Monday, April 20, 2009

Takin' care of business

In which we see the rest room is really a very busy place

The Felix Chronicles, # 18

I have a few minutes between classes in room 211, and take the opportunity to go upstairs to the main reception area of the school for a quick pit stop. I want to grab a cup of coffee from the machine in the faculty lounge, but first branch off to the faculty men's room. It's small -- two urinals, two stalls, and a sink -- but convenient, and the only one reserved solely for faculty use.

When I enter, I find Hal, my colleague in the English department, drying his hands with a paper towel.
We've been working on trying to team-teach a course. "Hey. Glad I ran into you," he says. "I finally had that meeting with Diane and Rafe, and I've got them on board with our course for next year. Can you make the pitch at Wednesday's curriculum meeting?"

"Sure," I say, making a mental note to draft a memo. "But have you cleared it with Tom?" I ask, referring to the head of his department.

"Yeah. Tom is on board."
Hal crumples a paper towel and tosses it successfully into the wastepaper basket. Tall and largely bald, I sometimes imagine Hal as a high school basketball player with a nickname of "Stork," though I have no idea whether he ever actually played the game. It's just something I like to think. "After we run the department gauntlet, then it will be on to the parents and students to see if, when we build it, they will come. Then all we have to do is actually design and teach the course!"

"Piece of cake," I say as I saddle up to the urinal, beginning to worry about actually having to do this course. I hear the friction of Hal's shoes on the tile floor as he heads for the door. "Hey Fred," I hear him say, the colleague who has apparently entered behind me.

"Hey Hal," he says as he pulls up beside me. "How ya doing,” he says to me as Hal exits.

“Okay Fred, how ’bout you?”

“So did I hear that you're good to go on that English/History course?”

"Well, we're making progress, anyway."

"Good for you. But there is something I've been meaning to ask you."


"Back in the joint department meeting last month, you said that you were comfortable with the idea that the class would not proceed chronologically, because you don't think kids actually learn history that way."

"That's right."

"And I do remember you saying things like that at different points in the last few years. I remember you saying that a kid might learn American history one year, take an elective in European history the next, and then do ancient Rome or Chinese history after that."

“That's right. I take exactly that approach in my Biography elective,” I tell him. “We move from Genghis Khan to a Maine midwife to Jesus Christ, because the curriculum is driven around questions rather than topics or chronology."

"I get that. And it makes a lot of sense to me. But I also remember you telling me that the 10th grade US history survey still makes a lot of sense as a chronological course, as one key course a student will have for sure that actually does proceed in such a fashion and provide a foundation for whatever else may follow."

“Well, yes, I do remember saying that," I acknowledge.

"So what changed?"

I step back and pull up my zipper. I don't really have a good answer for him. "I guess I'm thinking it's just time to be doing something new." Left unanswered is whether I'm referring to the school curriculum, my own inner restlessness, or both.

“Well, more power to ya. I didn't ask at the meeting because I didn't want to pour more fat on the fire. I myself am reasonably satisfied with the course as it is, so I don't anticipate any big changes. But I'll be curious to see how it works out for you."

"Thanks, Fred,” I say as I take my own turn with the sink. I'll be glad to hear what you think."

"Oh -- one other thing," he says. "I saw you were reading that Amy Chua book on Empire. Any good?"

"Not bad. I think the Charles Maier book Among Empires is better."

"Could ya send me the complete titles of both? I'd like to order them on Amazon."

"Sure, Fred."
I make another mental note as I grab a paper towel after washing my hands. I shoot; it hits the rim of the wastepaper basket and spills over to the side. "There goes the soft-drink endorsement," I say to myself as I dunk it in, dodge Fred, and head for the door, thinking about that cup of coffee.

But I have to step back as Raphael pushes the door just as I'm about to open it. “Jim, I'm glad I ran into you," he says, repeating Hal’s greeting. He suddenly modulates his voice, as deans so often do, though unnecessarily in this particular setting. "What can you tell me about our friend Louis? I saw your e-mail to his mom from a few days ago."

“I'm afraid no news is bad news. Even when he's there, he's not there, if you know what I mean."

“It's not just you,” Rafe tells me. “He's having trouble in all his classes. Mom tells me that she's adjusted the medication, but that was a couple weeks ago now and I'm not hearing of any improvement. If things don't improve by the break, I'm going to have to raise the question about whether Louis really belongs here." Fred makes a silent gesture of greeting to Rafe as he glides by us.

“Sorry to hear that," I say. "Truth is, he's been a little warmer to me since I sent an e-mail home explaining that I like him, but fear that I'm going to have to fail him. Yesterday on his way out he smiled at me on his way out, as if to tell me it’s nothing personal.”

“That's the problem," Rafe says sadly. “After a certain point, it really isn't. And he's getting real close. Anyway, thanks for your help.”

“No problem," I say as he makes his own trip to the urinal. Now officially late for class, I nevertheless do not want to return to 211 without that cup of coffee. I turn into the faculty lounge, where I find Fred in front of the coffee dispenser, pouring cream into a paper cup of tea. “Maybe we should just put your desk in there in one of the stalls," he jokes. “Seems to be the place where you conduct all your business.”