“…You must try to remember that both your father and I love you very much. We were so hoping to be able to send for you this Christmas…”
“Yeah Right,” I whispered to myself as I carefully folded the letter every bit as lovingly before slipping it back into it's envelope. In my mind's eye, I could imagine ripping it to shreds before taping it back together just so I could stab holes in it with my letter opener. I would like to have burned it too, but then I would not be able to send the whole thing back to my loving mother marked: “No such addressee, 'My beloved Son.'
It was just so like my mother to send a hand written letter just to tell me that I would not be seeing my parents for the third Christmas in a row. Knowing my mother, I was a little surprised she didn't have it engraved on the finest gilded cardstock before sending it to “Her beloved son.”
My dad, who E-mailed me several times a week, was by far the more practical of my parents. He had, of course, already told me that with the way things were going that it did not look too good for them to come home this year, or for me to fly over to them. He'd already told me that several times actually. I think the first time was in June.
I hate it when I cry. I'm sixteen. I swore that I wasn't going to let them get to me ever again. I figured that some kids have families, and that some kids have money. Some kids have both, but there are a lot more that have neither. I supposed that it was better to have one or the other, but at least I wasn't like those kids we'd met, who'd spent their whole lives in foster homes and orphanages. Those poor kids… they had nothing.
That didn't help very much just now. The burning that I felt behind my eyes got even worse, as I felt myself slipping toward self-pity.
My eyes were just a little watery as I looked at my mother's letter where it lay in my lap. Taking it to my desk, I carefully pressed it flat on the blotter. I read the envelope, and said “Humph.” softly, when I realized that the letter had come from Switzerland again. I knew that my dad was in Germany yesterday. Slitting the sides of the envelope, I pressed that flat too, before I clipped them together, so that I could store them both in my letterbox. Somehow, it just seemed important to know where each letter had been written.
I pushed a small gold locket I kept there aside, before slipping the new page into the box, and carefully locked it. I tried to use that as a symbol for the fact that when the whole truth was told, it came down to just this. They had their lives, and I had mine.
I was going to e-mail my mother and father to tell them that I had gotten her letter and that I was old enough to understand how busy they were, but the page on my screen was still a pristine and unsullied white when the clock chimed very softly for six. I walked into my bathroom to wash up for dinner, hoping cool water would help a little.
It was just like my mother to write a letter. When I say that my dad was more practical, I'm not saying that my mother wasn't smart. On the contrary. When it came right down to it, my mom was as sharp as they come. I mean, my dad was no slouch in any group. He ran much of his multinational corporation himself, including most of the day-to-day decisions that really mattered. He's smarter than most, but in a stand up fight, I'd have to bet on my mother. Even my father always said that she helped him more than anyone else did.
You see, not only was my mother smart, her family saw to it that she'd had the finest education available. She spoke about four languages, including French and German like a native.
She'd attended the finest schools, including a year at this finishing school for embarrassingly rich young ladies just outside Paris, which I had to admit was about as good academically as Saint Andrews. Then, because young women of her station were not actually encouraged to work, she'd gone on to attend Oxford for Languages and History, and then Edinburgh, for literature and poetry. Then it was back to Oxford, I think, which was where she met my Dad.
Dad, he had first gotten a scholarship to Princeton. His family was nothing like mom's when it came to money. Oh, they were well enough off, but like I said, nothing like my mother's family. I think they had butlers who had more money than my paternal grandparents did.
Of course I always had everything I'd needed when it came to material things. I'd also gotten a lot of what I'd asked for too, helped probably more by the fact that I'd almost never asked for anything impractical, than by what my parent's could afford. Toys and those kinds of things were just never important to me.
Dad had done a year at Harvard for his MBA after Princeton, and then a year at Oxford as part of some exchange. He had started his own business right out of school, which everyone still said was a mistake… if you can believe that. Everyone told him that he should work for someone else for a while, to learn the ropes and make mistakes, but for him that just seemed like a waste of time. Well it probably would have been. Like many people who really love what they do, he just took off. Now you can find his name in many of the year-end publications in the business genera.
Not that any of that seemed to matter much now.
Looking around as I wiped my hands, I almost started to laugh. I really was proud of both my mother and my father. They really did do a lot for me. Even here at St. Andrews, I had it pretty good. I had a private room, with my own bath, in a school where many people still had to share, no matter how much money their parents had.
Stepping out into the hall, as expected, several of my classmates were already headed toward the dining hall. What was surprising was that one of our teachers, Miss Lynn, was there too.
I guess there has to be a “Miss Lynn” in every boys’ school, if only to remind us why we wanted to grow up in the first place. We had two other female teachers, one of whom was still fairly young in her mid thirties, but neither held a candle to Miss Lynn. She was twenty-six or seven, I think, still young enough to be more like one of us than one of the other teachers. What made it worse was that she had a sense of humor, was smart, and just plain beautiful.
She was a great teacher, holding lectures in just about any science or math. She had this gift of being able to answer any question in a way that anyone could understand. It was said that the only reason they hired her in the first place, was because she took the place of several other teachers, even though she was a pretty young woman, a thing that the most prestigious of boy's schools would avoid like an outbreak of communicative disease. Reservations or not, a teacher who could have been a real scientist, and who could also teach even the most advanced students, even a prestigious school like Saint Andrews could not pass up.
I was the lucky one now, though, because here I was standing face to face with her. It was enough to cheer me up, even after that stupid letter.
