The Lenin Incident


Presence. To Miss Lonergan, that one word encompassed all those qualities that made Warren Slayton so special to her. When delivered in her usual crisp and authoritative manner, it seemed as though she was suggesting to everyone within the sound of her voice that they, too, should admire him as much as she did. Other times she said the word more softy. Then, as a whispered aside, it was directed only at Warren himself, and audible only to him, because she had arranged the seating plan of her classroom to put him in at a desk directly in front of her own.


Sherburne, New Hampshire was small enough so that Miss Lonergan had heard from teachers in the lower grades that Warren was a gifted student. But only when he arrived in her classroom—she taught English to freshmen, civics to sophomores—did she realize that rarely in her twenty-five years as a teacher had she encountered a student who could so quickly grasp ideas and absorb information. Not only did he answer easily the same questions that seemed to baffle other students, but he expressed himself so clearly, and with such confidence, that he seemed at times to be the teacher rather than the student. What she liked more than anything else about him was that he didn't seem to be particularly impressed, or conscious even, of his extraordinary intellect.


Even his size and physique caused Warren to stand out from the rest of his classmates. In his first year with Miss Lonergan, and even more so in his second year, he was taller than any of his classmates and already had the broad shoulders and muscular forearms of a grown man. That alone, Miss Lonergan used to tell herself, made it seem as if he had already blossomed into adulthood while so many of his peers, the riffraff as she thought of them, were still messing about with the distractions of adolescence.


She managed, just barely at times, to stop herself from saying out loud that she considered most of her students to be little more than riffraff. But when Warren, at her request, came to her classroom after school for what amounted to private tutorial sessions, that was only one of the pejoratives she used when complaining to him about the listless, mentally deficient students in most of her classes.


In these one-on-one meetings, held once or twice a week, Miss Lonergan would discuss with Warren various books she lent him to read, most of which were biographies of historic figures. Her intent was to instill in him lessons about character and fortitude and strength and courage and all the other capital letter virtues he should aspire to. In this way, she maintained, she was preparing him for the positions of power and influence she expected him to hold once he became an adult. He would laugh, she would insist that she was serious, when she talked of how she saw him as a future Secretary of State or maybe a Supreme Court justice.


Before (and in between) discussing the readings she had assigned, she spoke freely of her frustration at being a teacher in a community where so few people shared her dedication to learning. She could sound as if she were talking with a colleague or fellow adult when she routinely expressed doubts about whether schooling would make any real difference in the lives of most of her students.


The boys in her classes, well, that was settled, she said. With few exceptions, they were headed for jobs of some sort with the town's major employer, Black Diamond Paper. As for the girls, she could imagine a few of them going into nursing perhaps, but most, she said, would end up working in an office or one of the stores downtown for a few years before they married their mill worker boyfriends and produced children very much like themselves.


“It's the parents,” she said, “and the grandparents, too. So few of them have any real interest in what their children are doing in school.”


Once, after a particularly trying day, she claimed that the mayor and members of the school committee thought of the town's teachers as providers of a custodial service.


“The people who run this town think of us as disciplinarians first and educators second,” she told him. “Our job, as they see it, is to keep their children from getting into trouble for those few hours each day we have them. Which, believe me, is no small thing, but it would be nice if our pay were commensurate with the service they expect from us.”


When she said that her usual brusque manner was tinged with a note of resignation, and maybe because it was the end of the day and she was tired, she had the look of a woman, once quite attractive, who had just observed her fiftieth birthday. The flesh along her jaw line was beginning to loosen, and though her hair, short and cropped, was for the most part still dark brown, there were now two wing-shaped patches of grey on either side of her head that looped around her ears.


But some insight or observation from Warren—his very cogent argument, for instance, that Lincoln had a moral duty to free slaves as soon as the Civil War began—and she instantly put aside any complaints she had about her pay or working conditions. It was as though her chance to nurture and mold a student of Warren's caliber offset the misery of having to share a big, drafty house with her sister, who was cranky when sober and insufferable when her pre-dinner cocktail hour extended well into the evening. The house was their sole inheritance from a lawyer father who made a small fortune as a bootlegger during Prohibition but then squandered it by buying up real estate, tenement houses mostly, that he had to surrender to his creditors during the Depression.


Her father's rise and fall—and his less than savory business reputation—as well as her own blunt way of letting her students know of their shortcomings, made her a convenient target for gossip and salacious rumors. It had become something of a tradition at Sherburne High for older students to pass on to younger ones the stories, much embellished over the years, about Miss Lonergan's misfortunes in love. Always prominently mentioned was a wedding that was called off only hours before it was supposed to take place because the groom had changed his mind. That, her detractors said, accounted for her hostility toward her male students. There were also whispers about her somewhat mannish hair style, a sure sign, according to some teen-aged savants, that she was most likely a lesbian.


The “lesbian” story was utterly false, as was the one about how she had been abandoned when she was practically standing at the altar. She wore her hair short because she didn't care to waste time styling it. And yes, while there had been broken romances, there had been a number of young men who were attracted by her shapely figure and sparkling green-blue eyes, as well as her lively personality. She was the one, however, who decided to end her engagement to a chemical engineer because she had second thoughts about spending her life with a man who was too attached to his mother and who had a cackling laugh she couldn't stand. She also gave up on an attorney, a young man of great ambition and considerable talent, because he smoked cigars and seemed, as she rightly guessed, too fond of alcohol.


