Annie on My Mind: Chapter 10


Finally the dreary cold winter warmed up and leaves started bursting out on the trees. Daffodils and tulips and those blue flowers that grow in clusters on stiff stems began to pop up all over the Heights, and Annie and I spent much more time outdoors, which helped a little. Annie discovered more dooryard gardens—even on my own street—than I ever thought existed. We managed to go for a lot of walks that spring, even though Annie was very busy with rehearsals for a new recital and I was trying to finish my senior project and was helping Sally and Walt with the fund drive—things really did look pretty bad for Foster.

Late one afternoon a week and a half before spring vacation, Mrs. Poindexter called me into her office.

“Eliza,” she said, settling back into her brown chair and actually almost smiling. “Eliza, I have been most pleased with your conduct these last months. You have shown none of the immaturity that steered you so wrongly last fall; your grades have, as usual, been excellent, and Ms. Baxter reports to me that you have at last begun to show an interest in the fund drive. Needless to say, your record is now clear.”

“Mrs. Poindexter,” I asked after I recovered from the relief I felt, “is it true that Foster might have to close?”

Mrs. Poindexter gave me a long look. Then she sighed and said—gently—“I’m afraid it is, dear.”

Mrs. Poindexter had never called anyone “dear” as far as I knew. Certainly never me.

“Eliza, you have been going to Foster since kindergarten. That’s nearly thirteen years—almost your entire lifetime. Some of our teachers have been here much longer—I myself have been headmistress for twenty-five years.”

“It would be awful,” I said, suddenly feeling sorry for her, “if Foster had to close.”

Mrs. Poindexter sniffed and fingered her glasses chain. “We have tried to make it the best possible school. We have never had the money to compete with schools like Brearley, but …” She smiled and reached out, patting my hand. “But this needn’t concern you, although I appreciate your sympathy. What I need from you—what Foster needs from you,” she said, squaring her shoulders, “is a heightened participation in the fund drive. You as student council president have enormous influence—a certain public influence as well, I may say. Or you could have, if you would use your position advantageously.”

I licked my lips; if she was going to ask me to make speeches, I was going to have to use every bit of self-control I had not to say no. Making just the required campaign speeches after I was nominated for council president had been one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Even when I had to get up in front of English class and give an oral report, I always felt as if I were going to my execution.

“The fund drive,” said Mrs. Poindexter, picking up her desk calendar, “must be speeded up—we have so little time now before the end of school. Mr. Piccolo and the fund raiser tell me we are still far short of our goal, and the recruitment campaign has not, so far, been a success. Mr. Piccolo says it is his feeling that interest will pick up in the spring, so there is hope.” She smiled. “Eliza, I’m sure you will agree that this is the time for student council to take an active part, to lead the other students, to give Sally and Walt, who are working so very hard, a real boost, so to speak.”

“Well,” I said, “we could talk about it at the next meeting. But there isn’t another, is there, till after vacation?”

“There is now,” Mrs. Poindexter said triumphantly, pointing at the calendar with her glasses. “I have scheduled one—assuming of course that you and the others can go—but you will find that out for me, won’t you, like my good right hand? I’ve scheduled a special council meeting for this Friday afternoon—and because Mr. Piccolo and his publicity committee will be using the Parlor for an emergency fund-drive meeting of their own, and because my apartment is too small and the school dining room seems inappropriate, I have asked Ms. Stevenson as student council adviser to volunteer her home, and she and Ms. Widmer have very kindly agreed.” She leaned back, still smiling. “Isn’t that kind of them?”

I just looked at her for a minute, not knowing which made me madder—her calling a council meeting without saying anything to me first, or her making Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer “volunteer” to have it where they lived.

“You are free Friday afternoon, aren’t you?”

For a second I was tempted to invent an unbreakable dentist appointment, but—well, if Foster’s really in trouble, I thought, I can’t very well go around throwing obstacles in its way. Besides, I felt pretty sure Mrs. Poindexter would go ahead with the meeting even if I weren’t there.

“Yes,” I said, trying not to say it too obviously through my teeth. “Sure, I’m free.”

