The admissions process to get into the Atwood School had
eaten up six months of the previous winter, and driven each
of the families nearly to distraction with open houses, meet and
greets, intense interviews with the parents, sometimes two of
them, and screenings of each child. Siblings had some preferential
advantage, but each child was evaluated on their own merits,
whether he or she had a sibling in the school or not. Atwood was
one of the few coed private schools in San Francisco—most of the
old established schools were single sex—and it was the only one
that went from kindergarten through twelfth grade, making it
highly desirable for families who didn’t want to go through the
whole process again for either middle school or high school.
The admissions letters had come at the end of March, and had
been anticipated with the same anxiety as an acceptance to Harvard
or Yale. Some of the parents admitted that it was more than
a little crazy, but they insisted it was worth it. They said Atwood
was a fabulous school, which gave each child the individualized
attention they needed, carried enormous social status (which they
preferred not to acknowledge), and students who applied themselves
in the high school usually went on to great colleges, many
of them Ivy League. Getting a kid into Atwood was a major coup.
There were roughly six hundred and fifty students, it was well
located in Pacific Heights, and the ratio of teacher to students was
excellent. And it provided career, college, and psychological support
counseling to the students as part of the routine services it
When the big day finally came for the new kindergarten class to
enter the school, it was one of those rare, hot Indian summer September
days in San Francisco, on the Wednesday after Labor Day.
It had been over ninety degrees since Sunday, and in the low eighties
at night. Such hot weather happened only once or twice a year,
and everyone knew that as soon as the fog rolled in, and it would
inevitably, the heat would be over, and it would be back to temperatures
in the low sixties in the daytime, brisk chilly winds, and
the low fifties at night.
Usually, Marilyn Norton loved the hot weather, but she was having
a tough time with it, nine months pregnant, with her due date
in two days. She was expecting her second child, another boy, and
he was going to be a big one. She could hardly move in the heat,
and her ankles and feet were so swollen that all she had been able
to get her feet into were rubber flip-flops. She was wearing huge
white shorts that were too tight on her now, and a white T-shirt of
her husband’s that outlined her belly. She had nothing left to wear
that still fit, but the baby would arrive soon. She was just glad that
she had made it to the first day of school with Billy. He had been
nervous about his new school, and she wanted to be there with
him. His father, Larry, could have filled in, unless she’d been in
labor, in which case their neighbor had promised to take him, but
Billy wanted his mom with him on the first day, like all the other
kids. So she was happy to be there, and Billy was holding tightly
to her hand as they walked up to the modern, handsome school.
The school had built a new building five years before, and it was
heavily endowed by parents of current students, and the grateful
parents of alums who had done well.
Billy glanced up at his mother with an anxious look as they approached
the school. He was clutching a small football and was
missing his two front teeth. They both had thick manes of curly
red hair and wide smiles. Billy’s smile made her grin, he looked so
cute without his front teeth. He was an adorable kid and had always
been easy. He wanted to make everyone happy, he was sweet
to her, and he loved pleasing his dad, and he knew the way to do
that was to talk to Larry about sports. He remembered everything
his father told him about every game. He was five, and for the past
year he had said he wanted to play football for the 49ers one day.
“That’s my boy!” Larry Norton always said proudly. He was obsessed
with sports, football, baseball, and basketball. He played
golf with his clients and tennis on the weekends. He worked out
religiously every morning, and he encouraged his wife to do the
same. She had a great body, when she wasn’t pregnant, and she’d
played tennis with him until she got too big to run fast enough to
hit the ball.
Marilyn was thirty years old and had met Larry when they both
worked for the same insurance company eight years before when
she got out of college. He was eight years older and a greatlooking
guy. He had noticed her immediately, and teased her about
her coppery red hair. Every woman in the place thought he was
gorgeous and wanted to go out with him. Marilyn was the lucky
winner, and they were married when she was twenty-four. She got
pregnant with Billy very quickly, and had waited five years for
their second baby. Larry was thrilled it was another boy, and they
were going to name him Brian.
Larry had had a brief career in baseball, in the minor leagues.
He had a legendary pitching arm, which everyone felt certain
would get him to the major leagues. But a shattered elbow in a skiing
accident had ended his future in baseball, and he had gone to
work in insurance. He had been bitter about it at first, and had a
tendency to drink too much, and flirt with women when he did.
