Jane Eyre: A Modern Retelling
"I hate it here," I thought to myself, looking out the window into the downpour outside. We were supposed to have been going for our daily walk, but the prevented it. I didn't mind, really. I could never keep up with my cousins anyway, and then they would torment me mercilessly. Their mother couldn't care less either. Liz, John and Georgiana could do no wrong in her eyes. "Her precious angels" were just that. Perfect to her in every way, it didn't matter that they were the three most spoiled brats at school, were always in trouble, and had no true friends.
The said angels were currently in the drawing room crowded near their mother, who was praising their efforts at their homework. I had been told to go elsewhere by my esteemed aunt. "Jane, until you can act more like a happy child and do what you are told, there will be no room for you in here," she had said to me.
"Why do you think I am unhappy, Aunt? And when have I not done as I was told?" I replied.
"Jane, I do not like children who question everything. Children were meant to be seen and not heard, especially in your case. Now, go sit somewhere else and be quiet," she had commanded me in her imperious tone. So I had removed myself to the small breakfast room just off the room the others were in.
I would have gone up to my room, but I thought my cousin John might have come to look for me in order to torment me, which indeed he did.
"Jane! Yo! Where are you?!" he cried as he looked around the room. I was sitting in the window seat which some wonderful person had put curtains in front of. I had drawn those curtains and was hidden from the rest of the room.
"Liz! Tell Mom that Jane isn't here!"
"Of course she is, stupid. She's in the window seat," replied Liz.
I knew better than to stay in the window seat now, because if I had, John would have dragged me out, and probably hit me. As I slid out, I took my earphones off. I had found it was better to wear my Walkman when doing my homework, even if it was off, because I would have an excuse if I chose to ignore John and not reply. This usually stayed some of his anger, fortunately for me, since given the chance I think he would kill me. "What do you want, John?" I asked wearily.
"Say, 'What do you want, sir?'" John replied. "And I want you to come here."
I walked over to where he was sitting, very afraid of what would happen next. John was a boy of average height, slightly more than average weight, and only 14. Which meant that puberty hadn't truly set in yet and he would continue to grow and become more obnoxious. He wasn't at all easy to look at because he had sallow skin, flabby cheeks, and dull eyes. But since he was the most hurtful boy at school, he was the one that everyone kowtowed to-myself included. He truly hated me, and did everything he could to make my life miserable. As opposed to his mother and sisters, who he merely tormented. John was a disrespectful jerk who called his mother "old girl" and pinched his sisters. I had grown to recognize the look he got in his eye before he hit me, but sometimes he managed to catch me off guard.
SMACK!! I rocked back on my heels as his hand left my face, but managed to stay standing, which I imagine angered him. "That was for talking back to Mother, and for not addressing me properly. Now go stand in the corner by the door away from windows of the mirror." He had picked up a heavy dictionary and made the motions of looking up a word. I was unsure of what he was trying to do, and by the time I realized what it was, the book was careening toward my head. I ducked, but not soon enough and the dictionary hit the side of my head, knocking me down. When I got up I realized I was bleeding, but was so angry I didn't even stop to see how badly I was cut.
"Aaaahh!" I shouted. "You evil child! You pint-sized Nebucadnezzer! You are just like the slave-drivers, beating me!" I had done really well in history at school. "How could you? I can't believe that you did that! I'm going to kill you!" With that I launched myself at hit throat. I caught him off-guard and knocked him down, then proceeded to try and strangle him. Just then Aunt Reed and Bessie the nursemaid came rushing in.
"Oh, my poor boy! Get off him, Jane! He never hurt you! My poor child! Oh, how dare you strike him! Bessie, get her off!"
All this while Bessie had been trying to remove me, but I clung like a vicious cat to John's throat. I knew I wasn't actually going to kill him, I just wanted to teach him a lesson so he wouldn't hit me again. Bessie finally managed to remove me, though I struggled wildly.
"Take her to the red room and lock her in there!" commanded Mrs. Reed. I was then dragged up the stairs.
I kept struggling all the way up the stairs and when Bessie placed me on a footstool, I jumped up again.
"If you don't sit down, I'll tie you there," said Bessie. That did it. I had no wish to be tied up.
"Fine, I'll stay."
Bessie stood and contemplated me for a moment before her lecture began. "Now, Miss Jane, you know you are dependent in Gateshead. You are under certain obligations to Mrs. Reed. If she were to turn you out, you would be forced to live in a homeless shelter and beg for food and money."
"I should not! I would go to a foster home and perhaps be adopted by a family that is kinder than any here!"
"Not if she weren't to tell anyone. To prevent that from happening, you must be kinder, gentler. More like the little girl I know is in there somewhere." She knelt in front of me. "You must not fly at the young master. You must not think yourself above or equal to him or his sisters. I am telling you this for your own good, so Mrs. Reed doesn't get it in her head to throw you to the wolves, as it were. Now," she said, getting up, "I'll leave you in here with your thoughts. Pray to God that he might give you the ability to be kind and calm." She left the room, locking the door behind her.
The red room hadn't been used since my uncle's death. At the first sign of illness, he began to spend his nights in there, as he always did when he was sick. To prevent his wife from getting sick, too, he said. However, he began to worsen, and being a Scientologist would not allow us to call a doctor or take him to the hospital. He grew weaker and weaker, and finally spent all his time in the red room lying in bed coughing. And it was on that bed where he finally breathed his last. No one ever knew what he died of because my aunt would not allow an autopsy. It had been nine years since he had died, and still visions of him haunted me.
The rain turned from a drizzle to a downpour, wind whistled through the trees, branches thrashed against the windows, lightning flashed and thunder roared. Amidst nature's terrific display, I saw him. I saw my uncle, lying on that bed, tossing and turning as he tried to fight the fever that had seized him. All at once he sat up in bed and seemed to be reaching for me, as if to take me to the other side with him. I screamed. So loud and horrific was it (to match what I felt) Bessie soon came running into the room.
As soon as she entered the room, I rushed at her and threw my arms about her waist. I stood there sobbing into her apron while she tried to comfort me, but nothing helped. Every time I started to believe he wasn't truly there, I would remember how he looked, arms outstretched as if to receive me, hair plastered to his forehead with sweat and I started to shriek and sob again.
"There, there, child. It's just the wind and the storm. They can't hurt you, not while you're in here."
"No, Bessie," I said between sobs, "it isn't the storm that frightens me. It's my uncle. I saw him sitting in his bed, trying to take me with him."
"Nonsense, Jane." My Aunt Reed had come upon us without either of us noticing her. "Your uncle, God rest his soul, has been dead there nine years. And why would he want to take you with him, since he went to Heaven and you are obviously going to Hell. Now let go of Bessie. You haven't been punished enough, that is clear from your carrying on." With that, Aunt Reed shoved my shuddering, sobbing body back into the red room. I took one glance around my prison, and fainted.
I woke up with the doctor over me, checking my pulse. Since Mrs. Reed was very rich, the doctor was kind enough to make house calls. He told me that I shouldn't move around too much, because it was actually the next day, and he wanted to make sure I was okay. Eventually, I told him what had happened and he said he'd see if he could do anything about it. A few days after, I was walking around the house and overheard Bessie and another servant talking about changes to be made, then heard my name mentioned. This got me very excited and I hoped I'd soon be on my way to a happier place.
I returned to school with a happier attitude and dove into my studies. Liz, Georgie, and John couldn't do anything to keep me down. Since I was only in fourth grade there was nothing John could do to me during school, though he tried at home. Liz, Georgie and their friends tried very hard to get me to be upset, but I just reminded myself that I'd be leaving them soon and would never have to bother with them again.
However, weeks, then months began to roll by. I was starting to lose all hope. Now I'd didn't notice my cousins because I was depressed. My teachers were worried because I wasn't showing as much enthusiasm for school as I used to. My grades didn't drop, but I didn't smile. Christmas cams and passed, (I didn't receive many presents; Bessie gave me a journal, but there were no other presents under the tree with my name on it) and soon after came New Year's. Woohoo. The Reeds went off to a party, leaving me alone in that enormous house. Needless to say, I went to bed early and didn't see the ball drop.
Halfway through the month of January the change came. I was summoned downstairs by Mrs. Reed on a Saturday. I was told to put on a skirt and blouse and make myself presentable before I came down. I reached the drawing room, knocked, was bad to enter, and stopped just inside the threshold. On the other side of the Oriental rug was the ugliest, sternest man I had ever encountered in my short life.
