Monday, November 9, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet engage in a one-way conversation

The Maria Chronicles, #21

With class over, Maria fixes her gaze on Derek, waiting to get his attention amid the rustling of pages and the rude sound of sliding chairs and desks. But in this as in other ways, he's hard to reach, and he's almost out the door before their eyes meet.

"Derek, can I talk with you for a minute?"

He silently takes his hand off the door and walks back. Vanessa is lingering near Maria's desk. She looks at Derek and back at Maria, perhaps hoping Maria will dispatch Derek so that Vanessa will have Maria to herself. But when Maria asks, "What can I do for you, Vanessa?" it's clear that the teacher's intention is the other way around.

"I was hoping we could meet to go over the test," Vanessa says.

"Well, this isn't a good time," Maria answers. "How about tomorrow before school? I'll be up in my office."

"Great," says Vanessa, satisfied. "See you then."

Blech, Maria thinks as she turns back to Derek. Vanessa is a pain in the ass. But she'll be easy compared with Derek; Maria's been dreading this encounter but knows she has to do it. She pauses to take in his Metallica concert shirt, perplexed by these kids who buy shirts with bands who were on tour before they were even born. It seems so fake.

"Derek, I'm a little concerned about you."

He says nothing, inscrutable. Maria is actually kind of impressed: no move toward defensiveness, much less defiance. There's real discipline in his self-containment. But it worries her, too.

"You passed the exam, but barely. You rarely participate in class discussion. Your first essay was late, though I thought it was actually pretty good. Do you have a problem with the class that we can talk about?"

Derek lifts his eyebrows and moves his eyes, as if he's been asked a question he's been asked an impossible question. "No, not really."

"Not really?"

"I mean, no. The class is fine. I don't really have a problem with it."

"Well, actually, what I meant is that I think that you're kind of the problem. Not in the sense that I think you're disruptive or anything (though Maria does think his disengagement is at times so extravagant as to be distracting to other students), but rather that your performance has been marginal at best. I was hoping we might be able to talk about it before, or instead of, getting your parents involved."

Maria feared that this would be heard as a threat, even blackmail. But she's again surprised by the lack of reaction.

"Do you think I should call your folks?"

He shrugs. "Whatever. Do what you have to do. My dad isn't around, but you should catch my mom."

What does "isn't around" mean, she wonders. Maria is mad at herself. She should have asked around and tried to get more of Derek's backstory before this conversation. She meant to ask Jen Abruzzi for help, but didn't see her at lunch and decided she would go ahead and get this over with. Now she sees this situation will be going on for a while.

"Well, look, Derek, is there anything I can do to help improve your performance? Because I'll tell you that if your performance doesn't improve soon in one form or another you're going to end up in trouble. Do you understand what I'm telling you?" Maria is struggling to keep her irritation out of her voice.

Derek purses his lips and nods. He glances up at the clock. "I'm late for practice," he says.

"Oh really? What do you play?"

"Point guard. Tryouts are today."

Aren't tryouts different than practice? Maria wonders. But she's not going to press him on that ground. She's having enough trouble with him as it is.

"Well, all right then," she says. "You know where I stand. I'm here to help you, Derek. But you gotta meet me, if not halfway, then somewhere along the way. I see someone interesting when look at you. But the walls are a mile thick. I'll respect those barriers as long as you understand and are willing to accept the consequences, as you seem to be. But . . . well, I hope you won't blame me for trying."

That came out a little more plaintive than she intended. Maria is a little embarrassed.

But Derek, still expressionless, looks at her and nods. It's the most hopeful thing he's done.

"You can go." And with that, he does.

"Jesus," Maria says, turning around to save her notations on the Smart Board. People always talk about how big an impact teachers can have. But most of the time, it's the limits that define her reality. She turns off her computer, shuts out the lights, and heads outside, where the bright afternoon air has more bite than it did this morning. She sure wishes she had another layer.