The Kingdom of Childhood (Center Point Platinum Fiction (Large Print))

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9781611733105: The Kingdom of Childhood (Center Point Platinum Fiction (Large Print))

The Kingdom of Childhood is the story of a boy and a woman: sixteen-year-old Zach Patterson, uprooted and struggling to reconcile his knowledge of his mother's extramarital affair, and Judy McFarland, a kindergarten teacher watching her family unravel before her eyes. Thrown together to organize a fundraiser for their failing private school and bonded by loneliness, they begin an affair that at first thrills, then corrupts each of them. Judy sees in Zach the elements of a young man she loved as a child, but what Zach does not realize is that their relationship is - for Judy - only the latest in a lifetime of disturbing secrets. An emotionally tense, increasingly chilling work of fiction set in the controversial Waldorf school community, The Kingdom of Childhood is equal parts enchanting and unsettling and is sure to be a much-discussed and much-debated novel.

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About the Author:

Rebecca Coleman received her B.A. in English literature from the University of Maryland at College Park and speaks to writers' groups on the subjects of creative writing and publishing. A native New Yorker, she now lives and works near Washington, D.C. Visit her at www. RebeccaColeman.net.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1998
Sylvania, Maryland

I suppose in the beginning it was a love story. The school into which I had wandered, following my midwife's directions to sign up for a natural-childbirth class held there in the evenings, was a fairy-tale cottage of apricot walls and cabinetry built from knotty pine. In the kindergarten room, knitted dolls waited in a line beneath a large bright window; wooden fish, painted in pale washes of color, leaped from a swirl of blue silk arranged on a shelf. At the center of it all sat a lantern, nestled among the seashells and pine cones strewn on a small table. Its blue overlay was decorated with the silhouette of a young girl with her skirt held out, catching in it the stars that fell like coins from the sky. I knew it was a scene from a fairy tale, one I had heard many years before on the other side of the ocean. I remembered many stories from that place and that time, but this one was notable in that it ended in happiness and not horror.

The teacher who found me standing loose-jawed in her room, one hand on my burgeoning belly and the other on my hip, did not need to ask me if I had ever been in a Waldorf school before. The answer was obvious enough from my gaze of uninhibited wonder, and as I was soon to learn, every aspect of the Waldorf life is meant to inspire that feeling which rose in me very naturally, as though I were a tired pioneer stumbling into a lush valley and suddenly declaring, "This is the place." I didn't question why that room pulled at me so intensely, because as soon as I walked in, I knew: it reminded me of the school I had attended as a child in Germany, with shiny leaves of ivy hanging like garlands above the windows, a guitar beside the teacher's desk, and the tables outfitted with wooden boxes of beeswax crayons in colors so hard and bright that they carried an elemental cheer. The boxes contained many colors, but not black. Black was not allowed. I received this information like a coded phrase: here we have your German childhood, and we have removed the black crayon.

Now, nineteen years later, I had shepherded hundreds of kindergartners through their introduction to our brand of wonder, watercolors and the occasional case of ringworm. The baby traveling upside-down in my womb that day, blissfully ignorant of her mother's budding fanaticism—my daughter Maggie—had attended Waldorf clear through to college. Scott, my son, was in his final year of high school, and he was finishing up not a moment too soon. The school year had only just begun, and already my boss, Dan Beckett, had opened our Monday-morning staff meeting with an announcement that Sylvania Waldorf School was financially insolvent and might go under at any moment. This was a regular weekly feature during the previous year, and so that morning I sat at a student desk listening to him in respectful silence, toying with my earring and musing idly on the erotic dream I'd had about him the night before. My love affair with Waldorf was still alive in my soul, but until the new boss arrived it had never occurred to me that it might be consummated.

If I was distracted that day, a reasonable person could hardly blame me. By lunchtime I had dealt with two potty accidents and one black eye on a scrappy student who, quite honestly, had it coming. In the afternoon I sent home a child showing symptoms of measles to two panicky parents suddenly reconsidering their commitment to holistic medicine. Now, at long last, my mug of coffee and I made our way down the covered walkway that connected the Upper and Lower Schools. My son Scott's choir practice was almost over, and with that I would finally be able to go home and crawl into bed under a pile of duvets. Hopefully the oxygen deprivation would knock me out quickly.