"Jane, don't stand there gawking, come here," commanded Aunt Reed. Meekly, I obeyed. "This is the little girl I wrote you about."
The man turned to me, looked me up and down and said, "She is very small. How old is she?"
"Hmm. After pondering the statement he said to me, "Your name, little girl?"
"Jane Eyre, sir."
"Well, Jane Eyre, are you a good child?"
Mrs. Reed leaned towards him conspiratorially and said, "I think that subject shouldn't be broached, Mr. Brocklehurst."
"Oh? I'm very sorry to hear that, very sorry indeed. Com e here, child." I was soon placed in front of the terrible man. "There is nothing so pitiful to see as a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go when they die?"
"To hell, sir."
"And what is hell?"
"A pit full of fire, sir."
"And should you like to fall into a pit full of fire?"
"So what must you do to avoid that?"
"I must remain healthy and not die." There was a gasp from Mrs. Reed.
"Girl, children younger than you die every day. How is it possible for you to remain healthy?"
Not having an answer, I lowered my head and sighed.
"I hope that sigh is for repenting all the trouble you have caused your benefactress."
They still use that word? I thought it meant someone who was good and kind to those less fortunate. If Aunt is my benefactress, then it is a horrible word, I thought.
"Do you read your Bible?" Mr. Brocklehurst suddenly continued.
"Do you like Psalms?"
"What?! How shocking! I have a little boy who would rather learn a Psalm than have a cookie as a treat. Why do you not like them?"
"Psalms aren't interesting," I replied.
"That proves you have a wicked heart. Pray to God that he might change it."
At this point it was clear that Mrs. Reed was sick of hearing me speak, as she told me to sit and continued the conversation herself. "Mr. Brocklehurst, I believe in my letter to you I wrote that Jane does not have a disposition I like. My children tell me that she is very disruptful in school. She is also altogether too rude and deceitful. I hope that you can change her."
"Deceitful?!" I cried, I could bear it no longer. "I am not deceitful! If I were, I would say that I love you and you are the most wonderful woman in the whole world! But I don't love you, and I never will! I will never call you Aunt again! And if anyone ever asks me about my childhood here, I shall tell them how you shut me up in rooms when I defended myself from the abuse of your son! I shall tell them that the mere thought of you and your family makes me sick!"
"How dare you, Jane Eyre?"
"How dare I, Mrs. Reed? Because it's the truth. I shall never forget how you starved me emotionally, how you shoved me back into the red room when I was crying and begging, 'Please, Aunt, let me out!' People say that you are kind and beneficent, but they're wrong. You are heartless, cruel, and malevolent. It is not I who is deceitful, it is you."
When I finished I felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My heart swelled so much that I though it would burst. Mrs. Reed opened her mouth and closed it again several times, reminding me of a suffocating fish. Before either of them could actually say anything, I turned and left the room, my head held high. Take that, Mrs. Reed. I thought. I got to my room, shut the door and blasted I Will Survive from my stereo; it seemed the most appropriate to the situation. I sat in my room, enjoying my victory, until Bessie called me for lunch. When I didn't respond, she came up to my room looking for me.
"You naughty girl! Why didn't you come when I called you?"
I looked at her and laughed. Getting up and going to her, I threw my arms around her and said, "Oh, Bessie, don't scold!"
Bessie was taken aback at my show of affection and could do nothing more than hug me back. "So, you're leaving us, then? Will you be sorry to leave?"
"Will you be sorry to see me go?" I countered.
"What an odd question! Of course I'll be sorry to see you go. I rather think I like you more than the others."
"Then I shall be sorry to leave you, but not any of the others."
"Well, come now. Don't forget that you're eating with me today, because the Reeds are visiting some friends."
We walked downstairs to the kitchen and the rest of the afternoon passed quite peacefully.
I left for Lowood School on the 19th of January. Lowood is located in rural Virginia, which was very far from Gateshead. My flight to Dulles was at 7 a.m. (I think because Mrs. Reed still hadn't forgiven me for embarrassing her in front of Mr. Brocklehurst) which meant that I had to be at the airport at 6. Bessie came in to wake me at five and found me showered and dressed. She tried to get me to eat some breakfast before I went, but I was too excited to eat. As we walked out the door, Bessie asked if I wanted to say good bye to Mrs. Reed.
"No, she came to my room and told me not to bother waking her or my cousins when I left." With that, we took my backpack and trunk out to the car. We drove to the airport in silence. When we got to the airport, Bessie helped me check in but did not wait to see me board.
I seated myself on the plane when my row was called and took out a book. The stewardesses were very kind to me and made sure that I had everything I needed. When the plane landed, I walked out the gate and was surprised to see someone standing there holding a sign with my name on it.
"I am Jane Eyre," I said, approaching the person.
"Well, Miss, it's nice to meet you. My name is Miss Miller, I'm one of the teachers at Lowood. If you'll come with me, we'll get your bags and then be on our way. Do you have a bag?"
"Yes, ma'am, I have a trunk."
Miss Miller took my hand and led me to the baggage claim, where we collected my trunk and then went to the car. Two hours later we arrived at Lowood, where I was escorted in. My trunk was taken from me, and Miss Miller continued to lead me through a long web of passageways I was come to know by heart. She showed me various rooms and doors that I would need to know, such as the doors to the school, on our way to my room. We reached the third floor, where I was to spend the majority of my time.
"Jane, here is your room," Miss Miller said, opening the door. There were two beds, two desks and two closets. It reminded me very much what I'd heard college dorms looked like. Both beds were made, since bedclothes, etc. were furnished by the school. My trunk was standing next to one of the closets and I assumed my roommate had her stuff in the other. "There are several uniforms in your closet, which you will wear to classes and meals. You are permitted to wear street clothes after dinner and on weekends. Sometimes, on Fridays, Mr. Brocklehurst will let you wear street clothes to class but that is very rare. I'll let our cook know you are here so she can bring you some lunch. The other girls have already eaten. Dinner will be promptly at 6. You won't have to go to classes today so you have a chance to get used to the school, but tomorrow you will be expected to go. I will take you to your first class tomorrow, and then your other teachers and classmates will show you where to go next. All the girls in this hall are the same age as you, and I hope you will make friends readily. I am the matron in charge of this floor and my room is right at the end of the hall. Don't be afraid to come to me for any reason at all." Finishing her long speech, Miss Mill smiled kindly and left.
I stood in the middle of my room uncertain to anything. I looked in the closet my trunk was in front of and sure enough, there were three skirts and five shirts hanging up. I decided that I should unpack while I waited for my lunch, and I was almost done by the time it got there. I thanked the woman I assumed to be the cook and sat at my desk to eat. It was a very meager lunch and I hoped dinner would be more plentiful. Even though I was mistreated at Gateshead I was never starved, something to which I had grown accustomed. After eating I took my tray and went in search of the kitchen, where I supposed I was to return my dishes. I found it at the end of the hall next to Miss Miller's room, returned the dishes, and went back to my room where I finished unpacking.
A few hours after I arrived my roommate appeared, books in hand. With the amount of movement in the hall, I assumed classes were out for the day. My roommate looked me up and down shyly, then sat down at her desk and started her homework. We sat next to each other at dinner, but she still didn't say a word.
The evening passed quickly and soon we were in bed. Lights out was at ten, and I was fast asleep soon after. My roommate woke me the next morning and soon I was entered into the routine that would last me until I was 18. First we went to breakfast where a prayer of thanks was said before and after the meal. Then we went to class, where I was surprised to find boys as well. (I had thought it was a single-sex school, but I had no problem with finding the opposite to be true.) As Miss Miller had told me the night before, she showed me to my first class and my other teachers told me where to go next. Halfway through morning classes we had bread and cheese, which was recompense for the burnt grits we had that morning. We ate in the garden, but I sat on the verandah with a few other girls. My roommate was there reading a book I had never heard of, and I determined to ask her about it.
"Is your book interesting?"
"To me it is," she replied, looking over again as she had the night before.
"What is it about?" I could hardly believe I was talking to this girl, a complete stranger to me, even though she was my roommate.
"Here, look at it yourself," she said, handing it to me.
I did, it looked rather boring to me. It seemed to be some sort of biography, which I have never cared for, about a rather dull person. (If it had been about Ernest Shackleton, Sir Edmund Hilary, Bernt Balchen, or Rosa Parks, I might have need intrigued, as they are personal heroes of mine.) I handed the book back to her and thanked her.
"Since it appears we are to be roommates, might I know your name?" I asked hesitantly.
"Helen Burns," was the response. "And yours?"
