Chapter One: In the Dead of Summer
Greetings from the Big Lemon, formerly known as the City of Brotherly Love.
The good news: a Duke University study officially declared Philadelphia number one in the nation.
The bad news: the study had tested which American city had the highest level of hostility. We outmeaned the Big Apple.
The researchers hadn't polled me, but truth is, if they'd questioned me the day of my summer school faculty orientation meeting, I wouldn't have skewed the findings. Ten minutes into our prep session, I was skyrocketing off the hostility meter. My principal and his verbose inanities had that effect on me. So did the prospect of trying to teach in an under-air-conditioned building through the hottest weeks of the year.
My face hardened into what from the inside felt distinctly like a glower.
I have done my share of scowling, frowning, grimacing, and pouting, but this was my first glower. This was big-time, the face you made when the school doors clanged shut and you realized that while the lucky portion of humanity roasted weenies, you yourself would roast in the company of pubescents with whom you had nothing in common except a species designation.
This was the glower of being unable to remember why it was I had chosen to be a teacher. I was never naive enough to be attracted by the pay, so what had it been? Had I really thought I'd make a difference? That I could single-handedly turn the tide of the twentieth century and make old-fashioned, nonelectronic, nondigitalized objects like books and ideas and written and spoken language valuable commodities again?
I had signed up for summer school teaching for economic reasons. But I'd also been excited by this particular program, working with teachers form all over the Delaware Valley and with students from all sorts of backgrounds. The exchange of ideas, the possibilities of the two months, were invigorating.
But ten minutes into our prep session it was obvious that Maurice Havermeyer, Ph.D., principal of Philly Prep, who had, as he pointed out, written the grant application that funded this program, was going to make sure nothing innovative or creative took place.
I submit to the bench example A: the memo in my hand from my leader. "Miss Pepper, in the light of our mandate to integrate cultural diversity sensitivity throughout the curriculum this summer, please be advised that a sufficient number of copies of Romeo and Juliet are in the book room. Also, we have access to a tape of West Side Story, if you requisition it three days in advance."
There isn't much in life I can control. But surely viewing West Side Story again, hearing Richard Beymer pretend to sing "Maria" again, was one of those few things.
English departments are always the designated carriers of culture. That's okay with me. But nowadays they've also been appointed society's repairpeople. When attitudes, values, discipline, job-application skills, etiquette, and sensitivity training are required, the English teacher is the appointed handyperson. Other instructors teach their subjects. We are supposed to teach Life, and if only we taught a little harder or better, all would be well with the world.
Havermeyer's memo implied that he had extended the multi-cultural mandate to other departments as well, although I knew that was a pose. What variety of diversity could he dream up for the math teacher? To use both Arabic and Roman numbers, perhaps? And were foreign language teachers required to teach languages other than their subject, to maintain the PC quotient?
My leader had avidly pursued this lucrative summer gig, during which we became something akin to a magnet school. Instead of classrooms filled only with our usual population of overprivileged underachievers, this summer we also had underprivileged underachievers. Scholarship kids. Recent immigrants. Experimental kids, or, more accurately, adolescents who were part of a public-private educational experiment.
Be careful what you ask for. Having gotten what he wanted, Maurice Havermeyer, whose Ph.D. is probably in Euphemisms, was panicked. He apparently had just now realized that diversity implied differences, and seemed terrified by the concept. He stood on the auditorium stage and mopped his broad forehead. "We anticipate a most unique session for this venerable establishment," he said.
Redline that sentence, Maurice, beginning with the royal we and crossing out the redundant most before unique. I wanted to tape his mouth shut until he learned to speak. I entertained myself by wondering what would happen if I rushed onto the stage next to Havermeyer and did a simultaneous translation into comprehensible English.
"It is heartwarming to discern so many old and for-the-moment new visages," he said. I controlled the urge to gag. About thirty visages sat sprinkled around the auditorium. We didn't know each other well enough to clump or huddle, because most of the summer staff was imported and Havermeyer had not seen fit to introduce us before he began his Ode to Diversity. We would have comfortably fit into a classroom. But that would have encouraged intimacy, or a sense of equality, concepts that appealed to Havermeyer only when applied to others. So he spoke down from above and kept us feeling like marooned survivors on an archipelago.
