The Cherringtons' new residence (a small, cramped apartment in a pseudo-spanish stack of town homes) was only temporary. No one in the family liked the arrangement, but they understood that it was a brief place to stay while a proper house was located in the vicinity.
Of greater concern was the school, Oaks Elementary. It was quite large, with almost 200 children in each grade. It was a brightly lit, hangar-like place. Fluorescent light bounced off snow-white cinderblock walls, down to ivory floors trimmed with multi-colored patterns in the linoleum. The exterior was similarly decorated: White, punctuated with dashes of crayon colors.
“Ghastly modern architecture,” said Geoffrey. “Are you dropping us off at the Google home page?”
“Ha!” Dad shot out while helping Gertie out of the back of the minivan. “Are you feeling lucky, Geoff?”
Geoffrey suppressed a smile.
“I caught that, Daddy!” Myrtle declared, pulling her backpack on.
“Ooo! It is such a big school, isn’t it?” Gertie bounced with excitement. Mom and Dad took some pictures of their newest kindergartener.
“Playground looks fun enough,” Ned observed, “…and look! There’s a 5 lane track!”
Geoffrey patted Ned on the back, “Hopefully you’ll have a chance to use it soon, Mercury.”
They waved goodbye to their father, this foursome wearing grays, browns, creams, and pale jade. But mostly grays. They advanced toward their bright new school. Geoffrey was in front, but he kept their family’s minivan in his peripheral vision until it had turned the corner and vanished. Geoffrey stopped, and turned to address the group.
“Now, are we all agreed?” Ned and Myrtle were quick to affirm, but then the bunch set their attention on Gertie. She was still looking at the brightly colored playground.
Myrtle tugged at her arm. “Ow! Now why would ya do…” Gertie protested.
Ned spoke softly to Geoffrey, “Is this necessary?”
Geoffrey ignored him and directly addressed his energetic little sister. “Gertie?” She came to attention.
“Yes Geoffrey?” She did a small curtsey.
“A quick reminder for you, since this will be your first year at school.” Geoffrey’s tone was not cold, but he would not be ignored. “We do NOT want to be advanced out of our grade level. We will be honest in our responses and …acceptable in our performance. But if we want to do the greatest good, we must avoid appearing exceptional at present. Do you understand?”
Myrtle exhaled. “She gets it, Geoff. No problem here. On we go.”
“Ryght, ryght - I get your meanin’ Geoffrey,” Gertie reassured him. “I’ll keep quiet unless asked, and I won’ do anythin ‘ceptional.”
Geoffrey narrowed his eyes, looking into hers more closely. “Very well.” He then pointed his brass topped cane at the front doors and lead the charge. “Let’s enter this… ‘hall of learning’ inconspicuously, shall we?”
“Class, this is Geoffrey Cherrington,” the matronly Mrs. Maltzburger announced. “He’s from Ohio. Is that right, Geoffrey?”
“That is correct, madam,” Geoffrey politely said whilst placing his cane, leather gloves, red plaid scarf and wool coat next to the assortment of plastic backpacks. “From the Springfield area.”
The English accent induced some chuckles. Geoffrey turned his cold eyes to the audience, “Oh yes, this is how we all speak in Ohio. Have any of you been there?” The chuckling died down. “I thought not.” He looked at a square-headed boy on the front row. “You actually might have come close to Springfield, but most likely not.” The square-headed boy stared, not sure what to think.
“Alright now” Mrs. Maltzburger said, taking control. “Why don’t you have this seat here in the back by the window, Geoffrey. You’ll be sitting behind Vanessa and next to Josh. They’ll help you get up to speed with where we are.”
“Thank you, Frau Maltzburger. I definitely need all the help that I can get.” For a brief moment he thought he overplayed his part, but no one seemed to question it.
Geoffrey pulled out his books as Mrs. Maltzburger lit up an overhead projector. “Today we’ll start by reviewing improper fractions,” she declared. Geoffrey took note of everything but.
“This is Edward Cherrington, class,” the lean Mrs. Whiting said to her 3rd grade students. The boy with the floppy blond hair smiled, and gave a brief nod to the class, “Thank you, I’m chuffed to be here. Please call me Ned.”
“Are you from England?” a round-faced girl with round glasses asked from the back of the room.
“I’m afraid not, just Ohio.”
Mrs. Whiting directed Ned to a seat and said to the class, “Actually today we’ll be learning about someone who ran for England in the 1924 Olympic games: Eric Liddell.”
Ned was right in the middle of sitting when she said this. His eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “The Flying Scotsman!”
“That’s right!” Mrs. Whiting was pleased. “He was from Scotland, and he was such a fast runner…” She used her hands and voice in an expressive way that easily held the attention of the 3rd graders, “…that they called him The Flying Scotsman. What else do you know about him, Ned?”
