Order, Discipline, and Decorum

That autumn I found myself at loose ends, just back from West Africa, broke, bored, and living with my parents on Long Island while I looked for work. I had no luck until I spotted an ad in the Times for Cranford Academy, as I’ll call it, a coed boarding school in New Jersey I’d never heard of. The ad sounded desperate. Cranford needed a teacher to start right away, so I sent off a CV and received a positive reply almost instantly.

In early October I drove to rural Somerset County for an interview. Though Cranford cost a small fortune to attend, it lacked the elite trappings of a prep school like Andover. There were no statues or ivy-clad buildings, no grand hall named for a founder. The campus resembled a summer camp gone to seed, with some rustic cabins on the fringe of a playing field. Children of all ages were dashing off to class.

The receptionist was an older woman with a blonde wig slightly askew. I learned to gauge Arlene’s mood by the wig’s disposition. If it was about to slip off her head, she’d been hitting the flask in her desk drawer to cope with stress. But that was rare. She was usually sober. She did the accounting and wrote the payroll checks.

Arlene loved show tunes and good Scotch and had worked at Cranford for years, devoted to the school and its owner, Harry, acting as his foil and protector. She had no clue who I was or why I was there, but after I explained she ushered me into Harry’s office.

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