|Where Do You Stop?
Chapter 7: Miss Rheingold’s Big Questions
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THE TIME I reached general science, my last class that first day, I was
in a state of high bafflement. I filed into the room with the others,
found a seat, sat, took one look at the teacher, and sank into an enchanted
gape. She was astonishing. She was blond, and she had, to use
the terminology of the time, a gorgeous figure. I can’t be certain
just what the other kids were thinking, but she inspired in me a number
of questions. What was she doing here? Why was this amazing
woman, who ought to be in the movies or competing in a beauty contest,
teaching science in Babbington? Was she lost?
Her name was written in looping script at the top of the green blackboard: Miss Rheingold. I felt an attraction toward her that seemed to be an actual force. I wanted to get out of my seat and go to her, get closer to her. I was aware, thank goodness, that if I did I’d be making a fool of myself, but still I had to fight the tug of her attraction. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. All the others must have felt this tug. Yet it seemed to be specific, individual, meant for me alone. Trying now to explain something that was beyond explanation for me at the time, the best I can do is this: It seemed to me that whatever the other kids may have felt for her could only come from a spillover of her effect on me, that her force was directed at me, but that some of it missed me, sprayed out around the edges of me, and caught them incidentally, as I sometimes accidentally squirted my father when I was shooting my water pistol at another target.
Miss Rheingold was so full of enthusiasm that it showed in even the simplest thing, like calling the roll. She made this seem a thrilling event. I wanted to distinguish myself when I answered—I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that desire—but “Here” was all I could think of to say, and it came out in a voice that shocked me by quavering. I wasn’t afraid of her—nothing like that. I was thrilled. Did she wink at me when she glanced up from the class list to see who had answered to “Leroy, Peter”? I’m sure she did. It was my reward for being there and for being me. Never before had simply being seemed so fine. This was what it meant to be in the right place at the right time.
When she finished the roll, she asked, suddenly, without any introductory signal that we were shifting from the familiar to the treacherous, “Have you ever looked at the night sky?” She looked at her class list. “Patti?”
“Oh, sure. Yeah.” This was comforting. We were all relieved. Looking at the night sky wasn’t hard. It was something we’d already done. If general science was going to be on this level, we might make it through.
“How many stars do you see?” Miss Rheingold asked quickly. She took another look at the class list. “Caroline?”
Caroline said, “Oh, I’d say—”
Miss Rheingold rushed on. “How far away are they?” she asked, her eyes flashing. “Marvin?”
Marvin said, “Well, I guess—”
Caroline looked around the room in confusion. Why hadn’t Miss Rheingold let her answer the last question? Something was going on here that she wasn’t familiar with. None of us were. The problem, I now know, was that Miss Rheingold was so enamored of her subject that she couldn’t see past it very well. She drew it to her like a lover, and the more closely she embraced it, the less she saw beyond it, and most important for us, the more oblivious she became to the requirement that she teach it. All she really wanted us to do was fall in love with it, as she had.
“How did they all get there?” asked Miss Rheingold.
“What?” said Marvin, still trying to decide how far away the stars might be.
“How far does the universe extend?” came from the Rheingold juggernaut.
“Thousands of miles,” said Caroline, trying to answer Marvin’s question, determined to get some kind of answer registered in her favor before Miss Rheingold hurtled on to the next puzzler.
“What do you think, Sylvester?” asked Miss Rheingold, glancing again at the class list.
“Biff,” said Biff.
Behind me, Nicky Furman said, “Sylvester?”
“All right,” said Miss Rheingold. “Biff.”
Biff said, “Millions of miles?”
“What do you think, Matthew?” asked Miss Rheingold.
“To infinity,” said Matthew. He seemed to be having a little trouble hiding a yawn.
“Do you know what infinity is?” asked Miss Rheingold.
“Sure,” said Matthew. He was so eager to demonstrate how easy all of this was for him that he nearly sneered. “Infinity is—”
“Rose?” said Miss Rheingold.
Matthew’s mouth remained open. His eyes widened.
“Spike,” said Spike.
“Spike?” said Miss Rheingold.
“Spike,” said Spike.
“Okay,” said Miss Rheingold. “Spike?”
“What?” asked Spike.
“Do you know what infinity is?” asked Miss Rheingold.
“No,” said Spike.
This made Miss Rheingold pause, but it didn’t diminish her enthusiasm. “Well,” she said.
She paused for just a moment, as if she were gathering her thoughts, but a glazed, ecstatic look came over her eyes, and when she began to speak, her voice had in it a breathless tremor that I recognized: she was thrilled.
“Infinity is really anything that is not finite,” she said, “but I know that doesn’t seem like much of an answer. In this case, you can think of infinity as a place so far away that it can never be reached. We can approach it, but we can never reach it. In the most general sense, infinity is any limit we can approach but can never reach. You know how a sequence of numbers increases.”
We didn’t, but years of schooling had taught us that we would have been fools to let her know. Instead we nodded our heads and made the confirmatory noises we’d learned to make to give the appearance of understanding—mmm, ahhh, uh-huh.
