The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy
Where Do You Stop?
Chapter 7: Miss Rheingold’s Big Questions
by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy



  BY 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:
Science Paper
Answer the question as well as you can.
Include experiments that test and demonstrate the validity of your answer.  (Thought experiments are acceptable.)
Include diagrams that illustrate your experiments and explain concepts.
Turn the paper in at any time, whenever it is finished.  There is no deadline.

    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 was.
    “All right,” she said.  “Now you’re going to pick your questions.”
    She was so delighted, so eager, that I felt relieved by this announcement.  I should have been terrified.  She brought out a spherical glass bowl of the kind that in those days was used to inflict a slow death on dime-store goldfish.
    “The questions you will have to answer in your papers are in here,” she said.  “There are four copies of each question.  That means that three other people will have the same question you have, so when you pick a question you’ll also be joining a group.  Everyone in the group is going to work together to reach an answer to the question that each person in the group picks.”
    I think it was right about here that we all began getting the first of the headaches that would bother us off and on for weeks to come.
    “All right,” she said, “let’s get started.”  It was clear that she could hardly wait.
    One at a time we came to the front of the room, reached into the fishbowl, and drew a slip of paper.
    When I bring to mind the moment when I reached into the bowl to get my question, I experience it all again, not as memory, but as a repetition of the immediate data of experience.  I am there.  I feel the cool smooth rim of the bowl against the inside of my wrist, my knuckles brush the inside surface, the slips of paper rustle, Miss Rheingold shifts her position on the edge of the desk, and her stockings whisper to me.  I feel the thin edge of a slip of paper.  The scent of Miss Rheingold’s perfume, diffusing from the tiny open bottle, so much denser here at the front of the room than it was back at my seat, makes my head reel.
    I returned to my seat with the paper still folded, as instructed.  Miss Rheingold was having a lot of fun.  The rest of us were tormented by anxiety.  When everyone had drawn a slip of paper, Miss Rheingold said, “Now we have an interesting problem.  We know that there are six groups of four students who have the same questions on their slips of paper.  How are you going to find them?  How will you figure out which of you are in which groups?  How will you discover who is in your own group?  Does anyone have any ideas?”
    Matthew’s hand went up at once.
    “Matthew Barber,” said Miss Rheingold.
    “You could call the roll again,” he said, “and have us read our questions, and when you’re done we’ll know who’s in our group.”  He said this in such a dismissive manner that there arose around me an incredulous murmuring and muttering.  I had known Matthew for years, and he had never really been a likable kid, but something had happened to him, too, over the summer.  He seemed now to be merely visiting us, not to be one of us any longer, but to be a tourist from another, better, place.  He seemed disgusted by what he saw of the place he was visiting, and he seemed to find the natives here so stupid and boring that he could hardly bear their presence, hardly stay awake when they spoke, hardly stand to breathe their air.  I wasn’t alone in this feeling.  There had always been animosity toward Matthew, but now it seemed to be tending toward real hostility.  We were hurt; we were offended.  We wouldn’t have known how to describe his attitude toward us, but we recognized it for what it was: condescension, that putrid mix of contempt and pity.
    “Very good, Matthew,” said Miss Rheingold.  “Very efficient.”
    Matthew beamed.
    “Very efficient—” she repeated, and then she added, “—but not much fun.”
    A quiet cheer went up from the back of the room.
    “What I propose,” she said, “is this.  I’ll write the questions on the board.  You copy them.  Then you figure out how to find the members of your group.”
    These were the questions:

 Where does the light go when the light goes out?
 When is now?
 What is the biggest question of all?
 Why are you you?
 What really happens?
 Where do you stop?
    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.

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