Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Air Time

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet drive a hard bargain

The Maria Chronicles, #9

Maria expected she’d be challenged in one way or another fairly early on. Realistically, day two is about right. Still feels early, though.

Actually, there are two challenges. Neither of them is direct; the students involved may not even be aware that they’re making it difficult to do her job and are corroding her authority. At another time, she might be willing to let them slide. But she doesn’t think she can afford to now. Cede ground here and it may be very hard to get it back.

The first challenge is from two girls off toward right side of the room. One’s name is Janey. She doesn’t quite remember the other girl’s name. Katrina? No – Karina. They’ve been chatting away for a good ten minutes now. It started out surreptitious but has become increasingly animated.

The other challenge is from the back left, a kid named Derek. He’s hiding behind his long mane of hair and his laptop. Maria allows them, reluctantly: they’re too hard to fight at this point. She sees it as her job to keep students focused on the class; if nothing else, and upcoming test or essay should command their attention. But not Derek. His eyeballs are obviously scanning away at something unrelated to the class. He hasn’t gazed up since the start. Maria knows many of the kids in the room are aware of this, even though they’re pretending not to be. Just like she’s pretending, too. But she's going to have to act.

Now where was she? Oh yes. “So as I’ve been saying,” she tells the class, “Europeans justified their presence in the Americas in terms of helping the Natives, which typically took the form of saying they were going to Christianize them. She points at the the Smart Board where, before class, she googled and projected the official seal for the colony of Massachusetts. Can you see the words coming out of the Indian's mouth?

Apparently not. Maria reads them herself: "He's saying, ‘Come over and help us.’”

Wilhelmina, whose nickname is Willie, gives a wry smile. She perceives the irony and is trying to show her attentiveness. Eddie smirks, as if this euphemism for a naked power grab by adult figures is the story of his life. Another kid, Maria still doesn’t know her name, raises her hand. Maria nods to her.

“The Indians didn’t understand the concept of private property,” the girl explains authoritatively. “They had no word for ‘our,’ or ‘mine.’”

OK. Maria thinks, Now. “Well, I don’t know about that,” she says says, beginning to walk slowly toward the right side of the room, all eyes on her, wondering, literally and figuratively, where she's going. “Certainly, there were a lot of Indian languages, and I don’t know how much variation there was in the understanding of the concept of ownership.” She pauses before Janey and Karina, who stop talking and are looking at her expectantly. Maria ignores them. “I do think there was some notion of ownership on a collective level. You could say, for example, ‘this meadow is Choctaw land,’ or ‘that river belongs to the Huron.’ But Natives did not typically divide up property on an individual level, and since they moved around a lot, a notion of ownership was not always permanent. In any case, many of them at least initially had a hard time understanding the idea that you could buy or sell land or water for cash.”

“They probably thought it was dumb,” another kid, Maria thinks his name is Matt, says. “Here’s this white guy handing me over money and the Indian probably says to himself, you want to give me money to fish in this lake? Go ahead, pal. Fish there. I’ll let you. Not that you’re going to keep me from fishing there.”

“Yes,” Maria says, encouragingly, “Something like that.” Maria shoots a glance across the room. “Like our friend Derek here.” Derek looks up from his laptop, surprised. “Derek here is a Narragansett Indian. Derek, we’d like to buy the air rights in this room from you. Would that be alright?”

Derek looks dazed. “What? You want to buy the air what?” Some giggles. That’s Derek, they seem to say.

“The air rights, Derek. We’d like to buy them from your people. Would you consent to sell them to us?”

Derek, as it turns out, is a relatively quick study. He processes this for a moment and then smiles. He gets it. “Why yes, Ms. Bradstreet. I’ll be happy to sell you the air rights.

"You are authorized to speak and act for your people, are you not?"

"Yeah. I am."

“Wonderful,” Maria replies. “Always a relief to know you're dealing with the the right person. How does 10 hogsheads of tobacco sound to you?”

Derek purses his lips. “I dunno. Let’s make it 20.”

Maria changes her expression and inflects her voice with irritation. “Fine,” she says, as if it’s anything but. “Twenty it is. Get out of here, Derek.”

Derek tilts his head, furrows his brow. “Leave?”

“Yes. Go. Right now.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What part of ‘go’ or ‘now’ don’t you understand?” Willie’s brows are raised. Janey and Karina are looking on, fascinated.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“I dunno. Did you? I can tell you one thing. If you don’t leave this room immediately we are going to have a problem that’s bigger than me and you and any imagined Indians you claim to represent.”

“I don’t get it,” Derek mutters, closing his laptop. He gets up and walks out of the room disgusted. “Hey,” Maria says as he leaves, “It’s nothing personal, Derek.”

“Jeez,” Maria says to the rest of the class. “I mean, he did sell the air rights, didn’t he?” A couple smiles. Do they understand what she did? “I mean, who would have figured he was so eager to stay? I tell you, those Narragansetts,” she says, tapping her forehead with her index finger. “Loco, you know what I mean?” The nervous laughter loosens up. “Next time, I think I’ll just stick with the rum. Makes it easier to reason with them.” Some full-throated laughter now. “See you tomorrow, kids.”

“See you tomorrow, Ms. Bradstreet!” Willie says. My eager beaver, Maria thinks. A few of them have smiles on their faces, but others are expressionless.

“You sold the air rights, so you had to leave,” Maria hears someone explaining to Derek, still clearly around the corner. “That was the point, you idiot.”

Not quite, Maria thinks to herself. She may have overplayed it. “Derek?” she asks loudly, hoping to summon him from the hallway. “You there?” He appears, looking thoroughly confused, a combination of fear and anger. She’s going to reassure him now, flatter him for thinking on his feet (even if he didn’t do as good a job as he thought he did). And let him know he’s going to have to do a better job of pretending to pay attention from now on.