Monday, November 30, 2009
Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty is the latest entry in a series that is itself a historical artifact
The following review was published yesterday at the Books page of the History News Network website.
The Oxford University Press History of the United States, for which eight of a projected twelve volumes, each well over 700 pages, have now been published in non-chronological order, is certainly among the most ambitious enterprises of its kind in modern times. No one, however, could call it a quickly realized one. First conceived two grand old men of the profession, C. Vann Woodward and and Richard Hoftstadter, a half century ago, the first volume, Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause, covering 1763-1789, did not actually appear until 1982. (A revised edition was issued in 2005.)
It took another six years before James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, on the Civil War era, appeared in 1988, though it was well worth the wait: winner of a Pulitzer Prize, it remains the standard one-volume history in the field twenty years later. The next title to appear, James Patterson's Grand Expectations, covering 1945-74, did not surface until 1996; it won a Bancroft Prize for the best work of history that year. In 1999, David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear, covering the Great Depression and World War II, won a Pulitzer Prize. By that point, Hoftstader, who died in 1970, was long out of the picture, as was the remarkably productive nonagenarian Woodward, who finally died in 1999. So Kennedy himself took over editorship of the series.
The pace picked up significantly in this decade. Patterson reappeared in 2005 with Restless Giant, covering 1974-2000. In 2007, Daniel Walker Howe published What Hath God Wrought, covering 1815-1845; it won the third Pulitzer of the series. Last year witnessed the only book in the series to cover a single topic comprehensively, George Herring's survey of U.S. foreign policy, From Colony to Superpower. Future projected volumes include Peter Mancall on the early colonial era, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton on the British empire in North America, and Bruce Schulman on the early twentieth century. An H.W. Brands volume covering 1865-1900 was withdrawn under ambiguous circumstances (though the same might be said of any number of prospective authors who have come and gone in the last four decades). That segment is now apparently to be written by Richard White.
All of this is a long way of introducing the latest volume in the series, Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, which spans from ratification of the Constitution in 1789 to the end of the War of 1812. Yet rehearsing this history of the series seems important in understanding the book and its larger significance. Like its predecessors, An Empire of Liberty is a huge work of synthesis by a major scholar and represents the distillation of a lifetime's worth of study. Like its predecessors, too, it is a book notable for the clarity of its prose, something that can be attributed to the strong editorial hand guiding the project as well as the liquid smoothness that has always characterized Wood's work (he's long been a fixture at the New York Review of Books, among other publications). Magisterial, authoritative, comprehensive -- these are words you can apply to this book, just like you can the rest in the series. If Empire, perhaps more than others, illustrates some of the limits of grand visions, it must be said that the book is an achievement of a very high order, among the highest in two centuries of American historiography dating back to David Ramsay's history of the revolution published in 1789.
As Wood makes clear at the outset, Empire is less an extension than a recapitulation of his earlier work, notably his groundbreaking The Creation of of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991). In those books and elsewhere, Wood, reflecting the influence of his mentor, Bernard Bailyn, as well as the generational temper of his historiographic generation, emphasized the role of ideology as a force in provoking and sustaining the American Revolution. Radicalism in particular was notable for its conceptually elegant narrative arc, which moved across a tripartite social transition from monarchy to republic to democracy in the half-century after 1776.
In Empire, Wood provides much more detail about a much shorter stretch of time. The key transition here is from the dominance of the avowedly elitist Federalist faction led by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s (which he views as largely necessary, but necessarily doomed) and the somewhat paradoxical celebration of the people emphasized by the Republican faction and embodied most vividly by the aristocratic, slaveholding Thomas Jefferson. This transition is captured at either end of the book in mentions of the arch-Federalist Noah Webster, who starts out by defining a "gentleman" as a person who has a liberal arts education and is not in engaged in trade, and ends up defining gentleman simply as a courtesy title to describe "men of education and breeding of every occupation." Wood expands upon this well-established historiographic framework in chapters that take him to relatively fresh ground, in particular a pair on the evolving U.S. judicial system, and others on evangelical religion, Republican foreign policy, and a notably provocative foray into cultural history. In all these cases, Wood traces the powerful egalitarian currents that course through early American society, even as he notes the counter-currents and paradoxes that result.
But those counter-currents and paradoxes never overshadow what Wood considers the bright mood of the times -- and Wood's own bright view of early American history. He of course is careful to consider the blight of slavery, which he discusses periodically over the course of the book and focuses on in one chapter. Yet given that 1789-1815 is the period in which slavery changed from what seemed to be a fading fact of life to a newly revitalized and nearly fatal cancer in the body politic, it's not hard to imagine another historian making much more of it. Ditto the treatment of U.S. Indian relations in the West. Or the role of women in society. These are, on the whole, subjects handled with both more depth and facility in what is the next chronological volume in the series, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought -- which, in its full-throated affirmation of Whig ideology, has a somewhat sharper argument, beginning with its dedication to the oft-overlooked John Quincy Adams. In reading Wood's book, I found myself wondering what a younger historian like Woody Holton might have said on such subjects if he had this assignment, particularly since Holton's just-published book, a biography of Abigail Adams, casts her in a distinctively new light as a financial speculator. And I find myself asking -- as well as whether I should be asking -- how big a problem it is that every one of the published or projected volumes in this series is currently assigned to a white male historian.
In some sense such questions go to the core of what makes this project important and problematic at the same time, and to a great extent why it was conceived in the first place: a perceived need for synthesis in an age of ever-growing diversity. Given the demographic as well as intellectual pluralism that has characterized the profession in the last forty years, the series is bucking the tide of History. This is true in terms of its evident belief that U.S, history can be rendered in a fully integrated narrative. And it's even more true in terms of affirming the role of narrative itself in an age of monographic literature in which mastery of a discrete sub-specialty, coupled with a carefully wrought analytic apparatus, are regarded as the highest, and most readily rewarded, forms of historical writing in academe.
