Monthly Archives: September 2017

Symphony 7

August 1988

There is a certain forlorn emptiness about a school yard in summer, but as summer draws to a close the excitement begins to return. Teachers drop in to arrange their rooms and put up decorations to welcome the new classes. Janitors find themselves busier, making sure that all the repairs that were put off from the previous year are done before the children arrive.

Most of all, the difference is the children. For a few days after school is out in the spring they continue to come in twos and threes, habituated, but during the middle of summer they are gone. As mid-August arrives, they begin to return, peeking shyly into the rooms that will be theirs, greeting friends they have not seen since summer began, and making the acquaintance of the teachers they will have during the coming year. By the time of the teacher preparation days that precede school, no day passes without dozens of little hangers-on, sad for the ending of summer but anxious for a change.

Neil came back on campus August twenty-sixth. Evelyn Rawlings, the secretary, drew a sketch map. It wasn’t much of a campus. There was one old building in the California schools style, with broad expanses of window and wide eaves covering a concrete walkway. All four classrooms and the office faced outward. There was no hallway. North of that building and parallel to it was a quad made up of portable classrooms, and beyond that was an open playground. Off to the left was a high cyclone fence; beyond it was the elementary wing.

There were sixth, seventh, and eighth graders on Neil’s side of the fence. Neil would teach sixth grade language; the other language teachers, Carmen de la Vega and Pearl Richardson, taught seventh and eighth. Glen Ulrich taught math, Tom Wright taught P.E., Fiona Kelly taught science, and Donna Clementi taught history. There was a Spanish speaking aide, Delores Zavala, to help in the language classes. Clementi, Richardson, and de la Vega all had classrooms in the quad of portable classrooms. Neil had one of the four classrooms in the older building.

He found his room open and occupied by an extremely pregnant and extremely irritable woman. He knocked on the doorframe and said, “You wouldn’t be Gina Wyatt, would you?”

She wiped the sweat out of her eyes with the back of her hand and snapped, “And just why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, I was told that Mrs. Wyatt would be having her baby in July, so you must be somebody else.”

“That’s what the doctor told me, too, but he was wrong. And frankly, right now I wish I was someone else. Someone who wasn’t pregnant in August.”

“I’m Neil McCrae.”

“Congratulations. You inherit the oven.”

Neil came on into the room and looked around. There was more than the typical pre-school confusion. Gina had boxes scattered all about the room, perching on student desks and spilling over onto the floor. She was moving books, papers, games, bright paper cut-outs, and a hundred other things Neil could hardly identify from box to box in a systematic fashion. But the logic of the system behind her sorting evaded Neil.

One wall was made up of steel framed windows from waist to ceiling. The upper row of widows swung inward and the lowest row swung outward. Both rows of windows were jacked open as far as they would go and the door was open, but the other three walls were bare of windows and there was no cross-ventilation. The air seeped in the door and heat drove it out the upper windows, but it was a slow circulation despite the wind outside. The room was sickeningly hot. more Monday

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410. An Honest Novel

I wrote an honest story. Everything that happened, could have happened in my real world. Many of these things were close analogs to things that did happen.

That is what I said in Symphony 2 and I stand by it, but I also have to explain it.

I wrote Symphony in 1988 and 1989, about a middle school much like the one in which I taught. That means it was small, underfunded, understaffed and blessed or cursed (you decide) with a racial mix of about half Hispanic and half Anglo. Keirnan School in my fictional world is on Keirnan Road, north of Modesto, California, in a mixed agricultural and industrial area.

Kiernan Road is real. Every road and most structures in my fictional world existed in the real world as well, although much has changed since then. The place where my fictional school exists was open agricultural land in 1988. On Kiernan Road, west of my fictional school, was and is a school of a different name which is part of the Modesto School District. My fictional school is not that school. Mine exists in a tiny two-school district, much as the school where I taught. That means severely restricted resources, which will become apparent as the story progresses.

The opening sequence of chapters The Ides of March and May 1988 may seem unbelievable to any modern teachers who reads this, or to any retired teachers who were teaching in the same era in large school districts. Yes, the police should have been involved, but in those days a powerful board member like Alice’s father could easily sway his board. Yes, Child Protective Services should have been notified and they should have made determinations. Again, this was a questionable judgement call. Clearly, similar to calls are still being made my some universities today.