"Well, it is nice to meet you. If you don't mind, though, I would like to continue to read."
Just as she returned to her book, the bell rang to announce lunch. After lunch we went back to our classes which lasted until 5:00. Shortly after we had our meager dinner, followed by a brief time to relax before the time to do our homework. After that we had another small snack, prayer and bed.
Helen and I soon became the best of friends. She told me all about the school, who had founded it, who funded it, etc. I discovered that everyone at the school had lost one or both of their parents and had no one to support them fully. Our friends or relatives paid a trifling sum for us to attend, while the rest of the tuition, room, and board was paid by benevolent rich people in the area. I discovered that Mr. Brocklehurst was the owner and manager of the school, but he didn't actually live on school grounds. She told me that he was a clergyman, which explained the amount of praying we did.
We had long discussions of wrongs that were done us, and how we felt and reacted to them. Helen was very singular in that she was very passive. She did not believe we should remember the bad, but should only remember the good. She was a firm believer in "forgive and forget," which I found very hard to do. She told me I should read the New Testament, and follow the examples set in there. Helen didn't think that we should pay too much attention to Mr. Brocklehurst's sermons because they were all about fire and brimstone, about the vengeful Old Testament God, rather than the forgiving New Testament God. (I found this strange, because Mr. Brocklehurst was a Christian, and was therefore supposed to forgive not seek revenge. At least that's what I had been taught at my former church.) Under her guidance, I eventually forgave my cousins and aunt, but I still found it difficult to speak of them without remembering the pain they had inflicted.
January through March seemed to be years, not months. There was an unexpected series of blizzards which I was told was very odd for Virginia. (It apparently gets very little snow, and even then only in March.) Our uniforms were not made for such cold weather; there were not enough hats and mittens for the entire school; our coats were not thick enough to ward off the harsh winds and snowdrifts; and our shoes were hardly thick enough to withstand rain, much less ice and snow. Lowood School had only very rudimentary heat in the rooms, and this at the highest level was no where near enough to warm the occupants. At nights we had taken to wearing as many layers as possible, and that seemed to ward off the worst of the weather.
Since Lowood School was so far out in the boonies, the roads many times were impassible and food delivery trucks could not get to us. The cooks were that in name only, and their attempts at making bread and whatever they could using the ingredients that were found in the kitchen often proved disastrous. Each portion got smaller and smaller, until we were given one slice of bread to share between two people, then three. The tea that we got was thinned as much as possible to make it last as long as possible. Most times I only kept crumbs for myself and gave the rest to the smaller children, who got even less to eat than the rest of us. When the food trucks did get through, the cooks didn't want to spoil us by giving us too much food, and they tried to wean us back to "normal" portions.
The only time we were required to leave school grounds was Sunday when we went to the church where our patron presided. This was the hardest thing to do, especially when the winds were fierce. Many students came dangerously close to hypothermia and still more others had frostbitten toes and fingers. Fortunately it was caught in time, and no one lost any appendages. Some of the Sundays the older boys would lend the older girls their coats to keep warm, but only those with an ailment accepted.
As of yet I haven't mentioned Mr. Brocklehurst's visits, because they were both infrequent and terrifying. The first visit of his during my stay at Lowood occurred several weeks after I first arrived. All the girls were assembled in the gym, which was the largest room in the school building. When he walked in the entire student body arose, as did the matrons. He walked up to the Dean of Girls and started talking with her. I was close enough to them to hear most of what was said.
He gave her instructions as to the sewing classes we all took, as well as the mending of our clothes. He confronted her about some girls using more shirts than rationed, and she explained that a few of the girls had been invited to visit some friends and were given leave to wear clean clothes. After accepting the answer, he moved on to the subject of the bread and cheese meals that we had received on occasion. The dean responded that the breakfast those days had been inedible, and she did not wish us to not eat until lunch.
"Madam, allow me a moment. You must acknowledge that my plan in raising these girls is not to accustom them to luxury and indulgence. It is to make them hardy and self-denying. They will not get much out of life, and I am trying to make them aware of that fact. If a meal should be ruined for some reason, the incident should not be counteracted by replacing what is lost; it should be recognized and thought of as spiritual instruction for the students, by encouraging fortitude in temporary deprivations. A judicious teacher should then bring up the sufferings of the primitive Christians; the torments of the martyrs; the exhortations of Our Blessed Lord Himself, calling upon His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; to His divine consolations, 'If ye suffer hunger or thirst for My sake, happy are ye.' Oh, madam, by feeding their vile bodies, you starve their souls!"
At this he paused and surveyed the room. At one point, he stopped and blinked rapidly, asking the dean about a girl with curly red hair. She responded that it curled naturally, it was not some form of vanity.
"We are not to conform to nature! Every girl is supposed to have their hair in plain, modest styles. All of that girl's hair must be cut off, I shall send for the barber tomorrow." He then commanded all the older girls to stand up and face the wall. Upon examining the back of their heads he determined they had entirely too much hair and their topknots must be cut off. When the dean attempted to protest, Mr. Brocklehurst said, "Madam, my mission is to instill in these girls a mortification of the lusts of the flesh, to teach them to clothe themselves with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel." His diatribe on the sins of hair and clothing was interrupted by the entrance of three ladies who had obviously never heard this sermon. The money spent on the velvets, silks, pearls, and furs of these women must have equaled the cost of putting all of us through school for an entire year. They were Mrs. and the Misses Brocklehursts. They discussed something with the dean, but my attention was called elsewhere and I did not hear them.
Since we came directly from class to this assembly, everyone had their notebooks with them. I had been using mine to shield my face so Mr. Brocklehurst would not mention to the matrons how horrible he thought I was. My fingers had started to slip, and at a crucial pause in the discussion, my notebook fell from my fingers and crashed to the floor, sending all my papers flying. The entire school seemed to look at me disapprovingly.
"Have the girl who dropped her notebook come forward." As I slowly walked to Mr. Brocklehurst, he had a tall stool brought forth as well, and when I had reached him I was placed upon it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw flashes of orange and vowed to hate that color for the rest of my life, and anything else that might remind me of Mr. Brocklehurst. Despite all my attempts, I was no Helen Burns.
"Everyone here sees this girl?" Dumb rhetorical question. "She is so young; she has the form God graciously gave to all of us; she has no marked deformity. Who would think that the Evil One has already found a servant and agent in her? Yet I am sorry to say that is the case." He paused to let the impact of his words take their full effect. "Students, memorize every facet of her face, any time she comes near you, shun her. Exclude her from your games and walks. She is not one of the true flock, she is alien. Teachers, watch her, do not give her an inch, punish her body to save her soul. This little girl is worse than any heathen. She is...a liar!" He paused again, expecting a collective gasp, I don't doubt. Not receiving one, he continued. "I learned this from her benefactress who tried her best to give this girl a worthwhile and loving home but was given only ingratitude in return. She has been sent here to be healed, let us help her." With that, he adjusted his collar and walked to the door. "Let her stand on the stool for half an hour and let no one speak to her for the rest of the day." He and his colorful ladies left the room in silence.
I stood there in infamy, panic rising in my throat. The girls were eventually dismissed and they filed out, no one daring to look at me. Then a miracle! Someone caught my eye, and Helen smiled at me a smile that was sympathetic and reassuring at the same time. I shall remember that smile until the day I die.
The half-hour passed and I sat down on the stool and cried. My humiliation overwhelmed me and all the feelings I had of martyrdom. I wanted to die and felt I would if anyone ever looked at me again. I was sure that all the accomplishments I had made would surely be taken from me, I would no longer have any friends. Suddenly a hand touched my shoulder and when I looked up, Helen was smiling at me.
"Why are you crying? I know how embarrassed you must be, but that in nothing to cry about."
"But Helen, everyone hates me, I am sure of it! And no one will ever respect me again."
"Nonsense! Mr. Brocklehurst is almost hated here, and I'm sure he lies himself sometimes. He is very hypocritical, and doesn't seem to believe that anything he preaches applies to him. Most of the girls probably pity you, but no one hates you. Nothing will change in your grades or anything like that. Truly Jane, there is nothing to worry about."
I sniffled and looked at her. I knew by looking in her eyes that she was right. She then took my hand and we went to dinner together.
Thus spring came, a usually joyful time of year for me, when all the flowers begin to bloom, and the world seems to have hope again. This year however, the season was not to be happy. The starvation and neglect we students had suffered during the winter wreaked havoc on our bodies and left everyone weak. This is never good, because infection and disease thrive on weakened constitutions. This time was no different.