“Evening Chris.” She said, as she paused to smile down at me. That was another nice thing about her. Some of our other professors looked on the students as a barely necessary evil for the running of the school. Miss Lynn would often stop for a moment no matter how busy she was, to exchange a word or two, and to make sure everything was going as it should for you. Almost as often, she would share some interesting or helpful bit of information that you just couldn't believe that she had somehow connected to you. That made her even more popular, if that was even possible.
“Ah, Evening, Miss Lynn.” I could feel myself blush slightly.
“On your way to dinner?” She asked pleasantly.
“Yes, Ma'am.” I did not quite stutter, still a little flustered at having come face to face with her so suddenly. “I thought I'd beat the rush.”
This of course made her laugh. She looked down at me and patted my shoulder lightly when she did. Somehow I think that's one of the reasons why she seemed to like me Okay. Most of the other guys in my form were at least as tall as she was, and most of all the rest were a lot taller.
The rush thing was all a joke of course. Friday night was a fine night for dinners, as the evening chef usually put on a good meal for the kids staying in the school for the weekend. It was a little consolation for the kids who could not leave to be with their families most weekends. This time of year it was even more so. I was sure that no more than a third of the kids would be left by the time I was finishing up my meal.
We reached the steps, which quickly confirmed the estimate. There was a line of cars, a complete collection of the latest model Volvo's and Mercedes, with a few limousines thrown in as well. Most of the kids were being picked up by a parent, but a lot of them were picked up by drivers or cabs or other hired folk.
I stopped for a moment as I watched one of the lucky ones. It was Doug, I could see, and he was greeted by both his mother and father, and his big sister who all hugged him, before they got into the car.
Doug looked embarrassed and seemed to try and hurry everyone into the car. I wasn't sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. I only knew that if I had a family like that, I wouldn't care who was watching”
“Is everything all right, Chris?” Miss Lynn asked me softly. I had not even realized that I had stopped at the top of the stairs to watch Doug and his family. I certainly hadn't realized that Miss Lynn had stopped to watch me too.
“Yeah!” I said with all the enthusiasm that I could muster, but I'm sure I must have sounded completely terminal.
We both started to walk toward the dining hall again. Autumn evenings in New England can be very cool, and the even though it was not cold enough to need more than a good sweater, it still made my eyes sting. I was trying to find a way to tell her that everything was just fine, but somehow I just could not find the words in time to head off the inevitable big-sisterish, or best friend's mother like inquisition.
“So tell me, what are your plans for the holiday?” She asked brightly, as she stabbed straight at my vitals with an unwavering aim. “Are you going over to Europe to spend it with your family, or are they coming here?”
If it were not for the eye thing that I was trying to deal with, and the invisible evil dwarf that had just punched me in my stomach, I might even have been able to come up with a lie. “Neither, really.” I heard myself say. I could not help but glance at her just in time to see her eyebrows draw a little closer together. She was way too smart.
The corners of her mouth turned down a little too, even before I could look away, which once more had me looking at the shrinking rows of cars in the driveway. One of the guys was walking toward a limo with a swarthy man who was obviously the driver. They were playfully shoving each other as they went…
“Chris?” Miss Lynn asked softly, putting her hand on my shoulder to stop me from bolting toward the door of the dining hall. “Not again?”
This was Miss Lynn's first year here at St. Andrew's School for Boys, but I suppose that there really weren't very many who didn't know about the kid who's own family wouldn't even bother to come and get him at Christmas. I mean that happened to kids every year. It always did at a place like this, but I already had the school record for having been passed over on my first two years. This time, it was bound to be the talk of the school.
She said in a low voice, “Come with me," as I felt her steer me toward the administration wing. I was sure a few of the remaining kids must have given us a curious glance or two, but I did not really care. Before I knew it, we were in her office, and she was handing me a cool cloth to wipe my face.
“I'm sorry…” I tried to explain, but looking at her face I just could not do it. What could I possibly say?
How could I explain any of this away, making her understand, when I could not even explain it to myself. Finally, all I could manage was: “I'm sorry, Miss Lynn. I didn't mean to act like a baby. It's only that I just got the letter when I got back to my room. I kind of figured that it was coming. At least I'll be able to volunteer to help hand out presents at the orphanage again this year.” I tried to smile sarcastically, but I couldn't even manage that.
I really hadn't thought before I'd said it. Her face, was far from being placated. In fact, while I watched her it had grown red with anger.
“Really, it doesn't matter. I just don't want the other guys to know, and I don't want us to miss dinner. I look forward to Friday nights with Chef.”
The joke was about as funny as gangrene on your Thanksgiving turkey.
She just looked at me for a long time before she spoke at all. It was obvious that she was trying to manage her own anger. “Chris, I've heard a rumor around…,” she began to ask finally in a soft voice, “Is it true that you were here the last two years too?”
No point in doing anything but nodding my head, and using the cloth quickly to wipe my face, being as cool as I could manage. “Thank you for this, Ma'am. I think my hay fever must be acting up or something. Pollen.” I shrugged helplessly. “Come on, Ma'am. You can go get your dinner. I'll just head back to my room and wash my face, and I'll see you there.”
I looked hopefully at her, but it was no use, because her expression only grew darker. “Besides,” I finished “I usually go to the library on Friday nights, and you can't check out books after eight thirty. I like to get a couple for the weekend.”
The darkening of her features continued. There's a lot to be said for keeping your mouth shut. I'm a walking poster child.
“You can wash up here, Chris.” She said calmly, “and we have plenty of time to get to dinner.”