Rounding the corner to the multipurpose room, I felt a bit more relaxed just to hear the beatific voices of my son and his choirmates. The madrigal choir was by invitation only, and sang, for the most part, medieval and Renaissance songs a capella. Scott, a senior, had a fine voice but no particular love of music. He stayed in Madrigals because the school required an extracurricular and he found the other options, in a word, "lame."

As I slipped in the back door I spotted the small group clustered on the risers at one side of the stage. Drawing closer, I could pick out Scott's voice in the baritone section. They sang The Holly and the Ivy in preparation, I assumed, for the Advent Spiral ceremony around the holidays. They were certainly getting an early start.

I sat in a folding chair and sipped my coffee. As their teacher issued a few parting instructions and the group dispersed, Scott meandered toward me with two other young men in tow: Temple, the quiet boy with whom he had been friends since first grade, and another one I did not recognize. Hitchhikers, I predicted.

"Hey, Mom," Scott said. "Do you mind giving a couple people a ride home?"

The trio lagged behind me on the way out to the parking lot, with one of them—the extra one, from his voice—singing a potty-mouthed parody of The Holly and the Ivy to the delight of his friends. By the time they piled into the back of the Volvo, the conversation had reverted to the two-syllable monotone of teenage boys.

"Who lives closest?" I asked, turning out of the parking lot.

"I do," said the crude one. "Left on Crescent, right on Lakeside, follow it down."

I turned up the radio and tried to think ahead to my evening, rather than backward to the terrible day, without much success. Three of my students, now, were out with the measles, with a fourth case likely in the works. At any other school this would be a cause for alarm, but many of the parents in our school community had reservations about immunizing their children, and as a result we had periodic outbreaks of arcane diseases. Although the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the originator of our school's philosophy, supported some of these ideas, I did not share their view. I had thought myself a rebel to society at large when I joined the Waldorf School movement, yet once inside the community I chafed just as often, but kept my dissents secret. I vaccinated my children, circumcised my son. I owned not one but two televisions. I ate plastic-wrapped American cheese.

The voice of the new boy rose from the backseat. "Monica Lewinsky walks into a dry cleaner who's a little hard of hearing."

Scott's enthusiasm was immediate. "Ooh, Temple, have you heard this one?"

"Uh-uh."

"Monica says, 'I've got another dress for you to clean.' The dry cleaner says, 'Come again?' and Monica says, 'No, it's mustard.'"

Scott and Temple dissolved into laughter. I glanced into the rearview mirror and caught the gaze of the boy, his broad grin conveying pride at his own joke. Black hair, razor-cut at the edges, mostly hid one of his eyes, but the other sparkled with mischief. I raised my eyebrows at him in the mirror.

"Not a good joke for mixed company," I said.

"Sorry, Mrs. McFarland," he replied with great insincerity.

"Yeah, Zach," Scott added, clearly gleeful at the chance to gang up on his friend. "Don't talk to my mom like that. What's your problem?"

Muted thuds ensued, the sound of punches being thrown. When I came to a stop at a traffic light I turned around and barked, "Knock it off!"

Temple, in the middle seat between the two, looked relieved as Scott and his friend quickly straightened up. After years of being a double authority over Scott's buddies—both parent and teacher—I was not shy about correcting them. I looked the black-haired one in the eye again and demanded, "How old are you?"

"Sixteen."

"Then please act like it. I don't mind giving you a ride home, but I will if you all act like a bunch of wild animals."

"Green light," said Scott. As I turned around he mumbled, "Zach, you wild animal, you."

"That's what your mom said," Zach retorted, sotto voce. As they convulsed with suppressed giggles, I propped my elbow against the window ledge, rested my head in my hand, and sighed deeply. In addition to the pile of duvets, a glass of wine might be nice. Or two.

My erotic dreams about my boss began not long after he arrived on the job from a large, flourishing Waldorf school in the Bay Area. With an overgrown mop of thick dishwater-blond hair and icicle-blue eyes like a husky's, he was reasonably good-looking, if young, and not a bad candidate for a subconscious fantasy. But Dan Beckett was only one of many. Since my husband had exchanged his libido for entrance into his Ph.D program three years before—or so it seemed—I'd begun dreaming about random men in bizarre situations, as though my mind, in its deprived state, grabbed whatever scattered ideas were available and smashed them together. This was comical when it involved my neighbor's landscaping guy or my former physics professor, but problematic when my coworkers or a kindergartner's father stepped in—or both, as in the case of Dan, whose son Aidan was in my class. Facing these men afterward, I couldn't help feeling as though we were all conspiring to keep the affair under wraps. Dreams had this effect on me: I knew where they ended and reality began, but they tended to bring ideas into an area where the circles overlapped, making the absurd seem more feasible.