If things had gone as they should have, Neil would have escaped censure and there would have been no novel. However, things often don’t go as they should, in fiction and in the real world.

Under these circumstances, Neil could not have been hired for a year by any large district, even in 1988. But a small district, with minimal pay, constantly struggling to hold on to its teachers, is in a very different place. It could easily have happened in such a real district, as it did in the novel. I have seen far more questionable hires go through.

Symphony faces a conundrum. Every movie or TV show about teaching is wildly inaccurate in dozens of ways. Since that is what readers regularly see, Symphony, which looks very different, seems questionable precisely because it is accurate.

I ran every situation in Symphony through this truth test: Could that incident have happened in the school where I worked? If the answer was no, I changed the story.

Anything that seems strange to you — sorry, I’ve seen weirder.

Symphony 6

Outside the window, the children had gone back to class. The only sounds in Campbell’s office were the faint whisper of voices coming from the office beyond. Neil had run down like a wind-up toy before his story was finished.

Campbell was leaning back in his chair with his eyes half closed. He had hardly moved for ten minutes, and his face remained neutral. When it became apparent that Neil could say no more, Campbell said, “That is when Dr. Watkins called me, and asked me to take you on for a year?”

Neil nodded.

“Why didn’t you just quit? Move somewhere else permanently?”

“Who would hire me now? I have to stay there or give up teaching altogether. But as long as I am visible, there are those who will keep the community stirred up against me. Dr. Watkins suggested that the only solution was for me to take a leave of absence, teach in another state for a year, and then come back after passions have cooled down.”

Campbell scowled, “So I am elected. Jim Watkins is asking a lot of an old friendship. What would he have done if you had decided to stick it out?”

Neil answered miserably, “He was going to hire another teacher to take my classes and let me sit for a year, drawing pay and doing make-work around the office.”

“And you couldn’t accept that?”

“The humiliation would have killed me.”

Campbell sat upright and ran his hands through his hair. “All right,” he said, “here is my answer. You say this Alice Hamilton was never a victim. Maybe. I am inclined to believe you because Dr. Watkins vouches for you. But I also have a responsibility, so I am going to ask some questions of my own.

“When you were tutoring this girl, did you smile too often? Did you sit too close? Did you pat her innocently on the arm, and did you hands linger just a little too long?”

“No!” Neil snapped.

Campbell raised his hand. “Of course your answer is ‘no’. But can I believe you? Did you lead that girl on? You’re a good looking young man, and a fifteen year old girl is five gallons of hormones in a short dress. Are you completely innocent?”

Neil sat for a long time, staring at his hands. Finally he said, “I tried to keep a completely professional relationship between us. It is possible that she misunderstood me. I can’t be sure. I have never been able to read minds, especially the minds of fifteen year old girls. But I didn’t do anything that seemed wrong at the time; and no matter how hard I look back at my actions, I see nothing I am ashamed of, and nothing I would change. Except that I was a fool to have tutored her in the first place.”

Campbell seemed to consider Neil’s answer, nodding slowly in the quiet of his office. Finally, he said, “I will recommend that the board hire you for one year. We have a teacher who is going to have a baby about July, and wants a year off to spend with it. You would be teaching English to sixth graders. But — and hear me well on this — I intend to tell your whole story to our school board, and I will be watching you every minute. You don’t have tenure here. I don’t have to show cause before I can fire you. If you mess up even once, you will be out of here before you know what hit you. Can you live with that?”

“I don’t like it, but I can live with it,” Neil replied. “I’ve had to live with a lot of things I don’t like recently.”

“Remember this,” Campbell went on. “I am not Jim Watkins. I am not your friend. I won’t go out on a limb for you. I won’t do anything for you but give you a chance. Just one chance! Screw up, and you are gone.”

# # #

Ten minutes later, Neil drove away from the school, heading east on Kiernan, then turned off the main road. He parked beneath the afternoon shade that stretched out from an orchard. He got out, took off his tie and jacket and threw them into the back seat. He loosened his collar and plucked the sweat soaked shirt away from his back.

As he leaned against the fender, he said to himself, “I don’t ever want to go through that again.” more tomorrow

Symphony 5

“I began to tutor her after school. We were reading Julius Caesar at the time. She could read the words plainly, and she could work through the antique phrasing to get at the literal meaning. But it didn’t mean anything to her. She didn’t grasp the story behind the story, and when I would point some of it out to her, she just looked at me like I was speaking another language.