The suitor she was most attracted to, the only son of the family that owned the most gracious resort hotel in the White Mountains, was vibrantly handsome and quite witty. But he eliminated himself from competition when, a bit tipsy one night, he crashed his car into a tree and his passenger, Miss Lonergan, was fortunate to escape with only a broken rib and a broken arm.


Not long after that accident—she was 34 at the time—she decided, weighing the pros and cons of various other prospects available to her, that she would rather remain single. On days when students openly defied her efforts to teach them, or on those nights when she had to help her sister upstairs to bed, she still considered her decision to reject her suitors as somewhat similar to discarding a coat or dress that had outworn its usefulness.


Years later, whenever Warren thought about Miss Lonergan, he could still picture the ink stand on her desk. The inkwell itself was flanked on both sides by two tiny flags. On the right there was the American flag and on the left, the flag of the United Nations. In the late 1940s, when he had Miss Lonergan as a teacher, she was one of those people who fervently believed that the newly established United Nations would serve as a bulwark against future wars. It was obvious to Warren which of the two flags Miss Lonergan preferred, particularly when every now and then she would utter, apropos of nothing, those lines from Tennyson's Locksley Hall.


Till the war drums throbbed no longer,
and the battle flags were furled,
In the Parliament of Man, the
Federation of the world.


When she did so, there would be a dreamy look on her face as she hit her pencil against the edge of her desk, beating out the rhythm of those lines. Then, while even her most attentive students struggled to keep a straight face, she would once again explain why the UN would succeed where the League of Nations had failed.


Her optimism about the future of the UN was based in great part on her admiration for Carlos Romulo, the Filipino diplomat who served as president of the UN General Assembly back then. She just loved the way Mr. Romulo, though short and slight and representing a small, newly independent country, so eloquently chastised delegates of larger nations, notably the Soviet Union, for suppressing democratic practices and values. That, to Miss Lonergan, made him a living, breathing exemplar of a quality she deemed essential in any statesman—spunk. When she said that word, her eyes seemed to gleam even more brightly, her lips would widen into a broad smile, and she would pull up her shoulders and give a little shiver of delight.


She used that same word (and made that same gesture) when referring to President Truman, whom she hadn't cared much for, thinking him uneducated. But she came to admire him because, undaunted by all the predictions (and polls) indicating his certain defeat in the 1948 election, he continued to wage a spirited campaign against Thomas Dewey, whom she despised. After Truman won, she hung on one wall of her classroom the news clipping that showed him grinning broadly as he brandished the famous early edition of the Chicago Tribune with its headline, Dewey Defeats Truman.


Over the years her teaching had evolved into a monologue that wandered haphazardly through various subjects of interest to her, only some of which were connected to the mandated curriculum. She was as casual in drawing a distinction between the two subjects she taught. In English, the compositions she assigned her students to write ran to matters that she might be covering in civics, the differences between Greek and Roman political systems, for instance, or perhaps the changing role of the Supreme Court in the early history of the United States.


Then, in civics, she might decide to spend some time on the fundamentals of English grammar while expressing all over again her contempt for those upside-down sentences in Time magazine. Her fixation on Time resulted as much from her dislike of Henry Luce's political posturing as from the stylistic quirks of its writers.


In either class, she was likely at any moment to delve into matters of morality and ethics, which could lead to a digression on why everyone should try, as much as possible, to emulate another one of her heroes, Doctor Albert Schweitzer, who willingly sacrificed worldly success to work as a medical missionary in Africa.


At such moments, gesturing with her clenched fists, she would exhort the class to, “Think hard, think big, think bold. And do something, please, that will show you didn't waste your time on this planet!”


If the mood struck her, she might decide to deliver a commentary on matters that, for various reasons, had attracted her attention. Out of nowhere she could deliver a blistering critique of the tabloid press—the Hearst paper in Boston was a frequent target of criticism—but she might also unleash a tirade against the Hollywood studio that dared to equate the young tenor, Mario Lanza, with Enrico Caruso. Didn't anyone in Hollywood, didn't Mario Lanza himself, know the difference between singing and shouting? No, she would have none of it.


Her indignation about an ersatz Caruso was mild in comparison to her fulminations about Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom she disliked so much that she refused to use his given name, choosing instead to refer to him as “that hideous man.” She could get so worked up when discussing McCarthy's latest outrage that her voice would rise an octave or two, her cheeks would take on color and she would get up from her desk and march over to one of the windows that looked out on the school lawn. She would stand there with her back turned away from the class before she took a deep breath. Then, after slowly letting it out, she would turn, and squaring her shoulders, walk back towards her desk. On the way, as if she needed yet another calming measure, she would usually toss out a question to the class and just as quickly express dissatisfaction with the answers offered by those students she called upon.


Everyone in the class knew what was coming next. With a tiny smile on her face, she would turn to Warren, and he, in that nonchalant, effortless way he had, would provide her with the answer she had been seeking all along. That was another one of those times when, smiling more broadly, she pulled up her shoulders and gave the little shiver that showed how pleased she was at having one student who was worthy of her attention.



section break



Warren wasn't sure that he knew what Miss Lonergan was getting at when she talked of his presence. He was aware that he stood out from his peers because of his size and his better grades. But presence? That word was associated in his mind with someone whose bearing and demeanor conveyed a sense of authority, a military figure perhaps. That, as far as he was concerned, didn't apply to him, especially during the summer he turned 16, when he served as the chief assistant to his father, Pete Slayton, who was chairman of the Henry Wallace for President campaign in Sherburne, New Hampshire.


