We heard a couple of more readers before the girls returned, Dawn’s face tear-smeared with red. In that dress, she looked as if she’d been jilted at the altar. She didn’t look at all at Ms. Medwin but moved straight to her seat, where she sat down in a puff of gown that kept her about a foot off the chair. She stared at her desktop.
The other girls—all but Harriet—also sat and stared downward. Harriet stood by her desk and said, “We’re back.” Pause. “And we’re good.”
“That’s nice,” said Ms. Medwin in a voice that declared That’s not nice. Then she looked softly over at Dawn. “Are you all right now, Dawn?”
“Does that mean ‘yes’?”
“All right,” said Ms. Medwin, “we still have time for our final reader … Harriet Eastbrook.”
Harriet picked up her poem and walked briskly to the lectern, where nice applause pooled to wait for her. “My poem,” she said, “is based on the grave of Mariana Chabot, Nov. 12, 1819, to Dec. 5, 1889. On her stone it says: “Daughter, Sister, Mother, Grandmother. ‘Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky”—William Wordsworth.”
She took a deep breath, looked up, and began reading in the voice I’d learned to love:
I was the only daughter my parents made.
Four sons, though. Four older brothers who
Both tormented and protected me.
I helped my mother with the household chores
And never dreamed I’d have a life
That would be a bit different from hers.
But then I found and married Leon,
A kind man,
Before our marriage,
A man whose handsome face
Gave no hint of his horrible heart.
I gave birth to a screaming son
Whose unpleasant ways never really disappeared.
I was glad when he’d grown and gone away.
Years later, I learned that he had fathered a child,
A girl he’d named Mary.
(I wondered if he’d thought of me.
I never saw her.
By then I’d left Leon
And moved to London, Connecticut,
Where I worked in a library
And to my chest I hugged the books
That never betrayed me.
When I died,
The other librarians had book
And bake sales and raised the money
To send me back here
To lie near my cruel family
Under this sad stone.
The applause was genuine afterwards, and Harriet told us who William Wordsworth was and gave us copies of his poem that has the line “Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky.”
I just stared at her, feeling heat arriving in my face, staying there. In ways, I had seen myself in her words, saw myself hiding in the pages of books. Finding comfort there. Walking back to her desk, she had given me the most fleeting of looks, the most subtle of smiles.
While I clapped, along with everyone else.
I didn’t say anything in the discussion afterwards, even though I wanted to tell Harriet that I both loved and hated her poem. Later, I’d try to figure out what to say to her.
With about a minute to go, some of the bored kids started shuffling their feet and sitting up straighter, ready to launch themselves out of their seats and toward the next class that would bore them.
But Ms. Medwin had a few more things to say. “Thank all of you for volunteering to read today,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of people with something you’ve created. I’ve decided, by the way, that I will be publishing all of your poems for the school—a little booklet. But we’ll talk more about it later.”
She looked at the clock. “I see I’ve kept you eight seconds too long,” she said. “Shame on me.” And just before everyone got up to go, she added, “Dawn, I’d like to see you a minute.” That was one of the best things I’d heard all period.
As we started to move out of the room, I fell in step with Gil.
“You didn’t read your poem,” I said.
“You either,” he mumbled. Then accelerated past me down the hall.