Lowood School was transformed from a school to a hospital. There were too many of us to be taken to the hospital, so the doctors came to see us. The poor cooking and refrigeration of all dormitory food led to an E. Coli outbreak, and the cold had led to many cases of pneumonia, some of which lingered. With the outbreak of this disease, our numbers shrank. Most of the sick people had been taken to another part of the school, because at that time no one was quite sure what was causing the sickness. We found out later what caused the deaths only because a study was done. The Brocklehursts never came to visit us now, everyone rejoiced in that. Our meals were increased; sick people eat very little and dead people even less, so there was more for us healthy people. However, the food was barely cooked, so more students kept getting sick. The cook had not been told that it was the food and no orders to change her methods of cooking had come, so all meat was still very rare. She eventually became so scared of the scent of death that she left, and the woman who succeeded her had no clue how to cook meat. So we got more bread, cheese, and vegetables. Gradually, the death toll decreased.
This epidemic had a tremendous effect on me. Many of the friends I had made since January had since met their Maker. One morning I woke up and saw Helen lying in bed looking very ill. I ran for Miss Miller and Helen was soon taken to the "sick ward." I neither heard nor saw anything of her for several days.
Almost a week later I was walking past the door to the ward when Dr. Bates walked out with Miss Miller. "She needs rest, just like the rest of them. She'll not be with us long, though we'll try everything," Dr. Bates told her. Miss Miller nodded her head gravely, and Dr. Bates left. I had stopped just to the side of the door, listening and hoping they didn't see me. Just after Dr. Bates left Miss Miller turned and saw me.
"Why, Jane, how long have you been standing there? Can I help you with something?"
"Was Dr. Bates talking about Helen?" was all I could say.
"I'm afraid so, Jane. As I'm sure you heard, she is very sick. He doesn't think she'll be here very long."
"Does she have what the other children have?"
"Yes, whatever it may be. And Dr. Bates says she also has a lingering touch of pneumonia."
"May I go see her?" I asked. I had to see Helen again, give her one more hug, talk with her once again.
"Oh no, Jane. I'm afraid you can't do that. Helen is much too sick to see anyone. I think you could pray for her, though. Pray for her to get better, her and all the other sick children. Go to your room now, you don't want to be hanging around here," Miss Miller said gently.
"Yes, Miss Miller," I said. I walked to the end of the corridor, turned the corner and turned around again. Peeking around the corner I watched as Miss Miller walked away in the opposite direction, then tiptoed back to the sick ward. I was determined to see Helen.
I cautiously opened the door and peeked in. There were rows and rows of beds, each one separated by a sheet strung across a rope between the beds. I realized there weren't any adults about at the moment, so I started walking around peering into each "room." I saw many of my classmates, and many children whom I didn't know. Finally I saw Helen and walked up to the head of her bed.
"Helen," I whispered, "are you awake?"
She stirred and rolled over. I saw for the first time how gaunt she had become, but the same calm look was in her eyes.
"Is that you, Jane?"
Oh! She's not going to die. I thought. She is so calm and peaceful, they must be mistaken. I leaned over and kissed her cheek, it was very cold. I took her hand, which was also cold, and she smiled.
"Why did you come here, Jane? It's after ten o'clock!"
"I had to see you, Helen. I heard you were sick and panicked. I could not go to bed until I had spoken to you."
"You panicking, Jane?" she laughed softly. "But you must have come to say good bye. You are just in time, I think."
"Are you going somewhere, Helen? Are you going home?"
"Yes, I'm going to my home in heaven."
"No, Helen!" I said. I tried to swallow my tears and Helen was seized with a coughing fit. It seemed very loud to me, but fortunately for me no one came running.
As soon as her coughing passed, Helen lay still for a while, then whispered, "Jane, you are shivering, you must be quite cold. Come lie down and cover yourself with my blanket."
I did so, she put her arm around me, and we lay there silent for a little while.
"I am very happy, Jane. When you hear that I have died, be sure not to grieve, for there is nothing to grieve for. We all must die, and now is my time; my mind is at rest. No one is going to miss me much: I have only a father and he got married recently so he will not miss me much. By dying young I'm missing a lot of pain. I have no talents, no special abilities, nothing much to give to the world, it will not be lacking anything."
"But where are you going, Helen? Can you see it? Do you really know?"
"My mother told me that heaven is where we all go when we die. She also said she would be in heaven looking out for me. I'm sure that she has a place for me up there and is waiting for me."
"Will I see you again, Helen, when I die?"
"I am sure of it, Jane. I love you so much, so you must come. I shall be waiting for you. When you get there we will play all sorts of games, and talk all the time, and read all sorts of books, and eat everything we could possibly want. Just think of all the fun we will have in heaven that we didn't have time for here. But you are sure to be very old. Will you still want to play with me in heaven?"
"I will always want to play with you, Helen. I love you, too, and I can't wait until I get to heaven."
I had a dozen more questions, but no desire to voice them. I only snuggled closer to this girl who had become more dear to me than family, and seemed even dearer now that I was to lose her.
Presently she said, "I feel so relaxed. I'm afraid I'm tired after all that coughing, and I think I shall try and sleep a little. But please don't leave me, Jane. I'll feel more comfortable with you near."
"I won't leave you, dear Helen. No one shall take me away."
"Are you warm enough, sweetheart?"
"Good night, Jane."
"Good night, Helen."
She kissed me, and I her and soon we were both asleep.
I awoke in the morning, an unusual movement had woken me. I looked up and saw that I was being carried somewhere by the nurse. I was not reprimanded for leaving my bed and visiting Helen, she had more important things to do. I learned when we had reached my room that Miss Miller had gone about her rounds in the sick ward that morning she had found me lying in Helen's bed, my head buried against her shoulder. I was asleep and Helen was - dead.
Her grave is amongst all the others who died that year in Brocklebridge Churchyard. For fifteen years it was only covered by a grassy mound, but now a stone tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name and the words,
Sleep now, and take your rest.
Gradually the disease left the school, but not before drawing the attention of the surrounding communities. It also made the local papers; there were interviews and inquiries done by reporters for the Washington Post and the local television news teams. Lowood almost got onto 60 Minutes, but some other emergency came up and we were bumped off. All of these journalists found the terrible conditions we lived in. The quality and quantity of food, our lack of proper clothing in the winter, the lack of heat and poor ventilation, everything that Mr. Brocklehurst intended to make us stronger and more self-sacrificing was drudged up and created a public outrage. Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times had editorials written about us, and for several weeks there was a new one every day. All of this was mortifying to Mr. Brocklehurst, but quite beneficial to the school and its pupils.
Several wealthy people had decided to give some of their money back to the community, and chose Lowood as the recipient. New rules were made, massive renovations and expansions to the original buildings were made, new menus and new uniforms were introduced, and the funds of the school were entrusted to a committee. Mr. Brocklehurst, because he was the grandson of the founder, could not be overlooked, but in all of his offices someone of a more benevolent mind joined him. Gradually he was weaned from the utter control he had over the school, and soon everyone could breathe again. Lowood School, thus improved, became a very enriching place for orphans and became the model for similar schools around the nation. I remained at Lowood for eight years, when I graduated at the top of my class.
I was not unhappy there, though my life was uniform, because I was involved in the school. I had an excellent education, because the teachers were very good despite the school. I made new friends, went to some school danced, and passed through my teenage years rather peacefully. None of my friends came close to comparing with Helen, but that was all right, two friends who were exactly the same would have been boring. I continued to miss her, but as the years went on the loss of her became less painful.
At eighteen I graduated from Lowood School, with 99 of my peers amid great pomp and circumstance. Mrs. Reed and her children didn't come, but I never thought or wanted them to. All of my vacations had been spent at Lowood at the request of Mrs. Reed so I hadn't seen of heard from them in eight years. On my 18th birthday, a few months before graduation, I received a letter from their attorney.
Dear Miss Eyre,
My name is James McKenna, and I am your guardian's family's lawyer. Mr. Reed, your uncle, was always determined you should start life as an adult with enough money to keep you on your feet until you could find a job. He did not believe that his wife would give you any money if he should die, so he stipulated in his will that you are to receive the amount of $50,000 upon your 18th birthday. Mr. Reed said that he would have liked you to go to college, but as nothing was written in his will about that I cannot force you to continue your education. If you could please come to our branch office in Washington, D.C. at 10:00 the morning of March 20, I will be happy to sign over a cashier's check in the said amount. Please bring with you two forms of identification, at least one having your picture on it, since I have never met you.
