In mid-winter, the southwestern Wyoming landscape freezes white. Viewed optimistically, it’s clean, unblemished. Viewed realistically, it’s barren, antiseptic. As I draw breath, my nose hair and mustache stiffen in the icy air. Despite my attempts to liberalize various policies, the high school dress code still prohibits girls from wearing “slacks,” as the school board calls them. Girls who walk to school often wear “slacks” under their skirts to avoid frostbite, shedding them on arrival, stuffing them into the lockers that line the chronically chilly hallways. Most town kids walk. Few have cars. Ranch kids arrive on heated buses. All the roads are slick between Halloween and April Fool’s Day, every year. 1968 is no exception.
I am failing.
I knew about the geography and climate when I accepted the job of principal of Rawlins High School three years ago. Back then, fleeing romantic disappointment, any destination appealed to me. Since my arrival, I’ve learned that the social world here mimics the physical world: flat-consistent-predictable. The people value convention. They resist change, even change that might benefit them personally, like free right-hand turns on a red. Family structures are intact and identical. Dad-Mom-kids-dog. Few divorces. Girls who get pregnant get shamed, so they get married. Unmarried men near forty, like me, are viewed with suspicion.
In late December, an unexpected gift arrives: Mrs. Bridwell’s fussy gallbladder. Mrs. Bridwell phones me at the home of my twin brother Gerry and his wife Robyn in Laramie where I’m spending the holiday break. She will require weeks or possibly months off. I don’t dislike Mrs. Bridwell, despite her cloying signature perfume, floral clouds of it accompanying her everywhere, but it’s difficult to imagine a more rigid-dry-stultifying-somnambulant-colorless-passionfree-uninviting approach to language arts. I tell Gerry about her, not bothering to conceal my glee at her misfortune. He’s in education too, teaching biology at Laramie High. He rejoices with me at Mrs. Bridwell’s leave of absence and the opportunity for fresh talent it provides.
It’s tough to attract substitute teachers mid-year, especially given the remoteness and, may I say, backwardness of Rawlins. Gerry suggests checking for newly certified but unemployed University of Wyoming grads, so I make some calls that don’t produce any leads. Then I decide to go more progressive. I call Raymond, my old faculty advisor in Boulder, 228 miles to the southeast, asking if he knows of any recent Colorado grads looking for work.
“The best have been picked off. Still, there’s one possibility,” he says. “She’s a handful, Glen, sort of a freethinker. Intense but promising.”
In retrospect, I see that I ought to have asked follow-up questions about this candidate, but I’m long on enthusiasm and short on time. Sight unseen, I hire Lisa Grenfell. Outside one semester of student teaching in Leadville, she has no classroom experience. In our telephone interview, she says, “I believe in the power of words to change the world. I believe reading is the key to opening young minds to learning and to the possibilities of new realities.” This reminds me that I once believed these things too, though I have made little progress toward actualizing them in this impervious community. I hope this new teacher will bring new ideas with her.
On the morning of January third, we walk from my office to the teachers’ lounge for introductions. I find her appearance mildly distressing. She wears a snug black turtleneck with a double strand of multi-colored beads that traverse her chest as she moves. I avert my eyes. At seventeen years my junior she looks like a student, not a teacher. I remind myself that if I wanted pastel cardigans, I could have lured a Mrs. Bridwell clone out of retirement for this gig. As we enter, seven or eight teachers mill around, filling mugs, glancing at today’s Rawlins Gazette, chatting. I manage my face, careful to not display undue excitement at the acquisition of this unusual specimen. Hands are shaken, glances exchanged. The mostly female faculty, brows raised, gives her a frosty reception. Miss Whitehead remarks that in the past they have provided “input” to hiring decisions. They have screened applicants for what they call “fit” and for what I call “homogeneity.” I explain awkwardly, as Miss Grenfell listens, that she has been hired on a temporary, emergency contract without opportunity for faculty involvement.
Coach Pumley, the recently divorced social studies teacher and basketball coach, offers her a cup of Yuban coffee, a recent upgrade from Folgers. No one else extends much welcome. No one mentions the traditional beginning-of-term faculty potluck, scheduled for Friday. The bell for first period rings. The teachers scatter. I walk to the janitor’s room to ask why the building is so cold this morning.
Miss Grenfell wins instant popularity with students, likely due to waist-length white-blond hair, knee-high boots, and irreverence. There’s an air of informal confidence about her. She smiles easily and looks me, and presumably others, directly in the eyes—bold but not quite impertinent. I remain optimistic that her young-groovy-idealistic personality will awaken the student body from the stodginess that plagues it. And me.