She just continued to wait for me to talk, but it soon became obvious to her that there was no way that I was going to say anything else. The last two minutes of verbal incontinence would take at least a week to explain away. It would probably be up to a month before I'd even try.
“When did you find out?” She asked me to clarify in a voice that was much softer than her facial expression.
“I just got the letter this afternoon, when I went back to my room” I told her.
“I'm so sorry, Chris.” she said sympathetically at first, and then she lost it “What the hell is wrong with those people. You are a great kid. Why don't they take you over there with them, if they can't come here? I mean it's not like they can't afford to fly you over.”
“It's not like that, Miss Lynn.” I guess I'm just stupid, because I began to talk awfully fast. Again. “You don't understand. My dad just opened up a big new line, and he's been in a different country every night. I'd only be in the way there, and I'm sure that they'll make it up to me. I'll be seeing my dad at Easter anyway. He flies over to see me at least once a quarter, and by then everything should be Okay.”
Even I could hear the pathetic sound of the echoes in the silence that followed.
Calming a little, but not because of my excuses, she asked what I had not thought of as the most obvious question. “What about your mother? Can't she have visitors?”
“Well yeah, I guess, but you see she's the one who helps dad out. She's the one who speaks several languages, and her family has the connections in northern Europe. She's helping dad out most of the time.” I finally ground down to a stop, realizing how childish and unsatisfying it all sounded.
Miss Lynn did not answer immediately. She just looked at me, her mouth moving slowly up and down for a few moments before she finally said, “… She's helping him?” The only good thing was that she didn't really look as angry anymore. She looked more shocked and confused.
For the longest time she just stood there, and looked at me. Glancing at the clock, I could see that we'd been in her office for just less than ten minutes which shocked me, because it seemed like so much more. That was about the longest ten minutes of my life, if you didn't consider when I was being born.
She was still just looking at me and thinking, which made me feel very low, because I had no idea what she was thinking, and anything that I might have guessed was certain to be a subject that I did not feel up to dealing with. I tried to put an end to her scrutiny in the only way that I could. I got up, and walked past her desk into her private bathroom, and quickly washed my face before I stood for a minute pressing a towel to my eyes.
When I walked back into the office, she was waiting by the door. “Come on.” She said in a voice that was at least no longer angry, and clearly ready to make sure that I couldn't skip dinner to go back to my room. “Let's go try and beat the rush.” Her smile was… well almost a smile.
I heard myself sigh in relief as we stepped out, at which she smiled for real.
She truly did have a wonderful smile. It would be awfully hard for a person to feel bad when she did that. I mean she knew I liked her. Every boy in the school did. She must have known. It was probably why she smiled so much, because of all the agreeable if unavoidable pain it caused everyone.
“Sit and have dinner with me, Chris.” She was smiling even more now. “I'd like you to tell me about your Mom and dad.”
Just when I thought I had a chance. It was like seeing that the last ten feet of rollercoaster track were missing.
Neither of our meals was more than half-eaten where they lay on the table in front of us. Even though there were far fewer students in the dining room now, there were fewer still who wanted to be seated near us. The other boys seemed to understand that it was better to give a wide berth to an instructor and student who were obviously deep in conversation. Of course, they all kept one eye on Miss Lynn at all times anyway, so it was hardly lonely.
“You know, Chris, some women just find it very hard to be warm to…” she let the thought lie there on its own.
“No, Ma'am. It's not like that at all.” I tried to make her understand. “My mother was always very nice to me. She was never standoffish.” I felt a powerful need to make her understand that my parents were not monsters.
“She used to play with me all the time, and we'd go places almost every week.” I looked back at her earnestly, but she seemed completely unconvinced.
“And what about your father, Chris? Was he always like this?” She asked, not so much accusatory, as really trying to understand.
“Well he's always worked and traveled a lot, but when he was home, he always spent his time with mom and me. I get E-mails from him every few days, and several times a year he flies home to be with me for long weekends and things.” It really sounded worse than it was. I knew how much my parents loved me. Miss Lynn did not.
“I promise I won't take this any further, unless of course you ask me to, but I have to ask just this once.” She took a little breath, and then asked, “Do either your Mother or Father ever hit you?”
I was scared. This whole thing was turning from a bad dream into a nightmare. I could have said never and made it stick, but somehow I knew she'd know. She seemed to know everything else.
“Miss Lynn.” I started. “My parents don't abuse me. Know what this looks like, but I can honestly say that they only ever hit me when I was too small to reason with. They never hurt me. I can only remember one time that my mother ever hit me at all, and I think that was a mistake, because she
fell apart when she did it, and apologized over and over.”
Miss Lynn, reached over and put her hand on my arm, and told me in a low voice “I promise, this is just between you and me. I'm not going to do anything that will cause you any problems with your parents. Okay?”
I nodded my head.
“Tell me about the time your mother hit you.”
“Well there isn't much to tell. It was only a few years ago. We were all playing in the pool. Dad had jumped in, and my mother was trying to keep a ball away from him. I jumped on her back, and I grabbed her shoulders trying to help her keep the ball away from my father - and she just freaked. She screamed, and started swinging. I don't know what happened.”
Miss Lynn's eyes looked pained actually, so I paused for moment, only to have her give a funny little nod before she said “Go on.”
“Well that's about it really. Dad took her upstairs, and a couple of hours later, she came down still upset, and apologized. She said that I had startled her. That's all. That November I came here, and I've really only seen her a few times since, and…” I didn't know what else to say.
“I see.” She said.