He always insisted it was just social drinking. He was the life of
every party. And after Marilyn married him, he left the insurance
company and went out on his own. He was a natural salesman,
and had established a very successful insurance brokerage business,
which afforded them a very comfortable lifestyle, and plenty
of luxuries. They had bought a very handsome house in Pacific
Heights, and Marilyn had never worked again. And Larry’s favorite
clients were the professional major-league athletes who trusted
him and were his mainstay now. At thirty-eight, he had a good reputation
and a very solid business. He was still disappointed he
wasn’t a pro ballplayer himself, but he readily admitted that he
had a great life, a hot wife, and a son who would play ball professionally
one day, if he had anything to do with it. Although his life
had turned out differently than he planned, Larry Norton was a
happy man. He hadn’t come to Billy’s first day of school because he
was having breakfast with one of the 49ers that morning, to sell
him more insurance. In cases like that, his clients always came
first, particularly if they were stars. But very few of the other kids’
fathers had come to school, and Billy didn’t mind. His father had
promised him an autographed football and some football cards
from the player he was having breakfast with. Billy was thrilled,
and content to go to school with just his mom.
The teacher at the door where the kindergarten filed in looked
down at Billy with a warm smile, and he gave her a shy glance,
still holding on to his mother’s hand. The teacher was pretty and
young, with long blond hair. She looked like she was fresh out of
college. Her name tag said that she was an assistant teacher and
her name was Miss Pam. Billy was wearing a name tag too. And
once in the building, Marilyn took him to his classroom, where a
dozen children were already playing, and their teacher greeted
him immediately, and asked him if he’d like to leave his football in
his cubby so his hands would be free to play. Her name was Miss
June, and she was about Marilyn’s age.
Billy hesitated at the question and then shook his head. He was
afraid someone would steal his football. Marilyn reassured him
and encouraged him to do what the teacher said. She helped him
find his cubby, in the row of open cubbyholes where other children
had already left their possessions, and some sweaters. And when
they went back into the classroom, Miss June suggested that he
might like to play with the building blocks until the rest of his
classmates arrived. He thought about it and looked at his mother,
who gently nudged him to go.
“You like playing with building blocks at home,” she reminded
him. “I’m not going anywhere. Why don’t you go play? I’ll be right
here.” She pointed to a tiny chair, and with considerable difficulty
lowered herself into it, thinking that it would take a crane to get
her out of it again. And with that, Miss June walked Billy to the
building blocks, and he got busy making a fort of some kind with
the largest ones. He was a big boy, both tall and strong, which
pleased his father. Larry could easily imagine him as a football
player one day. He had made it Billy’s dream since he was old
enough to talk, and his own dream for the boy, even before that,
when he was born a strapping ten-pound baby. Billy was bigger
than most children his age, but a gentle, loving child. He was
never aggressive with other kids, and had made a great impression
during his screening at Atwood. They had confirmed that he was
not only well coordinated for his size, but also very bright. Marilyn
still had trouble imagining that their second son would be as wonderful
as Billy. He was the best. And he forgot about his mother as
he got busy with the blocks, and she sat uncomfortably on the tiny
chair and watched the other children who came in.
She noticed a dark-haired boy with big blue eyes arrive. He was
shorter than Billy and wiry. And she saw that he had a small toy
gun shoved into the waistband of his shorts, and a sheriff’s badge
pinned to his shirt. She thought that toy guns weren’t allowed at
school, but apparently it had escaped Miss Pam’s attention at the
door, with so many children arriving at the same time. Sean was
also with his mother, a pretty blond woman in jeans and a white
T-shirt, a few years older than Marilyn. Like Billy, Sean was holding
his mother’s hand, and a few minutes later he left her to play
in the corner with the blocks too, as she watched him with a smile.
Sean and Billy began playing side by side, helping themselves to
the blocks, and paying no attention to each other.
Within minutes Miss June spotted the gun and went to talk to
Sean, as his mother watched. She knew they wouldn’t let him keep
it at school. She had a son at Atwood in the seventh grade, Kevin,
and she knew the policy. But Sean had insisted on taking the gun
with him. Connie O’Hara had taught school herself before she
married, so she knew the importance of school rules, and after trying
to reason with Sean to leave the gun at home, she had decided
to let the teacher deal with it. Miss June approached Sean with a
“Let’s leave that in your cubby, Sean, shall we? You can keep the
sheriff’s badge on.”
“I don’t want someone to take my gun,” he said with a stern
look at Miss June.
