The ultra-elegant fund-raiser in a fabled Main Line mansion benefits Philly Prep's Library, and gives Amanda a chance to play Cinderella for a night. The first clue that all might not go well is the host's figure hanging in effigy outside the estate, put there by the Moral Ecologists who have a long list of classic books that "pollute the mind." When murder follows, Amanda becomes enmeshed in old secrets and young lives.
If Havermeyer had thought to restore peace by capitulating to the Moral Ecologists, he was dead wrong. If he’d imagined he was clearing the way for a serene Open House, he was wronger still.
What he did was generate Philly Prep’s first demonstration of moral outrage. I’ll bet most of our students think the First Amendment is a rock group, and even if it were explained, would be hard-pressed to care about censorship when they don’t place any particular value on reading in the first place.
So their reaction may have had nothing to do with the forfeited books. It might have been that the weather on Wednesday morning was benign and welcoming, close to a miracle. A thin wash of spring-colored sunshine made the out-of-doors infinitely preferable to winter-weary classrooms.
For whatever reason, by the end of homeroom, word of Havermeyer’s appalling decision and a plan of action had spread by interclass tom-tom, and when the bell rang for first period, the troops, as one, headed for the pavement. Teachers followed, exhorting halfheartedly, as if by rote. Nobody was happy about what Havermeyer had done.
Maybe he’d hear the voices of his students. Maybe he’d even listen. Learn something.
“Moral Ecologists suck!” a boy near me shouted, but it was almost a tongue twister. It was in competition with other instant slogans as well. In fact, a pundits’ power struggle was in progress, slogans hurled one against another, creativity playing with words and ideas.
“Don’t break my art!”
“Don’t ban books. Ban Moral Ecologists!”
“We have a right to see bare buns!” Some ideas were less lofty than others.
“What kind of school won’t let us read?”
“Don’t check us out of the library!”
If they’d known they were working at literary craft, framing ideas in words that were clever, articulate, and succinct, they’d have applied the brakes. But they didn’t even suspect.
Creativity aside, the result was chaos. Too many words, too many people, and too little walkway created a dangerous situation. Students overflowed off the pavement, treating face-offs with commuter traffic as a game. Brakes squealed, and teachers dispersed along the student body’s perimeters, as if ready to have cars smite us in lieu of our charges. We were all inspired to new heights of nobility.
Across the street, on the fringe of the Square, Moral Ecologists stood in clumps like an infestation we hadn’t properly exterminated, observing what they had wrought with grim satisfaction. Only one of them looked uncertain or ashamed, a man in a Russian-style fur hat who seemed unwilling to meet my glance. He turned away and faced the Square. Good, I thought. One down.
The “don’t cave” chant slowly gained ground, winning by virtue of brevity. “Don’t cave, don’t cave, don’t cave, Dr. H.!” had a jaunty, if futile, air.
Havermeyer was nowhere to be seen.
Fifteen minutes later, the effort to push too many students back to safety on too little pavement would have appealed only to Sisyphus. Our arms were no match for adolescent energy, yet it didn’t seem ethical to abandon our charges to becoming traffic fatalities. We needed a plan.
Eventually, through negotiations with class leaders, an intricate but workable strategy was agreed upon: Beginning with seniors, each grade would strike for one period, repeating the rotation throughout the day. There were no real complaints.
With fresh troops arriving each period, and fresh vocal cords, the “don’t cave” chant became our loud new background music, as attractive as the sound of fingernails scraping down the blackboard.
Meantime, Sally Turner, the librarian, had a hissy fit that grew too large for the building. She called a local news radio show, the ACLU, and the teacher’s union; labeled Havermeyer’s actions “an abomination”; and said she refused to part with a single book, especially the Rocco Appleby photographs the Moral Ecologists had singled out as “pure filth.”
We were inundated by Minicams and microphones. Helga, the Office Witch, burst into tears—her only documented sympathetic act—as she tried and failed to intimidate the press. Reporters were tougher than teachers. The students reveled in their new roles as political activists and media darlings.
Late in the day, I, too, was seduced by the promise of fame via a sound bite on freedom of speech, book burning, and censorship. While I tried to be both honest and noninflammatory, students cheered and waved at the camera, and Havermeyer himself appeared.
He did his bit as well, huffing unintelligibly about “the matrix of academia and the populace” and “proactive responses to the bifurcation of aesthetics and ethics.” The reporter looked cross-eyed with confusion. Then Dr. H. switched to a riff about “living lessons in democracy,” spouting inanities in praise of freedom of expression—the very idea he’d violated. He was so ravaged by the hissing and shouting behind him, so clammy and sweaty on this sunny but cool day, he looked and sounded like a man who required the Heimlich maneuver.
Or tutoring in physics—the old action-reaction, cause-and-effect thing. He didn’t understand about putting your money and your mouth in the same place, about how if you preach integrity and freedom of speech you shouldn’t negate it all in a few shameful seconds. He seemed so confounded and befuddled, I actually felt a twinge of compassion.
Then, off camera, he herded me aside and said he found the Twain quote on my board “inflammatory” and suggested it be erased.
The smidgen of concern I’d felt disappeared. The quote remained.
Our principal’s interview was followed by one with Edie Friedman, gym teacher and perpetual yearner for romance. “I think it’s great that today’s kids really care,” she said, flashing a smile at the camera—or possibly the cameraman. “Plus,” she said with a wink, “they’re getting exercise! You know, walking has been proven to be the very best exercise possible!”