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During her first term at boarding school, fifteen-year-old Flanders tries to cope with a variety of unusual people and situations and come to terms with her conflicting emotions about her recently separated parents.
CHARLES SCHOOL IS IN Virginia, and if you're ever sent there, you will need someone like Carolyn Cardmaker to warn you about it.
We met on the train.
"There's something wrong with nearly all the teachers," she said, after, she convinced me to move to the rear of the train, out of sight of the chaperone. "I suppose any intelligent person would expect that," she added.
She was an "old" girl. She had spent a year at Charles School already. I had never been away from home in fourteen years, except for vacations with my family. Now I was actually supposed to live at Charles School.
"Why would any intelligent person expect there to be something wrong with nearly all the teachers?" I asked.
"Because anyone who lives at Charles School voluntarily is peculiar," Carolyn Cardmaker said. "The teacher chaperoning this train for example. Miss Blue. Have you had a good look at her?"
"We just spoke briefly at Penn Station."
"Did you see it?"
"If you didn't see it, never mind. When you see it, you'll see what I mean about the teachers."
All the while Carolyn Cardmaker had been talking to me, I'd been envying her tan. My skin didn't like the sun, and I was as pale white as she was golden brown. I was tall and she was short; blue-eyed and she was brown-eyed. I was immaculate and proper in my new blue pleated skirt and matching blue-and-white wool school blazer. She was on the scruffy side with dozens of scratches and old mosquito bites on her arms and legs. Her skirt was navy blue cotton, which she wore with the school blazer, but the blazer was patched along the elbows and the color was frayed, the white piping torn.
She was a long-haired blonde. I was a short-haired redhead. I guessed we were both almost fifteen, because she was a sophomore, too.
I sat quietly staring out the train window for a few seconds, and then I said, "What is there about Miss Blue that I should see?"
I tried to remember my brief meeting with her by the information booth at Penn Station. All I could recall was a small bent figure in black with a nametag reading ERNESTINE BLUE fastened to the lapel of her suit, and a face wearing rimless glasses.
"What you will see is a cross," said Carolyn Cardmaker.
"An enormous cross."
"She's wearing a big cross, is that all?"
"It's wearing her. It's a bigger cross than you'll ever see anyone wear, and I'm not new to wearers of crosses. You expect wearers of crosses in an Episcopal boarding school."
"You do?" That would be news to my father, who was an "unbeliever." (My mother was one, too, but I was no longer interested in any of her opinions, reactions, or philosophies.) "Unbeliever" was my aunt's word for it, and I used it myself. "Why not atheist, honey?" my father would argue with me. "Atheist is a perfectly honorable word, you know." Was it? I was never sure.
"The choir wears crosses," Carolyn Cardmaker continued, "and Reverend Cunkle wears one. Some of the faculty wear them, a few students wear them, and Miss Blue is worn by one. You'll be seeing a lot of crosses, don't worry."
The train was racing toward the beginnings of Washington, D.C., where we would change for another train. I shut my eyes and remembered my father, smelling of pipe tobacco and good leather, hugging me at Penn Station and promising, "Next week I'll leave for Washington, and the week after that we'll be set up in Maryland. You can come for weekend visits. It isn't as bad as you think, sweetheart."
Carolyn Cardmaker sighed and said, "Do you know what Miss Blue calls Jesus? She calls him her buddy. She sings that old song 'My Buddy' and she says it makes her think of Jesus. She can hear Jesus. Far out."
"What do you mean she can hear Jesus far out? Far out where?"
"I mean it's far out that she can hear Jesus. It's Ding-A-Ling City."
"Weird," I agreed.
"I hope you're not too religious."
"I wasn't raised to be," I said, which was an understatement. I'd only been to church once in my life, for my Grandmother Deacon's funeral last spring. Both my mother and father had attended with me, neither one standing with head bowed during prayers but staring straight ahead at the white coffin (closed) with the roses on top, about a dozen pale red ones.
You might say that was my mother's and father's last public appearance together. About ten days later my mother took off for New York City, where she was going to join Bobby Santanni. He was fourteen years her junior, and he was attending New York University, where he was studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology. My father had hired Bobby last summer as a research assistant. He was tall and skinny. He smoked a pipe and was as good as an encyclopedia for quick information, and there was a certain conceited air about him.
My father kept asking me if I wanted to call my mother before it was time for me to get my train to Charles School. I didn't want to. I might have been able to take her just running off like she did, but I didn't think I'd ever get over her running off with Bobby.
Ever since my grandmother's funeral, one of the hymns had kept coming back to me; not the whole thing but just a few lines of melody and the words: The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead thou me on: Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me.
"If you weren't raised to be religious, why did you get shipped off to an Episcopal school?" Carolyn Cardmaker brought my mind back to the present.
