Once there was this girl named Penny who wished she were small, so small as to not matter much, so small as to be passed by, or, better yet, disappear altogether. And so she did.
Such an act was no small feat as Penny now stood nearly 6 foot tall. And that was in fourth grade. In our class picture she ranged over all the boys and even above the bun-headed teacher Mrs. Biskee. Despite Penny’s length, she was, for the most part, invisible. She just seemed to vanish in that strange way that certain people do. Her dreams, her desires, all those wishes that life allows most others to share, when it came to Penny, her thoughts appeared to be swept under some rug or put into a silent place. Her face offered no answer to bruises that went unspoken, as unnoticed as the gawky, gaunt black and white image of her standing in the back row. And then, one day, one very remarkable day, Penny just disappeared entirely.
It happened in P.S. 46. For a public school it was something to behold. From a distance one could mistake it for a steep roofed British cathedral; tall, brick, a slender fortress. Inside it was wrought iron, brass solid. Here little voices echoed off earth toned tiles, echoed up and down ornate stairwells resounding determination, not nurturance. It was a ship of knowledge upon which the good future sailed, rimmed in parapets, trimmed in snowy quartz granite, arched entrances, cornices, entirely surrounded in a stately manicured sea of green. And all that encased in a 1950s country club, cocktail party neighborhood. For those of us who came from the grey streets, like coal dusted children, the walk was a marvel. In class, the distance seemed even greater.
It was nearing the end of school, almost summer, and today it started to rain. The drops silently gathered into rivulets on the long windows’ leaded panes.
“I can see we are not having recess outside this afternoon,” announced the massive Mrs. Biskee from behind her oak desk.
The room was getting sticky, and the boys strained like horses.
“I want you to set your pencils down,” she said. “You will get your exercise the old way.
Upon my signal, I want you to stand next to your desks. And when I tell you, I want you to run in place. If we can’t get out, we will get some exercise right here.”
On command we rose standing arrow straight. Although an old drill, we hadn’t done this one in a long, long time. All the children stretched. All except Penny, who remained seated. Only her frightened eyes moved as she watched each gesture of Mrs. Biskee.
Penny’s look was no longer that of a child’s.
Mrs. Biskee squared herself to the class and gave the command. Quiet steps ensued, shy, mechanical at first. To the classroom beneath, our steps must have sounded like the starting moments of a loom factory, a staccato slowly finding rhythm in little feet.
The girls, most in dresses and shiny shoes, searched for an obedient pace, while the boys, feeling the release, increased to a trot. Dick, one of the big, strong ones, a killer at dodgeball knocking smaller kids off their feet, took the lead, head held high; here he could show everyone he can get this answer right. Lou regulated his pace on the ability of Mrs. Biskee to see him, and thin Allen, bent in arrhythmic padding, reflected his attempt to glance down at his comic. For the rest of us, we varied our rhythm, moving slightly up and back, bumping and snickering. Bad boy Wayne was accurate enough to catch the heel of Gary, the kid in front of him, making him stop to re-tie. If someone would have done that to one of Penny’s shoes it would have torn right off. Mrs. Biskee listened to the cadence, watching, measuring.
Then she noticed, in the last row, over by the windows, a gap. She raised an eyebrow, her nostrils widened. Slowly she moved toward the cavity. Without her attention, the classroom pace shifted. Dick had them in post-war, double time, hiding the “whisk,“ “whisk” of Biskee’s nylons as she made her way toward the windows. There, she hesitated and cocked her head so her osprey-colored eyes could better grasp.
Penny. It was Penny who made the hole. While the class was on a forced field march, Penny sat tightly holding onto the sides of her wooden desktop. For just a split second Penny leaned out past the row of stamping children in front of her and was instantly caught in the teacher’s glint.
“Penny,” Mrs. Biskee almost whispered, moving down the row. I thought maybe Penny had peed herself. Others had years back. Once, Cynthia, in second grade, threw up all over her desk.
Mrs. Biskee stood above Penny. Sometimes Penny would come to school wearing that same frightened expression. Kids who lived nearby said they could hear the father, the struggles. Most of us knew about the drink, but not the other stuff.
“Something wrong?” Mrs. Biskee looking down in a commandant’s smile. Against the brightening rays now coming from the long windows, Mrs. Biskee cast death’s silhouette over Penny. Penny squinted up, hiding shame, eyes welling.
“If nothing’s wrong, stand up,” Mrs. Biskee said.
“Penny! Stand up!”
Penny held. Her hands gripping tighter.
“Stand up!” Biskee ordered.
The girls glanced and giggled; the boys too busy slamming their feet, swallowed the room in sound. First one hand released. Then the other. With elbows and knees angling and bending, Penny unfolded and rose.