Miss Grenfell introduces her classes to Allen Ginsberg, criticizes the Vietnam War, and revokes all prior rules of classroom etiquette. I sit in on a couple classes to observe her technique, because it is my job and because she interests me. Her style verges on the Socratic. She stands for the entire hour. She paces. She calls on students who have not raised their hands, so everyone pays attention. When a student speaks, she moves close, listens intently, and probes with follow-up questions: “Why?” “Can you think of another way?” “How did you come to this conclusion?” She thanks people for their comments. She invites others to react. She offers contrary points of view, sometimes extreme or argumentative, often amusing. She avoids the words “right” and “wrong.” She gives examples from her own life, including her brief residence on a commune and a summer backpacking trip through Venezuela. She mentions that she was raised by her grandmother, but not how this came to be. She expresses her sometimes outrageous opinions (ownership of animals is immoral; children should be allowed to vote; censorship oppresses). She is gifted. Challenging-pushy-stimulating-aggressive-lively. Watching her causes me to question my career path, why I left work as a classroom teacher to accept an administrative role. It was a promotion, yes, and a bit more money, but also a step away from interaction with students, the whole point of education, and toward paperwork and meetings and organizational crap.
I should re-read “Howl.”
Watching Miss Grenfell, I recall the last time I observed Mrs. Bridwell in this room, explaining iambic tetrameter to a yawning class, loose flesh swinging from her upper arm as it rhythmically swayed while she chanted from “Snow-Bound:”
The sun that brief De-cem-ber day
Rose cheer-less o-ver hills of gray…
Miss Grenfell is magnetic, unlike any other member of the faculty, indeed unlike anyone I’ve ever met, though I’ve met few new people outside the school since my first year in Rawlins. Others are less enthralled. Mrs. Stevenson reports that some students’ parents tell her they’re tiring of dinner table conversations that begin, “Lisa prefers blank verse.” “Lisa lived in a commune.” “Lisa says…” And that their kids complain about the temperature of the building.
In mid-January, after Miss Grenfell’s been here a while, I rein her in. I remind her to adhere at least loosely to Mrs. Bridwell’s lesson plans because of the upcoming SAT and ACT tests. Miss Grenfell has taken liberties with it; she may be unaware that my performance evaluation gets a bump when we produce the occasional National Merit Scholar or military academy appointee. I ask about allowing pupils to use her first name. It provides a “more intimate learning environment” she says. I allow it to continue, partly because, unlike anyone else around here, she calls me “Glen,” and I like it. It does create intimacy. I find myself thinking of her as “Lisa” rather than “Miss Grenfell.” Because I can’t bring it up myself, I commission Miss Whitehead to counsel her regarding skirt length, but Lisa ignores the advice. At least, I think, she doesn’t wear “slacks.”
Lisa stops by my office for frequent chats or just to say hello. Other teachers do this too, but less often. Mrs. Stevenson, the school secretary, town busybody and my landlady, remarks on it. Mrs. Stevenson also tells me that Lisa asked the school librarian to order several titles, including Catcher in the Rye, which is not on the school board’s approved list. The librarian has not escalated this issue to me, so I let it go.
Mrs. Bridwell previously assigned seniors to write weekly compositions. In this respect only Lisa adheres to the traditional curriculum. Five-hundred word essays on a theme, assigned every Tuesday, due the following Tuesday. Mrs. Bridwell specified subjects plucked from Readers Digest: oral hygiene, flag etiquette, the USDA’s food pyramid. Lisa announces a weekly focus on a concept. Week 1: Change. Read The Metamorphosis; write an essay on personal transformation. Week 2: Incarceration. Read Monday’s editorial in The Rawlins Gazette about the Wyoming State Penitentiary outside the city limits; write about the ethics of “caging” human beings. Week 3: Environment. Read part of Sand County Almanac; write about the coal mining industry’s effect on wildlife here in Carbon County.
On my lunch hour, alone in my office, when I should be getting estimates on boiler repair or replacement, I dabble with compositions of my own on these themes. A part of me that slept is waking. I consider sharing my essays with Lisa but decide against it. I lack confidence in my work. I desire her good opinion.
Mrs. Stevenson tells me that three parents have phoned to protest Week 4’s theme: “Revolution. Read a few pages of anything by Marx; write an essay about why revolutions are necessary.” I mean to return their calls, but somehow never get around to it, despite the nag notes Mrs. Stevenson leaves on my desk along with a message from Dan Peterson, the local plumber, about the damn boiler. I attempt to delegate the responsibility for the boiler to Mrs. Stevenson, but she says it’s not in her job description. I contemplate modifying her job description.
I hear minor student grumbling about Lisa’s approach to teaching composition. It’s different and it’s more work. But after the class observes her generous grading system and her lax approach to classroom discipline, most stop complaining. In Lisa’s classroom, unlike others in this school, you can talk without raising your hand. You can take off your shoes. You can drop in and hang out at lunch period. She makes learning fun. She’s fun.
Was I ever fun? Lisa’s presence causes reflection and comparison. This town, its people and their beliefs have re-shaped me. I still wear my hair and sideburns longer than most men in Rawlins, vote Democratic, and consider myself broadminded. Progressive-intellectual-left-leaning. Is it weakness in my personality that allowed me to shift from outsider to conformist? Calcified-dull-unquestioning. I find Lisa’s presence disconcerting. And stimulating. I remind myself that I hired her with expectations of new methods and ideas—methods and ideas that now intimidate me. I consider interfering but I refrain because I don’t quite know how to do it.