She obviously didn't know what else to say either, because she changed the subject. “So, do you go to the library every Friday…”
Right after dinner, I went to the library and picked up a collection of really old Sci-fi stories, a book of poetry I wanted for class, and a book on Victorian woman's fashions. It looked like a typical weekend for me…
“Settle down, Gentlemen.” Doctor Pope, our headmaster, called out with exaggerated patience.
Most of the kids knew just what he meant when he called us 'Gentlemen'. Don't get me wrong, he was a real nice guy, one-on-one, but he'd been dealing with the raving hoard for a long while I guess, and it showed.
“Take your seats, so we can get started.” The poor man droned.
An unannounced assembly was something that piqued everyone's interest. Perhaps they found a body in a locker, or worse, porn or drug paraphernalia. At Saint Andrews, a sudden death was explainable you see. Everything else was an honor violation.
“OK, Gentlemen,” Doctor Pope finally began with the matter at hand. “I don't want to keep you any longer than is necessary.” He paused for just a moment to make sure he had our attention as he scan the crowd. “Now, we have some news, and brevity being the most urgent requirement I will now hand this little meeting over to Mrs. Pierce. Mrs. Pierce?”
Mrs. Pierce stood up and just stared at him. She smiled, but she made no move toward the microphone.
Doctor Pope, finally smiled back at her in a concession we could all see, and stepped back to the microphone.
“Very well. I tried. Those few of you who watch Television…” he had to pause for laughter, during which time he smiled back, “know that there has been a vast increase in programming dedicated to formal dance. Well, Mrs. Pierce and I are happy to report, that she is just back from a meeting, and that our Board of Governors, who have taken note of this change, and have seen fit to direct that I take steps to ensure that all of you have some familiarity with these increasingly popular forms.”
There were enough groans and moans to make the place seem remarkably like a whale-watch excursion boat full of land lubbers caught unexpectedly in rough seas.
“Now as you all know, my own dancing career was second only to my tenure as an educator,” he cleared his throat meaningfully, “but I have felt it only prudent that I should subvert my own desires to the more rounded capabilities of my most able assistant headmistress and school administrator, and I am quite pleased to inform you all I have already done so with the utmost dispatch…, I mean confidence.”
He looked back at Mrs. Pierce, again.
Moving to the podium, while shaking her head at Dr. Pope, Mrs. Price looked like she always did - calm and confident. As the school administrator, she was the one who took care of the actual running of the school. As usual, she looked very nice and professional, even though she was at least twenty years older than Miss Lynn was. Miss Laurie, the office manager, was there on stage as well, which was quite odd to say the least.
“Good morning boys. I'm glad that the Headmaster was kind enough to allow us to interrupt your schedule today for this brief assembly, because time is very short. We have all graciously been given almost three weeks to accomplish a task that would usually take months, which is why we've called you together to hear this very good news.”
She smiled at everyone brightly. She was older, but no one would have said she was anything but a pretty woman. She always called us boys, when it was good news. From anyone else it would not have been tolerated, but from Mrs. Pierce, it was motherly. All the guys liked her. We liked most of our teachers really. It was hard not to; they were the very best at what they did.
“As many of you no doubt know, for many years Saint Andrews had a tradition of holding a winter dance. Usually around Christmas, the dance was a formal affair where Saint Andrew's and our sister school, Saint Mary's, students would all attend. For most of its history, the schools alternated the location of the dance, one year being held here in the Crystal Hall, and the next being hosted at Saint Mary's, and so forth.”
Mrs. Pierce walked to the front of the small stage to smile more directly down at all of us. “Well, I just got notice, the chancellors have agreed to reinstitute that tradition starting this year.”
She paused, of course, to allow the student body to groan as one.
Laughing, she said. “Now. I assure you that I understand your angst at the thought of entertaining such dangerous, mysterious, and exquisitely frightening creatures as the ladies of Saint Mary's!” She was actually laughing right at us. “I truly do understand. However, as dangerous as they may or may not be, the governors and your faculty believe that we should make some attempt to teach you young gentlemen some of the social skills you will need as you move onto what I am sure will be very successful lives.”
The groans were polite, and not intended as a demonstration, but they were just less audible than fingernails on a chalkboard.
Laughing again, “I can assure you that it is much worse than you know. I was invited up to Saint Mary's this morning to help answer questions as my counterpart informed the girls of the upcoming event. I was completely struck first of all by how lovely those ladies were, and by how happy and excited they were at the prospect of having you gentlemen escort them to a ball.”
Two kids actually began to panic. A brown paper bag saved the lucky one from hyperventilation, while the other poor blighter had to make due with a sharp elbow to his midriff. Both methods were mostly effective. Mostly.
“Now I want to assure you that in all the years that this event was held, the students of Saint Andrews never let the reputation of our school down. What I mean to say is, that our students have behaved as gentlemen. Oh, and just to be sure you fully understand, behaving like a gentlemen does not include hiding in bathrooms, or under tables. Nor does it suggest standing on the sidelines like a bunch of stuffed exhibits at the Natural Geek Museum.”
She paused to look us over for a few moments, making actual eye contact with the least lucky amongst us.
“What it did, and does entail, is the requirement that each and every one of you young gentlemen escort at least one young lady to the dance floor.” She paused for several moments before speaking just slightly louder to be sure she was heard over the sobbing. “Thereby, showing the young lady thus chosen that you not only can dance with her, but also make polite and interesting conversation when pressed to it. Now the initial plan was to draw lots and pair every student, but I have argued that this is not the middle ages. I will however, act with a clear conscience and unwavering resolve in this regard if it proves necessary.”