The people writing these books are hardly mavericks; indeed, they are among the most celebrated and esteemed in the profession, precisely because they've mastered the game as it's been played in the second half of the twentieth century. In their ends, they are throwbacks to a consensus era; in their means, they implicitly accept that the post-1960s academic scholarship they lean heavily upon (much of it their own) has not really been able to communicate effectively with a broader public without the kind of mediating function that they serve here. Which itself is problematic: Who has time these days to read a single 800-page doorstop, never mind a dozen, even if you can download them all on a single Kindle?
Of course, for many in the profession, the situation I'm describing is hardly a problem, but rather a solution: having everybody write synthesis would be too many chiefs and not enough Indians. A career track in which junior historians write monographs that become grist for the mill for the senior ones makes a lot of sense, whether or not the Holy Grail of "the general reading public" is ever found. Looked at in this way, this series demonstrates what was was possible during what may well come to be known as a Golden Era of American history.
If so, however, it is an era that may be rapidly drawing to a close. The now well-publicized upheaval the University of California at Berkeley, along with the financial pressures at university presses (though not, apparently, at Oxford University Press, itself a wily survivor of earlier imperial buckling), are undermining the intellectual infrastructure that that made this series possible: Taxpayers and tuition payers are unlikely to maintain current support of the sabbaticals, fellowships, research assistants and other perquisites that make books such as these possible much longer. The Oxford History of the United States has been a long time coming. It may be even longer before we see anything like it again. We should savor these books -- as books -- while they're being bound and printed in the present tense.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Jim is observing the Thanksgiving holiday. He invites readers to have a look at the current edition of the online history magazine, Common-Place, where his essay "Blogging, with Pickles," describes the circumstances behind the origins and trajectory of this blog.
Jim's recent reading includes David Benioff's City of Thieves (published in paperback earlier this year), an exceptionally rich and fast-paced novel that's structured like a fable but reads like literary fiction. In the winter of 1942, amid the Nazi siege of Leningrad, two lowly Russians are swept up by local police forces and imprisoned. A Soviet colonel offers to free them and return their confiscated ration cards -- if they can find a dozen eggs so that his daughter can have a bona fide wedding cake despite wartime deprivations. This odd, but increasingly attached, couple have a series of adventures that alternate between, and combine, comedy and tragedy. Benioff, by the way, is the author of both novel and screenplay for The 25th Hour, which was made into a very good movie starring Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2003, directed by Spike Lee in a commercially-minded moment.
Jim is currently embarked on Gordon Wood's massive An Empire for Liberty, which covers the years 1789-1815 in the Oxford History of the United States. A review will follow.
May you savor your blessings.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet call it a day
The Maria Chronicles, # 25
Maria is crying. She's lying in bed, where she's been since dusk, and is now waiting for sleep to overtake her as her apartment goes dark. No dinner. No work. She changed into sweats and a t-shirt, climbed under the covers, and now just wants this day to end.
It wasn't really a bad one. Three classes today, one of which was on Jefferson's presidency. (Maria spent a little extra time on Marbury v. Madison, because she always stints Supreme Court cases). There was a department meeting on the upcoming National History Day competition. Maria was joined at lunch by Edie Wilson, which surprised her a bit because she wasn't sure Edie liked her. Maria, for her part, decided that she actually liked Edie's sharp tongue, whose targets -- among them Edie herself -- are usually deserving.
After school, Maria was going to grade the set of quizzes she received yesterday so she could return them tomorrow, the last day before the Thanksgiving break. But after nearly dozing twice at her desk, she decided she'd go home and work there. She had just grabbed her mail out of the her box in alcove of her building when her cell rang, which she fished out of her handbag. It was her son Evan. Maria listened as she unpacked her laptop and he explained that while he was planning on coming to see her for Thanksgiving, his girlfriends' parents had sent a pair of refundable plane tickets to their home in Florida, and he was thinking that . . . .
You go on ahead, she had told him. Felicia had long since decided, after careful discussion with Maria, to spend Thanksgiving her father. Mother and daughter would be together for Christmas. Maria is almost relieved to face the long weekend alone. She'll go to a movie on Thursday -- she's always loved going to the movies on Thanksgiving -- and maybe stop by and see Jen, who invited her for dinner. But when would she see her children together again?
Maria was sorting through her mail, handbag on the floor and laptop case still on her shoulder, when she saw the official-looking document with the state seal of New Hampshire. Oh my God, she thought, as she tore the envelope and pulled out the sheet. She opened it up and was right: it was the final decree. Seventeen months since she discovered Mark's affair, sixteen months since they separated, thirteen months since they filed the no-fault divorce, and four months since she moved down here. And now here it was. She felt numb.
After about a full minute, Maria roused herself. Shedding all she had in her hands, she went into the kitchen put the dishes in the rack away, sorted some laundry, finished looking through the mail, and plugged her computer into its charger. Then took the quizzes and decree upstairs. She thought maybe she'd do some grading while sitting on her bed, maybe with the TV on. But after she changed, washed her face, and climbed into bed, she couldn't bring herself to break the silence with her clicker. Nor could she pick up the first quiz; the decree was on top, and it was as if it blocked her from picking the quizzes up.
Now, suddenly, the great wave of misery breaks upon Maria Bradstreet. She hangs her head and cries until her neck hurts. And then she slides under the covers and cries some more. It takes a good twenty minutes before she finally drifts to sleep. And it takes another 47 before she turns in her sleep and knocks the decree to the floor.
