The Passionate Orphan ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Miss Wagstaff belched quietly into her handkerchief; the Swiss steak she had for lunch didn’t quite agree with her. With the handkerchief over her mouth, she looked out over the thirty-two living souls that were in her care until five minutes to the hour. They were all fifteen years old and most of them she’d gladly strangle if she could. She didn’t understand children of that age and she was so old she couldn’t quite remember ever being that young.
Since it was Friday afternoon and everybody was waiting for the final bell that would unleash them on the world, this group of ninth graders was engaged in “silent reading.” Everybody must know that silent reading was serious business. You couldn’t write or giggle or daydream or think about what you were going to do when you got home or work on your algebra problems (it wasn’t study hall) or pass notes or whisper or gaze out the window or thumb through a magazine. You had to read a “good” book, preferably one from the reading list or one that Miss Wagstaff herself had approved. You had to put the fifty-five minutes to good use, reading every word on every page, and absorbing what you read as if you would be tested on it.
Halfway through the hour, Miss Wagstaff launched a surprise attack, suddenly standing up from her desk and walking the aisles between the desks, down one aisle and up another. If anybody was doing anything they weren’t supposed to be doing—reading a comic book or concealing a paperback of some kind behind a library book—she would catch them before they had a chance to hide it.
Wardell Freiholtz was an odd boy from an odd family. He was a quiet, aloof boy, dreamy in a way. He seemed to always be in a world of his own making. His clothes, though clean, were always too big for him and looked as if they had been handed down to him by an older person. He didn’t have a father; his mother worked as a prison matron to support herself and her three children, of which Wardell was the oldest.
Wardell was sitting in the row of chairs against the wall. Miss Wagstaff came upon him from behind, from the left, and her eyes fell upon the book he was reading, an oversized paperback with a pink cover.
“What is that you’re reading?” she asked.
He closed the book so she could see the front cover. The title of the book was The Passionate Orphan.
“Where did you get that book?”
He shrugged his shoulders and looked innocent.
“May I see it?” she asked.
He handed her the book and she flipped through the pages and read several passages, standing there in the aisle between desks.
“You’re reading this book?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Wardell said.
“It’s ‘yes, ma’am’.”
“How far along are you in the book?”
“Almost to the end.”
“Do you know what this book is about?”
“What is it about?”
By now everybody in class was looking at Wardell, listening to every word.
“I’d rather not say,” Wardell said.
“Don’t you know that this book is not appropriate reading material for ninth grade English?”
He shook his head and looked down.
“Who gave you this book?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t know where you got it?”
“Did you steal it?”
“Did a grown man give it to you? Maybe a friend of your mother’s?”
“No. Nobody gave it to me.”
“A boy in high school didn’t give it to you?”
“Do you know the meaning of the word ‘pornography’?”
“Well, that’s what this book is. It’s pornography and if an older person gave it to you, a boy in high school, or a person out of school, that’s a crime. It’s called ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor’. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“We’re not getting anywhere, are we?”
“Well, we’ll go downstairs and have a little talk with Mr. Gribble. See if he can make any sense out of this.”
She put the class in charge of Maris Holland, a notorious snitch. The corners of her mouth twitching, she directed with her forefinger that Wardell Freiholtz was to stand up and proceed her out the door of the classroom and down the three flights of stairs to the principal’s office.
Principal Gribble was talking to his wife on the phone, so Miss Wagstaff and Wardell had to stand and wait for about five minutes until he was free. When at last they were ushered into the carpeted, wood-paneled office, Mr. Gribble took one look at Wardell and asked, “Has this boy been misbehaving in your classroom, Miss Wagstaff?”
“Well, you decide for yourself!” Miss Wagstaff said with satisfaction.
She handed the book to Mr. Gribble and he sat down at his desk and examined it, front and back.
“And just what is this?” he asked.
“Well, just take a look at the title and open the book and read a few sentences randomly and I think you’ll see right away what it is.”
“The Passionate Orphan,” he read slowly, as if the words for difficult to him.
He opened the book and turned several pages, looking dumbfounded.
“It’s pornography!” Miss Wagstaff said helpfully.
“But it has no pictures!” he said.
“The pornography is in the words!”
“Oh, dear me!” he said. “Yes. Yes. Yes, I see what you mean. Where did you get this book, young man?”
“I don’t remember,” Wardell said.
“Did somebody give it to you?”
“You can tell me the truth. Where did you get it? Did you buy it at a secondhand bookshop?”
“Do you know what this book is about? Do you understand it?”
“Yes, I understand it.”
“Don’t you know that this is not an appropriate book to have at school where others might see it?”
“I didn’t think about it. I’ve been carrying it around with me all week and nobody noticed it until today.”
“Does your mother know you have this book in your possession?”
“I don’t think so. She never comes into my room except to clean.”
“I’m going to have to call her.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“It’s important for you to know that we don’t allow books like this in our school.”
“I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it.”
“Do you have any other books of this nature?”
“If a book like this—pornography, I mean—should come into your hands again, throw it away, but, more importantly, don’t bring it with you to school.”
“I won’t bring it to school.”
“I’ll let you off this time, but if you bring another book of this nature to school, you’re in for a three-day suspension. A three-day suspension can affect your scholastic standing for the entire school year. Do you understand me?”
“So, go to the school library and check out The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a good book but, more to the point, it’s an appropriate book.”
“It’s on the reading list,” Miss Wagstaff said.
“You may go now. First to the library to pick up The Old Man and the Sea and then back to class.”
Wardell Freiholtz stood up from the chair he had been sitting in and scratched his head. “Can I have my book back? Please?”
“I think I’ll keep it for now,” Mr. Gribble said. “I want to take a closer look.”
After Wardell left the office, Miss Wagstaff clucked her tongue at Mr. Gribble. “I’m afraid that’s not enough,” she said. “I think a more severe punishment was in order.”
“Well, he’s a fairly good student,” Mr. Gribble said. “I don’t want to be too hard on him. He’s never been in any kind of trouble before.”
“Too lenient,” she said.
“I think the matter has been settled to our satisfaction.”
She huffed her way back up the stairs to her classroom. She burst through the door to catch everybody unawares and was gratified to see that Wardell Freiholtz had The Old Man and the Sea propped up in front of him on his desk and appeared to be absorbed in it.
As for Mr. Gribble, he began reading The Passionate Orphan in the privacy of his study as soon as he got home. It stirred something in him that he thought was nearly dead. At bedtime, his mousey, middle-aged wife was surprised by his ardor.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp