Authors: Sue Stauffacher
Me: I'm afraid that would be impossible. I don't think she can read. At least not very well.
Gloria: How old is this girl?
Gloria: That is a risky behavior, Franklin. Children who don't learn to read are at a disproportionately high risk of dropping out of school, ingesting illegal substances, teen pregnancy, and entering the penal system.
Me: I knew you'd understand, Gloria. If you could just pass this information on to my mother so she would see what a poor influence—
Gloria: You know what you have to do, Franklin. You have to teach this girl to read!
Me: But, Gloria!
Gloria: Meaningful volunteer work, being involved in activities that benefit others … these are all indicators of a long life, Franklin. I'd be happy to communicate that to your mother. Just have her call me at 1-800-555-SAFE. Good-bye, Franklin.
After I hung up the phone, I retraced the steps of our conversation to figure out just where I'd gone wrong. My intention had been to recruit Gloria to my side, to get her to assist me in helping my mother choose more appropriate friends for us. But somewhere around unfortunate, addicted Mr. Pitts, I'd lost her, gotten off track, wound up in jail instead of on Park Avenue. Now what was I supposed to do?
On the bright side, maybe I was wrong about Sarah Kervick. Maybe she could read like a college professor. But even my lively imagination couldn't work up enthusiasm for that theory. It would be, according to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “unjustified optimism.” And to date, no one has ever accused me of that.
Here is the pattern I'd observed. In school, Sarah Kervick
did not read aloud. At first, she used excuses like “I didn't bring my reading glasses” or “I'm missin' that page.” Ms. Linski would sigh and say, “Use Franklin's book, then,” which I would graciously offer to hand over. But Sarah would just fire right back, “It's a funny thing, Ms. Linski. He's missin' that page, too.”
Then Ms. Linski would start twisting the buttons on her shirt collar and reply, “Why don't we discuss this at lunchtime, Sarah?”
“That would be fine, Ms. Linski,” Sarah would say. And then she'd sit back in her seat all relaxed and relieved … to be in trouble!
After a while, Ms. Linski stopped calling on Sarah Kervick. She'd just skip over her. It seemed pretty obvious to me that Sarah Kervick could not read. But when Coach Jablonski showed up at the door to collect Marvin Howerton and Bryce Jordan, the remedial readers—yes, in addition to being our P.E. teacher he taught remedial reading—Sarah Kervick did not go. I wanted her to go. I got a secret feeling of pleasure thinking of the three of them, all bullies, shoehorned into the old janitor's closet that was Coach Jablonski's office.
But that is only the first pattern I saw. Sure, Sarah Kervick was a bully, but she was not disrespectful like Marvin Howerton and she didn't torment the other kids, either. Unless she wanted something. As far as I could tell, she only ever wanted things from me. But she always got in trouble. Every day. And it was always before lunch recess.
Now, why would Sarah Kervick want to stay in for recess? For someone in delicate health like me, the reasons were obvious.
I was only seven when I discovered that the wood chips under the playground equipment were a full one inch short of the depth recommended by the National Playground Safety Association. In addition, the slide had no safety bars at the top. This meant that getting pushed off by children anxious to hurtle themselves down the steel chute was a very real possibility.
But, most important, the difference in the lengths of my legs made it difficult to elude the Pelican View basketball players, who seemed to make a new team sport out of reducing whatever book I was reading to shreds.
But Sarah Kervick could have none of these excuses. As far as I could tell, she wasn't afraid of anything. The word
was not in her vocabulary. Still, if it was close to lunchtime and she hadn't been ordered to stay in by failing to hand in her homework or refusing to do her work in class, she would get a look on her face that was positively desperate.
What could possibly be luring her? Who did she want to see that she couldn't see during regular hours? What did she want to do that couldn't be done under the supervision of our teacher?
It was on one of those days that a curious thing happened to me. Yes, I, Franklin Delano Donuthead, felt an irresistible urge to help Sarah Kervick get recess detention and to solve, once and for all, the mystery behind her desire to stay indoors at any cost.