Monday, November 23, 2009
The meaning of diversity been stretched to the breaking point. But what will take its place?
The following piece is running in the current edition of the History News Network website.
• adjective 1 consisting of people from many different countries and cultures: a cosmopolitan metropolis. 2 familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.
• noun a cosmopolitan person.
--Oxford English Dictionary
Actually, the concept of diversity and its practical meaning may be under the most strain from those who are actually trying to implement it, something that became clear to me earlier this year when I was involved in a group effort to craft a new diversity statement for my school. The time has long since passed that diversity can simply be considered synonymous with racial preference, or that racial preference itself can be considered a black-and-white affair. That's true not only because Latinos, Asians and Native Americans have all been growing in absolute and relative numbers in recent decades, but also because mixed-race identities are scrambling once seemingly distinct categories. Exhibit A in this regard, of course, is the president of the United States, who is simultaneously African and American and whose children are African-American (among other things). The check-boxes on the forms just don't make as much sense anymore.
This is why most diversity statements I've seen now amount to a laundry list of categories -- the former trinity of race, class and gender now supplemented with ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, among others -- that only seem to invite consideration of further objections and omissions. The same might be said of the related term of inclusion, which is always relative and involves some form of exclusion. Typically such exclusion is cast in terms of rejecting those considered intolerant, though to those with deeply held beliefs "tolerance" can sometimes seem like little more than a polite way of expressing indifference.
The more one tries to pin down a definition of diversity, the more elusive it becomes. I was interested to learn recently about a decision that was made to admit a German student to a private school in the interests of diversity -- and then to admit a second in an effort to avoid the kind of isolation and tokenism that sometimes afflicts minorities. Minority: That's another word that's losing meaning amid the ongoing demographic transformation of the United States.
Such counter-intuitive developments point toward a reality that defenders of diversity often cite when trying to reconcile them, namely that the point is not so much to right old wrongs than to create environments that advance the interests of specific institutions and society in general as they evolve. This is, in fact, the legal basis of that procedural pillar of diversity, Affirmative Action, as upheld in the Supreme Court's Bakke v. Regents case of 1977. There has long been a suspicion among some on the political Right that admissions offices, for example, have used Bakke as cover to fashion de facto racial quotas.
Whether or not this is true, it has become increasingly evident in recent years that even those institutions with an avowed embrace of racial diversity actively pursue other kinds as well. We've all heard proverbial stories about the SAT-deficient cello player from Indiana or semi-literate goalie from Phoenix who gained acceptance to Ivy League schools because they fit into the pointillistic portrait of a class the admissions office paints every year, a portrait whose exquisite fluidity defies any attempt at generalization on the part of those who lack access to the committee's studio. Such developments have been limned in a series of recent books, perhaps the best of which is Mitchell Stevens's Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites (2007).
Amid this growing sense of confusion and contradiction, there is a word that does describe what value in fact these people are both affirming and making a reality: cosmopolitanism. In a sense, cosmopolitanism is synonymous with diversity as described here: both terms regard difference as a positive good, and one to be actively sought and promoted. Cosmopolitanism has the great advantage, though, of being avowedly kaleidoscopic: it not only savors variety, but also variation in that variety. It attends less to the features of a minority culture than a desire to blend many different kinds of experience in the hope that the resulting mixture will engender a sense of personal as well as collective improvement. The people produced from this process create a pool of leaders, broadly construed, who can be counted on to promote cosmopolitan values in societies where their opponents may pose challenges that range from the distasteful to the immoral. The process may vary, but the capacity of any society to reproduce such people comes close to describing what it means to sustain what we would call a civilization.
I'm describing what might be called the bright side of cosmopolitanism. There are others. Cosmopolitanism is avowedly elitist. It doesn't necessarily deny the particularism of local cultures -- they represent the spice of life -- but it finally does demand those who attain or inherit it surrender much of the local in the name of the global, as the very name "university" implies. To assert or pretend otherwise is worse than naive: it is dishonest to the point of oppressive, as an artistic tradition that stretches from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to Kanye West's The College Dropout attests. Cosmopolitans typically display appealing traits of tolerance, good manners, and a willingness to innovate. But values like loyalty, egalitarianism, and a healthy skepticism about the march of Progress are harder to embrace and maintain.
In theory, at least, the difference between cosmopolitanism and diversity is that the latter has a more avowed commitment to meritocracy, of creating avenues of opportunity for upward mobility. There is some truth to this. But not much. We all know that it is the African American child New Rochelle lawyers who tends to gain admission to Harvard, not the child of Tennessee Baptists. (And the child of WASP legacies that is more likely than either, a truth that makes all the quibbling over the unfairness of Affirmative Action seem ridiculous.) Moreover, the concept of meritocracy itself is problematic. For one thing, the definition of merit itself is elusive when it's not avowedly discriminatory. For another, the very premise of meritocracy involves the awarding of hierarchical advantage to beneficiaries in ways that undercut its presumably democratic aims, one reason why beneficiaries of meritocracy sometimes act entitled, i.e. with a title, in the aristocratic sense of the term.
Where does this leave us? In short, with a dilemma. It's hard not to conclude at this point that the only truly non-discriminatory way to award privilege in this society would be on a random basis. Actually, I'd bet that if you were to replace the students at my elite independent school with a random collection of students, the latter would do surprisingly well once they had the advantages the presumably talented survivors of the admissions process did. But this is largely a moot point, because too many people have a literal and figurative investment in the status quo, a status quo in which private schools of any kind are not required to justify their otherwise problematic existence (beyond a commitment to the concept of diversity, that is).
