Symphony 53

They parked at an underground garage at the hotel where the conference was being held.

Since Carmen had shown him only coldness from the first, Neil had tried to avoid thinking about her. He hadn’t had much success. She figured prominently in his erotic fantasies, and in spite of himself he always noticed what she was wearing and how she was wearing her hair. Now he studied her covertly while she took time to fluff up her shoulder length curls. Her eyes were deep brown in a cafe-au-lait face. Her nose was thin, her features were finely modeled, and her skin was smooth.

In the elevator, her perfume surrounded him. He felt sixteen years old. He felt foolish and elated at the same time.

The elevator door opened and Carmen stepped out. Neil came a bit behind, enjoying her trim figure. She wore a short, close fitting black skirt and a patterned silk blouse of many blues, with her hair loose on her shoulders and a yellow scarf at her throat. The high heels she wore exaggerated the motion of her hips. She had the look of a hot, chic, young Chicana on the prowl; and the fact that she seemed unaware of the effect she was having on Neil — and all of the other men she passed — only made her more desirable.

It was going to be hard to keep his mind on business.

# # #

The conference was titled Literature Based Learning: a New Approach to the Teaching of Reading. The hotel had set aside a long conference room with a speaker’s table at one end and rows of tables facing the front of the room. They had shoehorned nearly a hundred teachers into a space that would have comfortably held half that number. Neil and Carmen appropriated a spot near the front, then Carmen left to run some errands of her own. Neil stayed behind to listen in on the conversations around the room.

Neil liked to circulate before things started and get a feel for the crowd. That way he could pick out the dull and the pompous, and zero in on the interesting ones who remained in case he had to get into a group.

The conference was advertised for grades K through eight. All the conferences Neil had attended before had been only for high school teachers. The difference between this conference and those was striking. Those conferences had been seventy-five percent male; this one was ninety percent female. As Neil circulated, he found that most of the conversations were about other people. He heard, “He said . . .”, and “She did . . .”,  and “They went . . .”.  At the high school conferences he had mostly heard, “I said . . .”, and “I did . . .”, and “I went . . .”.

Carmen returned and they took their seats. The superintendent of a local district spoke briefly and then introduced the main speaker, Anne Marie Chang. Carmen whispered, “That is the woman who gave us a bad rating last year. Whatever you do, don’t tell her you’ve grouped your kids!”

The speaker did not look that formidable, but when she began talking it was clear that she had an axe to grind, and that she had had a lot of practice in grinding it. After a brief introduction to the new language arts framework, and a hint that she had had more than a small role in shaping it, Ms. Chang passed out xeroxed copies of something she wanted the participants to read. Once they were distributed, face down, she told everyone that they had two minutes to read the passage and then they should be prepared to discuss it. Neil and Carmen turned theirs over, and Neil chuckled. Carmen said, “What is this?” She sounded irritated. “Can you read this?” more tomorrow

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