On Thursday, January 28 we experience unusually heavy snow in late morning. After consulting Leonard Davis, the district superintendent and my boss, we announce early closure. The buses run at noon. Some parents come fetch their children but there are a few stragglers. Three teachers volunteer to stay late and make sure all are safely on their way. Lisa is among them. At 1:15 p.m., I sweep through the halls to see that everyone has departed. I encounter Lisa in her coat and a peach-colored cap, on her way out, standing with Coach Pumley. I walk to the parking lot with them. As I start my Jeep Wagoneer, I observe Lisa’s baby blue 1956 Chevy spinning out and offer to drive her home. She accepts.
There is something about sitting in a car with a woman in the passenger seat that is different than sitting across a desk from her. Lisa emits a slightly green scent. She smells like Robyn. It’s Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo. I have used it myself when visiting the Laramie home of my twin Gerry and his wife Robyn, to whom I was briefly engaged before she met him. She said that I was prissy and that Gerry had a contagious laugh. She was right.
I feel unsettled, strangely nervous. I don’t understand why. I have not been on a date since Robyn, in 1965. I am generally comfortable with women. I like women. This woman is my employee. I am merely providing transportation. An impersonal courtesy.
I shift the Jeep into low and proceed from Colorado Street to Washington Street. Lisa directs me to a trailer park on the outskirts of town near Highway 71. Along the way, I ask, in a social rather than a professional way, how she is settling in. She says she likes the town and her job, but has made no friends yet. She says the other teachers keep her at arm’s length. Coach Pumley gave her a ticket to a basketball game, which she attended alone. I say they are slow to warm up and likely jealous. She says she attended the teachers’ potluck where no one ate her homemade granola cookies. I tell her that I ate one and found it very tasty. (This is untrue; I am trying too hard.) She says the next youngest teacher is around fifty years old. I say yes, that’s about right. Then I add, I’m thirty-nine. Oh, she says, and I realize that in my rush to distinguish myself from the stuffy-ancient-fuddy-duddy faculty, I’ve failed, because to this twenty-two-year-old, thirty-nine is outside her target market. Not that I harbor improper intentions.
We arrive at her small mobile home. It occurs to me that, having left her car in the parking lot, she will need transportation back to the school Friday morning. I offer to pick her up. She thanks me. We agree on a time. She wades through accumulated snow. It’s deep and spills over the tops of her boots. She reaches the door. I wait until she is inside before driving away. I consider inviting her out to dinner, but realize that we might be “seen together.” That would be inappropriate. Also, I suspect her of vegetarianism, and the only restaurants in this town are burger joints and steak houses.
Heavy snow continues. The evening newscast shows a weather map of a massive storm system blasting the Medicine Bow Range, blanketing the entire Rocky Mountain area. This is what locals call a “rough time in the sheep camps” or a “two-dog night.” For tonight, I am “Snow-Bound.” I put an extra blanket on my bed, get in and open my copy of Catcher in the Rye.
On Friday I rise at 5:30 a.m. and phone Ernie at the bus barn; he says the plows can’t keep up and so busses can’t make their rural routes. Leonard calls and says he is cancelling classes district-wide. He puts out a bulletin on the local AM radio station. I activate the phone tree to alert staff. I locate the mimeographed list of phone numbers and start calling. Each person called is to call three others until everyone has been notified. As I call the third name, I’m irritated to realize that Mrs. Stevenson has not updated the list since fall term so Lisa’s number is not on it. Directory assistance says her number is unlisted. Will she know to listen to the radio for news of school closures?
I finish my calls, dress in jeans and a down parka, and drive to the trailer park to tell her. It’s 6:15 a.m. There’s significant traffic on the main thoroughfares because of shift change at the prison. The guards don’t take snow days off. Neither do the prisoners.
Lisa’s porch light is on and I see a rosy glow shining through a window. She answers the door in a sort of fluffy caftan or muumuu of swirled psychedelic oranges and purples that makes her look like an exotic stuffed toy. Her hair, a loose, shiny curtain, lifts as she opens the door, and a strong wind blows a squall of snow across the threshold. She tells me to come in to keep the snow out. I hesitate, then enter.
As I explain that there will be no classes today, I glance around and see that she lives in one room. On the floor there’s a mat covered by a lime green quilt. A candle in a drained wine bottle and The Diary of Anaïs Nin sit on an upended crate serving as a bedside table. A miniature efficiency kitchen like in a camper occupies one corner. A single doorway screened by long strands of beads apparently leads to the bathroom, and a string of Christmas lights with pink bulbs emits the glow I noticed from outside. Despite her apparent poverty, the room is cozy, inviting, and patchouli scented. She has nested here. She sees me seeing her home and pulls the robe-like garment closer around her body. There’s an awkward silence and then she offers me a cup of Red Zinger tea. There is only one chair at the card table against the north wall. I fidget in extreme discomfort. She watches. I excuse myself and depart.