The alternative is to drop diversity in favor of the more accurate term of cosmopolitanism as the governing paradigm for the distribution of privilege in American life. As I've been at some pains to make clear, cosmopolitanism has real problems. But then, so does diversity. Unlike diversity, however, the virtues of cosmopolitanism are clear and attainable, and there is at least some measure of amelioration built into it (there's room for a Tennessee Baptist in a cosmopolitan cosmos, after all). If nothing else, recognizing the reality of cosmopolitanism would be a constructive first step in fashioning an alternative. Honesty may not be the best policy. But it's probably the best place to start re-thinking how an American Dream of upward mobility can survive in a nation where long-term economic challenges may make any form of social opportunity seem like a luxury our elite institutions can no longer afford.
For some additional thoughts on the role of race in questions of diversity, see my post "Navigating Color without a Line."
Friday, November 20, 2009
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet encounter a familiar education reformer in an unfamiliar light
The Maria Chronicles, # 24
It is an unusually warm, even sticky, Friday afternoon in late November, and Maria is at the library. She's brought her class to get a briefing from the school librarian, Lakisha Goodman, on how to use the various databases to which the school subscribes. All tenth grade students must write a research essay, and today marks the kickoff in a six-week process. Her class is now scattered across distressed chairs and worn tables in the main reading room of the library. Lakisha stands in the center, presiding over a laptop on a stand that also has a projector on it so that students can see the library website on a nearby whiteboard. Lakisha is quite facile on the computer, moving the cursor deftly to click on sites like JSTOR and ProQuest. She's so absorbed in her task she has no idea just how bored the students are.
Maria is bored as well. She regards this session as a godsend, because she feels too tired to work up the energy to teach class. Lakisha has a good heart, and she really knows a lot about research, but she lacks real teaching skills and so is deadly in this kind of setting. In some respects, these kids know more about navigating their way around the Internet than any of the adults do, though they would do well to pay attention to the sites Lakisha is recommending. But most of them won't. Any more than they will actually saunter through the stacks and pull honest-to-God books off the shelves.
Maria now finds herself drawn to those shelves. She's actually spent very little time here since starting the job, and while she's always reading something and visits her town library occasionally, she has not really investigated what's here. She probably should be monitoring her charges, whether in piping up after Lakisha makes a good point or simply staring them into paying attention, but instead she finds herself drifting off toward the far side of the room, near a window featuring a view of sunlight filtering in through a tree full of brilliant red leaves. She sees she's in the 300s section. So this is a Dewey decimal system library, she thinks. Of course. Not really big enough for the Library of Congress method.
Maria spots a familiar yellow and white spine, and reaches in to pluck the book off its shelf. Horace's Compromise by Theodore R. Sizer. A book she read years ago and loved. Actually, she's read bunch of Sizer's books. This one and the one that followed, Horace's Hope. And the one he wrote with his wife, The Students Can See -- no, The Students Are Watching. Maria remembers now that she has these and other books she read in a box buried in the back of her coat closet at her apartment. She brought them when she moved, but never got around to getting them out, because she planned to get new shelving. Maybe that's something she should think about this weekend.
She glances over to see that Lakisha is still going at it, and then opens Horace's Compromise to a random location. She reads on page 186:
Other occupations reward exceptional competence by promotions. Virtually the only promotion for a teacher is to get out of teaching and enter administration. To be sure, there are hierarchies of sorts among teachers -- some are department chairmen, some are not -- but these tend most commonly to follow seniority. While school boards periodically make noises about rewarding demonstrably effective teachers with endowed "chairs," like university professors, the reality is that a teacher has the same "rank" in his or her last year as in the first. This classlessness has a certain ideological glamour, but in flies in the face of most humans' need for personal incentives.Endowed chairs? Maria's never heard about that. She flips back to the copyright page. This book first came out in 1984. Maybe such talk was more common then. Otherwise, this book could have been written yesterday. Maria herself has often ruminated on the point Sizer is making. Every once in a while, she's felt stuck. Making the move to this school certainly shook things up a bit, but she figures it's only a matter of time before the feeling returns. If only there was some obvious creative pedagogical outlet for her.
"Terrific, isn't it?"
Maria is startled -- she actually jostles the book, partly in fear and partly in guilt for having abandoned her class -- by an unfamilar voice. She looks up, and there he is: the figure she's taken to calling "Cuff Man." Gray slacks, white shirt, black belt. Sleeves rolled up. Tight shave, thinning jet-black pate: handsome.
"I saw him speak once," Cuff Man continues. "A truly remarkable man. Self-effacing, and yet with a tremendous sense of dignity. Have you read The Red Pencil?"
Maria is almost paralyzed with nervousness. She's about to say "No," groping to say something other than she's never heard of it, when in her peripheral vision she sees Lakisha waving her back over. "I'm just about done," she's telling Maria. "Do you want to say a few words before we cut them loose into the stacks?"
"Excuse me," she tells Cuff Man distractedly, putting the book down on a nearby table. "By all means," she hears him say behind her.
Maria recovers her composure enough to review the set of deadlines for each stage of the research project, glancing over to see Cuff Man thumbing through Horace's Compromise. She releases the students to begin looking around, and is soon surrounded by students with a series of questions that range from the mundane to the complex. By the time she looks up again, Cuff Man is gone. Horace's Compromise remains on the table.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet witness some non-self reliance on Walden Pond
The Maria Chronicles, #23
"OK Kids, listen up!" Maria's colleague from the English Department, Deborah Pryor, bellows to the crowd of students on the edge of Walden Pond. "I'm going to go over one more time what I want you to do for your assignment that will be due on Monday morning. You must follow the directions . . . . "
Maria is simply stunned by how beautiful the pond is on this autumnal morning. The foliage shimmers on the still water and bursts against the crystalline sky. Dubious about this part of the overnight field trip -- instructing students to in effect go and have a Transcendental moment strikes her as a contradiction in terms -- she finds herself delighted to be here. In the afternoon, she will be among the history teachers leading classes along the Freedom Trail. What's she's really looking forward to, though, is a cannoli at Quincy Market.
