Just how are you planning to fix this?” Mrs. Perry’s hands are clasped on the desk, the hand adorned with the colossal diamond resting pertly atop the other. Her fixed smile belies the parental rage I detect in her blue eyes, which, despite their lovely azure color, are boring holes through me across the student desk that buffers the narrow space between us. “My son is an A student. I will not allow you to fail him.”
I take a deep breath. “Mrs. Perry, Horatio has to complete his assignments in order to receive an A on them.”
I am determined not to squirm in my own classroom. I have found myself seated across the desk from Mrs. Perry too many times in the last eight months, and each time I’ve come up with the perfect retort to her complaints. Each time being the very moment after she clicked out my classroom door on her designer heels: a moment too late. Now, I dig deep, summoning the voice of Dr. Dwight, my favorite Boston College professor, whose classroom I exited just five short years ago. Whose kind demeanor and sensible pronouncements had convinced me that teaching was an altruistic path to guide children to their full potential. How wrong he was. “All
parents truly want is for their child to be happy.” Sure, if happiness is defined by an unwavering 4.0 grade point average, however undeserved.
“Horatio does not have time for homework,” Mrs. Perry informs me curtly, as though this explanation will magically sweep away the requirement that each of the other forty-eight fourth graders in our school is expected to meet. “It interferes with his tennis lessons at the club. Did you not realize that he has qualified for the regional tournament in the Hamptons this summer? He’s first in his division.” She drums her manicured fingernails, which I notice are a tasteful shade of nearly colorless pink.
“That’s wonderful. However—”
“Furthermore, Horatio’s father and I will be sending him to Camp Pendleton at the end of the month. It’s an esteemed program instructed by a Pebble Beach pro. So you’ll have to excuse Horatio from the last week of school, as well.” She checks her watch with a brisk flick of her wrist, as if to signal that this meeting is now over.
“Attendance is a different matter. You’ll need to speak to Dean Hartman about that. But in regard to the science grade—”
“Miss Griffin. It is still Miss, correct?” I have taught Mrs. Perry’s son all year; she knows my name. This reference to my single status is a cruel deflection, tossed masterfully in my path, no different from the critical once-over she now inflicts. Still, I flinch as she makes a cursory examination of my naked left ring finger, before her eyes roam over my off-the-rack sweater, screeching to a halt at my sensible black loafers, which I tuck quickly beneath my chair.
Thrown momentarily by her impromptu fashion findings,
Mrs. Perry pauses, and I seize my chance to regain parent-teacher-conference control. “Mrs. Perry, I can’t give credit for work that isn’t done. I’m afraid the F stands.”
Mrs. Perry’s blue eyes have narrowed so that her dark pupils are mere pinpricks between her dense lashes. “Brilliant children should not be hampered by regulations set by the simple-minded administration for the weak-minded majority.” Professor Dwight’s voice is quick in my ear: “Parent teacher conferences are a wonderful opportunity to let parents know how much you enjoy working together as partners in their child’s education.” I shoo the professor away, before Ainsley Perry can squash him with her manicured hand.
We are at a stalemate. As I have sadly come to realize, there is no rationale for the unbalanced expectations of many of the parents in this privileged community in which I teach. Darby is a day school in the Belmont section of Boston. When not confined to their Duxbury and Hingham saltboxes, these children inhabit the New England stomping grounds of the post-Mayflower generations, adroitly wielding tennis racquets and toting monogrammed golf bags by the age of three. During summer, they log serious sailing time, tacking and jibing away the month of August off either Nantucket or the Vineyard.