As soon as I had finished the letter it dropped to the floor as I sat, open mouthed, in shock. My roommate looked up at me and became very worried.
"Jane, Jane dear, is everything okay?"
"Oh, Ida," I said rapturously, "everything is wonderful!" I handed her the letter. "This means," I continued when she had finished perusing the letter, "that I don't have to worry about financial aid for college. Any loans I get I can turn down!" I jumped up and started dancing around the room excitedly.
Ida smiled at me happily, "Oh, I am so happy for you! The only thing is that you won't be able to go to any school over $12,000 a year."
"Oh, that's okay, only my reach schools are over that, and I don't particularly want to go to those." Nothing could get me down. "Now I just have to figure out how I'm going to get there." I ran off to find Miss Miller, since she had access tot the school cars.
I found her and explained the whole situation and she said she would be happy to take me to D.C. I then returned to my room and started looking through my closet for something to wear. Ida had turned on celebratory music (Queen's "We Will Rock You" followed by "We Are the Champions") and helped me look. (She was lucky enough to have been able to bring her Discman, and had bought speakers without anyone in charge finding out. It wasn't allowed to have a stereo.) March 20th was only two days away and I didn't want to have to wear my school uniform. The white blouse wasn't a problem, but the Scotch plaid skirt reminded me too much of that Britney Spears music video I had been forced to watch, and I wanted to be taken seriously. I ended up borrowing Ida's green suit, because both she and I thought it would look best in a lawyer's office. For ID I found my Social Security card and my driver's license. (Thank heaven the school mandated driver's ed, so people could have a job driving if they couldn't get anything else.)
And so, at 10:00 in the morning of March 20th, I stepped into Mr. James McKenna's office, looking very professional. His secretary let me in, and a friendly gray-haired man greeted me as he walked around his desk to shake my hand.
"Well, Miss Eyre, it is very nice to finally meet you. I've been holding this money since your uncle died, and your aunt was starting to bug me about it. I'm very glad you didn't die in that epidemic at Lowood I read about some years back."
"Thank you, sir, I'm glad too. It's also very nice to meet you."
"Since you've come so far there's no point in idle chitchat, so let's get down to brass tacks. Your uncle, Jeremiah Reed, left you a considerable sum in his will to be given to you when you reached your 18th year. Now, I asked you to bring some form of identification, do you have it with you?" I slid my license and Social Security card across to him. "Very good," he remarked, picking them up. He glanced at me and then my license, and then at the card. "Everything seems to be in order, let's proceed. Ms. Ray," he said into the intercom, "could you ring in that check please?" An affirmative reply was given and Mr. McKenna sat back contentedly.
Ms. Ray walked in, very prim and proper, handed Mr. McKenna the check, waited for Mr. McKenna to dismiss her, turned on her well tailored pump heel and left. As the door clicked shut Mr. McKenna signed the check and handed it to me.
"Now, your uncle wanted you to go to college with this money, but I suppose it's too late for you to apply for the fall semester?"
"It is, sir, but I have already applied to schools. One of my teachers doesn't believe in giving up because of lack of money. As everyone says, there's money out there, you just have to find it. So I've been looking, and the federal government is willing to give me a lot in loans. Now it looks like I won't have to accept them," I said happily.
"That's wonderful, Miss Eyre. Good luck at getting into colleges,
though I'm sure you won't have a problem."
I smiled back at him and shortly after I took my leave. I met Miss Miller in the lobby downstairs and we returned to Lowood.
A few weeks later, replies to my applications started coming in. I was accepted at Johns Hopkins, one of my reach schools, but couldn't attend because it cost $34,000 a year. I was waitlisted at William and Mary (the reason being, I decided, I hadn't applied early decision and 34% of entering freshman are from out-of-state). I was accepted at UVA and Mary Washington College and decided to go to MWC because they had a better teaching program. I got in contact with the college about paying for all found years up front, and they said that wouldn't be a problem. If I received any scholarships I would be refunded. So that left me with $10,000 in my bank account. I invested half of it and moved several hundred to an account that I could access from school.
Then, in mid-June, I graduated. Like all the other graduations, the entire school showed up, but few parents. It was a lot of fun; everyone was elated that high school was finally over. A few of my friends were also going to MWC, but we had decided not to room together. The committee said that we (the graduating class) could come back for all the vacations, if we didn't have a home to go to. So those of us returning during the vacations had to let the school know our vacation schedule, so they would know when to pick us up.
I packed up all my belongings from Lowood, sold my uniforms back to the school, and bought some new clothes with the money. My friends (who had lived at the school during vacations like myself) and I talked a lot that summer. We discussed hopes, dreams, fears, the usual stuff you talk about when you don't know when you're going to see some people again. I talked to my roommate, and fortunately she had a stereo, TV, and VCR. The week before school started I bought a computer and arranged to have it shipped to Mary Washington.
Move in day came and Miss Miller drove the three of us in the van to Fredericksburg. Luckily, we all lived in the same hall, so we didn't have to drop off each person someplace different. We got all of Lisa's bags into her room, then all of Sarah's stuff, and finally all of my stuff. Lisa and Sarah returned to their rooms and Miss Miller left after a tearful good bye. I started to unpack when my suitemate came through the bathroom.
"Hi, my name is Jenny. I live next door," she said smiling at me.
"My name is Jane," I replied, walking over to shake her hand. She stepped into the room and started looking around. "Here we go again," I thought.
Jenny had just finished looking around and talking to me when my roommate came in.
"You must be Susan," I said. "I'm Jane."
"It's nice to meet you," she replied.
I shook hands with her and her family and started helping them set up the room. Jenny introduced herself and left to see if her parents needed any help. Susan's family continued to bustle about, doing this, that, and the other thing, while I just sat on my bed and watched. 'It must be nice to have parents and a family that loves you,' I thought, wistfully.
The day passed, Susan's family left and soon Orientation Week was over. Classes started, the Drop/Add week came and passed. I had discovered my advisor wasn't going to be much help, so it was pretty much up to me. The education program was five years, but that didn't faze me.
I quickly made friends with more of the girls who lived around me, and I made some other friends in my education classes.
One Saturday in September, I got a call from the front desk saying I had a visitor. Confused, I walked down the stairs.
"There she is!" the woman at the foot of the stairs exclaimed. "Oh, I would recognize her anywhere!"
I looked at the woman as I came down the last flight of stairs. She was neatly dressed and, though holding the hand of a small child, still young and good-looking. She smiled a half-smile that I almost recognized and said in a familiar voice, "You haven't forgotten me yet, have you Miss Jane?"
I flew down the stairs saying, "Bessie! Bessie!" The next second I was hugging her tightly and half laughing half crying. "Is this your little boy, Bessie?" I asked, pulling away slightly. She nodded and I said, "Then you're married?"
"Yes, nearly five years now, to Robert Leaven the chauffer. I have a little girl at home besides Bobby here, who I've christened Jane."
I blushed at the compliment and continued, "Do you still live at Gateshead?"
"No, we live in the apartment above the garage. It easily fits the four of us."
Virginia Hall was lucky enough to have an enclosed parlor that people were rarely in during the day. I led Bessie and Bobby into it and we sat down on one of the couches. "Tell me everything about them, Bessie. I'm very curious to know."
"You haven't grown very tall, Miss Jane, nor so stout. I dare say you have been underfed at school. Miss Reed is head and shoulders taller than you, and Miss Georgiana is twice as wide. Girls your age seem to want to look anorexic, which you certainly do. Are you anorexic? If you are you should see a doctor about that."
"Is Georgiana beautiful, Bessie?"
"Oh, yes. She had her coming out party last year and when making the tour of all the annual balls met the very handsome heir to something or other. They fell in love and had made plans to elope in Las Vegas, because his relatives didn't approve, but their plans were revealed and they were stopped. Miss Reed was the one who discovered them and told her mamma, she was probably jealous. She didn't have any suitors who wanted to run away with her when she came out. She and her sister are always fighting, too."
"And what of John Reed?"
"He's not doing as well as his mother wants. He went to Harvard Law School because strings were pulled and his uncles want him to be a lawyer. But he is so lazy that they won't make much of him, I think."
"What does he look like?"
"He is very tall, and most think him very handsome, but he has such thick lips."
"And Mrs. Reed?"
"She has gained quite a lot of weight, but is still very pretty and calm in her countenance. I don't think her mind is as calm as her face; she is so very worried about John. He does everything possible to annoy her and spends entirely too much money."
"Did she send you here?"