Maria is jostled back into attentiveness by an unexpected moment of silence that is apparently the result of Deborah looking at her watch. "You will have fifty minutes," she tells the students. "That's enough time to walk around the whole perimeter if you want to, but you'll have to keep a good pace. She turns and points to her left. "If you simply want to see the site where Thoreau had his cabin, walk straight this way. It will take you about ten minutes. Whatever you decide, you have to be back on the bus at 11 sharp. Hey! Alan!" Deborah claps twice and points at a sleepy student Maria does not know (which is most of this batch). "To be awake is to be alive!" Some chuckles; Maria wonders if they get the allusion or are simply amused by the contrast between Deborah's no-nonsense energy and Alan's torpor. "All right then," Deborah concludes. "Go on."
The students stand around dumbly for a moment, but begin to disperse with growing confidence. "I'm going over to the gift shop," Deborah tells Maria. "I have to make some phone calls. I'll be over in a little while to help round up this herd of cats." Maria nods and turns begins walking around the pond, beginning at the far side from the cabin site.
Maria has ambivalent feelings about Thoreau. She has no patience for the cranky misfit of "Civil Disobedience," who thought he could simply opt out of paying taxes he didn't like, which strikes her as the worst kind of Anglo male libertarianism. And as far as she's concerned, no man who has his mother and sister do his laundry can call himself self-reliant. But for all his prickliness, Thoreau's prose gleams. And although she may be projecting it on to him, she senses an inner struggle to live the words, and knows that dismissing him as a phony is a little like complaining that sinning churchgoers are hypocrites: it's missing the point. Now that she's actually seeing it for herself, Maria is intrigued that Walden Pond is not the wilderness, and she sees now that it's within easy walking distance (in nineteenth century terms, anyway) of the village. At a replica of the cabin the group looked at near the parking lot, Maria read that the railroad ran near the actual site, and apparently still does. Looking ahead she sees a cluster of students there, and evidence of a railroad bed off to the left. She decides to veer off toward it, if for no other reason that to continue to savor her solitude.
Maria hasn't gone far off the main trail when she sees two still figures lying side by side in a bed of pine about 100 feet away. They are not engaged in an overt sex act, but the sense of intimacy is unmistakable. From the angle of her approach she can only see sneaker bottoms clearly; the rest is partially hidden in evergreens. One kid apparently has his hands behind his head; the other appears nestled beside him. She doesn't recognize either, but either or both could be her students. Though she's going to have to break up this idyll, she's charmed by it. Years from now, long after Deborah Pryce's (undone?) assignment is forgotten, this will be what these two remember from this trip. Surely even a loner like Thoreau would approve.
Maria hears a voice shouting off far to her right. "Maria? Is that you?" It's Deborah, motioning a cluster of students to keep moving toward the group's starting point. Maria hesitates to respond, then takes a deep breath. "Yes!" she responds. As she does, the two students scramble to their feet and begin running away from her, presumably to circle behind the cabin site and rejoin the group there. As they do, Maria sees that they're both boys.
"Will you backtrack a bit and round up any slackers?"
"OK!" Maria replies, and turns around and walks in the opposite direction. She scrunches her brow, trying to determine if she recognizes either of the boys, when she's approached by her favorite student, Willie, notebook in hand, clearly running to make up for lost time and ground.
"It's OK, Willie," Maria says reassuringly. "Is there anybody else back there?"
"No. I told Olivia and Mia to go on ahead," she says as she slows to a walk, clearly out of breath. "I wanted to take a few more minutes to make some notes about a spider web I found. I guess I lost track of time."
"Good for you." Maria is pleased that she and Willie are now walking toward the bus at exactly the same pace.
"I love it here," Willie says. "That was a good assignment. Now that I've actually seen the pond, I need to re-read the parts of Walden we discussed in class."
"Sounds like a good idea."
A pause. And then: "Ms. Bradstreet, would you call Thoreau a romantic writer?"
"Well, not exactly," Maria replies. "Not in what I think of in the classic sense of the term, like Wordsworth or Emerson. But I'm sure a lot of people would."
"I just love him."
"Fair enough. But remember, Willie: it's a big world out there. There are lots of fish in the pond."
Willie turns her head and smiles at Maria in acknowledgment. "You're not talking about how they restock the pond with fish."
"No, Willie, I am not."
Willie is beaming. "OK, Ms. Bradstreet. I'll keep my standards up."
"Thatta girl, Willie. Any writer would be lucky to catch you. Any non-writer, too."
Friday, November 13, 2009
In House of Cards, William Cohan offers a crystalline reading of the opaque business practices that brought down an investment bank -- and the U.S. economy
The following review was published earlier this week at the books page of the History News Network.
Darling," said Judy, "Daddy doesn't build roads or hospitals, and he doesn't help build them, but he does handle the bonds for the people who raise the money.”
“Yes. Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn’t bake the cake, but every time you hand somebody a slice of cake, a tiny little bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you get to keep that.”
--Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
Finishing this book, it's hard not to wish the financial crisis of 2008 wasn't worse. Given the ongoing wreckage it has caused, and the likelihood that an even worse disaster may well have destabilized the political no less than economic system, this perhaps cannot be a responsible opinion. On the other hand, given the resistance of the banking industry to structural reform and the U.S. government's inability to extricate itself from the implicitly embraced doctrine that some financial institutions are too big to fail, perhaps we need a few more stories like the one William Cohan tells here to shake sober people out of their complacency.
