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Language Arts

Cloud City

It was such a small news item — a few hundred words in the Around the Northwest section — that even a scrupulous reader like Charles might have missed it altogether if the headline hadn’t included the name of the school he’d attended from kindergarten through fourth grade, a name so charmingly archaic that it could easily figure into a work of nineteenth-century literature:

Former Nellie Goodhue School Slated for Demolition and Sale by School District

Up to the moment he noticed the headline, Charles had been happily settled at his favorite café table, wedged into a windowless corner beside a big-leafed philodendron that was in such dire need of transplantation that its roots, black and thick as cables, had begun to extrude from the potting soil; nevertheless, the plant seemed to be thriving. Situated thus, he enjoyed a camouflaged obscurity, a public solitude.

Cloud City Café was a bustling establishment within walking distance of Charles’s house. It was where he spent every Monday through Friday morning (except holidays) from six o’clock until seven fifteen — even when school wasn’t in session, as was the case on this day, a Wednesday in mid-July.

As it happened, it was also his daughter Emmy’s birthday.

He had just finished his regular breakfast — black coffee, a pair of poached eggs (one whole, one white), unsweetened oatmeal — and gotten his cup refilled. He’d been making his way through the Seattle Times at perhaps a slightly more leisurely pace than usual.

Seattle Public Schools will sell the former Nellie Goodhue School, a 3.2-acre property in North Seattle that real estate advisers estimate could fetch at least $2.75 million.

During the summer months, Charles adhered to his workday routines as much as possible, refusing to drift into the never-never land of exotic locales and amorphous time as did many of his teaching colleagues: sleeping in, socializing on weeknights at trendy downtown bistros, taking spontaneous trips to the beach or the mountains, attending midday street fairs and festivals, going to movie matinees; in short, letting themselves go completely, making it that much harder for them to get back into the swing of things come September. Charles pitied them, really. How could they reliably forget on an annual basis that the disciplines of day-today living, so hard won, are so easily unraveled?

Nellie Goodhue is the sixth and last of the school district’s major surplus properties to be sold.

It startled him, seeing the name of his alma mater in print after all these years — up for sale and slated for demolition?

Charles checked his watch. He imagined that, back home, Emmy would be awake by now and getting ready to go to one of her jobs: she had a part-time internship at the Gates Foundation; twenty-five hours a week, she managed the neighborhood video store where she and Charles had been renting movies since she was two; and she was a frequent volunteer at Children’s Hospital, giving swim lessons and leading games in the hospital’s therapy pool. Not surprisingly, her social life was limited (her best friend was her brother), and at her request, the birthday celebration was to be low-key, family only.

After laying the newspaper aside, Charles refolded his napkin and began consolidating the tabletop clutter — actions he habitually undertook after he’d finished reading the paper and was about to walk out the door but that today for some reason he felt impelled to expedite.

The Nellie Goodhue School was featured in a 1963 story in the Seattle Times, “Fourth-Graders Predict the Future.” In conjunction with the recent World’s Fair, the students of Eloise Braxton’s Language Arts class were asked to reflect on what they thought life would be like in the 21st century.

Perhaps if Charles had returned for fifth grade, there would have been an entire unit centered around Miss Goodhue, an innovative syllabus in which reading, writing, and social studies (and maybe even math, science, and art!) were all linked to a single remarkable historical figure, a course of study that included screenings of old newsreels, fascinating classroom visits from living descendants, and multiple field trips to the Museum of History and Industry, where an extensive, interactive exhibition about Nellie Goodhue’s impact on the Pacific Northwest would be on permanent display. Even typically dreary tasks like memorizing vocabulary lists and writing reports would be enlivened by the subject at their center: the indomitable, brave, visionary, self-sacrificing, and beautiful Nellie Goodhue.

The Nellie Goodhue property, which was converted to a warehouse space in the late 1970s, is now known as the North Annex.

But Charles hadn’t returned. Abruptly, a few weeks after the end of the 1962–63 school year, he and his parents moved out of their Haller Lake rambler to a house where the neighborhood school was Greenwood Elementary and where he navigated fifth grade at an under-the-radar altitude, achieving neither academic success nor social distinction — which, after his experiences at Nellie Goodhue, was exactly what he wanted.

The district tried to sell the North Annex two years ago, but the soil was contaminated from heating oil leaked from underground storage tanks.

Charles’s mother told him at some point that even if they hadn’t moved, he would have been enrolled in a different school. After what happened on that playground, she declared, there was absolutely no question of you going back. Your father and I were in complete agreement about that . . . Charles could never tell whether these statements were offered as reassurance or blame; his mother could be hard to read that way.

When he dreamed of her, she was rarely in view but standing within the presumed enclosure formed by hundreds of bulging cardboard boxes, stacked too high, mildewed, dangerously unsteady. Charles knew she was in there, somewhere, unspeaking, inscrutable, her presence revealed by the occasional sound of agitated ice cubes and the  intermittent appearance of cigarette smoke signals telegraphing mild to moderate distress.

Charles took a sip of coffee. His stomach suddenly felt raw, abraded, ulcerous, as if it were empty, as if there were nothing down there to absorb the acidity.

As soon as the district completes its plans to tear down the former school, the property will be ready to put on the market.

He’d read the article several times, not because he couldn’t retain its contents — in fact, by the sixth reading, they were practically memorized — but because an enchantment had befallen him: whenever he tried to move on to a different story, the words were incomprehensible; he might as well have been reading Urdu or Arabic.

Could he be having a stroke? He looked up and across the room and was relieved to discover that he could still decode the title of a framed poster near the café entrance: 100 Ways to Build Community. He leaned forward in his chair and squinted, seeing whether or not he could make out anything else. Eventually he noticed two women sitting beneath the poster were staring at him in a way that suggested they were thinking of alerting the manager.

Language Arts
by by Stephanie Kallos

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0547939744
  • ISBN-13: 9780547939742