Mrs. Poindexter’s smile broadened. “Good girl,” she said. “And you will notify the others—or ask Mary Lou to do so? You shouldn’t have to, actually, being the president …”

I think it was that last remark—her making a big deal of my being president after scheduling a meeting without even notifying me till afterwards—that made me storm over to the art studio.

Ms. Stevenson was washing brushes. “I’ve been working on the railroad,” she sang softly above the sound of running water, “all the livelong day—hello, Liza. You been working on the railroad too?”

“If,” I said, yanking out a chair and throwing myself down at one of the tables, “that’s a subtle way of making a comment about being railroaded into a certain council meeting, yes, I sure have been. I just came from Mrs. Poindexter’s office. Only the spikes got pounded into me instead of into the railroad ties. Or something. I don’t know.”

“Well,” said Ms. Stevenson, carefully stroking a brush back and forth against her palm to see if the color was out of it yet, “I suppose I should point out that it’s all for a good cause. We need Foster; now Foster needs us. Mrs. Poindexter means well, after all.”

“I know,” I said, sighing, more discouraged than before, since Ms. Stevenson seemed so calm. “But dammit—sorry, darn it—it’s the principle of the thing. She might have asked me first—or even just told me—and she might have asked to use your place instead of making you ‘volunteer’ it. Volunteer, hah!”

Ms. Stevenson laughed. “It was Ms. Baxter who asked, on Mrs. Poindexter’s behalf. I don’t think she enjoyed doing it, though. I don’t think she quite approves of students going to teachers’ homes.”

“I should think she’d love it,” I grumbled. “Disciples at one’s feet and all that.”

“Cheer up, Liza,” Ms. Stevenson said. “Except I warn you the feet part will probably be true. We don’t have all that many chairs.”

“Don’t you mind at all?” I asked incredulously. “Doesn’t Ms. Widmer mind? She’s not even on council. I mean, weren’t you even mad that Mrs. Poindexter just—just up and ordered the whole thing? Council’s supposed to be democratic for—for Pete’s sake!”

Ms. Stevenson’s face crinkled around her eyes. “Mind?” she said, pointing to the wastebasket, which I now saw was a quarter full of crumpled scraps of paper with angry-looking writing all over them. “The one thing that having a temper has taught me, Liza,” she said, “is that most of the time it’s better to do one’s exploding in private. But the thing is, we do have to remember that she is the headmistress, and she has done a lot for the school for many, many years, and—oh, blast it, Liza, not everyone can be as true to all the principles of democracy as you and I, can they?”

Well, that made me laugh, which made me feel a little better.

But I wonder if Ms. Stevenson would be quite so understanding of Mrs. Poindexter now as she was then.

None of us had ever been to Ms. Stevenson’s and Ms. Widmer’s house before—well, maybe Mrs. Poindexter had, or Ms. Baxter, but none of the kids had. Their house was in Cobble Hill, which is separated from Brooklyn Heights by Atlantic Avenue. Cobble Hill used to be considered a “bad” neighborhood; my mother never let me and Chad cross Atlantic when we were little—but I don’t think it was ever that bad. People have fixed up a lot of the houses there now, and it’s a nice mixture of nationalities and ages and kinds of jobs. Unpretentious, I guess you could call it—something the Heights tries to be but isn’t.

The house where Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer lived was just that—a house—which is unusual in New York, where most people live in apartments. It’s a town house, attached to a lot of other houses, so it’s technically part of a row house. There are two long row houses, containing ten or so town houses each, facing one another across a wonderfully tangled private garden. Ms. Baxter, Ms. Stevenson told us that day, lived on the other side of the garden, and about three doors down. Behind each set of houses was a cobblestone strip with separate little garden areas, one per tenant. Everyone’s back door opened onto that strip, so people sat outside a lot and talked. Everyone was very friendly.

