Cindy McBride, reigning queen (junior division) of the Miss Hollywood Florida beauty pageant, arrived in Sherburne, New Hampshire, shortly after the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The world at large may not have paired these two events, but with Cindy's enrollment in the senior class at Sherburne High we now had one student in Mr. Dunbar's government class who couldn’t wait to tell us what a dreadful mistake the Supreme Court had made in ordering the racial integration of public schools.
Classes had barely begun when Cindy launched her first attack on the Supreme Court. It took nothing more than a passing reference to the Court by Mr. Dunbar for Cindy to raise her hand and ask if she could say something about the damage---her word---the Court was doing to this country. Mr. Dunbar, looking somewhat startled, hadn’t yet assented to Cindy’s request when Cindy said that she was amused---her word again---at the inability of northerners to understand the Supreme Court’s trampling on states’ rights.
With her smile and soft accent, Cindy made it seem as if there was something truly comic about our naiveté, but that smile disappeared when Cindy, an air of resignation in her voice, said that we probably didn’t understand what she was talking about since none of us had ever lived with Negroes.
Precisely on the word lived, Cindy wrinkled her nose, as if recoiling from an unpleasant odor. Then, giggling, she corrected herself, "Oh, I don't mean live with them exactly. Down south, you see, we live with colored people, but their houses and churches and schools and such, that’s all some distance away, in their own part of town.
Mr. Dunbar, who taught government like a man checking off items on his to-do list, was not about to let Cindy---or even the issue of civil rights---disrupt his daily lesson plan. He did take a moment, however, to remind Cindy that a ruling by the Supreme Court, whether or not she agreed with it, was the law of the land. Cindy’s response to that was to raise her hand and to attempt once more to say something about states’ rights, but Mr. Dunbar, usually even tempered, was uncharacteristically curt when he cut Cindy off.
No, Mr. Dunbar told Cindy, there was just enough time left in the hour to cover that day’s topic, the Constitutional Convention, as I recall. He then assured her that he would get to desegregation,and the broader issue of civil rights in due course, as he put it, which was Mr. Dunbar’s way of saying that he, not Cindy, would determined what was covered in his class and when.
Perhaps Mr. Dunbar was constrained by his single-minded focus on his daily lesson plan, but that wasn’t so for the rest of us---the us, in this case, consisting of the males in our class. We were not particularly knowledgeable about the Supreme Court decision, or race relations in general, but outside Mr. Dunbar’s classroom, we rushed forth, in rather pell-mell fashion, to launch a counterattack against Cindy’s racial views.
Cindy, alas, was unmoved. She stood there, her bewitching smile intact, brushing aside all our arguments in favor of racial equality by reminding us over and over again that we knew nothing about black people. We had no idea, she would tell us, how lazy and irresponsible they were, or of their propensity, when they had money, to spend it on fancy clothes and big cars. I’m afraid we smirked, right along with Cindy, when she recounted to us several examples of the astounding fertility rate of black couples.
In truth, our moral outrage at Cindy’s racism, while well intentioned, was not entirely genuine. Indeed, our newfound interest in the rights of black people amounted to little more than the posturing and preening of young males who were otherwise unable to express their wonderment (and disbelief) at finding themselves in close proximity to a young woman who appeared to be Rita Hayworth’s twin sister.
Simply put, we were enthralled by Cindy’s beauty. We had never seen, outside of advertisements for shampoos and face creams in glossy magazines, hair as long and lustrous as Cindy’s or skin as smooth and free of blemishes. Never had we imagined that any young woman who could have been a model in those ads would be sitting in a classroom at Sherburne High.
We were as intrigued with Cindy’s accent (which we tried, in vain, to imitate), her habit of addressing adults as ma’am and sir and her apparent comfort at being the object of so much attention. Not for Cindy the slouched shoulders and baggy sweaters favored by teen-age girls self-conscious about their bodies. No, even before we knew that Cindy was a beauty queen, we could well imagine her, shoulders straight and head held high (and well-formed breasts very much in evidence), walking across the stage to accept her crown.
Our fascination with Cindy was only enhanced when she explained to us her presence in Sherburne. According to Cindy, she had come to Sherburne because her aunt and uncle, who lived there, felt that she could broaden her education by spending some time in New Hampshire.
"Uncle Ted thinks it's a shame that so many kids grow up without seeing how other people live," Cindy said. "My parents agree, and so here I am."
When she said that, Cindy spread her arms, hands upraised, somewhat like a ballerina. Then, placing one foot behind the other, she dipped her knees in a mock curtsy.
Laughter, not the least bit disguised, was our response to the notion that anyone could learn anything from living in Sherburne, a town known mostly for the rotten cabbage smell that came from the local paper mill. And when, we asked ourselves, had anyone willingly left Florida to spend the winter months in a part of New Hampshire aptly referred to as the North Country?
