Title: Back to School
Summary: Donna heads back to school...with a little help from Josh.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. I just like to have fun with them. Please don't sue me. I have no money.
Random Thoughts: I had actually finished this story before we discovered that Donna didn't have her degree. I made some changes and now I think it works much better. (Can't have Donna getting a master's before she's gotten her bachelor's.) Anyway, the problem Donna has with one of her classes is something I've struggled with for years. I know I'm not alone. Maybe some of you will relate to this too. Feedback is always appreciated.
Back to School (1/7)
Josh headed into the Georgetown cafeteria for a cup of coffee on his way off campus. Regretting his decision almost as soon as the bitter coffee hit his lips, he turned to leave. But not before noticing Donna sitting in the corner with her head bowed over a textbook.
Wondering what she was doing there, he wandered over to her table. He caught a glimpse of a math textbook and various pieces of scratch paper scattered on the table. Her hand was clenched around a calculator, while a pencil was between her lips. However, she didn't seem to be doing anything.
Josh placed his hands on the chair back opposite her. "Mind if I sit down?"
Donna startled at the sound of Josh's voice. Her head whipped up and she took the pencil out from between her lips. Josh saw tears pooled in her eyes before she blinked them away.
"Josh? What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question, Donnatella."
Their eyes silently locked and a faint blush creeped up Donna neck. With a sigh, she gestured to the seat opposite her. "Please sit down." She gathered up several of the papers on Josh's side of the table and stacked them on top of the open textbook. She fidgeted with the calculator."What are you doing here, Josh?"
"I had dinner with Professor Kincaid. He wanted to thank me for giving the presentation to his polysci class last semester."
"Oh," she replied, not meeting his eyes.
Josh knew all of Donna's moods. He could usually read them on her face, but she'd never been unable to look him in the eye. This confused and frightened him. He wasn't going to walk away without knowing why she was crying over a math textbook in the Georgetown cafeteria on a Tuesday night. He reached over and stopped her restless taping on the calculator keypad. "Donna, are you okay?"
She finally met his eyes, but moved her hand out from under his and onto her lap. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"It's just that you're sitting in the Georgetown cafeteria, all alone, crying over a math textbook." Deciding to lighten themood, Josh added, "I know you're big on crying over books. Like what was the name of that weepy girl book you tried to get me to read? Prudence and something?"
Donna smiled. "It was Pride and Prejudice and it is not a weepy girl book."
Happy to have found a topic she was warming to, Josh continued, "Oh yeah, like aristocrats romping through the English countryside in search of true love makes for a hard-hitting action thriller."
"Better romping through the English countryside, than storming a desert fortress in Lebanon like in that testosterone driven book you forced me to read a few months ago," she retorted.
"Excuse me, but that book happened to be on the best sellers list."
"Yes, but Pride and Prejudice is a classic and will be around a great deal longer than your best seller."
"Only time will tell," said Josh with a smile, settling back in his seat. This was more like it. Bantering with Donna made him feel that all was right with the world. Plus, he had gotten a smile out of her.
They settled into a comfortable silence. Donna turned her head and looked out the picture window next to their table. It was dark out and the window only reflected her and Josh's reflections back. She let out a sigh.
"You want to share?"
"Not really, but you'd find out sooner or later."
"What?" asked a perplexed Josh.
"I'm taking classes," she answered, ducking her head.
"You're back in school?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Don't sound so surprised Josh."
"I'm not surprised, Donna. I think it's great," he said, getting another smile out of Donna. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Well it's not something I wanted anyone to know," she replied, tears shimmering in her eyes again.
"Donna, why? It's great. What's wrong?" he asked, reaching to place his hand against her arm.
"You'll think it's stupid."
"I'll think the fact you're taking classes is stupid?"
"The fact I didn't want anyone to know about me taking classes."
"Donna, I'm totally confused. Why would I or anyone else think it was stupid that you're taking classes?"
Donna sighed and turned her head towards the window again. She admired Josh as a boss and a friend and maybe as something more. Lately she'd been thinking of him a lot as something more, but with everything else going on in her life, she'd pushed the thoughts aside. Plus, he was so intelligent. She'd always wondered what he thought about her dropping out of school to be with Tom, or as Josh called him, Dr. Free Ride.
"I really did not want to have this conversation with you, Josh. You're practically the smartest person I know and…"
"Practically the smartest?" he cracked, trying to get another smile out of her. When it failed, he tightened his hold on her arm and moved his hand down to cover hers with his. He didn't even realize he was holding her hand, so focused was he on the pain in the face of the woman before him. "Know what, Donna?"
Donna turned back to him, the tears in her eyes threatening to spill over now. In a quiet voice, she whispered, "I didn't want you to know because I'm afraid I'd fail."
Before Josh could say another word, she went on. "I didn't want you to know I was taking classes because I'm thinking about dropping out. Again. I think I'm too old to go back to finish my degree."
"Donna, don't say that," he said, squeezing her hand. "You're not too old. If you want to do this, then do it. I know you can."
Donna smiled weakly at him again. "Yeah, well I thought I could too, but that was before I realized I had to take a math class."
"Why would that bother you? You deal with that stuff every day."
