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Stephen Hill - Part XV (the end)
Eingestellt am 10. 06. 2018 20:25

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The days and weeks after the confrontation with Erin Brock flew by like nothing. Every morning, Stephen pushed himself out of bed, took a shower, got dressed, had breakfast and went to work. He didn’t talk to anybody apart from his students. He also made sure not to meet anyone important. He carefully and cunningly avoided bumping into Sally Fielding, Erin Brock, Jonathan Hart, John Stewart and everybody else he was disappointed in or mad at. He stopped going to the teacher’s lounge, he went straight from his car to the classes and did most of the communication with colleagues and superiors via e-mail. He did his work like a machine, no passion, no enthusiasm emanated from him. He realized his frustration and disenchantment, but he had bills to pay and a child to feed and clothe, and he still had this sense of responsibility to keep on doing what he had learned to do: teach.

Emilio Cortez still showed up for his classes, so he hadn’t been deported after all, but he didn’t participate in Stephen’s classes as he had used to. It was as if both Stephen and Emilio were embarrassed and ashamed of their last encounter. Stephen felt ashamed for showing so little compassion with an illegal immigrant, and Emilio felt ashamed for having shown his fears and hopes so bluntly. The only upside to Stephen’s life was the gradual improvement of his relationship with his daughter Jessica. It was as if she had flipped a switch and decided to talk more to her dad. In the morning, she came to him, sat down at the kitchen table and had breakfast with him. They didn’t always talk, and if they did, it was mostly small talk, but they sat together and that was already something. Stephen felt that they might get along well in the future and that was the straw he clutched at.

In the evenings, when Jessica was already in bed and when he was working in his study, he still thought about the moral dilemma he got caught up in. Although he knew that he had given up the fight, he still dreamt about a course of events that would put him in a better light. Since Erin Brock was out the door, there would probably be an open space in the teaching staff’s council. There would be an election and he was an eligible candidate. What if he threw his hat in the ring, what if he got himself elected? Then he would be protected, he could fight the good fight against John Stewart and do so in total immunity. But who would vote for him? Many of his colleagues didn’t know what he stood for and making his fight against John Stewart public in the electoral campaign would harm him even more, especially if he didn’t get elected to the council after all. To improve his chances of winning a seat in the council, he would have to start networking, he would have to communicate with a lot of colleagues, he would have to throw himself into the breach, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

But Stephen’s nightly chain of thought always ended on the same conclusion: he didn’t have it in him. He neither had the standing nor the stamina to take on the likes of John Stewart. And he understood something about the bad people, as he called them: the bad people were always aggressive, bold and daring, they had a clear sense of what they wanted and how to get or usurp it. The good people (like him), however, were always shy and cautious, the last thing they wanted to be was pushy. Both the good and the bad people believed that they deserved to be in charge, but where one just seized power, the other waited for power to be handed to them on a silver platter. Which rarely happened. Actually never. Nobody would ever come up to him and say: “Stephen, all the teaching staff at Hailsham admire you for your moral integrity and incorruptibility and therefore we’d very much like you to run for the post of the chairman of the teaching staff’s council. We want you to fight the University administration and eventually drain the swamp nationwide!” No, that would not happen. And therefore, Stephen had no other choice than to take his place again and teach French, correct term papers, make a living and shut up.

He did so for weeks on end: he taught French, corrected term papers, advised students who came to his office hours, worked on an article for a magazine and tried to forget what had happened. But slowly, and gradually, the frustration and anger had started germinating somewhere in the back of his head. There was this one tiny seed he hadn’t managed to eradicate, a seed of revolt and disgust. And over the weeks this seed had metastasized, had gotten bigger and bigger until it had grown to the size of a brain tumor that could no longer be ignored, and it took only one minor incident to crack Stephen’s head open and make it explode.