The special council meeting was the afternoon of the night of Annie’s spring recital, and she was resting, so I went right down to Cobble Hill after school. I was the first to arrive. Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer showed me around and kidded me about my “professional interest” in the house. There were three floors. I didn’t see the top one, where the bedrooms were, but I saw both the others—basically two rooms per floor, and very cozy. The bottom floor had the kitchen, which was huge and bright, with gleaming white-flecked-with-black linoleum, copper-colored appliances, and dark wood cabinets. The back door, leading out to the cobblestones and the garden, was off that. There was a tiny bathroom off the kitchen and a little hall at the foot of the stairs, with a bare brick wall covered with hanging plants. The dining room was off that, with more exposed brick and a heavy-beamed ceiling. “This is our cave,” Ms. Widmer said, showing it to me. “Especially in winter when it’s dark at dinnertime.” I could see that it would be cavelike, because of the heavy low beams and the little window. Also, the ground was higher at the front of the house than at the back, dropping the dining room below ground level so its window looked out on people’s feet as they passed by. Two of the walls were lined with books, which added to the cavelike atmosphere.

Upstairs on the second floor were the living room and a sort of study or workroom. A steep flight of steps led from the front garden area to the front door, which led directly into the study. There was an old-fashioned mail slot in the door, and I thought how much nicer and more private that must be than getting one’s mail from a locked box in the entryway as we did. “Here’s where your fates are decided.” Ms. Widmer laughed, pointing to the pile of papers on her desk, topped with her roll book. Ms. Stevenson had an easel set up near the window, and art supplies neatly arranged on a shelf against the wall.

The living room was on the other side of the stairwell, comfortable and cozy like the rest of the house. There were lots of plants around, records and books everywhere, nice pictures on the walls—many of them, Ms. Stevenson said, done by former students—and two enormous cats, one black and one orange, who followed us everywhere and of course made me think of Annie and of her grandfather, the butcher.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with them this spring vacation,” Ms. Widmer said when I stooped to pat one of the cats after I’d told her and Ms. Stevenson about Annie’s grandfather. “We’re going away, and the boy who usually takes care of them is also.”

I’m not as fond of cats as Annie is, but I certainly like them, and I knew I wouldn’t mind being able to spend a little more time in that house. “I could feed the cats,” I heard myself say.

Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer exchanged a look, and Ms. Stevenson asked how much money I’d want and I told her whatever they gave the boy. They said a dollar-fifty a day, and I said fine. Then the other kids began arriving for the meeting.

It was funny, being in their house and seeing them as people as well as teachers. For instance, Ms. Stevenson lit a cigarette at one point, and I nearly fell off my chair. It had never occurred to me that she smoked, because of course she couldn’t at school except in the Teachers’ Room, the way seniors could in the Senior Lounge. Later she told me she’d tried to quit once, because it had begun to make her hoarse, which wasn’t good for her singing in the chorus or for coaching the debate team. But she’d gained so much weight and had been in such a rotten mood all the time that she’d decided it would be kinder to other people as well as to herself to go back to it.

I’d never thought much about Ms. Stevenson’s and Ms. Widmer’s living in the same house, and I don’t think many other people at school had either, but that afternoon it seemed to me that they’d probably been living together for quite a long time. They seemed to own everything jointly; you didn’t get the idea that the sofa belonged to one of them and the armchair to the other or anything like that. And they seemed so comfortable with each other. Not that they seemed uncomfortable at school, but at school they were rarely together except at special events like plays or dances, which they usually helped chaperone. Even then, they were usually with a whole bunch of other teachers, and Sally had always said that at dances one or the other of them was usually whirling around the floor with one of the men teachers.

But in their house they were like a couple of old shoes, each with its own special lumps and bumps and cracks, but nonetheless a pair that fit with ease into the same shoe box.

“It’s so nice of you two to have us here,” said Mrs. Poindexter when we were all more or less settled in the living room and Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson were passing out Cokes and tea and cookies. “All” not only included members of the student council but also Sally and Walt as Student Fund Drive Chairpeople, and Ms. Baxter as well. Ms. Baxter was taking notes, which made Mary Lou furious.

Mrs. Poindexter was wearing a black dress with little bits of white lace at the throat and wrists that reminded me of Ms. Baxter’s handkerchiefs. Somehow it made her look as if she were about to bury someone.

