Ms. Widmer was a couple of minutes late to English on Friday, which was my last class for the day. She gave us a quick nod, picked up the poetry book we’d been studying, and read:
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”
As carefully as I could, I folded up the architecture review Dad had clipped for me from his New York Times—I’d been reading it to keep my mind off the student council hearing, which was that afternoon—and listened. Mom once said that Ms. Widmer’s voice was a cross between Julie Harris’s and Helen Hayes’s. I’ve never heard either of them that I know of, so all I can say is that Ms. Widmer had the kind of voice, especially when she read poetry, that made people listen.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.”
Ms. Widmer looked up, pushing her gray bangs out of her eyes. She wasn’t old, but she was prematurely gray. Sometimes she joked about it, in the special way she had of finding humor in things most people didn’t find funny. “What does ‘fell’ mean? Anyone?”
“Tripped,” said Walt, with great solemnity. “He fell as he got into the bus—he had a fell—a fell fall. A fell clutch would be when he grabbed for the handle as he fell.”
Ms. Widmer laughed good-naturedly along with the boos and groans and then called on Jody Crane, who was senior representative to student council. “In Tolkien,” Jody said—he was very solemn and analytical—“it’s used to describe people like Sauron and the Orcs and guys like that, so I guess it means evil.”
“Close, Jody, close,” Ms. Widmer said. She opened the leather-bound dictionary she kept on her desk and used at least three times every class period. She’d had it re-bound, she told us once, because it contained almost the entire English language and that was well worth doing something special for. “Fell,” she read. “Adjective, Middle English, Anglo-Saxon, and Old French. Also Late Latin. Fierce, cruel. Poetic—” She looked up and an involuntary shudder went through the class as she lowered her voice and said the single word: “deadly.” Then she turned back to the book.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate: …”
Ms. Widmer paused and glanced my way for a fraction of a second before she read the last line:
“I am the captain of my soul.”
“By William Ernest Henley,” she said, closing the book. “1849 to 1903. British. He lost one foot to tuberculosis—TB is not always a lung disease—and nearly lost the other as well. He spent an entire year of his life in a hospital, and that led to this poem, which is called ‘Invictus,’ as well as to others. For homework, please discover the meaning of the word he chose for his title, and also please find and bring to class one other poem, not by Henley, but with the same theme. Due Monday.”
There was a resigned groan, although no one really minded. By that time, Ms. Widmer’s love of poetry had spread to most of us as if it were some kind of benign disease. It was rumored that before graduation every year she gave each senior a poem that she thought would be personally appropriate for his or her future.
For most of the rest of the period, we discussed why being in a hospital might lead to writing poems, and what kinds of poems it might lead to, and Ms. Widmer read us some other hospital poems, some of them funny, some of them sad. When the bell rang, she’d just finished a funny one. “Good timing,” she said, smiling at us as the laughter died away. Then she said, “Have a good weekend,” and left.
“Coming?” asked Jody, passing my desk on his way out.
“You go ahead, Jody,” I said, still thinking of “Invictus” and half wondering if Ms. Widmer had really read it for me, the way it had seemed. “I think I’ll see if I can find Sally.” I smiled, trying to make light of it. “Criminals should stick together.”
Jody smiled back and put his hand on my arm for a second. “Good luck, Liza.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I guess I’m going to need it.”
I met Sally standing outside the Parlor, the room where council meetings were held, talking with Ms. Stevenson. Ms. Stevenson looked a little paler than usual, and her eyes already had the determined look they often had when she was doing her job as faculty adviser to student council. But otherwise she acted as if she were trying to be reassuring.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully when I came up to them. “Nervous?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “My stomach always feels as if there’s a dog chasing its tail in it.”
Ms. Stevenson chuckled. “You’ll be okay,” she said. “Just think before you speak, both of you. Take all the time you need before you answer questions.”
“Oh, God,” Sally moaned. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“No, you’re not,” Ms. Stevenson said firmly. “Go get a drink of water. Take a deep breath. You’ll be fine.” She stepped aside to let Georgie Connel—Conn—the junior representative, go in. Conn winked at me from behind his thick glasses as he opened the door. He was short, with a homely face covered with pimples, but he was one of the nicest kids in the school. He had what teachers called a creative mind, and he was also very fair, maybe the fairest person on council, except of course Ms. Stevenson.
“Well,” said Ms. Stevenson briskly when Sally came back from the water fountain, “I guess it’s time.” She smiled at both of us as if she were wishing us luck but didn’t think it would be quite proper to do it out loud. And then we all went in, Ms. Stevenson first, with Sally and me following slowly.
