Nestor or; Joyce Does Daria
--Anyone, on what day was the Gettysburg Address delivered?
A classroom of hands shoot up.
--November 19th, 1863.
--Correct. You, contextualize this address.
--It was an oration delivered in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, now considered to be the turning point of the American Civil War.
--Correct. You, what is the draft manuscript of the Gettysburg Address known as?
--The Hay Draft.
--Good. Very good…
Too good to be true. A delusion—a fantasy. This is not the place to be hopeful. Intelligent classes must exist somewhere, just not here. Unable to read my thought process, the class sat blankly. Time to take the educational initiative.
Standing in a brightly lit room, Daria phrased her words slowly, already anticipating the apathetic response she would surely receive from the students before her.
--Now, who can tell me about Abraham Lincoln?
Light continued shining; a fly flew slowly around a bulb. These and other details moved on with their normal rhythms, unbroken. All part of the picture; silence. A silence that is broken only with reluctance.
--Uh, wasn’t he a President?
--During a war.
--Oh yeah, he got shot!
Three J’s all groping towards their own version of the truth through mere fragments. If combined you would have a solid answer, or its beginning. Better respond;
--Partial credit, all of you. Abraham Lincoln was our sixteenth president. Now, what is his best known speech?
More silence. The fly buzzes again, and its languorous movement surely suits the scene. Getting bogged down in detail; should give a hint.
--It starts with ‘Gettysburg’ and ends with ‘Address’.
For a class given the answer, they took a long, tediously long time to respond. After looking and judging that it had been long enough (Probably to avoid accusations of resembling a ‘brain’. The disguise of the self to suit others. Conformity.) Sister Quinn stated the obvious;
--The Gettysburg Address.
A speech made for the president, by the president and now of the president. These words linger into an unknown future, words the world remembered. At least when reminded forcefully enough.
--“Four score and seven years ago.” What is Lincoln referring to here?
The answer comes quickly, but shows not an inkling of consideration or thought. It comes from that intellectual giant Kevin.
--Uh, it was a long time ago!
With a sigh I respond.
--How long ago, Kevin?
--I don’t know! Um, four touchdowns are twenty points, so twenty plus seven is… Um… Kevin stammered.
--Nevermind. No wonder Mr. DeMartino lost his patience with these alumni. Teaching them must have been a vain struggle. A nightmare from which he is trying to awake, or so he said.
--Four score and seven is eighty-seven. What happened eighty-seven years before the Gettysburg Address?
Thankfully, Jamie remembers this one.
-Oh! Independence… For the USA.
Maybe I should encourage him, as hard as that is.
--Very… good. Now, back to the speech. Why is the line ‘all men are created equal’ important?
Because it’s the one everyone remembers. Damnit Daria, this isn’t a question for you to answer. Relax a little Morgendorffer, some poetry will help;
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
Lilting, ebbing… Just wait for an answer. It’s bound to come soon… Or by the end of semester. Jeffy shoots up a hand.
--Because they’re equal?
--That’s a tautology, but thank you for responding. Think of what was happening at the time.
This time, Stacy answers.
--Slavery? Oh no, I’m sor—
--No, you’re right. Slave-owners suggested that slaves did not deserve equal rights, but should rather be owned like property. Just think, backbreaking labor with almost no prospect of freedom.
--Almost like school, Quinn says.
I attempt to respond, but too quickly the whole class begins to laugh. High school is certainly peculiar, but it isn’t quite the peculiar institution. Waving to the board I direct the class to answer questions from the textbook. They can hardly do worse than their efforts with the Socratic Method. There they sit, working toward their answers, this day, May 16th. How did they end here in this class, when so many other possibilities offered themselves? Their composition is a coincidence. If Kevin hadn’t repeated the twelfth grade, if Quinn was born a few months’ later, if other students hadn’t left amid the ebb and flow of teenage life? Their selves are also the product of innumerable incomprehensible experiences each received in their own minds, forming and being formed by the stimuli around them. Chance. Whether they perceive this is another question—
Daria’s meditation was then broken by the ringing of the bell, its mechanical echo resounding into the distance. Students flowed out of the room into the hallways, on their way to the basketball court. Physical Education. The old nemesis. Yet my students appear to anticipate the prospect. What a surprise. Yet one student remains at her desk. It is Tiffany.
--Daria… I need help. . . With the questions.
Reluctantly, I agree to assist. After all, the school must be paying me for something, and I doubt it is the pleasure of my company. But where to begin?
Tiffany touched the edges of the book. She saw it and knew nothing. Searching for the heart of ignorance, finding futility—
--What is…the answer?
-- To which question?
-- The first one…
-- And the rest.
-- Could you start from the beginning?
-- Who was… Frederick Douglass?
This could take a while. The facing page of her exercise book is a void of white, without answer or reason. Tiffany’s problem is not only intellectual, I hypothesize; it is also a product of low confidence, hesitant to respond for fear of being deemed a fool. But how can I instill conviction after all her experiences? Low test scores, demanding parents, valuing appearances over depth. It is easy to imagine these pasts, for the dead generations fulfill the image before me. Yet they may too deceive, and her heritage may differ utterly from what I imagine. Past experiences do not irrevocably create the present; they merely guide our responses to new situations. No chance to enquire more deeply into the matter, a question needs to be answered. Have wasted enough time already.
--Frederick Douglass was a slave who escaped to the Union and joined the abolitionist movement.
-- They didn’t like slavery.
-- Oh… Those guys.
-- Tiffany, do you remember?
