The baby girl raised high from her hospital bassinet, much like a birthing trophy, flings wide her pudgy pink arms to embrace the new world. Fists and feet pumping the air in triumph, truthfully just joyous to be freed from the confines of her mother, is completely misinterpreted by Barbara, who proclaims the daughter in her arms to be, “Peppi” head cheerleader for the Knights, forever sealing Penelope’s place to the sidelines in the Knight’s hearts and household.
By the time of her fifth birthday, Peppi has become a marginal and reluctant player on team Knight. She is taught to wave a banner, scream, “Go Brian, or Rick, or Mike, or Drew, or Dan, or Steve and is expected to hurry along after her brothers while wearing the colors and insignia of their respective teams. Penelope is never asked whether she wishes to be included in her brother’s sporting events and neither does she protest, much. The Knight children are raised to be the living embodiment of the idiom “children are to be seen and not heard,” and Brigadier General Richard Knight ret. sees to it that his progeny live up to that ideal. The Deputy Commander sees no distinction between overseeing the planning of missions and coordination of his troops or those of his family. A vision and devotion to duty shared by his wife.
Up at first light, Barbara Knight runs her household with the precision and regimental order reminiscent of her own upbringing under the command of her father, Major General Henry Allen Highgrove, deceased. Barbara’s parenting objectives center on the discipline, fitness and training of her testosterone-laden brood rather than the incongruent estrogen encumbered Peppi, whose femaleness is still treated as an anomalous snafu.
Morning greetings hailed by Barbara promptly at 0600 hours are hailed from the doorway of the master bedroom. Roll-call responses are returned in birth order, eldest Steven shouting out, “Good Morning, Mother.” first, and is echoed down the hall in quick succession. Youngest brother Brian, the more sympathetic of her siblings, raps anxiously on Peppi’s wall hoping to rouse her in time for reveille, usually to no avail. Peppi’s offending lackadaisical tendencies are dealt with swiftly and decisively.
“Peppiiiiiii.….!” mother squalls twice before she marches down the hallway, hands flying out automatically to straighten the family portraits which line the wall single file; each oaken frame precisely placed thirty-six inches from the floor and four inches apart. To Barbara’s utter consternation she has yet to formulate a form of action that counters her daughter’s increasing insubordination. This lack of effective stratagem has intensified Barbara’s pathological need to tidy everything in sight. Snapping open the door, Barbara, tips her chin high in the air, and announces, “Miss Peppi, you are to get out of that bed this instant or I will send your father in to get you up. You have 5 minutes to present yourself at the breakfast table.” About face, door snapped shut behind her, Mother then proceeds down to the galley kitchen where she prepares a bracing breakfast, consisting of oatmeal, stewed fruit, scrambled eggs and grapefruit juice which is to be downed post-haste.
The regiment’s calendar of events, chores and daily schedules are noted aloud by father when he returns from his morning conditioning at the end of the breakfast. After the briefing, all the Knights then turn about face snagging backpacks and coats arranged in age-order in-line along the far kitchen wall below color-coded coat hooks. The precession proceeds to the back hall, which is surrounded by open-faced, color-coded lockers. Each member’s locker stores sports equipment de jour and seasonal accessories in neat order. With the except of Penelope’s which instead brims with pompoms, sweaters, hats and scarves depicting the various team mascots and school colors of her brothers allegiance.
For Peppi, starting school was a relief. Kindergarten, first grade, and now on to second, Penelope thrived for the six hours free of the Knight’s stricture. Though her parents suspected something amiss during laudatory parent conferences they remained silent. Their meetings with teachers during their boys conferences were ones of strategy and compromise regarding what could be done to keep their math and reading scores levels high enough to keep them playing sports. But their experience with Peppi (their uncooperative, lazy, disorganized, daughter) so vastly differs from the one proposed by her teachers (obedient, helpful, intelligent) that during the mid-term parent teacher conference of fourth grade, when appraised of their daughter’s flourishing arithmetic skills, they found themselves absolutely convinced of the school’s falling academic standards. Instead of believing their daughter exceptional, since all the Knight boys struggled academically, they found all further report of Peppi’s educational excellence dubious in nature, the results of coddling teachers. So disinclined were her parents to believe in their daughter’s mental acuity that upon learning of her winning the math league challenge, they punished her severely for cheating. It was then that Barbara and Dick began surveying boarding schools.
Informing her fourth grade teacher that she wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the math league anymore was humiliating. Penelope entertained the idea of hiding the letter from her parents but knew from experience that they’d follow up with a call. They didn’t trust her to accomplish even as simple a task as handing a teacher a note. Penelope resigned herself to the task, hanging back as the lunch bell rang out. “Mr. Price, I’ve a note from my parents.” Mr. Price sat on the nearest desk, opened and read the letter. Penelope watched his ears rise as his jaw set in anger. “Penelope, I’m sorry your parents feel this way. You’ve proven to me that you can do this work. I don’t know where your parents got the idea that you cheated. Let me phone them after school and see if we can set up a meeting.” Penelope blushed. “No, it’s too late.” Penelope had resolved in the night, when whispering of the boarding school caught her ear, to “be all she could be” according to her parents and nothing more.