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October 2009

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Chapter 4


     At school on Monday, Susan kept hearing music from Friday night in her head.  One song in particular—she remembered dancing with George to a tune that kept haunting her.  He had been trying to teach her a special variation to the dance steps, and she had almost gotten it.

     Out on the playground, standing alone by the corner of the blacktop, she still heard the music, and started walking slowly through the steps, seeing if she could figure it out.  Lucinda was up on the monkey bars with Piper when she looked over and saw Susan.  She watched her a minute, wondering what in the world the girl was doing.  Then she recognized the pattern of her steps.

     Piper noticed her too, then, and said, “What is Susan doing?”

     “Practicing,” Lucinda said, climbing down from the monkey bars.

     “Hey, you need a partner?” Lucinda asked, when she got close to Susan.

     Susan looked up and smiled.

     “Do you know that thing George was trying to teach me?  It goes with that song that goes . . . ” and Susan sang the chorus of the song that was in her head.  She had to sing it all la-la-la because she didn’t know the words, but the tune was unmistakable, and Lucinda knew right away what she meant.

     “Okay, I’ll be George,” she said, and she and Susan started to dance together, humming the tune or saying the steps as Susan gradually learned the bit she was working on.  When she had it down, they danced to the song at full speed, Lucinda singing the words and Susan backing her up with la-la vocals.  It was fun and silly, and they didn’t care if the other kids thought they were nuts or not.  Piper had followed Lucinda from the monkey bars and she clapped when they finished.

     “That is so cool!” she said.  “Teach it to me!”

     When the bell rang, Piper knew the basic steps and was dancing with Susan, while Lucinda was showing Cassie how it went.  It was not easy to dance and sing at the same time, especially since only Susan and Lucinda knew the music.  So the next day, Lucinda brought her little boombox to school, with one of her uncle’s CDs.  Dancing was much more fun with real music, and the four of them got pretty good.

     By the end of the week, both Cassie and Piper knew the steps by heart, plus George’s fancy variation.  They could dance without having to think about where to put their feet.  It was no surprise that Piper learned so quickly; she was, by her own admission, a dancing fool.  But Cassie was amazingly graceful and light on her feet.  She wasn’t fat when she danced.  Trisha had joined their little troupe, and so had three other girls who used to hang on the fringe of the cool girls’ clique.  So everyone had a partner, they all took turns leading and following, and once they got the hang of it, it was great fun.  Better than jump-rope or kickball or even soaring on the swings.

     It didn’t take Ashley and Brittany and Jessica long to notice what was going on over at the far end of the blacktop.  Kids were standing around, watching the dancers.  Lots of them were interested; it was obviously fun.  But how embarrassing, to dance like that, in front of everybody!  That is what the kids who were watching were thinking.  They were wanting to try it, but too self-conscious to move.  The girls laughed and whooped, and screamed when they made mistakes, and all the time their feet were flying and they were whirling each other around.  When the music stopped and the dancers paused to catch their breath, the kids who were watching clapped and whistled.

     That was too much for Ashley.  She stopped twirling her jump-rope and jerked it out of Jessica’s hands.  She looped it loosely in her hand and strode purposefully across the blacktop to where the music was starting up again from Lucinda’s boombox.  Ashley walked over to the boombox, leaned over, and pushed the off button.  She stood there, hands on her hips, glaring at Lucinda.

     Lucinda, who had already started to dance, and who especially liked the son Ashley had just cut off, looked at her questioningly.

     “Problem, Ashley?” she asked.  Her voice was quiet, but had a hard edge to it.

     “Yes, there’s a problem, Lucinda,” said Ashley.  By now the girls she had been jumping rope with had drifted over and were standing around behind her.  “You’re not supposed to bring CD players to school.  And there’s no dancing allowed on the school playground.”

     “Since when?” said Cassie, who was standing by Lucinda.

     “Says who?” demanded Piper.

     “I don’t see Mrs. Perkins over here, telling us to stop,” Lucinda pointed out.

     “That doesn’t matter,” said Ashley.  “Mrs. Perkins can’t be everywhere.  She doesn’t see everything.”