"No, indeed, but I have wanted to come visit you for a while. I heard that a letter had come saying that you were going to college, and I figured I should come soon. By the time I had enough for two plane tickets, you had already moved in and I had to visit here."
"I'm very glad that you did come, Bessie. Thank you. Are you disappointed in me, Bessie?" I had seen her look at me, and while it expressed regard, there was no admiration.
"No, Miss Jane. You are certainly grown up, you look quite the lady, and that is as much as I expected. You were never a beauty when you were younger."
I smiled at her frank answer. It was very like Bessie to be honest, and I appreciated it. I also believed her answer to be the truth, and I was indifferent. At eighteen, most people try to please others, but I had no desire to. I was comfortable with myself, I was the only one I wanted to please. I had long come to realize that I would never be a great beauty, and relied on my other talents to make friends.
"I'm sure you are clever enough, though," continued Bessie, as if to soothe my feelings. "What can you do? Can you play the piano?"
"Yes, I can." Luckily for me the piano in the parlor was being used by a music major so I didn't have to play for her.
"Can you draw?"
"Yes, I'm actually considering double majoring in art and education. I shall send you one of my paintings if you like."
"Oh, I should indeed! Thank you very much. Neither of the Misses Reeds, though they both learned to draw, ever considered giving me a gift. Have you learned a foreign language?"
Bessie's ideas of what made a lady accomplished were positively antediluvian, and I had to work hard not to laugh. "Yes, Bessie, I speak and write French fluently."
"Can you sew and embroider?"
"Oh, you are quite the lady, Miss Jane! I knew you would be, you will get on well whether on not your relations notice you." After a slight pause she said, "I've been meaning to ask you, have you heard from your paternal relations, the Eyres?"
"Well, your aunt always said they were poor and despicable, but I believe that they belong to the upper classes as much as if not more than she does. I think this because one day, about seven years ago, a Mr. Eyre came to Gateshead looking for you. Missis said that you were at school in Virginia and he seemed very disappointed, because he couldn't go to see you. He was flying to a foreign country the next day (it was a nonstop flight) and wouldn't be back for quite a while. He looked quite the gentleman, and I believe he was your father's brother."
"What country was he going to, Bessie?"
"An island thousands of miles off, where they make wine. Oh, the butler did tell me..."
"Madeira?" I suggested.
"Yes, that's it!"
"And so he left, then?"
"Yes, he didn't stay very long. Mrs. Reed was very high with him; after he left she called him a 'sneaking tradesman.' My Robert believes he was a wine merchant."
"Very likely," I agreed. "Or perhaps he worked for a merchant."
Bessie and I talked about old times for another hour and then she had to leave. They were staying with some of Bessie's relatives in northern Virginia, and had to get back before it got too dark. I said good-bye to her at the door, gave her a hug, wished her a safe journey, and returned to my room.
'My uncle Eyre came to visit me? And Mrs. Reed didn't tell him to visit me at school? She treated him like dirt, no doubt! Oh, that insufferable woman! I could tear her limb from limb! Although I guess that would be overdoing it a little. I wonder that he never got a hold of me. I wonder what he wanted?'
That question was soon forgotten as the semester got into full swing. My education class didn't start out as being too terrible, but my art teacher assigned some of the stupidest projects. I did them all, and rather well, so I aced the class. I also took some general education courses so I wouldn't have them waiting for me my senior year. Some of them really aggravated me, and I talked about them with just about everyone.
"Jane, don't you have a Western Civ. test tomorrow?"
"Yeah, Susan, I do, but I'm not too worried about it. My professor reads straight from the book, so I've just gone over my notes with Kristin. There isn't a reason to read the book, so that saves me a lot of time."
"Oh, so he's who you two were talking about! The guy with a very heavy accent that was hard to understand!"
I laughed. "Yeah, since we have him at different times we had to compare spellings."
Another day I was talking to a girl in my music theory class about what we had to do. "I'm so glad I play the piano. At least I have a basic understanding of what Doc Long's talking about."
"Yeah," she replied. "But I don't understand why he teaches it the was he does. I get why it counts as a math course, but I don't get why we need to know about the frequency of pitches and the ratio between them!"
"Yeah!" I agreed. "Especially since you're a music major. It's not like the physics part of it is going to help you get a job, or you'll need to know it once you get a job."
"If I get a job. Who knows, the music industry is so tough to get into."
She continued to gripe about the music profession and yet again I thanked my lucky stars that there was a continual need for teachers.
My freshman year was a blast. My RA Wendy had all these really neat ideas of things to do. She was a very perky girl, but not ditzy. She always had a kind word of encouragement and something interesting to say. She had really nifty hall bonding activities planned. Once we went to the movie theaters for free. (One of the girls at the end of the hall dated a manager at the theater and he gave us all free movie passes.) We went to a pumpkin patch and brought back pumpkins to carve for Halloween. We made bags for Valentines Day, and everyone passed out Valentines (like elementary school, but this time you got one from everyone because they wanted to give you one, not because your mother made you.). We all got framed and decorated copies of a hall picture that had been taken of us before New Student Invocation. Wendy really cared about all of us, and would always listen, provided she wasn't working on a paper.
I also started to date in college. I should mention the ratio of guys to
girls at MWC was 30-70. So most of the guys at MWC had incredible egos. You
know, "There are less of us so all the girls have to date us. I can get
any girl on campus." But of course, along with that came the mentality
that us girls were wolves. One of the guys in my friend's English class said
that. Apparently we all wait around to attack or something. Fortunately, some
of the guys weren't like that. At least Freddie and Will weren't.
I started dating Freddie 2nd semester, and he was a really sweet guy. We met in our Western Civilizations II class. We sat next to each other in class, and every time the teacher said something wrong, we rolled our eyes at each other. The first day I rolled my eyes, and slunk lower in my chair, not realizing anyone was watching me. He came up to me after class and introduced himself.
"Hi. My name is Freddie."
"Hi," I replied back, not sure what to say.
"I'm in your Western Civ. class."
Duh! How could I not miss a cute guy like you sitting next to me? Aloud I smiled and said, "Yeah, I saw you."
"I was wondering if you happened to catch exactly what the professor said. I didn't, but I saw you roll your eyes and I thought maybe you had, and realized that he was saying it wrong."
And so started our relationship. Neither of us had class right after, so we went to lunch after class. It started as studying at lunch, but it then progressed to dinner without any books. He was really intelligent and liked ships and sailing. We went to D.C. just to ride around on the Potomac on the Spirit of Washington (that got rather expensive). Our relationship wasn't anything serious, which was good because at the end of freshman year he transferred to Annapolis and joined the Navy. I think he'll be a captain some day. When Freddie and I broke up I was very depressed for a while. Wendy would come to my room a lot to make sure I was okay, would give me candy (she always had quite a collection), and would include me in everything she could to distract me.
Susan and I got real close during this time, because not only did she feel terrible for me, she was also going through a rather hard part of her life at that point. During one of our first conversations, she had told me about this guy, Chad, whom she had been dating for the last two years of high school. They apparently were really serious and they had talked about getting married after college. The day after I broke up with Freddie Susan had a long discussion with Chad. It seemed he was no longer as much in love as he had been, and thought it might be better to see other people for a little while. This was hard enough on Susan, but the next day, he told her that he didn't want to date her ever again, because he met someone who he thought was better than she, and realized that he could do better. Susan hung up the phone and sobbed. I had left the room to give her a little privacy, but came back in to get some work to do. I saw Susan sitting on her bed tears slowly rolling down her cheeks and sat down next to her. She told me the whole thing, word for word, but each word made her cry harder. I just put my arm around her shoulder and we both started crying together.
"You know," I said a few minutes later, wiping my eyes,
"Guys just stink! They should be wiped from the face of the planet!"
Susan laughed. "You know, I think you have something there. But some of them are nice, just look at Wendy's boy. He's great."
"Okay, well, we won't wipe out all of them, but they should have to undergo rigorous testing to remain alive!"
Susan laughed harder. "Okay!! I think we need to plan out what these tests would be."
"But first, we need to go to the Eagle's Nest and buy ice cream. Just as recompense for the sorrows dealt to us by those of the opposite sex." Susan agreed and we walked over. When we got back, large ice cream cones in hand, we sat down and wrote out all the requirements for passing the "Suitable Boy Test," but not before we had stopped at Wendy's door and told her what had happened. She felt very badly for us, but agreed that ice cream was better than the candy she could give us, but we were welcome to it at any time. It took us the rest of the night and that weekend to come up with all the exams in depth. (We took some time off.) During that time two other girls broke up with their boyfriends, and the next week we had a "Boys are Bad" party, complete with ice cream for the entire hall and a reading of the "Suitable Boy Test," which had many revisions that night. After that, the hall was much closer, and Susan and I became best friends.
