Three hundred and sixty-five days a year for thirteen years makes about five thousand days. And this one is the worst of all…
Background: This will be the third time author Betty Miles work has been featured here, most memorably in the form of her unabashedly feminist manifesto/middle reader The Real Me, in which the 12 year old heroine fights for the concrete goals of paper routes and tennis classes for her female classmates, and then (less memorably, since I forgotten about it until just this minute) the gently meandering coming of age story Looking On.
Like both of these, Just the Beginning looks at issues both specifically of the 1970s and timeless through the eyes of its YA heroine. Also, there is a shocking twist.
The Plot: 8th grader Cathy Myers opens by announcing that it is the worst day of her life. This most immediately has to do with the Myerses’ social status in the tony suburb of Camden Heights, in which most everyone is either rich, or very rich.
While the Myerses are technically business owners, her father’s small newsstand and stationary shop as fallen on hard times during the Carter years, struggling to compete with the new shopping mall, which has
[T]he kind of stationary store that sells games and desk lamps and sunglasses and candles shaped like tree trunks and calendars with pictures of natural wonders or people in love or cats with clothes on. It’s a much bigger store than Dad’s.
Cathy’s popular and academically accomplished older sister, Julia, is about to graduate from high school, and has applied to both Yale and MIT in the hopes of receiving a scholarship, but Mrs. Myers decides that it is time for her to re-enter the job force.
She finds the prospect extremely difficult as a life-long “housewife”. Prospective employers are not interested in her experience as a volunteer reading tutor at the local grade school or the years she has put in doing bookkeeping for the family store. Her age is a liability when it comes to receptionist positions. When she seeks the advice of the local employment agency, she’s told with her background and experience, she can be hired only in manufacturing or domestic work. Since they basically pay the same, she chooses what she knows and becomes a “cleaning lady”.
Cathy is mortified because all of her friends have housekeepers or live-in maids, and she’s seen first hand how they’re treated. She is even more upset when her mother tells her about the “perks”:
“Another extra,” Mom went on is that people sometimes give you leftovers from dinner parties and clothes they don’t want, things like that.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said, pouring water over a tea bag for Mom. “They ought to give you more money for doing such hard work.”
As the book opens, Cathy dreads telling her friends Karen, Amy and platonic-boy Chris about her mother’s new job, but it only one of her worries.
Another problem is school bus bully George Waldman who Cathy has known since grade school, but Junior High has made him even more menacing:
I don’t know why he chose me to pick on- maybe he knew I would be too scared to tell on him. The trouble is George Waldman still picks on me and it is a lot worse now. George sits down right behind me every morning and he says in this low voice I’m supposed to overhear: “Wanna sell some dope?” or “Those hippie chicks are the best, oh yes.”
George Waldman scares me.
But that is not even the worst part of this day for Cathy, as she notes at the end of the first chapter:
What I really wished for was not to have to go to school and hear the terrible news. I was going to be suspended.
The details of the suspension are held in suspense (heh), but it is finally revealed that Cathy, Amy and Karen arrived for the gym class the previous day to find that the younger students had to attend an assembly and their teacher (or anybody) had neglected to inform the 8th grade girls in the class. She suggests they spend the period in the library and leaves, but excited by the disruption in the daily grind, the girls decide to ditch the period and go to the local coffee shop.
It is here that they run smack into a few of their teachers who inform them that this is a VERY SERIOUS INFRACTION and they will BE SUSPENDED and will go ON THEIR PERMANENT RECORD.
Miles is clearly on the side of the students in this is a rule for the sake of having a rule (and also that the teachers are playing hooky themselves). Wealthy Karen is not very concerned, since she’ll probably be going to boarding school next year anyway; Amy, the daughter of socially-conscious middle class strivers knows that she going to be in SO MUCH TROUBLE.
Cathy mostly feels guilty, that she’s letting her parents down when they have troubles of their own and also that she has once again failed to live up to her perfect older sister.
