Friday, February 5, 2010

Principal reservations

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet hear a performance review -- of somebody else

The Maria Chronicles, #38

Maria is sitting alone with a cup of coffee in the office of the principal, Eleanor Bernstein, whom she has barely met. They conferred briefly last summer when Maria was interviewing for the job at Hudson High and Bernstein was about six months pregnant. Bernstein took a semester leave when the baby arrived in September, but while she delegated her authority to a series of people -- an unusual move, Maria thinks -- she's heard Bernstein continued to play a substantial role behind the scenes. (In the acidic words of her colleague Edie Wilson, "I can't tell whether she's a real cunt, or a real prick, though in the end I suppose it doesn't make any difference.")

Bernstein's secretary, an inscrutable gray-haired woman named Marnie Mayne, admitted Maria to the office, and returns a moment later to put a vase of fresh flowers and a cup of tea on Bernstein's desk and turn on her computer. "She'll be right along," Mayne says. Maria surveys the room -- framed posters of museum exihbits, a Georgia O'Keefe print, photographs of a handsome husband and another child in addition to the infant. Pretty much what you'd expect.

Bernstein's entrance, however, has surprising force, as she bursts into the office from the secretary's door. "No, I will not speak to her now," she's telling Mayne. "I'm done with that woman. If you can't tell her I'm in a meeting, then tell her I'm dealing with an unexpected emergency. Then email Dwight and tell him to call her. This shouldn't be my problem."

Her coat still on, she brightens -- briefly -- to smile at her visitor. "Maria Bradstreet. So nice to see you again." She extends a gloved hand. "Ellie Bernstein." Maria shakes her hand, and upon release Bernstein busies herself of shedding her coat, scarf and gloves. "Freezing outside," she says. "Lived here for almost 20 years now, but still haven't gotten used to it."

Even without knowing that Bernstein just had a baby Maria can tell she's young -- not yet forty, for sure, hard to tell how much below that. Everything about her, from her vocal delivery to her expensive clothes, hums with a sense of ambition. Maria remembers thinking during her interview that this is not a person who suffers fools gladly. Bernstein was polite, but a bit distracted for what at that point had been a formality: she had apparently accepted Jen Abruzzi's recommendation. Maria hears that Bernstein is looking to move on to a bigger arena. Apparently this is a good pit stop for a maternity leave. Maria wouldn't be surprised to learn she went on job interviews while she was on it.

Bernstein is now fussing with her email, and Maria has just about decided that this is crossing the line into rude when suddenly she looks up from the computer, locks eyes with her, and renders a smile. "I'm happy to say that this is going to be a brief meeting, Maria."

"I'm glad to hear that. I think."

Bernstein sips her tea. "Yes. Under normal circumstances, we would have talked about your performance long before now, and I would have dropped into one of your classes unannounced at some point this fall. But as you know" -- she tilts her head at a photo to her left -- "I've been juggling other projects."

"I see. Lucky you."

"I understand you have two of your own. Grown now. Started early." Bernstein sips again, and changes direction. "I'm pleased to report that the word on the street about you is good, Maria. My sources among the students say you're smart, prepared, and return work promptly. Colleagues say you're pleasant, if a bit distant."

Maria nods, willing to endure the slightly awkward silence that follows from her deciding not to say anything.

Bernstein smiles. "Good. I will tell you that I was not particularly enthusiastic about hiring you. At 49, you're set in your ways. And as a veteran, you were expensive. Frankly, I wouldn't have even had the budgetary option of taking you this year. But I -- and, from what I understand, you -- are a big Jen Abruzzi fan. Jen was willing to spend a lot of political capital with me in order to get a seasoned hand in the History Department. I consider Jen to be one of the real team players around here, the best department chair I've got, and I ultimately decided to back her on this, in part because I share her belief that that a strong, stable History Department an important anchor for the school as a whole."

"I'm glad to hear that."

Bernstein glances at her computer and smiles wryly before looking back at Maria. "If only I could get a few other departments into shape. The language department, of course, is a revolving door."

"I can imagine." Maria can: turnover among foreign language teachers has always been rampant at every school she's worked at.

"And don't even get me started on the math department." There's a twinkle now in Bernstein's eye: "You understand. You're faculty, sure. But you don't like dead wood any more than I do."

Maria smiles. Bernstein is presumptuous, but not altogether lacking in charm. Actually, Maria suspects she's got plenty at her disposal when she decides to dispense it. Which she's doing, in a measured way, right now.

"The absentee rate over there is ridiculous. Seems like virtually every day they've got a sub over there. Penny Perez keeps using this guy named Jack Casey. You know him?"

Maria nods.

"Scum, as far as I'm concerned." Bernstein evidently reads the surprise on Maria's face. "You know his story?"

Maria shakes her head.

"He worked for Bear Stearns. You hear about that trial recently about the guys running that hedge fund over there?"

"I don't really know much about banking."

"Well, I don't either. But my husband works for JP Morgan Chase. He tells me that Casey was an unindicted conspirator in that case. They all got off anyway, so I suppose it doesn't matter. But the whole thing was unbelievable. When I was in the hospital having my daughter Gerri I read this book, House of Cards, about the fall of Bear Stearns. Enough to make your blood boil. Probably sped along my labor."

"Wow. I didn't know."

Bernstein is looking at her computer again. "Penny started using him after I went on leave, so I didn't know, and by the time I did, she said that Casey was too useful to give up. Which is okay, I guess. But the guy will never get a regular job here on my watch." She chuckles. "Not that he needs one. Teaching's penance, I guess. He's sure as hell not doing it for the money."

Maria sits stunned. Why is Bernstein telling her this? Does she know more about her than she realized? How could she?

"Anyway, again, Maria, you're doing good work. You're still technically on probation, but I'm recommending you for renewal. Assuming nothing goes wrong, you're squarely on the tenure track." She extends her hand across her desk. "Congratulations."

Maria shakes it and stands up. "Thank you."

"Jesus," Maria says aloud as she leaves the office. This is one hell of a place to work. She wishes she had a bottle of whiskey in her desk, the way Ed Asner's character did on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show. She looks over at the faculty lounge. A doughnut will have to do.