The weekend passes. I watch TV and do laundry. I call my brother Gerry in Laramie, just to talk, but there’s no answer. They’re probably skiing. I envy Gerry, but not because of his wife. Or his ability to ski. And it’s not that he lives in a town large enough to support a bookstore and occasional live music performances. It’s an order of magnitude greater than those things. It’s his contentment, his acceptance of his situation. He doesn’t seek anything more than what he’s got.
I don’t leave home at all on Saturday or on Sunday. When I rented this small, poorly furnished house, the landlord, Mr. Stevenson, the husband of the school secretary, told me they had adopted a neutral color scheme to appeal to a wide range of potential tenants. Beige-eggshell-blah-forgettable. White walls and tan upholstery and what he called “chocolate” carpeting, on which you can spill coffee or Lake Country Red without consequence. What was I thinking back when I settled for this drab place? That it was temporary? That I would find a mate and together we would buy a bigger house and decorate in bright colors? I honestly can’t remember. Today, my “home” feels transitory. It smells like Windex.
I used to read more.
I am observing again the fifth week of winter term when Lisa announces this week’s composition theme: love, due on Valentine’s Day. Read anything on the topic; write an essay. The students give her blank looks. Like, huh? What about about love? As the bell rings, she says, “Think of it as a celebration, like a festival. Anything and everything about love. Bring your ideas. We’ll talk more tomorrow.” Her explanation is inadequate; the assignment is not understood. There is muffled, baffled chatter as the students file out, heading for their next classes. I walk away, wondering what I might write in a personal essay on love.
On Wednesday, I attend Lisa’s third-period Senior English class to watch her clear up the confusion. When I enter the room, I see the words “Love Festival” on the chalkboard. The letters appear in lavender, the script fancy-curly-girly, surrounded by a border of vines in shades of green that connect tiny purple hearts. The district supplies only white chalk, so Lisa must have purchased these colors herself. They are the same colors as the beaded necklace she wears. I experience unease.
If only she had called it something else.
The students arrive, notice the chalkboard, and eye one another speculatively. There are active crushes in the room. Raging hormones. Sexual haves and have-nots, presumably.
Lisa attempts clarification: “Write about anyone you love. Your Aunt Melinda. Bitsy the Cat. Or anything. Fudge. Sleeping late. The Dick Cavett Show.” She reads aloud an example, her essay about her love beads and why she wears them every day. Lisa loves her love beads. But what does she mean by “festival?” Like Haight Ashbury? Like The Summer of Love? Like Bacchanalia? I begin to hope she will walk it all back, but she pushes ahead. I am torn about exercising my authority. Yes, when I hired her I was looking for someone different, and she’s different. But this assignment, this “Love Festival”—should I allow it? I consider speaking with her after class about the concept but am summoned back to the office by Mrs. Stevenson for a phone call from Leonard, something about the inadequacy of the building maintenance plan I’ve submitted.
At lunchtime I drop by the teachers’ lounge, which buzzes about the Love Festival. Some but not all disapprove. Coach Pumley says much of Shakespeare’s work is about love. Mrs. Tipton, Home Ec, says the topic suggests “free love”—that is, she explains, to those unfamiliar, sexual relations outside marriage, which is inconsistent with the school’s honor code. Miss Whitehead, the guidance counselor, reminds us that every year one or two girls drop out of high school and marry in dresses of the empire style to conceal the reason, so it’s silly to pretend that sex doesn’t happen among teenagers. Mrs. Tipton acknowledges this but says it’s not the school’s role to condone it. Coach Pumley says anyone who chaperones the junior-senior prom and observes slow dancing sees evidence of “titillation.” No one asks my opinion. I listen and worry in silence.
I walk to Lisa’s classroom where she shares spirited conversation and slices of red delicious apples dipped in Jiffy peanut butter with girls from the senior class. I recognize Jan Mack, the mayor’s daughter; two Lindas; Nancy Somebody; and Marie, the third of the Petersons’ five daughters. The girls scurry away as I approach. I represent The Establishment. Paternal-stuffy-authoritarian.
I inquire about the objectives of the Love Festival.
“It’s to unleash creativity, Glen, strong emotion, passion for written expression,” she explains, her bright eyes focused on mine. “These kids have so much potential, and at this moment in their lives, it’s the perfect time for them to get in touch with their feelings and ideas. I want them to stretch. I want them to dig deep and see what’s inside. I want them to do more than string together a bunch of adjectives.”
Ah, I think, adjectives: mesmerizing-sweet-forbidden. Are verbs better? Want-need-desire. Longing. “To long” is an infinitive. To stretch. To dig deep. To see what’s inside.
“The girls that were here just now suggested that we expand the concept beyond the writing exercise. They want to invite the whole school to a Love Festival in the gym. Valentines for everyone. Decorations. An open-mic session so that anyone who wants to can read their work aloud. Poetry too, and maybe other art forms. Heart-shaped cookies. Doesn’t that sound like fun? I am so proud of them!”