Will I started dating sophomore year. We met during the February of sophomore year. My friends and I were out in the main grassy area on campus having a snowball fight when quite a few guys showed up. One of them came over and asked us if we wanted to play football in the snow with them. (They really wanted the entire field, but couldn't ask us to leave, so they asked us to join.) During the ensuing game, which turned out to be tackle (how convenient for them), I was rushed by some guy with the ball. I was on the other team, and I knew enough of football to know that you are supposed to block him. When he ran into me, I somehow managed to knock him off his feet on to the ground. The play was stopped, because the guys couldn't stop laughing at this guy, and I stood over him. One of his friends came over, still chuckling, and helped his friend up.
He turned to me and said, "That was pretty great. It's not everyone who can knock down Bob here." (Bob was very sturdily built.) He stuck out his hand and grinned. "I'm so impressed, in fact, that I'd like to take you to dinner as a congratulations present."
I looked at him briefly, then shook his hand. "I accept. Thank you very much." I gave him my extension and he called that night to arrange our first dinner. He called again and again, at closer intervals each time, until we were talking every night.
He was a pretty great guy. He was one of the beautiful people on campus who didn't have an ego about himself. (Why he wanted to date me I don't know.) He sang in the show choir which meant he practiced all his dance moves on me! That was fun because at all the informal dances we got to show off. Luckily for me I have pretty good co-ordination so once I learned the steps I was golden.
We went to the Victorian Ball put on by the Historic Preservation Club that year and the next and got all the steps quickly (they were authentic). They were some of the most beautiful dances I was ever privileged enough to attend. It was recommended that we come in period costume, so I rented a hoop skirt from a dressmaker's in Northern Virginia a friend had told me about, and Will found a Civil War era military uniform (the balls took place in 1862 and 63). I am happy to say that my dress was commented on both years as being one of the most beautiful dresses the people had seen. It was cream-colored with ruffles of Blackwatch plaid and gold around the bottom of the skirt and the top of the bodice, as well as ruffles running vertically down the skirt. The bodice was off the shoulder and I had rented a corset to wear under it. My hair was in the snood I had rented at the time I rented the rest of my ensemble. There was a local group of re-enactors who came, and some of them complimented me, too.
Will and I broke up at the beginning of senior year, because we decided we would be better as just friends.
My junior year was fun, mostly because of junior ring week. I should explain
that junior ring week started out as a nice time when seniors took the juniors
out to lunch and did nice things like that. That was when MWC was an all-girls
school. So of course when they let guys in that all changed. Junior ring week
was now not only a time to celebrate, but also a time to make junior's lives
During the course of the week I was dumped in the fountain, covered in pudding and yogurt, and wrapped in saran wrap. My room was covered in silly string, my clothes were hung from the water pipes in the hall, and all my left shoes save one were hidden (I got one back a day).
Throughout the years my education classes got harder. Practicum was a pain my junior year. Practicum was when I got on the job experience teaching. The class I sat in on was a nightmare because the kids were so obnoxious. The teacher of the class was very weak, old, and didn't have a handle on her class at all. This made the class stronger, unfortunately. I got through it, though, and learned a lot about discipline.
One of the things that Wendy started me on that I continued to do the rest of my college life there was go to Carl's. Carl's is one of the best places in the United States to get ice cream. It was even featured in a PBS special about ice cream. It's this tiny place that serves three flavors of ice cream and probably ten kinds of shakes and floats. They shut down from November to April, but open briefly for Valentine's Day. The ice cream is amazing, and pretty cheap (compared to Friendly's and Baskin Robbins). There is always a line, no matter what time of day or what season you go. But no one cares.
Fortunately, I was able to get all of my classes done during the school year and never had to go to a summer session. Susan, who was now one of my best friends, told me that campus was more dead during the summer than on a weekend during the school year. (Fredericksburg is a town with very little to do, unless you're on campus. On the weekend there is nothing on campus to do, so almost everyone goes to D.C. or home or any place else. Of course, no one wants to plan an event on the weekend, because no one will be there, but they don't realize that if something really fun is planned for the weekend, people will come. The irony of the Catch-22 doesn't seem to strike the administration. Oh well.)
My five years actually passed pretty quickly and it seemed like no time at all had passed since I first set foot on campus. Graduation was a week away when a strange and official-looking envelope showed up in my mailbox addressed to me. Hesitantly, I took it out and back to my room. With trepidation I slit the envelope and took the letter out.
"Dear Miss Eyre," it read.
Congratulations on your graduation. I am writing to offer you a position at Chancellor Elementary School. We are currently seeking a third grade teacher, and I understand you are graduating with an elementary degree, and with very high marks. We would be able to offer you a starting salary of $26,000 a year, with benefits.
Chancellor Elementary is a fine school with many promising students. The teacher who last held the position I now offer you recently got married and moved to Pennsylvania with her husband. Congratulations again on your graduation and I hope to hear from you soon.
Dr. Lynne Helvie
"Wow!" I said aloud. "I haven't even graduated yet and I'm already getting offers of employment!" I went to talk to Susan (whom I could still stand after five years, amazingly) about it.
"Wow!" she said. "That's so exciting! Are you going to take it?"
"I don't know," I replied. "I want to, so I know that I'll have a job next year, but I also want to see if I get any better offers."
"The only better offer you could get if you wanted to stay in this state would be from Fairfax County, and if they haven't contacted you yet, they might be waiting to see how you do somewhere else."
"True. Well, I guess I'll write this Dr. Helvie back and accept. I wouldn't want the job to go to someone else."
Susan said that was a good idea and I went to write the letter.
At this point in time I was sharing an apartment and rarely returned to Lowood. The weekend after graduation I went back for the last time to say my final good byes to everyone there and to gather anything I might have left. Miss Miller came to graduation, stayed in the apartment overnight, and took me to Lowood the next day.
That summer passed in a flurry and soon the school year was upon me. My first day wasn't too bad, because there were no students. It was just us teachers getting ready and decorating.
"You must be the new third grade teacher," remarked one of them in the teacher's lounge that first day.
"Yes," I said and stuck out my hand. "My name is Jane Eyre."
"Well, Jane," responded the other teacher, shaking my hand, "my name is Leona Eley. I hope you enjoy it here. I teach the other third grade class. I hope we'll be working together, and never hesitate to ask me about anything.
"Thank you very much, Ms. Eley. I appreciate that."
She laughed. "Call me Leona. And all the other teachers will expect you to call them by their first names, too, except in front of students."
I smiled at her gratefully. A short while later I left the lounge to set up my room. When classes started a week later, I felt much more comfortable. I had been "briefed" by Leona as to what to expect, so I wasn't as nervous as I could have been.
The first day seemed to drag on, but soon I was into the groove of teaching. The first quarter zoomed by, then the second. The third was marred by the loss of a student (he died in a car accident with his family), but the fourth was relatively unremarkable - except that I had finished my first year of teaching.
I had had enough of red tape and baloney from the administration to last at least the next twenty years. My naïveté had quickly been crushed, as I encountered difficult students, angry parents, and parents who believed their precious angel could do no wrong. (When that one came up I remembered my aunt and pitied John's teachers more than I had.)
Despite the fact that I was only twenty-six, I started thinking that I had made the wrong career decision. Susan and I had long discussions about our chosen careers over that year. She had majored in Historic Preservation (the most popular major at MWC) and had yet to get a job in her field. She was at that point waitressing at a nearby restaurant which she hated. She started looking around for a new job at about the same time I started having my career crisis. One day in June she ran into the apartment.
"Jane! Jane!" she shouted, waving a letter. "You'll never guess what I got in the mail!"
"A letter saying you won a $10 million lottery?" I guessed.
"No, silly! Guess again!"
"Um...an offer of marriage from a rich boss of an oil cartel who you waited on yesterday, and he was so impressed with you and your talent and grace that he can't go back to his country without you, and you won't have to convert?" I was starting to have fun guessing more and more outrageous possibilities.
"No! Since you aren't going to be serious, I might as well tell you!" She cut off my protestations with a wave of her hand. "I got a letter from the Smithsonian! They have a position open and they're offering it to me!" She finished her statement and started jumping around in excitement.