The Parlor, like Mrs. Poindexter’s office, was so dark it was funereal. It used to be a real living room—a huge one—back when the school was a mansion, but now it was more of a semi-public lounge, reserved mostly for high-level occasions like trustees’ meetings and mothers’ teas, but also for council meetings. The Parlor had three long sofas along the walls, and big wing chairs, and a fireplace that took up most of the wall that didn’t have a sofa against it. Over the mantle hung a picture of Letitia Foster, the school’s founder. I can’t imagine why Letitia Foster ever founded a school; she always looked to me as if she hated kids. She looked that way that afternoon especially, as Sally and I sidled in under her frozen hostile stare like a couple of derelict crabs.
Mrs. Poindexter was already enthroned in her special dark-maroon wing chair by the fireplace, thumbing through notes on a yellow pad and looking severe behind her rimless spectacles. Everyone else was sitting around a long, highly polished table. The vice president, Angela Cariatid, who was tall and usually reminded me in more than name of those graceful, self-possessed Greek statues that hold up buildings, didn’t look at all that way as we walked in. She was sitting tensely at the end of the table nearest Mrs. Poindexter’s chair, clutching the gavel as if she were drowning and it was the only other thing afloat. She’d already told me she felt rotten about having to preside, which I thought was pretty nice of her.
“It’s like court on TV,” Sally whispered nervously as we sat down at the other end of the table.
I remember noticing how the sun came slanting through the dusty windows onto Mrs. Poindexter’s gray hair—just the top of it, because of the height of the wing chair. While I was concentrating on the incongruous halo it made, Mrs. Poindexter flipped her glasses down and nodded to Angela, who rapped so hard with the gavel that it popped out of her hand and skittered across the floor.
Mrs. Poindexter cleared her throat and Angela blushed.
Conn got up and retrieved the gavel, handing it to Angela with a grave nod. “Madame Chairperson,” he murmured.
I felt myself start to laugh, especially when Sally smirked at me.
“Order!” poor Angela squeaked, and Mrs. Poindexter glared at Conn. Angela coughed and then said, pleading, “The meeting will please come to order. This—er—this is a disciplinary hearing instead of a regular meeting. Regular council business is—um—deferred till next time. Sally Jarrell and Liza Winthrop have both broken the reporting rule, and Sally Jarrell has …”
“Are accused of breaking,” Ms. Stevenson interrupted quietly.
Mrs. Poindexter pinched her nose, scowling.
“Are accused of breaking the reporting rule,” Angela corrected herself, “and Sally Jarrell has—er—is accused of acting in a—in a—” She looked helplessly at Mrs. Poindexter.
“In an irresponsible way, endangering the health of her fellow students,” said Mrs. Poindexter, pushing herself out of the depths of her maroon chair. “Thank you, Angela. Before we begin,” she said, “I would like to remind all of you that Foster is in the midst of a financial crisis of major proportions, and that any adverse publicity—any at all—could be extremely damaging to the fund-raising and student-recruitment campaigns that are our only hope of survival.” She positioned herself in front of the fireplace, profile to us, looking dramatically up at Letitia. “Foster Academy was our dear founder’s entire life, and it has become close to that for many of us on the faculty as well. But more important even than that is the indisputable fact that Foster has educated several generations of young men and women to the highest standards of decency and morality as well as to academic excellence. And now,”—she whirled around and faced Sally—“and now one Foster student has willfully harmed several others through a ridiculous and frivolous scheme to pierce their ears, and another student”—she faced me now—“in whom the entire student body has placed their trust, has done nothing to stop it. Sally Jarrell,” Mrs. Poindexter finished sonorously, pointing at her with her glasses, “have you anything to say in your defense?”
Sally, who I could see was just about wiped out by then, shook her head. “No,” she muttered, “no, except I’m sorry and I—I didn’t think it could do any harm.”
“You didn’t think!” Mrs. Poindexter boomed. “You didn’t think! This girl,” she said, turning to the others at the table, “has been at Foster all her life, and she says she didn’t think! Mary Lou, kindly ask Jennifer Piccolo if she will step in for a moment.”
Mary Lou Dibbins, council’s plump and very honest secretary-treasurer, pushed her chair back quickly and went out into the hall. Mary Lou was a math brain, but she’d told me that Mrs. Poindexter took care of council’s financial records herself, and kept the little money council had locked up in her office safe. She wouldn’t even let Mary Lou see the books, let alone work on them.
“Mrs. Poindexter,” said Ms. Stevenson, “I really wonder if … Angela, is Jennifer’s name on the agenda? I don’t remember seeing it.”
“N-no,” stammered Angela.
“Jennifer volunteered at the last minute,” Mrs. Poindexter said dryly. “After the agenda was typed.”
Then Mary Lou came back with Jennifer, who had a bandage on one ear and looked absolutely terrified—not as if she’d volunteered at all.