That day, Stephen was walking through the main building of Hailsham. He was on his way to the accounting office, because one of their clerks had called him, claiming that the payment to his new bank account number hadn’t gone through and that he needed to come in and check the numbers on their papers and eventually sign the corrected papers again. Inadvertently, Stephen passed John Stewart’s office on his way to the accounting office and when he saw that name on the door he couldn’t help jerking to a halt. He stood there, looked at that name and suddenly all the pent-up anger, the frustration and the vindictiveness got the better of him. And before he even knew it, Stephen pushed down that door handle and burst into Mrs. Albright’s antechamber.

“Is he in?”, he shouted at Mrs. Albright, as she looked up to him, startled and irritated by his entrance.
“Yes”, she said, “but I’m afraid he doesn’t have the ...”
Stephen didn’t wait for her to end her sentence. He just advanced with rapid strides to the door behind which he suspected his archenemy and pushed that door handle with the same intensity as the last one.

As he entered, he saw John Stewart behind his desk, as startled and irritated as his secretary a few seconds before.

“I need to talk to you”, Stephen said in a voice that wouldn’t take no for an answer. By now, Mrs. Albright had gotten up from her seat and rushed in behind Stephen.
“I’m sorry, John”, she said, “Mr. Hill just stormed in and..”
John Stewart, composed again, made an appeasing gesture with his hand.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Albright, there’s no harm done. You may leave, I’ve got this!”

Stephen and John both watched Mrs. Albright leave the room and close the door behind her. When the door was shut, they just stood there for a moment, looking at each other, knowing that there was no way out of this confrontation.

“What can I do for you, Stephen?”, John asked, mild-mannered like a timid fawn.
“I…I want to file a complaint!”, Stephen said, still energized by anger.
“Okay”, John Stewart replied slowly. “Why don’t you sit down and we’ll talk about it.”

Stephen was a little irritated. He had been expecting a heated argument, a clash, a verbal exchange of blows, ending with him storming out of the room, his head held high. But instead, John Stewart remained calm and made Stephen’s anger look quite unreasonable. Stephen had no other choice than to calm down as well. And so he followed John’s invitation and took a seat. He didn’t realize it yet, but John Stewart had already gained the upper hand and, more importantly, stolen his thunder.

“So”, John Stewart said. “We actually follow a protocol when it comes to complaints. So let me look for that file and print it out. To be honest, I don’t know in which folder on my computer it’s hidden, we haven’t had a complaint in quite a while.”
Stephen sat there quietly, desperately trying to arrange his indictment and feeling unprepared. Meanwhile, John Stewart scoured his hard drive to find that protocol he had talked about.
“Ah, there it is”, John Stewart said after a while and then clicked on Print. He took the paper and put it on his desk.
“Okay, so first of all, let me read this out to you: The complaint process is not designed to address individual problems or provide individualized resolutions. Complaints will be considered only if they focus on substantive institutional conditions. So, Stephen, the complaint you wish to file, does it deal with substantive institutional conditions?”
“I believe so”, Stephen was ready to answer.
“Good!”, John replied. “Then let’s move on. There are six criteria for consideration. Number one: Does your complaint refer to current matters? Normally, we do not consider matters that are alleged to have occurred more than three years prior to the filing of the complaint.”
“No”, Stephen said, unnerved by the protocol. “It is recent. Look, can we forget about protocol for a moment and can I simply tell you what my complaint is?”
John Stewart leaned back in his chair. He glanced at Stephen for a moment, gauging the situation.
“Please proceed”, he finally said.
“Good, thank you. My complaint is with you. I accuse you personally of coercing me into changing Holden Fisher’s grade. I accuse you of corruption. You protect the kids of wealthy donors by manipulating and extorting the teaching staff. You bribed me with tenure, you blackmailed Sally Fielding and forced other teachers to be lenient in their grading of certain students. You have betrayed the principle of equal treatment, you have become a puppet of well-heeled people who are using this university to push their disgraceful agenda. That’s my complaint.”