The female portion of our class went beyond laughter in their reaction to Cindy’s reason for having come to Sherburne. To begin with, they suspected that Cindy was at least a year or two older than the rest of us. That shaky premise led them to wonder if some incident in Cindy’s past---various moral transgressions were vaguely alluded to---accounted for her failure to have finished high school before now.
Cindy’s own behavior did little to dampen their speculation about her. She was good-natured enough, but except for those discussions on race (which soon died out), she showed little interest in becoming acquainted with anyone at Sherburne High, or in learning very much about Sherburne and the people who lived there. Her aunt drove Cindy to and from school each day and every Friday afternoon, as soon as school ended, Cindy went off with her aunt and uncle to their weekend home at Center Harbor on Lake Winnipesaukee.
Then, too, Cindy’s uncle was the executive vice president of the local paper mill. Given the class/caste system that prevailed in a mill town like Sherburne, it didn’t appear as if Cindy was about to gain any insights into the mores and customs of a community where very few of its residents were as affluent as Cindy’s aunt and uncle, a childless couple who lived in an enormous house and employed a maid.
Those weekends in Center Harbor also provided Cindy an ever-present excuse for turning down, politely of course, all requests for dates. But Cindy’s smile when she did so---along with a coquettish toss of her head---told us that Cindy couldn’t imagine herself dating anyone at Sherburne High., even if she had not spent every weekend in Center Harbor. We were not surprised, therefore, when we learned that Cindy already had a boyfriend, a sophomore from Dartmouth who lived in Center Harbor.
Rumors about Cindy seemed to take on greater focus once news spread of her Dartmouth boyfriend. Now, it was widely assumed by the females in our class (and some males, too,) that Cindy most likely participated, as a routine matter, in the orgiastic goings on said to occur each weekend at fraternity houses in Hanover. This gossip about Cindy was literally whispered into my ear since I was editor of The Mountaineer, Sherburne High’s school paper, and the sole contributor to Heard in the Hallways, a miscellany of tidbits served up, staccato style, complete with lame puns, a la Walter Winchell. But eager as I was to attract readers, I couldn’t get myself to run items that were impossible to verify.
Not that Cindy appreciated my restraint since she routinely refused---on the advice of her uncle, she claimed---to be interviewed by me. Uncle Ted, it seemed, felt that Cindy’s views on race had been misconstrued by her classmates and he had little confidence, I gathered, that any of this could be rectified by Cindy answering questions put to her by some pesky reporter from the school newspaper. Cindy apparently felt likewise, which explained, I think, both her reluctance to form close friendships with anyone at Sherburne High, as well as her habit of laughingly shooing me away if I came anywhere within ten feet of her.
I was an innocent bystander, then, when the sparse bits and pieces about Cindy’s background were combined with speculation about her reason for being in Sherburne, to produce a rumor about Cindy’s “elopement.” The previous year, so this story went, Cindy had tried to elope with her boyfriend in Florida. Cindy’s getaway was thwarted by her parents who then decided that sending their daughter to Sherburne was the best way to end her romance with a man who was five years older than her.
The day after I first heard the elopement rumor I was summoned to the office of Clifford L. McCracken, headmaster of Sherburne High. This was not uncommon since every two weeks, a few days before The Mountaineer went to press, Mr. McCracken liked to hear from me what stories would be running in the next issue. That day, however, Mr. McCracken, broad shouldered and with a booming voice, seemed more subdued than usual, or at least he didn’t look as if he was in any mood to deliver his biweekly homily on the need for newspaper editors everywhere (and particularly at Sherburne High) to observe strict rules of accuracy and fair play.
“I suppose you’ve heard the story that’s being spread about Cindy McBride,” Mr. McCracken said, getting right to the point of our meeting. At the same time, he took a manila envelope from a pile of papers on his desk and slid it towards me.
“You’ll see from what I’ve just given you that a grave injustice is being done towards this girl,” he said.
Quickly glancing at the contents of the envelope, I saw a glossy photo of the mayor of Hollywood, Florida, placing a crown on Cindy’s head, along with a news clipping about the beauty contest Cindy had won. There was another clipping, too, this one a feature story about Cindy, with a photo of her and her parents and her brother at a backyard barbecue.
Mr. McCracken wanted me to know that this “elopement nonsense” had made its way back to Cindy’s aunt and uncle, who were good friends of his. They were upset. He was upset. And he intended, right here and now, he said, to put a stop to any rumor that besmirched the character of this fine young woman.
“Here we have a student with the ladylike reserve not to flaunt her achievements,” he said, “and all that’s earned her is a lot sniggering from people who should know better. Cindy has even absorbed news of this rumor with the equanimity of a woman who has the maturity and good sense to dismiss a story that’s so patently false.”
