Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stamp of disapproval

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet confront post-weekend torpor in the pre-Revolutionary era

The Maria Chronicles, #15

As Maria heads to her classroom on Monday morning, she passes by fragments of blue and orange streamers dangling off lockers. She sees a sign outside the nurse's office: BEAT POLY! Now she remembers: Last weekend was Homecoming. She slipped out of school before the pep rally on Friday afternoon. Maria used to go to Homecoming at Derry High in her last years there, initially out of a sense of duty that became more of social occasion (she still has a blue and white sweatshirt she bought years ago). But she's new here, and barely knows any students, much less alums. She figured she could skip it this year without anyone really noticing. She spent Saturday afternoon at with at Starbucks, grading papers. Satisfaction with her productivity edged out a sense of loneliness.

"Morning," she says to the class, which murmurs in reply as she takes a seat at her desk. Three students enter as she's taking attendance; she imagines a couple more will drift in in the next few minutes. She makes a mental note to do a final accounting after class is over, as she sometimes forgets, and the High School office secretaries have enough trouble as it is keeping track of everyone.

"All right then," she says briskly, bringing her hands together to convey a sense of purpose. "As I mentioned to you last week, today we're going to start to discuss the sequence of events leading up to the American Revolution. I asked you to have a look at the table of Parliamentary Acts from 1763 to 1776 in your textbook, and to bring it along. So let's have a look."

Some listless rustling of pages. Willie was already cued up, of course, as was Vanessa and, a little surprisingly, Karina. Peter is looking around awkwardly: he forgot. Janey did too, but has an almost jauntily defiant air. "Can I go get my book?"

No way, Maria thinks. She'll be gone a half-hour at least. "Just share with Karina, Janey."

"All right then." she continues without giving Janey a chance to react. "So who's going to tell me about the Stamp Act?"

Willie raises her hand, of course.

"OK, Willie, take it away."

"The Stamp Act was imposed in 1765 by the British Parliament to help pay the costs of the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War. The war cost a lot of money and the British were looking for ways to get the colonists to help pay for it."

"And how did the Stamp Act work, Willie?"

"Well, you had to pay a tax on things like newspapers. When you paid, you got a stamp as, like, whaddyacallit . . . a receipt. It showed you paid. The stamp, I mean."

"Excellent. And what did the colonists do in response to the Stamp Act?"

Stony silence. Willie waits, then raises her hand, a little sheepishly. Maria nods to her.

"Well, they protested. Actually, in Massachusetts, they rioted. They tore up the house of Anne Hutchinson -- sorry, I mean Thomas Hutchinson, who was the governor."

"Actually, he was the lieutenant governor. And he was a descendant of Anne Hutchinson, who I know you all remember was one of the Puritans, so you're not that far off. What else did the colonists do? Can someone other than Willie tell me?"

Apparently not. "The Stamp Act Congress? Can anyone tell me about that?"

Lots of downward gazes. Janey's looking at the window. Derek is tapping his pencil on his desk. Willie looks like she's going to burst; Maria can't tell whether she's embarrassed for her classmates or desperate to start talking about the Stamp Act Resolves.

The door opens; Mia enters. She almost cringes from the tension that compounds her awkwardness. "Sorry," she whispers. "My dad got caught in a traffic jam." She takes her seat.

"Stamp Act Congress? No takers beside Willie?" Mia is looking determinedly busy and avoiding eye contact.

Shit. Maria is mad at these kids, but she's also mad at herself. She's broken a rule she formulated long ago: Always leave yourself an out. She knew she was pushing her luck in relying on the kids to actually do the reading, but she was lazy. She went into the weekend a bit behind on planning, spent Saturday grading the papers, Saturday night watching a Mad Men boxed set she got out of the library, and Sunday at the Met with her college friend Nancy. She spent most of Sunday night on the phone. And she didn't think through that Homecoming weekend probably meant a lot of homework would go undone. The plan was to move quickly to really analyzing the Stamp Act Resolves and Declaratory Act. Now what? Lecture? Can she remember enough of this stuff? Barely, but she will wing it if she has to. In any case, this will push off the discussion until tomorrow, and compress her time for the Declaration of Independence.

Maria is aware even the most sheepish of the students are now looking at her expectantly. What's going to happen?

"Well, kids, here we are, Monday morning, start of a new week, and it appears we're really not ready to work. I could act all angry at you, but that would imply that your decision about whether or not to do your homework is about pleasing or angering me. It isn't. As long as I do my job, I get paid, whether or not you do yours." (This isn't strictly true, Maria knows, but she also knows no one is going to contest the point now.)

"Here's the deal," she continues, walking up the front row of the class and placing her fingers, extended, on Kenny's desk, leaning forward but looking past him. "You may or may not have a quiz on this material tomorrow, and since I'm new here you have no real way of knowing what I will or won't do. In any case, I recommend you come to class prepared for whatever may come. That may include interrogating you point blank" -- she forms her index finger and thumb into a pistol that she "fires" at Derek, who looks back without expression -- "on the reading."

Maria turns around and walks back to the front of the room. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and turns back around to face the students. "Seventeen sixty-three," she says. "A turning point in the history of the western hemisphere. Britain has defeated France, and as a result of the Treaty of Paris, is now supreme in North America. But, as Willie has suggested, the Empire is saddled with gargantuan bills. Parliament, believing it has come to the rescue of the colonists and now seeking to recoup its expenses, decides to impose a series of taxes . . . ."

Wouldn't you know, Maria thinks. Some of them look as if they're really interested.