That's the real value of this book: that it tells a story -- more specifically, in the words of its subtitle, a "tale of hubris and wretched excess on Wall Street." By this point, names like John Mack, Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein, and institutions like Bank of America, Citibank and Lehman Brothers, are at least vaguely familiar to people whose eyes never cross the business pages of a newspaper. To a greater or lesser degree, we understand the situation in its broadest outlines, one of excessive speculation and inadequate supervision, which intersected in the housing bubble of this decade. What we get here is a close case study of the first domino to fall: the collapse of the once-mighty investment bank, Bear Stearns, in March of 2008.
Cohan renders his narrative in three concentric circles. The first is a gripping, novelistic account of the final days of the firm. We're thrust into the hurricane of its credit crisis, and the lurching terror, hope, anger and resignation of the bank's leaders as it is smashed into a shadow of its former self and geets handed off, with government aid, to JP Morgan Chase. The second section of the book traces the origins of the Bear Stearns in the early twentieth century, focusing on a trio of chief executives: "Cy" Lewis, "Ace" Greenberg, and the flambouyant, bridge-playing Jimmy Cayne. The final section situates Bear in the larger feeding frenzy of Wall Street, as the firm's never especially scrupulous practices edge toward fraud and the increasingly hapless Cayne (off playing cards and smoking $140 cigars) is forced from leadership.
This approach has real advantages in segmenting the saga into digestible chunks (which can in fact be appreciated separately), though it does have the effect of marginalizing the otherwise central Cayne -- whose arrogance and narcissism become increasingly tiresome -- in the crucial first third of the book. Some readers may also have trouble, as I did, in following, both as a matter of comprehension and interest, the intricacies of investment banking. Editing may have been a factor here: the book was published in March, a mere year after Bear fell and six months after the financial crisis became acute. A long epilogue traces the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September; one hopes a new afterword will be in the offing for the paperback edition.
One service House of Cards performs uncommonly well is demonstrate something critics of modern finance capitalism like Kevin Phillips have been asserting for some time now: that investment banks like Bear Stearns produce little of value -- a term I used advisedly here -- to society at large. Industrial titans of yore like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller actually made things. More to the point, a banker like J.P. Morgan, who was hardly an hardly attractive human being, not only acted to stabilize the economy at crucial moments like the Panic of 1907 and in the creation of U.S. Steel, but had to work to gain the confidence of depositors over time. Investment banks like Goldman and Bear, by contrast, did not even bother to take responsibility for the earnings of ordinary people, but rather relied on extremely large loans of 24 hours duration to finance their operations and skim off cream from the churn of their transactions. Or, to switch metaphors, this game of musical chairs seemed safe -- what, after all, could go wrong in a day? -- until one firm with nowhere to sit threatened to out the entire economy with it. Ironically, the one time these banks arguably participated in improving society through loan programs designed to foster home ownership (here the Clinton no less than the Bush administrations share blame for some careless social engineering), they abused their opportunities by throwing money at people who had no business receiving it and slicing their loans into "tranches" that metasisized in the banking system as a whole.
Again: in its broadest outlines, this is a tale often told, and well understood (most recently by New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin in Too Big to Fail). What's remarkable here is the speed with which Cohan, former investment banker himself, was able to gain access to talk to the principals, talk with them at length, and render a first draft of history that will be of considerable value for some time to come.
Some may hear stories like these and react with outrage, as the so-called "tea-baggers" have and generalize it to cast a pox on any government intervention in the economy at all. Others may shrug with indifference: greedy bankers, ineptly monitored, is something new? Still others may find satisfaction in that people like Cayne really were punished for their actions in the only language they understand: financial loss. But we will all stand to pay the price for allowing business as usual to resume, and if in what follows we are swallowed in the deluge we will suffer a rough justice. Allowing such commissions constitues a crime of omission.
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.
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."
"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.
Friday, November 6, 2009
The social network as urban district
In the nine months since I first stumbled my way onto Facebook, I've come to believe -- "realize" is too strong a term to describe a perception that, given my general state of ignorance about social networking, I must regard as provisional -- that relatively few of the people I've friended are in fact regulars at the site. Upon getting new accounts, most of us plunge in with a combination of uncertainty and excitement, vaccuuming up contacts and poking around the various features. But once the novelty wears off, Facebook seems to fade into the background somewhat. People may visit when they get a Facebook message in their email account, but may otherwise never initiate contact that way or gaze at walls or profiles.
Which is not to say that Facebook necessarily becomes a kind of personal fad, like a video game or a new pop album you play obsessively for a while and then forget about. It remains an invaluable tool, especially as a kind of interactive phone book whereby you can contact someone even if you don't remember an email address, or seek information on a new or prospective acquaintance. Its utility is likely to be a source of durability long after it has lost its novelty.
I sometimes sense aversion, even distate, surrounding heavy Facebook use. For the lurker, it can be a huge time-waster. For those inclined to post, it can be all too apparent evidence of self-promotion, if not clinical narcissism. I've been on both the giving and receiving end of a comment like "You've been quite active on Facebook lately!" and it's not hard to discern passive aggression mingling in there with any overt admiration or approval.
My motives in getting a Facebook account were largely utilitarian: I did so simultaneously with launching this blog, and used Facebook as a marketing tool for the blog (it remains an important component of my modest audience). Still, I was as enchanted by it as many of those who joined without such motives, and, I'm somewhat surprised to say, have become only more in the time since. Lately, in the odd moment when I go just for the hell of it, I do so with a recurrent visual motif in my head: the piazza San Marco in Venice.
