I had never been in a mansion before. The room we were in at the moment could fit my whole house inside it. We were there—me, Julie, Cindy, and Heather—at the invitation of our 8th-grade Social Studies teacher. Now that we had matriculated from her class—from the school where she taught—she invited us to visit her—at home.
There were stories, to be sure—rumors about the mile-long driveway, the tennis court, and the indoor swimming pool. But those were just rumors whispered in the halls of William Penn middle school. After a particularly tough test in Mrs. Banish’s class, some students would complain. “If she’s so rich, why does she even bother coming here?” We figured there were some kids she liked and some kids she didn’t like. But I realized the truth—there were some kids she pushed and some kids she guided. The girls and I fell into the latter group. We were good students. We showed up for her class with our homework done. We studied. We earned her respect.
The kid who kept falling asleep in her classroom while she regaled us on the mysteries of the Ming Dynasty? Mrs. Banish shamed that kid. She’d draw everyone’s attention to the poor soul, drool dripping onto his sleeve. She’d move quietly and calmly to his desk, look around to ensure that everyone was watching, and then rap her knuckles on the desktop right next to his ear. He’d jerk up, stuttering a question, “Wha? Wha?” Looking around. Then, with classmates giggling, a blush would sneak up his neck, and he’d apologize to our venerated teacher.
You see, everyone disliked her just a little bit because she was tough. But everyone respected her a whole lot because she didn’t need to be there—and she was.
Her husband was a doctor. Her diamond ring was larger than one of the cicadas that hung from the sycamore trees outside our school building every fall. She was rich—really rich. She did not need to teach every year in our God-forsaken school. Our middle school had bars on the windows. A riot one year that left the Vice Principal’s foot broken. Two rival gangs. Bags of weed in backpacks, and—someone swears they saw it—a gun in the locker room. Collectively, our grades were pitiful. Our chances of excelling in high school and getting into good colleges were slim.
Being her student was a blessing and a curse. We all loved her—we all loved to hate her. Secretly, we all wanted a piece of the life we imagined her living when she left our school. What kind of glamorous existence did she have beyond these walls? What did she eat? Where did she spend her vacations? What was her house like? Did she really have an indoor swimming pool? Yes, she did. We saw it ourselves—me, Julie, Cindy, and Heather—before being escorted into the huge room where we were sitting now—lined up in a row on a deep green velvet sofa—listening to Mrs. Banish greet another guest at the door.
The week before, we decided to stop at the middle school to visit Mrs. Banish and give her my difficult news. My family was moving.—to Georgia. We were packing up and leaving our little borough just a stone’s throw out of West Philadelphia, where my family had lived for generations. I wanted to say goodbye and my friends wanted to be with me when I did. And it was there, in our old classroom—how small it looked to our High School eyes!—that Mrs. Banish unexpectedly extended the invitation to her home. To celebrate my new journey and give me a proper send-off, we would join her and her husband for dinner at an area restaurant.
And so, here we sat, waiting for our hostess—looking around the opulent room at the crystal vase on the table, the oil painting that took up a large portion of the wall behind us, and the fine boned chinaware displayed in the antique cabinet behind the table. We could hear a woman’s musical laugh, and two pairs of high heels make their way down the cavernous hallway. Not knowing what to expect, we sat up straighter and placed our hands in our laps.
We watched for the door.
When the door opened, Mrs. Banish and the loveliest woman we had ever seen walked in. She was young—maybe twenty-five years old— beautiful and glamorous, with long dark wavy hair. She was the daughter of an old friend or our erstwhile teacher, and her name was Brooke. Traveling from Texas for business, Brooke would be staying with Mrs. Banish and her husband for a few days. Her company sold artisanal jewelry crafted in sterling silver. Brooke settled her Louis Vuitton travel case next to her chair and accepted a glass of sherry from our hostess. Then, she looked us over and smiled. She was lovely. Everything she said was beautiful. Her manners were exquisite. She offered to show us some of the jewelry pieces she’d be displaying at an expo in Philadelphia the following day.
Reaching into her glamorous case, she pulled out rings, brooches, necklaces, and bracelets, one by one—passing them to Heather, who handed them to the rest of us down the line—perched like baby birds on a wire, waiting to be fed. Each item was more incredible than the last. Each of us girls “ooohed” and “ahhed” with delight at the smooth cold metal, feeling the weight of silver in our hands. The final piece that came down the line was a pin in the shape of a fish. The other girls, rather tired of the exercise and hungry for dinner, passed it along quickly. But not me. I examined the piece. I was dimly aware of Brooke packing up her display case, and Mrs. Banish discussing our reservation at the exclusive restaurant. Evidently, it was time to get going. But I was entranced.