Despite the fact that I was offered two other teaching positions, I was smitten by the New England façade of the Darby Day School the first time I drove through the granite pillars. These kids came to school already on an Ivy League track. Gone would be the heartbreaking struggles I’d encountered during my student teaching stint in a neighborhood where most children were on government welfare and arrived to school hungry, frustrated, and grossly behind, if at all. Though I’d embraced
the assignment initially, stalwartly hanging on to those green beliefs about making a difference in each individual whose life I hoped to alter, I soon faltered, exhausted by the harsh realities of the system. I was just one more lofty-minded education graduate plunked in an urban jungle with nothing more than a newly printed diploma stashed in her messenger bag. As my father said when I accepted the Darby position, “Don’t think twice, kiddo. You’re a scrapper. You’ll still find ways to make a difference, no matter where you teach.”
Now, as I sit across from Mrs. Perry, who drums her nails on the desk, I am questioning just what kind of difference I am making here. I do not wish to embroil myself in academic litigation with Mrs. Perry, or her husband, who has yet to grace my classroom with his presence, though he routinely clogs my email box with bullet-pointed lists of complaints, as he is mostly overseas engaged in some form of exporting business. But my principles will not allow me to give in. I wonder how happy Mrs. Perry and her husband are with each other, or in general. Despite their racquet-wielding son and his success in the tournament world of their country club, what kind of parents show up only to demand unnecessary special treatment? I have yet to see either one attend the fall harvest picnic, or our spring school play. Forget a fund-raising event like a bake sale. Instead, they are perpetual no-shows who also failed to alert the music teacher of Horatio’s absence the night of the fourth-grade play, leaving poor Mrs. Riley, the music teacher, scrambling to fill his lead role minutes before curtains opened. These are not parents who consider for a moment the long hours I stay late at school, grading papers, personally disinfecting their children’s desks with Clorox wipes (purchased by yours truly), or the two hours spent waiting on
the front steps for parents who simply “forgot” to come pick up their child after a field trip. (Who forgets their own kid?)
And then there’s Horatio, the boy himself, whose upturned nose wrinkles when I ask him to take out his homework each morning, and who blithely opens his empty folder, displaying it for all the class to see with such misplaced chagrin I have to bite my lower lip.
I have always taken pride in my skill to find good in all of my students, no matter their weaknesses or unkind tendencies. Even when I have to dig deep. But as I sit across from his impeccably dressed mother, I admit that Horatio Perry has challenged that dig-deep skill. I’m an elementary school teacher, not an archaeologist.
Now it’s my turn to look at the large white clock on the wall. It’s no Rolex, but it tells me what I need to know: I am finished here. It’s four thirty on Friday afternoon. Despite my sensible black loafers, my feet hurt from running back and forth across the building to the multipurpose room, where I sacrificed both my prep period and lunch to paint backdrop scenery for the fifth-grade theater production.
In the rear of my classroom the crayfish click audibly across the glass botom of their crustacean tank; a science unit that I tend, because let’s face it, they smell and none of the other teachers wanted them. Beside me is a bag full of ungraded social studies essays that I will have to finish by Sunday, and on my desk there is a note from Sadie Jenkins telling me that Melissa Bates has been calling her Butt-Face in gym class. Back at home my cat, Mr. Kringles, is probably sharpening his claws on the corner of my new couch, the only new piece of furniture in my overpriced and undersized Back Bay apartment, where my unwatered plants are sporting the final shades of pre-death yellow. I’m
certain that my best friend and roommate, Erika, has left at least five voice mails on my cell. And that Evan has called between filming scenes to see if we can meet for happy hour. Because even though I sometimes feel like I have no life outside this classroom, I manage to have friends and a boyfriend who do. Right now I want nothing more than to sit with Evan at a bar and take a deep sip of a salty margarita, or collapse on my couch at home, even if it does mean listening to Erika fret about her crazy in-laws-to-be, or her couture gown that needs yet another alteration because she’s still losing so much weight. And I’m not letting Mrs. Perry suck another moment of that from me.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Perry, but I have an appointment. Here is Horatio’s science assignment. I expect it by Monday.” I set the folder between us.
Mrs. Perry looks as if I have slapped her. “You will be hearing from my husband about this,” she says, yanking her purse over her shoulder.