"That's great!!" I shouted, jumping out of my chair. "I'm so happy for you!" I started jumping around with her. "This calls for a celebration! What do you want for dinner? - it's my treat!"
"Chinese!" she shouted, still jumping.
I went to the phone to place the order (she always got the same thing - beef with broccoli). "Susan, you're going to have to stop doing that so I can order. Go write your response or something!" I said, laughing. Still grinning like a fool, she stopped and walked to her room.
So August came, and Susan's daily horrible commute. Rush hour traffic in the D.C. area is terrible, and each day Susan came home frazzled. Luckily at the beginning of September she discovered that the Smithsonian would pay for her Virginia Railway Express (the commuter train) tickets. Needless to say, after that she wasn't as frazzled when she got home.
September came and I started working again. Yuck. As much as I loved working with the kids and helping them understand things, I just couldn't take the school. The teachers weren't too bad, most of them were pretty nice, too, but I just didn't like the atmosphere. I always put on my best face for the impressionable eight-year-olds I saw everyday, but when Leona and I talked, I just couldn't do it.
"I know just what you mean," Leona said one day in January. "I've been fighting it for years. Actually, this is going to be my last year. I've accepted a position at Ravensworth Elementary in Fairfax County that starts next year."
I looked at Leona in shock. My mouth opened and closed again, without my saying a word. Leona smiled mirthlessly at me. "You're leaving?" I asked. "But, but..." I couldn't think of saying anything that didn't sound incredibly self-centered, so I just looked at her hopelessly.
Leona laughed. "Jane, you'll be fine. I realize you don't like it here either, and you don't really know anyone else. Why don't you look for a new job, too?"
She said it so simply that I was stunned. That was it! I'd felt guilty about wanting to leave and had almost convinced myself to stay. But Leona's statement was just the encouragement I needed. I grinned at her. "I will, thanks, Leona!" Just then we heard the buses pull up and had to go back to our classrooms.
I thought about what I wanted to do for the rest of the day. As soon as I got home I started working on my resume.
"Susan," I said when she came in, "would you mind looking at this?" I handed her my resume.
"What's this?" she asked. "Besides a resume."
"Leona suggested I find another job, since I'm so unhappy where I am."
"What brought that up?"
"Well, she's leaving at the end of the year, I don't really know anybody, and I had just finished complaining about it for like the 200th time."
Susan nodded. "I understand." She put her things down and looked at the paper. "Everything seems to be in order to me."
I nodded, relieved. "The question is, to whom do I mail it?"
"Well," she responded, "what do you want to do? Do you want to work in a public school or a private school? And where do you want to work? Do you still want to teach? If not, what do you want to do?"
"I still want to teach," I said definitively. "But not in a public school. However, I think I'd rather teacher smaller groups."
"Special ed then? Or do you want to tutor?"
"Hmm. I think tutoring would be better. I don't have a special ed degree."
"Well, then it sounds like you know just what you want to do. Now to get this job, though, I would recommend advertising in the employment section of newspapers. And I think websites like CareerPath.com have places where you can post your resume."
"Susan, you're wonderful!" I pecked her on the cheek and ran back to my room to get to work.
I sent my advertisement that Friday to the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the New York Times. It read, "A young teacher offers her services as a tutor to families with children 14 and younger. Can teach English, Math up to Trigonometry, French, Geography, and Fine Arts. Resume available upon request. Address J.E. at 3610 Sophia Street, Fredericksburg, VA 22401." (I had Susan check this, too.)
The ad came out in the Sunday employment section, as well as the ones later in the week. Everyday for a week after I came home and checked the mailbox, until at the end of the week a letter came. I knew I should have been doing something else, but instead I tore the envelope open.
"If J.E. who advertised in the Washington Post last Sunday is able to give satisfactory references and resume a situation can be offered her. There is one young girl who is six, and the salary would be $30,000 a year. French must be spoken fluently. J.E. is requested to send references, resume, name, and all particulars to Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield, 2205 Milcote Dr., Clifton, VA 20124."
"Thank heaven I took French in school, thought I suppose I should brush up on it, if it is required. But where is Clifton?" I went to my room and took out a map of Virginia. "Ah, here it is, south of D.C. in Fairfax County. Well, that's fine, it means the people will be cultured not ignorant." I wrote Mrs. Fairfax a reply and waited until the next day to speak with Dr. Helvie.
I told her I had the opportunity to get a better-paying job and wondered if I might use her as a reference. She said she would be sorry to see me go, but she would be happy to write me a letter. I also asked Leona, because I thought it might be useful to have a colleague who saw me work every day write a letter.
Three weeks later I sent Mrs. Fairfax my reply, together with my letters of reference and my resume. She responded a few days later saying she was satisfied. She also detailed my position.
"Your job will be, essentially, that of a governess. You will live here at Thornfield so you can be on hand at all times. Your pupil speaks entirely no English. She has had no formal schooling, only the most basic reading and writing skills, so you must not only translate for her, you must also teach her English, reading, writing, arithmetic, and anything else you feel is necessary. If you still wish to take this position, please respond so we might fix a day for your arrival."
"Well, Susan, it sounds like my new job will be a lot like my old job, except it will be entirely in French," I said to her after I had finished reading Mrs. Fairfax's letter.
"Entirely? Then we better brush up on your French!"
We started drilling that night. (Luckily, Susan had almost majored in French.) I responded to Mrs. Fairfax's letter, saying I would be happy to take the position, provided I would be allowed to finish my year at Chancellor. Mrs. Fairfax wrote back and said that there was no problem and she would talk with me again in June.
The rest of the school year passed quicker than I thought it would. In mid-May Susan told me she was going to start looking for a new apartment closer to D.C., since I wouldn't be there to share the apartment come July. She found one a few weeks later and arranged to take possession of it at the end of June. The apartment we were renting had come unfurnished and the two of us had bought the furniture together, but I told her she could have it, since I wouldn't need it. There was a going away party for Leona and me the second to last day of school. It was a lot of fun, and some of the teachers actually told us they were jealous that we were leaving. We just laughed and told them that maybe they should look for new jobs, too.
I had communicated with Mrs. Fairfax again, and we had decided that I would come up on the 25th of June. The chauffeur (!) would come and pick me up, since he would not be needed that day, and it was only a half-hour drive from Clifton to Fredericksburg. Susan and I helped each other pack up; we took down all the decorations and divvied them up, and put everything in boxes. Susan left before I did, but she came back since we both had to be there when the owner came through to make sure we hadn't destroyed everything in three years. We had packed everything in a U-haul and we both drove up to her new apartment, I drove her car and she drove the U-haul. The last time I saw her was the day that we had to wait for the owner.
"Well," Susan said, after he had left, "I guess I should be going. I don't want to be caught in the middle of rush hour."
"Yeah, I guess you don't," I said, back, fighting tears. We had had our problems and discussions, but Susan was my best friend (since Helen, of course), and had been my roommate for six years. She looked at me, and all at once both of us burst into tears.
"*Sob* I'm going to miss you, Jane! Promise you'll write?"
"I promise! *sob* And you have to write, too! Do you have my address?"
Susan nodded into my shoulder. We stood there for a few moments, crying and holding each other, until Susan pulled away. "This time I really do have to leave." She wiped her eyes on the cuff of her sleeve and gave me one last hug.
"*sniffle* Okay. I love you! I'll write you as soon as I'm settled." Susan left and I slowly closed the door, still sniffling.
That night I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor, all my boxes in the dining room. (Susan had my bed in her guest room, so I could retrieve it if and when I changed jobs.) The next morning I rolled up my sleeping bag, had my last meal in my apartment, and took out the trash one last time. At 10 a.m. on the dot, a knock came at my door. I opened it a crack.
"Good morning, miss. My name is Keats. Mrs. Fairfax sent me to pick you up. That is, if you are Jane Eyre?"
I looked at the neatly dressed man in his driving cap and uniform and opened the door fully. "Yes, I'm Jane Eyre," I responded, offering my hand.
Keats shook my hand. "Very nice to meet you, miss. I'll start moving your things to the car if you don't mind."
"Certainly not, as long as you'll let me help you." Keats smiled, nodded, and stepped in. He took one box, I another and in a short while we were done.
I looked through all the rooms, drawers, and cabinets again, just to make sure I wasn't leaving anything. I then returned my keys to the office and met Keats at the car. He, true gentleman that he is, held the car door open for me and shut if after me. As we turned onto Rt. 1 and then I-95, Keats said, "Well, miss, here we go."
I smiled back at him and gazed out the window. "Yes, here we go."
© 2000 Copyright held by the author.