"It is a pleasure," he intoned, "to experience the fresh air of change as it wafts into Philly Prep."
This produced a ripple of rueful laughter. Any fresh air would have been welcome, but virtually nothing wafted from the ancient air conditioner except exhausted, endlessly recycled gasps.
Havermeyer frowned. His script hadn't included a pause for snickers. And then he got it. "Ahhh," he said, "as you are obviously aware, we are experiencing temporary difficulties with our climate control apparatus. Remember, this building was constructed long before man knew how to manipulate his environment, temperaturewise. Please bear with us, particularly during this unseasonable heat which in any case, I trust, will ebb forthwith."
Forthwith, indeed. And unseasonable? What calendar, what climate, had he been studying? This was summer, the infamous season of get-out-of-here, when anyone who could afford to do so escaped.
Even two hundred years ago, when one-tenth of the population died in four months of yellow fever, the disease was blamed on the summer climate. Philadelphia was always a low, level town, perhaps the hottest and dampest of all the seaports—hotter even than Charleston, Savannah, or the West Indies, people said. I know this because my semisignificant other, C. K. Mackenzie, was recuperating from a shell-shocked leg that itched beneath its cast in the summer heat, and was making sure he stayed depressed by reading and sharing more than I ever wanted to know about the 1973 Great Yellow Fever Epidemic. "Now that was a really bad summer," he was fond of saying. That was supposed to make us feel better about his leg and my teaching obligations.
In any case, Havermeyer's "unseasonable" tag was a lie, an excuse for not having had the air-conditioning system fixed in time. "But in any case and any clime" he now said, pausing to give us time to admire his ability to create an archaic, annoying segue from the wretched air conditioning to the work ahead of us. We all, from what I could see, managed to contain our awe. "—we must all keep a cool head this summer."
I wondered if he'd let us vote as to whose cool head we could collectively keep.
Havermeyer waved the list of summer students' names and their schools of origin. We all had copies of it, so that nobody had to say words like poor or black or Asian or Latino out loud. Despite the fact that motivated young adults—or people who loved and believed in them—were paying good money so they might sweat through physics, geometry, French II, and writing skills, their odd names, their diversity, Havermeyer implied, translated into a dire potential for civil uprising. He made everything that had intrigued me sound inflammatory and to be avoided.
Eventually he completed a meaningless spiel about how the staff as well as the students came from a mix of backgrounds ("a heterogeneous commingling of variegated prior experiential modes," I believe he said)—and our need to work in harmony for the greater good ("…the potential for synthesizing differentiated pedagogical philosophies and styles…"). I wondered if anyone else questioned the man's right to guide instruction, given his inability to speak the Mother Tongue ("…producing a synergistic fusion of…") It's an odd world in which a Rodney King is a better communicator than the idiotic and incomprehensible Ph.D.'d headmaster of a private school. "Can we all get along?" is exquisite and to the point and would have been a waft and a half of fresh air in the stuffy auditorium.
It doesn't look good for a teacher to fidget, or fall asleep, or throw paper airplanes or spitballs, so I tried to clear my brain, to find an un-Philadelphian wellspring of serenity deep inside me.
I searched, but failed to find it.
Havermeyer continued his multisyllabic mutilation of any possible meaning.
"What is wrong with that man?" a stern-faced woman three seats over muttered. She rolled brown eyes in disgust, then looked at me as if she expected an answer.
Why me? Was I stamped PROPERTY OF PHILLY PREP? "Far as I know, pretty much everything," I whispered.
She shook her head and put her hands into a position of prayer.
Havermeyer concluded his gibberish. Now, when we'd all been stupefied, he had us introduce ourselves, one by one, and, he said, "explain what brings you to us this summer," as if he were a cruise ship's activities director.
