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Authors: Gillian Roberts

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BOOK: The Bluest Blood
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“Mrs. Spiers,” I said, “I want to thank you for coming here so promptly. And thank you, too, for agreeing to Mr. Ulrich’s visiting his son. That was selfless and generous, and I’m sure it means a great deal to Jake, as it would to any boy who’d been separated from his natural father.”

I wondered whether she heard me. Or whether her mind was on what life might be like without her son around and with only worthless, cheating, lying, hypocritical Harvey Spiers. Who might dump her and opt for Mother Viv and fifteen minutes of fame.

I wondered to what lengths an hysterical Poor-Li’l-Me might go to save whatever it was she thought she had.

Five

If Havermeyer had thought to restore peace by capitulating to the Moral Ecologists, he was dead wrong. If he’d imagined he was clearing the way for a serene Open House, he was wronger still.

What he did was generate Philly Prep’s first demonstration of moral outrage. I’ll bet most of our students think the First Amendment is a rock group, and even if it were explained, would be hard-pressed to care about censorship when they don’t place any particular value on reading in the first place.

So their reaction may have had nothing to do with the forfeited books. It might have been that the weather on Wednesday morning was benign and welcoming, close to a miracle. A thin wash of spring-colored sunshine made the out-of-doors infinitely preferable to winter-weary classrooms.

For whatever reason, by the end of homeroom, word of Havermeyer’s appalling decision and a plan of action had spread by interclass tom-tom, and when the bell rang for first period, the troops, as one, headed for the pavement. Teachers followed, exhorting halfheartedly, as if by rote. Nobody was happy about what Havermeyer had done.

Maybe he’d hear the voices of his students. Maybe he’d even listen. Learn something.

“Moral Ecologists suck!” a boy near me shouted, but it was almost a tongue twister. It was in competition with other instant slogans as well. In fact, a pundits’ power struggle was in progress, slogans hurled one against another, creativity playing with words and ideas.

“Don’t break my art!”

“Don’t ban books. Ban Moral Ecologists!”

“We have a right to see bare buns!” Some ideas were less lofty than others.

“What kind of school won’t let us read?”

“Don’t check us out of the library!”

If they’d known they were working at literary craft, framing ideas in words that were clever, articulate, and succinct, they’d have applied the brakes. But they didn’t even suspect.

Creativity aside, the result was chaos. Too many words, too many people, and too little walkway created a dangerous situation. Students overflowed off the pavement, treating face-offs with commuter traffic as a game. Brakes squealed, and teachers dispersed along the student body’s perimeters, as if ready to have cars smite us in lieu of our charges. We were all inspired to new heights of nobility.

Across the street, on the fringe of the Square, Moral Ecologists stood in clumps like an infestation we hadn’t properly exterminated, observing what they had wrought with grim satisfaction. Only one of them looked uncertain or ashamed, a man in a Russian-style fur hat who seemed unwilling to meet my glance. He turned away and faced the Square. Good, I thought. One down.

The “don’t cave” chant slowly gained ground, winning by virtue of brevity. “Don’t cave, don’t cave, don’t cave, Dr. H.!” had a jaunty, if futile, air.

Havermeyer was nowhere to be seen.

Fifteen minutes later, the effort to push too many students back to safety on too little pavement would have appealed only to Sisyphus. Our arms were no match for adolescent energy, yet it didn’t seem ethical to abandon our charges to becoming traffic fatalities. We needed a plan.

Eventually, through negotiations with class leaders, an intricate but workable strategy was agreed upon: Beginning with seniors, each grade would strike for one period, repeating the rotation throughout the day. There were no real complaints.

With fresh troops arriving each period, and fresh vocal cords, the “don’t cave” chant became our loud new background music, as attractive as the sound of fingernails scraping down the blackboard.

Meantime, Sally Turner, the librarian, had a hissy fit that grew too large for the building. She called a local news radio show, the ACLU, and the teacher’s union; labeled Havermeyer’s actions “an abomination”; and said she refused to part with a single book, especially the Rocco Appleby photographs the Moral Ecologists had singled out as “pure filth.”

