It was a New York State law that all children had to go to school until the age of 16 or sophomore year of high school, whichever came first. Thus, Stephanie Summers, age 13, attended "class"-- sitting in the back of the room while orphans three years younger read from their primers with far more confidence than she would probably ever have.
She studied the words on the page as one boy slowly sounded them out. If she concentrated so fiercely that her head started to ache, she could remember the alphabet well enough that she could almost figure out why he was reciting the syllables he was. If he'd only slow down, she could get it. If she only had time...
But she didn't have time. "Stephanie!" Matron stuck her head in the door. "Could you come help out with the little ones?"
It wasn't as if she was actually learning anything by sitting in class. There weren't enough orphans her age to fill out a class, and no budget for hiring anyone to teach two children, and she couldn't study on her own since she couldn't read. So they put her in "reading" classes with the 10-year-olds, only because the humiliation of putting her in with the 6-year-olds would have been too severe. The idea was that she would pretend to do homework, and they would pretend to grade her, and that way they could push her through the system until she was 16 and they could give up the pretense, at which point she would be unsuited to do anything but live on at the orphanage, working there, doing for money what she did now for free.
She'd rather die. But it didn't matter how hard she tried to study. The class, the only class she had, was far beyond her. All she could do was listen to the teacher, and the kids slowly reciting, and hope some of it sank in. She wasn't doing anything important or useful, so she shouldn't mind being interrupted. She shouldn't. She shouldn't.
There were ten girls between the ages of 6 and 8 who were currently unattended, because the person teaching their class was currently showing prospective adoptive parents around the property, because there was a shortage of funds and people had to double up jobs. So it fell to Stephanie to keep order among giggling kids who knew of her as "Stupid Stephanie", the 13-year-old who couldn't read and who no one wanted to adopt.
"Look who they got to babysit us," one of the children-- a pretty dark-haired girl, probably popular due to her beauty-- said, giggling. "It's Stupid Stephanie!"
Control. "Hmm. I suppose you don't want to play marbles then."
The girl blinked. "Huh?"
"Marbles?" one of the other girls asked.
"Sure. I was going to come play marbles with you kids, but I guess you don't really want to. That's okay; I'll play with the boys instead. I'm sure they'll be much better at marbles than you little girls are."
"I can play marbles as good as any boy!" a blonde girl said, stung.
"I don't want to play stupid marbles! That's a boy's game!" the girl who'd insulted Stephanie said. Her name was Josie, that was right.
"I guess that means Josie's no good at marbles. That's okay. You and I can play without her," Stephanie said to the blonde girl. As if by an afterthought, she looked around at the other girls. "Oh, the rest of you can play too, if you want to."
Several of them giggled. Apparently the idea that Josie did not immediately charm all older people thoroughly was novel and amusing to them.
"I am so good at marbles! I just don't want to play!"
"Then you don't have to," Stephanie said, the picture of reasonableness. "Anyone got some chalk?"
"I do!" one of the littlest ones piped up. "I got it from class so we could play hopscotch!"
"That looks like plenty of chalk. I bet you could draw a circle for marbles and still have enough left over for four hundred games of hopscotch."
"Can we play hopscotch instead? Can we, can we?" another girl asked.
"Do you really want to? It'd be too easy for me to win all the time because my legs are bigger than yours. I wouldn't even have to hop, in a hopscotch board big enough for you guys. I think it'd be fairer if we played marbles. Go on, Emmy. Draw a circle. Yeah, that's it! That's a really good circle." It was kind of ragged and uneven, but it didn't really need to be a perfect geometric shape.
"I don't have any marbles," one of the girls wailed.
"An' I don't know howta play!"
"Well, I brought mine, so I'll give some to all of you. Except Josie, 'cause she doesn't want to play."
"I just think marbles is stupid!"
"So fine, you won't get any."
As an exercise in social engineering, it worked wonders. Within fifteen minutes, all the girls were happily shooting marbles, except for Josie, who was getting more and more unhappy about being left out. Just to be a good sport, occasionally Stephanie would turn to her and suggest that she might want to sit down and get a head start on her homework, since otherwise she'd be bored watching everyone else have fun with marbles. Within another fifteen minutes, Josie was playing too, and being as polite and respectful to Stephanie as an eight-year-old could get.
Would that adults were so easy to direct.
Matron bustled in after Stephanie had won back almost all her marbles, and was in the process of parceling them back out again. "Stephanie Summers, what are you doing?"
"I'm watching the kids-- ow!"
Matron yanked her to her feet. "Getting your dress all covered with dust, getting their dresses all dusty-- marbles is not an appropriate game for proper young ladies! You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Nothing, in Matron's opinion, was apparently appropriate for proper young ladies except sitting still and reading. Which, coincidentally, Stephanie could not do. "It's the classroom floor. It's not that dusty."
"That isn't the point!"
"Ooh, Stephanie's in trouble," Josie caroled.
"Can I keep my marbles?" one of the girls asked, unwisely.
"No!" Matron snapped. "Give them all back to Stephanie, now." She turned to Stephanie. "And I want you to hand them over to me. You're never going to get married if you keep playing the hoyden like this, Stephanie, and I think we both know marriage is your best hope."
Right. No hope at all, there. A girl couldn't get a job if she couldn't read-- not like a boy, who could join the army, or be a construction worker or a fireman, or maybe a policeman. If someone read you all the policeman rules, then you didn't need to be able to read to be a policeman, right? But unless you were one of those bra-burning feminist types, the only kind of job you could get, if you were a girl, was as a nurse or a teacher or a secretary, and you needed to read for all of them. Getting married once she turned 16 would be Stephanie's best hope at getting out of the orphanage and having someone take care of her without having to be able to read, except that she was ugly and gawky and skinny and who the heck was she supposed to ever date, anyway? She never met anyone outside the orphanage, and the only kid her age here was Nate. No thanks.
Silently she surrendered her marbles to Matron, secure in the knowledge that she hadn't brought any of the good ones with her anyway, and it was only a matter of time before Nate cajoled them out of Matron and she won them back from him. It wasn't something to get angry about. Because if she got angry then she'd get upset. And if she got upset, she might cry, and then Matron would purse her lips and ask her what she was sniveling for, or she might yell, and then Matron would say she was being disrespectful and confine her in her room for a day. Either would be bad, and neither would get her her marbles back. So she didn't get mad. Control, control, control.