Ten minutes before the lunch bell rang, Sarah was shifting uneasily in her seat. That's when I leaned over to her and said, “Why don't you raise your hand and ask Ms. Linski to explain what the word
“What?” she hissed back.
. Ask her what it means.”
Kids were putting their work away in their desks, and Glynnis Powell came around collecting the milk money. I smiled up at her and shined my quarters with an anti-bacterial tissue before depositing them in her palm. Which I think she appreciated.
Then Sarah's hand shot up.
“Yes, Sarah?” Ms. Linski said, brightening. Sarah Kervick never raised her hand.
“I was just wondering, uh, what's a eunuch?”
“What's a eunuch?” she repeated, looking at Sarah with a bewildered expression on her face.
Then something really amazing happened. My hand shot up. Almost against my will, I said, “Ms. Linski, can you also explain what a hermaphrodite is?”
Ms. Linski set down her grade book and the apple-covered coffee mug she always took with her to the teachers' lounge.
“Uh, while you're at it,” I finished weakly.
“Very funny, you two. I'll be happy to let you stay in for recess and look those words up in the dictionary.”
“Hey, that wasn't supposed to happen,” Sarah said, glaring at me and pressing her lips together to demonstrate her unhappiness.
“I thought you wanted to stay in for recess.” “Yeah, but not with you.”
Were my feelings hurt? No! I was in a haze, imagining the possible consequences of my actions. As I passed into the hallway, I asked Ms. Linski if this would appear on my permanent record.
“You should have thought of that earlier, Franklin. Perhaps, in the future, you will reflect
Excuse me, but reflecting before I act is my specialty! I could teach master classes on the subject. What in heaven's name had gotten into me?
After lunch, Ms. Linski had the class line up for recess.
She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Not you, Franklin. Mrs. Boardman is waiting for you in the library.” She didn't even bother to include Sarah, for whom sitting in the library under the watchful eye of Mrs. Boardman was business as usual.
Mrs. Boardman did not have any children enrolled in Pelican View Elementary School. It was rumored that even her grandchildren had college diplomas by now. She had the kind of skim milk, old lady skin and powder white hair that suggested she never exposed herself to the sun, a practice I thoroughly endorse. The occurrence of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, has almost doubled since 1973.
In the entire time I have been at Pelican View Elementary, I have observed Mrs. Boardman doing only one of three things: writing notes to parents of children who have not returned their library books on time, mending torn pages with special non-yellowing Scotch tape, and reshelving the books. She never speaks, to my knowledge. Just writes note after note in her spidery handwriting:
If Billy does not return his library book forthwith, he will lose his lending privileges for the rest of the year.
That is why I was mildly shocked when I entered the library and saw her look up in what seemed an eager way. But then she looked back down again, disappointed. It wasn't until Sarah
Kervick—who'd been walking her customary six steps away from me—appeared that she resumed her happy expression and, ignoring me completely, said in a soft, papery-thin voice, “Sarah, dear. There you are. What's been keeping you?”
Well, this was information, I told myself. Sarah Kervick had a friend. I sat down at a long, chocolate-colored table and waited to see what would happen next. But Sarah did not want to share any information with me. She walked slowly over to my table and said, “Look, Donuthead, this doesn't go anywhere. You got that? Nowhere but here. If it does …” She paused, considering how to drive her point home.
“Let's see,” I said. “If I tell anyone that you are friends with little old lady Boardman, you'll yank my ears so hard I'll be able to tie them in a knot beneath my chin.”
“Yeah. Somethin' like that.”
As I glanced down at the table, I noticed that the bandages had been removed from her fingers and that her warts were nearly gone. Reflexively, she curled her fingers into fists and turned around, tossing her shiny blond hair over her shoulder.
“Hi, Grace,” Sarah said when she reached Mrs. Boardman's desk.
“Hello, Sarah.” I watched in shock as Mrs. Boardman laid down her pen and put her bony hand over Sarah's. My first impulse was to warn the old woman of the dangers of infection that might still lie beneath Sarah Kervick's skin. Elderly people have compromised immune systems, you know. I did not want to be responsible for Mrs. Boardman's premature demise.
