Wednesday, April 7, 2010
The New Deal
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet offer instruction on the art of gratitude
The Maria Chronicles, #48
"So there you have it, kids," Maria says to the class, unconsciously fingering one of the crutches beside her desk. "The New Deal in a nutshell. It begins with a surge of activity in Hundred Days of 1933, gets a second wind in the 'Second New Deal' of 1935, and has largely run out of steam after FDR's fiasco with the Supreme Court and the economic downturn of 1937." Maria turns her torso and puts the "red" virtual marker down in its slot in the Smart Board before facing the class again. "This is information I'd like you to make some effort to master. So there will be a quiz on Friday on the various New Deal agencies and legislation we reviewed today. My notes will be available on the Moodle site. See you tomorrow."
Maria hates to let them go: It feels good to be back in the saddle six weeks after the fall that resulted in a serious concussion and a broken foot. The logistics of getting here were torturous -- manageable but painfully slow. And she didn't know what was worse: the feeling of semi-fraudulence of returning to a job that may soon be lost in the budget shell game, or the embarrassing rounds of applause she had to endure from each of the four classes she teaches. It was such a relief to finally be back in the classroom, actually performing the heart of her craft. Maria has tried to maintain a sense of proportion about her work: family and friends have always been central to her life, and she's never had grand ambitions to be anything else but a good history teacher. But more than ever, her work matters. She remembers something her mother used to say. In your thirties, it's all about realizing your ambitions. In your forties, it's about realizing you're not going to realize them. In your fifties, it's about realizing you're going to lose what you have. Maria's fiftieth birthday is still a few weeks away. I've always been a bit precocious, she thinks grimly.
"Good to have you back, Ms. Bradstreet," Wilhelmina says as she exits.
"Great to be back, Willie."
"Yeah," José says. "It was really tough having the principal as your substitute history teacher. Ms. Bernstein is a serious hard-ass."
"José!" Mia says. "You can't say that!"
"It's alright, Mia. I'm not offended, unless perhaps José is implying that I'm not working you all hard enough."
"Oh, no!" José. "You're just right, Ms. Bradstreet."
Maria smiles. "Just checking." Maria sees there are a few kids left, among them Derek, who, since he sits in the back, is always among the last to leave. "Derek, can I see you for a second?"
Derek says nothing, but comes up to Maria's desk, expressionless. She waits for the last of the students to leave and then sits down, reaching below her desk and bringing up a large package wrapped in brown paper that she asked Tommy, a member of the maintenance crew, to bring here this morning. "This is for you, Derek," she says, gesturing for him to take it.
"Me?" He looks a little pained, like he's been offered a huge piece of chocolate cake after a filling meal.
"It's an architectural drafting kit," Maria explains. "I talked to Artie Hinklebaum last week when I was home recovering, and he helped me order it through the art supply store he uses for the school. He said it's what you need if you want to take the next step in your work."
"Wow. I don't know what to say." He looks uncomfortable.
"It's just a little something to thank you for what you did."
"Wasn't much, really."
"Well, I beg to differ on that one, Derek. You may well have saved my life."
"Nah. You probably would have started breathing again on your own. Besides, there were a lot of other people around. Like that math sub, Mr. Casey. And the school nurse, what's her name, Mrs. Cano, was there in like ten seconds. She would have gotten you going again."
"Impossible to know, Derek. All I do know is that you were there and you gave me CPR, and now I'm here. That's enough to be thankful for."
Derek says nothing for a moment. "Mr. Casey lined up a summer job for me at an architectural firm downtown," he says. He half-smiles and points at the kit. "I guess you kinda knew that."
Maria smiles too, but he's still not looking at her. "Yeah, I kinda knew."
"Look, I appreciate this, Ms. Bradstreet, I really do," he says looking up her briefly and using her name for the first time she can ever recall. "But I just feel like this is all a bit much. I'm thinking I should turn down the job with Mr. Casey. I mean it was just something I did. Doesn't have to be a big thing. Shouldn't be a big thing. To be honest with you, it kinda makes me feel like a fake."
There's a long pause as Maria considers if she should say what the thinks. And then she does.
"It kinda makes you feel like a fake because you think everything is a fake." Derek looks up startled: another first. Funny: Maria feels like a boxer who's landed a direct hit.
"That's your problem Derek," she continues. "You're too hard on yourself, and as a result you're too hard on other people. Listen: this kit, this job, is nothing. As you probably guessed, Jack Casey is in fact a fairly powerful man. He hands out favors like lifesavers. Helps him feel good about himself, because he's got things that have him feeling bad about himself, just like everybody else. And I've got my own ulterior motives, even if there are no strings attached. I think of you as a classic underachiever, Derek. You show these flashes of brilliance that you hide because you're afraid showing them will cost you something, probably a sense of limits that somehow matter more to you than the possibilities. I've seen that movie many, many times. But I haven't seen many kids who have the talent of the kind you showed in that exhibit a couple months back, and frankly, I'm using the cover of a thank-you gift to make an investment in your future. But again, this is all beside the point. The only person who should really be thanking you, the only person who really matters here, is you."
Derek's expression changes from irritation to puzzlement. "I should be thanking myself?"
Derek shakes his head. "Can't figure that one."
"Then let me explain it to you. We've all got our doubts about ourselves, our fears about whether we're really good enough. They're always there, and they never fully go away. But you, Derek, get to live the rest of your life knowing that in a moment of crisis, you went and did what had to be done. You did it instinctively, without having to think about it. And because you did it before, you can have earned confidence that you'll do it again. That's a gift you can thank yourself for."
Maria sighs and looks away. "All right, that's enough preachy teacher talk," she says. "You're late for class. And I have some work to do. Now get this damn kit I've been lugging around outta here before I throw it out the window."
Derek looks at her, smiles and nods. He picks up the gift and heads for the door. "Thanks, Ms. Bradstreet," he says, his face obscured by the package.
"Remember, Derek, quiz on Friday." Maria grunts as she hoists herself up on her crutches.