     “Ashley, we’re a mob of wild women, playing raucous ethnic music and dancing all over the southeast corner of the blacktop,” Cassie said.  “I’m pretty sure Mrs. Perkins knows what we’re doing.  And if it was against the rules, she would stop us.  So why don’t you just mind your own beeswax and go back to your rope jumping?”

     “Why don’t you lose some weight, you big cow,” said Ashley.  Her friends snickered and Cassie’s face went red.

     “Ashley Vanderlaan, we have a zero tolerance rule at this school.”  The cold, stern voice of Mrs. Perkins rose up from the back of the group of kids who had gathered to watch the dancing.  She had moved over to their part of the playground when she noticed Ashley and her clique marching across the blacktop to confront the dancers.  She’d been expecting a scene like this.  She had been a recess aide for twelve years; she knew how playground politics worked.  “Zero tolerance for name-calling, zero tolerance for bullying, zero tolerance for disrespecting fellow students,” she went on in her most menacing tone.

     “Mrs. Perkins,” said Jessica, “isn’t it against school rules, to be playing loud music and dancing on the playground?”

     “Not to my knowledge,” said Mrs. Perkins.  She looked at her wristwatch.  “It’s almost time for the bell, anyway.  Let’s break this up.  Ashley, I want to talk to you.”

     Susan and Lucinda looked at each other as the crowd moved away.

     “What is wrong with them?” Susan asked.  “Why does it bother them so much to see us having a little fun?  Are we hurting them?  What is their problem?”

     This was quite an outburst from quiet Susan, who usually kept most of her feelings to herself.

     “They’re jealous,” said Piper.  “Here we are, having fun, dancing like lunatics, while they’re over there, being a bunch of stuffed shirts, jumping rope and admiring each other’s clothes.  They’re losers.  Rich, well-dressed, physically perfect losers.”

     Even Cassie laughed at that.

     “Maybe we should invite them to join us,” suggested Lucinda.

     “The Barbie Dolls?” Cassie asked incredulously.

     “Dancing with us?” Piper looked at her like she was crazy.

     “They’d never do that,” said Susan.

     “Why not?  I mean, if that’s the problem.  If they are resentful because we’re having more fun than them, why not just include them?  Then maybe they’ll chill out.”  Lucinda was saying what she knew her mother would say if she were here.  She did not entirely believe it herself, but she thought it was a point of view that ought to be considered.

     “It’s a nice idea,” said Cassie.  “Maybe it would work if we lived in a utopian society, where everyone was sensible and kind.  But this is the real world.”

     “Yeah.  I bet the Barbie Dolls would rather be miserable than have fun with the likes of us,” said Piper.

     Lucinda shrugged.  “It was just a thought,” she said.

     But they never got a chance to try that approach, because when Lucinda got to school the following Monday, the principal, Mr. Leonard, met her in the hallway.

     “Lucinda Dimirovitch?” he said, looking down at her.  His forehead was wrinkled like a letter M; he looked both worried and cross.

     “Yes,” said Lucinda.

     “Would you please step into my office?  I’d like a word with you.”

     Lucinda followed him, carrying her backpack and her boombox.  They walked past the outer office, where Ms. Wheeling, the school secretary, sat at her desk.  She gave Lucinda what was probably meant to be a sympathetic smile, but just came off sort of sickly and half-hearted.

     Mr. Leonard shut the door of his office when they got inside.  He sat down behind his desk and waved toward a plastic chair he wanted Lucinda to sit in.  She took off her backpack, heavy with books and lunch and several CDs, and set it on the floor next to her boombox.  She noticed Mr. Leonard looking at the CD player and pursing his lips.  She began to have an idea what this might be about.

     She sat in the plastic chair and looked at Mr. Leonard.

     “I’ll get right to the point, Lucy,” he began.

     Lucinda cringed, but decided that correcting him at this point would not be diplomatic.

     “I’ve had some calls from parents, complaining about inappropriate playground conduct.”  He put his hands together like a steeple and leaned his elbows on the desk.  He looked at her and made that M on his forehead again.  “Is it true you have been playing suggestive music and dancing in front of the other students?”