She took another minute to single out a few more marked souls, before she stepped back to the lectern and changed from her official persona into her motherly one. That of course, marked our deaths with the finality of freshly carved tombstones, or an even fresher bill for digging the hole. You could argue all you may like with her, or your biological mother for that matter, but that was only to make you feel like you'd at least tried.
“I also want you all, my fine young gentlemen, to remember two things. courtesies and manners, as onerous as they may seem right now, serve to make the people you will meet throughout your life comfortable with you. It's a comfort to everyone when they know 'The Rules', which of course, includes all of you. The day will come when you will be glad to have learned what we are trying to teach you today. I guarantee.”
When she laughed this time, it had to be at the look of utter disbelief on our faces.
“The second of the things that I want you to remember, and the one that may even be the most important, is that the young ladies that I met today are all very excited to meet you. It would be the most wasteful shame if through your lack of attention or preparation any of you were to spoil it for them. Not only would that break their hearts needlessly, but it would prevent you from taking the opportunity to get to know them, which you yourselves will surely want to do very soon.”
She looked at us for just a few minutes more, watching our faces sober. It was true. Boys who've been locked up long enough, will risk life, and limb to meet the fairest members of the fairer sex - especially those around their own age. They'd try almost as hard as they'd try to avoid a formal.
Mrs. Pierce just nodded to herself after a moment more of scanning our faces.
“Therefore,” She continued, “beginning today, we will be holding dance lessons twice a week, for two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There will be an additional practice session on Friday evenings, for those who feel they would like to attend, and Miss Lynn, Miss Laurie, and I will be happy to instruct you.”
I'm sure I heard a pin fall off a table somewhere at the back of the stage.
“Are there any questions?”
The joker stood up, and placed the backs of his hands on his hips.
“Mrs. Pierce, Three weeks is simply not enough time to design and sew a proper gown. Do the Governors understand that their lack of reasonable notice will force some of us to have to buy,” he gulped with an extraordinary flair, “…off the rack?”
“Don't worry, Mr. Martin. We are here to help you, of course. If you'd like, I can check in my closet to see if I can lend you something suitable. Now if anyone else has a worthwhile question?”
Christ on a snowboard in July!
Needless to say, nothing much happened for the rest of that day that did not involve some bitching or scheming of the upcoming dance in one form or another. Perhaps the only thing that had any kind of permanence was the slow resolution of the students into three distinct groups. The first were comprised of those who might actually have met a girl before, and were looking forward to the evening in question. The second group, the one which held a reasonable majority, was comprised of those who were sure that the plans would clearly result in some notably lamentable end to us, but who were willing at least to try and see the thing through. The third group had opted on escape: Tunnels, two man wooden gliders, and all manner of rare contagious diseases were discussed. The various materials were already being collected, and stockpiled into hidden stashes all over campus.
Her voice startled me, not because it wasn't instantly recognizable, but rather because it was. I turned to face Miss Lynn.
“Yes, Ma'am, Miss Lynn?” I said, somehow avoiding the less dignifying amount of stammering, and 'Hums” and 'Ah's' that usually preceded any sentence I spoke to Miss Lynn.
She smiled again. “Don't look so guilty, Chris. Whatever you've been up to, we haven't been able to discover… yet.” Her smile was as warm as sunshine. “I just wanted to know how you are doing.”
“I'm fine, Miss Lynn. Thank you for asking.” I said, both grateful for her concern and attention, and reluctant to dredge up my problems, or even be a student with 'problems' to her.
“Did you get the chance to talk with your mother or father?” She asked, surprising me more than a little.
The suspicions began to coalesce in my mind. “I did. My father called me on Saturday evening, and we had a long talk.”
She nodded her head, confirming as much as possible, that she was involved somehow.
She continued, “Are you feeling at least a little better?” She asked, taking a moment only, to put her hand on my shoulder, and steer me down the hall beside her, so that we could talk.
“Yes, Ma'am.” I said, not able to keep from feeling grateful at her concern. “In fact, my father told me that he had been trying to plan a couple of days right at Christmas, so he could fly over and see me, but he had not wanted to say anything before now for fear that he might not be able to make it.”
“I see.” She nodded again, which still seemed to me like she had taken the position of an arbitrator between my parents and me. “Did he know how likely that was?”
“Not really,” I told her honestly, “but, knowing my dad, I'm sure he'll really try.” I knew that he would, and I guess she believed me.
She then asked “And what of your Mother. Can't she come too?”
I frowned, I'm sure. That had been as sad for me as my thinking they could not come at all. “No.” I said, simply.
“Why not Chris? Is she not well enough to make the trip?” She clinched it.
“No, Ma'am” I stopped and turned to look at her, causing her to stop too.
It took me a couple of seconds to phrase the question. “What did you say to them?”
Thank God she smiled again, which told me that everything was indeed Okay. “I simply told your father that although…” She stopped, seemingly searching for words, which was something she never had to do. “I am sure that he is needed where he is, he also has a great kid over here, the other third of his family, who needs him just as much as…,” She made a barely discernable pause, “he is needed there.” She finished, turning away down the hall once more I heard “A great kid” again, very softly, as if she had said it to herself.
Even though I'd gone past the stairs to my room, I continued to follow her as she'd indicated. I realized that she was glancing at me, waiting to see how I'd taken the news.
“Thank you, Miss Lynn.” I said, looking at her in a way that caused several of the other boys to look at me openly. “Thank you, very much.”
