Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Orders of Magnitude

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet weigh the scales of time

The Maria Chronicles, #3

The last tim
e Maria visited Hudson High School, all was quiet on a dusky evening in late spring. She had assumed the next time she came, all would be bustling on an early September morning. But of course she had forgotten that there would be meetings before classes started, that she’d be coming in to set up her desk, and that she’d want to explore the building before school year got officially underway. So the contrast as she pulls into the parking lot on this surprisingly cool August day is not as sharp as she’d imagined.

Still, lots of doors are open. There are a few kids walking by. And in the distance she can see the football and girls’ soccer teams practicing. It’s quiet, but not dead, as she gets out of her car with her new briefcase and slams the door. Nice that it won’t be that hot today for the faculty meeting this afternoon. Maybe she won’t have to dry clean all her clothes. After the $300 she put on her Amex card at Ann Taylor refurbishing her wardrobe, and the approach of her first rent and car payments, Maria needs to rack up some small economies. She’s brought along a container of yogurt, a granola bar, and a banana in her backpack.

There are some benches near the main entrance, and Maria pauses to put the backpack on one and looks carefully at the building. It is massive. A frieze in the middle with the words HUDSON HIGH SCHOOL chiseled in it. Faux Doric columns flank either side, set against red brick. A granite base with sculpted horizontal lines. Everything about it projects a sense of solidity. Ted Johnson, the principal who offered her the job, told Maria that the school was built in 1911, though he didn’t know much else about it. But Maria sees that everything about the building conveys a sense of Progressive confidence in the future. This school was made to stay.

Maria thinks of a picture she saw in a book on World War II she was flipping through recently in preparation
for her new courses. It showed an aircraft carrier under construction in a shipyard in Los Angeles. The vessel itself and the surrounding machinery dwarfed the clumps of workers milling around like ants on the ground, vividly dramatizing the colossal scale of American industrial life. Power, in just about every sense of the term, was associated with a sense of scale. Bigger was better.

Today, Maria knows, modernity is defined in terms of smallness. The ever shrinking transistor, literally microscopic in size. The locus of cutting-edge science is molecular biology. It’s true even in consumer culture. She thinks of her first boyfriend’s stereo system and its massive speakers. His 400 LP record collection. Now it would all fit on an iPod. There’s a remarkable sense of tidiness about it. Still, she senses that maybe there’s a sense of loss, too.

She turns back to look at her new, ice-blue Toyota Prius. She loves the car, which she waited six weeks to get. Never having liked SUVs, they now seem like pathetic dinosaurs (she spies one at the far corner of the lot – probably a kid who drove to practice in Dad’s old car). But in her mind’s eye she also sees her brand new car as an antique, bearing witness to moment of transition, of hybrid cars caught between two worlds, neither fish nor fowl. One thing she knows for sure: she’s going to hang on to that car as long as she can, and will cheerfully drive it a decade from now no matter how old-fashioned it will become. Maria tends to find comfort in the past; that’s why she’s a history teacher. But much to her surprise she also increasingly finds hope in the future, and few things are more satisfying to her than yesterday and tomorrow mingling. Maria picks up her briefcase and heads toward the massive front doors. A new ritual is about to begin.