We were inundated by Minicams and microphones. Helga, the Office Witch, burst into tears—her only documented sympathetic act—as she tried and failed to intimidate the press. Reporters were tougher than teachers. The students reveled in their new roles as political activists and media darlings.

Late in the day, I, too, was seduced by the promise of fame via a sound bite on freedom of speech, book burning, and censorship. While I tried to be both honest and noninflammatory, students cheered and waved at the camera, and Havermeyer himself appeared.

He did his bit as well, huffing unintelligibly about “the matrix of academia and the populace” and “proactive responses to the bifurcation of aesthetics and ethics.” The reporter looked cross-eyed with confusion. Then Dr. H. switched to a riff about “living lessons in democracy,” spouting inanities in praise of freedom of expression—the very idea he’d violated. He was so ravaged by the hissing and shouting behind him, so clammy and sweaty on this sunny but cool day, he looked and sounded like a man who required the Heimlich maneuver.

Or tutoring in physics—the old action-reaction, cause-and-effect thing. He didn’t understand about putting your money and your mouth in the same place, about how if you preach integrity and freedom of speech you shouldn’t negate it all in a few shameful seconds. He seemed so confounded and befuddled, I actually felt a twinge of compassion.

Then, off camera, he herded me aside and said he found the Twain quote on my board “inflammatory” and suggested it be erased.

The smidgen of concern I’d felt disappeared. The quote remained.

Our principal’s interview was followed by one with Edie Friedman, gym teacher and perpetual yearner for romance. “I think it’s
great
that today’s kids really
care
,” she said, flashing a smile at the camera—or possibly the cameraman. “Plus,” she said with a wink, “they’re getting exercise! You know,
walking
has been proven to be the very best exercise possible!”

Next was Potter Standish. I suspected the Moral Ecologists of pushing him forward to make us look bad. However, the chemistry teacher and secret drinker managed to out-Havermeyer Havermeyer in the unintelligibility sweepstakes. Something about “numinous acceleration,” if I heard correctly.

The last interview I stayed for was with a student, Melissa Daley. Not the brightest specimen, but one of the cutest, and she thought it was “like,
interesting
to do this, you know? A change of pace, kind of.” She looked blank and frightened when they asked which of the removed books she wished she could read. They filmed her doe-in-the-headlights gape for much too long, and I could only hope they edited out a whole lot of it later on.

And then they were finished with us. At least they hadn’t interviewed Alex Fry. God knows what outrageous things he’d have said.

We had acquired a fringe of people with no idea what was going on, but who wanted in on it. If it was good enough for a television crew, it was more than good enough for them.

Tawdry of me to feel such glee at the way Havermeyer’s decision had backfired, but I couldn’t help myself. It felt like maybe this one time, the forces of good might actually triumph.

Maurice Havermeyer, Ph.D., did not share my delight. Throughout the day, like a horrified slow learner, he’d gone to his office window, stared at the protestors in wordless misery, then retreated. Then he’d reappear, repeating the intent observation as if hoping his earlier impressions had been a hallucination. But there they’d be again, and there they intended to remain until the books were returned (or summer vacation appeared, whichever came first) whether or not prospective applicants would have to pass through their midst to enter the building. If, of course, anybody still wanted to apply to Philly Prep, knowing what kind of principal it had.

At one point during the day, I’d been in the outer office gathering mail and messages, when a shell-shocked Maurice Havermeyer walked out of his inner sanctum. “This is terrible,” he said. “This has to stop.”

That was when I really worried about the state of his mind. He’d spoken in unadorned, intelligible sentences, forgetting to modify, embellish, and obfuscate. He’d spoken so clearly and succinctly, I knew he was on his way to a breakdown.

Near the end of my sidewalk time, as I was about to return to my classroom, a shiny-bright TV-type tapped my shoulder. “We’re taping a roundtable on this issue today at four-thirty,” she said. “We want a faculty member and we liked your segment. We’d like you to be part of it.”