Which reminds me of another delightful encounter I shared with Horatio, just the other day: I had warned him that I would phone his father in regard to some colorful language Horatio had tried on for size in the lunch line. When confronted, Horatio had smirked, reached into his pocket, and handed me the newest iPhone. “I dare you to call my dad. Here. You can use my cell.”
With that tidbit fresh in my mind, I look Mrs. Perry in the eye. “I look forward to it.” Round One: Maggie Griffin.
When I finally get home, Erika is reclining upside down on our couch, reading an edition of Martha Stewart Weddings. Her blond head hangs off the armchair, and her legs are tossed
carelessly up over the designer hand-stitched pillows she talked me into going halves with her last week. Mr. Kringles, who has draped himself across her tummy, purrs audibly.
“Doesn’t that make you dizzy?” I ask, dumping my keys on the Pottery Barn knockoff nesting table. Our apartment, a 1920s brick walkup, is tiny. But what it lacks in square footage it makes up for abundantly in charm. When you enter off the main hallway, you step into our living area, which boasts high ceilings and a modest fireplace. The hardwoods are a rich honey hue, and the old windows, while drafty in winter, let in loads of sunlight. On one side of the living area is a galley kitchen that fits one person comfortably at a time. On the opposite side of the living area is Erika’s bedroom, an itsy-bitsy bathroom, and just beyond that the alcove, also known as my room. The tight living quarters have had their challenges, and Erika claims she can’t wait to move out to Trent’s spacious two-bedroom Brighton apartment at the end of July when they get married. But I disagree; we’ve made so many memories here. From our first jobs to late-night movie marathons with just us girls, to hosting standing-room-only wine and cheese parties with the few neighbors we could squeeze inside. The thought of moving out makes my heart ache, like I’m saying goodbye to a part of who we were these last poignant years.
Erika holds up her magazine. “Did you know that French birdcages are back in style?” she says dreamily. “Nineteen-twenties chic.”
“You’re getting a bird?”
“No, dummy. I meant the veil. They’re all the rage in bridal couture.” Since Erika became engaged she’s become a register of bridal facts. Sometimes to the point that I don’t think I can bear
to listen to another. She sits up and surveys me curiously. “What happened to you, anyway? I’ve been waiting for you forever.”
“Mrs. Perry,” I mumble, kicking off my shoes on my way to the kitchen.
“Parents. They’re all nuts. Which is why I will never be one.”
“You’re joking, right?” I pull a glass from the cupboard and fill it with water. It’s not atypical of Erika to make shock-value statements. I have a momentary flashback to our elementary-school days when we pushed matching pink strollers, our plastic baby dolls tucked safely inside.
“Not really. People who have kids are certifiable. Look at your sister. She’s never been the same.” She squeezes past me in the kitchen, takes my water glass, and dumps the remains down the drain. “Ever since Jane started down the family trail, the girl has been lost deep in the woods. And she hasn’t come out yet.” Erika pulls a bottle of pinot from the fridge and refills my glass. “Here. You look like hell.”
“Thanks.” She is right about Jane, I have to admit. My sister, older by four years, has remained our measuring stick for all of life’s significant milestones. As kids, Erika deeply envied my having a sister, especially an older one. As Erika and I spent our childhood trailing Jane’s wake, simultaneously admiring and despising her, Jane’s age gap provided us with a wealth of knowledge and experience that we eagerly stowed away. Jane was both smart enough and pretty enough, and not too shabby on the soccer field, which added up to a decent ranking on the popularity scale. Which meant that while she had the metaphorical keys to the car of teenagerism, Erika and I got to stow away in the backseat for the ride. Through Jane we learned how to shave our legs, which new CDs to buy, and how to navigate the halls of high school without
standing out too much in either direction. By eighth grade, Erika was practically obsessed with Jane, then a senior, gleaning as much data for our upcoming freshman year as an understudy would to shadow a Broadway star. I still remember several occasions where I retired to my room with a good book, while Erika remained moony-eyed at Jane’s vanity table, scrutinizing her expert application of Maybelline mascara in the little green-and-pink tube.
