Mrs. Poindexter didn’t look up when I went into her office. She was a stubby gray-haired woman who wore rimless glasses on a chain and always looked as if she had a pain somewhere. Maybe she always did, because often when she was thinking up one of her sardonically icy things to say she’d flip her glasses down onto her bumpy bosom and pinch her nose as if her sinuses hurt her. But I always had the feeling that what she was trying to convey was that the student she was disciplining was what really gave her the pain. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble by following the school charter: “The Administration of Foster Academy shall guide the students, but the students shall govern themselves.” But I guess she was what Mr. Jorrocks, our American history teacher, would call a “loose constructionist,” because she interpreted the charter differently from most people.
“Sit down, Eliza,” Mrs. Poindexter said, still not looking up. Her voice sounded tired and muffled—as if her mouth were full of gravel.
I sat down. It was always hard not to be depressed in Mrs. Poindexter’s office, even if you were there to be congratulated for winning a scholarship or making straight A’s. Mrs. Poindexter’s love for Foster, which was considerable, didn’t inspire her to do much redecorating. Her office was in shades of what seemed to be its original brown, without anything for contrast, not even plants, and she kept her thick brown drapes partway closed, so it was unusually dark.
Finally Mrs. Poindexter raised her head from the folder she was thumbing through, flipped her glasses onto her chest, pinched her nose, and looked at me as if she thought I had the personal moral code of a sea slug. “Eliza Winthrop,” she said, regret sifting through the gravel in her mouth, “I do not know how to tell you how deeply shocked I am at your failure to do your duty not only as head of student council and therefore my right hand, but also simply as a member of the student body. Words fail me,” she said—but, like most people who say that, she somehow managed to continue. “The reporting rule, Eliza—can it be that you have forgotten the reporting rule?”
I felt as if I’d swallowed a box of the little metal sinkers my father uses when he goes fishing in the country. “No,” I said, only it came out more like a bleat than a word.
“No, Mrs. Poindexter.”
“Kindly recite the rule to me,” she said, closing her eyes and pinching her nose.
I cleared my throat, telling myself she couldn’t possibly expect me to remember it word for word as it appeared in the little blue book called Welcome to Foster Academy.
“The reporting rule,” I began. “One: If a student breaks a rule he or she is supposed to report himself or herself by writing his or her name and what rule he or she has broken on a piece of paper and putting it into the box next to Ms. Baxter’s desk in the office.”
Ms. Baxter was a chirpy little birdlike woman with dyed red hair who taught The Bible as Literature to juniors and told Bible stories to the Lower School once a week. Her other job was to be Mrs. Poindexter’s administrative assistant, which meant Mrs. Poindexter confided in her and gave her special jobs, anything from pouring tea at Mothers Club meetings to doing confidential typing and guarding the reporting box. Ms. Baxter and Mrs. Poindexter drank tea together every afternoon out of fancy Dresden china cups, but they never seemed quite like equals, the way real friends are. They were more like an eagle and a sparrow, or a whale and its pilot fish, because Ms. Baxter was always scurrying around running errands for Mrs. Poindexter or protecting her from visitors she didn’t want to see.
“Go on,” said Mrs. Poindexter.
“Two,” I said. “If a student sees another student breaking a rule, that student is supposed to ask the one who broke the rule to report himself. Or herself. Three: If the student won’t do that, the one who saw him or her break the rule is supposed to report them, the one breaking the rule, I mean.”
Mrs. Poindexter nodded. “Can you tell me,” she said, without opening her eyes, “since you seem to know the rule so well, and since you are well aware that the spirit behind all Foster’s rules encompasses the idea of not doing harm to others, why you did not ask Sally Jarrell to report herself when you saw what she was planning to do? Or when you saw what she was actually doing?”
Before I could answer, Mrs. Poindexter whirled around in her chair and opened her eyes, flashing them at me. “Eliza, you should be more aware than most students, given your position, that this school is in desperate need of money and therefore in desperate need of Mr. Piccolo’s services as publicity chairman of our campaign. And yet Jennifer Piccolo had to go home early this afternoon because of the terrible pain in her earlobes.”
“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Poindexter,” I said, and then tried to explain that I hadn’t even noticed Sally’s sign till she was already piercing Jennifer’s ears.
She shook her head as if she couldn’t quite grasp that. “Eliza,” she said tiredly, “you know that I thought it unwise last spring when you said in your campaign speech that you were against the reporting rule …”
“Everyone’s against it,” I said, which was true—even the faculty agreed that it didn’t work.
“Not quite everyone,” said Mrs. Poindexter. “Popular or not, that rule is the backbone of this school’s honor system, and has been for many, many years—ever since Letitia Foster founded the school, in fact. Not,” she added, “that the reporting rule or any other rule will make any difference at all if Foster has to close.”