"Because my father is in business in Maryland, and Charles is nearby. And I had an aunt who went to Charles. She said the religious thing wasn't emphasized."
Carolyn Cardmaker shrugged. "It's not played down, either. We have chapel every single evening. We go to church twice on Sunday. We have Bible once a week. And we have Miss Blue, who can hear Jesus."
"Why did you get shipped off to Charles?" I asked her. She wasn't at all my idea of a boarding-school girl. She didn't look like any of the girls in the Charles School catalog, either. She was very short. She was not one of those all-American beauty types in sports clothes, pretending to be woodsy in the fall or beachy in the summer. She sat with her legs all caught and curled around each other like a contortionist, and her elbows jabbed into my sides periodically when she made a point. Her fingers were short and stubby, and she had several hangnails.
She said, "I'm a P.K."
"A Preacher's Kid!" She was tracing the initials PK in the soot of the train window with her finger. "I'm a preacher's kid with a high I.Q., which means I won a scholarship. There are only four reasons why anyone is ever shipped off to Charles School, and I qualify as a Number One. Number One is Bright and Pitiful. I could be Bright and Black, or Bright and Oriental, or Bright and a Migrant Worker's Daughter. But I'm worse than all of those because I'm bright and a preacher's kid, which means that I'm practically a pauper. I'm even wearing a secondhand school blazer."
"I thought Charles School wasn't for rich people, anyway," I said. "My Aunt Helen said it definitely wasn't."
"It isn't a school for poor people, either," Carolyn Cardmaker said. Then she looked me over thoughtfully. "I don't know what number you are yet, but Flanders is a funny first name. You probably have at least one eccentric parent. One eccentric parent can cause plenty of problems, so you may be a Number Three."
Our last name was Brown, so both my parents had wanted something less ordinary for my first name. I was Flanders Dunbar Brown.
"I'm not a number anything," I scoffed. "I told you my father's starting a new business in Maryland. There's not room for me yet."
"You're a Number Three, I was right," said Carolyn Cardmaker. "The Number Threes are In the Way."
The train whistle blew a shrill greeting to Washington.
I said, "I probably won't even finish the term," forcing a casual air. "My father will probably be sending for me as soon as everything's set up,"
It wasn't the truth, but neither was it the truth that I was a Number Three. At least I didn't think it was.
I hadn't changed Carolyn Cardmaker's mind. "Definitely a Number Three," she said. "But it could be worse. You could be a Two or a Four."
"You can't fit everyone into a slot like that, Carolyn."
"Don't call me by my first name. Everyone calls me Cardmaker."
"You can't, Cardmaker!"
"You can at Charles. At least about this you can, I promise you. If you're at Charles, you're either 1) Bright and Pitiful, the scholarships; or 2) On the Ladder, the social climbers; or 3) In the Way; or 4) Out of the Ordinary!"
"I'm Number Five," I said.
"A new category," I said. "It's called Not Any of those Things."
Cardmaker continued, blithely ignoring my remark. "A lot of the people you'll meet are On the Ladder. They aren't, really, their parents are. A good boarding school is part of the image social climbers like to create. The parents can sit around the country club while the waiter shakes up martinis and they can let it drop that little Ann-Babette is off at Charles School, you know, très chic."
"Not très chic if they're shaking up martinis at their country club," I said. My father always stirred his very gently. Remembering his advice concerning martinis, I said, "You never shake a martini. You could bruise the gin that way."
Cardmaker's face became red with humiliation. She reached down on the floor of the train for a huge patent-leather bag. The straps were worn and the patent leather was peeling. She began rifling through it as she talked. "Okay. Okay. P.K.'s don't know a lot about martinis. In their formative years they were being instructed to death in manners and not cocktails, which is why half of them go bad and end up on the police blotter or somewhere worse like Charles School.... Oh, some lucky P.K.'s get to learn that stuff. The real high Episcopalians with the ten-dollar incense and the fancy-schmancy parishes in Richmond and Philadelphia and New York City, but not us pitifuls from the sticks in Outer Mongolia, which is what it's like where we live in Pennsylvania. Men drop dead out in front of their houses all winter long trying to dig out. They suffer heart attacks. Winters the snow goes past our downstairs windows. Winter mornings our living room is as dark as night."
Cardmaker was still poking around inside her bag.
I said, "I used to live in Upstate New York, not far from where you live. We never had snow past our downstairs windows. Our living room was never as dark as night in the morning."
Cardmaker didn't bother to acknowledge my remarks.
"There's something I want to ask you, too," I said, losing a little of my feeling that she was an authority figure of any kind just because she knew Charles School and I didn't. "What are Out Of The Ordinarys?"