And so after a glass of red wine and a chin-deep hot bath foaming with Weleda's lavender bathing milk, I had drifted off into a slumber that ended in an awkward, boss-induced dream hangover. At least this time I had managed a full night's sleep. Sometimes the incubus awoke me, memorably but inconveniently, at 3:00 a.m.

As I went off to work the next morning, I made a mental note to avoid the front office. With luck, I would make it all the way until dismissal time without encountering Dan.

"Oh ho ho, what do I see?" I sang to the small people clustered at my sides. "Has a gnome come looking for me?"

The children peered at the classroom before them. A moment ago they had been outdoors, digging in the sand and playing on the cooperative swing, racing along a line of tree stumps. Now they had returned to find an amber playsilk square strewn on the floor and a piece of driftwood from the nature table upset beside it. Disorder was always the work of gnomes.

"Oh ho ho, they come and go," the children sang back, "quickly as the wind does blow."

I smiled and sank to my haunches to speak to the children at eye level. "In a few moments our mothers and fathers will be here. Let's clean up the mess this naughty gnome has made and then have our puppet play."

The children got to work. I felt anxious to draw the workday to a close, for it was Friday and the weekend held great promise. My husband and I would be celebrating our anniversary at Fallon, a bed-and-breakfast in the Blue Ridge Mountains which we'd first visited long ago, before even Maggie had been born. Given that I'd barely seen the man since he began his doctoral dissertation on sustainable aqua-culture, and despite the fact he'd been hopelessly surly since then, I anticipated the trip as if it were a first date. I needed this weekend with Russ, if only to refocus my mind from the ever-growing list of men my subconscious was plundering.

But until then, I had work to do. I led the puppet play and the afternoon verse, rang the small brass bell three times, and sent the children off one by one with their parents. Each time the classroom door opened, I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar black-haired woman, unquestionably pregnant, standing in the hallway chatting with the headmaster. Most likely she was the mother of a prospective student, and my romantic weekend would need to be put on hold for a few more minutes while I schmoozed her.

After all the children but Aidan were gone, I shook her hand in the hallway and invited her into my classroom. She wore a scarf stylishly tied in her long hair and the sort of kid-leather Mary Janes popular with the yoga crowd. I guessed her age to be in the middle thirties, possibly younger, but her muted Asian features threw off my guesswork. Dan sidled up beside her, his face plastered with his beatific pastor smile. I blinked away a snapshot memory of him sneering and dripping with sweat, stark naked.

"Judy, this is Vivienne Heath," he said, and I imitated his smile. "She's volunteered her son to help you with the Christmas bazaar. He needs to earn some service hours, so I thought, why not give Judy a hand?"

Indeed. The last thing I needed was a Boy Scout to supervise while I attended to my annual frenzy of unappreciated volunteer work for my employer. In an exulting voice I said, "Wonderful."

"We just moved here from New Hampshire," she explained. "He's building a playhouse to auction as a project for his woodworking class, but he'll need more hours than that. He's very creative. I'm sure he'll work hard for you, although he might need a little refresher about some of the crafts."

I nodded and tried to mask my surprise. Woodworking was an eleventh-grade subject. I realized she must be considerably older than I had guessed. Yet here she was, about to have another baby. Better her than me, I thought. I was ready for a second shot at a lot of things in life, but mothering a newborn was not one of them.

"If you want to talk crafts, Judy's your woman," Dan told her, and patted me on the shoulder. I stiffened. "She can probably spin straw into gold."

Vivienne grinned. "Is that a course at the Steiner teachers' college?"

I twitched my shoulder out from his grasp. "If it was, he'd have me locked in the workshop right about now."

He laughed, and I watched Vivienne Heath's gaze shift from me to my boss and back again. Dan always upped his show of goodwill and camaraderie around me to compensate for the fact that we hated each other. Upon his arrival the previous year, it had quickly become clear that he thought I was a dinosaur excavated from Woodstock; I disdained him for being a bourgeois bohemian. The ideological tension ran deep even before I began having vivid dreams of coupling with him. Whatever uptight vibe Vivienne was observing could have come from either source.

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