Her head snapped up when the teacher barked her name. She had been daydreaming again. Things moved so slowly in Master Verrier’s class; it was impossible for her mind not to wander. It had been almost … three minutes? … since Carlo behind her kicked her chair or Max in front of her tipped his head back when the teacher was looking down at the papers he was marking. Kathrin knew to shift her book out of the way when Max tipped his head back. It meant he was about to spit through the gap between his front teeth, trying to arc spittle up and over his head. His pals found that enormously entertaining. They grinned and nudged each other when he landed a wet blob on her desk. Kathrin kept a handkerchief in her book bag devoted to dealing with the prank.
There was no use complaining. She was there on sufferance, the only girl in the class, three or four years younger than the other students. Master Verrier disapproved of her being there, and he didn’t try to hide the fact.
“Yes, Master Verrier.”
She hated that her voice sounded as thin as her skinny arms and legs, which she tried to hide in a long, plain dress with a little lace at the neck that her mother insisted on. (She pulled out the hair ribbon as soon as she was out of sight of the house; it would not have lasted five minutes around the boys.)
Verrier was waving her homework assignment in disgust. Her stomach dropped. She should have shown it to Father to check her work! But no, he insisted that she do everything herself.
“You have been … placed … in this class for all of two weeks. Geometry was not previously in your curriculum. You cannot possibly imagine that I believe you worked out these two-column proofs flawlessly without copying them. These are obviously not your own work.”
He glanced meaningfully toward the ceiling, toward the headmaster’s office. Her father’s office.
“If you expect to learn anything, you must stop dreaming and riding on others’ coattails. You must use your own brain. Within its limitations, naturally.”
Satisfied that he had made his point, Master Verrier dropped the papers on a stack and returned to marking. The boys grinned.
Kathrin couldn’t move at first. Her face and hands tingled as the blood left them. She was appalled by the accusation. Kathrin knew herself to be shy but painfully honest, and it cut her to the bone to be accused of cheating. If the teacher and her classmates truly thought she was there only because the headmaster had a blind spot for his darling little girl … she could not bear to think of returning day after day under that cloud. She seized on the first thought that came to her – usually not the best idea, as she knew from experience – and spoke up with more courage than she knew she had.
Master Verrier looked up in surprise. Every boy in the class stared at her.
“I can do the proofs on the chalkboard. Right now.’
Now Master Verrier’s face went red. Then his eyes squinted.
“So, you have a knack for memorization, do you? Like a caged parrot?”
Some of the boys chuckled. But some did not.
“Give me a new problem, then. Of the same type.”
Master Verrier’s eyes shifted sideways. He had heard stories about this girl from the other masters. A clever one, they said.
“Impertinence! Hold out your hands!”
Kathrin obediently held out her hands, palms up. Master Verrier strode over with his dreaded meter stick and gave her five hard strokes as the boys watched, either greedily or wincing in sympathy – a barometer of their souls, as she thought, watching them and not the teacher. She had already sounded his soul.
“Kathrin, you could sit with us.”
“It’s all right, I’m almost done with my lunch. I’m just going to read a bit before class.”
“Um. You don’t have any friends at all since they moved you up, do you?”
Kathrin pondered her sister’s remark.
“Jayn, it’s really nice of you to ask me to sit with you and your friends, but it would be a little awkward for you, wouldn’t it? I mean, you’re all younger and have your own … interests.”
“Oh, I know you heard them calling you weird, but that’s just because you’re so smart. You know? They really would like to talk to you now that you’re in the same class with some of the older boys and maybe …”
“I see. Well, the truth is, the boys don’t seem to appreciate my being in class with them, so it’s not as though I can make introductions to their social circle. I’m afraid I’m not much good to any of your friends. Unless they need help with mathematics.”
Jay wrinkled her brow in frustration and turned back to the table where girls chattered happily.
“But thanks, Jayn. See you after school!”
Jayn lifted a hand fractionally.
As headmaster, Karl Gordon was allowed to live with his family in an old, once-elegant house located on the premises of the private school. It helped compensate for the relatively meager salary paid by the trustees, but it meant that Karl was expected to look after the school, and the house itself was always in need of repair. Money was tight in the Gordon household, especially after Fransis had to stop working as a teacher at the school and was confined to a wheelchair.