     “Suggestive?”  Lucinda did not know what that meant.  “And I dance with other students.  There are eight of us, so far.”

     “Boys and girls?”

     “No.  Just girls.  The boys are all too embarrassed to try.”

     “Sometimes it’s good to embarrassed, Lucy.  Sometimes it’s appropriate.”

     “Dancing isn’t embarrassing.  It’s fun.”  Lucinda did not understand where he was going with this.  If he was going to tell her that music and dancing on the playground were against the rules, she wished he would just say so and be done with it.

     “What kind of music is this, that you’ve been dancing to?”

     “Dance music.  Folk music.”

     “Do you have any disks with you?”

     Lucinda opened her backpack and took out two of the CDs.  She handed them to him.  He craned his neck to look in her pack, and said, “All of them, please.”

     She gave him the other two and he turned the CD cases over in his hands, looking at pictures of bands and singers he didn’t recognize, and printing in languages he could not read or even identify.

     “What kind of music is this?” he asked again.

     Lucinda looked at him, trying to figure out what it was he really wanted to know.

     “It’s traditional folk music.  It’s folk dancing, that’s all we’re doing.  There’s no harm in it.  It’s not what you said.  It’s not suggestive.”  Lucinda didn’t know what suggestive meant, but she was pretty sure it didn’t apply to their dancing.  “It’s just dancing.”

     “Well, I’m afraid I don’t think it’s an appropriate playground activity.  Some of the students have been upset by it, and I have concerned parents phoning me.  I’m going to have to ask you and your friends to confine your folk dancing to your own time, and somewhere off the school grounds.”

     By now Lucinda was expecting him to say this, so she wasn’t particularly upset.  She was actually glad he had finally spit it out.

     She nodded.  “Okay,” she said evenly.  “Can I go now?  I don’t want to be late for class.”

     He blinked.  He probably expected her to whine or complain.  Lucinda thought it was degrading to plead with an adult who had obviously already made up his mind.  She shrugged.  What was the point?  So they wouldn’t dance at school anymore.  He was probably right; school was no place for dancing.

     With that depressing thought, she started to get up and put her backpack on.

     “Just a minute, Lucy.  We’re not through talking yet.”

     She sank back into the chair, and looked at him.  She carefully kept her face very still.

     “Do I have your assurance that there will be no more of this folk dancing activity on the playground?”

     “Yes, sir.  No dancing at school.”

     “Very well.  You may go.”

     Lucinda started to pick up her boombox and CDs.

     “You may pick up your things in the office at the end of the day,” he said.

     She stopped and looked at his face.  It was bland and flat; devoid of expression.  His pale blue eyes were watery.  She shrugged.

     “Okay,” she said, slinging her backpack up on her shoulder.  She did not like it.  Those CDs belonged to Uncle Stefan, and she’d saved her allowance a long time to get the boombox.  She looked at Mr. Leonard again.  “You’ll keep them safe?”

     He nodded.  “Yes, I will.”

     Lucinda left his office, a little sad and confused, but not really angry.  That surprised her.  Usually that was the first thing she felt when someone crossed her—angry and ready to fight.  In the city, that was the way she had to be.  She had to learn to push back or be trampled on.  But she felt different here in Parkdale.  Maybe it was because here she had Susan; Lucinda had never had a best friend before.  For whatever reason, for the first time she could remember since before Papa died, Lucinda had a peaceful, calm feeling inside, even when something stupid like this happened—this pasty-faced principal telling her that she and her friends were not allowed to dance.  It was just a rule; Lucinda was learning not to take rules personally.

     What bothered her more than being shut down by Mr. Leonard was the fact that parents had called him to complain.  Whose parents?  Lucinda had a pretty good idea.  But why?  Even if the Barbie Dolls’ noses were out of joint because Lucinda and her friends were having way too much fun, what would motivate their parents to get involved and object to a bunch of girls bouncing around on the tarmac?  And what the heck did “suggestive” mean?

     Later, on the playground, Lucinda, Susan, Cassie, Piper and Trisha sat in a circle on the top bar of the jungle gym.  They faced inward, their backs forming a wall to the other kids below, going about their business.  Lucinda told the others what Mr. Leonard had said.