John Stewart took a moment to digest that information. But he didn’t seem intimidated or on the defense. He even seemed mildly amused. And this condescension made Stephen even angrier.

“To be more specific”, he added angrily, “I accuse you of allowing wealthy donors to corrupt the study of economics at this university. You allow them to employ professors, economists that is, who argue in favor of deregulation.”
Stephen knew that he was going out on a limb here, but he wanted to make sure that his complaint was not of personal, but institutional nature.

“Okay”, John said after a while. “Let’s go through your complaint step by step. First, let’s talk about Holden Fisher. I’ll give you my take on it. The first time I addressed the issue with you I said that I’d like you to reconsider, that’s true. But I also said that I would accept your decision, no matter what and that we would pay for any legal fees should the Fishers decide to sue you. When we met again, you didn’t address the issue and, to me, that meant that you agreed to changing the grade and not failing Holden Fisher. If you had been determined to hold on to your assessment of Holden Fisher, why didn’t you say so at the second meeting? After all, that was what our meeting was intended to be about!”
“Because you yourself didn’t address the issue. Instead, you baited and distracted me by offering tenure!”
“I didn’t bait you with anything. In fact, I was waiting for you to tell me your decision and when you didn’t, I talked about tenure because that was something I had wanted to talk to you about anyway. And besides, I don’t see how offering tenure is a bribe or form of extortion. If I had really tried to bribe you, I would have denied you tenure unless you changed your grade. And let me ask you: Have I ever linked your tenure to your changing of Holden Fisher’s grade? Have I ever? I mean, verbatim?”
“You didn’t have to. It was clear to me, you didn’t have to spell it out!”
“I doubt that assumption would be accepted in legal procedures. Which actually brings me back to protocol. You say that I have tried to extort Sally Fielding and that I employ economists who push the agenda of our wealthy donors. Can you substantiate your complaint with evidence, not allegations?”
Stephen now realized that it was impossible to win this argument. John Stewart was condescending because he could afford to be. Stephen didn’t have any real evidence to substantiate his complaint. Sally Fielding wouldn’t talk and Erin Brock was out the door. There was nothing left to do for Stephen but to shake his head in silence. A silence that encouraged John Stewart to be even bolder in his rebuttal.
“And talking about pushing an agenda: Let me ask you something about your syllabus. I checked your syllabi of the last three years and in all three of them you focus on Sartre’s existentialism, atheistic existentialism, to be more precise. How is that syllabus not pushing an agenda? Why are you so ideologically fixated on anti-religious literature? I mean, you are completely free to choose your syllabi, but why don’t you discuss Chateaubriand’s Le Génie du Christianisme or Huysman’s Les foules de Lourdes? Aren’t you pushing an agenda, too? Isn’t everyone at this university, or in education, somehow, pushing an agenda?”

Stephen was surprised to learn that John Stewart had studied his syllabi of the last three years. And yes, Stephen was an atheist and therefore somehow infatuated with Sartre’s existentialism. But Sartre’s books allowed for a discussion of religion, it didn’t mean that Stephen’s students had to be atheists to pass their tests.

“The authors you mention”, Stephen said consequentially, “belong to a group called Renouveau catholique, a group from the 19th century. Their position was clearly anti-Enlightenment. Discussing and reading them would be like teaching phlebotomy to med students. It is simply retrogressive, for lack of a better word.”

Another moment of silence ensued. The situation was awkward and both John and Stephen realized that this altercation would end with them agreeing to disagree. The best thing was to go back to the protocol and end this.