“Well,” she said, apparently fooled, “a sequence like that approaches infinity if there is no limit on how large the numbers in it can become.”
“Of course, there are other kinds of infinity, too. There is an infinite number of points in a line.”
“And there’s an infinite number of prime numbers, too.”
“And, of course, the infinity of points in a line is identical to—but of a greater order than—the infinity of prime numbers.”
“Isn’t that something?”
“Infinity is also the place where parallel lines meet. What do you think of that? How can that be? How can infinity be at all? How can there be no end to something? How can parallel lines meet? Isn’t this fascinating?”
“Mm-hmmm.” We were exhausted. She was going too fast for us even to nod along in phony comprehension. Suddenly, her pace slackened, like that of a runner in a dream who suddenly sinks into a landscape of syrup.
“I used to love to think about infinity when I was a girl,” she said, as if recalling an old boyfriend. “My friends and I used to lie on our backs and look at the stars and wonder how big the universe was and what was at the edge of it. The universe isn’t infinite, though, Matthew. Of course, it’s hard to say just how extensive it is, especially since space—well, space-time really, but we’ll get into that later in the year—is probably curved, but anyway isn’t it amazing to think that the universe has an end? If there is an end, then what is it? A wall? Okay, then, what’s on the other side? Isn’t this exciting? My friends and I used to love to ponder that one. Don’t ideas like these send little shivers down your back, just thinking about them? Don’t you feel a kind of nice wiggly feeling down in your—well, forget that. Anyway, these are some of the Big Questions, and Big Questions like these are what we’re going to be exploring together this year.”
Then, swept away by her passion for the Big Questions, she did two extraordinary things. She sat on her desk and she crossed her legs. Neither was done at that time. No male teacher would have sat on his desk or crossed his legs, but it was at least conceivable that he might. It was unthinkable behavior for a female teacher. To Miss Rheingold, the legs she crossed may have been merely legs, but in the moment of her crossing them they filled the room like the dazzling burst from a flashbulb. They were all that we could see, and their afterimage lingers in my mind’s eye still. Say “legs” to me, and it’s Miss Rheingold’s legs I see.
Having caught our attention, she delivered a brief talk about the value and importance of science and the adventure in learning that we were about to undertake. I’ve forgotten nearly all the details of this talk—in fact, as I attempt to reconstruct it now, it seems to be largely about legs, which I know can’t be correct—but I do remember that at one point she spoke about “opening our young minds.” This sounded like a more direct and terrifying pedagogy than any that had been tried on me yet, and it made me a little queasy. A glance around the room told me that I wasn’t alone.
“Now I’m going to conduct an experiment,” she said, again without transition, “and I want all of you to pay very close attention.” How it would have been possible for me to pay closer attention to her than I already was I could not—I cannot—imagine, but I sat up a little straighter and narrowed my eyes so that she would see how keen I was. “The reason I want you to pay close attention is that I’m not going to tell you what the experiment is. I want you to observe, and I want you to observe closely.” More uneasiness. How sad it would be if our beautiful science teacher turned out to be insane.
She brought her handbag out from a desk drawer and placed it on the top. This too was an extraordinary thing to do, introducing a personal possession into the impersonal world of the classroom. I think that never before—and I scanned my memory very carefully before writing this—had I seen so personal a piece of equipment belonging to any of my other teachers. Then Miss Rheingold opened the pocketbook. In memory, I hear a soft male sigh from every corner of the room. If she would do this for us, open her pocketbook, within which, it was generally understood, the most intimate and intriguing feminine secrets were locked, what would she not do? What limit was there to her generosity toward us? How far would she go? From the pocketbook, she took a tiny perfume bottle. She set it on the desktop, and she removed its stopper, which she laid on the desk beside it.
“Now,” she said, “let’s talk about your science projects.” I know what everyone in the room was thinking at that moment: What? What happened to the experiment? I know what everyone felt, too: She may be beautiful, but she’s completely nuts.
“Please copy this into your notebooks,” she said, and she began writing on the green blackboard. I still have the notebook in which I copied the assignment, in a handwriting quite different from my usual, an attempt to duplicate her loops and curves. It was this:
I glanced to the right and left of me to see how
the others were reacting and saw many of them glancing around in a similar
manner. I think it’s accurate to say that none of this made any sense
to any of us. We didn’t know what “the question” was, for one thing.
Nor did we have any idea what validity meant or what a thought experiment
Where does the light go when the light goes out?We had just enough time to copy them before the bell rang, impelling us into the hall like so many mystified marbles, the image of Miss Rheingold’s legs imprinted in our minds, the scent of Miss Rheingold’s perfume wafting into the hall as we left, drifting, diluted, along the hallways as we walked away, mingling with all the other less exalted odors that fill a school hallway, some molecules of it lodging in the lattice weave of my shirt, to be shaken loose that night, when I undressed for bed, to bring her back to me, the dissipating scent of her arousing the indelible retinal memory of that moment when she had crossed her legs.
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Where Do You Stop? is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1992 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
Where Do You Stop? was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.