I was flattered, but said, “No, thanks.”

“You’re popular with the students. They also suggested you.”

Even more flattering, but tonight was promised to Mackenzie and Mandy. A cohabitation special. Candlelight, music, good wine, and aged steaks. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow the cop goes to Kansas to retrieve a baddie. He’d said for one night only, but I’d seen how many books he’d packed—“in case”—and I wasn’t holding my breath.

“Please,” the TV woman said. “We need you.”

I smiled, but shook my head. Too often, C. K. and I were like little figures that emerge periodically on a big clock. Animated, determined, and on the move, we nonetheless never got anywhere or bridged the space between us. Sometimes now, both locked in our separate concerns, we didn’t seem together even when we were in the same place, and we barely ever used home as home base. This dinner was one attempt to change that.

“It’ll take an hour at most,” she said. “Four-thirty to five-thirty, that’s all.”

“Thanks, but—”

“Look.” The TV lady’s tone announced she was coming in for the kill. “With all due respect, do you want your principal, the one who removed the books, to be the only representative of your school? Of educators?”

I sighed. “How late did you say we’d be?” Maybe Mackenzie could meet me at the station. Maybe steak was a bad idea. He was, after all, on his way to beef-land. And no maybes about it—he’d be proud of my standing up for our constitutional rights. Right?

*

Once
,
after being out in a small motorboat all day, I could still feel the motion of the waves even on dry land. That’s how it was when the teaching day was done, pictures still playing through my mind, sounds echoing in the empty school. I made two phone calls—one to Mackenzie, rearranging our evening, and one to my friend Sasha, to see if she wanted to play when Mackenzie was in Kansas.

“Not with you,” she said. “I have found male perfection.”

“Again? Who is it this week?”

“This is different. This is Dr. Wonderful. An M.D. who works for a foundation in India.”

This was indeed different. Sasha tended toward the fringes of acceptability. Her men were more likely to be social outcasts than to have social consciences.

“Did I mention handsome? He’s gorgeous. And sexy? Flawless. My reward for all the bad apples. The handsome prince after all the frogs I’ve kissed. Perfect.”

Perfect Pete, she called him. Dr. Wonderful. And he wanted to be with her every possible moment until he had to go back to India. Nauseating, like an eighth grader. “A simple yes or no would have sufficed,” I said. “But…good luck and have fun.”

“Fun,”
she said. “I have never before—”

I hung up. After I got in my car, I sat there, motor running, while I agonized over whether I should go home and change before my TV debut, redo my hair and face, or stay with the pale green sweater I had on, a comfortable favorite, and fresh lipstick.

I put a tape on and let the Three Tenors go off the decibel meter. Their dulcet tones entered every one of my pores. It didn’t help me reach a decision about anything, but it made me not care. Aural sex will do that every time.

I put the car into reverse, looked around, and saw Jake Ulrich wave from the corner. I waved back. He slowly, slowly lowered his hand. The pace and timing of the wave made it less a friendly salute, more the motion of a drowning victim’s hand above the water. I looked back. He still dawdled at the end of the parking area. And Griffin was with him.

I pulled out of my slot fighting to override intuition, but I lost the round, and turned off the ignition. “Hey,” I said, getting out of the car. “What’s up?”

Griffin, his usual taciturn self, said nothing, but ducked his head deeper into his long overcoat. I think that meant everything was going satisfactorily.

Jake looked fidgety, wired. Yesterday, his stepfather had bullied his school into acquiescence, and today, Jake had led his schoolmates in protest against that very triumph.

“Today was cool,” Jake said. “Felt good having everybody agree on something. We’re planning the piece for the paper. Remember? You said we could.”

Griffin nodded. He often had a gleam in his eye that made me suspect a private but rich vein of humor. Maybe someday he’d want to share it.

BOOK: The Bluest Blood
2.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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