Oh, Warren gladly wore the button that identified him as a Wallace supporter and he could reel off arguments (so freely given to him by his father) about why Henry Wallace was the only candidate in the race who truly supported organized labor. He didn't mind, either, those summer afternoons when he and his father drove through the countryside, stopping here and there to put out flimsy Wallace for President signs in fields and clearings along the highway. But he found himself wishing he were some place else when he and his father, working opposite sides of the street, went door-to-door, seeking votes on behalf of Wallace. He came to expect that certain voters would slam the door shut the moment they saw the button on his jacket, but it still surprised him when others, fewer in number fortunately, would explode in anger when they let him know that they would never vote for a candidate who was supposed to have some connection, however vague, with the Communist party.


On that point, even Miss Lonergan had told him, trying to be as tactful as possible, that she had reservations about Henry Wallace. No, she wasn't bothered by reports of his associations with known Communists as such, she said, and she thought him a gifted man, a visionary even, but she didn't feel he had the stability, as she delicately put it, to assume an office once held by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


The campaign activity Warren most disliked came on those mornings when he and his father stood outside the plant gate of the Black Diamond Paper Company, handing out flyers to workers getting off the night shift. Leaving the mill, the workers were a formless mass that moved quite rapidly, but they slowed down and rearranged themselves into a more orderly line to keep from stepping on each other's feet as they passed through the narrow plant gate. Then fanning out again, most of them brushed past him and his father without taking a flyer. Some would actually bat Warren's hands aside rather than accept the flyer he tried to hand them. Virtually everyone who did take one never gave it more than a glance before tossing it aside.


Help your country. Help the working class. Help yourselves. Vote Wallace. That was the headline emblazoned across the top of each flyer, followed by bullet points spelling out the major elements in Henry Wallace's program. While Warren was the silent partner in this enterprise, the quiet dispenser of flyers, his father, who had a strong voice and loved to sing folk songs, would yell out those phrases on the flyer and then round them off in a kind of rhythmic chant, “Vote Wallace folks, vote Wallace, friend of the working man.”


It was Warren's job, once all the workers had left, to retrieve the discarded flyers before he went off to school. His father also helped, but he had only moments to spare before rushing off to his job in the mill's machine shop. When he and his father picked up the flyers, they did so under the watchful eyes of two guards who manned the small hut near the plant gate. Warren always sensed that one stray piece of paper left behind, and the guards would immediately shut down one of the major initiatives of the Wallace for President campaign in all of northern New Hampshire.


One day, one of the workers who came through the plant gate was about twenty feet beyond him and his father, when he turned around and yelled out, “Hey Pete, fuck Wallace and his commie buddies.” That same person then thrust his right forearm into the air while clamping down with his left hand on his right bicep.


That gesture drew a laugh from several men nearby and they, too, turned toward him and his father and let loose with more cries of “Fuck Wallace.” Just then, someone punctuated his “Fuck Wallace” cry by crumpling up the flyer Warren had handed him and tossing it towards Warren and his father.


Several other men, holding flyers in their hands, and amused at what they had seen, did the same thing. Not that many men were holding flyers, but enough of them did, so that suddenly a number of those tiny balls of paper headed toward him and his father. Several other men, who didn't have flyers, reached out to take one from Warren just so they could join the fray.


When older, Warren had variations of a dream in which he and his father were buried up to their chests in a blizzard of balled-up flyers. Always in these dreams he would stand in front of his father, trying to shield him. In one dream that stuck in his memory he tried to toss the flyers back towards the men who had thrown them, but when he did, they simply landed at his feet.


In reality, in sheer numbers, not that many workers had pelted him and his father with flyers, but there were enough so that his father, while using both his hands and feet to bat them away, proclaimed even more loudly his plea for everyone to join him in putting Henry Wallace in the White House. That was his father in full, tall and broad shouldered, his right fist raised in defiance, as he implored more timid souls to believe as strongly as he did in the rights of workers. The response to that was more laughter from his fellow workers and more cries of Fuck Wallace and Fuck you, Pete.


Not that Pete Slayton was disheartened by people who let him know how much they disliked the candidate he favored. He didn't mind that some of his fellow union members had begun to call him Pinko Pete even before the Red Scare had reached its full bloom, and he was extremely proud, in fact, of the cut lip and broken nose he suffered in a fracas that took place when he caused an uproar at a union meeting when he tried to get a resolution passed in which the union would endorse Henry Wallace.


Twice at previous union meetings he tried to get the resolution voted on, but both times, amid a chorus of boos, the union president ruled him out of order. But at the next meeting, he continued to read out loud his resolution even after the union president, banging away with his gavel, tried to move on to the next item on the agenda. It was unclear, from his father's account of the pushing and shoving that that took place whether the injuries he suffered came from a stray elbow or a well- aimed fist.


Pete Slayton, with a smile on his face, did his best to downplay his “little mix up.” as he called it. Sure, some people had tried to shut him up, he said, but he was satisfied that, even in the midst of the melee, he had made his point about the need for his union brothers to back Henry Wallace.