At first glance, the pin was just a fish. But when I looked closer, I could see that the scales of its silver body were tiny trees carved into the metal, their large roots digging deep. The underbelly was a lake, and the fish’s eye was the moon. This was the most beautiful pin I had ever seen. As I turned it over to see if any hidden images were on the back, I sucked in my breath. There was a price tag—a tiny little sticker attached to the back. $150 stared back at me with accusing eyes. Not for you, it seemed to say. Flustered, I hastily gave it back to Brooke, almost tripping on my way across the room to her, the fish pin laid out in my hand like an offering.
Mrs. Banish was ushering the other girls through the door to the hallway. She had turned and was watching me give the pin back to Brooke. It was time to go. Off we went, splitting up and bundling into Brooke’s rental car and the back of Dr. Banish’s Mercedes, with his wife up front. We had not yet met the doctor. He did not seem overly excited to meet us. We arrived at one of the finest Chinese restaurants in the area and sat in a private room. I had never eaten in such a nice place and felt like a fish out of water.
The other girls seemed a bit nervous too.
Throughout the dinner, Dr. Banish became increasingly annoyed with the company he kept. He corrected Cindy’s grammar a few times, causing her face to turn beet red and her eyes to tear up. Coming to her defense, I must have said something sarcastic—as I am wont to do—and the good doctor’s eyes swiveled to me as his expression hardened. I met his gaze and did not look away. If he wanted a staring match, I was ready to give it. Mrs. Banish tried to intervene, but he snapped at her with such rudeness that I was astonished. No one at school would have dared to speak to her in such a tone! She was given the deepest respect at school, apart from the kid who had a habit of falling asleep in her class. It pained me to see her spoken to in such a way. I started to pay closer attention to the Dr. and his wife, sitting beside each other across the table from me.
He was drinking too many gin and tonics. He got meaner as the evening went on. Our beloved teacher put a good face on it, but Brooke came to the rescue with grace and kindness. She eased the tension as she told us tales of her exploits in Europe, her disastrous foray into couples tennis at a snobby club, and her devotion to her mother, the kind friend of our teacher. She was effervescent. Her laugh was just right—not too loud, not too soft. Her long fingers were capped with manicured nails and beautiful samples of the fine jewelry she peddled. I thought she must live such a glamorous life.
I wanted a piece of it.
On the drive back to the mansion—thankfully with Mrs. Banish driving and her husband drifting off to sleep in the passenger seat—I looked at the stately homes tucked behind wrought iron fences with willow tree branches drifting over little stone walls. I wondered what kind of people lived behind the beautiful facades of the estate homes in this part of Philadelphia. Realizing that I would never know, I slumped back into my seat.
Upon our return to the mansion, Brooke excused herself to bed as she was tired from a long day’s travel. She hugged each of us girls in turn, enveloping us with the scent of Channel or some-such perfume. Mrs. Banish escorted her upstairs to the guestroom, carrying her display case. We students settled once more in the giant room with the deep green velvet sofa. We were waiting for my Dad to pick us up—me, Julie, Cindy, and Heather—and drive us away in his faded blue Aerostar to the other side of town, where we belonged.
Presently, we heard Dad beep the horn. Mrs. Banish returned just in time to show us to the door and shake our hands—Julie, Cindy, Heather, and then me. She tucked something into my palm and told me to open it later. Confused, I started to speak, but she shook her head gently and smiled.
“Off you go, my girl. Good luck to you in Georgia. It will be a grand adventure.”
With a weary smile, Mrs. Banish started to close the door, already looking up the stairs in the direction of her bedroom. I thanked her and slowly walked down the stone steps to the car where my friends were waiting in the back seat, discussing details from the evening, talking over each other, trying to remember every detail. “Did you see that crystal vase?!” “Brooke is the most elegant woman I’ve ever seen.” “I can’t believe Mrs. Banish lets her jerk of a husband talk to her that way!”
Slipping into the passenger seat next to Dad, I opened my hands and looked down at a little black box. Dad started to pull out of the driveway. “Everyone buckled up back there?” he asked the girls, looking in the rearview mirror. Before I even removed the lid, I knew what was inside the box. Heart beating fast, I looked down at the little fish, his moon eye staring back at me. Huh, I chuckled. “What’s that, Erica?” Dad asked while turning onto the main road. I didn’t answer right away. He quickly glanced at my hands.
“Did she give you something?”
I felt the weight of the cool silver in my palm—the texture of the engraved trees—their roots deep in the ground at the water’s edge. “Yeah, Dad, she did. She gave me a piece of it.”
The fish pin my teacher gave me.