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Stephen Hill - Part XI
Eingestellt am 29. 01. 2018 23:19

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The weekend after the conference turned into two days of mental agony for Stephen.
On Saturday morning he tried to stick to his weekend routine. He had breakfast early in the morning, as usual. His daughter was nowhere in sight, also as usual. She had stopped joining him for the meals about a year ago, after they had had a furious altercation at the dinner table. Stephen couldn’t remember what the argument had been about, but he believed that it had something to do with his ex-wife and him keeping Jessica from contacting her. After the fight, Stephen was so angry at his daughter that he didn’t care to call her for dinner. He left whatever food he had bought or prepared on the stove for her, but couldn’t even muster the strength to tell her that dinner was ready for her. When his anger died down, he was again so busy, or told himself so, that he kept postponing the necessary and clarifying conversation with his daughter.

In retrospect, this fight was probably when their relationship had begun to really deteriorate. Stephen still felt the urge to have this clarifying conversation, but with his troubles at Hailsham, he just wasn’t up for it. So instead of calling her for breakfast, he just sat there and ate his fried eggs with bacon, drank his orange juice and sipped his coffee. He tried to read the newspaper but his mind was constantly straying so he decided to go into his study and ‘think about things’.

In his study he gave the newspaper another try but just couldn’t concentrate. He lay his head on his wooden desk and tried to sleep a little. As a student, when he had spent entire afternoons at the university library, reading French fiction, he had done the same and was always amazed at how twenty minutes of sleep in an uncomfortable position helped him to feel a little fresher. But today, in his study, he fell asleep on his desk for almost an hour but still felt drowsy and weak when he woke up. What am I to do?, he asked himself. Should I just turn away from all of this, stick to my job and duck down? What if I have another student from wealthy parents whose work is poor? Will I give him a satisfactory grade simply to avoid trouble? How am I supposed to be a role model if I give good grades to bad students simply because their parents are loaded and have clout? Won’t the other students notice and respect me less for my cowardice?

Stephen thought about the conference again. He thought about the expression on Sally Fielding’s face when John Acheson had sung the praises of John Stewart. Was she caught up in the same dilemma? Had she been forced to change grades as well? What if he just gave her a call and talked to her?

Stephen got out and looked at his rolodex with all the names and e-mail addresses of his friends, his family and colleagues at Hailsham. There were the addresses and phone numbers as well, but Stephen felt reluctant to call Sally on a Saturday. He knew her quite well and he got along with her on a professional basis, but aside from the tenure party last year he had never met her in private. Be that as it may, he still felt the need to give it a try. He booted his computer and logged on to the internet. His e-mail account was full of messages, but most of them were spam. He opened his word processing program and typed a sketch of what he wanted to say:

Hey Sally! How are you? Just thought of our conference last Thursday and had a good laugh. What a joke, right? The plague of fully justified text – seriously? Anyway, I thought you might want to go out for a beer or coffee some time. There’s something I’d like to ask you.

Regards, Stephen

Stephen reread the letter and was not satisfied. He thought this letter was too casual, and he was afraid that Sandy might misunderstand his intentions. He was single, after all. But at the same time, he didn’t want to invoke the real issue, because he had no clue of how to address it. He tried again:

Hey Sally! How are you? Listen, I couldn’t help but notice that you seemed very angry at our Provost, judging from your facial expression when his name came up at the conference. Anything I can do to help or mediate?

Regards, Stephen

This letter, Stephen thought, was even worse. He tried to pass himself off as a good Samaritan who was trying to help a colleague in need, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. And Sally was way too smart to not see right through his little scheme. So instead, Stephen drafted a third version of a letter to Sally Fielding:

Dear Sally, I’d like to talk to you! It’s in regards to John Stewart, our Provost.

Regards, Stephen

This was the shortest yet clearest request that he could formulate. He copied his one-liner into his outbox. He hesitated for quite a while, but then he clicked the Sent button. He tried to get back to his newspaper, but again, he couldn’t focus. He kept his computer booted, somehow hoping for an immediate answer. And just as he was accepting the fact that, if at all, she probably wouldn’t reply before Monday, he reloaded the current page and was surprised to see that there was a message in his inbox and that Sally Fielding was the sender:

Dear Stephen, I’d love to talk! Would you like to come to my place this evening? About sixish? You have my address?

Regards, Sally

Stephen was instantly enthusiastic about Sally’s proposal. Another comrade in arms - finally, he thought. But as the initial enthusiasm subsided, Stephen’s paranoia started to kick in. What if Sally Fielding was just baiting him? What if she actually was in cahoots with John Stewart or Jonathan Hart, or any member of the opposition? What if they just wanted to find out what he thought and how far he was willing to go to ‘drain the swamp’? Stephen just shook this feeling. If he really misjudged Sally Fielding, then he would know soon enough. And if he didn’t accept her invitation he’d be even more unsatisfied with his laxity and gutlessness. There was no alternative: He had to go.

Dear Sally, sounds like a plan to me! Six is fine and yes, I have your address!