“Let’s give it to your mom, then. She can bring it when she picks
you up. But it’s safe in your cubby here too.” Still, she didn’t want
him sneaking over to take it and put it in the waistband of his
“I might need it,” he said, struggling with a big block and setting
it on top of the others. He was a strong boy, in spite of his size,
which was no more than average, and he was thin. “I might have
to arrest someone,” Sean explained to Miss June, as she nodded
“I understand, but I don’t think you’ll need to arrest anyone
here. Your friends here are all good guys.”
“Maybe a robber or a bad guy will come in to school.”
“We wouldn’t let that happen. There are no bad guys here. Let’s
give your mom the gun,” she said firmly. She held out her hand for
it, as Sean looked her in the eye, measuring how serious she was,
and he could tell that she meant it. He didn’t like it, but he slowly
took the gun out of his shorts and handed it to the teacher, who
walked over to Connie and gave it to her. Connie was standing
near Billy’s very pregnant mother, and she apologized to Miss June
and slipped the gun into her purse, and sat down on the small
chair next to Marilyn.
“I knew that was going to happen. I know the rules. I have a son
in seventh grade. But Sean wouldn’t leave the house without it.”
She smiled at Marilyn with a rueful look.
“Billy brought his football. He put it in his cubby.” Marilyn
pointed to where he was playing next to Sean.
“I love his red hair,” Connie said admiringly. The two boys were
playing peacefully side by side without a word, as a little girl entered
the corner with the blocks, and she looked like an ad for the
perfect little girl. She had long beautiful blond hair with ringlets,
and big blue eyes, and she was wearing a pretty pink dress, white
ankle socks, and pink shoes that glittered. She looked like an angel,
and an instant after she arrived, without a comment, she took the
biggest building block out of Billy’s hands and set it down for herself.
Billy looked stunned but didn’t resist. And as soon as she set
it down, she saw the one Sean was holding and about to put on his
fort, and she took that one too. And she gave them both a look that
warned them not to mess with her, and proceeded to help herself
to more blocks while the boys stared at her in amazement.
“This is what I love about coeducation,” Connie whispered to
Billy’s mother. “It teaches them to deal with each other early, as in
the real world, not just all girls or all boys.” Billy looked like he
was about to cry when the little girl took another block from him,
and Sean gave her a dark look when she took his block from him
too. “It’s a good thing I have the gun in my purse. He’d arrest her
for sure for that. I just hope he doesn’t hit her,” Connie said as both
women watched their sons, while the little angel/demon continued
to build her own fort, undaunted by them. She was in full control
of the block corner and had both boys on the run. Neither boy
had ever met or dealt with anyone like her. Her name tag had two
names on it, “Gabrielle” and “Gabby.” She tossed her long blond
curls while the boys looked at her, dazed.
Another little girl walked into the block corner, only stayed for
two seconds, and headed for the play kitchen nearby. She got busy
with pots and pans and was opening and closing the oven door
and putting things in the oven and the pretend fridge. She looked
extremely busy. She had a sweet face and wore her brown hair in
two neat braids. She was wearing overall shorts, sneakers, and a
red T-shirt. She looked ready to play and paid no attention to the
others, but all three were watching her as a woman in a navy blue
business suit walked up to the little girl in the kitchen and kissed
her goodbye. She had brown hair the same color as her daughter’s
and wore it in a bun. Despite the heat, she was wearing the jacket
to her suit, a white silk blouse, stockings, and high heels. She
looked like she was a banker, or lawyer, or business executive of
some kind. And her daughter looked unconcerned as she left. You
could tell that she was used to not being with her mother, unlike
the two boys, who had wanted their mothers to stay.
The little girl with the braids was wearing a name tag that
said “Izzie.” The two boys approached her with caution after her
mother left. The other girl had scared them, so they ignored her
and left the block corner. No matter how pretty she was, she
wasn’t friendly. Izzie looked easier to deal with as she kept busy in
“What are you doing?” Billy asked her first.
“I’m making lunch,” she said with a look that said it was obvious.
“What would you like to eat?” There were baskets of plastic
food that she had taken out of the fridge and oven and arranged
on plates, and there was a small picnic table nearby. The kindergarten
at Atwood had great toys. It was one of the things parents
always loved when they toured the school. They also had an enormous
playground, a huge gym, and excellent athletic facilities.
