MAUD PULLED BLAIR’S high school yearbook from the shelf. She kept Blair’s room ready for overnight stays that never happened, even though Blair lived just thirty minutes away in San Francisco. She looked at Blair’s senior page, a large candid photo of Blair laughing and dressed in the silly clothes of senior prank day. Blair had chosen this—probably taken by one of her classmates—over the elegant images done by the high-end portrait photographer Maud had hired. Some of his prints were now framed and hanging on walls around the house. Maud knew about teenage rebellion but she had always felt there was something more in Blair’s defiance of her, something spiteful. Maud suffered it like a curse.
The yearbook pages were covered with inscriptions rich in secret allusions and innuendo. Then Maud read this: To one of my special students. Best of luck—Mr. Michaels. Blair had had a crush on Mr. Michaels—Maud was sure of it. Blair and her friends used to giggle and refer to him as “Curls” for his dark curly hair. Maud was sure he knew about the crush and had encouraged it. “Special student”—that had to be a code for something. Sometimes when Maud had asked about Blair’s day, Blair mentioned lunch with Mr. Michaels.
“Alone?” Maud asked. “I don’t like that.”
Blair rolled her eyes. “Yes, mother. It was a candlelight lunch with champagne in a love nest just off his classroom.”
Maud always felt Blair’s eye rolls like a slap. It seemed the more she tried to do for Blair, the less it was appreciated.
Maud copied the yearbook inscription word for word onto an index card and placed the card in a manila folder. She wrote “Mr. Michaels” on the tab and placed it in the file drawer of the cherry desk in the foyer.
Janet Logan had taught sixth grade history for ten years. Her husband was a top executive in venture capital. He had once been featured in a magazine article titled, “Power of the Purse in Silicon Valley.” They attended dinner and cocktail parties with the biggest names in tech. Whenever she told people at those parties that she taught sixth grade history, the conversation flagged.
It was a private girls’ school and Janet was a strong advocate for women. She believed that women should have parity with men in all professions. It was her cause. Her husband was supportive. When the school needed someone to head a fundraising drive, her husband volunteered. With his contacts, the committee raised an amount well above the goal, and Janet’s status rose in the eyes of the head.
When her division head went on sabbatical, Janet talked her way into serving as her replacement for a semester. It was a revelation. It gave her a sense of what it was like to be an executive, to control things, to have power. She realized how unfulfilled she felt in the classroom. She had won this new experience through her own initiative. There was a lesson in that.
The head of school was to retire in another year. The board felt her fundraising efforts had not successfully tapped the potential of the school’s constituency. Janet’s husband encouraged her again to be proactive, so she proposed that she be made special assistant for a year, a kind of apprenticeship whereby she would learn the job of a head of school. “Learn from the best,” was how she pitched it to the head. Her proposal was accepted. The next year, the board appointed Janet to be the next head of school.
Janet believed there were two poles to the continuum of leadership styles. At one end was stewardship, maintaining and caring for a very good school. At the other end was bold leadership for innovation and change. She wanted to be at the second pole. She had been reading the literature on twenty-first century education and she had become a convert.
Innovation had made Silicon Valley, and schools preparing students for a Silicon Valley future had to be innovative too. “Creative disruption” was a mantra. There was too much tradition baked into education. In the schoolroom of the future, teachers should be learning managers, overseeing a room of self-directed students learning on their laptops. Students should learn through projects. They should design and build. By propelling young women toward the leadership positions they deserved, the school would move from good to great. Janet awoke every morning with a vital sense of purpose.
Alex Michaels had worked hard in law school, and he accepted an enviable job offer with a San Francisco law firm. After six soul-numbing months his excitement had worn off. First, he realized he did not want to work for this firm, and then he realized he did not want to be a lawyer at all. He had loved prep school, and there and in college, his literature classes were his favorite. He quit the law firm and took an 80% pay cut to teach English at a girls’ prep school in Silicon Valley. He was instantly happy. He enrolled in a program for earning a master’s degree in English over five summers.