She smiled again, and patted my shoulder, “You are very welcome, Chris. It was my pleasure to do it" She looked down at the hall floor for several moments, but her smile never really faded as we walked. “Well, I have to get back, we have our first dance lesson tonight, and I need to get some stuff done before then. Your class assignment to name one thing.” I could not resist an evil snort, because like most of the kids, I had little sympathy for the need to keep up our normal huge workload, when we had been suddenly overburdened by the need for dance. Even though I was in the group that was scared and kind of liking the idea.
She laughed at me, before she said quickly “Please try to remember that both dancing and Chemistry will help you to build character.” She continued to grin.
“Gee, thanks.” I said, somehow achieving that precise level of scorn and distain required to relieve the statement of any real thanks, while only just avoiding offence.
Still laughing, “No, seriously, it's an important assignment. You'll see that in about a week, but I also wanted to ask you something. You seem to like science fiction a lot.”
I was a little shocked, since I'd never discussed this with her. Another one of those little tidbits she always seemed to know.
Taking my momentary silence as a confirmation, she continued. “I just wanted to tell you that I'm a huge fan as well. Judging by the books you've checked out, I have about two or three dozen that you should really love. When I go to my storage unit this week I'll bring some of them back, and as long as you have the time, I'll leave them in my office for you. Given how many books you check out on the weekends, you'll probably have no trouble reading them all. You read very fast.” She finished succinctly.
“You know what I've been checking out?” I asked, surprised that I'd never thought of that before.
“Of course.” She looked at me again. “Any one of your teachers can look at the books that you check out. I hope you don't mind, I wasn't trying to pry. In fact, it's the first time that I've ever done that to anyone.”
I was a little surprised, but then I was a little worried also. I'd long known that going to the Library on Fridays was what gave me the chance to look up things that some of my classmates would find strange. Others would think of it as a shark does an open vein in a warm southern ocean.
We had stopped, and she was looking at me again. “In fact, Chris, I also noticed that you seem to have other interests as well. Fashion and Style information also seem to be high on your reading list.” She finished the real intent of her comments with an admirable aplomb.
“Miss Lynn, I…,” Oh darn. I swallowed hard.
She was looking at me really carefully now.
“Look Chris, you wouldn't be the first boy in a school like this to try and sneak the sacred copy of 'Cosmo' out of the library; but, you seem to be searching for much more than that. Based on your loans, you seem to have quite an interest in all kinds of female fashions. I wanted to tell you that that's okay too. Many of the biggest designers of women's clothing are men, and I know you have a lot of artistic talent as well as every other kind. I can draw adequately, but real artistic talent has always been a mystery to me, and I only admire you all the more for it. I just wanted to let you know that you can talk to me about that as well, if you like.”
She just watched me.
“I…,” Oh, Our blessed savior on roller-skates... “Thank you, Miss Lynn.”
She nodded, and then added very quickly. “In my office, I also have a bunch of magazines that I've saved over the years. They are in the bookcase cabinet, under my reading books in my office. If you like you may use any of those that interest you, but I wanted to warn you, I don't want them circulated around the school…” She didn't need to add anything more.
Forget talking. What would I have said anyway.
This time, her smile held mostly compassion for the guilty unfortunate. “Well, I have to get going, too. Take care of yourself, Chris. Remember, that you can talk to me any time you want. It doesn't need to be about anything as important as being abandoned on the steps of Saint Andrew's orphanage every twenty-fifth of December!” She giggled a little. “I like talking to you. Okay?”
I just nodded, and she was gone. I was completely grateful for making it back to my room without seeing anyone. When I looked in the mirror, my face was still quite the lovely shade of puce.
The first dance class went by much as expected. Everyone stood around with nothing much to do, while some of us with names in the low end of the alphabet did little other than talk, or read. I got to dance with Mrs. Pierce, lucky me, and was soon pronounced “a good dancer,' which of course earned me the red badge of target, according to my classmates’ time honored codes. That was also why I got to read most of the time there.
Thus it was, when Thursday's lesson came around, and we were all hurried into our places, and addressed.
“Settle down, Boys. We need to straighten some things out tonight, so please, everyone, take a seat…”
We did, if not quietly or quickly, at least it was with most of us using the prescribed part of our anatomy.
Mrs. Pierce continued. “Thank you. Now, as most of you no doubt realize, the first session did not go very well. I have to say, that I was not surprised at that, but I was surprised at how little most of you know about dancing.” How odd that people who have no interest in goat herding will become immediately offended by doubts as to their innate talents therein.
“It has become obvious that we need to work a little harder than we anticipated, and in much smaller groups. Therefore, from now on, the Tuesday session will be held on Mondays, and will be the same two hours. On Tuesdays from now on, we will all be together for one hour, at which times we will demonstrate various principles of etiquette and forms of dance.
The remaining three days of the week, we will break you up into nine groups. Each day, with a specific teacher.” Groans began to interrupt.
“Gentlemen! We have very little time, please listen.” There was instant quiet at the serious tone. “I did not mean that any of you would have to go more than one additional day. In fact, you will be assigned only one day in which to practice. I'm afraid that will be all that time allows, which is unfortunate, because many of you will need to practice more in order to be comfortable when the day of the dance arrives.”
She looked at all of us, not because we made a sound, but because we did not. After the actual dance lesson, the threat of the dance was like a bucket of iced-water in the veins leading directly to our hearts. Worse, we could see she was obviously cataloguing us in her mind still.
