Wednesday, November 18, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet witness some non-self reliance on Walden Pond

The Maria Chronicles, #23

"OK Ki
ds, 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."