“Jennifer,” said Mrs. Poindexter, “please tell the council what your father said when he found out the doctor had to lance the infection on your ear.”
“He—he said I shouldn’t tell anyone outside school what had happened or it would ruin the campaign. And—and before that he said he was going to resign from being pub-pub-publicity chairman, but then my mother talked him into staying, unless—unless no one’s punished. He—he said he’d always thought Foster was a—a school that produced young ladies and gentlemen, not …” Jennifer looked from Sally to me, apologizing with her frightened, tear-filled eyes, “not hoodlums.”
“Thank you, Jennifer,” Mrs. Poindexter said, looking pleased under her indignant surface. “You may go.”
“Just a minute,” said Ms. Stevenson, her voice tight, as if she were trying to hold on to her temper. “Angela, may I ask Jennifer a question?”
Angela looked at Mrs. Poindexter, who shrugged as if she thought whatever it was couldn’t possibly be important.
“Angela?” said Ms. Stevenson pointedly.
“I—I guess so,” said Angela.
“Jenny,” Ms. Stevenson asked, gently now, “did Sally ask you to have your ears pierced?”
“Then why did you decide to have her pierce them?”
“Well,” said Jennifer, “I saw the sign and I’d been thinking about going to Tuscan’s, you know, that department store downtown, to have it done, but they charge eight dollars for only two holes, and I didn’t have that much and the sign said Sally would do four holes for only six dollars—you know, one-fifty a hole—and I had that much. So I decided to go to her.”
“But Sally never came to you and suggested it?”
“Thank you, Jenny,” said Ms. Stevenson. “I hope the infection heals soon.”
There was absolute silence as Jennifer walked out.
Angela looked at the piece of paper—the agenda, I suppose—in front of her and said, “Well …”
But Sally jumped to her feet. “Mrs. Poindexter,” she said. “I—I’m sorry. I’ll—I’ll pay Jennifer’s doctor bills. I’ll pay everyone’s if I can afford it. And—and I’ll donate the money I made to the campaign. But I really did try to be careful. My sister had her ears done that way and she was fine, honest …”
“Sally,” said Ms. Stevenson, again very gently, “you took bio. You know your way couldn’t have been as safe as the sterile punches they use down at Tuscan’s.”
“I—I know. I’m sorry.” Sally was almost in tears.
“Well,” began Ms. Stevenson, “I think …”
“That will be all, then, Sally,” said Mrs. Poindexter, interrupting. “We will take note of your apology. You may wait outside if you like.”
“Mrs. Poindexter,” Jody said, as if it had taken him all this time to work up to it, “is this really the way a disciplinary hearing’s supposed to go? I mean, isn’t Angela—I mean, isn’t she supposed to be doing Liza’s job, sort of, and running the hearing?”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Poindexter, smooth as an oil slick, shrugging as if asking what she could do if Angela wouldn’t cooperate. Then she turned to me. “Eliza,” she said, “now that you have had a chance to think over our talk, have you anything to say? An explanation, perhaps, of why you didn’t see to it that Sally was reported immediately?” She put her glasses on and looked down at her notes.
I didn’t know what to say, and I wasn’t sure anyway how I was going to make my tongue move in a mouth that suddenly felt as dryly sticky as the inside of a box of old raisins.
“I don’t see what rule Sally broke,” I said at last, slowly. “If I’d really thought she was breaking a rule, I’d have asked her to report herself, but …”
“The point,” said Mrs. Poindexter, not even bothering to flip her glasses down, but peering at me over their tops, “as I told you in my office, has to do with the spirit of the rules—the spirit, Eliza, not a specific rule. I am sure you are aware that harming others is not the Foster way—yet you did not report Sally or ask her to report herself. And furthermore, I suspect that you did not do so because, despite being student council president, you do not believe in some of the rules of this school.”
“Out of the night that covers me,” suddenly echoed in my mind from English class. “Black as the Pit …”
I licked my dry lips. “That’s right,” I said. “I—I don’t believe in the reporting rule because I think that by the time people are in Upper School they’re—old enough to take responsibility for their own actions.”
I could see Ms. Stevenson smiling faintly as if she approved, but she also looked worried. She raised her hand, and Angela, after glancing at Mrs. Poindexter, nodded at her.
“Liza,” asked Ms. Stevenson, “suppose you saw a parent beating a child. Would you do anything?”
“Sure,” I said. It suddenly became very clear, as if Ms. Stevenson had taken one of the big spotlights from up on the stage and turned it onto a place in my mind I hadn’t seen clearly before. “Of course I would. I’d tell the parent to stop and if that didn’t work, I’d go to the police or someone like that. I just don’t think what Sally did is on the same scale.”
“Even though,” said Mrs. Poindexter, her voice sounding as if it were coming through gravel again, “Sally caused a number of infections and in particular infected the daughter of our publicity man?”