“Four weeks later, I gave an essay test on Julius Caesar. She took it carefully, wrote neatly, and filled her blue book. But when I read it, it contained nothing except bare facts and a few of the things I had told her. There was no evidence of her own thoughts.

“I gave her a C, and she accused me of seducing her.”

# # #

It was quiet in Campbell’s office. The voices of children playing in the yard outside filtered through the windows. Neil continued, “I don’t think she ever meant to make the accusation. I think she rehearsed saying it, playing with the idea, but she had never intended to carry out her fantasy. Once it slipped out, she was trapped. There was no turning back.

“She told her father that I had offer to give her an A if she came across. She wouldn’t file charges with the police, but she couldn’t keep him from taking it before the school board. It was a circus. Her father called me a perverted vulture preying on innocent young girls and I called his daughter a liar. It was like being on trial, but without the safeguards. The chairman of the school board did his best, but it got rowdy.

“Alice said I had been coming on to her all year. She said she finally gave in, and we had sex behind closed doors in the classroom, every Tuesday after school.”

Neil had to stop long enough to swallow back his bitterness.

“I never laid a hand on her, and I always left my door open. I told the board that. I said she was lying. She said the same about me. We both said it loud and ugly.

“It was the door that settled the matter. Alice claimed that it was always closed; I said it was always open. One of the board members went to get the janitor in charge of that wing. He told the school board that the door had been open every afternoon. He even remembered hearing Alice and me talking about Julius Caesar.”

Campbell shifted in his chair, and said, “So the board didn’t act?”

“Between her lie about the door and her refusal to talk to the police, it was pretty clear that she was making it up. The board tabled the matter. Hamilton circulated a petition to have me fired, and several hundred signed it. Then some members of the board came to me quietly and asked me to resign for the good of the community.”

“But you didn’t?” Campbell said.

“How could I? It would have been the same as admitting guilt. Besides, I was getting mad.

“The school board rejected Hamilton’s petition. The story ran in the newspaper the next day, with my picture on the front page. One of the board members said that their hands were tied by tenure. There was nothing they could do.” 

That was when his troubles really started. Every day for the next three weeks, there was a parent in the back of each of Neil’s classes, taking notes and watching every move he made.

“I could take all that,” Neil said, “but when April came and it was time to sign up for fall classes, parents started coming to Dr. Watkins quietly, one by one, asking that their children not be put in with me.

“Until then, I had been dealing with a vocal minority. Now I was forced to realize that for every parent who was convinced of my guilt, there were ten more who weren’t sure of my innocence. It was the last straw.” more tomorrow

409. Man Stuff

I wrote this last Thursday. The post, not the quotation.

          Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.
          “None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .” Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both.
          “Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”
          “Oh, man stuff.”
                                          from Valley of the Menhir

Today, I was writing chapter eleven of my latest steampunk novel. So far my hero (I don’t do wimpy protagonists) has served aboard four dirigibles and has risen in rank from Sub Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander, brevet, in the British air service. These craft are the result of an unscrupulous Brit who, through theft, intimidation, and assassination has crippled the German airship effort and stolen all their ideas.

Earlier this morning (as I wrote) Lieutenant Commander David James and I settled thirty passengers into their berths on the Henry V, a dirigible of war acting as a passenger vessel carrying diplomats the the Grand Durbar in Delhi. If you don’t know what a durbar is, you’ll find out in coming months. David hated every minute of it.

Then we got a break of several hours as he got to go back to his real job as the lowest member of the group of senior officers, seeing to details as the dirigible, nicknamed Harry in reference to Shakespeare, leaves London for Paris. We have been following David’s career for eleven chapters now, and he has done a little bit of everything as he worked his way up. He will do even more in the future, and we will (metaphorically) stand at his shoulder and give him our moral support.

Man stuff.

The year is 1887, Victoria is on the throne, and our Britain is even stronger than the real one was since they just won the German War, largely through a squad of spies and assassins that remains Britain’s guilty secret. David is one of the few Brits who knows this.

Now its time for me to take David by the shoulders and march him down to the lounge to preside, as a stand-in for the massively scarred Commander VanHoek, over the first evening meal of the cruise. He hates the idea. Actually, so do I. In writing, as in life, sometimes if you want to go to a certain place, the path to get there passes through places you would rather avoid.