Although we’re almost nearly all in our thirties now, nothing has really changed in Jane’s role as measuring stick. Though, for Jane, things have changed a lot. Through Jane, we have most recently experienced engagement, marriage, pregnancy, and birth. She lives back home in Mystic, Connecticut, with her husband and three kids. Jane is a stay-at-home mom to Owen, age five; Randall, three; and Lucy, six months. The kids are great, and Jane loves motherhood, but I can’t argue Erika’s point. My formerly put-together, on-the-ball sister has never been the same since. And it’s got nothing to do with looks so much as with the look on her face, an expression that teeters between dazed happiness and faded consciousness, always with a diaper bag and a stroller in tow.
“So what’s on for tonight?” Erika asks me.
The wine is settling warmly in my stomach, and if I have another, I will end up on the couch in my sweats with Lifetime TV. Which actually sounds pretty good, because Evan has messaged me to say that unfortunately he has to work late tonight. But I know Erika won’t stand for it.
“Trent got us a reservation at the new tapas place on Boylston,” Erika says.
“Are you informing me or inviting me?” I tease.
She pours herself a glass and I follow her to the couch. “Peyton and Chad are coming, too. It got great reviews in the Globe.”
Peyton, Erika, and I have been friends since moving to Boston the summer after graduation. She and Erika met at a Women in Law luncheon, when Erika first joined Cramer and Bosh. But of greater consequence than their shared profession, Peyton Whitmore Adams is a newlywed. Married last spring to Chad Adams, a former varsity crew captain she met at Skidmore, this marks her as highly desirable bridesmaid material, given her recent nuptials. As Erika says, best friends are eternal. But former brides are indispensable. And since she couldn’t combine both in me, I’ve been asked to share my maid of honor duties. I don’t take offense to it. Really.
The indispensable newlyweds live in a refurbished bungalow in Cambridge. Their Copley Plaza wedding set the stage for many a late-night rehashing in our apartment. Despite our differences, I like Peyton. She’s a straight shooter with a dry sense of humor. And she’s got a designer-label wardrobe that I try my best to take notes from, if only through last season’s late-night bidding wars on eBay.
“The tapas bar sounds great, but Evan has to work late on set tonight,” I remind her. Good as a night out sounds, I am staking out my spot on the couch. As if reading my mind, Mr. Kringles leaps up and joins me.
Erika regards me curiously. “So? You’re free.”
Lately, I’ve sort of gone underground in the social department. But not without reason. Spring is my cramming season at school with report cards and curriculum wrap-up. Plus I’ve been searching, albeit halfheartedly, for a new apartment, none of which seems to match the neighborhood vibe or old-time charm of our own. Let alone its affordability. And then there’s Evan. We’ve been together a year now, and when you’re settled
comfortably in a long-term relationship, the idea of getting dressed up after a long day at work and dragging yourself into town for what always turns out to be a late night loses some of its appeal.
“I’m pretty beat from work,” I tell her, stroking Mr. Kringles behind his ears. “And I’ve got to get up early tomorrow. I’m driving home for my mom’s birthday party, remember?”
Erika slumps into the couch cushions and gazes sadly out the window, a pose that is supposed to inflict guilt. “I was looking forward to all of us getting together. Trent had to pull out all the stops just to get these reservations. And with all the stress of the wedding, I could really use a night out with you. Especially since you’re getting away for the weekend.”
I give her a level look. “Getting away? A full-blown family reunion is going to be anything but a vacation getaway.”
“Besides,” Erika continues, “I already touched base with Evan. He’s going to try to meet us there after he gets off work.” She smiles coyly.
“You got Evan to leave work early?” I throw up my hands. “Okay, okay. I give in. Ceviche night it is.”
I grab my glass and head to the fridge. Another glass of pinot is clearly in order.