I got angry then. “It doesn’t make any difference who got infected,” I shouted. “Jennifer’s no better than anyone else just because we need Mr. Piccolo.” I tried to lower my voice. “The infections were bad, sure. But Sally didn’t set out to cause them. In fact, she did everything she could to prevent them. And she didn’t force anyone to have their ears pierced. Sure, it was a dumb thing to do in the first place. But it wasn’t—oh, I don’t know, some kind of—of criminal thing, for God’s sake!”
Ms. Stevenson nodded, but Mrs. Poindexter’s mouth pulled into a tense straight line and she said, “Anything else, Eliza?”
Yes, I wanted to say to her, let Angela run the meeting; let me run meetings when I’m holding the gavel—for she’d done nearly the same thing to me, many times—student council’s for the students, not for you, you old …
But I managed to keep my anger back, and all I said was “No,” and walked out, wanting suddenly to call Annie, even though I didn’t know her very well yet and I was going to see her the next day at the Cloisters anyway.
Sally was sitting on the old-fashioned wooden settle in the hall outside the Parlor, hunched over and crying on Ms. Baxter’s skinny chest. Ms. Baxter was dabbing at Sally’s eyes with one of the lacy handkerchiefs she always carried in her sleeve, and chirping, “There, there, Sally, the Lord will forgive you, you know. Why, my dear child, He must see already that you are truly sorry.”
“But it’s so terrible, Ms. Baxter,” Sally moaned. “Jennifer’s ears—oh, Jennifer’s poor, poor ears!”
I had never seen Sally like this.
“Hey, Sal,” I said as cheerfully as I could, sitting down on the other side of her and touching her arm. “It’s not terminal, she’s going to get better. You did try to be careful, after all. Come on, it’ll be okay. Jennifer’ll be fine.”
But Sally just burrowed deeper into Ms. Baxter’s front.
Ms. Stevenson came out of the Parlor and beckoned to us to follow her back in. She looked kind of grim, as if she were having trouble with her temper again. I’d heard on television that when a jury takes a long time it’s a good sign for the person on trial, but when they make up their minds quickly it’s usually bad, and my mouth got raisiny again.
Mrs. Poindexter nodded to Angela when we came in, after looking at Ms. Stevenson as if trying to tell her that she was letting Angela run the meeting after all. Ms. Stevenson, if she noticed, didn’t react.
“Um,” said Angela, looking down at her paper again. “Um—Sally—Liza—the council has decided to suspend you both for one week.”
“That’s only three days,” Mary Lou put in, “because of Thanksgiving.”
“I did not,” said Mrs. Poindexter, “see you raise your hand, Mary Lou. Continue, Angela.”
“Um—the suspensions will be removed from your records at the end of the year if—if you don’t do anything else. So colleges won’t know about it unless you break another rule.”
“And?” prompted Mrs. Poindexter severely.
“Oh,” said Angela. “Do I—do I say that, too, with Sally here and everything?”
“Sally,” said Mrs. Poindexter, “is still a member of the student body.”
“Well,” said Angela, looking at me in a way that made my heart speed up as if I were at the dentist’s. “Liza, Mrs. Poindexter said that because you’re council president and—and …”
“And because no council president in the history of this school has ever broken the honor code—go on, Angela,” Mrs. Poindexter said.
“There’s—going to be a vote of confidence on the Monday after Thanksgiving to see if the kids still want you to—to be council president. But,” she added hastily, “the fact that there was a vote of confidence won’t go on your record unless you don’t get reelected.”
“Meeting adjourned,” said Mrs. Poindexter, picking up her papers and leading the others out. Sally gave me a weak smile as she passed my chair.
Conn hung back for a minute. “The key,” he said to me in a low voice, bending down to where I was still sitting, “was when Angie said, ‘Mrs. Poindexter said’—not, ‘Council said’—about the vote of confidence. I hope you caught that, Liza, because it was her idea and she’s the only one for it. Ms. Stevenson got her to say the part about things not going on records. We all thought you should stay in office, and I bet the rest of the kids will, too. Heck, none of us would’ve turned Sally in either, not for that. A couple of kids said they might have tried harder to stop her, that was all, but I bet they wouldn’t even have done that. Liza, Poindexter’s so worried about the stupid fund-raising campaign, she can’t even think straight.” Conn reached down and squeezed my shoulder. “Liza—I’m sure you’ll win.”
“Thanks, Conn,” I managed to say. My voice was too shaky for me to say anything else. But all I could think was, What if I don’t win and it does go on my record?
For the first time in my life I began wondering if I really was going to get into MIT after all. And what it would do to my father, who’s an engineer and had taught there, if I didn’t. And what it would do to me.