Monday, December 21, 2009

Watching students watch

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet do some serious reading

The Maria Chronicles, # 31

Maria is listening to Jack Casey -- the man who she until recently referred to in her own mind as "Cuff Man," for the way he wears his sleeves partly folded up -- over lunch at an otherwise unoccupied table in the cafeteria. Well, so
rt of listening, anyway. Jack has been pontificating over the course of the last few minutes, trying to explain the degree to which Ted Sizer, the man whose book they agreed to meet and discuss, might or might not be considered a realist. Maria is regretting that this conversation is happening, a conversation in full view of her students and colleagues, which she thought made it safe: this could not, in any meaningful sense, be considered a "date." Thank God they're not in some restaurant where Maria would feel pinned to her chair, pining for an excuse to hide in the women's room. She is troubled, however, to see her student Derek Clark staring at her from the crowded table in which he sits, curiously alone. This rattles her.

"Wouldn't you agree?" Jack is eyeing her curiously, seeking a reaction.

"Uh. Yes. I mean sorry. I got distracted there for a moment."

"Well that's a relief," he says, smiling.

"Excuse me?"

"Well, for a minute there, you were agreeing that tangerines make for excellent shovels. I realized I had lost you, and wanted to see how badly by posing a nonsensical question. I like Gertrude Stein."

Maria's face registers a reaction somewhere between confusion and disgust. How big a jerk is this guy?

Jack is laughing now. "Oh my God, that expression is priceless," he says. "Forgive me, Maria. This is not a joke at your expense. Actually, it's a joke at mine. I realized that I was talking at you -- a vice of mine, though one I usually hold in check -- and wanted to break out of the hole I dug myself into. I was trying too hard to impress you." He looks away, and then suddenly gazes right at her and Maria sees a tint of regret, maybe even defeat, in those grayish-blue eyes. "And I guess I've made an impression, all right." He tosses his napkin onto his tray. Lunch is over; she can escape to a discussion of the Compromise of 1850.

But it somehow seems too mean. Maria looks across the room again, and sees that Derek is still stealing a look at her, even as a boy now sitting next to him makes some remark that seems to call for a response. He knows what's happening. This somehow seems to embolden her in a weirdly defiant way. "The students are watching," she says aloud, more to herself than Jack.

"Watching what? What is it that they're seeing?"

"No, I mean the book. It's another Sizer book. One he wrote with his wife -- The Students Are Watching."

"I don't know that one," Jack says. "Is it good?"

"I really like it. I read it, I dunno, maybe ten years ago, but never unpacked it when I moved here." She looks back at him.

She can see he's got questions that he wisely decides not to ask. There's a shift. "Well, I'm game," he says, a bounce returning to his voice. "Should we read that one next?"

There's such charm in his hope that she can't bear to shoot him down. "All right," she says neutrally.

"Great!" A pause. "You know, I myself recently moved to Dobbs Ferry. Not exactly the upper west side, but we've got some terrific restaurants. You like Mexican food? There's a place I took my daughter to last week when she was in town that I really like."

Now it's Maria who has questions. No wedding ring. But that doesn't mean he isn't married.

"My wife died of ovarian cancer three years ago," Jack says. "That's why I left my job. Not right away -- I probably should have quit before she died, not after. But that's why I left -- just in the nick of time, as it turned out. Got lucky with that, anyway. It's why I'm here."

Derek is getting up to leave, carrying his tray toward the kitchen. He's not looking at her. Jesus, Maria thinks. Suddenly this is happening very quickly.

"Maybe we should just meet here for lunch," Jack is saying. "After the holiday break? You can let me know."

"I like Mexican food."

"Bueno!" He's beaming now. "Tell you what: How about you dig me up that copy of the book -- I'll be here again on Monday; you can leave it in the main office -- and I'll get you dinner. Next Sunday sound good? That weekend after Christmas?"

No; she'll get a new one, Maria thinks. She'll order it, express delivery, on Amazon after class, which she suddenly realizes starts in three minutes. "Sounds good. She points at the clock. Gotta run."

"Oh sure. Thanks, Maria. This was fun."

Maria's not sure she agrees. Hell, she's not sure of anything. Except the Compromise of 1850. Thank God for that.