All eyes turned on him.
Ned knew the entire life story of Eric Liddell. He knew that “The Flying Scotsman” was originally the name of a locomotive to which Liddell was compared. He knew that Liddell was born of Christian missionaries in China, became a missionary himself, and ultimately died in China within a Japanese internment camp during World War II. And of course, Ned knew about Liddell’s decision to not compete in the 100 meter dash during the Parisian 1924 Olympics because it was held on Sunday. That was meant to be his race, the one for which he was favored to win. Instead, he ran in the 400 meter competition on a Saturday, broke the world’s record, and won the gold. Having read half a dozen biographies about the 1924 Olympic team, Ned knew all about this, and much more.
But how much to reveal?
“Um… I know he won the gold medal…” Mrs. Whiting held her breath waiting for Ned to finish. “…because …he was the fastest.”
Ned could hear a sad trombone in his heart mocking him.
Mrs. Whiting took breath again and directed her attention to the entire class, “Integrity! Liddell wouldn’t compete on Sundays. Wouldn’t train on Sundays. Now, he was fine to let others on his team compete on Sundays because it wasn’t violating their own beliefs. But Eric Liddell had made a personal promise to God that he wouldn’t compete on Sunday, and he kept it. He’d be a fine example of integrity even if he didn’t win the gold. But win it he did, and he won, in my opinion, because of the power that comes from a clean conscience.”
At this point, the sad trombone in Ned’s heart began to painfully implode.
Myrtle put a little effort into smiling when she was introduced to her new 2nd grade class by her petite teacher. A little effort, but not much.
Her eyes slid back and forth under her neatly cut brown bangs, while the rest of her face remained as stone. “We are working on finger painting first this morning, Myrtle,” her teacher, Mrs. Birnbaum, said in a spritely tone.
“Well that’s probably the best thing you could have said to start things off today,” Myrtle replied, this time with a more genuine smile.
“That’s an awfully nice dress you have on.” Mrs. Birnbaum observed. “Let’s protect it from any paint that might drip.”
The teacher began rummaging in a large bin near the backpack hangers. Myrtle continued to eye the students. Some were looking at her too, but quickly turned away once her teal stare locked on to them.
“Yes of course, paint protection,” Myrtle agreed and started opening her leather book bag.
“I think you’ll like this!” Mrs. Birmbaum pulled out a large crumple of black plastic. “We cut holes in these garbage bags for the head and the arms, and turned them into ‘artist’s smocks.’ ”
Myrtle hardly managed a glance at the garbage bag as she explained “I’m quite familiar with smocks, and I brought my own, along with my oils.”
“Oils? Oil paints?”
“Yes, but I understand that the point of today’s activité is to use my 10 digits rather than my paint brushes, despite being made of the finest badger hair.” Myrtle disappeared under her gray smock, looking for an opening for her head. “So I will stick to your finger paints.”
“Oh good!” Mrs. Birnbaum exclaimed. “I’m so glad you understand. Plus, oil paints can be toxic.”
Myrtle popped her head out. “Ha! I’m not so foolish as to eat my oil paints.”
“Again, good! But you will be sitting next to Wheatley here…” Mrs. Birnbaum pointed to a round-headed kid with white stubble where longer hair should be. He was chewing on a green bottle of paint with crooked teeth. Some of the teeth had traces of the other colors he had used on his paper plate canvas. “…and Wheatley has been known…” Mrs. Birnbaum increased in volume and redirected her comment toward Wheatley. “…to use up art supplies the wrong way!” She gave him an eye, and he sheepishly put the green bottle down with the others.
“Huh.” Myrtle was not amused. “Well, I shall be certain to keep my oils under strict lock & key, as it were. Thank you for the warning.”
Geoffrey carefully watched his teacher’s mouth open and close, though he paid no attention to what she was saying. When not speaking, she occasionally moved her jaw from side to side slightly.
She has TMJ pain, he thought. Likely caused by arthritis considering her age. Hence the need for the Excedrin tucked behind the brick-a-brack on her desk.
