Anne Harte gasped upon seeing the large wall painting behind the mahogany desk. The painting, done in an abstract-expressionist style of fragmented images, was of a woman either bathing or masturbating. Because the images lacked clear definition, one moment the painting appeared to be innocent, the next moment pornographic. Sitting beneath the painting, leaning over the desk and massaging his temples, was a man who, without looking up, asked Anne to sit down. As she approached a red-leather armchair to his left, he dropped his arms and stared at her like someone with blurred vision who hadn’t had enough coffee or sleep to sober him after a long night of drinking. Despite the lines undulating across his forehead and from the corners of his eyes, he could’ve been either in his late thirties or fifties, prematurely old from dissipation or freakishly young through good luck. By popular standards he was quite handsome, the type who would appeal to most women Anne’s age as a sensual father type. To Anne, though, he was just the personnel director for the Board of Education. At least this was her first thought. More specific thoughts came to mind when he awakened from his stupor and stared at her legs, then slowly and thoroughly at the rest of her. As she sat in what appeared to be a sturdy armchair, she felt her body sink deeply into the featherlike seat. Before realizing it, she found herself slumping into an awkward position with her legs apart, and him observing her almost studiously. For one violent moment she hated him and his innocent-looking chair. Without revealing this, however, she pulled herself up and perched on the edge of the chair. His questions, as he casually interviewed her, were as cleverly worded as the chair was cleverly designed. If she answered one way, she was saying yes to a sexual overture, another way, no. While interviewing her, he leaned back in his chair, tilting it toward the painting, and continued to look at her legs. She knew by his smile that he saw more of her legs than she cared to show. Yet she made no effort to change her position. She merely answered his questions appropriately and conveyed, when their gazes met, a polite but firm no to his overture. Without appearing discouraged by her attitude, he pulled his chair forward, cleared his throat, then began to tell her about the job opening at the all-black Church Junior High School and about the six teachers who had recently quit, one after nearly being raped. “Of course,” he said with the suggestion of a smile, “the student never really tried to rape her. It was just one of those misunderstandings – a simple case of a teacher over-reacting.” “What about the other five?” she asked. “What were their reasons for quitting?” “To be honest,” he said, “they just didn’t agree with the principal on certain key issues.” “I see.” “Do you?” Again he leaned back in his chair, brazenly observing her legs. “Well, I have another opening in a predominantly white school district. But, it requires experience.” He began to free a smile. “Do you have experience, Miss Harte?” “I do. But not the type that will qualify me for that job.” “Then the best I can offer you is a teaching job at Church – if you don’t mind being in the minority at an all-black, inner-city school.” “No problem,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
A row of stores, gutted by fire during the riots, lined the street like a block-long brick shell ready to collapse. Covering these stores, where once there were windows and doors, were sheets of plywood. Painted on the plywood were murals of angry-looking black men with raised fists, some with rifles, leading an army through a city ravished by fire and looting. Anne was surprised to see how extensive the destruction was. Just as she was about to take a closer look at the murals, she noticed several black men observing her. To avoid unwanted attention, she quickly continued down the street toward Church Junior High School. An American flag, hanging from a pole attached to a second-floor window sill, and a modernistic sculpture, resembling a 20-foot flame in twisted metal, were all that distinguished the school, a shoebox of glass and stone, from all the other newly built shoeboxes in the city. As Anne neared the school, it looked to her as though the flame was consuming the flag. When she paused to study the sculpture, she pushed aside several strands of her blonde hair, which the wind blew across her mouth. Several black teenagers, referring to her as a honky, began to make menacing gestures. Without revealing her discomfort, she walked past them and entered the school through a green metal door, spray-painted with obscenities. Inside the school against one wall was a gold-framed photograph of the former U.S. President, Alexander Church. He was sitting in a wing chair by the fireplace, meditating like someone deeply troubled by an America which didn’t conform to his standards. Written across the wall above the picture was his famous quotation: “My dream is for a New America to which all freedom-loving Americans will selflessly sacrifice their best.” Anne grew sad thinking about his New America. She remembered his military support for an undeclared war in which millions of Americans died needlessly protecting a “friendly” dictator in Asia while he ignored the systematic overthrow of Caribbean and Central American countries by Marxist terrorists. She remembered his successful anti-trust action against three major corporations which, to be in compliance with the new law, had to dispose of some major holdings and in the process throw hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work. She remembered his New America Program for spending billions of dollars on the needy, which shamelessly turned out to be, not the indigent, but the politically connected bureaucrats administering the program. And she remembered his threat to use legal force against any industry which didn’t “voluntarily” lower prices to curb the inflation the government caused by printing money to generously finance his welfare programs and undeclared war. Protecting his name from being tarnished by these “achievements” was his Black Rights Amendment, which the newspapers