Monday, December 14, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet grapple with a gift

The Maria Chronicles, # 29

Maria, sitting in bed with her laptop beside her, has just finished reading Theodore R. Sizer's 2004 book The Red Pencil, which she found in her mailbox last week inscribed by Jack Casey -- the man whom she has been calling "Cuff Man" -- with a simple message "To Maria, as promised. Jack." In fact, Jack had made no such promise; he had merely asked her if she had read the book during a brief encounter at the library two weeks earlier, and then said he owed her a copy after sitting with her and Jen eight days ago. The book appeared the next day. Maria reacted as if it were radioactive, leaving it untouched over the weekend. She finally concluded that she had to take the book out, and began reading it a few days before. It was while she was doing so that her colleague Penny Perez noted that Sizer had just passed away. Somehow, this had never come up when Maria had discussed his work with Jack and Jen. this made Maria sad, but also allowed her to concentrate on what the book was actually saying. Now that she was done, she flipped back over the pages, not quite ready to part with it.

In the preface to The Red Pencil, Sizer describes his old high school Latin teacher, who terrorized him with a sea of red ink with which Sizer's translations were graded. In noting that the routines he had endured 60 years ago had not changed much, Sizer pithily described the reality of Maria's own daily life, as well is that of her students:

Most of it is not only recognizable; it is still fully accepted and honored today as a representation of what we call secondary school: a class of 20 or so adolescents gathered by age into grades to learn together a subject both for its content and the skills embedded in that content taught by a single teacher who is responsible for delivering that material, assigning homework, and assessing each student's performance in a uniform manner, all this proceeding in sequential blocks of time of 40 to 60 minutes each in a specialized school building primarily made up of a succession of identical rooms that are used for six hours for fewer than half the days in a year . . . This is what school is.

Maria is struck by the way the italicized words distill the American education experience to its essence. That distillation is not particularly flattering. It begs the question as to what the American education experience actually should be. This is, of course, a question Sizer dedicated his career to answering. But Maria particularly likes the concise formulation on page 63: "Clarify what the student is expected to show (that is, know and use) in order to receive (say) a high school diploma. Insist, assist, and cajole every young person to work toward this target as attentively as possible." Regardless of whether American schools generally ever could or would do this, it's something that Maria knows she needs to work harder at -- reverse engineering her curriculum so that she has a clear idea of what she wants her students to know how to do and a pedagogy that helps them get there. It sounds disarmingly simple, and yet is exhaustingly complicated. Sizer seemed to know this, and yet insisted on it, just like a good teacher would. Maria closes the book and stares at the cover, so rich in color. She wishes she could have met Ted Sizer, and remembers that Jack said he once had, or, at any rate, had once seen him speak.

Jack. What is she going to do about him? There's something presumptuous about the man -- starting a conversation with her in the library, acting as if he knew her in the cafeteria, sending along this book. She's not sure she likes him. Even if she does, she got the distinct impression at lunch last week that Jen likes him at least as much as she does. The only thing Maria feels less inclined to do than start a new relationship is to compete with another woman for man, especially a woman she's come to regard as a friend. The whole thing turns her stomach. It's so, well, high school.

But Maria is embarrassed that she hasn't acknowledged the gift, and her refusal thus far to do so will only make matters more awkward when she runs into him again, as she inevitably will. Sure, he's a substitute teacher, but she knows he's been around a lot, and will likely remain so. She wonders if he has a school email address. She decides to dash off an email to jcasey, in the manner of faculty addresses at the school. If, in the event that he doesn't have one, at least she can say that she tried and thus have an excuse for not having made more of an effort. Maria begins typing and tries not to think too hard.


Many thanks for sending along
The Red Pencil, which I liked very much. It was a gracious gesture. Perhaps we can talk about it some time. Best, Maria.

Maria is re-reading the blurbs on the back cover of the book when her laptop pings. She clicks open the envelope and an email from jcasey:

Hey Maria. Glad you liked the Sizer book. Let's talk about it. Shall we say lunch in the cafeteria on Thursday? Same time as last time? I'll be there. Jack.

"Oh shit," Maria says out loud.