“To continue, as I've said we will have very little time, even if your female instructors work with a group every day. Therefore, I've asked Coach Madison to help us out, which he has agreed to do, but only for several specific days he is available. Most of you may be surprised to know, that your track and field coach took quite a lot of dance classes in his day, so I urge you to take full advantage of what he knows.”
Mrs. Pierce stared down the group, as if we really needed it. We were too cowed to make any perverse comments about the Coach's dancing skills. Besides we were too afraid he'd make us curry the hair on his back or something, or even worse, tell the head coach. He'd been a chicken colonel in the marines.
“Now, unfortunately, it has also become too obviously clear, that even with the changes I've indicated, that there is no way that just the three of us will be able to serve as partners for all of you…”
My eardrums popped from the combined inhalation, and holding of every student's breath.
“Yes, that's right. Several of you will have to assist us. I realize this is going to cause those students chosen for this task some grief, but let me warn everyone, quite clearly; the students thus chosen are going to be helping you not to make ass…, Err, I mean spectacles of yourselves. All of you had better treat them accordingly. I will be obligated to deal with the matter quite severely, by virtue of the fact that the boys chosen will have no choice. God help the first student who tries to make an ass of himself in advance of the appropriate time.”
One legged Jesus, on a snowboard, behind a jet ski.
Suddenly, Mrs. Pierce started to laugh at us again, and after our initial reaction of jumping to flee, everyone else did also, even though it was pure nerves. At that point, one of the crazier guys in the back made a show of 'volunteering' to be one of the 'female' assistants to the special assistants to The Administrator, de facto factotum to the office of the chance-kill-ors , who were trying to keep us from making asses of ourselves - on our own..
“Sit down. I appreciate your valorous contribution, but we need to pick people who can actually dance…”
That did it. Everyone was laughing now.
“Seriously, Gentlemen, many of you have also played the female rolls in our quarterly plays, so we will pick the students accordingly. It would not seem fair to ask for volunteers, as this would only serve to obscure their fellow student's estimation or appreciation of their talents and versatility. In any event, we have already chosen the students we intend to ask.”
Someone from the back. “Do you mean you are looking for gay students, Ma'am, because…”
Mrs. Pierce didn't even look, instead holding up her palm in his general direction to shut him up. “Mr. Jeremy, the singular aim of this meeting is to assure that those of us standing before you, namely the female complement to whom this task has fallen, will still be able to stand when this is all over. If any of you have any other agenda, I suggest you reschedule it until you can make an appointment with me to establish an extracurricular organization open to all students with similar interests. Provided of course that club can satisfy the guidelines set fourth in your honor code. I clearly said we will pick the students.”
“Oh Shit.” I heard someone say, exactly mirroring the words going through my mind at that very moment.
“That's right Mr. Thomas. You are with me.” Mrs. Pierce said flatly.
“Permission to be excused to the restroom, Ma'am?”
“Sit down.” She said as her eyes began to scan the group for the other two condemned. “Chris Morgan, Miss Lynn has picked you as her surrogate, and…, Ah yes Willis, you will work with Miss Laurie…”
I didn't hear much after that. Blood rushing in ears can do that I'm told, but I did perk up just enough to see Miss Lynn smiling at me. I could have sworn that there was something there, other than a good-natured smile of thanks and commiseration. A faintly sympathetic look from the lioness, just before she slaughters you. I felt that fainting would not be a very effective way of avoiding derision of my more feminine talents, or I'd have done it right then.
Narcolepsy, though? Several of the boys had talked about…
“Now before we get back to work, we'll have to go over the groupings we've come up with.” She handed a stack of papers to the boy closest to her, and continued. “I'm going to say this just once more. Misters Thomas, Morgan, and Willis were chosen not only for their superior abilities to woo almost any young women with their fine dancing talents…,” She paused to let that sink in, “they were also chosen because their academic standing allowed them to be freely chosen without any fear of compromising their more scholarly pursuits. You should all remember that, along with the fact that I will personally disembowel anyone giving them grief!”
“Oh, Shit!” I heard again softly, and looked back to identify Willis. Looking back at me, he quietly tossed a book he had with him over his shoulder, and said very clearly and directly to me: “Mummy!”
Apart from a little minor teasing, and two proposals of marriage, and four requests for dates, (only one of which was serious!), I heard very little more till the next day, when Miss Lynn called me over to her desk at the end of Chemistry lecture.
“Good luck, Ginger.” One of the guys whispered in my ear, but took the sting out of it with a commiserating and encouraging pat on the shoulders as he passed me on the way back to his own desk.
Miss Lynn was smiling again. “I'm sorry, Chris. I'm really not picking on you now. Mrs. Pierce picked the three of you with the Headmaster, before I could even suggest you. You really were one of the best dancers, you poor thing.”
She smiled at my face some more. “I wanted to tell you that if you really feel uncomfortable with any of this, I've insisted that you will be allowed to back out. Contrary to what Mrs. Pierce said, even she can't force you boys to do this. Like the female parts in our theatrical productions, it's voluntary.”
Her smile was clearly pained, pleading with me not to quit on her. 'Oh shit', seemed to be echoing from the very stones of the venerable edifice around us. The Chemistry lab had long ago been moved back into the older and less inflammable Stone building - for some reason.
“You know I can't turn you down, after what you did for me.” I said, taking that first of many slow steps up the gallows stairs. “I'll help you, Miss Lynn.” Step.
