Wednesday, November 11, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet assess a potentially incendiary situation

The Maria Chronicles, # 22


Damn. Maria has miscalculated. She had hoped that by calling at two o'clock in the afternoon, no one would be home. She needs to have a conversation with this parent, but had hoped to leave a message first. It's so hard to be the bearer of bad news in live conversation.

"Ms. Clark? This is Maria Bradstreet. Derek's History teacher at Hudson High."

"Oh yes. Derek has mentioned you."

Maria almost asks "Really?" but manages to contain her surprise. She's imagined herself as a subject of perfect indifference to Derek. Not that she takes it entirely personally. She's been asking around, and has learned from her colleagues that the air of detachment, sometimes crossing the line into passive aggression, has been Derek's default setting for as long as anyone who's taught him can remember. Derek himself mentioned that Dad is "out of the picture," which she learned from the dean means the parents are divorced. Maria may have to contact him, too, but thought she would start with Mom. Maria doesn't know what to expect from either, but at least she's shown due diligence, and if she's ambushed, it won't be her fault.

"Is there something I can help you with, Ms. Bradstreet?"

"Oh -- yes. Sorry. I'm calling because I'm a bit concerned about Derek. He's not doing terribly, exactly. Actually, his first essay was quite good, though it was over a week late. He passed his exam last week, but with a 67%. Every once in a while, he'll contribute to class discussion, but most of the time he just gazes out the window in a way I sometimes experience as hostile. I believe Derek is in fact quite bright, and I was hoping you might be able to give me a little insight and perhaps help me reach him."

There's a long silence, and then Maria hears Derek's mother exhale. "I wish I could help you, Ms. Bradstreet. I really do. I mean, I can confirm that this is typical behavior for Derek. I only wish I myself knew a better way to deal with it."

"Do you have any idea what's behind it?"

"Well, not exactly. I mean, Derek's father and I broke up three years ago. I was very worried about the impact on Derek, and Andrew -- that's my ex-husband -- and I agreed that we should work hard to minimize it. And I thought we had. Until about a year or so ago. Then Derek started to get really, what's the word -- sullen. I was worried it was drugs. But I don't think so. I talked with my doctor. I haven't seen any of the tell-tale signs."

Maria hasn't either, but that doesn't mean she believes her. "Was he a good student up until that point?"

"A very good student. Loved to read. Actually, he still does, holed up alone in his room. Fascinated by astronomy. Also plays lots of Sims-type games on his laptop. You now, I'm as worried about his lack of social life as I am his academic work. Though I have to confess I've given up on pushing him about either, because he gets so angry."

Maria feels like she should be saying something, but she doesn't know what. "Well, I'm sorry, Ms. Clark. I imagine this must be difficult for you."

"Please: Call me Ann." There's another silence and then she continues as if in the middle of a reverie. "I hate to say this, but I think it all has something to do with Andrew. At some point last year, Derek simply cut him off emotionally. Refused to take his calls. Refused to even see him. I don't know if it was some kind of delayed reaction, or something specific that happened."

"Does his dad live locally?"

"No. He moved to Atlanta. He's remarried. Has an infant daughter. I don't know what happened between Derek and Andrew, but I felt I had to support my son. As you might imagine, that hasn't exactly made me popular with his father, or, for that matter, his stepmother. Not that I get any credit from Derek, who refuses to tell me anything. Except that it's now clear that we're in a permanent state of hostility with his father and his wife. We haven't had any communication from them in months."

"I'm so sorry."

Maria hears a sniffle. "Hey -- I can't say I mind not hearing from them." The bitter laugh does not conceal Ann Clark's crying. "But I feel like someone has died. You have to understand: this was a boy who --" She stops herself. "I've been thinking of trying to get him to a psychiatrist. He may need medication. I just worry about whether he'll cooperate."

"Well, again, I can understand how difficult this may be for you. And while I know this isn't easy for your to talk about, having this information helps me get a little perspective on Derek. I understand his attitude in class is part of a bigger picture. It may not be something I can help much with, but I'll try not to aggravate the situation further."

"Listen, if you have any ideas or make any headway, I'd be delighted. Don't worry about overstepping your bounds. From what I can tell, you're a pretty good teacher."

"You know, this might just be part of Derek's growing up experience. I mean, I'm not suggesting that there aren't real issues, and I'm not taking a position one way or the other on whether psychiatric help is a good idea. But just because he's like this now doesn't mean he'll be like this forever."

"From your lips to God's ear, Ms. Bradstreet."

"Call me Maria."

"Very well then. Listen, I'm late for work. Thanks for the call. I'm glad to get a reality check, and I'm glad that you clearly don't have it in for Derek. If there's something you need me to do, like nag him about a deadine, just let me know."

"I will. Thank you, Ann. Please take care of yourself."


Maria puts down her cell phone and places her fingertips on her forehead. She's reminded of something a mentor of hers told her many years ago, a truism that borders on trite but which comes to her powerfully now: Everybody is somebody's child. At times this fall she's come close to hating Derek, who in fact she still doesn't much like. But she's going to try not to give up on him. Maria thinks of her own two kids: they more or less turned out OK. Does she deserve credit for that? Her marriage didn't break up until they were already adults. Could they just as easily ended up like Derek? She simply doesn't know.

Maria's reverie is broken up by a fire alarm. Shit. She'd probably just sit here through it, but Jen Abruzzi's door opens and it's clear Maria herself will have to leave. Even though it's virtually certain this is a false alarm. She hopes the same is true for Derek.