Soon after Blair was born, Maud had developed lupus. Though the doctors said not, she was sure her pregnancy had triggered it. It was part of the price she paid for her daughter. Her joints ached and she was often tired. Sometimes she had headaches. At the park other mothers noticed that she never hugged or played with Blair. One of them had the gall to say so. It was just that Maud’s way of expressing love was to see that every part of Blair’s life was good. When she took Blair to birthday parties, she stayed around. If a child ignored or bullied Blair, she told their mother about it. When she took Blair to ballet classes, she stayed and watched. When she attended parents’ night at school, she followed up with emails and phone calls to the teachers. Maud knew she was a better mother than the others. Besides, Blair seemed happiest playing by herself, drawing with colored pencils and dressing her dolls. Maud gave her a clothes allowance for her dolls so she could learn about fashion as well as money. She enrolled her in art and ballet classes.
When Blair was eight, Maud decided her ballet school had taken her as far as they could. She had Blair audition for the San Francisco Ballet School and she got in. Maud told her friends that Blair was going to be a ballerina. The school had a policy that a parent could observe class only once a year. When Maud complained to the staff, they were rude.
When the student showcase rolled around every May, Blair’s parents attended the fundraising dinner and all three performances. Blair’s written evaluations were barely average, and the year she turned twelve, she was in the back row in the showcase performance. The next week she received a letter dropping her from the school. Blair was relieved; she was getting tired of ballet. Maud did not want anyone to know, but Blair joked about it to her friends. “Flunked out of ballet school,” she said glibly. Maud was furious with the school and tried to make an appointment to see the director. She was told he had no openings. She spent a week writing up a scathing review of the school that she posted on Yelp.
By the time Mr. Michaels finished his fifth summer and received his master’s degree, he felt he had proved himself enough to experiment. He created a feature he called “Think About This,” ten-minute segments, once every week or two, at the end of class. He explained that they had no bearing on tests or grades. He made students clear their desks.
One day he said, “It’s not easy to describe yourself, living at this time in this world.” He paused. “Why not? Because you’re in it! It’s the same reason a fish can’t tell you about water. The fish has no distance.”
He sat on the edge of his desk, feet crossed and legs dangling.
“So, what can you do? Move to Mars and then look back on the earth? It’s too far. The same for Venus. No, you find a metaphor.
“Turn to the poets. Listen to Rilke. He lived a century ago, but things were going to hell even then. Industry was on the rise. Everyday objects were no longer hand crafted but mass produced. The assembly line had replaced the workbench. Automobiles were replacing horses.
“Rilke’s metaphor was the tongue and the teeth. Teeth are hard and sharp, and the jaws are strong. The tongue is soft. It enables us to taste and to speak. To express our feelings. To utter the truth. But think how vulnerable. Remember the times you have bit your tongue, how much it hurt. Do you know that in automobile accidents or serious falls people have severed their tongues?
“Think about this: Each of us is like a tongue, and the world in which we live—all of the institutions that have power over us—are the teeth. We are trying to feel and to express and to utter truth without being cut to pieces or ground to a pulp.”
When Blair was a senior, she signed up for Mr. Michaels’s classes both semesters. He was her favorite teacher. She never got drowsy in his class, and she liked the novels he taught: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Color Purple, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ragtime. She flirted with the boundaries of the school uniform, and it was obvious that he did not give a crap about the school uniform. He loved literature, though. He was a literature nerd. He loved ideas.
Janet hired a consulting firm to rebrand the school. They impressed upon her that 95% of what was true of this good prep school was true of any good prep school. The same was true of toothpaste. Branding was about finding the unique 5% and convincing consumers of it. She did not hesitate. This was the school that would make girls the corporate leaders of tomorrow. Not the middle managers, but the CEOs. Not the aids, but the senators. Not professors, but deans and university presidents. Women for leadership. That would be the brand—the 5%.
Mr. Michaels had them clear their desks. They waited in silence.
“This one is very short,” he said. “Maybe some of you thought about Rilke’s metaphor. Maybe you identified some of the teeth in your lives. Your parents in their worst moments. Your teachers.” He shrugged. “Me when I grade your essays. The DMV. College admissions committees.”
He put his hands in his pockets and looked at them.
“We are all tongues at times.”
He walked to the window.
“But think about this. Are we not also the teeth?”
