Friday, May 22, 2009


In which we anticipate a winter wonderland

The Felix Chronicles, # 27

The phone is ringing when I arrive in my office at 8:17 a.m. on the Thursday morning before the winter break. I pick it up while simultaneously trying to slip out of my coat.


"Mr. Cullen?"


"I'm so glad we've reached you. This is Ruth, Jason's mom? We met on Open School Night."

"Yes of course. How are you?" In my mind I see nothing, no name, no face. But Jason will be enough to work with. I drape my coat over my desk chair, pull my laptop out of my briefcase, and power it up.

"Well, I've been better, especially in this market. I'm calling about the History Day project. As you know, Jason's working with Tom."

"Yes.” I sort of do know that. It's on a master list somewhere in my inbox. I begin to rustle through it.

"A thoroughly depressing subject, if you ask me." Now I do remember: They're doing the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Originally, they wanted to do World War II. I told them the subject was too broad. They've narrowed it down to the bomb, and are working on a website. The first draft I saw was not too promising. Big slabs of text, relatively weak in conceptual organization. Technical glitches. Normally, one or both of them will be working with Joey. But Joey has grand plans for a tabletop reenactment of Pickett's Charge that he says he's been working on since July with Roy. Ominously, I’ve seen nothing new on Jason and Tom's project since they handed in the the first draft earlier this month, only a string of e-mails asking questions that could be answered if they studied the original assignment.

Then I realize that I've not been paying close attention to Ruth, who has been explaining the series of obstacles Jason and Tom have encountered. "It doesn't help matters any that Tom is out there somewhere in Elmsford, or maybe it's Valhalla. He never wants to come down the city, and I can't just drop everything to get Jason out there for one of their marathon sessions. Did you know that they spent all night working on this Saturday?" There's more than a hint of accusation in her query.

I'm tempted to ask how I would know that, but bite my tongue. I also imagine an empty pizza box, a Madden NFL game on a laptop, and Ludacris blaring from the port of an iPod. Still, I feel a twinge of unease. Truth is, the History Day Project has long been a sore point among some administrators and colleagues, who think it asks too much of the kids at a difficult time of year. We have revisited the subject from time to time as a department, and concluded that the pluses outweigh the minuses. For grading purposes we like to have a grade-wide substantial assessment at the end of the semester, and see bona fide value in a group undertaking in which students get to choose their topic and work on it in a planned sequence of stages. And some of the final results are truly extraordinary. Alas, that's not going to be the case here.

"I'm sorry hear that,” I say soothingly about the all-nighter. “I know that this is a difficult undertaking. That's why I always emphasize at the start of the project that students need to think carefully about with whom they're going to work and to emphasize that the quality of their collaboration is an important dimension of what this is all about. I also emphasize that they stand or fall together, and that if one kid coasts and another kid does all the work, that itself can be a valuable lesson."

"Well, I'm not sure I agree with you about that,” she says. “Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that Jason has handled this perfectly. He can be lazy. But I knew as soon as I heard that he was can be working with Tom were going to be problems here. Tom is a nice kid, but I don’t think he’s capable of pulling his weight, intellectually or otherwise.”

Not a kind assessment, but not an inaccurate one. I look at my computer screen. A small red box is flashing at the bottom right-hand side. It's the weather widget. That thing is always flashing red or yellow. More about drawing your eye to advertising than providing useful information. I click on it just the same.

"What I don't understand," she continues, "is the timing of this project. Why does it have to be just before the holiday break? We're leaving for St. Bart's on Friday morning. We’ve planned this trip for months, I'm pulling the kids out of school to take it.”

WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY, says the web page I’m now reading. Snow begins in the morning; six to ten inches by tomorrow night. Will she get out in time?

"Well,” I respond, “this is something we periodically have discussed going back many years. We've learned from experience that it makes more sense to have the project due before the break so that really we clear the decks for kids to have a real vacation. Nobody likes to have a big project hanging over their heads during the holidays." Actually, I have traditionally had this assignment due a week before the break, but watching my own son scramble to do his project (a documentary about strategic bombing -- the boys always seem to go for war) has led me to conclude that more time really does make a difference. He’s largely keeping me out the loop on this one, I’m happy to say. His partner’s dad is a documentary filmmaker, so that's where they're getting most of their help.

"Well I've got to tell you, an assignment like this really wreaks havoc on family life."

"Again, I'm sorry to hear that. Is there something you'd like me to do? Would you like to talk with the boys?”

“That would be good," she says. "But what would really help is giving them more time. I don't think these two really understood what they’ve gotten themselves into, and the geographic factor has really proven to be a major complication, especially because Tom has basketball practice during the week and coming up with good times to collaborate has been a major, major problem."

I can't resist a smile. Normally, I'd be in a position I really hate: having to say no. To accede to this request would not only precipitate an avalanche of similar ones -- the word would be on the street almost immediately -- but get me into trouble with my colleagues, as we've all sworn a blood oath to hold the line in the face of these pressures. I realize I'm taking a chance here, but if my bluff gets called, I can say I was certain, however mistakenly, that there was going to be a snow day.

"Well, I don't like to do this, but understand extenuating factors in this particular situation. So I'll allow Jason and Tom a little more time to finish this up. As long as I have it we get back from break, there should be no harm done."

"I really appreciate that. I want you to know that Jason loves your class.”

"Thank you. I enjoy working with him."

"The best part of this," she tells me, adopting a confiding, even conspiratorial, tone, "is that Jason will be spending the second week of the break with his father. For once in his life, the man will actually have to pay attention to his son's needs. Can't wait to see that."

"Glad to be of service," I say with a chuckle. And though I don't know why, I mean it. Though she's given me little reason to think so, I suspect her grievance with her ex, whoever he is, may well be legitimate. "Happy holidays, Ruth."

"Happy holidays to you," she replies. Pause. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Cullen.”

“Thank you,” I say. “I appreciate that. And please call me Jim.” But she’s already hung up.

Turned out to be more like a foot (and they got out in time). Thank God.