Return to Ramble House Page
Return to N.R. de Mexico Page
1 ~ Reflection
“Hubba, hubba,” the long thin boy with the unruly hair said, as she brushed past him in the high school corridor. He stopped and turned to watch her as she walked, her dark hair falling to her white-sweatered shoulders, her books held in her folded arms so they squared the heavy roundness of her breasts, her wine-red corduroy skirt a little smooth from sitting, clinging to her hips and buttocks, and her crepe-soled shoes whispering on the highly waxed floor. There was something adult, almost regal, in her walk.
Joyce flung back over her shoulder, “Hi, Tony.” She was pleasantly aware of him, carrying herself even a trifle more erectly, so that her breasts molded her sweater into sharper relief as she swung sharp left through the door marked DEAN.
The office of the Dean of Paugwasset High School had been an afterthought of the board of education of that suburban Long Island community. It had emerged, during additions to the building, as a vaguely triangular alcove growing off a corridor, in which Dean Iris Shay and her secretary, Miss Ellsworth, occupied cramped space.
Joyce, with experience born of custom, halted at Miss Ellsworth’s desk first, waiting politely in front of it as though Dean Shay’s desk were not a scant three feet away. The girl was a little frightened, now, but trying hard not to let it show.
Miss Ellsworth, rather young for a school secretary, looked up sympathetically. She tried to smile reassuringly as she said.
“Miss Shay has been expecting you, Joyce?”
Joyce smiled back, somewhat feebly, and stepped the three paces which brought her to the older woman’s desk. Miss Shay turned from the ruled-off schedules that lay on the green blotter; her white hair and bleached blue eyes staring through black-rimmed spectacles, lent her a semblance of cold harshness she did not really possess.
“Sit down, Miss Taylor,” the dean said. Joyce felt the tremor in her stomach increasing. Whether a student were addressed by her first name or as “Miss” was an accurate index of the dean’s attitude. She put down her books on a corner of the desk and seated herself in the hard wooden chair beside it, holding herself rigid and erect under the older woman’s scrutiny.
After a moment the dean returned to her schedules, calmly adding up a column of figures before saying, “Miss Ellsworth, would you give me Miss Taylor’s record, please?”
The old witch; Joyce thought, feeling the fright growing as she sat waiting for whatever was going to happen. Behind her, atop a shelf of books, she heard the cruelly regular ticking of a pendulum clock that had once been presented to Dean Shay and which, Joyce knew from other sessions in this office, bore the inscription: To Iris Shay, our beloved mentor, from the Class of 1943. She had an impulse, swiftly crushed, to pick up her books from the desk and throw them recklessly at the clock.
“Now, Miss Taylor,” the dean said when Joyce’s record card was given her, “I’m sure you know why you’re here.” Joyce said nothing. “How old are you, Miss Taylor?”
“It’s right there on the record card.”
The dean grimly compressed her lips. “Ah, yes. Just turned seventeen and you’re a senior.”
“Can I help it if I’m smart?”
“Miss Taylor,” the dean said, controlling herself with an effort, “we have two thousand students in this school. Obviously, it is impossible for us to watch all students all the time. But with a school population of two thousand—of both sexes—it is essential that we maintain some kind of discipline. I’m sure you agree with this, Miss Taylor?”
Joyce vouchsafed a nod.
“Thank you. I had hoped you would.” The dean paused and at Miss Ellsworth. “Terry,” she said, “would you mind going to Mr. Mercer’s office and asking him for—ah—for the freshman class list for nineteen-forty-seven?”
Ellsworth, taking the hint, hastily picked up a newspaper lying on the radiator beside her desk and scuttled through the door, closing it quietly behind her.
“Now, look here, Joyce,” Dean Shay said, “I don’t want to make this seem like a courtroom, but you’re in serious trouble.”
“So I gather.” The tremor in Joyce’s stomach seemed to reach out and seize her knees.
“Here at Paugwasset, we rely on seniors to discipline themselves for violations of the school rules. The honor system, you know,” the dean continued sarcastically. “We permit seniors to write their own absence excuses, for example. I’m reminding you of all this because I think you’re an exceptionally clever girl—”
“Dean Shay,” Joyce said, managing to muster a tone of bored annoyance, “just what is the trouble?”
“Don’t act cute with me, young lady,” the dean said. “You’re not old enough for it and you’re not big enough for it. You know what I’m talking about. I’ve already spoken to your instructors about you . . . That’s why you weren’t called in yesterday. I wanted a little time to think this over.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Joyce insisted. “I have a right to be accused of something, instead of just having you go at me like this.” She could feel a fine edge of hysteria rising within her.
“If you insist,” the dean said.
“I do,” Joyce said. “I can’t think of any school rules that I’ve broken of which you have any knowledge.”
“You show a fine candor, Joyce, and your argument would do you a lot of credit if you happened to be a lawyer. Unfortunately, we are running a school and not a court of higher jurisdiction. Our purpose here is to train people to live in an adult world. We try to teach not just mathematics or history, but a self-discipline which will make our graduates capable of handling themselves in the community. We expect you to conform not just to the school rules, but to the rules of good taste, and that exhibition of yours in the auditorium yesterday was—well, hardly in good taste!”
“Oh.” Joyce said, “that.”
“Yes, young lady. That! I know you’re going to argue this is limply the prudery of an old maid. Well, maybe I am an old maid. But I firmly assure you that there isn’t a high school in the country, and probably in the world, which would tolerate having a student get up on the auditorium stage and—ah—begin to—ah—shed garments. Frankly, I think the study class watching your little performance was as much at fault as you were. We’ve let the seniors use the auditorium for study periods without any teacher being present because we thought we could depend upon seniors to show self-discipline. Evidently we were wrong. If one of the teachers—no, I won’t tell you which one—hadn’t just happened to look in unintentionally we would never have known what was going on.”
Joyce held her rigid posture in the chair. “Don’t you think it would have been fairer,” she said, holding on to herself to keep her voice from breaking, clutching at the strange, adult dignity the could sometimes keep in time of stress—“Don’t you think it would have been fairer if the teacher that saw me had kept her mouth shut.”
“Truthfully, Joyce, I don’t know. I can’t tell you what I would have done myself. I might have done what that teacher did—it was a man, by the way—or I might have spoken to you personally. I don’t know. But this teacher went to Mr. Mercer, and spoke to several other teachers. Naturally, the fact that this is public information leaves me no alternative . . .”
Return to Ramble House Page
Return to N.R. de Mexico Page