Mr. McCracken, more his stentorian self by now, then informed me that he expected to see a front page story about Cindy, including that photo of her being crowned, in the next issue of The Mountaineer. Mr. McCracken then ordered me to prepare the story on Cindy that night and submit it to him for his approval the next morning. Also, our little talk, as he referred to it, was off the record (”I assume you know what that means.”), and I should refrain from telling anyone about the story before it was published.
That latter warning from Mr. McCracken was hardly necessary. I was not about to reveal prematurely a news story that would ease, at last, one of the great frustrations in my life, the fact that so much of the news in each edition of The Mountaineer was known, via word of mouth, before it ever appeared in print.
Three days later, when The Mountaineer came out, gossip about scandals in Cindy's past quickly tailed off. Everyone at Sherburne High now knew that Cindy was in many respects an average teen-ager, except that she looked like a Hollywood starlet and had been competing, since she was l6, in beauty pageants.
The story on Cindy appeared the week before each class selected their respective candidates for winter carnival queen. Some form of remorse, I suppose---and maybe even grudging admiration for Cindy’s refusal to flaunt her beauty contest title---led to a mass act of atonement, namely, Cindy’s nomination to be our class’s representative in the carnival queen competition. Besides, what other class could boast of having a candidate who was already a beauty queen?
This was a competition, however, unlike any beauty contest Cindy had ever entered. The queen’s crown went not to the most attractive candidate, but to the one who, with the help of her classmates and family and friends, sold the most tickets to the carnival events. That system might have been a handicap for an outsider, but Cindy, having honed her competitive instincts in beauty pageants, turned out to be the most formidable candidate in the field.
Cindy not only canvassed every business in town, offices as well as shops and restaurants, but she walked up and down Main Street, first alone, and then with a cadre of supporters, stopping people and urging them, with her considerable charm, to buy a ticket from her. Cindy’s hard work enabled her to prevail by a large margin, and on the night carnival festivities began with a parade down Main Street, Cindy was perched on her throne, waving to passersby from a float, a flatbed truck decorated with pine boughs.
That night Cindy attended the hockey game between Sherburne High and its cross-town rival, Holy Name Academy, and on Friday afternoon, even though it was bitterly cold, Cindy made a brief appearance at the ski area where the downhill events were being held. Frigid temperatures kept Cindy from the cross country race on Saturday morning, and she missed out also on the ski jumping contest that afternoon because she was having her hair done in preparation for the carnival ball.
Had Cindy gone to the ski jumping competition, she would have known that Bobby Christiansen, captain of the Sherburne High team and widely recognized as the best skier in the state, turned in the worst performance of his career. Strong headwinds kept Christiansen from jumping as far as he usually did, and then, on his final jump, a gust of wind so affected him that he almost fell when he landed. Consequently, when the judges tallied the final results, Christiansen came in second in terms of overall points for the meet. The skier who beat Christiansen was Jim Patterson of Merrill Academy, a prep school in Maine. Patterson had been born in Jamaica.
Patterson’s win meant he would lead the procession into the carnival ball with the queen on his arm. Following right behind Patterson and the queen would be the runners- up in the queen competition paired off with the second, third and fourth place winners in the ski meet. Not only that, but after the procession marched into the ball---passing under an archway of ski poles formed by members of the Sherburne High ski team---the first dance of the evening was reserved for the couples in the procession.
The moment Patterson was declared the winner of the ski meet I put into motion my plan to be an eyewitness when Cindy McBride, for the first time in her life, linked arms with a black man. But that, I knew, would require me to be somewhat inconspicuous since Mr. McCracken didn’t always appreciate what he referred to as my “snooping around.” I was aware that the procession would form in the corridor outside the entrance to the high school gymnasium, right in front of a plaster bust of Julius Caesar. The landing on a stairway leading to that corridor provided me with a spot that would allow me to look down (somewhat god-like now that I think of it) on the queen and her “court” and Patterson and the runners-up as they joined together to march into the gymnasium. Just to make sure nobody saw me, I lay flat on the floor and peered through the metal rods of a bannister that ran along the landing.
From my vantage point, I saw Mr. Dunbar, who was an assistant ski coach, when he arrived, accompanied by Patterson, Christiansen and the two other skiers. The apparent camaraderie among the skiers and Mr. Dunbar, as they chatted with each other, was not shared by the three young women who were runners up in the queen competition. They stood off to one side, huddled together, whispering to each other and looking a bit apprehensive as they awaited Cindy, who seemed to be running late.