with their racially inflammatory articles forced through Congress. As a result, it was now legal to protect the blacks by discriminating against the whites. In this way a significant step was taken toward guaranteeing that racism rather than justice would be the means to settle social unrest. With “achievements” like this, she thought ruefully, what kind of New America would freedom-loving Americans be helping to create? Her sadness deepened when she stared beyond the screaming and shoving teenagers in the hall toward a teacher who was telling a boy to clean the mess he made in her room. Several girls standing near the teacher were leisurely scribbling obscenities on the wall, while one boy, hopping past them like a kangaroo, knocked loose tile blocks from the low-hanging suspended ceiling. Beyond them, at the furthest end of the narrow hall, was a broken window facing a vacant lot outside. By the way the floor-to-ceiling window was broken, it looked as though someone had fallen through it with outstretched arms. Anne leaned against the door. For a moment she felt weak and helpless, and wondered how she would ever teach here. But her self-doubts passed when she remembered something Dr. Maria Montessori once had said: “When a child has disruptive tendencies, some great need of his isn’t being met.” Almost immediately she recovered her poise, then briskly walked to the door marked “Office.” Somehow she would meet that need, she assured herself, and as successfully as she once had at the university. A long, high counter divided the office into two unequal sections. The smaller section where Anne stood was for teachers and visitors. The larger section where the desks, filing cabinets, and office equipment were, was for office personnel. Atop a filing cabinet was a percolator and a doughnut box. Office personnel, looking important and busy, unexpectedly hurried from adjacent offices, grabbed a doughnut and coffee, then disappeared again into their offices, where they could be overheard talking and laughing. Anne waited for a woman, leaning on the counter and chatting, to finish her telephone conversation before approaching her. When a bell rang, the woman suddenly told her friend that she’d have to go and quickly hung up. “I would like to see . . .” Anne started to say to the woman, as she shot past Anne.
“Could you wait a minute, please.” She then grabbed a coffee and a doughnut and disappeared into a room to Anne’s right. When she didn’t return within a reasonable period of time, Anne called to a woman moving from office to office, munching on a doughnut. Without responding, the woman strolled into another office. A few minutes later another woman appeared and stood at the opposite end of the counter to where Anne was standing. She glanced at Anne as though she were an inanimate object, then started to read a newspaper, forming each word on her lips. Anger welled up within Anne and rushed out in her stare. She marched to where the woman was standing and said firmly: “Would you please tell the principal I’d like to see her?”
The woman delayed looking up just long enough to be impertinent, then in a bored voice said: “Your name?”
“I’m Miss Harte, Anne Harte, the new English teacher.”
The woman flipped on the intercom. “Mrs. Daniels,” she said into a microphone, “the Mrs. Park’s replacement is here.”
“Send her in,” a voice answered.
Before resuming her reading, the woman pointed to a locked door by the teachers’ mailboxes. Anne waited at the door after knocking for a buzzer to sound to release the lock.
The principal’s office was furnished with gray-metal cabinets and furniture. On a desk next to the intercom system were two phones, one red (a hot line to where?) and another black. A collection of pictures attractively arranged relieved the gray-metal look and gave some warmth to the room. In each picture the same white woman with the same charming smile appeared: with the mayor, with the school superintendent, and at a ground-breaking ceremony. Next to these pictures were degrees, awards and membership certificates from various prominent universities and civic organizations.
The same woman, minus the charming smile, was extending a green line on an attendance chart, which rested on an easel. She was an attractive white woman who wore an expensively tailored dress, which would’ve been stunning on her, if she didn’t have to wear heavy-looking orthopedic shoes. The incongruity of the dress and shoes detracted from her otherwise stylish appearance.
Turning, the woman removed her glasses, attached to her neck by a chain, and let them bounce against her chest. But when she saw Anne, she lifted the glasses to her eyes and, without putting them on, studied Anne with what seemed to be the care of a jeweler examining a gem.
“My,” she said, generously emphasizing key words, “you certainly are an attractive woman!” She then smiled a smile which undoubtedly photographed well, but which in person was just a little too brief, just a little too broad, to be anything but artificial. The artificiality spread when Mrs. Daniels sat behind the gray-metal desk and instantly transformed it with her magic air of self-importance into a desirable status symbol. Even her voice, which was just a little too deep for a woman, deepened more, giving it an unmistakably authoritative ring. It almost seemed that Mrs. Daniels was deliberately trying to create a psychological barrier between herself, the cultured educator, and Anne, the novice teacher. She might have been successful if a boy hadn’t appeared at the window behind the desk and started to amuse Anne with grotesque facial expressions.
Mrs. Daniels was in the middle of a sentence, elaborating on how a student learned, “not by thinking, but by doing” when the boy began to entertain Anne with buffoonery. At first Anne tried to ignore the boy, but stopped. His behavior seemed too fitting in view of the nonsense Mrs. Daniels was gushing. Startled by Anne’s inattentiveness, Mrs. Daniels suddenly turned to the window. At that moment, the boy stopped clowning, made a vulgar gesture with his hips and arm, then disappeared. Without rising from her chair, she yanked the shade down, muttering something uncomplimentary.