“I will read,” she said, “with apologies to Sally and Walt, who have already seen it, from Mr. Piccolo’s last report to me. Ms. Baxter?” She settled her glasses onto her nose.

“Mrs. Poindexter,” said Ms. Stevenson as Ms. Baxter pulled a file folder out of the chunky, old-fashioned briefcase she’d brought with her, “shouldn’t the meeting be called to order first?”

Mrs. Poindexter flipped her glasses down. “Oh, very well,” she said crossly. “The meeting …”

Ms. Stevenson cleared her throat.

“Eliza,” said Mrs. Poindexter smoothly, “we’re waiting.”

“The meeting,” I said as steadily as possible, “will come to order. The chair”—I couldn’t help giving that word a little extra emphasis—“recognizes Mrs. Poindexter.”

Mrs. Poindexter crashed her glasses back onto her nose and pushed away the black cat, who had started to rub against her leg. Then he moved to Ms. Baxter, who sneezed demurely but pointedly; Ms. Widmer scooped him up and took him downstairs.

“The overall goal,” said Mrs. Poindexter sonorously, looking over the tops of her spectacles, “is $150,000 for rising expenses like salaries and badly needed new equipment—in the lab, for example—and $150,000 for renovations. We don’t actually have to have the cash by the end of the campaign, but we’d like to have pledges for that amount, with their due dates staggered so we can collect $100,000 a year for the next three years. And by next fall, we’d like to have thirty-five new students—twenty in the Lower School, ten in the freshman class, and five in the sophomore class. So far, we have only four new Lower School prospects and one freshman, and less than half the money has been pledged.”

Conn whistled.

“Precisely,” said Mrs. Poindexter, who ordinarily did not approve of whistling. She began to read from Mr. Piccolo’s report: “‘The day of the independent school is seen by many local businessmen, financiers, and area industrialists as being over. Our fund-raising consultant tells me that, college tuition being what it is, people are increasingly reluctant to spend large sums of money on pre-college schooling, even with the New York public schools being what they are. I see this as influencing both the enrollment problem and the lack of donations, and creating constant resistance to our publicity campaign. There is also a feeling that independent schools can no longer shelter children from the outside world—there was mention by one or two people I spoke to recently of the unfortunate incident two years ago involving the senior girl and the boy she later married …’”

That, most of us knew, referred to two seniors Mrs. Poindexter had tried to get expelled, first by council and then by the Board of Trustees, back when I was a sophomore. As Ms. Stevenson, who’d argued on their side, had pointed out, their main crime was that they’d fallen in love too young. But all Mrs. Poindexter had been able to see was the scandal when the girl got pregnant.

“‘… The point of view,’” Mrs. Poindexter went on reading, “‘has been expressed by prospective Foster donors or parents that although once upon a time parents sent their offspring to independent schools to shield them from the social problems supposedly rampant in public schools, now those problems are equally prevalent in independent schools. This kind of thinking is what our publicity campaign must now counteract.’”

When Mrs. Poindexter stopped reading, I raised my hand, and then remembered I was supposedly presiding, so I put it down. “I have a friend who goes to public school,” I said, feeling a little odd referring to Annie that way, “and—well, I think they have more of a drug problem, for instance, than we do, and other problems, too. So I wonder if those parents and people are really right about the problems being equally prevalent. But one thing, though—even though my friend’s school is kind of rough, it’s a lot more interesting than Foster. What I’m saying is that I wonder if some people might want to send their kids to public schools to sort of broaden them. I think maybe more people think independent schools are snobby than used to.”

“We will get nowhere,” Mrs. Poindexter said severely, “if our own students do not see the value of a Foster education. Eliza, I am surprised at you!”

“It’s not not seeing the value of it,” Mary Lou said angrily. “That’s not what Liza said at all! I think all she was doing was explaining what some of the people Mr. Piccolo talked to might be thinking. And I bet she’s right. I used to go with a guy from public school, and he thought Foster was snobby. And that we were too sheltered.”