Miles also depicts the laisse-faire attitude of the administration as the girls report to the principal’s office only to find that he is too busy to be bothered to see them and dole out the punishment. Later that afternoon they return and an underling deals with them, telling them that a letter will be mailed to their parents informing them of the suspension. The important thing is to live in fear of being punished, not the actual punishment, which is just more work for the administration.
Cathy can’t bring herself to tell her parents the letter is coming, instead waiting on pins and needles for two days. When it does arrive, they are disappointed, but very much in the camp of “a rule is a rule, even if it is a stupid rule.” Julia is initially exasperated by her sister’s lack of maturity, although she later recants, confessing that she had cut school and gone to the same coffee shop a few times herself.
Karen’s mother, a magazine editor who works in “the city” takes Karen to work with her for the two days she’s suspended for shopping and fun, basically a free vacation. Amy’s parents ground her for two weeks, leaving a massive list of chores for her to do while she takes care of her free younger siblings while her mother plays tennis.
The Myerses decide that Cathy will spend the first day of her suspension at home, cleaning the house and preparing dinner for the family; the second day she will get up early and go with her father to the newsstand to clean and paint.
While she didn’t get off as easy as Karen, Cathy gains further appreciation for the work her mother has been doing all these years, and a different perspective on her father’s life outside the house, as a well-known and loved member of the community.
After the suspension, Cathy knows that she can’t keep her mother’s new job a secret from her friends forever, especially since Karen is hosting their annual slumber party the night of the Miss America pageant (Karen has her own TV). There is awkwardness as her more-affluent friends are confused about Mrs. Myers going into housecleaning- why didn’t she pick some other job?
“That’s terrible! I mean, she ought to get some work that’s more, you know, interesting. Why didn’t she look at the help-wanted ads and stuff like that?”
Karen volunteers that Dorca, their maid, really has it made “working at her own speed in a nice house and getting her meals free and everything.”
But Cathy barely has time to contemplate the way she feels about her friends’ attitudes, because Miles throws us a curve in the very next chapter, which opens:
George Waldman died.
Not only has Cathy’s tormentor DIED, but he DIED because he was showing off by fooling around with his mother’s handgun and SHOT HIMSELF IN THE FACE.
The next day in the 8th grade social studies class, Cathy learns that she is not alone in having confusing feelings about George having shot himself in the face.
After school, Mrs. Myers tell Cathy to write a condolence note to George’s mother, which is also hard and confusing:
“You’ll have to say whatever you can that is kind, and true,” Mom said “Letters will mean a lot to Mrs. Waldman. But she won’t want to read a lot of sentimental lies.”
While George’s death casts a shadow of the remainder of the school year, life goes on. Cathy takes a job babysitting an infant for a young, hip couple that Mrs. Myers cleans for and she ably handles the situation when the baby suddenly develops a fever.
Julia is rejected by MIT and buries herself in her job as the high school yearbook editor. When her classmates start to flake out in the home stretch, Cathy joins the staff to help proofread.
There is an entire chapter devoted to the girls watching Miss America and endlessly mocking Bert Parks.
Mrs. Myers joins the unionization effort of the other local cleaning ladies, forming a co-op for better hours and wages.
At the end of the school year, Julia graduates, having received both an acceptance and a scholarship to Yale, and her unconventional yearbook causes a stir (and maybe a mild scandal) in the community, but she also receives a call from Karen’s mother (who is a real live magazine editor) who tells her that it is the best yearbook the school has every had.
And finally, Cathy has her 8th grade graduation, looking ahead to the changes high school will bring.
Like Looking On, this is a coming-of-age story without any big dramatic events- even George’s death, while it has an effect on the students, is really a pretty minor subplot. Like Miles’ other works, while it puts the ISSUES (class, economic hardships, changing roles for women) front and center, it doesn’t shortchange the heroine or her feelings- I don’t think any author has better captures the growing dread that at 13, you have no control over your own bad ideas and fear that you’ll never be able to stop accidentally doing stupid things.
Sign It Was Written in 1976: Cathy is disappointed in Amy’s wasteful approach to cleaning out the fridge in the midst of a national meat shortage:
I couldn’t help thinking that roast beef cost more a pound than Mom makes in an hour.