Friday, April 30, 2010

A really great Willie

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet have an adult conversation with a not-quite child

The Maria Chronicles, #53

Maria is sitting at her desk in her empty classroom, jotting down some notes for the upcoming final exam in her U.S. survey course, when she recognizes the voice of her student, Wilhelmina Marzetti, in the doorway: "Is it true, Ms. Bradsteet?"

"Is what true?" Maria asks, realizing as she does so that she knows what Willie is talking about.

"That you're leaving. At the end of the school year."

Maria meets Willie's gaze. As she does so, she becomes aware of seeing the girl's face as a snapshot of a life in motion. Willie's hair is braided, and the sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose show the traces of the child she is ceasing to be. Maria has long had a theory that everyone has what she calls an essential age -- a core visage in a person's life that somehow defines them even as they move through the life cycle. Not for the first time, Maria thinks that Willie's essential age is midlife; she can somehow see her, perhaps a little puffier and wearier than she is now, nevertheless sturdily sustaining an identity as the mother of children. Probably hold a responsible job of some kind, but a mother first and foremost, and the centrality of that role, that dependability, will keep her from seeming old for a long time after she actually is old. Just a theory. Maria believes her essential age is midlife, too, right around where she is now. But she suspects motherhood is not as central for her as it will be for Willie.

"I don't know, Willie. It might be true that I'm leaving. But it might not."

"What does that mean?" There's a plaintive quality to her student's voice, poised between petulance and justified irritation, that Maria experiences as a dilemma. It wouldn't be fair to burden Willie with the details of her life, anxieties that she would be likely to take to heart. But withholding information seems unfair to the spirit of a relationship which, however circumscribed, has long been understood as significant.

Maria exhales sharply. "Willie, I came to this school in September because I wanted to start my life over. My marriage had broken up, my children were grown, and I wanted, and believed, I could start a new chapter. I left a secure job back in New Hampshire, which I probably could have kept for life, both because I needed a change and believed I was a good enough teacher that I'd be able to find a similarly secure job somewhere else. And I thought that job would be here. So did the people who hired me. But it turns out this may not be the case."

"Is it about tenure? That you were -- what's the term -- denied tenure?"

"No. Actually, I haven't even gotten to the point where that would be an issue. Actually, if it had, I'd feel pretty confident. The problem is really the school budget. As you know, these are hard times. People are cutting back. And as someone who was recently hired, I'm low man on the totem pole."

"That's so unfair!"

"Well, now, I'm not sure it is. In any case, it's not something you need to worry about."

"Yes it is! It's definitely something I need to worry about! You're a great teacher!"

"Well, thank you."

"Is there something I can do? We kids can do? Write letters or talk the the principal? I know there are a lot of people who feel the way I do."

Maria doubts that. "No, Willie, there's nothing you or anyone else can do at this point. Actually, Dr. Bernstein has been working on a plan to keep me here."

"That's great! So if it works, you'll stay?"

Maria is uncomfortable at being drawn into a degree of disclosure she's now regretting. But executing a graceful U-turn will not be easy. "I don't know, Willie."

"Why not? Is it because you're mad? I wouldn't blame you. But I hope you won't take it out on us."

"No, Willie, it's not about revenge. It's . . . well, it's sort of like you're going out with a guy, and he says he wants to see other people, and then he says he wants you back, and you're really glad and everything, but somehow something is broken and even though you want things to work, they just plain don't anymore. I'm not saying that has happened, but it might. That's sort of where I am now. I'm trying to figure out if I can stay, both in terms whether the school will have me, but also whether it will feel right." Jesus, Maria thinks. Why am I telling her this? And is this in fact the way it is with me? Maybe it is.

Willie shakes her head. "I think I understand. I mean, I've never had a boyfriend, but it makes sense. I just hate the idea of you leaving just after you got here."

"Well, let me tell you, I don't much like the idea of leaving, either. Actually, Willie, if it turns out that I stay, you'll be part of the reason why. Even though I know that after two more years you're going to be the one who's leaving. For sure."

Willie smiles ruefully. "Yeah, I guess. But I guess there are always Willies wherever you go."

"No. Not wherever you go. And they're all different. You're a really great Willie. The best."

Willie looks down, her face full of emotion. Maria would like to go over and hug her, but decides not to.

"You go on now, Willie. I appreciate you coming by. I really do. But I've got to prepare this exam."

Willie nods, her head still down. "OK, Ms. Bradstreet. See you tomorrow." She looks up briefly and smiles before she exits.

Maria waits to make sure she's gone before she reaches for the Kleenex at the edge of her desk.