What's odd about this is that I'm sorry to say that I've never been to Italy, much less Venice. So there's double sentimentalizing going on, both of the Facebook I know and the famed public square I don't. But I somehow imagine, as I scroll down my wall, that I occupy a small window looking out on that public square. Each post, with its little picture of friend or acquaintance -- or, let's be frank, virtual stranger -- is like a person wandering across my purview at the time I happen to be there, or someone sitting at her own window across the square. Given the traffic that passes through on any given day, and the fact that I'm only at my window a fraction of the time, I miss most of what happens. I have about 500 friends, and at busy times of the day any post that goes up will pass from the top to bottom of my screen in a few hours (if that). Thus it is that time is becomes a kind of space; the range of my vision, depending on the light of day, can be anywhere from three to ten hours wide. Whatever the width or length, there's always someone going by, a sight to see.
And, occasionally, something to hear. Among the traffic I witness, there will be an occasional voice that hails me across the square, or that I will call out. Our communication will be public, a wave of approval that all can see, or a comment of greeting or praise that many will witness (or, perhaps comment upon as well). Occasionally, I will receive communication through the back door, as it were, mail that arrives outside the view of the square but which bears an inseparable relationship to it.
I'm not sure how far I should extend this metaphor; I could speak, for example, of the businesses that peddle their wares (I certainly put mine on display), or the authorities that administer or police the square (we all worry about their trusworthiness even as we benefit from them). If there's any larger point here, it's about the way cutting edge technology tends to be enlisted in the service of traditional longings and imagined pasts, in this case an urban village in which everybody knows your name.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet grade an exam (and herself)
The Maria Chronicles, #20
Shit, Maria thinks to herself as she flips through the set of just-graded exams. I've got a problem on my hands.
Or, more accurately, a set of problems. The first is that some of these kids are surprisingly mediocre at absorbing the factual material she'd like them to master. This is not exactly a news flash when it comes to someone like Derek. It's more unexpected in the case of Olivia. She's been a bit of a cipher in class, but has struck Maria as someone who's largely on the ball. That may not be the case after all.
Then there's someone like Vanessa, which points toward problem #2. Eighty percent is not a terrible score, but she knows Vanessa well enough to think that she'll be upset when she gets the exam back. "I am so ready for this test," she told Maria this morning as Maria gave her a copy of the exam. Apparently not, Vanessa. Presumably there are other Vanessas in the class as well. This is likely to lead to disputatious discussions as well as silent resentment. Keenly aware of her probationary status in the eyes of the student body as New Teacher, Maria would just as soon not antagonize multiple students at this point. Not that she should be letting that bother her.
Actually, Maria is not especially concerned about a set of scores that average in the mid-seventies (which, strictly speaking is where the average should be: 75% is a C). In any case, she'd rather be perceived as a hard-ass than a pushover, especially at this point. Grade inflation being what it is, she's almost required to cede ground over the course of the year, if for no other reason than to foster a sense of psychic confidence that at least some of these kids are actually going to need by way of creating self-fulfilling academic prophecies. Realistically speaking, there are two tiers of grades that can end up on a report card that don't result in unpleasant consequences for student and/or teacher (usually in the form of parental protest): some form of A and some form of B. Maria usually has to go lower on that in a few cases a semester, but avoids it when she can. On assessments like exams and essays, however, she's generally comfortable handing out Cs and Ds, especially in the case of papers that she allows students to re-write.
But then there's problem #3, her biggest source of discomfort. And that is a feeling that it's Maria who really performed poorly here. Question #19, for example, asks students about the antifederalists, and Maria now sees that there may have been some ambiguity about whether the term referred to people who opposed the Constitution in the 1780s, as opposed to those who opposed the Federalist party in the 1790s. Sixteen of her twenty students got that one wrong. Seventeen students didn't know the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which Maria is sure she mentioned in class. Maybe that was the problem: she mentioned it in class. Sure, it was in the textbook. But as far as these kids are concerned, if it wasn't discussed in class, it didn't happen, and Maria has given them little reason to think otherwise.
Maria decides to void those two questions, which means she'll give three points apiece to all those kids who got it wrong, and three points to any who got either or both right. This will bring the average score up to somewhere around 80%, -- a B- in Maria's book -- and drag Derek over the line from an F to a D. Vanessa won't be thrilled, but hopefully less querelous; Olivia will remain mired in mediocrity. Ditto for Ali. Maria will have to keep a closer eye on those two, part of which will involve watching to see how proactive they are in grappling with this outcome.
Maria begins entering the scores in her gradebook in pencil, knowing that errors and challenges will inevitably lead to adjustments. She thinks of an old saying to the effect that it's best not to look too closely into the making of sausages and wars. Grading, she muses grimly, should be added to that list.
Monday, November 2, 2009
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet study outside her field
The Maria Chronicles, # 19
Maria was reluctant when her department chair/emergent friend Jen Abruzzi called her up on Saturday morning, announcing she was coming by in two hours to take Maria to the football team's home game. "I've got too much work to do," she protested.
"Now, now, Maria, all work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. I think you'll enjoy it."
"I don't know anything about football!"
"You think I do?" Maria knows Jen does, but decides not to argue.
"C'mon," Jen continues. "It'll be fun. Lots of familiar faces. And I'll take you out for a hot toddy afterward."
Maria wasn't sure she was up for lots of familiar faces, but less sure she wanted to spend the day alone. So it was that she put on jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt, and a wool sweater. She also found an old scarf in the school colors that she wrapped around her neck. Almost like a real fan.