I’ve been researching Victorian aristocratic gossip in order to build a world like yet unlike our own. It’s not my cup of Earl Grey, but it is the job I’ve taken on, and I will do it well. Well enough, in fact, to move my readers through the event without arousing their distaste. That’s the writer’s equivalent of “never let them see you sweat”.

Still, I’ll be glad when the dinner is over so David and I can get back down to the engineroom where we can try to get another horsepower out of those damned, recalcitrant McFarland engines.

Man stuff.

Symphony 4

William Campbell was a short, spare man with graying hair. When he rose from behind his desk to shake hands, there was no welcome in his face. He said, “I’ve read your resume, but go ahead and tell me about yourself.”

“I am twenty-nine and unmarried,” Neil began. “I graduated from Oregon State in English Literature. I spent a year in New York working for a series of magazines as copy editor and writer. Then I came back home and got my Masters and a teaching credential . . .”

“Why did you quit and come back?”

“The work was unrewarding. I was working for magazines no one had ever heard of, basically doing drudge work. There was no chance of advancement, so I chalked it up to experience and went back to college. I got my credential in English Literature. Jim Watkins gave me my first job, and I’ve been teaching now for four years.”

“What levels did you teach?”

“He started me with freshmen, but for the last two years I have been teaching mostly seniors. Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Brontes — that sort of thing.”

“Are freshmen the youngest students you have taught?”

“Yes.”

Campbell shook his head, and said, “Teaching high school students is no preparation for teaching sixth grade. The children in this school are very young. Can you bring your teaching down to their level? Because if you can’t, you have no business coming here.”

“I won’t know until I try.”

“Are you willing to attempt it?”

“I don’t have much choice.”

That put the preliminaries behind them.

# # #

Campbell leaned back in his chair and frowned. “No,” he said, “I don’t suppose you have a lot of choices. But I do, and I don’t like being put on the spot. I will only do so much, even for an old friend like Jim Watkins. You will have to convince me that you are no danger to my school or I will send you packing. That means not only today, but at any time during the coming year.”

Three years earlier, Neil would have walked out. Now maturity and need held him in his chair. He said, “What do you want to know?”

“Everything, from your perspective.”

“You know that I was accused of sexual misconduct and that there were no formal charges because the girl turned out to be lying. You probably don’t know how I got into the mess in the first place, or what came after.”

# # #

Alice Hamilton was fifteen. Somewhere in elementary school, someone had let her skip a grade, and now she was taking senior English during her junior year. That put her two years ahead. Her father was a prominent local surgeon and a member of the school board, and he was convinced that his daughter was a genius. She wasn’t.

Her parents demanded As. Alice tried hard enough to get them. Her papers were always neat, typed, and on time. The problem was, she was only fifteen, and it takes emotional maturity to react to Shakespeare. Her papers were childish, because she was a child. She would have been a happy and productive sophomore, but she had no business in a class for seniors.

Alice came to Neil after class one day and asked him to tutor her. She said that if she didn’t get As, she couldn’t get into Princeton. Princeton was her father’s fantasy, but she was the one who had to fulfill it.

# # #

“She asked me for help,” Neil said. “I knew that she had a reputation for manipulation, but a teacher is there to help.”

“And she was pretty,” Campbell said.

“Yes.”

“And it was flattering to be needed by her.”

“I suppose.”

“My God, that’s the oldest trap of all. You should have gotten one of the female teachers to tutor her.”

“Yes. That’s obvious enough now. It wasn’t obvious then. I thought I could handle the situation.”

Campbell just grunted and said, “Go on.” more tomorrow

Blatant Commercialism

Greetings, new friends.

Recently, a number of new people have found their way to my website, and I am glad to see you. All my old friends have already heard this.

I began this website two years ago, shortly after finding out that my novel Cyan had been picked up by EDGE publishers of Canada. The original idea was to make myself and my writing known in order to find new readers for my novel. The website has grown well beyond that since.

Cyan came out in April as an ebook, and later became available in paperback as well. If you just found this website, you missed all the build up.

Cyan is a realistic, near-future science fiction novel about the exploration and colonization of a planet around a nearby star. With complications, of course.

If you click here, it will take you to the Amazon page where you can read reviews, see the blurb, and even use the Look Inside function to read a chapter or two. You can also click and buy.

If you do buy and like what you read, please take time to write a review. That way publishers will buy my next book. And then so can you.

End of commercial. Thanks for listening. SL