C U in a bit, Stephen

The time until then was just waiting and boredom. Stephen scoured the Internet for information about fraudulent behavior at universities. He found quite a number of books and articles on the often not very transparent policies of admission, thanks to which kids of wealthy parents got accepted more easily than kids from middle or working class families. He also found an article showing that the number of good or even excellent grades of students at private schools had risen faster in the last ten years than the number of good or excellent grades at public schools. The President of one of those private schools was interviewed about this statistic and gave a pretty blunt answer. He claimed that kids from wealthy families simply grew up in a culture of education, that their parents’ intelligence was passed on to them, that rich families had no ‘food insecurity’ and therefore could focus on studying and that rich families had the money and the means to support their children in any possible way. When asked by the reporter whether government or private schools could and should do more to level the playing field, the President argued that this would be just a waste of money. Trying to find smart kids in suburbia, he said, is like trying to find a water fountain in space. The ends simply don’t justify the means.
Reading all this made Stephen feel like a stupid, idealistic moron. He had always thought of the education system as the only purely democratic institution where everybody who was willing to work hard and play by the rules got his fair chance. Now he realized that the education system was corrupt and that students like Emilio Cortez were nothing but poster boys for an institutionalized equality of opportunities campaign, a figleaf of sorts to make the US look like the land of the American Dream.
Stephen sank deeper and deeper into a state of disillusionment and when the clock struck five and Stephen had to get ready to go to Sally’s place he caught himself thinking that it didn’t really matter whether Sally was on his side and willing to fight this, because he had finally realized what he or they were up against: corporate America. In short: the system. And you can’t fight the system, that much he knew.

But of course he drove to Sally’s place and of course he was hoping for someone to lift his spirits. As he pulled into the driveway to Sally’s house, he saw her through the kitchen window. She noticed the flashlights and stepped closer to the window, took a peek and recognized him through the windshield. She waved at him and Stephen waved right back at her, but she was already on her way to the front door. Stephen got the bottle of red wine from the passenger seat, got out of the car and walked straight up to the door.
“I didn’t find the time to wrap it up”, Stephen said instead of a greeting, holding up the bottle of wine.
“Thank God you didn’t”, Sally answered and they both laughed.
“Come on in”, she said after they had given each other a somewhat hesitant hug. They went inside and were headed straight for the kitchen.
“I hope you like Spaghetti”, Sally said and Stephen was pleased about the casualness with which Sally tried to make him feel at home. She pointed towards the chairs at the kitchen table and Stephen took off his jacket, put it over the backrest and sat down.
“So, how is Kenneth and how are the children?”, Stephen asked.
“They’re fine. They’re staying with Kenneth’s parents this weekend. I initially would have gone, too but I’m swamped with corrections.”
“Aren’t we all?”, Stephen asked. “Aren’t we always?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Truth is, I don’t like Kenneth’s mother all that much. She can be quite intrusive at times, especially with the children, if you know what I mean.”
“Say no more”, Stephen answered as if he knew all too well what she was talking about when in fact he didn’t have a clue.

They sat down together, ate the spaghetti and drank some wine. They were really in a good mood and got along surprisingly well. It was almost a shame that they didn’t meet more often, but Stephen knew that work and a family with two children was pretty much all a mother could handle and that it didn’t leave much room for anything else. He himself remembered his time with Jessica’s mother and the first time after she had given birth. He had virtually ended all contacts with the single men he knew and instead had started to connect with other family fathers more. Now, as he was a single father, he seemed to have lost both groups of friends.
“So, let’s talk shop”, Sally said when they were into their second glass of wine and had eaten the dessert. “John fucking Stewart!”
“Yes”, Stephen replied, “well, at the conference, it seemed that you were very angry at him and since I’m having some difficulties with him, a difference of opinion, I thought I’d come and ask you whether our anger at the provost stems from the same source.”
“Well”, Sally asked, “why do YOU think he’s a dick?”

Stephen was all too ready to confide in Sally. He vomited out the entire story from beginning to end, he gave a detailed account of his meeting with the Provost and the one with Jonathan, he filled her in on his meeting with Erin Brock and about the issue with his tenure. He admitted that he was afraid and that he had always desired tenure so much that he didn’t want to give John Stewart the satisfaction of not accepting it. He assured her that he was appalled by the actions of John Stewart and that he was looking for comrades in arms that would go to Erin Brock with him so that they could put up a united front against the corruption happening at Hailsham. Sally listened attentively throughout the whole monologue or rather diatribe against John Stewart and not once interrupted Stephen.