Donna let out a sigh. "Joshua, I don't know if you noticed this, but I can't add two numbers together without using a calculator." She closed her eyes. "I work in the White House, but sometimes I feel like not having my degree puts me at a disadvantage."
Josh feared that he had somehow made Donna feel like her contributions and intelligence weren't valuable. In fact, she was vital to his survival in the west wing. Without her, he knew he'd be lost in a disorganization of his own creation.
"Donna, you are qualified to work in the White House. Probably over-qualified. Did I ever make you feel like you weren't doing an outstanding job?"
She opened her eyes and the tears spilled over. "Josh, no. You never did anything. This is my own stupid thing."
Keeping her hand locked in his, he reached into his suit pocket with his other hand and gave her his handkerchief. "It's clean. I swear."
A small smile danced over Donna's lips, but it didn't reach her eyes. "You're going to think I'm completely losing my mind when I tell you the other reason for not telling you about taking classes." She dabbed at her eyes.
"I doubt that. I don't think you're insane now, so try me."
Donna lowered her head and mumbled.
She didn't raise her head, but she spoke clearer. "I have math anxiety."
Josh would have laughed if he hadn't witnessed her tears. This was so unlike the confident woman who ruled over him and his office. She raised her head to look at him. "Scoff if you will, but it's true. I freak out over math. I don't understand it at all. And I can memorize formulas and equations until my dying day, but as soon as a test is placed in front of me I forget everything."
"Donna. Did I look like I was scoffing?"
"No, but I'm sure you're thinking…," she started.
"Donna, how do you know what I'm thinking? I'm definitely not thinking you're insane, or weak, or whatever else you're thinking. Please don't assume that I would ever think about you like that." He squeezed her hand. "Okay?"
Donna sniffled once. "Okay."
"Now let's go back to this math anxiety thing. Why didn't you ask for help?"
"I have Josh. That's just it. Every tutor I've ever had, from high school to college, has left me in a huff of frustration because I just can't get it. And the more upset they got with me, the more anxious I got. I've never got anything above a `C' in any math class I've ever taken."
"Well, see you're not a failure. `F' is failure. Quitting is failure. I don't hear you saying that you did any of those things."
Donna was about to respond, when Josh held up his other hand to stop her. "Wait let me finish. I should have been clearer. Why didn't you ask me for help?"
"No, I don't want to hear any of this `afraid to look like a failure in my eyes' stuff. Donna I could never see you that way and you know it. I know I don't have tons of free time, but if you'd ask, I'd gladly give up watching infomercials at 2 a.m. to tutor you."
She gave a slight smile, but the tears shimmering in her eyes threatened to spill over again. "You would do that? You would help me?" she asked her voice breaking.
"Of course I would. Why did you think you couldn't come to me with this?" he asked lifting her other arm up with the handkerchief to remind her to dab at her eyes.
"It's just this one pre-req calculus class and I thought I could handle it. I really thought I was passed all this. I figured an adult wouldn't respond to math the same way a teenager would, but I've obviously blown that theory to shreds," she laughed ruefully. Then she continued, only a little softer, "Then the class started getting hard, and everyone seemed to be breezing right through it and I thought it was too late in the semester to ask for help." She risked a glance at him before turning towards the window.
"Donna. Stop it. I won't sit here and listen to you tear yourself apart. It's not weak or stupid to ask for help. And, I'd like to help," Josh said, releasing her hand to grasp her chin and turn her towards him. "Do you want me to help you?"
Donna's eyes lit up for the first time since Josh had sat down. "Really? You aren't too busy? You have so little free time as it is."
Josh interrupted her, "Yes, I have little free time, but I can assure you that tutoring you will be much more worthwhile than buying knives off the TV at 2 a.m. Besides Donna, we're friends. I'd liketo help."
Donna took a moment to ponder. "Josh, I'm not an easy person to tutor in math. I get frustrated." She shook the handkerchief at him."I cry easily. I'll probably beg you to stab me with a pencil to put me out of my misery."
Josh laughed. "Haven't I so far resisted stabbing you with a pencil at work when you drive me crazy? If that doesn't show restraint and patience, I don't know what does."
Donna laughed, her eyes widened in mock horror. "What could I possibly have done to you at work that would make you want to stab me with a pencil?"
"Do you want the list in alphabetical or chronological order?" retorted Josh, happy to see her relaxing.
Donna laughed again, but then quieted. "Josh, how are we going to do this? I mean, you never know what your schedule is going to be like. We live on opposite sides of town. I really don't want anyone else to know about this…"
Josh interrupted her again. "Donna, we'll figure it out later. Right now, I'm dying for a decent cup of coffee," as he gestured to his now cold cup of cafeteria coffee, "and I think you need to get out of here. Wanna go around the corner to the coffee shop?"
Donna stared at Josh for a few seconds, as if weighing the pros and cons of her answer. "Okay." Donna started to collect her books and papers,stuffing things into her black backpack, which was similar to the one Josh carried.
When she went to put on her coat, Josh gallantly took it from her and held it out for her to slip on. Once she was safely wrapped in her coat she turned. "Thank you Josh," she whispered.
"You're welcome," Josh whispered back as he took her hand in his. Then he hoisted her backpack along with his own on his back and steered her out of the cafeteria into the night.