Monday, October 26, 2009

A struggle for power

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet parry a grade-grubbing parent

The Maria Chronicles, # 18

Maria is startled when the phone at her desk rings at 11:17
on a Tuesday morning, while she's reading her favorite blog on her laptop. She's almost forgotten she has a phone on her desk. And she's definitely forgotten to check her messages for days. Maria remembers a time when answering machines were a novel technology. Now they're fading fast. "Hello?" she asks tentatively.

"May I speak with Maria Bradstreet?" asks a female voice.


"Ms. B
radstreet, this is the office of Doctor Ronald Chiklis, chief of endocrine surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Please hold for Dr. Chiklis."

Who the hell is Ronald Chiklis? Maria wonders. And why is he calling me? Oh yes: Jake's dad. But why doesn't he just pick up the phone himself? Or, better yet, send an email?

A male voice comes on the phone. "Mrs. Bradstreet."

"Yes, I'm Ms. Bradstreet."

"Ron Chiklis here, Jacob's father. How are you."

Maria has decided on a minimalist approach: "Fine."

"You're new at the school, correct?"

"Correct." Asshole. Maria knows what he's doing.

"I'm calling regarding Jacob's recent essay on the American Revolution," he says after a pause.

Maria has absolutely no recollection of Jake's essay, which she graded over the weekend and returned yesterday. That in itself tells her something: it was neither memorably good nor memorably bad. But Dr. Chiklis seems to think Maria will know exactly what he's talking about. She begins clicking around on her computer to the folder where she stores student comments. For the time being, she buys time in a way that always seems stilted and yet always seems to work: by paraphrasing what's just been said. "You'd like to talk about Jake's essay."

"Right. You gave the essay a B. I must say that I read the essay myself and thought it was a good deal better than that."

Maria smiles and resists the urge to say, "Is that so?" She's now found the comments and scans them, remembering the essay. "Yes," she says. "I'm looking at my notes. I said that it was a decent essay, clear structure, strong evidence, but that the thesis could have used a little development."

"Right," Dr. Chiklis says. "Jake's thesis was that the American Revolution was a struggle for power."


"I actually thought that was a pretty good thesis. I'm a bit of an amateur historian myself. Are you familiar with the work of Theodore Draper, Mrs. Bradstreet? I believe his book was actually called A Struggle for Power."

Maria is a bit surprised that the good doctor is citing this magisterial study. "Yes, I am," she replies. "Been a while since I read it, though." Dammit, she scolds herself, don't be defensive!

"Yes, well, I read the book on a long flight to China for an international conference a few years ago. I thought was rather good. Not as good as Gordon Wood's book, that first one, published back in '69, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard. But very good. What I don't understand is how you could say that Jacob's essay was undeveloped, which I take to mean simplistic, when it's comparable to what Draper said in his book, which I regard as one of the best on the topic."

It's official: Maria's dander is up. Dad probably wrote the essay; if he didn't, he damn near shoved Jake into plagiarizing Draper. Maria's seen enough to see that he's a fairly passive kid, and here might be an explanation as to why. Probably the child of a second marriage. In any case, it's time to push back. "Yes, Draper's book is a major reinterpretation of the American Revolution," she begins. "But it's impossible to appreciate the force of his argument without putting it into historiographic context. Draper is actually responding to Wood. Wood is one of a number of historians who have emphasized the role of ideological forces in the coming of the Revolution; Draper's book is a self-conscious piece of revisionism borrowing from Marxist analysis that re-emphasizes materialist factors."

"Well that's all fine and good," Chiklis says. "But what does any of that have to do with Jacob? This is not graduate seminar, after all."

"No. It is not. And that's really my point. Jacob's thesis is superficially similar to Draper's, but lacks the rich sense of texture and historiography that makes his book the landmark you rightly view it to be. As matters currently stand, Jake saying that the American Revolution was a struggle for power is a little like saying that diabetes is a serious disease. Accurate enough, but not an especially insightful piece of analysis. That's why he got a B."

There's silence on the other end of the phone. Maria feels like she's landed an almost palpable punch.

"So what could he have done that would have been better?"

"Oh, any number of things," Maria replies. "His classmates made arguments like 'the American Revolution was inevitable,' or that it was the result of British ineptitude, or a blow for freedom, or whatever. Let me be clear: Jake's essay wasn't bad. It just could have been better. And it still can. I'd be happy to talk with him and give him a chance to revise it." (Him, she says silently. Not you.)

"Well, this is one of Jacob's problems. He's not proactive enough. That's why I'm calling. But I will encourage him to come talk to you."

"That would be fine." Him, not you.

"All right then," Chiklis concludes. "Thank you, Mrs. Bradstreet."

"You're welcome, Mr. Chiklis." Maria hangs up the phone. And sticks out her tongue.