But the way she grabbed on to Sarah Kervick, I don't think she would have paid any attention to my warnings. She held her hand and spoke to her in a low voice.
“I was able to get over to that library in Wing Rock. Mr. Benkert, my neighbor, had to visit his mother up that way. Poor dear broke another hip. But just you see what I got you.” And she smiled a smile broad enough to crack her face, then rose slowly, pulled a key from her pocket, and shuffled over to the closet that held the coat and hat and briefcase of the regular librarian, Mrs. Fox. Unlocking the door, Mrs. Boardman took a cloth sack from behind the lost and found box.
“Here it is.”
I was expecting something exotic, like maybe a book on medieval torture or ancient Egyptian burial rites. Almost against my will, I rose in my seat to get a better look. As if sensing my movement, Sarah Kervick's head shot around with the glare of Medusa and froze me to the spot.
She turned back to Mrs. Boardman and said, “How long can we keep it, do you think?”
“It depends on when they move Mrs. Benkert. I'd say we have it until next Friday, at least.”
Sarah Kervick held the book tightly to her chest and moved over to the picture book area. Then she flopped down on her stomach, and all I could see were the bottoms of her worn tennis shoes.
I became absolutely consumed with discovering the book that made Sarah Kervick relax her hunched-up shoulders and smile so sweetly.
It was a strange sensation, much like the one that had
caused me to raise my hand and voluntarily get recess detention. You see, normally I don't feel curiosity about things that are not connected to my personal safety. In fact, I like to arrange situations so that I have as much control as possible.
But the more I tried to arrange things around Sarah Kervick, the less control there was to be had. Something told me I was entering a whole new area of danger, and this was not physical! Libraries are, statistically, very safe places to be, unless you misuse the step stools that are intended for staff use only.
I rose from my seat and approached Mrs. Boardman. The reference section formed a wall that blocked my view of the picture book area. If I could just get to it, I could peek over and …
“Yes, Franklin?” Mrs. Boardman said, looking up at me from her work.
“I was wondering, Mrs. Boardman,” I said loudly. “Do you have any statistics on the rising tide of personal watercraft accidents?”
She blinked at me a few times. “Well, we have
The Guinness Book of World Records.
“I see … and that would be …”
She pointed to nonfiction. Opposite direction. “I see,” I said, casting a meaningful glance over her shoulder.
She raised one eyebrow, just for a second, and then said, a little more loudly, “But if you are looking for tragic domestic accidents, which I understand is a personal interest of yours, I
The Three Little Pigs
in the folktale section at the far corner of the picture book area.”
“That was tragic indeed,” I said, smiling up at Mrs. Boardman. “I'll look that up right away.” And I stepped right over Sarah Kervick's legs on the way to the folktales.
In between doing some research for my list of characters who might die from preventable accidents—Why did Little Red Riding Hood have to talk to strangers? Why did Goldilocks have to trespass?—I managed to steal several glances at Sarah Kervick.
As I had suspected, it was an oversize picture book, full of— of all things—figure skaters looping and twirling and bending over in ways that would exert dangerous pressure on the lumbar region of the spine.
Normally, she might have been bothered that I was so close to her without being invited. But this book had clearly taken Sarah Kervick far away into some frosty daydream of her own. Why did she want to go so badly that she would let down her guard like this?
We passed the whole of recess that way, the three of us quietly rustling pages until the bell rang. It was very peaceful.
Reluctantly, Sarah handed the book back to Mrs. Boardman, who returned it to her bag.
“Growing up in Norway,” she told Sarah, “the only way to get to school in winter was by skating down the frozen river. Mama gave us each a potato from the fire to put in our pocket. That kept our little fingers from getting frostbite.”
“You were poor, weren't you?” Sarah Kervick asked.
“Yes, dear. We were very poor.”
• • •
The halls had pretty much emptied out by the time we left the library. I walked quickly back to class, anxious to be reinstated in the good graces of Ms. Linski. After all, I am known for returning from recess in a timely manner, and I considered it a point of honor to uphold this standard of excellence.
But something told me to look back for Sarah Kervick. She was standing motionless in front of the plate glass window by the office. The same window that gave Mr. Putman a full view of the playground.