     Cassie shook her head.  “I had a feeling something like this was going to happen.  I saw the way Ashley was looking at us last Friday.”

     “But why would her parents call the principal about it?  Just because it bothers her?”  Lucinda tried to imagine her mother calling the principal every time something bugged her at school.

     “No, it’s more than that,” Trisha said.  “It’s that church they go to.  They don’t allow dancing.”

    “Oh, yeah, that’s right!”  Piper leaned forward and talked fast and low, as if imparting secret information.  “Ashley and Brittany and Jessica all go to that church.  And a bunch of other kids.  I forgot; they don’t allow dancing!  Can you imagine?  A religion that thinks dancing is sinful?”

     Lucinda was thunderstruck.  She stared at Piper in disbelief.  She thought of Father Frank at the church she and her mother went to.  He loved to dance, and was pretty good, too.

     “They’re not allowed to dance?  At all?  What kind of church is it?”

     Cassie shrugged.  “Pretty strict, I guess.  I mean, it’s not like we’re a bunch of hootchie-kootchie girls, doing a strip-tease on the playground!”

     The girls dissolved in laughter.  Cassie could always crack them up.

     “It is kind of hard to understand,” said Susan.  “But I guess I can see how it would be uncomfortable to see it going on at school if you’d been brought up to think it was wrong.”

     “It’s getting a little cold for dancing outside, anyway,” Piper pointed out.

     “But I don’t want to quit,” Cassie said.  “We’re starting to get good.”

     “And it’s so much fun,” Susan said wistfully.  She missed it already.

     “Hey, aren’t we dancing today?” a voice came up from the ground.  The girls turned and looked down at Emma, one of the girls from the edge of the Barbie Dolls clique who had abandoned jump-rope for dancing.

     “No, Mr. Leonard says we have to stop,” said Lucinda.  “Dancing on the playground is against the school rules, apparently.”

     “That’s right.”  Ashley was there, now, with Brittany and Jessica in tow.  She had her hands on her hips and was smirking up at Lucinda with an expression of smug satisfaction.  “I told you it wasn’t allowed.”  She turned to Emma.  “And you can forget about ever jump-roping with us again.”  With a toss of her head, she flung her long, blonde hair back over her shoulder and flounced off.

     Emma stood there, looking devastated.

     Susan and Lucinda scooted apart on the bar, making room on the jungle gym for another person.

     “Come on up and join the outcasts,” said Piper.

     Cassie reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of Jolly Ranchers.  “Yeah, climb up here and join the Ashley Vanderlaan fan club!  The Jolly Rancher Sisterhood!”

     Emma climbed up with them.  Cassie handed her an orange Jolly Rancher, and passed various other flavors out around the monkey bars.  They sucked on sour candy in companionable silence for a minute or two.  After a while, Piper spoke.  “We gotta find some other place to dance.”

     That day, after school, Susan went home with Lucinda.  They went through the waiting area at the front of Sophia’s office.  It was empty, and as they moved down the hall, they saw the gold and orange and red sun plaque hanging on the door.  Sophia was seated at her desk, but leaning back in her chair, looking toward the doorway, clearly expecting them. 

     Susan had not been inside Lucinda’s mother’s office before.  She tried not to stare, but she could not help looking around with interest.  She was not sure she understood what it was that Lucinda’s mother did; she thought she was something like a therapist, and is some ways this room reminded Susan of the office of the psychologist she had seen for a while after her father died.

     The room was furnished in soft, inviting colors.  Against one wall was an overstuffed loveseat, flanked by end tables with gorgeous stained glass lamps on them.  Multicolored spots of light dappled the wall and made a warm, comfortable glow.  There were a couple armchairs, too, so several people could sit and talk.  In a corner was a small round table and two chairs.  The table was draped with a fancy silk cloth with a long gold fringe.  A light with a stained glass shade hung down from the ceiling over the table.  In the center of the table was a large chunk of purple rock crystals.   The light sparkled and glittered across the surface of the crystals.