“Hmmm,” I say. But I think, this thing is going off the rails. It needs to shrink, not grow. “I’m glad to hear about the enthusiasm, but I wonder if you have discussed this with other faculty members?” My desire for Lisa to like me is getting in the way of executing my professional duty.
“Not yet,” she says. “The idea just came up a few minutes ago.”
“I should bring you up to speed on what your colleagues are saying about the assignment outside your hearing. Little of it positive, much of it catty.”
“I’m not surprised to hear it, Glen. But I don’t aspire to be popular among my peers. I’m here for the kids. My job is to push them to think, to communicate, to take risks.” Excitement shines from her face. “And your encouragement means the world. I am so grateful to you for this opportunity.” She is making it harder for me to say what I need to say.
“I appreciate that. And I think it’s my responsibility to offer some guidance,” I say, fumbling. I need to get her to back down.
“Of course,” she says. “I’m eager to hear your suggestions.” That face.
“The thing is, this community is significantly more conservative than Boulder, where you trained. I’m not saying that the people are small-minded, but they’re traditional.”
“Yes, exactly. That’s why it’s so important to expose the students to the larger world. To stimulate them. These kids need to see that there’s something available to them beyond blue collar jobs in Rawlins, and the Lutheran church and having five kids. We can give them experiences that will broaden their outlook. That’s the heart of the creative process. The trick is to unlock creative thinking. Like the idea these girls came up with just now. I assigned an essay. They want to explode that assignment into a happening for the whole school.”
Hell. A “happening.”
I decide to take a page from Lisa’s book. Rather than telling her what to do I ask: “Is there another way to unleash creativity?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea.” It’s a terrible idea. “I’m just saying that we may not be ready for it.”
And here is her second, or possibly third significant mistake. She says, “Exactly what is it that you’re afraid of?”
“Lisa,” I say, “this is not about me, it’s about your instructional methods.” Even as I speak, I hear myself as oppressive-inflexible-masculine, and realize that she’s hit on something: perhaps I am afraid. A bit. Afraid of the disapproval of the teachers, Leonard, the parents. Afraid of how I feel about her. Afraid of her power. Afraid that I can’t manage her.
“I see,” she says, though clearly she does not. Or rather she sees but chooses to wait for whatever happens next. If anything.
As I struggle to frame a response, and realize that she’s testing me, our conversation is interrupted by Jan Mack, one of the apple-eating girls who has returned to collect her forgotten sweater. Small town mayors are a big deal; her father is no exception.
“Let’s speak more of this later,” I say. I turn and leave.
The unraveling begins.
A confused Baptist boy whose father works at the State Pen consults the well-meaning but clumsy Miss Whitehead. She’s a middle-aged spinster likely to stir things up, possibly due to lack of other recreation. She “counsels” the student that he need not complete this assignment if he finds it distressing. The PTA ladies somehow “find out” about a Love Festival at Rawlins High School. They phone one another, fomenting disquiet. The Thursday morning edition of The Rawlins Gazette features an editorial lauding traditional American values and excoriating “outside influences that corrupt local youth.” It includes an unsubstantiated report of a junior faculty member getting high with students.
Because I know this won’t go away on its own, I summon Lisa to my office on Thursday morning. She wears a tan buckskin vest with fringe that tangles her love beads as she moves a chair to the side so that we sit close together, without the barrier of the desk between us.
“Lisa,” I begin, “I’m concerned that your latest essay assignment has been misunderstood; indeed, you have been misunderstood. By some parents, local leaders. By the community.”
“That’s not surprising,” she says. “In fact, I think that a good sign, don’t you? A sign that people are paying attention. Engaged in learning. Thinking about education and what it means.” She crosses her legs at the knee and leans forward, resting her forearms on her thighs. She’s wearing tights.
“Maybe. But the practical reality is that the administration, the school board, is old-fashioned. Even uptight.” I want her to succeed, but I need her to come around.
“I understand. And that’s where you come in, isn’t it? As an advocate for opening young minds. Showing the guts to buck popular opinion. If we let right-wing pressure succeed in quashing legitimate experimentation, what will that teach students about having the courage of their convictions?” She nods her head as she says this, shoring up her argument.
“Your idealism is commendable. I admire your spirit. Realistically, though, Lisa, I can’t get it done. I am getting clear signals from my superior about the appropriateness—or lack thereof—of the Love Festival.”
“And you think I’m naïve and inexperienced and not worth sticking up for?” She lifts her chin and tilts her head, assessing.
“No. I think you’re talented, enlightened, and strong. And I think that if you are to survive in this place, my best advice to you is to reconsider the Love Festival. For now. Maybe a more incremental approach. Just reconsider.”
She exhales, deflates, agrees to reconsider, and leaves my office.