"The Number Fours?" she said. "They're flawed in some way. You'll see them right away if we have any aboard this year. There was a dwarf in the class of 1957. She's a psychiatrist now in Atlanta. Two years ago there was an albino from Jackson, Mississippi. She had to wear dark glasses and put up black shades over all the windows. She couldn't take gym, either, or stay outdoors longer than three and a half minutes."
"You're right," I said. "I'd rather be a Number Three."
"You're probably more of a Three than you even know," said Cardmaker. "Most Number Threes are."
"Thanks," I said. "It's nice to have a vote of confidence."
"Anyway, in the beginning everyone feels like a Number Three," said Cardmaker, removing a package of Chesterfields from the bottom of her old shoulder bag. "Being shipped off to Charles is a lot like being shipped off to an asylum, you know? I don't mean just the fact the teachers are all strange. I mean getting used to the food and certain grotesque things they put in the food to curb our sexual appetites, and the fact there aren't any private johns and the bells ring out commands all day. Stuff like that."
I couldn't think of anything to say. I had an impulse to repeat the line from the hymn played at my grandmother's funeral, to say something like, "Cardmaker, I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me," but I lost the energy it took to be amusing. It had gone with whatever high spirits there might have been tagging around, left over after breakfast early that morning with my dad.
Cardmaker said, "I've been dying for this all day," scratched a match, and lighted her cigarette.
"Is smoking allowed?"
"Verboten!" said Cardmaker with a thick German accent. "Eef I am deescovered I vill be kaput!"
"Aren't we practically in the station?"
"Practically. That's why I'm sneaking this now. It'll be the last chance before we change trains. On the next train there'll be more girls and another chaperone, no way to sneak a coffin nail."
She blew out some smoke rings, turned to me, and said, "How did you get the name Flanders?"
Her smoke poured past my face and I waved it away with large, exaggerated, hinting gestures. It did no good. Cardmaker was not easily thrown off posture.
I said, "My mother and father were fans of a doctor who lived years and years ago named Flanders Dunbar. She believed that all physical diseases were rooted in your particular emotional problem. If you had a lot of gall," I said, fanning smoke from my eyes, "you could get gallstones."
"Psychosomatic medicine," said Cardmaker.
"Flanders Dunbar was a pioneer. My folks wanted to bring her research up to date." After that period there was the handwriting analysis phase, then a lot of encounter stuff, and then this new primary therapy, with Bobby coming from New York to assist. One day I heard him call my mother "Tutta." I asked him what it meant and he said it was just something in Italian. I asked him again what it meant, and he said, "It means 'all,' 'everything,'" and he laughed and looked very embarrassed and said, shrugging, "It just means she's the boss."
"You said your father was in a new business?" Cardmaker said, blowing out three perfect O's.
"Don't you think smoke rings attract attention?" I said. "What if Miss Blue turns around and sees smoke rings over your head?"
"She won't turn around," Cardmaker said. "She knows I'm smoking."
"Then she's neat."
"She's gutless," Cardmaker said. "She's afraid to make waves."
"I see," I said, glad we were no longer pursuing the subject of my father's new business. Of all of their schemes, I hated Attitudes, Inc., the most.
Cardmaker took a drag from her cigarette, inhaled, and endured a brief coughing fit which left tears in her eyes. She was stalwart. She continued as though nothing had happened, speaking with hoarse difficulty. "Have you ever heard of John Cardmaker, Flanders? He's my great-great-great and keep going back for eons great-grandfather."
I shook my head no.
"No one has, but they should have. Just because he didn't cotton to the idea of the Pope and all the pomp and circumstance, do you know what the church of Rome did to him in 1553?"
I said, "I know very little about that sort of thing, Cardmaker."
"That's why I'm telling you. You can research it in Fox's Book of Martyrs if you doubt my word. First they burned a man before John Cardmaker's eyes, practically on top of him, and then they asked John Cardmaker to recant. But he didn't, Flanders. He went across to the stake and kissed it. Then he died a fiery chunk of charred flesh with the people yelling, 'Lord strengthen thee, Cardmaker!'—because the people were proud of his courage!" She tapped the tip of her cigarette and a long ash fell into her lap. She rubbed it into her skirt until it no longer showed. "So now you know a little about my ancestry," she said.
I said, "That story, or the cigarette smoke, or the whole idea of going to Charles School is making me feel sick."
"Religious people are always burning other religious people," said Cardmaker, ignoring my queasy feelings. "There's a whole history of it. It's still going on, too. In Indochina, in Ireland. Religious people are often grotesque."
I had never admitted it to anyone, but I did believe in God. Was that being religious? I wasn't wearing out my knees at the side of my bed every night, but I did say my own version of prayers.
"WASHINGTON, D.C.!" a porter yelled as the car door swung open and he strode through. "WASHINGTON! WASHINGTON!"
Excerpted from Is That You, Miss Blue? by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1975 M. E. Kerr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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