In the imaginary world of Aurora Boring Alice, Alice Krupperminsk was the clerk who helped Americanize old Great-Uncle Stanley’s family name, the name that had made her tougher for life. “Mm, Krupperminsky. Let’s see, you could shorten that to ‘Krupa,’ like the boat company. Or, now, ‘Copper’ with the hard ‘C’ would be attractive. Or, how about ‘Rupp,’ or ‘Permi.’ That--‘Permi’--has an important, scientific ring to it . . . So . . . what will it be then, Mr. Krupperminsky?”
“I think you can take away the ypsilon,” he said. He had learned English, though British English, so he had a charming, mixed, musical accent. “Yes, Krupperminsk. Krupperminsk. I like that.”
Of course, her name wasn’t really Aurora Boring Alice, either. That was the nickname Donald MacDonald had called her in fourth grade at Greater Gratiot Elementary School when they were studying the atmosphere. He was also the one who once sat by her on the bus and told her somebody had bitten him that day, after which he bit her shoulder and said, “Like this.”
When Alice recounted the story to Mama, she briefly thought about passing the bite along, for effect, of course. But that was what was wrong with Donald’s storytelling in the first place. In the second place and third place, Alice loved her Mama Lina--short for Emilie Ottilie Marie Carolina--so much, she was ashamed to have even had the fleeting thought.
Alice was nonetheless pleased to have a bonafide nickname that did sort of refer to something beautiful. Plus, everyone knew that Alice was not boring, so it was a kind of tease that included her into most everything that went on at school. She was a quiet and good student, so no one who might later depend on her as a study buddy would be too mean.
What made her not boring were two things. She could draw anything on anything with anything and she could hum and whistle at the same time. If it was during lunch, she’d wash her thick and thin sandwich down with water and do a requested round, say, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” or “Three Blind Mice,” humming first, then adding the whistled round. Her best one was “Dona Nobis Pacem,” which she’d do if someone added in a piece of licorice or some potato chips.
That doesn’t include the fact that Alice also spoke two other languages besides English. To her, since she was not allowed to speak them around people who might not understand them, it was really like that part of her was invisible. Except, once in a while, she experienced “auditory delay” in responding to a question in English that was being filtered through those two other languages. People would get impatient with her sometimes, or think she wasn’t listening, which taught her to be very quiet, so fewer questions would be asked of her. This also taught her to be patient with herself, because she was always thinking very fast and in layers. There were so many ideas and funny and ridiculous scenes that floated by as she sat listening and doodling on her papers.
She’d count how many times Mr. Helmer took off and put on his reading glasses, while she thought of how many words she could make with the letters of her name.
A L I C J A S U S A N N E K R U P P E R M I N S K
A E I U C
A E I U J
ARE SPARE PARE PAIR PAN PANS ANT ANTS AUNT
AREA SPARES PARES PAIRS PANT PANTS AUNTS
AREAS SNARE SNARES MAIN MAIL MAILS UNCLE
EAR LIP LIPS CLIP CLIPS CLAP CLAPS CAP UNCLES
EARS PLEASE PLEASES EASE EASES SEAM NAP NAPS
CAN CANE CANES RULE RULES REEL REELS SEES
CANS CAPE CAPES LAKE LAKES LAME CAMERA SEE
MAN MALE MANE MANES NAME NAMES SAME SNAIL
MEN CAKE CAKES LAMP LAMPS SLIM SLIME SNAILS
MASS MASSES MISS MISSES KISS KISSES SAIL SAILS
MANNER CAR LIKE LIKES PAL PALS PAIL PAILS RAIL RAILS REEK REEKS CREEK
MANNERS CARS LAIN LAP PLAN PLANNER PLANNERS PLANK PLANKS PLANE
PAPA PACK CARE PAIN SAP SAPS MAP MAPS SMACK SNACK SNACKS PLANES
PAPAS CARES PAINS SPA SNAP PLAIN PLAINS PEAK PEAKS SPEAK SPEAKS
PRIMER NEAR PALE SNAPS SNIP SNIPS SPIN SPINS PIN PINS PEN PENS
RIM PEAS NEARS PALES SCAM SCAMS SCRAM SCRAMS ALMS CALM CALMS SUN
RIMS PEA PEAR ALE SUNS SCAR SCARS SCARE SCARES RACE RACES SPACE
PRIM RUN PEARS ALES SEA SCAN SCALE SCALES SPACES RANK RANKS REAM
PRIME RUNS SEAR SALE SEAS SCENE SCENES SINK SINKS INK INKS LINK LINKS
PRIMES SEARS SALES SPAN SICK SICKNESS PICK PICKS PINK PINKS PIE
PRINCE SMEAR PANE SPANS SPRAIN SPRAINS RINSE RINSES RISE RISES
PRINCES SMEARS PANES REAM REAMS REAL LEARN LEARNS EARN EARNS . . .
Then, if she would add the letters from “Aurora Boring,” that could make more than a hundred new combinations and sentences. As Alice thought about the words she was forming from her name, each one came with at least one picture. There would be the one thing connected to the word that first--almost instantly--appeared, and then other pictures would follow. Many pictures that were connected to her other languages would dance around the words.
She would doodle on the edges of her papers including the loose leaf holes as she listened to Mr. Margitan tell about the perfect right triangle and the Pythagorean Theorem. Alice liked Pythagoras and Euclid and Newton. Where were the boys that turned out to have ideas with pictures and symbols like that, she wondered. It seemed there weren’t very many girls with these thoughts, so Alice was quiet about that. She smiled as she designed a scalloped collar on the back of the “Estimating the Height of a Flagpole” homework assignment.
What made her laugh in school were things like Mrs. Magee exclaiming, “My stars and steel-rimmed garters!” in English class. This kind of thing would get Alice to drawing any number of versions of stars and steel-rimmed garters, and whispery giggling. Mrs. Magee was the one who began encouraging Alice to write about her family. She also encouraged Alicja Susanne to use her real name.
Most of all, Alicja Susanne loved music. Every day after warm-ups, Mr. Hanawalt would introduce a song in a story, give out sheet music, and show a movie clip including that particular song. Then, they would sing it. They sang “Bali Hai,” which had a mysterious quality expressive of yearning for grown-up love and exquisite beauty surrounded by swaying palm trees. They could almost feel the warm, white sand between their toes even though they were singing in a windowless cement block room that terraced down to a piano from behind which Mr. Hanawalt’s tan, bald head nodded and turned. The lenses of his black-framed glasses made his eyes look huge when they looked at the group singing the melody and then cornered left and right to keep everyone together. Once in a while, he would play the piano with one hand so he could direct with the other, but mostly it was his trusting gift to their independence that he sat down there on the bench, playing up to them with sweeping flourishes.
Many years later, when Alice was married and the mother of several children, she’d remember the thrill of “Bali Hai” and try as a grownup to reimagine the exotic beach with the warm trade winds gently caressing her cheek. For a moment, she’d wonder how that whole movie turned out, but it was almost better not seeing it, because it was one of the most beautiful places she had ever been.