game and the other side was tearing down the goal posts.
Their voices rose in the warm moonlit night, and Isabelle’s above them all until it seemed she touched the stars and they all could feel shivers — warm and quavery shivers run up their backs when everything seemed to melt together: the song and the moonlight and the sad sight of Old Bottoms, standing on the porch with his coat off and his collar off and his collar button showing and his face all twisted up.
If they’d seen any other grown-up standing there crying like that it would have made them sick, but with Bottoms it was different: he was for them and for El Jardin, and El Jardin was for him, and this was the saddest and most beautiful night of their lives.