I studied her face, trying to figure out if she was exaggerating. The idea of Foster’s having to close had never occurred to me, although of course I knew about the financial troubles. But having to close? Both Chad and I had gone to Foster since kindergarten; it was almost another parent to us. “I—I didn’t realize things were that bad,” I sputtered.
Mrs. Poindexter nodded. “If the campaign is unsuccessful,” she said, “Foster may well have to close. And if Mr. Piccolo, without whose publicity there can be no campaign, leaves us as a result of this—this foolish, thoughtless incident, I seriously doubt we will find anyone to replace him. If he leaves, goodness knows whether the fund raiser who has agreed to act as consultant will stay on—it was hard enough getting both of them in the first place …” Mrs. Poindexter closed her eyes again, and for the first time since I’d walked into her office that afternoon I realized she really was upset; she wasn’t just acting that way for effect, the way she usually seemed to be. “How do you think Mr. Piccolo will feel about asking people for money now?” she said. “How do you think he will feel about publicizing a school—asking parents to enroll their sons and daughters in a school—where discipline is so lax it cannot prevent its students from doing physical harm to one another?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Poindexter,” I said, trying not to squirm. “Pretty bad, I guess.”
Mrs. Poindexter sighed. “I would like you to think about all of this, Eliza,” she said. “And about the extent of your responsibility to Foster, between now and this Friday’s student council meeting. We will hold a disciplinary hearing for you and for Sally Jarrell at that time. Naturally, I cannot allow you to preside, since you are under a disciplinary cloud yourself. I will ask Angela Cariatid, as vice president, to take the gavel. Now you may go.”
The leaves that had seemed so crisp that morning looked tired and limp as I walked slowly home without Chad, who had soccer practice, and the sky was lowering again, as if We were going to get more rain.
I was glad Chad wasn’t with me and I wasn’t sure, when I unlocked the door to the brownstone we live in and went up to our third-floor apartment, if I even wanted to see Mom before I’d had time to think. My mother’s a very good person to talk to; most of the time she can help us sort out problems, even when we’re wrong, without making us feel like worms. But as it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about whether I was going to be able to think things through before I talked to her this time, because she wasn’t home. She’d left a note for us on the kitchen table:
L and C—
At neighborhood association meeting. New cookies in jar. Help yourselves.
Mom always—well, usually—baked cookies for us when she knew she wasn’t going to be home. Chad says she still does; it’s as if she feels guilty for not being a 100 percent housewife, which of course no one but she herself expects her to be.
After I’d skimmed a few cookies off the top of the pile in the jar, and was sitting there at the table eating them and wishing the baseball season lasted into November so there’d be a game on to take my mind off school, I saw the second note under the first one:
Someone named Annie something—Cannon? Kaynon?—called. She said would you please call her, 877–9384. Have another cookie.
I didn’t know why, but as soon as I saw that note, I felt my heart starting to beat faster. I also realized I was now thoroughly glad Mom wasn’t home, because I didn’t want anyone around when I called Annie, though again I didn’t know why. My mouth felt dry, so I got a drink of water, and I almost dropped the glass because my hands were suddenly sweaty. Then I went to the phone and started dialing, but I stopped in the middle because I didn’t know what I was going to say. I couldn’t start dialing again till I told myself a few times that since Annie had called me, thinking of what to say was up to her.
Someone else answered the phone—her mother, I found out later—and I found myself feeling jealous of whoever it was for being with Annie while I was all the way down in Brooklyn Heights, not even on the same island she was.
Finally Annie came to the phone and said, “Hello?”
“Annie.” I think I managed to sound casual, at least I know I tried to. “Hi. It’s Liza.”
“Yes,” she said, sounding really happy. “I recognized your voice. Hi.” There was a little pause, and I could feel my heart thumping. “Hey,” Annie said, “you called back!”
It struck me then that she didn’t know what to say any more than I did, and for a few seconds we both just fumbled. But after about the third very long pause she said, low and hesitant, “Um—I was wondering if you’d like to go to the Cloisters with me Saturday. Don’t if you don’t want to. I thought maybe you’d like it since you go to the Metropolitan so much, but—oh, well, maybe you wouldn’t.”
“Sure I would,” I said quickly.
“You would?” She sounded surprised.
“Sure. I love it up there. The park, everything.”
“Well—well, maybe if it’s a nice day I’ll bring a picnic, and we could eat it in the park. We wouldn’t even have to go into the museum.”
“I like the museum. Just as much as the park.” I felt myself smiling. “Just promise me you won’t rearrange the statues or pose in front of a triptych or anything when someone’s looking.”
Annie laughed then—I think that was the first time I heard her laugh in her special way. It was full of delight—I don’t mean delightful, although it was that, too. She laughed as if what I’d just said was so clever that it had somehow made her bubble over with joy.
That phone call was the best thing that had happened all day, and for a while after I’d hung up, the situation at school didn’t seem nearly so bad any more.