Larry, Billy’s father, loved that, and Marilyn liked the academics.
She wanted Billy to learn something too, not just grow up to play
ball. Larry was an astute businessman and a great salesman, and
had an enormous amount of charisma, but he hadn’t learned
much in school. Marilyn wanted to be sure that her sons did.
“For real?” Billy asked Izzie about the lunch order she had requested
from him. His eyes were wide as he inquired, and Izzie
laughed. All his childhood trust and innocence were in his eyes.
“Of course not, silly,” Izzie chided him good-humoredly. “It’s just
pretend. What do you want?” She looked as though she really
“Oh. I’ll have a hamburger and hot dog, with ketchup and mustard,
and French fries. No pickles.” Billy placed his order.
“Coming right up,” Izzie said matter-of-factly, then handed him
a plate piled high with pretend food, and pointed him toward the
picnic table, where he sat down.
Then she turned to Sean. She had instantly become the little
mother in the group, attending to their needs. “What about you?”
she asked with a smile.
“Pizza,” Sean said seriously, “and a hot fudge sundae.” She had
both in the arsenal of plastic food, and handed them to him. She
looked like a short-order cook in a fast-food restaurant. Then the
angel in the pink dress and sparkly pink shoes appeared.
“Does your father own a restaurant?” Gabby asked Izzie with interest.
Izzie was in full control of the kitchen and looked very efficient.
“No. He’s a lawyer, for poor people. He helps them when people
are mean to them. He works for the ACUUUUU. My mom is a
lawyer too, for companies. She had to go to court today, that’s why
she couldn’t stay. She had to make a motion. She can’t cook. My
“My dad sells cars. My mom gets a new Jaguar every year. You
look like you’re a good cook,” the angel said politely. She was
much more interested in Izzie than she had been in the boys. But
even if each sex stuck together and had similar interests, they were
in the same classroom and tempered each other in some ways.
“Can I have mac and cheese? And a doughnut,” Gabby said, pointing
to a pink doughnut with plastic sprinkles. Izzie handed her the
mac and cheese and the doughnut on a pink tray. Gabby waited as
Izzie helped herself to a plastic banana and a chocolate doughnut,
and they joined the boys at the picnic table, and sat down like four
friends who had met for lunch.
They were just starting to pretend to eat the lunch Izzie had
fixed for them, when a tall thin boy ran over to them. He had
straight blond hair, and was wearing a white button-down shirt
and perfectly pressed khaki pants, and looked older than he was.
He looked more like a second-grader than someone in kindergarten.
“Am I too late for lunch?” he asked, looking breathless, and Izzie
turned to smile at him.
“Of course not,” she reassured him. “What do you want to eat?”
“A turkey sandwich with mayo on white toast.” Izzie got him
something that looked vaguely like it, and some pretend potato
chips, and he sat down with them. He glanced at his mother, who
was just leaving the classroom with a cell phone pressed to her ear.
She was giving someone instructions and looked like she was in a
rush. “My mom delivers babies,” he explained. “Someone’s having
triplets. That’s why she couldn’t stay. My father is a psychiatrist, he
talks to people if they’re crazy or sad.” The boy, whose name tag
said “Andy,” looked serious. He had a grown-up haircut and good
manners, and he helped Izzie put everything away in the kitchen
when they were through.
Miss June and Miss Pam were both in the classroom by then,
and asked everyone to form a circle. The five children who had
eaten “lunch” at the picnic table sat next to each other in the circle,
no longer strangers, and Gabby squeezed Izzie’s hand and
smiled, as the teachers handed out musical instruments, and explained
to them what each one did.
After the instruments, they had juice and cookies and then went
outside for recreation. The mothers who had stayed were given
juice and cookies too, although Marilyn declined and said that
even water gave her heartburn now. She could hardly wait for the
baby to come. She rubbed her enormous belly as she said it, and
the other women looked at her sympathetically. She looked miserable
in the heat.
Gabby’s mother had joined Marilyn and Connie by then, and
there were several other mothers sitting in small groups in the corners
of the classroom. Gabby’s mother looked young and was very
striking. She had teased blond hair, and was wearing a white cotton
miniskirt and high heels. Her pink T-shirt was cut low enough
to see some cleavage, and she was wearing makeup and perfume.