While Warren had some reservations about his father's embrace of the Wallace candidacy, he couldn't help but admire his stand at the union meeting. This, to him, was a vivid example of spunk. Even more than that, he began to think of his father as someone who was thinking big, acting boldly and doing his best not to waste his time on this planet.


But those bruises on Pete Slayton's face, and the jaunty air with which he recounted the altercation at the union hall, only deepened the rift, a schism really, that already existed within the Slayton family. Pete was pro-Wallace, of course, as was Warren, but only out of loyalty to his father, while Pete's wife, Marilyn, and his daughter, Lenore, who was fifteen months older than Warren, were stridently and defiantly anti-Wallace.


Lenore's distaste for the Wallace campaign was that of a teenager who wished that her father didn't attract so much attention to himself (and to her) with his outspoken support for a candidate endorsed by the Communist Party. Lenore, like Warren, was an outstanding student, but her emotional pitch was set a higher level than his. In that sense, she resembled her mother, who was spirited, demonstrative and always ready to express herself in the strongest possible terms. Never did she sound or look more like her mother than the day, at the start of the campaign year, when, with eyes narrowed to slits and her jaw jutting out, she told her father that it would be a cold day in hell before she knocked on doors, asking people to vote for Henry Wallace.


Marilyn Slayton's differences with her husband were more deeply embedded than those of her daughter. The Great Depression was just beginning to take hold when she and Pete, barely more than teen-agers, met at a church dance. Their attraction to each other, powerful and instantaneous, was such that three months later they ran off one weekend and got married. The two children came quickly, a bit more than two years after they were married. By then, Pete, like most Black Diamond Paper's employees, went for long periods of time without working a full five-day week.


Neither of them were prepared for the financial strain they had to endure during that dismal period. Particularly difficult were those weeks when they had to forego buying groceries in order to pay for the coal that kept the furnace going in the rundown house that Pete had inherited from a bachelor uncle. All too often, a couple who were once so passionately in love found themselves immersed in squabbles, mostly about money, and mostly initiated by Marilyn, that left wounds and abrasions from which their marriage never fully recovered.


Marilyn, who came from a poor farm family, had had this notion that marrying Pete and moving into Sherburne would give her some relief from the poverty she had known all her life. She didn't expect a life of luxury by any means, but she became disillusioned when she discovered that, with the exception of having an indoor toilet, there wasn't much difference in being unable to pay your bills whether you lived on a busy street, near the center of town, or a farm house at the end of a dirt road.


Then, just as the Depression began to ease up slightly, Pete, who had joined the National Guard to earn a few extra dollars, was called to active duty soon after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Oddly enough, Pete's time away during the war years, helped reignite their marriage, or so it seemed, from the letters he and Marilyn exchanged, which were filled with expressions, sometimes quite graphic, of their ardent love for each other. But once Pete returned, it wasn't long before their arguments resumed.


Now, though, a major area of disagreement was Pete's firm belief that a day would come when he and his union brothers (and the political leaders who were on their side) would force management to agree to higher pay and better working conditions. He, like Marilyn, had grown up poor, but his father and grandfather, both millworkers, had always been involved in the union movement. He had also met, while in the service, a group of union activists from whom he drew great encouragement and inspiration.


Marilyn's family depended on its potato crop for survival, and her forbears, therefore, were better acquainted with how months of hard work could be undone by blight or an unexpected turn in the weather. They knew nothing of unions. They despised all politicians, regardless of party. Like any family that farmed the rocky soil of northern New Hampshire, they didn't allow themselves to dream about the possibility of a brighter tomorrow.


Marilyn, echoing the dark, dour cynicism of her father, sometimes acted as though Pete, with his bouncy enthusiasm about the power of organized labor, was violating a basic law of nature. Any time he reported some gain, however small, in the struggle against the owners of Black Diamond Paper, she would remind him that, in the end, bosses always win. They always have, she said, and they always would, and people who didn't understand that were only fooling themselves.


It would be far better, she argued, if Pete, instead of helping Henry Wallace in his fruitless quest for the White House, devoted himself to something that would be of greater benefit to his own family, starting, for instance, with needed repairs to a house that, in her words, was ready to fall in on itself. If not that, she thought he might at least put more effort, even if it meant taking a second job, into moving his family out of a neighborhood that was two blocks away from one of the town's most notorious saloons, and where the family next door, and another two houses away, had backyards that were littered with broken down furniture and automobiles in various states of disrepair.


Pete, usually easy going, would bristle when Marilyn capped off her litany of complaints about her house and her neighbors by promising to vote for Thomas Dewey if that helped her to get a washing machine that worked or a furnace that heated both the downstairs and upstairs of her house.


The year of the Wallace campaign their arguments were so frequent and so sharply worded that there were days when Marilyn used either of her children as go- betweens in conversing with Pete. If she was particularly upset, she pointedly referred to Pete in the third person when talking to Lenore or Warren, even if Pete was present. Then, two days after Labor Day, she left a short note on the kitchen table, informing her family that having decided to take a “time out” from her marriage, she had gone to Portland to live with her sister.


Over the next week, Warren, without telling his father, called his aunt twice, trying to see if he and she could work out some sort of reconciliation between his parents, but his aunt couldn't even get his mother to reveal whether the “time out” was temporary or something more permanent.


Warren discovered just as quickly that his father, likewise, didn't feel any sense of urgency about getting his wife to return home to her family.