Penny stood pale, an earthy orchid, a giraffe in the rumble and boom. Her eyes begged. Nothing, not even a blink, came back.
“Why, all you have to do is pick up one foot and then the other!” declared Mrs. Biskee. “Commence! Penny! Like Camilla! Like Barbara!” which sent Barbara into heightened ecstasy for being singled out, for being “picked.”
“Like this, Penny,” said Camilla, the class favorite, whose words drifted above the storm trooper clomp, Camilla’s words drifting from an altogether unsurmountable higher station in life. Penny stood scared white, tattered. Her dress and home cropped hair gave her the sad quality of a medieval woodcut. Camilla’s delicate, strapped shoes went up and down light as a piano recital. Behind Camila another girl, Helen, thumped away. Like Penny, Helen knew the other side, the outside. But Helen could, and did, pin most of the boys in the class.
“See!” said Mrs. Biskee seething and pointing at Camilla’s pretty shoes. I pushed Gary’s books off his desk. Mrs. Biskee shot a glance at the sprawl but failed to take the bait. Lou started running again. Helen smirked at me and pumped on.
“Lift! Your! Foot!” Mrs. Biskee demanded.
The teacher’s voice sent Dick and the class running at downhill, no brakes, full throttle speed. Penny lifted her foot.
“Now the other!”
“By God! Alternate those feet!” Biskee shouted in rage.
Penny’s feet stayed to the ground as if a cat kneading a blanket.
“Like this!” said Mrs. Biskee.
Her hands rose from her sides and found the “all business” perch on her heavy hips. And then, as if a bagpipe cranked, she tilted her head back and she hopped like a Scotsman. Steam escaped as Mrs. Biskee’s thick, brown, tie shoe struck with a wobbling crack. No sooner had that shoe landed than the other was rising up so high her heavy dress stretched, exposing her spill-over ankles, until that shoe came down like a 50 ton punch press. Dick slammed too. The class instantly caught on. Mrs. Biskee leaped and landed, leaped and landed swaying to and fro. Soon everyone swayed, leaping and landing with the collective force of a pile driver.
Mrs. Biskee, eyes glazed, jumped even higher and slammed so hard the wheels on her year-long classroom control were sparking off the rails. The locomotive in black wool had thrown the engineer from the train.
Suddenly the class’s eyes were no longer on the flying Mrs. Biskee. All eyes were now on Mrs. Biskee’s enormous flying breasts. Wayne exploded! He could not control it any more! He shot out a bark-like laugh that raced through the class. So contagious it was that even the girls squeaked. Helen, her head angled back in mimic, openly guffawed. The class, shot red hot with release, increased their stomps that shook the room like a wrecking ball.
Penny’s feet were inching up off the floor, too, still trying to restrain each of her gentle, body tremors.
“Higher!” demanded Mrs. Biskee feeling a break-through was close at hand, which only exaggerated her own steps and bounce.
“Higher!” Mrs. Biskee demanded again.
My God, even Camilla had to cover her smile.
Wayne, now completely unwound and almost paralyzed in unmitigated synaptic release, thumped to the front of the class, arching his back and pumping an arm like the circus ring master marching down Main street.
Mrs. Biskee, one stocking bunched at the ankle, pounding like the devil at the door, unblinking, staring somewhere beyond the ceiling, was gone. Gone up and over the trench, her bun hanging to the side like a doughboy’s helmet; gone like a race horse stung by a bee.
In the classroom below, the little children, dusted from the ceiling above, shrieked from the explosions overhead. Their teacher, Miss Rose, slowly eased toward the doorway and delicately tried to yell down the hallway.
Then, suddenly, as if catching the outside bar on a passing trolley, Penny let loose.
In full pelican flap, she stretched up and strode, strong and solid, her hands, fists, arms hammering an ever-quickening cadence, tears jumping from her cheeks.
In a flash she was cruising higher and stronger than the class, higher and stronger than Mrs. Biskee.
It was so abrupt Mrs. Biskee faltered.
Penny’s knees nearly hit Camilla’s chin, who had stopped dead still from Penny’s burst.Then Penny accelerated again.
With each ripping step Penny looked straight through Mrs. Biskee.
Penny took wing.
Helen caught it in a millisecond, nudged me, and nodded at Penny. Struggling for breath, I looked over. Maybe, I thought, Helen wanted me to look at one of Penny’s shoes.
“No,” Helen said leaning toward me, “look.”
Penny was bouncing, bouncing, too, but more like a grown lady. Soon everyone stopped.
Mrs. Biskee uttered, “That’s enough.”
By now it was Penny who soared beyond earshot.
“Enough!” Mrs. Biskee shouted.
But, it was too late.
Penny had already sailed past, through the window into the light.∎