I’m relieved. I have not given a direct order. I am allowing her to come to her own conclusions. Her contract is a temporary one. She needs a permanent job. She knows that Mrs. Bridwell’s likely retirement will create a permanent vacancy next year.
Friday, having reconsidered, she hosts a lunch-time student “rap session” in her classroom on free speech and the value of principled dissension. Those who show up, Jan Mack and several other girls, the same clique that now wears long beaded necklaces, express indignation at the administration’s position. Those who don’t, mostly boys, mutter in the hallway. While they like Lisa’s style and consider her “cool” (and “hot”) they’re not crazy about this “love” business which strikes them as too touchy-feely. The boys would prefer to write about sports, hunting, or anything to do with motor vehicles.
Lisa comes to my office after the “rap session.” She enters, seeming to bring chilled air with her. She does not sit. She tells me, in crisp tones and simple declarative sentences that she has modified the assignment. There’s now another option: if students don’t wish to write about love, they may select another topic from a list. She hands me the list which includes, in addition to love: hate, fear, and sadness. It does not include sports, hunting, or motor vehicles.
“Will that be satisfactory, Mr. Lewis?” she asks.
She has never called me that before. Hearing it feels like a slap.
“I suppose so,” I say. Encouraging people to write about hate and fear seems counterproductive, but I keep this to myself. I’m hoping she will learn from this experience. What have I learned from it? What should I have done differently?
A moment of silence passes between us, which she breaks by saying, “I expected some support, or at least acknowledgment for taking your concerns into consideration. I thought you were on my side. It makes me sad that you aren’t. I have to tell you I am disappointed, very disappointed. In you.” And she retreats without saying goodbye, closing the door firmly behind her.
I sit alone in my office. Speechless-regretful-flummoxed.
I busy myself for the next few hours with administrative tasks. I should be organizing the agenda for the mid-quarter faculty meeting, but I don’t have the heart for it. I’m a little late in assembling preliminary budget estimates for the next school year. I don’t understand why it must be done so early. Besides, the process is cumbersome-rickety-boring-boring-boring. The sky darkens by about five o’clock. I never close the dusty Venetian blinds, so when I glance out, I see not the street but my own horizontally striped reflection in the window. The fluorescent lights are unflattering, creating ghoulish blue caverns beneath my eyes. I switch them off. I spend many minutes pondering the course of my work in this community, my youthful ambition to “make a difference,” my slow slide to complacency, my likely prognosis. I sit motionless, brooding, unable to imagine a future for myself that differs from the present. Could I go back to teaching? But no one wants to go backward, only forward, right? Finally, I turn the lights back on, tidy my papers, and prepare to depart.
Then the phone rings. It’s Leonard.
“Burning the midnight oil, I see,” Leonard says. It’s 7:45 p.m.
A propitious beginning. I want him to know that I work long hours. Then he says, “We need to talk about the dust-up over your new protégé.”
“Miss Grenfell.” Of course.
“Yeah,” he says. “That hippie girl. Seems she’s creating quite a ruckus. First it was the teachers that you’re supposedly managing. Now I’m getting calls from parents, Glen.”
“No one has called me,” I say.
“Well, they wouldn’t.”
“I wonder why not?”
“One of them claims he saw you leaving her trailer at dawn.”
“I can explain,” I say. “It was after the snow closure—”
“You don’t have to. I get the picture. Obviously. But most of the calls are about this ‘Love Festival’ she’s got going on. What are you planning to do about that?”
“I have counseled her about it, Leonard. With my guidance, she agreed to modify the assignment. She’s giving the class the option of writing on other topics.”
“Well, I’m not sure that’s good enough,” Leonard says. “I think you’re gonna to hafta put the kibosh on the whole thing. Lila Mack just called up here during supper and said her daughter Jan is researching what she called ‘erotica.’ Jan says your new teacher ‘makes her think,’ but think about what? We can’t have this, Glen. Obviously.”
Crap. Where in this town could a seventeen-year-old get her hands on what I assume would be pornography? And should I attempt to retrace my steps with Leonard and straighten out the gossip about my visit to the trailer?
“Leonard, this is all a misunderstanding. She’s young, it’s her first job, her judgment was a little off, but she’s back on track now. I have taken corrective action.”
“Well, that may be, but the horse has pretty much left the barn. Your ‘corrective action’ as you call it is obviously too late or I wouldn’t be getting a call at home at suppertime about ‘erotica’ from the mayor’s wife. I don’t like getting calls about ‘erotica,’ Glen.”
“Of course not,” I say. “She never intended this to be about sex. It was supposed to be an assignment designed to—”
“It doesn’t much matter,” he interrupts, “what the intent was. People are upset about this. And rightly so. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this. And I hold you responsible for it.” Leonard has never spoken to me in this way before.
“Yes, I see, but—”
“You hired her. You’re responsible for her.”
“Yes, of course I am, and—”
“Did you know there’s talk of some sort of town meeting about this? A kind of gathering of concerned citizens or some such?”
“No, I didn’t,” I say. “I’ll handle it. I promise you.”