When Cindy finally did appear, she was walking so rapidly that she had to lift her gown in order for her legs to move more freely. Her tiara-like crown was already perched on her head and across her body was a satin sash with the words, Carnival Queen, Sherburne High, spelled out in glittering sequins. A few steps behind Cindy was her boyfriend, along with her aunt and uncle. Until then, Patterson, who was still talking with Mr. Dunbar, had his back towards Cindy.
But then, as Cindy drew closer, Patterson, tall and slim and wearing a green v-neck sweater with an M on the front, turned to face her. At the same time, Mr. Dunbar, who was standing next to Patterson, took it upon himself to introduce Cindy to Patterson. I can still see Cindy’s hands fly up to cover her mouth so that she almost, but not quite, choked off her scream when she saw Patterson. A split second later, she spun around and began running back down the hallway.
To their credit, Cindy’s boyfriend and her aunt and uncle tried to stop her flight, but she brushed right past them. That left them no choice but to turn and follow her. Just then Mr. McCracken came into view, or he was in my view for the few seconds it took him to set off in pursuit of Cindy. When doing so, he yelled back over his shoulder to the people who were in the procession.
Stay in your places. We’ll be resuming in just a moment.”
I got a glimpse of one of Patterson’s teammates placing his arm around Patterson's shoulders, but I, too, left my perch. Scrambling to my feet, I hurried down an intersecting corridor that would bring me, once I descended a flight of stairs, into the path of Cindy and those people trailing her. But just as I rounded the corner from the stairs, I saw Cindy and Mr. McCracken, along with her aunt and uncle and boy friend, file into the school office. Cindy was holding a handkerchief to her face and needed the support of her aunt, who had an arm looped around Cindy’s waist.
I was not bold enough to follow them into the office, so I did the next best thing, which was to station myself outside the door and press my ear up against it. But since Mr. McCracken’s office was located beyond a reception area and an adjoining conference room, I could not make out what was being said. In less than two minutes, though, Mr. McCracken emerged, all by himself, carrying in one hand the queen’s crown, and in the other, the queen’s sash.
“What are you doing here?” he said, when he saw me.
I would have thought the answer to that was obvious, but before I had a chance to reply, Mr. McCracken said, “She’s ill, terribly ill. Sick to her stomach. Has been most of the day, too, according to her aunt.”
Mr. McCracken then began walking away from me, walking quite rapidly, in fact. When he realized I was matching him step for step, he suddenly stopped and spun around so that he was facing me.
“If you’re wondering,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger at me, “I fully intend that this evening will proceed as planned---and on schedule. One student’s indisposition, however unfortunate, should not impinge on the enjoyment of others.”
With that, he turned and literally ran down the corridor, his keys and pocket change jangling, towards the skiers and queen candidates who were awaiting him.
“Okay, listen up people, listen up,” Mr. McCracken said, when he arrived. “We've had an unfortunate experience. The queen, I regret to say, has taken ill and is unable, therefore, to carry out her duties. First runner up, would you step forward please?”
Mr. McCracken then placed the crown on the young girl’s head and handed her the sash, which she draped across herself.
“Mr. Patterson,” Mr. McCracken said.
Patterson stepped forward and Mr. McCracken personally saw to the linking up of Patterson’s arm with that of the newly-crowned queen. Then, right behind them, without any assistance from Mr. McCracken, both the runners-up in the queen and skiing competitions fell into place. With order thus restored, Mr. McCracken signaled the two trumpeters standing by the door of the gym to sound the fanfare that ushered the procession into the carnival ball.
It took only seconds for news of what Cindy had done to spread through the gym, but surprisingly enough, it seemed that everyone there had decided, like Mr. McCracken, that one student’s indisposition should not impinge on the enjoyment of others. I’m not sure that view was shared by the stand-in queen, who looked stiff and uncomfortable while she was dancing with Patterson. Perhaps that had something to do with Patterson and his teammates leaving the ball right after the first dance, although Mr. Dunbar assured me that the Merrill Academy skiers, facing a long drive home, had always intended to leave early.
The carnival took place on the weekend before winter vacation so none of us saw Cindy for an entire week. Then, the day classes resumed, Cindy was absent. She was absent again the next day, and by midmorning, we learned that Cindy had withdrawn from Sherburne High and was on her way back to Florida.
The official explanation, the one that came from Cindy's aunt---and the one Mr. McCracken ordered me to put in The Mountaineer and which also appeared in our local paper, The Sherburne Enterprise---was that Cindy had never adjusted to the winter weather in northern New Hampshire. Cindy was coming down with some type of flu the night of the ball, her aunt said, but insisted on attending even though she was ill. Then, over that next week, when Cindy’s condition didn’t improve, the doctor treating her said that she was unlikely to recover any time soon unless she returned to a warm climate.
We all laughed as hard at the explanation given for Cindy’s departure as we did when Cindy herself had told us that she came to Sherburne to broaden her education.