“I'm taking your mother at her word,” he told Lenore and Warren. “After all these years with her I know this much: If she decides that she needs a time out, she's going to take a time out, no matter what you, or me, or anyone else has to say about it. You know, that's one of the thousand things I've always loved about her—she's got a mind of her own. But God help you if you try to change it.”


Lenore, unlike Warren, had no interest in trying to find some common ground between her parents. At first she even talked of moving to Portland to live with her mother and her aunt. But after two days of phone calls between her and her mother, she agreed that it was better for her to stay in Sherburne rather than adjust to a new school and new friends when she was only months away from graduation.


If forced to choose, Warren would have aligned himself with his father. He had always felt that his mother had been too extreme. A temper tantrum, he thought, was no substitute for a well-reasoned argument, and he took it as an insult that his mother announced her departure with a note similar to one she might have left for the milkman, telling him she wanted two extra quarts of milk.


In the meantime, while his mother was taking her “time-out,” Warren tried to keep peace between his father and Lenore, who continued to denigrate the Wallace campaign as a waste of time. He also went out early each morning to replace the Wallace for President signs in the Slayton's front yard that were often trashed during the night. One morning, before his father and Lenore were up, he scrubbed away the dog shit spelling out the word, Pinko, that someone had smeared on their front door.


The year of the Wallace campaign Warren was a sophomore, which made him eligible to play varsity football. He had excelled when playing junior varsity, but now on the varsity he became the team's premier linebacker. He had the quickness to range from one sideline to the other, flinging opposing runners to the ground, and he was also capable, on any given play, of breaking into the other team's backfield to smother, literally, quarterbacks before they could hand off or pass the ball.


Warren's decision to play football had been the one time Miss Lonergan expressed disappointment with him. She was displeased that football practice interfered with their after-school sessions, and she frowned on school sports in general, feeling that too many people, including some of her fellow teachers, took them much too seriously. In Warren's case, she also warned him that he was putting his brain at risk by playing such a violent sport.


Warren, somewhat playfully, tried to parry Miss Lonergan's criticism by pointing out to her that football was not just a game of brute strength. But when he tried to explain the strategy and maneuvering and play calling it took for one football team to prevail over another, Miss Lonergan, simply put her hands over her ears.


If Warren had been honest with her, he would have told her that he never felt more alive—more present, in a sense—than on those Saturday afternoons when he was the mainstay of Sherburne High's defense. But he doubted very much if he could have conveyed to her the excitement that swept over him the moment the ball was snapped and there was that sound of padded bodies crashing into each other. Oh, how he reveled in that pushing and shoving and straining at the scrimmage line, and he gloried in those moments, not always evident to most people, when the other team would pit two or three blockers against him, which allowed his fellow linebackers to stop opposing runners before they gained a yard.


But best of all, there were those times, twice that first season, when Sherburne High, a small school, triumphed over a team from a larger school, with supposedly more talented players, and as he walked off the field fans flocked around him, old men and young boys, all eagerly reaching out to shake his hands and pat him on the back or simply touch him as they told him over and over again what a great game he had played. No, it would have been impossible for him to share with Miss Lonergan, or anyone else for that matter, how much it meant to him that the people showering accolades on him didn't care what political candidate his father favored, or if his parents got along with each other.


Lenore could never find a similar way to neutralize the ignominy of being Pete Slayton's daughter. She had to endure kidding, primarily from the boys in the manual arts program, about her father's efforts on behalf of Henry Wallace. That she tried to brush off, but a week or so after her mother had left home, when she was still wondering whether she, too, should move to Portland, a group of Lenore's classmates (or more likely one of their parents) came up with the cockeyed notion that Pete Slayton had named his daughter, Lenore, as a way to show his allegiance to Vladimir Lenin. It was doubtful that Lenore's classmate knew very much about Lenin and what he represented—or whether there was any truth to Henry Wallace's coziness with Communists—but they thought it great fun to see how upset Lenore would get when they called her by her new nickname, Lenin.


The day Lenore was first harassed in this way, Warren and his father were in the middle of preparing dinner when she descended the stairs from her room carrying a suitcase. She then announced that she was going off to live with her aunt and her mother because she couldn't stand any longer the insults directed at her by other students. It took only a moment, and a direct question from Warren, before Lenore told him that even some of her good friends had begun to call her Lenin.


Pete Slayton may have eased slightly how Lenore felt when he reminded her that she had been named after her maternal grandmother, just as Warren had been named after his paternal grandfather. But it was Warren who calmed Lenore down by taking her aside and persuading her to take her suitcase back upstairs since, as she herself admitted, the bus to Portland didn't leave until noon the next day.


Warren, who followed her part way upstairs, also posed a question. “You should think twice about this. Is this something you want to do, or are you being forced into it by a bunch of silly people?”


Rather than answer, she continued up the stairs and went into her room, slamming the door behind her. A bit later, when dinner was ready, Warren went to Lenore's room and succeeded in getting her to come downstairs to eat. Even then, she was sullen and withdrawn, and midway through the meal, after having poked away at her food, she got up and abruptly left the table.


There was a moment when her father looked as if he wanted to rebuke Lenore for failing to excuse herself, but Warren, raising his hand, signaled to him that he should remain silent.


“Please, this isn't the time to remind her about table manners,” he said, as Lenore ran up the stairs to her room.