“Damn right you will. And it’s a bad sign that you don’t even know about it. You don’t even know what’s going on around here. Around you. In your own damn school.” And he hangs up without saying goodbye.
While I’m taken aback at his treatment of me, I remind myself that Leonard is a World War II vet who grew up in a different era. He’s old-fashioned. He’s representative of his peers. And he has significant authority over me. I’m nervous. I want his approval, and I need this job. I’m reaching the conclusion that I must act.
The swiftest way to make this problem go away is for Miss Grenfell to go away. In my three years here, I have never had to fire a teacher. Once or twice I have encouraged a resignation, like the French teacher with poor attendance on Mondays and Fridays, bender-related I believed. Excessive alcohol consumption possibly related to the difficulty of acclimation to a place as different from the Loire Valley as the planet Pluto. Last fall we had a band teacher who turned out not to be able to read music or play a single instrument, quite like in Meredith Willson’s Music Man but without the charm and good looks. Both departed voluntarily after tactful conversations in my office.
The reasons for Miss Grenfell’s failure have to do with matters of judgment and values. Hers, I mean; not mine. Right? Is my conclusion about her fate based solely on professional judgment? Or is my reluctance a consequence of disappointment in myself, the dashing of youthful dreams, capitulation to norms that would have horrified me when I first came here, with ambitions I can now only dimly recall?
I phone Mrs. Mack to allay her concerns regarding her daughter’s research into erotica and get the details of the town meeting. She’s polite but peeved. Seven o’clock Tuesday evening, she says, in the gym. I’m surprised that they’ve managed to reserve the gym without my knowledge or approval, and make a note to question Mrs. Stevenson, who has a tendency to overstep, but that’s the least of my worries. I consider timing. I decide to have my difficult conversation with Miss Grenfell on Monday morning before the gathering can occur, so that it can be cancelled.
Indigestion plagues me. Agitated-anxious-adrift. I will sort this out. I must sort it out. I call my brother Gerry for advice. He recommends defending the teacher. He says I am in a position of authority and it’s incumbent on me to side with learning, even if there are negative consequences. I consider. He has a point, one which interferes with my sleep the next three nights.
On Saturday I telephone Mrs. Bridwell to inquire about her recovery. She reviews at length and in graphic detail the procedure she has endured, the ensuing morbidity, and the disposition of the offending organ after removal. Stitches, dressings, the need to avoid fatty foods. She hints at disappointment in the failure of her colleagues to rally round with flowers, cards, and visits. Her return date is uncertain. She may retire this year rather than waiting until next.
Two months ago I would have rejoiced at this development, but now it’s an inconvenience. How will I replace Miss Grenfell before she further damages my career? For a fleeting moment, I consider stepping into her role myself, but immediately realize I can’t. But first things first: get rid of her, then work on replacing her.
I decide that the most dignified, professional approach is to let things unfold naturally. She is an at-will employee, serving at my pleasure as the appointing authority. Perhaps Miss Grenfell will choose voluntary resignation. That would be best for all—for her, for the administration, and for the parents. And for me.
I spend much of the weekend rehearsing what I will say on Monday morning. I will ask if she has been happy here, leading to a discussion of where she might be happier. No, that leaves the door open to a claim that she likes Rawlins and wants to stay. Instead, I will ask what she would do in my shoes, in the face of the upcoming town meeting, to lead her to the conclusion that she is the problem and should retreat. No, then she might say that in my shoes, she would advocate for academic freedom, etc., etc., etc. I could lie, saying that Mrs. Bridwell wishes to return to work immediately. I could say Leonard directed me to fire her, but that too is a lie.
What if she cries? I don’t think she will. But she might.
I try various approaches. I practice in the bathroom mirror. My palms and pits moisten.
This will be over soon, I tell myself. About this, at least, it turns out I am correct.
On Monday morning I leave for work early. I plan to place a note on Miss Grenfell’s desk asking her to come to my office before the first-period bell. But as I approach the door to my office, I see that it has been unlocked and stands open. A parallelogram of light spills onto the yellow and brown linoleum floor of the hallway. I enter and see Leonard, his portly bulk filling my chair behind my desk, waiting for me. As I remove my gloves and hang up my overcoat, I start to tell him of my plan to terminate Miss Grenfell’s contract, but he interrupts.
“Well, Glen,” he says, “I’m afraid we need to have a little chat.” His tone is more conciliatory than in our recent, alarming phone conversation. “You see, over the weekend there has been considerable talk. School board members, the PTA. Pastor Logan from First Presbyterian. That fella from the Gazette. A few of us met over at the Coffee Corral on Saturday. Even a couple faculty members. Coach was there, and your secretary, what’s-her-bucket. Not what you’d call supporters of yours.” He pauses, then offers me a seat, the chair across from my own desk, the one that students facing disciplinary action sit in. I sit. He resumes. “Free love. Someone even used the word ‘Commie.’ Obviously, we can’t have this.”
“I know,” I say.