-- I think so…
She hesitates. Sapere aude! I want to yell, but realize a calmer approach is more appropriate. And may actually be understood.
-- Well, why don’t you tell me what you think is the answer?
-- OK… He wrote a book, about what happened to him, and spoke to a lot of other people.
-- That’s right, Tiffany.
She smiles, slightly.
-- Thank you.
-- Now then, let’s try the next question.
Sitting at her side Daria helped solve the problem. She proves by arithmetic that Leopold is Joyce’s father.
-- Do you understand?
Tiffany stared ahead in the hope of further enlightenment. I respond with my own eyes trying to give reassurance yet all too certain that such a thing is not possible, not now. She should head off with classmates, lest she too face the wrath of Morris. And that is not something I wish to inflict upon someone who has not even graduated high school.
-- Go on Tiffany, join your friends.
-- I will, Daria.
Tiffany turned and left the room, strolling down the hallway to her destination. I too was like her, once. Demanding education but only receiving shallow superficialities. Yet I made the step onward, and whether she too makes it is a question I’d rather not face. Better focus on the walk I soon must take. Through the shadow of the vallli of death to the Principal’s office, receiving my payment. Li lurking in the distance.
Walking straight ahead with barely a glance to either side, Daria soon covered the distance, standing outside a door with the title (Ms. Li) emblazoned on its window for the benefit of its occupant. (Ms. Li)
Knock. The door rattles under the impact.
-- Come in, Daria.
The headmaster ritual. I enter and see again the surroundings of a compact office I know all too well. The cluttered desk, the hidden compartments, and Li standing there near the drawers. She knows the purpose of my visit, but still feels the need to make theatre of it.
--And how are you on this fine morning? Li asked. I smell alcohol on her breath.
-Well that’s good! exclaimed Li.
-- I’m here for my payment.
--Oh, the financial settlement. How quickly did your class learn?
--Well… That’s certainly, methodical.
In the meantime Li has withdrawn the money from one of her many hidden compartments, the counting of which would surely take days. Squirreled away, just like nuts. A nutty nutty office.
-Here you go.
Two bills were thrust into Daria’s hand.
--I trust this is satisfactory, Ms. Morgendorffer?
--It’ll cover certain expenses.
--Use it wisely.
Mom, sixty dollars, two pairs of socks, one shirt, replacement bookshelf. T. Lane, ten dollars. Amy, replacement copy of The Sound and the Fury (Signifying debt.) Tom Sloane, fifty dollars. Raft, too much to think about now. Greentree, one quarter. Moore, seven dollars. Myerson, twenty dollars. Macgillicutty, scissors. Jane, sixteen dollars, two pizza dinners. This cash is useless. Maybe those teachers were onto something when they went on strike.
-- I always paid my way, in every situation, I always paid my way. I brought the same skill to the administration of Lawndale High. You know what they say, Daria. You save one dollar, it’s a triumph, you save ten thousand, it’s a statistic.
--I fear those words, Daria said, that make people so unhappy.
-They certainly made me happy, said Li.
The tumult of physical education again roars through the walls. Students clashing on courts designed only to test their physical prowess, Morris chewing out undeserving (occasionally) victims. The whistle is blowing, the volleyball must be flying.
--And what does not, Li continued,
--Could be endless, Daria remarked.
--Let me finish. When I became principal of this school, I had a vision of a glorious school, equipped with all the latest in securi….educational facilities. But that vision has been thwarted. If I had my way, Laaawndale High would not just be marching towards perfection; it would be already there. If not for certain elements—
--Certain elements? Daria queried.
--You should know, Daaria. One of them is your own mother. Oh yes, when you volunteered to enter that art contest… She had to undermine not only my authority, but the school’s authority. A lawyer brought discord into this school, and that can never be forgiven. What are civil liberties anyway? Being civil to others? I have more important things to worry about—like the fate of this school.
The lawyer’s cry from street to street,
Shall weave old Lawndale’s winding sheet.
--But the lawyers, said Li, they’re not the only ones. My school is being undermined—from within. Yes, It’s all in the hands of the stu--
--Excuse me? Said Daria.
--The press is in the hands of the students.
--You mean the student newspaper?
--You may laugh, Daria, but did you know that the newspaper is the #2 source of information within the school? The only one I cannot control, for it was there before I arrived. I never had a chance. A moment of weakness in the past let them in. One that cannot be easily fixed.
The past, it echoes immutably in our minds.
-History, Daria said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
--Yes, Li responded, History is yet another problem… That DeMartino, trying to gouge money out of the school coffers. He has also continued to rebel. If only I had been able to afford those tracking devices after all, but alas.
--Oh well, said Daria. That’ll always be the dream.
--Do I detect sarcasm, Ms. Morgendorffer?
--Congratulations, said Daria. Your powers of detection have not weakened.
--You may question me Daria, but the real truth is that you were never born, to be a teacher. Teachers teach; you only question.
--You say that as if it’s a bad thing, said Daria. Well, this has been ‘enlightening’, but I must leave.
--Very well, Daria.
That torment over (The second in an hour, and more are bound to come), I turn and head toward the door, only to be called back.
-Daria? Called Li.
--You know that Laawndale High is not the first school I have been principal of. Why Oakdale High also received my fine supervision. They had no problems. They had no unruly elements, and you know what that is?
--Do tell, Daria sardonically sighed.
--Because she never let them in; she never let them in…
On her efficient figure through the panels of frosted glass the light shone artificial rays, burning further dreams securely into her mind.