“Frankly, I think she's got a lot more to learn about than table manners,” his father replied.


Warren and his father said nothing more while finishing their meal, but when they were in the kitchen washing the dishes, Warren said, “You know, Dad, this stuff seems to be getting out of hand.”


“That may be so,” his father said, “but your sister's smart enough to realize that silly nicknames don't really amount to much. She would be better off if she didn't pay attention to those ignoramuses. Better still, she should remind them that Lenin, whatever they think of him—as if they ever thought about anything—was a major figure in world history. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that.”


“I assume you saw the suitcase,” Warren said. “She's not kidding. Maybe you could give Ma a call and ask her to speak to Lenore. I hope you realize that anything coming from Ma right now means a lot more to her than whatever you have to say.”


“Oh, you know your mother. If I call her about this, the first thing she'll do is blame me for being the one who's made it so difficult for Lenore. Look, I hate seeing your sister upset like this, but it's time for sweet little Lenore to learn that it's a tough world out there.”


When Warren went to his room to begin his homework, he found it difficult to give his full attention to translating the three pages of Caesar's Gallic Wars that had been assigned by his Latin teacher. He was disturbed by the name-calling Lenore had to endure, but it bothered him as much that his father failed to understand what would happen if Lenore followed through on her threat to leave home. He couldn't imagine his mother ever returning to Sherburne if Lenore joined her in Portland.


Then, it came to him that perhaps the best way to ease Lenore's distress—and prevent an even wider split within the Slayton family—was to have some outside party come to Lenore's defense. It took him no time at all to write that kind of letter to the editor of the local paper, The Sherburne Enterprise.


I write today on behalf of the Slayton family. I am neither expressing my support nor objecting to the political views so often expressed by Peter Slayton, but it has recently come to my attention that a number of students at Sherburne High seem to think that there is something funny about a bit of name calling they have resorted to. Specifically they have begun calling Mr. Slayton's daughter, Lenore, the nickname—Lenin.


I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would think that there is a connection between the lovely name, Lenore, and Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik revolution, but it appears that this clumsy attempt at humor is supposed to imply a connection between Lenore's given name and her father's well-known support for Henry Wallace. This is utter nonsense and should be stopped forthwith.


Furthermore, it is my understanding that Peter Slayton and his wife, Marilyn, chose to name their daughter, Lenore, after her maternal grandmother, Lenore Heathcomb. It so happens that my mother and Lenore's grandmother grew up in the same small farming community and remained life-long friends. I personally recall my mother's good friend as a woman of great substance and character.


I hope that students who have directed this “insult” at Lenore Slayton will apologize, and that all of us, students and adults alike, learn from this incident the need for civil discourse in debating the issues of the day. Personally, I fear that, here on the local level, we may be resorting to the name calling and vilification that has become all too common among our country's political leaders. Let us hope that here in Sherburne, we will not sink to that level.


When he finished the letter, he put it in an envelope that was addressed to the editor of the paper. In one corner of the envelope he also added Miss Lonergan's home address since he planned to mail the letter as soon as she signed it.


The next morning, Warren went to Lenore's room while his father was downstairs eating breakfast.


“I”m asking you, as a favor to me, to wait another day or two before you do anything drastic,” he said. “I promise you I'm going to deal with this Lenin nonsense.”


“What makes you think things are going to change around here over the next two days?” she said. “I only wish Ma would have told me that she was leaving. I would have gone with her.”


“Give me two days, until the weekend,” he said.


“Oh sure, by then you'll perform some kind of magic trick, and poof, it's all going to go away.”


“Two days, please. Yes or no?”


“Yes, but only because I can't wait to see what you have in mind.”


Then, pointing towards her suitcase, she added, “Notice, I haven't unpacked.”


Lenore had already gone off to school when Warren was able to speak to his father, just as he was leaving for work. “I think I've got Lenore calmed down for the moment, but we shouldn't say anything that gets her fired up again. I'm thinking that in a day or two some of her so-called friends may find some other way to amuse themselves.”


“Let's hope you're right,” his father said.


That afternoon, as soon as the school day ended, Warren went, uninvited, to Miss Lonergan's classroom. She was seated at her desk, correcting a set of exams when he greeted her, and then, without any explanation, handed her the envelope containing the letter he had written.


“It's something I'd like you to read,” he said.


When she took the letter out of the envelope, she glanced at it quickly. Then, placing it on her desk, she read it once again, this time more slowly. When she finished, she looked over at him and said, “How dare you.”


Warren was taken aback by her reaction, but he managed to ask her why she didn't seem to like what he had written.


“Don't you think the letter addresses a problem that deserves to be corrected?” he said. “Right now, Lenore's so upset about this that she's threatening to leave Sherburne and go off to live with my aunt in Portland.”


“Oh, the letter's well stated,” she said, turning in her chair so that she could more directly address him. “I have no quarrel with that. But though you've written it, you apparently want it to come from me. What if I'm not comfortable signing it?”


“To be honest, I didn't think you'd object to it.”


“Don't get me wrong. It's unfortunate that your sister has to put up with this sort of thing. And since we live in a town where gossip travels fast, I've heard about your parents, which must also be upsetting both to you and Lenore. But do you really expect me to sign my name to something I haven't written?”


