Friday, April 19, 2013



The Horace Chronicles, #4

September 15

Dear Maya,

I paid a visit to Mr. Smith's office on Friday morning. We had a DBQ -- a Document-Based Question -- to write an essay about. All the documents (they were more like little pieces from bigger documents) related to the English colonies in the 1600s. We read the documents for homework, spent a day talking about them, and now we were supposed to write the essay. So much for my weekend.

"C'mon in, Theo," Mr. Smith said as I came into his office. "Glad you came by."

I have to say, Maya, that sounded a little like bullshit: glad I came by? He didn't seem like a guy who said stuff like that. But I was seeing him outside the classroom. Maybe he's different when he's not teaching. Though I figure he'd be less fake, not more fake.

Since Mr. Smith is the chairman of the History Department, he has his own little cubicle. He's a got a desk with lots of pictures -- his family, I guess, though I couldn't see too much from where I was standing. I also saw a pack of cigarettes. Did he really smoke? There was a chair behind his desk, so I went there and sat down, unslinging my backpack and getting out my laptop.

"So what can I do for you, Theo?"

"Well, I was hoping to get some help with the essay. I think I know what I want to say, but I wasn't sure if it's what you're looking for, this being our first major assignment and all."

"All right, then. Let's hear it." He leaned back a little in his chair, which is fancier than the one in the classroom.

"OK. So the question says, 'Although New England the Chesapeake region were both settled by people of English origin, by 1700 the two regions had evolved into distinct societies. Why did this development occur?'"


"So I thought I would say it happened because they were different kinds of people. The New Englanders were like more community based, and the Chesapeake people were individualists."

"Sounds reasonable to me. That's your thesis?"


"And how do you plan to support that thesis?" He seemed to be in a good mood.

"Well, I was going to use documents like B and C.  Document B has the list of people on the ship to Massachusetts, and they're like all different kinds of people -- men and women, young and old, different jobs. Document C has the list of people going to Virginia and they're all young men."

"Right. Single men. We talked about this in class. What else?"

"There's Document F, where John Smith is saying that if the men won't work they don't eat, which means they're having trouble getting along. Document A is where John Winthrop talks about a city on the hill where everybody needs to stick together." Also, Documents G and H talk about Bacon's Rebellion, where the governor is saying he can't help the settlers against the Indians and Bacon is talking about the rich people as sponges sucking up all the money."

"Right. I think he calls them parasites, too. I love that passage. Nathaniel Bacon was one slick customer." Mr. Smith swiveled his chair back to his desk, opened a folder, and brought back some papers before swiveling back. "Well, it sounds like you have your story straight, Theo. So what's the problem?"

"Well, I just want to know if that sounds OK with you."

He nodded yes, but his eyes were looking down and pursing his lips. He was making me nervous. He looked back up at me. "So I take it you like New England better, am I right, Theo?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"If you were born back in the seventeenth century, that's where you'd rather be."

"I mean, yeah. Should I say that?"

"Let me ask you something," he said, almost squinting at me. "Are you buying that line that John Winthrop is selling you?"

"What do you mean?"

"I've got the DBQ here," he said, gesturing with the papers. "Listen to this: 'We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.' There's a lot of this kind of language here, is there not?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, I mean, if I was to say to you, 'You are going to to finish this essay on time, are you not, Theo? And write it in multiple drafts? And check your spelling? You will be careful, won't you Theo?' And you are going to finish this, right?' If I was to say that to you, what would you think?

"You'd be thinking that I might not finish it. That you didn't trust me."

"Exactly. So here's John Winthrop saying over and over again: You better behave, people! Don't screw up! Because if you do, everyone is going to laugh at us. Because if we fuck up, we will  'open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.'"

That's right, Maya. He said "fuck."

But he didn't seem to notice, moving right into his next question: "And what about Document D?"

That's the one about wages and prices?"

"Yes. Where the government is telling people how much they should pay for things. Would you like to live in a society like that? All those busybody Puritans were a bunch of control freaks, don't you think?"

I was getting annoyed. I felt like he was telling me what to think. But I didn't think I should say that. "I guess I should change my thesis."

"No, Theo, I'm not telling you to change your thesis. Your thesis is fine. What I am telling you is to try to think about another point of view when you write an essay like this."

"But won't that weaken it?"

 "No. It will strengthen it."

"But won't I be contradicting myself?"

"Not if you do it right."

"So how do I do it right?"

"Well, now, Theo, that's what I want you to try and figure out. But I will say this: It's possible to say you like something, even that you love something, while at the same time noting that it has its shortcomings. A point of view doesn't have to be perfect to be the best one. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see you get the hang of. You think you can do that?"

"I think so." I think that's what he wanted to hear.

"Don't sound so sure," he said, chuckling. "I'm nudging you here a little, Theo. You're stronger than you know. You came here to get reassurance, but you're leaving here with a challenge. Consider that a compliment."


He laughed now: I made a joke and he got it.   

"Tell me a little about yourself, Theo. Where do you live?"

"Over in Donald Park."

He nodded. "And what do your folks do?"

"My mom, she's a nurse over at St. Luke's. My dad works for Margate."

"Oh yeah? What does he do for Margate?"

"I don't really know. He has something to do with the business side."

"Maybe you should ask him some time. You have brothers or sisters?"

"Nope. Just me." I paused, then I said: "What about you?"

He was surprised. "Me? I have an older sister. She's a lawyer in Boston. My dad was an English teacher and the principal of a high school.

I wanted to ask more, but wasn't sure if I should. Where did he live? Was he married? Why was he a history teacher? But I was afraid of asking the wrong thing.

"Well, Theo, I think you have plenty here to work with. Stick to that thesis you have and try to round it out with counterargument. I think you're in good shape."

He wanted me to go. "Thanks, Mr. Smith. Have a good weekend."

"You too, Theo." He smiled and then swiveled back to his desk. I packed up my laptop. I wanted to say goodbye but I didn't want to interrupt him, so I left without saying anything else.   

Later, lying in bed, I thought about that line he said: it's possible to like something, even love something, while saying it has shortcomings. But I never figured out that you had any, Maya. So what was I supposed to do? I would have liked to hear what Mr. Smith had to say about that. But I didn't know how to ask.