“Oh, but, Mary Lou, dear,” Ms. Baxter fluttered, “neither you nor Liza is very sheltered, though, really—are you? That is, if both of you have been—er—associating with people from other schools, and, as you say, you have been. And that is fine,” she added hastily. “Very good, in fact.” She glanced anxiously at Mrs. Poindexter. “We must remember,” she said gently, “that it takes all kinds. The good Lord made us all.”

“I am not sure,” said Mrs. Poindexter, “but what this is all entirely beside the point. It is our job to sell Foster’s advantages to people—not to imagine disadvantages, or to dwell on the questionable influence students from outside schools may have.”

“Questionable influence!” I burst out before I could stop myself, and Mary Lou—she had worn that public-school guy’s ring for nearly a year—got very red. Conn shook his head at her and put his hand on my arm, whispering, “Watch it, Liza.”

Well, the whole meeting fell apart then—we spent a lot of time arguing instead of deciding what to do. “It’s just that in order to combat other people’s attitudes we have to understand them first,” Conn said after about half an hour more. But Mrs. Poindexter still couldn’t see it as anything but unkind criticism of her beloved Foster.

Finally, though, we decided to have a big student rally the Friday after spring vacation, and we planned to try and urge each student either to recruit a new student or to get an adult to pledge money. Walt muttered, “Nickels and dimes—Mr. Piccolo says businesses and rich people and industries are the only good sources of money.” But Mrs. Poindexter was so enthusiastic about what we could do if “the whole Foster family pulls together” that somehow she managed to convince most of us we might be able to turn the campaign around. Sally and Walt said they would plan the rally, and Mrs. Poindexter said I should help them, as council president; she told us we should consider ourselves a “committee of three.” After a lot of backing and forthing, the three of us agreed to have two meetings the next week, before vacation began, and then a final one during vacation, right before school started again.

Then, just as Mrs. Poindexter seemed to be ready to end the meeting and I was trying to decide whether to call for a motion to adjourn or just wait and see if she’d go back to ignoring my being president again, Ms. Baxter raised her hand and Mrs. Poindexter nodded at her.

“I would just like to remind us all,” Ms. Baxter said, waggling one of her handkerchiefs as she nervously pulled it out of her sleeve, “that—and of course we are all aware of it—that it is now more essential than ever that all Foster students, but especially council members, conduct themselves both in private and in public in their usual exemplary fashion. We are more in the public eye than we may realize—why, just last week I was in Tuscan’s—Tuscan’s, mind you, that enormous department store—and a saleslady asked if I taught at Foster and said wasn’t it exciting about the campaign and wasn’t Foster a wonderful school.” Ms. Baxter smiled and dabbed at her nose with her handkerchief. “How wonderful for us all to be able to assure Foster parents and future Foster parents, by our own example, of Foster’s highly moral atmosphere. Even outsiders are beginning to see that we are indeed special—that is one of the exciting things about the campaign—what an inspiring opportunity it gives us all!”

“Well put, Ms. Baxter,” said Mrs. Poindexter, beaming at her; Ms. Baxter smiled modestly.

“Now we know why she had Baxter come,” Mary Lou whispered to Conn and me.

“I’m sure we would all like to show Ms. Baxter our agreement and thank her for reminding us of our duty,” said Mrs. Poindexter, looking around the room.

Ms. Stevenson seemed to be thinking about clearing away the Coke cans. That seemed like a good idea to me, too, so I gave Mrs. Poindexter a perfunctory nod and then started to get up, reaching for the tray. But Ms. Stevenson glared at me and I realized that I was going too far.

Sally said, “Thank you, Ms. Baxter,” and started clapping, so the rest of us did, too.

“Thank you,” said Ms. Baxter, still with the modest smile, “thank you—but your best thanks will be to continue to show the world—and to help your fellow students show the world also—that Foster students are indeed a cut above. For—we—” she sang suddenly, launching into the most rousing but also the most ridiculous of our school songs, “are—jolly good Fosters, for we are jolly good Fosters …”

Of course we all sang along with her.

It was a little sad, because none of us, except Sally and, at least outwardly, Walt, was really very enthusiastic. And there were those two old women, whale and pilot fish, eagle and sparrow, heads back, mouths open wide, eyes shining, singing as if they were both desperately trying to be fifteen years old again.

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