When Warren didn't respond right away, she said, “And that part about my mother and Lenore's grandmother, that's something I discussed with you in private. I didn't think I'd have to tell you that any such information was not yours to circulate as you wished.”


Warren first offered to take the reference to her mother and his grandmother out of the letter. Then, he tried to explain his rationale for having the letter come from her.


“Look, as of now, Lenore is so upset by this that she might leave town. I don't intend to stand by and let that happen. It isn't fair, either, for people to think there's any connection between her name and Vladimir Lenin. Sure, I could send the letter myself, but then it's just some school kid complaining about other school kids teasing his sister. It wouldn't help, either, if my father sent the letter since he's sent so many letters to the Enterprise that they've apparently put him on a quota of using only one or two a month or some such thing. Besides, even when they run one of his letters, I imagine most people probably ignore it when they see that it's from him. But you, you have standing, you're a well-respected teacher. Who better to speak out on something like this?”


“You may be right, but while the end you seek, to ease Lenore's distress, may be desirable, I'm not comfortable with the means. You know very well how I feel about means and ends and how one shouldn't outweigh the other. Why, I distinctly recall telling your class that it was Lenin or one of his followers who once talked of using any means whatsoever to achieve their ends. That path usually leads to disaster for all concerned, but putting that aside, I just don't like the idea of your decision to have me ‘front' for you.”


“So you're not going to sign it?”


“Whether I do or not isn't the point here. Here's what's more important to me. Your presumption that I would sign it alters my opinion of you. I thought you were the exception, the one who stood head and shoulders, literally and figuratively, above the kind of students I have to deal with. You've certainly got a better brain than any of them. In fact, I don't think I've ever had a student who's capable of writing a letter like this. But if you've begun to play this kind of game at your age, if you're willing to use someone else to serve your own needs now, I shudder to think what you might do later in life, when there's even more at stake.”


He reached over to take the letter back from Miss Lonergan, but she placed her hand on it.


“Then there's this. I'm surprised and disappointed that you lack the character to stand up for what you think is right.”


With that, she took her hand off the letter and quickly signed it. She also placed the letter back into the envelope, and handing it to Warren, she said. “On your way home you can bring this to my old friend, Laura Jennings, at the Enterprise. Tell her that I asked you to drop it off for me. You get it there before six o'clock and she'll probably put it in tomorrow's paper.”


Then, she returned to correcting the exams and never even looked up when Warren, after expressing his thanks, left the room.



section break



Warren and his father and Lenore managed to negotiate one more evening without saying very much to each other during dinner. A good deal of the time was taken up with Warren and his father discussing Sherburne High's chances the next Saturday against its opponent, a prep school from Maine. That allowed Lenore to eat quickly and leave the table—this time saying she needed to study for a history exam the next morning—while Warren tried to convince his father that Sherburne High would find some way to defeat a team whose offensive line outweighed by thirty pounds everyone on the Sherburne High team, except for Warren.


Warren was relieved the next morning when he opened the Sherburne Enterrprise and found that Miss Lonergan's friend had run her letter. When he showed the paper to Lenore, she was pleased that Miss Lonergan had come to her defense, but she wasn't sure that a letter to the editor would be enough to stop her classmates from calling her Lenin. Pete Slayton, without qualification, was delighted to see that someone of Miss Lonergan's stature had condemned those people who were harassing Lenore, but he seemed almost as pleased that she had so eloquently urged the people of Sherburne to be more tolerant towards diverse political views.


Then, at noon, when Warren met Lenore outside the school cafeteria, he saw that she was smiling. No, none of her friends had apologized to her, she told him, but it appeared as if there was much less interest among her classmates in making fun of someone who had simply been named after her grandmother. That evening, in fact, both Lenore and her father, on their own, wrote gracious notes of thanks to Miss Lonergan.


But that day, and then in the days ahead, Miss Lonergan never said a word to Warren about the letter, and within a week, even the most disengaged student in Miss Lonergan's classroom could see that something had altered the relationship between her and her favorite student. Gone were those times when she would tell the class something, and then, lowering her voice, deliver a comment that was meant solely for Warren. Those after school sessions with Warren, which had been suspended so that he could attend football practice, never resumed once the football season ended, and no matter how brilliantly Warren performed in class, Miss Lonergan never again raised her shoulders and gave that little shiver of delight when he answered so perfectly a question she had asked.


It didn't trouble Warren that Miss Lonergan had begun to treat him more like everyone else in her class, but he was puzzled that she hadn't ever mentioned the letter to him, or alluded to it in class. That left him feeling as if there was too much left unsaid between them. Maybe, he decided, she expected a formal apology from him for presuming she would sign a letter she hadn't written. He intended to do just that one afternoon, two weeks after the letter about Lenore appeared, when he went to Miss Lonergan's room as soon as school let out. But he never got more than a step or two into her room when she told him that she was too busy just then to talk with him.


A week later, after getting permission from the football coach to get to practice 30 minutes late, Warren stood outside Miss Lonergan's classroom, waiting for her to leave for the day. The half hour had passed and he was just about to give up, when Miss Lonergan came out of her classroom, but even though Warren was standing directly in her path, she brushed past him with a quick hello. Then, after taking a few steps, she stopped, and turning towards him, she appeared to suggest, in a sly, almost coquettish manner, a quid-pro-quo arrangement that might have helped to heal the breach between them.


