Monday, April 12, 2010


In which see Ms. Bradstreet try to discipline her discipline

The Maria Chronicles, #49

It's exam day in Maria's U.S. history survey. The test today is on World War II; while Maria has growing doubts about the necessity and value of fact-based exams, she still thinks that asking kids to master basic information about the war -- when Pearl Harbor happened; who won at Midway and why it mattered; how Lend-Lease worked -- it seems like a legitimate and even necessary component of her
course. But giving a test feels like cutting corners. For one thing, it's a quick and dirty assessment that can be graded in a fraction of the time it takes to grade a set of essays. For another, giving a test means she can sit in the front of the room and read while the kids work. Given Maria's uncertain future -- still no word about next year's budget, and thus no word about her future -- Maria's appetite for hard work is diminished. So she's taking refuge at her desk in Adam Haslett's new novel, Union Atlantic, about the long ago days of the 2000s. Her friend Janice bought it for her during Maria's recuperation from her broken foot. She figures she can get a few pages in waiting for the students to finish.

Finishing a chapter, Maria looks up to see Mia, who, to her surprise, is not looking down at her test. Instead, she's looking across the room at Jake. And when Maria turns her own gaze at Jake, what she sees is Jake gazing surreptitiously at Kenny's exam and writing down answers. Is this what she thinks it is? She really hopes not. But it sure seems that way -- and she suspects Mia isn't the only other one who thinks so. Damn. Maria didn't think she had to distribute different versions of the exam in this school the way she did her last one. That was a mistake, and now she's going to have to act. But how?

Willie is now getting up, naturally the first to finish. But Vanessa, Derek, and Kenny are clearly almost done -- Kenny appears oblivious to whatever Jake has been doing. If Maria is going to do something, it's got to be now. With difficulty, no longer needing crutches but awkward in the boot she wears on her foot, she gets up and walks across the room to Jake. She can feel the eyes of the students on her as she semi-limps her way to him. "I'll take that," she says quietly.

"But I'm not done," Jake says, surprised.

"Doesn't matter," Maria says as evenly as she can. "I'll take this now, Jake, and we'll talk about it tomorrow."

Jake is too shocked to resist. Maria suspects her fragile balance prevents him from any dramatic moves or resistance to taking the exam from him. She pivots to save Kenny a trip to the front. "Here," she says, "you can give that to me." Kenny hesitates momentarily -- is she suggesting he cheated too? -- but decides, perhaps on the basis of Maria's reassuring smile, that it will be OK.

Jake looks stricken, unable to decide whether to say something or to go. Maria decides to ignore him. Other kids are getting up now, shooting looks at him as they do. Jake clearly wants to talk about this, but Maria decides it's neither the time nor place. She needs to think this through. "Go on, Jake. Come by my office tomorrow. Are you free before school?"

He nods.

"Very well then. I'll see you at 8:15." Mia approaches and Maria takes her exam. "Thank you."

Jake exhibits a combination of exasperation and defeat, but leaves the room. By now, the whispering has probably ricocheted to the other side of the school and back. Maria flips back to Jake's exam to take a look. He's changed a few answers on the multiple choice section; usually this is a mistake, but here they're changed from wrong to right. It's clear Jake has done very badly on the IDs that make up half the exam. Lots of unanswered questions -- nothing on Guadalcanal, Battle of the Bulge, Rosie the Riveter, Yalta. He's failed.

Congratulations, kid, she thinks to herself. Now both of us are going to have a lousy night's sleep trying to figure out what happens next.