Monday, April 26, 2010

(Re) lit

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet consider learning to speak English

The Maria Chronicles, #52

Maria, sitting alone at a table in the faculty lounge, is restless and bored. She's slogging through a set of mediocre student essays. What's disappointing about this is that she thought she had an elegantly simple essay question: "Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?" Yet the answers have been uniformly turgid affirmations of King's heroism. Maria had actually been fairly critical of King in her lecture on the Civil Rights Movement, emphasizing the work of women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, and pointing out that King was a plagiarist and womanizer. Yet the class has seemed unwilling to grapple with this; it's easier simply to say that King was a fighter for equality and that his work remains unfinished. Blah blah blah. Even Maria's beloved Willie, who has so often risen to the occasion in her class, seemed uninspired, noting that King has his problems, but using most of her essay to emphasize the depth of the resistance he faced (true, enough, Maria concedes). Beside her, Maria has an old, dog-eared copy of Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, the introduction of which will help her to kill birds of immigration and neoconservatism once she bolts through the Vietnam War. It's always a sprint to the finish when you're teaching the U.S. survey.

Maria is considering walking across the room for another jolt of caffeine in the form of coffee when she sees the school principal, Eleanor Bernstein, at the doorway of the lounge. This is surprising: Ellie almost never enters this lair. And apparently she's not going to now, either. "Maria," she says, leaning the top half of her tightly coiled body into the room. "You have a minute?"

"Uh yeah, okay," she replies uncertainly.

"Come on over to my office, then," Dani commands. It's only a short walk from the lounge. Dani has gone back there even before Maria can stand up. I wonder what this is about, Maria thinks. At least it's a break from those papers.

Dani is already back at her desk when Maria arrives, motioning her to take a chair on the other side of the desk. "Jesus," Dani says irritably, apparently in reaction to something that's just appeared on her laptop. She fires off a reply as Maria sits there, growing annoyed at the way she's forced to wait after a peremptory summons.

Then Dani looks way sharply from the screen and gazes at Maria directly. "Sorry. Idiots in maintenance. Can't figure out what to do with an illegally parked car. You'd think they would have taped the name of the towing company to the phone by now."

Maria decides to remain impassive, not interested in maligning the maintenance people or talking about parking.

"All right then," Dani says, correctly reading her and deciding to cut to the chase. "Maria, we haven't talked since I told you I planned to recommend you for renewal and eventual tenure, which I did. As you know, we've had budgetary issues since then, principally because Larry Roganoff, who I regard as dead wood, refuses to move on. He's proven to be quite recalcitrant for a passive man. But I've had a series of conversations with him and the pencil pushers working the budget. I've convinced the former to accept a half-time return to his position and the latter to sweeten his health care retirement benefits."

Dani folds her arms and pushes her chair back, regarding Maria appraisingly. "If you were younger and cheaper, Maria, I'd be able to pay you full time on what Larry makes half time. But I'm not going to ask you to do that."

"So you're going to ask me to come back on a half-time basis?"

"No. Or at least that's not my preferred scenario. Tell me, Maria: how do you feel about American literature?"

"American literature?"

"Yes. You know, like The Scarlett Letter. Or Song of Solomon. That kind of thing."

Maria can't help but chuckle. She's never heard Nathaniel Hawthorne and Toni Morrison lumped together as a "thing." "Well," she says, "I was an American Studies major in college."

"Oh yeah?" Dani sounds surprised -- and pleased. "Well, here's the thing. Mandy Merkel has just announced that she's decided to accept a graduate fellowship for an MFA program at Syracuse. She wants to be a novelist, God help her. Mandy was slated to teach two sections of the tenth grade American lit course next year. You make more than she does, but less than Larry does, so the two would more or less balance out. You'd have to teach two preps of an all new course outside your training, but it would be a way of keeping you here."

"The English department would go along with this?"

"Well, they don't have much choice. It's late in the year, a half-time job, and there's no guarantee it will be permanent. Plus you're well-liked. I checked."

"Nice to hear," Maria says. "But I've got to say this is not an especially appetizing offer, Dani. Especially given the way the job I thought was mine proved not to be. This sounds even more wobbly."

"You have a better option?"

"Yes." A fib.But Maria also thinks the job Jack has been working on for her would come through -- if she consented to it.

Dani purses her lips and nods. "Well, I didn't want to bring this up yet, but I see I need to put all my cards on the table."

Maria looks at her quizzically.

"I don't know if you've noticed, Maria, but the English department is fossilized." (Maria has noticed, and nods.) "It's my ambition to bring it into the 20th century. And you're my Trojan Horse."

"A lovely prospect," she observes drily.

"Hear me out. I didn't want to tell you this, but in a few weeks I plan to unveil a major new curricular initiative for the 2011-21012 school year. I've got a few of the department heads on board, including your friend Karl Kurtz. I can't go into the details here -- I've got a meeting in a few minutes -- except to say that it involves much more interdisciplinary teaching. It also involves more team teaching, of collaborating groups working off a shared curriculum."

"How are you going to be able to do that financially?"

"Good question. The plan is actually budget neutral. Eventually. We'll still have the same number of teachers and the same number of kids, but recombine them. More big meetings, more group work, more discussion sections -- overall, a more fluid situation.  I'll need money to get the thing going for training and incentives, but I think I've got some grant money for that. Actually, this is where you come in. I really want you at the forefront of this initiative, Maria. In the short term, there will be extra money for you as the point person. And if  you establish your indispensability, as I'm confident you will, you'll have a secure and prominent future here."

"Wow. I don't know what to say."

"Well, I understand you probably have more questions. Unfortunately, I have to go. The main thing I want to have happen now is that you agree to consider the short-term offer on the table, and not to accept any other position that may be in the offing. Give me a little time to work this out and see if I can put something more concrete on the table. Can you do that?"

"How much time?"

"I dunno. I had hoped to keep this under wraps until I had you on board for next year. But I'm going to change strategies. Can you give me the rest of the week?"


"Good." Dani rises and offers her hand, which Maria shakes. "Now I've got to kick you out of here, Maria. More idiots to deal with."

"For a smart woman, you seem to have to deal with an awful lot of idiots," Maria observes. "Is everyone as really as dumb as they look?"

"Probably dumber," Dani replies. "I know I am." She winks. "Always a pleasure, Maria."