     Susan dragged her eyes away to look at Lucinda’s mother, who was talking to them.

     “So, girls, how was your day?”  She had a sympathetic look on her face, as if she knew what they were going to tell her.

     “Mother, you will not believe what happened at school today.”  Lucinda dropped her backpack on the floor and flopped dramatically back onto the loveseat.  Susan set her backpack down near one of the armchairs and lowered herself into it, still looking around the room curiously.  There were cabinets with paneled doors and bookcases full of not only books but large seashells, massive quartz crystals, fat candles and roundish pottery jars with cork stoppers.  A large, healthy green plant hung by the window, and another one sprouted happily out of a big planter on the floor.  The pictures on the walls were soothing seascapes and still lives of flowers and seashells.

     “Let’s hear it,” said Sophia.  She was wearing one of those long, colorful skirts and a blouse of deep, blood-red silk.  She had the front part of her hair pulled back from her face in a fancy gold clip at the back of her head, but mostly it fell down all around her shoulders, thick and wild and curly.  It was just like Lucinda’s hair.

     “Remember I told you we taught a few of the girls at school to dance?  We’ve been taking music, and using a corner of the blacktop, out of the way, not bothering anybody, and we’ve been dancing.  It was really fun, and more and more kids were joining in.”

     Lucinda’s mother was nodding her head.

     “Well, it was making Ashley and the Barbie Dolls really mad—“

     “Ashley and who?”

     Lucinda stopped.  She had never used their nickname for the cool girls in front of her mother before.  “Um, the Barbie Dolls,” she said sheepishly.  “That’s what we call their clique.  The Barbie Dolls.  You know, because they’re so perfect.  And they don’t seem like real people.”

     “They are real, Lucinda.  You may not like them, but they are real, and they have real feelings and real problems, just like you.  And nobody’s perfect.  But go on.”

     “Anyway, they came over and told us it was against the rules to dance at school.  We didn’t believe them, and even Mrs. Perkins said it was all right.  But then they went home and told their parents, and it turns out dancing is against their religion!  Against their religion, Mama!  Can you imagine?”

     Sophia nodded.  “Kind of hard to understand, but I know there are churches that forbid dancing.”

     “So their parents called Mr. Leonard, and now we’re not allowed to dance at school anymore.”

     Lucinda’s mother had been leaning forward while her daughter spoke, her chair turned toward them.  Now she tilted back in her chair a bit, crossing her legs, knitting her fingers, and gazing up at the ceiling.  She seemed very relaxed and peaceful to Susan, but Lucinda saw the way her mother’s foot was wiggling up and down at the end of that nonchalantly crossed leg, and knew that she was struggling to keep her temper.

     “I see,” she said.

     “We were having so much fun,” Susan said.  “Everybody was getting really good at it.”  Her voice was sad.

     Lucinda’s mother took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

     “Well, it’s completely unconstitutional,” she said.  “It’s a public school.  If Muslim parents called complaining about girls with their heads uncovered, would they make you all wear headscarves?  If Jewish parents complained about pork being served in the cafeteria, would they switch to kosher lunches?  I think not.  We have every right to launch a protest, write up a petition, remind Mr. Leonard about a little thing called separation of church and state.”

     “All we want to do is dance, Mom,” said Lucinda.

     Sophia took a breath, as if she was about to argue, then exhaled, and smiled at her daughter.  “Then all we need to do is find a better place.  I bet Father Frank would let you use the Fellowship Hall at St. Bart’s.  Some weeknight after school.”

     Lucinda looked doubtful.  “I don’t know if the kids will come if it’s an after school activity.  It’s one thing to dance on the playground; kids are already there, and they don’t have anything better to do.  But I don’t know if they’ll make the effort to go to St. Bart’s.”

     “The ones who really want to dance will dance.  It’s only two blocks from school.  Kids will come.”

     Lucinda glanced over at Susan.  “What do you think?”

     “It’s worth a try,” Susan said.  “If you really think your pastor will help us.”

     “I am quite certain he will,” Sophia said.

     Suddenly Lucinda remembered something she’d been wanting to ask.

     “Mom, what does ‘suggestive’ mean?”