„Have you tried to resolve the problem through the institution’s internal channels?“, John Stewart asked.
“Well, Erin Brock is leaving Hailsham, that’s why I thought it was best to come directly to you”, Stephen lied.
“The council is made up of more than one person. Erin is just the chairman. You could have gone to other members of the council!”
“Well, I didn’t!”
“Well, I suggest you do that. If they agree and believe that your complaint is substantial, then your case is much stronger. I’m not saying that I am not accepting your complaint. If you want me to, I’ll have Mrs. Albright type up your complaint in order to make it official. You’d have to sign it, I’d have to sign it and then it will be passed on to the proper channels. The teaching staff’s council would get a copy and then they will get in touch with you. But they’ll ask you why you didn’t come to them first, too, just so you know!”

Stephen was about to give in. He felt forced into a tight corner. He knew that John Stewart was right. He was set up for a loss already. He had no hard evidence, and without the backing of the teaching staff’s council he would be considered a sad, lonely voice in the wilderness.

“Do you want me to ask Mrs. Albright to type up your complaint?”

How did this happen? How did people like John Stewart get to the positions they were in? How did it come about that the principles of equality, of the pursuit of happiness, of transparency, democracy, in short, of all the ideals that had been formulated on paper by the best minds this world had ever seen, were so shamelessly betrayed by the likes of John Stewart on a daily basis? Stephen knew the answer: because of people like himself. It was because of their lack of strategy, their lack of money and because of their inability to form a powerful interest group.

“Stephen, do you want me to ask Mrs. Albright to type up your complaint?”


They both got up, locked eyes with one another and shook hands.

“Thank you for your time, John!”
“You’re welcome, Stephen!”


And that was that. The next morning Stephen went back to Hailsham to teach. Over time, he put aside the conflict with John Stewart and confined himself to be a teacher of French. The more time passed, the more he considered this whole story as an excursion into politics. He didn’t become bitter simply because he hadn’t achieved anything. In the first days after the confrontation he was even proud that he had had the guts to go up to John Stewart and tell him what he thought of him to his face. There was some amount of personal satisfaction. But this initial pride slowly subsided, because he hadn’t changed the system one iota. The only thing he had achieved was that his superiors were more cautious when approaching him about a fail grade of some student. They approached him about his grades in a more submissive fashion, but they still approached him. And sometimes, Stephen did give in and changed the grade although it was difficult for him to determine whether it was the right or wrong choice. But if he had decided to never change a grade then he would have also deprived himself of the opportunity to give students from poor families a second chance. He still favored an assessment on a case-by-case basis, which meant that he at times revised the papers and grades of all kinds of students.

Stephen felt lucky to have his daughter. He focused more and more on his relationship with Jessica and he was happy to see that things went back to normal with the two of them. They would eat together in the evening, and they would talk about this and that. After six months of slow reconciliation, they even went to the movies together. Stephen hadn’t been so excited about an activity like that for a long time.

Jessica was doing fine as well. She stopped looking for friends so desperately, and because she wasn’t doing that, it happened more or less automatically. She stopped drawing Mangas and even took a class at a night school to learn actual drawing. She stopped watching TV and read more books. She focused on school and she even met a boy in one of her classes whom she really liked. She took it slow with him, but it was not like she couldn’t trust a man (or boy) because of what had happened to her in Philadelphia. She grew up to be a normal and quite intelligent woman who knew what she wanted and what she didn’t.

This isn’t to say that everything ended happily. Jessica and Stephen still had doubts about their lives and the decisions they made. They caught themselves questioning their relationship and their relationship to other people. They sometimes came to the conclusion that they didn’t amount to much, that in fact they were worthless citizen that didn’t contribute to society in the way they could. They felt that they didn’t get what they were entitled to or thought they were entitled to, but they also knew that everybody felt like that once in a while.

In their best moments, they felt luck to be alive, they didn’t care about what others thought about them and they loved the father-daughter relationship that they had going on. They had plans for the futures, hopes and dreams, some of which materialized. Stephen got and kept his tenure and Jessica graduated from Ayn Rand with colors unfit to fly.

In her worst moments, Jessica missed her mother and thought of herself as someone coming from a broken home. And, Stephen, in his worst moments, still kept thinking this:

You’re not a man. Not really.

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