I felt instead as if I were at a meeting of Educators Anonymous. "I'm Mandy P.," I'd say. "And I have a problem with surviving. I've been sinking economically for a long while, but I hit bottom when my landlord threatened another rent increase. So, well, I realized I needed help, and so I'm here." And everyone would applaud and be supportive.
The rest of the staff was either less resentful or less frivolous than I, and one by one they stood and duly said their names, their schools of origin, and what they would be teaching this summer. I tried to memorize them—employing all the build-a-better-memory games I'd read in magazines. But no sparkling personality called herself Diamond the way they always do in those articles, and Mrs. Hart, who should have taught biology or at least phys ed or health, if she'd wanted to be helpful, was instead an algebra teacher. Phyllis Something-sibilant taught Biology I. I couldn't figure out how to make that connect, or how to remember Walt Smith, whose looks were as nondescript as his last name.
He was one of several new men being scoped out by the female faculty. The pickings looked dismal. Of course we hadn't had time to find out what really counts—personality, brains, sensitivity…but Walt Smith's stubble and sweat-stained beer belly didn't exactly catch the eye.
Nor did the next fellow, a twerpish sort named Lowell Diggs. I thought I might be able to remember that one. Low Diggs—Diggs Low. Something molelike about his features. Of course, I had the option of no remembering him at all. He was less than prepossessing. Scrawny and stoop shouldered, he had a sharp nose and very little face below that, as if nature had made her point with the nose and then lost interest, so that his face dribbled back into his neck. He also had a piece of toilet paper clinging to a bloody spot on his cheek.
The eye-roller who'd wondered what was wrong with Havermeyer turned out to be a history teacher with the exotic name of Aldis Fellows. All Dese Fellas, I said to myself, superimposing an image of a lot of history—dead male kings and warriors—over her name. As long as I didn't call her Genghis—she was really forbidding-looking—she might justify the six thousand memory articles I'd read and forgotten.
There were familiar faces, too, permanent members of the home team, and as they introduced themselves,I focused on a lost, long-winged flying insect, making the rounds of the auditorium and barely heard the rest of the string of names.
Except for one. First of all, and maybe second and third of all, he was the best-looking male in the room—not a great feat, perhaps, given the competition, but all the same, noticeable. The uncontested faculty centerfold. He cleared his throat. "I'm Bartholomew Dennison," he said. "I've taught government and social studies out West for a long time, but as an American history buff, I defied Horace Greeley and went East. I've been subbing for a time, and I'll be in King of Prussia starting in September."
Before he sat down, he held up one hand. "By the way, I'm actually Bartholomew Dennison the Fifth. A long family tradition, although not, perhaps, a wise one. Anyway, the other tradition, for which I am grateful, is that we're called by our number. My father was Mr. Four and I've been Five—or sometimes even Mr. Five, if you want to be formal. I get confused if you use my impossible given name." He sat down.
Five. Even I could remember that.
Every woman in the room smiled at him. He had that effect. Even on Moira DeLong, one of the regular Philly Prep staff, a French and Spanish teacher in her sixties who wore a lorgnette and had hitherto exhibited passion only for Romance languages and her white Persian cat. Moira stretched burgundy-painted lips into a smile for Mr. Five.
And Edie Friedman, who had been stocking a hope chest since third grade and was high on supplies but running out of hope, looked near fainting with renewed optimism. Or maybe it was just the heat.
My turn. I stood up and said, "I'm Amanda Pepper. I teach English, all grades, at Philly Prep regularly, and I'll be teaching Communication Skills Workshops this summer." I sat down. Mr. Five smiled at me in a way that suggested we had just met someplace much nicer and more intimate than here, the two of us and nobody else. I returned the smile. It was the least I could do.
If it were not for C. K. Mackenzie, with whom I was tiptoeing toward an understanding, Five's smile might have made for a charged summer.
I sighed and returned to glowering.
Read the first chapter of the next Amanda Pepper mystery, The Mummers' Curse
All content © 2004-07 by Gillian Roberts/Judith Greber.