They didn't actually arrive until the game was apparently well underway -- the scoreboard clock said 6:31, whatever that meant -- and Maria found herself in the grip of diametrically opposed emotions. She felt an incipient dread over seeing anyone she knew, and yet was impressed, even awed, by the spectacle: the packed bleachers, a concession stand, cheerleaders, and the absolutely enormous players in their shoulder pads and helmets. Maria followed Jen as she skirted up the sidelines. If this was a pool, Maria would be wanting to dip her foot in gingerly. But Jen isn't giving her that option.
"Hi Ms. Bradstreet!" Maria doesn't recognize the face. "Hi," she says noncommittally.
A man she definitely does not know tips his school cap. "Ms. Bradstreet," he says evenly.
"Hello," she replies.
Jen, who's in front of her, turns around. "Hey Ed," she says. "This is Maria. I believe you two recently resolved a problem with our mutual friend Janey Wilcox."
Ugh, Maria thinks. That's a dispute over releasing a student for a soccer game that Maria would rather forget, since it required her to eat crow by e-mail. But Ed extends his hand. "Nice to finally meet you in person, Maria," he says, offering his hand. "And good of you to show up today in support of our boys." He's choosing to interpret my presence here as an act of good sportsmanship, Maria thinks to herself.
"Just trying to continue my education, Ed," Maria says. He smiles, perhaps knowing better than to say anything Maria would be quick to find patronizing.
Thankfully, Jen is pulling on Maria's sleeve, which allows her to wave goodbye in haste without making further eye contact. "Over there," Jen says, pointing to an open section at far corner the top row of the bleachers.
"Hi Ms. Bradstreet!" Maria sees her students Mia, Maggie and Tess, faces painted, arms folded to retain heat, greeting her in unison at the foot of the bleachers. She's glad to see them. "Hello girls," she says warmly. "How are we doing!"
"We're cold!" Maggie says."C'mon, she says to her pals. Let's get some hot chocolate."
Maria murmurs greetings to various people as she and Jen climb the steps. Jen, for her part, is making her way like a small-town mayor, waving and smiling her way to their seats. Maria sees English teacher Carl Kurtz, motioning them over and sliding down to make room for them. Is this why Jen targeted this location? Maria isn't sure how she feels about Carl, who she is now forced to sit beside as Jen makes her way to the other side of him.
Maria decides to avoid conversation by feigning interest in the game. In fact, she's fascinated by the spectacle: the sweep of colored uniforms on the field; the sweep of autumn leaves in against the gun-metal sky; the smell of of the grills on the ground wafting up the stands. (She realizes she's hungry.) She hopes it doesn't rain, as she has no umbrella or even a hat.
She's snapped out of her reverie by a huge roar from the crowd. She can't resist: "What just happened?"
"Complete pass," Carl answers, eyes still fixed on the field. "Not something you see very often in high school football," he continues, the wry expression on his face suggesting that it should be otherwise. "Not that it's done us much good. It's still third and seven."
Maria has no idea what Carl is talking about, though she likes the gentle tone of irony, even as she's struck by the lack of irony in his use of the collective pronoun. "Are you much of a football fan, Carl?"
"Well," he says, "I guess you could say so," glancing briefly at her and smiling. Two sets of players run on the field, and two more run off. "Not that I can claim to be any kind of expert. But I did play in college."
"Really?" Where did you play?"
"At Penn State," Jen answers for him. "Carl was a linebacker who played for Joe Paterno, one of the legends of the game."
"I was a second stringer," Carl says, embarrassed by Jen's boosterism.
"That's not what I heard," Jen responds. "Tom" -- Jen is referring to a colleague in the math department -- "told me you were a starter in your senior year. And that you had conversations with the Green Bay Packers organization."
Carl, suddenly riveted by the action on the field, perhaps coveniently ignores this remark. "Go go! go! go! go!"
The rest of the crowd has also erupted with excitement, as Maria sees a player run down the field with the ball, the rest of the players in tow. "Did you see that catch?" she hears as she watches players with the other uniforms in hot pursuit. (She had not.) "Go Tyler Go!" she hears. "Tyyyylerrrr!"
By this point, Tyler has reached the end of the field and the opposing players are suspending their pursuit. Happy teammates swarm around him. "That's our boy," Carl says. "Only a sophomore, but already a seasoned veteran."
The player is now making his way off the field, to ongoing slaps and evident, if unheard, words of praise. When he takes off his helmet, Maria feels a sense of shock: This is her Tyler, from her history survey class. She should have made the connection -- Tyler is not all that common a name -- but it just never occurred to her to think it. Not much of a student, truth be told. Not exactly a bad student; he does his work without incident or complaint. But his prose is flat and unimaginative. But here, he's a star. He's beaming now, and his smile is just wonderfully winning. This kid has a whole life she knows nothing about. Maria sees he's now standing next to the also unhelmeted Ali, who's also in her class. She never thought of them as particularly friendly, and, truth be told, she wouldn't think a kind with a name like Ali would be playing a game like football. But she imagines that as a teammate the two share some kind of bond.
Maria is still digesting all of this when she looks down at the ground level of the bleachers and sees him, the figure she has mentally referred to "cuff man," because every times she sees this person at school, which is not all that often, he has his dress shirt open at the collar and his sleeves rolled halfway up. Today he's wearing a brown suede bomber jacket and black jeans, talking amiably with what Maria would guess is a coach wearing a team cap and carrying a clipboard. Maria feels a surprising pit in her stomach. She's tempted to ask Carl or Jen what the man's name is, and what he does at the school, but thinks better of it. They would be too curious about her curiousity. Besides, this is enough excitement for one day. She doesn't want her world to get too big too fast.