“These people, the parents, they’re taxpayers. They deserve to have some influence over what their kids are taught. They think you’re out of control. They pay your salary. And mine. The school and the teachers and the kids need strong leadership. I am not seeing strong leadership, Glen. They need role models. I’m not seeing role models. This town doesn’t want its kids to turn out to be radicals, women’s libbers, draft-dodgers, that sort of thing.”
“Of course. I agree.”
“And I hafta say something I should have told you a long time ago. I just don’t think you have much talent for administrative work. Sloppy estimates for the budget, late personnel evaluations, that sort of thing. Makes my job harder when you don’t do yours very well.”
“What? Now you tell me this?”
“I kept hoping you’d figure it out. Get the hang of it. Do better, you know? But this thing here with that little gal in the English department, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. You’ve let her get outta control.”
“I understand,” I say. “I’ll take care of it. I—”
“No,” Leonard says, “I’m taking care of it. Right now. I’m afraid it’s time for us to part ways, Glen, for you to move along, and though I’m sorry to see you go, I know you obviously understand the situation you’ve created here, and my lack of options. You’ve lost our confidence, Glen. We need to go in a different direction. As you know, you’re an at-will employee, serving at the pleasure of, well, me, and I’m not pleased. We’ll pay you through the end of the month, but you need to clean out your office and leave your keys on the desk. Today.”
“Me? What about Miss Grenfell?”
“Not your problem. She’ll be alright. She just needs some active supervision, some guardrails. Strong leadership. We talked. We’re gonna match her up with a more experienced teacher to help her learn the ropes. She’s got a fair amount of spunk. She understands the situation, and she wants to stay. Says she’ll do whatever it takes. She’ll learn,” Leonard says, as he stands and reaches across my desk to shake my hand for the last time. “No hard feelings, okay?” And he walks out, closing the door before I can respond that, in fact, I do have hard feelings.
I set the keys on the desk and put my coat and gloves back on. It’s cold out there. Cold in here, too. Good luck with the damn boiler, Leonard.
I could leave a note for Mrs. Stevenson but because she was at the Coffee Corral cabal on Saturday she already knows, and probably advocated for my ousting. She disliked me from the start. I ignored it when I should have dealt with it. Dried-up-nasty-small-minded-interfering-tattling-old biddy.
On my way out, I pass Miss Grenfell and Coach Pumley walking into the building. He holds the door for her. She turns toward him, smiling, her hair sweeping around her shoulders like a gleaming metallic curtain. She swivels back and her eyes rest on my face. She inclines her head a couple degrees in my direction, gives the tiniest shrug and silently mouths the word “sorry” before she strides away, toward her classroom. Coach Pumley follows. So they know.
I drive to my beige rental house. I sit on the oatmeal-colored sofa with my coat on. I should make coffee. Warmth, a stimulant, something. Leonard said he’d talked with Miss Grenfell, but what was said? Mrs. Stevenson and Coach Pumley attended the meeting of conspirators at the coffee shop over the weekend. Have I no allies? No one who would defend me or even give me the courtesy of a warning phone call?
It is still early in the day, but I’m exhausted. I recline on the sofa with my shoes on, replaying the conversation with Leonard in my mind again and again until it numbs me, and I drop into sleep. When I awake in darkness, I am disoriented and hungry.
Summoning my remaining internal resources, I put Sergeant Pepper on the turntable, jeans and a sweatshirt on my body, and a pot of coffee on the stove. I should make a list of the pros and cons of remaining in Rawlins, but there are no pros.
I schlep some cardboard boxes in from the garage and fill them with the pitifully few objects I care about, mostly books and records, a wilting philodendron, a mimeographed copy of the syllabus for Senior English Comp. The rest I’ll leave for Mrs. Stevenson, my treacherous secretary/landlady to clear up. I consider vacuuming but decide against it. She can do that too. I should call Gerry and Robyn to tell them I’m coming, but I don’t. They always welcome me, despite everything.
I load the Jeep and proceed down Washington Street, past the Coffee Corral, toward interstate 80. It’s either very late or very early but the Burger Barn is open, so I drive through and get two with everything. The grease-stained bag sits on the passenger seat. I pull onto the main road that leads to the interstate, glancing at the trailer park and then at the prison in the rearview mirror.
I’m escaping both a career disaster and the town that might have suffocated me in a few more years.
The moonlight outlines the white summit of Cherokee Peak against the brightening purple eastern sky, hinting at sunrise. I flip a U, drive to the trailer park, and kill the engine outside her lighted trailer. I wonder if she will come out or at least look through her window, but minutes pass and she doesn’t. I begin to eat, chewing slowly, pondering.
What is it that I wanted of this woman? Modernization, transformation, stimulation. This woman who in six short weeks gained for herself things I haven’t managed in three years. Success in “turning on” or at least stirring up her students. A reputation as an innovator. Leonard’s favor. The power to displace me.
I put the Jeep into reverse, back out of her driveway, and finally roll forward. Away from her and the home that emits pink light.