His eyes drifted over to Vanessa in front of him. “Tall for her age,” he thought, “But shortest in her family I’d say. Has a hard time not touching her phone. Wants to send a text but is compliant to class rules. Glances at her ‘BFF’ at the far side of the room whenever square-head boy speaks, but BFF is not glancing back. That one - did she reply to ‘Jessica’? - that one keeps her head straight forward, trying to look casual, but the neck is too tense. She’s trying to watch squarehead in her peripheral vision, but not get caught looking at him. There’s some triangle there between Vanessa, Jessica and …I think he replied to ‘Chad.’ ”
Geoffrey then directed his attention to the boy at his side. “So, Josh,” Geoffrey thought, “you clearly need to lose some weight and you’re clearly embarrassed by it. Being very aware, you compete in races and physical games with all your heart hoping that the exercise will shed you of your pounds. But you also know that the balance will never be tipped in your favor without sacrificing the donuts. Ah yes, the donuts that your mother makes at the shop one block away from here. And how can you refuse your mother’s donuts, when she brings them home late every night? They’re the only way she can attempt to compensate for not being personally present to welcome you home once your school day ends.” Geoffrey’s eyes narrow on the boys shoes, then fingertips, then length of hair. “I’m not sure where your father is, but you aren’t either, and you reckon that as long as he doesn’t show up, things will continue to slowly get better. Good luck Josh.”
Ned had turned an opportunity to shine luminously into an embarrassing, cold, plunge in dark waters. Using logic, he understood that none of the other students knew that he could have said so much more. And yet, he felt as if Mrs. Whiting knew.
He looked at her. Mrs. Whiting was passing out stacks of paper for a quiz. Basic long division. “There’s nothing wrong with one “A” on the first day of school,” he thought, “and it might compensate, somehow…”
Myrtle was deeply focused, one with her painting, balancing tones and textures.
Then Wheatley disrupted her concentration. “Hey, girl!” Wheatley said.
“I beg your pardon, are you talking to me?” Myrtle responded.
“What’s your name?” he said with his drooly, toothy mouth left open.
“Um, my name is Myrtle Cherrington. What is yours?”
“Wheatley Booker. Hey Myrtle, do you like video games?”
“No,” she said, trying to get back into the creative flow. “I can’t say that I fancy video games that much.”
“Oh.” His train of thought had been knocked off course. He looked at his painting, and his design got him back on track, “Oh yeah! I love the Wii. Do you play the Wii?”
“No, I do not.”
“I love the Wii. This is my painting of Mario Kart. I made my race car there, see? And I put flames on a checkered Koopa shell, see?”
Still trying to focus on her painting, Myrtle lied and replied without looking at Wheatley’s paper plate. “Oh yes. I see. I see the flames on the Koopa shell.”
“Normally the shell doesn’t have that, but that’s my artistic lices,” Wheatley said proudly.
“You mean ‘artistic license’ but points for at least knowing about the concept, Wheatley.”
“Yeah, yeah. You like video games?”
“No Wheatley. Points revoked. I do like painting, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”
“Geoffrey?” He was caught off guard by Mrs. Maltzburger.
“Everyone else handed in their drawing of the Solar System. Where’s yours?” Mrs. Maltzburger was trying to keep the conversation hushed, though some of the students could overhear her.
“Ah, yes!” Geoffrey rummaged through some old papers that had been stuffed in his desk. Finding one with a doodle of a dog flying a rocketship through the stars, he flattened it out and handed it over to the unimpressed teacher.
Mrs. Maltzburger’s eyebrows angled downward. “Is this your solar system?”
“My goodness! I had nearly forgotten my name.” Geoffrey snatched the paper back from the incredulous Mrs. Maltzburger and pulled out a fountain pen from his tweed jacket pocket. The dark blue ink flowed freely as he added his signature – a totally different texture and feel when compared to the black ballpoint doodle. Geoffrey handed it back and pulled a pocket watch out of his vest. “Look at the time! I’d better get my books put away before you say, ‘ready-steady-go’ what?”
He cheerfully gathered his things, which triggered similar behavior in the other students. Mrs. Maltzburger took a deep breath. “It’s not time to go yet, class. Geoffrey, please sit back down.” Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “Very well.” She raised the doodle up to the light. Mrs. Maltzburger’s face started changing colors. “What’s the meaning of these riddles?”
Geoffrey was caught off guard. “Riddles?” He hadn’t noticed any. Perhaps he picked the wrong paper to claim as his own.
Angrily, Mrs. Maltzburger spat out: “You… have detention tomorrow!”
The rapid increase in severity sobered Geoffrey up. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Maltzburger… I…” Geoffrey was without words, a novelty for him. Detention?
“Take this note to your parents.” She started jotting a message on a neon pink note card. Under her breath she cursed and put her hand to her temples. “Class dismissed!”
Geoffrey was still in shock. Walking out with the others, he paused, and said to Mrs. Maltzburger. “The Excedrin was accidentally knocked behind the projector remote and the globe puzzles on the left of the desk.”
This brought only a worse scowl from his teacher. “Class dismissed!” She repeated. Geoffrey scurried out with his affects bundled up in his arms.
Ned completed filling out the quiz, and he felt better. He knew he had knocked it out of the park. He had even gotten a little carried away by writing some additional paragraphs in the margins regarding the history of long division.