When Blair’s father was diagnosed with liver cancer, Blair hated how her mother got on the phone to tell her friends. At school, Blair kept quiet. She did not want to deal with everyone’s demonstrations of sympathy and support. She would not know how to respond. The counselor would email all of her teachers and they would ask her if she was okay.
A few days later she saw Mr. Michaels eating lunch alone on the patio.
“Mind if I sit down?” she asked.
He gestured with a welcoming sweep of his hand.
“Thanks for not opening your mouth while you’re chewing,” she said.
He made the same gesture.
“Is that the only hand signal you know?” she asked.
He gave her the finger. She burst out laughing, and then, just as suddenly, her eyes filled with tears and overflowed. He cocked his head and wrinkled his brow.
She wiped her cheeks and said, “You’re going to give yourself wrinkles doing that. More wrinkles, I mean.”
“You know,” he said, “wrinkle is a funny word. I mean, just say it a bunch of times. Wrinkle. Wrinkle, wrinkle.”
“You should use sunscreen,” she told him.
“You’re right. I should. Ozone layer, right?”
“It’s disappearing,” she said.
After a pause, he said, “What’s up, Blair? Tell me.”
“Well, my father has fucking cancer.”
In her first three years as head, Janet successfully rebranded the school. The catalogs, website, and brochures had been outsourced to a design firm that created a consistent message of confidence and success. Key phrases were strategically placed like herbs in a gourmet meal. Janet perfected a presentation she gave to parents and donors which began with a black and white photo of a dimly lit schoolroom, old fashioned desks in rows, a teacher with her gray hair in a bun and a faded dress to mid-calf. Her audience always tittered. The explanation that followed played on two parent fears—that their children would be stressed and unhappy now and unprepared for the job market of the future. The last slide was an architectural drawing of a classroom building that looked like a gleaming high-tech company: high ceilings, soaring glass walls, modular furniture, and steel beams painted in bright reds, yellows, and blues. The future school would hum with the dynamism of Silicon Valley and the fun of an after-school club. In the new classroom, energetic and happy students would work collaboratively, make things, solve world problems, and teach themselves. She ended her talk with a dramatic pause, and then she said, “We need to create schools for their future, not our past.”
The architectural drawing was her segue into announcing that it was a rendering of the planned new classroom building. After all, a twenty-first century education required a twenty-first century learning space. She announced that the quiet phase of the capital campaign was exceeding her hopes.
Mr. Michaels was eating lunch on the patio alone, and Blair sat down.
“Guess what,” she said. “I sent back my postcard to Vassar.”
“About whether you want to be on the wait list? What did you say?”
“I told them they could kiss my rosy red ass.”
“You didn’t really.”
He laid down his spoon. It was chili day.
“You plagiarized McMurphy.”
“He won’t mind.”
“Tell me you haven’t mailed it.”
“I mailed it this morning.”
“Is there time to set fire to the mailbox.”
“It’s metal. It won’t burn.”
For Janet, the dark spot on the school’s future was the faculty. A certain core did not seem to be on board. It was especially disturbing that these were not the deadwood faculty, mediocre teachers hanging on until retirement. They were some of the best, those the students praised mostly highly. Alex Michaels was one of them. Whenever she gave her best presentations of the changes she envisioned, he crossed his arms over his chest and wore a look of bored skepticism. Once, he asked in a meeting if the new classrooms would really be that sterile.
At graduation, Mr. Michaels congratulated Maud on her daughter.
“Her college results were disappointing,” Maud responded. “I’m not sure the school did everything for her that it could. It seems to favor certain girls.”
As if speaking to a child, Mr. Michaels said gently but firmly, “Blair got into several good colleges. And from that group she chose a good one. She’ll do very well there.” Then he smiled. “And congratulations also on her winning the art prize.”
“If the school gave them out earlier,” Maud said, “maybe it would have helped her in college admissions.”
Mr. Michaels raised his plastic cup of punch to mimic a toast, smiled, and then walked away.
When Blair graduated from college, she got a job as an assistant women’s wear buyer for a department store. She also started a fashion blog that drew a substantial following. Blair knew her mother had done a lot for her. From a sense of duty, she spent holidays with her. She tried to have brunch with her once a month, but it was closer to once every two months. Things came up.
