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.