That afternoon Kathryn lost herself in a book about Colonial archeology, reading under the big elm behind the old house. She mused again on the lost glories of her world, a planet evidently settled by people from another place, people with superior knowledge and technology. It struck her, once again, how few books and papers survived from the Colonial era half a millennium ago.
But on those records, and on other material inscriptions, the names of colonial leaders, builders, scientists, and artists were as often women’s names as men’s. And that was not like what was found today, or in recent centuries. Why was that? Women could at least vote now, in Concordia, and they were starting to appear at higher levels of business and society.
If we knew more about Colonial ways, would we have more options? Would things change faster, for the better?
“… come? Kathrin?”
Mother’s voice! She must have been calling! Wasn’t Jayn taking care of Mother this afternoon? No; that was yesterday.
Kathrin realized with horror that she had been under the tree for more than an hour. Jayn must be at a friend’s house. Margo wouldn’t be here yet with the food to cook for dinner. Mother was alone in the house.
Kathrin rushed inside and found her mother immediately, from the smell. She had tried to take care of it herself, but she couldn’t without help, and she was terribly embarrassed. The Gordons couldn’t afford a nurse, but Mother usually could manage the little things until the girls got home from school. They took turns.
“I’m sorry, dear. I tried …”
“It’s my fault, Mother. I am so sorry. Here …”
Kathrin was still feeling bad that evening as she studied by sputtering gaslight in her bedroom, an old shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Restless and disgusted with herself and with the world, she re- read a letter from a History professor in faraway Centrum. She had mustered the courage to write him about her theory, and he was gracious enough to respond, even if it were only to throw cold water on her speculation:
We cannot draw too many positive conclusions from your lists of names, my dear young lady. Many English names have been used for both genders (such as Kim, Jordan, Casey), and we know that the spelling of many names has changed in the evolution on Colony from old English, French, German, and other languages. Perhaps ‘Jeanne’ in Old French, for example, was used for males as well as females; we simply have too few written samples to know this.
Yes, but there were indisputably many female names in the colonial records, referring to those in positions of authority! If she only had paintings or photographs to prove her point that women were treated with more equality among the colonials! But so few images from the Colonial era survived, mostly drawings of the plants and creatures that the colonists found exotic. (Of course, technically, it was the colonists who were exotic; they came from another planet!)
“History is a bad choice for you.” That is what Father said whenever she raised the idea of pursuing this field of study. “I cannot fathom why you would choose it. Your aptitude for mathematics is superlative, and it is an objective discipline. No one can dispute the results, regardless of the age or gender of the brain that produces them. History is a never-ending argument, and the men will simply shout you down.”
She had never known exactly what to say in response. Tonight, it came to her.
“The reason I care about History,” Kathrin announced without preface when her father appeared in her doorway after a quiet tap, “is that I want to make it.”
Karl Gordon, to his credit, gave that some serious thought before answering.
“That is an eminently satisfactory reason. Every bit as good as my reasons for teaching. Do you think you can make history here, at the University of Kayn Harbor?” Kathrin took a breath and looked up at her father.
“I can try. In a couple of years, I may be ready, even though I will still be too young. And if they won’t let me … there are scholarships at other universities, too, I hear.”
“But … how could I ever leave Mother? And it would not be fair to Jayn.”
“We have some time to sort things out, Kathrin. I cannot do the hard work for you, you know that. But you have the brains for it, and your Mother and I, and Jayn – we each have our own lives and gifts, and we will not keep you from yours.”
He tried to put on a jolly tone.
“Anyway, there are steam trains now, Kathrin. And the post and telegraph, by the two moons! You will never be so far away that your family will not be pestering you, just when you want to be left alone with your books!”
Kathrin sat lost in thought for a moment until she realized Father was turning to leave, and then she rushed up to take his hand. But he turned his head, so she caught only a brief glimpse of the tears at the corners of his eyes. She gave him a squeeze and let him go. She would need a night before she could face Mother’s understanding.
But a girl can dream.