Sometimes, at a certain stage of drunkenness, a person might frown at the air just in front of their face, looking as if they are about to swat something that has hurt or angered them, the corners of their mouth pulled down in sour resentment. Maud did not drink, but that’s how she sometimes looked, alone in her home, when she thought of her daughter. Blair, who did not return her mother’s texts or pick up the phone when she called. “Pick up, damnit,” Maud shouted at Blair’s recorded message, but there was no one to hear her.
The day after copying Mr. Michaels’s inscription in Blair’s yearbook on an index card, Maud searched Blair’s antique cedar trunk. She had bought it for sweaters, but Blair used the trunk to store mementoes. Maud rummaged through cards, a pair of ballet slippers, a few paintings from the period where Maud had experimented with acrylic on 4×5 inch canvases.
Near the bottom, she found Blair’s journals from high school. There were sketches of ideas for paintings, complaints about going to a boring school where everyone seemed perfect. There was a column labeled “pain in my ass.” The first item was “mother” with a five-point star drawn beside it. She found references to the school art teacher, her out-of-school painting teacher. Every reference to herself was like a sharp paper cut. But she also found what she was looking for, references to Mr. Michaels. Whenever she found one, she copied it on an index card.
Mr. Michaels seriously needs fashion help. Wore a cardigan today, looked like Mr. Rogers.
Saw Mr. Michaels using his phone in the parking lot. Looked like he got it at the tech museum. Has to be two decades old.
My regular lunch date on the patio with Mr. Michaels. He asked about Dad again—never know what to say.
Watched the film Mr. Michaels told me about—TMI on the nudity. Note to self—watch it again! LOL!
Only a B on my English essay—Michaels is a bastard grader!
Mr. Michaels likes to talk about his dog in class—what a nerd!
Found the perfect Christmas gift for Mr. Michaels—a pocket guide to men’s fashion!
Mr. Michaels on one of his tangents today. He talked about the tongue and Sarah wrote on my desk with her Sharpie: Curls likes French kissing!!! Typical Sarah.
Maud had him. It had taken the entire Saturday morning, but it was worth it.
Janet had trouble putting it into words, but she did not feel that the faculty gave her the respect due a CEO. One day she asked her secretary to set up a meeting that afternoon with a senior history teacher to discuss the AP program (Janet felt it had outlived its usefulness). The teacher responded that she was too busy with classes that day and would have to meet later in the week. Janet was livid.
Of course, until a few years ago Janet had just been one of the teachers. She had joked, complained about parents and the administration, and shopped online during school hours along with her colleagues. She had gone to a baby shower for a colleague one Friday night, drank too much, and threw up on the sidewalk. But that was then. This was now, and by her own effort she had become head of school. It was her school. Her colleagues needed to adjust. What was it about teachers that they did not know how to act appropriately in an institutional workplace?
The day Maud finished typing the email, her joints hurt, including the joints in her fingers. That made it even more satisfying.
Dear Janet Logan,
I am writing to you out of duty, though I would rather not have to do this. My daughter Blair graduated five years ago, and there is no doubt that Mr. Michaels carried on an inappropriate relationship with her. I found a reference in the journal she kept during her senior year that he had her view a very sexual film, and it was obvious that she was highly distressed by the experience. I also learned that they frequently had lunch together, and Blair referred to them as “dates.” He also talked to his class about French kissing. He wrote in Blair’s yearbook that she was “special” to him, a clear red flag that indicates the inappropriate nature of their relationship. Blair’s father was terminally ill at the time this was happening, and it is clear to me that Mr. Michaels took advantage of her vulnerable emotional state.
I know that you were not head of school when this happened, but I am confident that you will take the necessary action now to make sure that no other students are subject to this sort of inappropriate treatment from Mr. Michaels. I have not talked to Blair about this because I do not want her to be further traumatized.
When Maud hit send she felt like she had used a switch. She couldn’t even remember what Mr. Michaels looked like, but she imagined a scarlet welt swelling on his skin.
Bill Smoot grew up in Maysville, Kentucky. He now lives in Berkeley and teaches with the Prison University Project at San Quentin. His stories and essays have been published in Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Ohio Review, Narrative, and others. His novel, Love: A Story has just been published by Adelaide Books.