In the hall, several teenagers were overheard arguing, calling each other four-letter names. Mrs. Daniels cocked her head toward the hall and listened with a look of weariness. After a pensive pause, in a voice devoid of the artificiality, she asked: “Tell me, Miss Harte. Have you taught before?”
“Yes, for a year at the university.”
“Oooh,” she said, leaning forward, impressed. She once again underlined key words, made them jump from the sentence. “Were you full-time faculty?”
“No, I just taught several remedial English classes.”
“I see,” she said flatly. “Well, you’ll find here, Miss Harte, that the work will be challenging – just what a young teacher needs.”
“I know. That’s why I came.”
“Have you read any Carl Blanc?”
“Only a little? Oh, Miss Harte, you must read all of him. In fact, I insist. Working with so many new students isn’t easy for inexperienced teachers. That’s why I urge all my teachers to read Blanc. This way we can all be united with a common philosophy.”
“Are there many inexperienced teachers on the staff?”
“There certainly are. Most of the staff, in fact.”
“You mean downtown staffed Church with mostly inexperienced teachers?” Anne asked, surprised.
“Unfortunately it’s true, Miss Harte. Occasionally such staffing mistakes are made. But then, isn’t that how we learn?”
“It’s a pity that the school had to lose six teachers to learn such a mistake.”
The remark startled Mrs. Daniels. She obviously wasn’t accustomed to having a subordinate express such candid thoughts. “There will always be those, Miss Harte, like the six who just quit, who don’t realize how lucky they are to be part of such a wonderful school.” Mrs. Daniels smiled charmingly, ignoring the swearing in the hall, which grew louder, and added casually: “Did you know our school is a candidate for several awards in original design?”
Anne wondered (as she shook her head) if Mrs. Daniels ever left her pedagogic vault long enough to notice Church’s shoebox shape.
“Why teachers like you will be the envy of the system,” the principal continued. “Some of the most innovative ideas in education are going to be implemented here. And to think you, Miss Harte, will be part of all this."
“Innovation? What kind of innovation?”
The principal leaned forward, obviously thrilled to tell Anne everything. “It isn’t official yet, but there are plans to establish a student panel to evaluate the activities at the schools. As you probably know, it’s the latest concept in education, and it is sure to guarantee total student involvement.”
“Do you believe such a panel is wise?”
“Absolutely! In fact, as Carl Blanc once said,” Mrs. Daniels continued in a voice of an administrator trained in the illusions of education, “the only way to prepare a student for life is to let him perform those relevant activities so important to democratic America.”
Mrs. Daniels stared incredulously at Anne. “You disagree?”
“That’s right. I believe our responsibility is to educate students – to teach them to integrate ideas and prove them logically, to think about ideas and understand them conceptually – and not to waste intelligent minds on limiting life experiences.”
“Well,” she gasped, unable to hide her shock with a smile, “you certainly are a woman of opinion.”
A voice on the intercom interrupted them. “There’s a Mrs. Jones to see you, Mrs. Daniels.”
Mrs. Daniels’ pretty face wrinkled into annoyance as she spoke on the intercom. “Which Mrs. Jones?”
“Is that the boy who started the cafeteria fire yesterday?”
“Well, send her to Mr. Slaughter. You know I don’t handle those problems.”
“But Mr. Slaughter isn’t in his office.”
“Then page him.” Mrs. Daniels paused, then added with a ladylike fist: “And Miss Brown...”
“Yes, Mrs. Daniels?”
“Don’t disturb me again unless it’s important.” She then returned to Anne. “Now let’s see,” she said. “Where were we? Oh yes, we were discussing the student panel.”
For thirty minutes, while teenagers ran and shouted through the hall, Mrs. Daniels tried to convince Anne that she was mistaken about the educational value of the student panel. To make her point, the principal generously quoted Carl Blanc and stressed through continuous repetition of key ideas that education had to be relevant to a student’s interests, his spontaneous impulses, and his instincts, which were best expressed through action. She then named prominent psychologists, philosophers, and educators who agreed with Blanc, and repeated their main arguments which reinforced Blanc’s point of view, and dared Anne by her tone to refute them. After thoroughly exhausting the subject, certain that she had driven her point into Anne’s brain like a wedge, she concluded: “So you see, Miss Harte, man learns, not by thinking, but by doing!” In a voice of someone accustomed to having the last word, she delivered her final salvo. “Therefore, our schools mustn’t be places to teach a ready-made universe of knowledge or intellectual skills, but rather places for students to perform relevant life experiences.”
“That,” Anne said, unimpressed, “is nonsense.”
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