Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Familiar stranger

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to manage an awkward encounter

The Maria Chronicles, # 41

Maria has about five minutes to go before class and is looking at her course website when she hears a voice behind her ask, "Is this Maria Bradstreet's office?" Maria turns around to see Jen Abruzzi point a young man toward her that M
aria can recognize but not quite place. She squints in concentration.

"Kwame? Kwame Mercer?" Phew. She remembered.

Kwame beams. "Mrs. Bradstreet! So good to see you!" He steps forward with his arms out, leaving Maria little choice but to embrace him. He's bigger and more solid than she remembers. And the dreadlocks are new.

"My God, Kwame, what are you doing here?"

"Well, I'm a sophomore at Columbia now. I was at the house of a friend of mine, Eddie Somers, whose sister Mia goes to school here. We were comparing notes and Mia said her history teacher's name is Maria Bradstreet. I said I had a teacher with the same name back in New Hampshire, and as we compared notes I became sure it was the same person. So I thought I'd come by on my way back to school and say hello."

"Well, I'm glad you did," Maria lies. She likes Kwame -- always a sweet kid, always wore Patriots sweatshirt to class -- and she always liked his father, too, who she'd see at the public library all the time. But this just feels awkward and badly timed. How did he even get in here? Didn't anyone accost him?

"So how are you doing, Kwame?"

"I'm doing great. Majoring in sociology. I love Columbia. Really great professors, great roommates, I love New York. My folks moved down to Washington a couple years ago, so I haven't been back up to Derry High. But I've still got a couple friends there. You remember Tommy Gugliano? He visited me a couple months ago."

"Sure, I remember Tommy." But Maria has absolutely nothing to say about him.

"And how are your folks?"

"Just great. Dad, you know, worked for a big accounting firm in Boston, but the commute was a killer. Once I graduated he got a job with this firm in DC and decided to move to the city. My mom's from DC, so she was glad to go. She retired from her job as the town clerk. She's helping out at an animal shelter now. My sister's a lawyer in Philly and my brother works for Boston College, managing their website."

"Well, good for them. Give them my regards." Maria also taught Lakisha and the other Mercer boy -- Ali, she thinks it was. They were among the only minority families in town. A good lesson, Maria remembered thinking. People tended to equate black and poor, but it was always evident that this was a high-powered African American family. Summers on the Vineyard, that kind of thing.

An awkward silence. Maria plugs it: "A sociology major, you say?"

"Yeah. I wasn't really sure what to major in. For a while, I was thinking about economics. But it was kinda tough. I had this really great professor last year, and she really turned me on to soc. So I took another course and I just declared it as my major. Not sure what I'll do with it, but in this economy I'm not sure anyone's gettin' a job. I figure I'll go to business school."

"Sounds like a good idea." Another silence. Jesus, kid, help me out here, Maria thinks. I'm running out of questions to pelt you with.

"And how about you?" Kwame asks. "How long you been here?"

"About seven months now."

"You like it?"

"Oh yeah, it's great." Now Maria's grateful he's not asking about why she's here. She really doesn't want to talk about the divorce and all the rest of it. Could it be that Kwame's actually being tactful?

Maria glances up at the clock. She's already late for class. "Kwame, you'll have to forgive me, but I've got to go teach."

"Sure, sure."

"It was really great to see you." Maria decides to tough it out: no suggestion he stick around, come back, have lunch.

"It was really great to see you too." They embrace again. What does she see in his eyes? Is it a recognition that she's not the person he remembers? Sorry, kid. Really.

As Maria walks to class, she reflects on the subtle brutality of the teaching business. You have these people you see every day, sometimes for years. It's your job to know and care about them -- and you're happy to do it. But then they move on, and once they do, the basis of your relationship evaporates. That's true in all kinds of situations -- co-workers, next door neighbors, whatever. But when it's kids they somehow assume they have a place in your heart even after they move on. Maria actually kind of resents them for it. There are a couple she cherishes, mostly friends of her kids, and one she used to have lunch with in the cafeteria every year at Christmastime, but even then it's hard to close the gap. She's known colleagues who count former students as their friends, but Maria's never really been able to pull it off. This saddens her; she considers it a defect of character.

But then she's at the door and has to think about Chief Joseph, the Nez Pearce Indian who defied federal authority -- for a while, anyway. Someone else pops into her mind: Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind. I'll think about it tomorrow, Scarlett is always saying. Maria resolves to do the same.