She stood out among the other mothers, but didn’t seem to mind
it. She was friendly and pleasant, and sympathetic to Marilyn,
when she introduced herself as Judy. She said she had gained fifty
pounds with her last pregnancy. She had a three-year-old daughter,
Michelle, two years younger than Gabby. But whatever weight
she had gained, she had obviously lost it, and had a fabulous figure.
She was flashy but a very pretty girl, and the others guessed
her to be in her late twenties. She said something about having
been in beauty pageants when she was in college, which seemed
about right, given the way she looked. She said they had moved to
San Francisco from southern California two years before, and she
missed the heat, so she was loving the Indian summer weather.
The three women talked about forming a carpool, and were
hoping to find two other women to go in with them, so they’d only
have to drive one day a week. Judy, Gabby’s mother, explained
that she’d have to bring her three-year-old with her on her days,
but she said she had a van she would use for carpool, so there
would be plenty of room for all the kids, with seatbelts. And Marilyn
apologetically explained that she might not be able to drive
for a few weeks because of the new baby, but she’d be happy to
after that, as long as she could bring him along.
Connie agreed to organize the carpool for them, since she had
done it before for her son in seventh grade when he was younger.
She had been hoping that Sean’s brother, Kevin, would take him to
school in the morning, but their schedules were too different, and
Kevin didn’t want to be bothered with his little brother, and had
flatly refused to do it. So the carpool made sense for Connie too. It
would be helpful to all of them.
After the children came back from the playground and were engrossed
in story time, with Miss June reading aloud to them, the
mothers were able to leave, with their children’s permission, and
promised to be back when they got out of school that afternoon.
Billy and Sean were slightly uneasy, but Gabby and Izzie were
busy listening to the story and holding hands again. While out on
the playground, they had agreed to be best friends. The boys had
all been running around and yelling, and the girls had had fun on
“Did you hear about the meeting tonight?” Connie asked the
other mothers as they left the building, out of earshot of the children
by then. The others said they hadn’t. “It’s really for the middle
school and high school parents.” She lowered her voice even
further. “A sophomore boy hanged himself this summer. He was a
really sweet kid. Kevin knew him, although he was three years
older. He was on the baseball team. His parents and the school
knew he had a lot of emotional problems, but it was still shocking
when he did it. They’re bringing in a psychologist to talk to the
parents about recognizing the signs of suicide in kids, and prevention.”
“At least that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about at this
age,” Judy said with a look of relief. “I’m still working on Michelle
being dry at night. She has accidents once in a while, but she’s
only three. I don’t think suicide at three and five is a big issue,” she
“No, but apparently it can be as young as eight or nine,” Connie
said somberly. “I don’t worry about it with Kevin, or I haven’t, but
he’s a pretty wild kid sometimes. He’s not as easy as Sean, he
never has been. He hates following anyone else’s rules. The boy
who died was really a sweet kid.”
“Divorced parents?” Marilyn asked with a knowing look.
“No,” Connie said quietly. “Good parents, solid good marriage,
mom at home full time. I just don’t think they thought this could
happen to them. I think he’d been seeing a counselor, but mainly
for problems he had in school keeping his grades up. He always
took things pretty hard. He used to cry whenever the baseball
team lost a game. I think there was a lot of pressure on him at
home, academically. But the family is very wholesome. He was
their only kid.”
The other two women looked disturbed by what she said, but
they agreed that the meeting wasn’t relevant to them, and they
hoped it never would be. It was just sad to hear about it happening
to someone else. It was unimaginable to think of any of their
children committing suicide. It was hard enough worrying about
accidents in the home, drownings in swimming pools, and ill-
nesses and mishaps that befell young children. Suicide was in
another universe from theirs, much to their relief.
Connie promised to call them when she found two more candidates
for their carpool, and then they went their separate ways. All
three were driving when they saw each other later that day and
waved. Izzie and Gabby bounced out of school holding hands, and
Gabby told her mother how much fun they’d had that day. Izzie’s
babysitter picked her up, and Izzie said the same thing to her. Billy
was clutching the football he had retrieved from his cubby when
he came out. Sean asked his mother for his sheriff’s gun the moment
he got in the car, and Andy was picked up by the housekeeper,
since his parents were still at work, as they always were at
All five of them had had a great first day at the Atwood School,
they liked their teachers and were happy with their new friends.
Marilyn told herself that it had been worth the long, agonizing admission
process. As she drove away with Billy, her water broke on
the front seat, and she felt the first familiar labor pains, which heralded
Brian’s arrival into the world. He was born that night.