As the 3rd graders were leaving for library time, they each handed in their quizzes. Ned hung back so as to be the last student left in the room.
“Is that your quiz, Ned?” Mrs. Whiting asked. “Yes, and… Mrs. Whiting, I had known those other things about Eric Liddell too. I just couldn’t say it earlier…”
“Oh that’s alright, Ned! First day at school, you don’t want to draw to much attention to yourself.” She smiled warmly, her rising cheeks lifting her glasses. “Although you might not want to wear knee-high knickers if you really don’t want attention.”
Ned laughed, “Of course! Right-o!”
Though she incorrectly presumed the nuances of his motivation to play dumb, Ned perceived that she was not bothered by the incident, and had already dismissed it from her memory.
And so, he chose not to be bothered by it anymore either.
“That’s why Mario is king! He’s the greatest, man! Did you know that Luigi’s last name is Mario too?”
Myrtle was close to a snapping point, but she took a deep breath and counted to ten.
Wheatley went on. “So they’re Mario Mario and Luigi Mario. They’re the Mario brothers! Luigi probably idolizes his brother, thinks he’s so cool and all. That’s why he made his last name Mario.”
Through gritted teeth and closed eyes, Myrtle turned toward Wheatley and said, “If I understand correctly, in order for the game known as ‘Mario Brothers’…”
“Or ‘Bros.’ ” Wheatley interjected. “You can say Mario Bros or Brothers. Either way.”
“Either way, in order for that game’s title to make sense, the creators have decreed that the first name of player one is also his family’s surname?”
Wheatley was stumped, but instead of confessing that he wasn’t sure what decreed or surname meant, he started bobbing his head and looked around for something else to talk about. Then he saw Myrtle’s painting.
“Whoa! That dude’s naked!” Myrtle defended her work.
“That dude, to use your parlance, is Perseus.” Myrtle said, defending her work. “He hath slain Medusa, and holds up her horrific head victoriously. This is my illustration of Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus, in which, yes, he is nude.”
Wheatley remained shocked. “He’s not nude, he’s naked!”
“Presuming a conservative nature in what’s generally expected in 2nd grade art, I have his shield strategically placed to make sure nothing inappropriate could be seen.”
“But I can see his butt!” he cried. Other children were starting to take notice, and giggle, repeating Wheatley’s But I can see his butt remark in a bouncy rap-song way.
Wheatley called out, “Mom… er, I mean, Mrs. Birnbaum!”
Gertie was sitting in the center of a ring of rug matts, with all her fellow kindergarteners watching her. She had a few puppets laying at her feet, and two puppets animated in her hands. One was a policeman and the other was a jester with a stick.
Speaking as deeply as she could, she made the policeman say, “Ole-right you dirty bloke! I’ve a warrant foh yoh arrest, I do!”
The crowd of children laughed. In a high-pitched voice, Gertie then made the jester sing that classic teasing melody “Nah, na-na NAH na!” The jester started hitting the policeman on his head with his stick.
Laughter appreciative of comic violence burst out of the children and Mrs. Koen, their aging, white-haired teacher, was laughing right along with them. It was hard for Gertie not to laugh too, but she focused on the show.
The end-of-day bell rang, eliciting mournful “Aww”s from the children.
“Thank you so much Gertie, that was quite a show!” Mrs. Koen applauded her. “Will you please do more for us tomorrow?”
“Ooo! I’d be delighted to, ma’am!” Gertie said as she stuffed the puppets into her knit bag.
“Be sure to bring those wonderful puppets again.”
“I certainly will. That’s wot I made them foh – delightin’ and livenin’ up a crowd!”
Bouncing out of the kindergarten room with her backpack on, Gertie found her three older siblings on a bench waiting to be picked up.
Geoffrey sat on one end, perplexed, with a pink notecard poking out of his suit pocket. Ned sat on the other end of the bench, with a subtle smile on his face, and almost blushing about something. Myrtle was flipping around a pink card like Geoffrey's in her hand and was mumbling to herself saying, “You’d think after going through the trouble of deliberately placing the shield there that I would be carrying home a note praising me for my support of public decency in schools!”
Gertie skipped over to Geoffrey. “ ‘ello, Geoff! I did just as I said I would. Nothing ‘ceptional a’ toll. Just been ‘elpful.”
Geoffrey didn’t seem to hear her. His eyes were darting back and forth, trying to remember what else had been on that crumpled piece of paper. He didn’t mind being considered a mere underachiever, but somehow, someone had written some old riddles on that doodle had made him appear vile to his teacher. And for only the second time in his life, Geoffrey Cherrington objected to being misjudged.