“Have you ever given any thought,” she said, “to giving up football? You know what I think of it, but I keep thinking that someone with your intelligence would come to see what a terrible, brutal sport it is. Or do you enjoy the adulation that comes from being an athletic hero? The thought of that saddens me greatly.”


Warren's answer to the question Miss Lonergan had asked was succinct and direct. No, he told her, he had no intention of giving up football.


“That's too bad,” she said, as she turned and walked away from him.


The next year, when Warren was no longer in Miss Lonergan's class—and he was named for the second year in a row to the All-State football team—she would exchange greetings with him if she walked past him in the hallway, but she stopped only a few times to chat with him. Even then, she mostly asked him about Lenore, who was now a student at the teacher's college in Plymouth. These brief exchanges were awkward because it was obvious that still looming between them was the issue of how he had maneuvered her into signing the letter about Lenore.


Warren by then had put behind him an incident that was not, in his view, as much out of bounds as Miss Lonergan seemed to think. But Miss Lonergan couldn't stop herself from getting angry all over again whenever she thought of how, with that one act, Warren had upended the balance of power between teacher and student. Worse still, she knew, that she was the one who led Warren to think that she would do his bidding.


Then, near the end of Warren's senior year, after he had been named for the third time to the All-State football team, the sports editor of the Sherburne Enterprise, who was a rabid booster of the town's sports teams, had big news for the paper's readers. He was even given space on the paper's front page to report that Warren Slayton had received several scholarship offers from colleges that were, in the editor's words, football powerhouses. He ended his story with a prediction. If Warren decided to play big-time college football, he would be in line to earn All-American honors, and after that, why after that, he asserted, someone who had begun his athletic career at Sherburne High School could end up playing professional football.


There was no indication in the story that Warren might accept any of these offers, and in fact, he himself had tried to dampen the sports editor's expectations by saying that he was honored to have heard from these colleges but had not decided which one, if any, he might attend.


Warren's carefully worded statement made no difference to Miss Lonergan. To her, the story was proof that she had thoroughly misjudged him. Two nights later, Warren received a phone call from her. When she began she had to pause twice to clear her throat, and when she continued, she didn't sound as much like her usual assertive self.


“That story in the Enterprise,” she said, “I found it disturbing. Is it true or is it something the stupid man who wrote it dreamt up?”


“He didn't make up the gist of the story,” Warren said, “but I wish he had emphasized that I haven't made up my mind.”


“You know, of course, that I've always thought of you as being more mature than other people your age, but now I'm beginning to think that I may have been mistaken. I keep telling myself that you're the same young man who so impressed me from the first day you walked into my classroom, but I'm not so sure anymore. I'm even wondering if I should continue to believe, as I always have, that you are meant for great things?”


Then there was a pause, one that left Warren feeling as if he was supposed to say something, but not certain about how he should respond, he hesitated. That's when Miss Lonergan, quickly, almost as if she couldn't wait to get off the phone, said, “Oh Christ, I have no idea what I'm trying to say.” Then, quite abruptly, she hung up.


Two days later, Warren mailed letters to each of the schools that had offered him football scholarships, informing them that he did not intend to play football once he went to college. He had decided instead, he told them, to attend Dartmouth College, which had awarded him a full academic scholarship. He sent a copy of the letter to Miss Lonergan's home address, but she never responded to him directly, nor did she, in the few weeks left before Warren graduated, go out of her way to speak to him. He was surprised, but not particularly bothered, when she failed to congratulate him after he was named valedictorian of his class.


On the day Warren graduated from Sherburne High, he was leaving the building with his parents (who were now divorced) and his sister, when he stopped for a moment to say goodbye to a group of classmates. Then, as he was hurrying to catch up to his family, he crossed paths with Miss Lonergan just outside the school's auditorium. They both stopped, and there was a moment when it seemed as if neither of them knew what they should say to each other, but then Miss Lonergan reached out to shake Warren's hand and told him how pleased she was to hear that he would be attending Dartmouth.


“You've made a wise choice” she said. “It's a fine school, one that should be a very good fit for someone like you.”


Then, as if she needed to explain why she thought that he and Dartmouth were well suited for each other, she told Warren about her mother's cousin, a Dartmouth graduate who had gone on to have a brilliant career as a lawyer.


“I hope Dartmouth will have the same salutary effect on you as it had on my mother's cousin,” she said. “He became the managing partner of a large law firm in Boston and was so highly thought of that a number of the state's leaders urged him to run for governor of Massachusetts. But he wanted nothing to do with the grubby side of politics. I don't think he would have done very well in any case since he wasn't the kind of person who would have sacrificed his principles in order to win votes.”


Warren was unsure about how he should respond to her. It struck him, from the way she had dragged her mother's cousin into the conversation, that she was trying to provide him with one last bit of advice. Since he had neither the time, or interest, to engage in such a discussion, he simply thanked her, but when he tried to pull his hand away, she didn't let go. She even put her other hand on his and tightened her grip.


“Okay,” she said, “we have just enough time for one last lesson. You've probably heard that saying about how those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Well, I like to put my own twist on that. I think that those whom the gods wish to test, they first endow with great potential. So there you have it, mister. You've got all the potential in the world. Now, it's up to you to show the gods—and the rest of us—what you're going to do with it.”


Warren could see that tears just then were beginning to well up in Miss Lonergan's eyes, but before he could reply, she released her hold on him and quickly walked away.  End of Story