When Stephen was finished, she took quite a while before she said anything.
“The thing is”, she finally replied, “that John knows exactly how we function. He knows exactly that the teaching staff at Hailsham is a group of scattered soldiers that seemingly fight at different fronts and can’t see through the smoke and the fog. Because if we did, we’d all be able to see that he is doing the same thing over and over again and that he is doing it to all of us.”
“So, does that mean that you had to change your grades as well?”, Stephen asked, already knowing the answer.
“Of course, many times”, she said. “And I’m not the only one. I am almost certain that many of our colleagues have been approached by the Provost in the same way we have. It’s common practice. The only problem is that we never talk about it. Because we’re all embarrassed. If we told anyone, we’d feel like confessing to a shameful crime. We, the teachers, paragons of virtue, have failed. How could we fail?”
“But you have tenure!”, Stephen replied. “I don’t see how he could harm you. You’re intouchable, after all.”
Sally laughed out angrily.
“My tenure doesn’t protect me. On the contrary, the prospect of losing it makes me more susceptible to blackmail than anything else.”
“How so?”
“Well, I’ll tell you my story. When I started at Hailsham, I had a really good time. I enjoyed my work, I liked my students and my colleagues. Everyone was so helpful, maybe a bit superficial, but helpful. And at the beginning, I was so keen on developing a good relationship with the students that I invited them to extracurricular events. You know, theatre plays, exhibitions and so on. I thought that if I showed extraordinary commitment and dedication I’d be on the fast track to tenure. And since I was only ten years older than most of my students, it felt only natural to do so. And sometimes I’d even go to a bar with some of the students after watching a play or going to a museum. We’d discuss the play, talk about literature and sometimes about other teachers at Hailsham. And three years after I started, I was offered and given tenure by John’s predecessor, Martha Hamilton. But then she was fired for some reason and John Stewart came into the picture. All the colleagues at Hailsham knew that something was up, but nobody knew what it was exactly. And Martha Hamilton was just the first of many employees of higher authority whose contracts were either terminated or who were offered a position at some other university. Some of the staff was even allowed to retire prematurely with no deduction in their pension. To me, it felt like a takeover. It seemed like a friendly takeover at first but became more and more hostile. And then, in a second step, lecturers, doctors and professors at the Faculty for Economic Science were replaced with teachers that were major free-market apostles. It was quite obvious what was happening, but no one had the courage to say it out loud. Me neither. I was afraid of losing my tenure, I mean, Janice was sixteen months old and Kenneth had lost his job. We needed the money I earned more than ever. And then, when I was most vulnerable, I was summoned to John Stewart’s office. He was very nice and charming at first, he asked about my family and how I managed to combine work and family and if it wasn’t too hard on me. Then he asked about my students, especially about a student called Ryan Lawrence, who wasn’t doing so well. And then he just asked me, or rather ordered me to reconsider the grade I had given him. He wasn’t even trying to be subtle about it. When I told him how poor Ryan’s work was and that I didn’t believe that he was going to improve anytime soon, John just changed the subject. He talked to me about my extracurricular activities and asked if it was true that I had gone to bars with some of my students and if I had encouraged them to drink alcohol. I replied that I’ve never in my life encouraged anyone to drink alcohol and if the students had done so it had happened on their own initiative and responsibility. After all, I told him, these students were adults. Be that as it may, he answered, I have an account of one of your students who claims that, at one occasion, you bought a round of Tequila for three male students after losing a bet and that you kissed one of them on the cheek. I couldn’t remember whether that had really happened. I tried to recall the occasions on which I had drunk alcohol with male students, and although the story didn’t seem like me at all, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I had done something like that or not. I told the Provost so but he just answered that it really didn’t matter whether it was true or not, because, if the report of this young man ever got out, not only my credibility but the credibility of the entire university would be at stake. Then, with a smile, he told me that my little secret was safe with him and that he would make sure that the young man would keep his mouth shut. Before I left he asked me one more time to reconsider my assessment of Ryan Lawrence’s performance as a student and wished me a good day. When I was out the door and had left the office, I fell apart.”
Now it was Stephen who fell silent for a minute or two. So it was a conspiracy after all. So he wasn’t the only one and there were more than three or four teachers who where blackmailed. Almost everyone was involved in some way or another.
“How about you?”, Sally eventually asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what are they holding over your head? What have they got on you?”
“Nothing, I think.”
“Oh, sure they do. They have something on everybody, I’m almost certain they have a file on everyone in their poison chest. You’re divorced, right?”
“Well, maybe it’s something about your wife, something about the way you broke up, something you did before or after you broke up, but believe me, the have something on you.”
Stephen thought about that for a moment, he thought about the day when his ex-wife had caught him, the day when she had discovered that he was…, that he was…. No, that couldn’t be, they couldn’t possibly know. Or could they?
“So there is something”, Sally said. “I can see it in your face. And believe me, they know about it.”

They fell silent again. They sat there, thinking dismal thoughts, not knowing what to say or do next. They both felt trapped.
“If I didn’t have a daughter”, Stephen finally said. “If it was just me, it would be so much easier.”
“Yeah”, Sally answered. “I keep telling myself that, too. But I’ve stopped believing that. If I were all alone, if there was no one else but me, I’d still be hesitant about all of this. I’d still probably do nothing against it. People are just wired that way. People, in general, are cowards. No: I am a coward.”

Stephen looked at her. He didn’t want to admit it first, but he knew that she was right. He wasn’t strong enough, either. He wasn’t strong enough to confront John Stewart and the likes of him.
“Well”, he finally said. “I think we should talk this over with Erin. She might be in a position to help.”

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