Friday, September 4, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet make her classroom debut

The Maria Chronicles, #8

First class, first day of school. Maria has emerged from the stall of the faculty women’s room, where, it turns out, she didn’t have to throw up after all. She has splashed cold water on her face and wiped it off, smoothed out her hair, straightened out her blouse, and sailed into that classroom like she’d done it a thousand times. The sudden hush that had overtaken the room in her wake almost unnerved her again. But then her anger at herself kicked in; she'd pronounced “Good Morning” in a strong clear voice (“G’mrning” was the collective, murmured reply) and she’s worked her way steadily through the attendance sheet she left in her in-box yesterday in preparation for this moment. Almost done.


“Here! You can call me Willie,” she says brightly. (Sweet face, Maria thinks to herself.)


“That’s me.” (Oh yes – the kid who helped me with the computer a couple weeks ago. Nice smile, even if there is an air of goofiness about him.)


“Yeah.” (Dark hair, dark eyes. Only glanced up from his laptop only momentarily. Could be a problem.)

“And, last but not least: Vanessa?”

“I’m Vanessa.” (Pretty, in an edgy way. Definitely wants to be heard.)

“All right then,” Maria says, standing up and walking over to the Smart Board. She spent an hour here earlier this week practicing with it. Now she turns her back to the class and writes a single word with the red magic pen. Then she boxes it, presses the upper-right hand corner of the box and voila:

F R E E D O M.

“So let’s plunge right in,” she says. “We’re going to start talking about Native Americans tomorrow, but by way of getting started, I thought we could have a brief discussion of a key concept in this course. So tell me: What does this word”
she points at the Smart Board – “mean to you?”

A pause. Maria has braced herself for silence. She’s relieved that it turns out to be brief. “It means the ability to do something,” Vanessa says.

“The ability to do something,” Maria repeats.

“Yeah,” Vanessa says. “The ability to do something, like speak out. Freedom of speech.”

“I see. And presumably that would include the ability to do other things too, like worship?”

“Sure,” Vanessa replies. “Whatever you're into.” Some chuckles at this.

A boy raises his hand. “Tell me your name again?” Maria asks.

“Well, it’s Andrew on your class list, but call me A.J.”

“O.K., A.J. And what does freedom mean to you?”

“I think economics is an important part of freedom.

“Yeah, if you've got money,” Matt interjects.

“Is money a form of freedom?”

“Absolutely,” Matt replies. “Most important kind of freedom there is.”

“Is there any kind of freedom money can't get you?”

“I don't know,” he says. “I'll let you know when I feel like I have enough to find out.” Maria hears a cackle to her right: “Ha!” It’s Vanessa.

A girl raises her hand, and Maria nods to her. Anticipating her question, she says, “I’m Maggie. To me, freedom is not only the ability to do or get things, she says. It's also the ability to not have to do things. Freedom from.

“Good point,” Maria says. “We all like freedom from rules we consider pointless or oppressive. The term that’s often associated with this idea is ‘negative freedom.’”

“Like homework,” Matt says. “That’s freedom I’ve just lost.” Some chuckles.

Wasn't there like a famous speech that talked about freedom from, the girl with the pleasant smile asks – Willie, Maria remembers. “Freedom from fear?

“Yes. That's Franklin Delano Roosevelt's ‘Four Freedoms’ speech. We'll talk about that in this course, probably sometime in May. I'm impressed that you know that, Willie.” She beams.

A black haired kid
Jose? No, it’s Jake, Maria thinks raises his hand. She nods to him. By staying silent, there's no mistake, but no confirmation, either.

“Freedom is relative,” he says.

“What do you mean by 'relative?'”

“It's always limited. You can't have complete freedom, because otherwise you'd have chaos.”

“I believe the correct term is anarchy.’”

“Fine, anarchy. But the other thing is that your freedom always gets in the way of someone else's.”


“Pretty much. Like if I own a business on some land, and a river runs through that land, and I pollute it, I have the freedom to do that and the freedom to deprive an environmentalist of a clean river.”

“Another girl raises her hand, and takes Maria’s eye contact as her cue to go ahead, which it more or less is. “I don't think one person's freedom always has to interfere with somebody else's, she says. My decision what to wear doesn't really hurt anyone, for instance. I think people should have as much freedom as they can as long as they don't hurt somebody else.”

“Don't be so sure, Olivia,” Matt says.

“Don't be so sure of what?” Olivia responds.

“That what you're wearing doesn't hurt anyone,” he answers, suppressing a smile.

Olivia wrinkles her face with distaste, and sticks her tongue out at Matt.
Maria is a bit disappointed; for a minute there, she thought the class might be headed toward a discussion of sweatshop labor.

“Are we going to be tested on this?” Vanessa asks.

“Not directly,” Maria answers, hoping she doesn’t betray her irritation. “This is more like an ice-breaker.”

Maria glances up at the clock. About 10 minutes left. She decides to buy some good will by not trying to squeeze out every last drop on the first day.

“All right then. I suppose that's enough for now. You can go.”

“Thank you, Ms. Bradstreet! a voice says amid the chatter of this first exit.”

“Thank you!”

“Is the homework on the website?”

“Yes, yes.”

“See you tomorrow!” Willie says.

Yes you will, Maria thinks. Tomorrow, and the day after that, and the week after that, and month after month after month after that. Maria feels another flittering of panic and despair: “I'm in this thing for real now,” she says aloud to the empty room. And then the sense of dread passes. This is the ground, these are the terms, of her vocation.