She hugged me quickly at that, right in front of the class, and chuckled. It would certainly have made it worth all of the pain to come, had I lived to see it.
“Chris, you don't owe me anything. You are under no obligation to do this, but if you still will, I have to say I'll be eternally grateful. I had to soak my feet for two hours Tuesday night, and my legs still hurt.” She smiled, but also took a step back to look at me. “If you are sure, I can sure use the help.”
Resigned, with a finality that I'd just realized that I had not feared enough until now, I asked her. “What do I have to do?” Step, step, hop.
Grinning, she laid it all out. “It's simple Chris. Mrs. Pierce or I will show you the dances you need to learn, and after we demonstrate them to the group, you will serve mostly as a dance partner for the boys that need less help. It'll be a lot of work, I can tell you, and I'm so sorry for your toes ahead of time, but it will help them a lot. If…”
I finished when she paused. “If they can dance with me in front of everyone, then dancing with a real girl should be a cinch.”
She smiled all the time, but she nodded to show I'd figured it out. “I need you to meet with me this evening in the theater, that's where you and I will be holding our sessions. The others will be in the gym, or the dining room. I have a late class, and don't have time to move tables and chairs and such, so we lucked out.”
She paused before asking one last time. “Are you sure?” She bent her head slightly looking at me as if she were looking at me through a large pair of bushy eyebrows, which she did not of course have.
“I'm sunk…” I valiantly made a show of bravery for her. “I'm sorry, Ma'am. I meant to say I'm sure.”
The bell sounded.
She laughed, as she put her arm around my shoulders, and dragged me toward the door. “Okay, then, Chris. Meet me in the auditorium at about five this afternoon, and we'll set up. Okay?”
I nodded as we reached the door, and she sent me on my way with a commiserating laugh for my hang dog expression.
Everything went well. I was taking Latin that afternoon, so most of the folks in that class had precious little time to worry about anything else, by virtue of the fact that professor Tam could be counted on to call on everyone in the class at least once during every session. I did get called 'Ginger' again by one boy, but that bought him a several of the guys saying, 'Aaw, leave her alone…”
Ginger is a popular name, it seems, but most if the guys seemed good about it. The few guys who were on the cruel side, tired of giving us grief. I suppose that in a school where they put on two to three plays a year with boys playing female leads, it's just not that much of a novelty really.
As I walked out of my last class, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hi, Willis. What's up?” I said when I looked back to discover my fellow sufferer, who when I looked at him again, seemed more than a little worried.
“Umm. Can I talk to you a minute?” He asked me barely above a whisper, making it clear that he wanted to talk in private. One kid said something like “Look man, real life lesbians…”, which we all laughed at, but the guy standing closest to him just grinned and waived before headed the other way saying, “For crying out loud guys leave them alone to their 'girl-talk.”
When they were out of earshot, I stopped to talk to him. “What is it, Willis? You look like you need a drink, man. You need to calm down.” I was trying to cheer him up, but he only nodded without answering.
Only when the other guys made it around the corner did he begin talking in earnest. “Have you spoken with Miss Lynn yet?” I nodded my head, encouraging him to continue. “I just talked to Miss Laurie. She told me that Miss Lynn had insisted that we could back out if we really wanted to.”
Poor Willie, he looked like a drowning man, who just stumbled upon a rubber raft with a hole in it. I just nodded again to confirm that what he'd been told was true.
“Well?” he gasped. “Did you tell her No? I've got to tell Miss Laurie later this evening if I'll do it or not.”
I took a deep breath, because somehow, I knew that this would get around the school as sure as midterms and sunrise. “I'm sorry, Willie. Miss Lynn did ask me, and I told her I'd do it. No reason why you should have to go through with it though. It doesn't matter what I've said. You can back out if they say you can.” I tried to encourage him as best I could, but Willie just stared at me.
When Willie finally spoke, it was with feeling. “But why, Man? You had an out! Why would you tell them you would?” He looked at me still more, as if he could read his answer in my face. “I mean, I understand a little. If I had Miss Lynn, I'd sure as heck rather tough it out with her, but still…” He just shook his head, knowing it would be unnecessary to finish the thought..
I put my hand on his shoulder this time, and told him. “Willy man, I'm not kidding. If you want to back out, then just do it. Don't worry. You don't have to explain it to me or to anyone. Just quit, and let them find someone else.”
Willis turned away, but still told me “That's not it at all man. If you guys do it, and I'm the only one to back out, then I look like the biggest pussy on the planet for a perfectly legitimate duck and cover.”
I could see the way his shoulders slumped as he walked away, and I felt really bad for him, but he was right. We were dead the moment Mrs. Pierce pronounced our names on her little death warrant. Damn her googley eyes. Even if we did back out, we were going to get razzed for that too. I'm sure that her plan was to make sure that we helped the guys out, and make them grateful, but it had been a low sort of trick to fry us in public like that.
Turning away toward my room, I felt that I should say something to Miss Lynn at least. Not that it could do us any good, but still, it had been a shitty thing to do. I could only hope that Freddie Thomas was dealing with it a little better than Willy was. Knowing that Willy was right, though, had given me a new sense of calm. I couldn't get out of this even if I'd wanted to. I could make sure that everyone knew that I had only stuck in there because I was afraid to look like a coward, and because of Miss Lynn, of course. I'd have to do that tactfully, because I'd never want anything to get back to her to make her think that I didn't really like her, but I supposed that when the rest of them figured that out I'd be ok.
My very special thanks to Geoff for his invaluable time and advice.
Sarah Lynn Morgan
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