Phantasmagoria: After the Sandia Report

  Jerome Shea       December 9, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Back around 1989, Gentle Readers, when public education was the topic du jour, a research team under the auspices of the Sandia Corporation, here in Albuquerque, was charged with taking an honest look at our public schools in order to see if they were really as bad as everyone seemed to think. A preliminary report was issued (leaked?) in early 1991 and it said, to some people’s relief and to others’ outrage, that the public school system was doing a pretty darned good job, all things considered. Clearly that would not do. Before the news cycle had ended, the knives (“shoddy research,” “questionable assumptions,” etc.) had been drawn and were slashing. The Sandia Report, to mix the metaphor, sank like a stone. I was moved, however, to write this fantasy. Hope you enjoy it.

Actually, the educational system has never performed better, the analysts say. They interviewed 400 educators and found that low self-esteem among educators is common…unfortunate cycle of low self-esteem followed by unfounded criticism…

I guess what most amazed me was how quickly the turnaround began. I mean the report came out—when? Tuesday morning? (I know it made the network news that night). Anyway, it wasn’t long before I got this subtle, uncanny feeling that people were of better will toward us, or that they were at least confused in their disdain. Let me emphasize “subtle.” In fact, the feeling was about as borderline imperceptible as the merest hint of snowmelt in mid-February. We’re not talking crocuses here: we were a long way from smiles and handshakes. (Of course, it may have been simply a kind of transference: just a little vindication felt so good that I bet I was glowing.) But here’s a fact and you can decide: while I was waiting to make my left turn onto campus Wednesday morning, a fellow in a Mercedes made what I certainly thought was a big show of pulling up short, hanging up his cellular, and giving me the go-ahead across his bow. I went ahead, giving him that two-fingered salute-between-equals (which probably looked, dammit, like I was tugging the forelock). He came back with a thumbs-up. Fluke? Quite possibly. Condescending? Let’s think better of our fellow man, shall we?

By Friday there was no mistaking it. By Friday we were in mid-March and stepping around puddles, so to speak. The paperboy scuttled the Tribune into the rhododendrons, not for the first time. But for the first time he made a sheepish, caught-in-the-act grin, retrieved it, and trotted right up to the front porch. “Sorry about that, Der Shea; have a good weekend,” he mumbled. (What sounds oddly Germanic there was, I think, his last minute confusion between the pedestrian “mister” and the respectful “doctor.” Or maybe he had “Herr Doktor” in mind. He is, after all, the Burmeisters’ kid.) His respect put me into such a happy frame of mind that I told Diana that we were stepping out to dinner, like civilized people at the end of a hard week. (My poor, sweet Diana! If you think college is hard, you should try second grade!) When I got Chez Bontemps on the phone, the maitre d’ seemed so cordial that I almost suspected him of tippling with the wine steward. Doctor Shea and his lovely wife would be, one inferred, the final and fitting tesserae in that nightly cultural mosaic which “Chez B” was always so proud to host. A month ago he had managed to find two extra syllables in my last name and had asked with malicious irrelevance what hospital I had privileges with. The Burmeister boy, the benefactor in the Mercedes, and a dozen other discreet well-wishers had emboldened me to call Chez Bontemps one last time et, as Jacques would say, voila!

By now, of course, everyone was talking about the new PBS series, Education: The Ruptured Giant, probably the most sympathetic treatment one could ask for. The wrap-up that Bill Moyers gave last week put a lump in my throat that I’m not ashamed of. By now, by golly, it was metaphorical high summer. I can document—document, mind you—three separate occasions when people outside of school asked my opinion, and I don’t mean about pronouns. The barber (the barber…that strikes me as so heartening!) asked if I really thought that Moyers’ series gave a balanced account. Well, in fact it did and I told him so. As I warmed to the subject, the guy waiting put down his Field and Stream to take advantage of my thoughtful analysis; behind my left ear I heard the shears slow, slow, and stop. I capped my remarks with something deliberative yet aphoristic. It all felt, somehow, eighteenth century.

The world turned not just Palladian but downright sociable. The Sheas have a hectic social calendar now (what wonderful complaint!). The Applebees, the Bayrunns, the Holtzes—that’s Chuck (and Marta), the developer on Maple Ridges, not Jerry the associate dean—have had us over, and we are weekending next month with Tom and Bobbye Mortz at their place in Red River. We chat warmly, we eat good food, we drink better liquor than I can afford, and those vicious references one used to hear, those innuendoes about teachers as losers and timeservers, are as taboo as references to pushy Jews or lazy Blacks. By golly, it’s a new world and Diana and I are full-fledged citizens of it.

All of these things are wonderful, but the most wonderful—and I mean “full of wonder”—was what happened yesterday at the country club. No, we don’t actually belong to Whistling Hills—that’s out of our league by a couple of measures—but we are guests so often now that belonging hardly matters. Anyway, Bill Bayrunn and I had shot a quick nine and were back in the locker room toweling off. Bill has made the most complete one-eighty, from education basher to education booster. As I was making a point about medieval universities, the look in Bill’s eyes told me that I had lost my audience, so I trailed off and waited. Well, to make a sad story short, ten minutes later the facts and the pain were right out in the open. I had heard that the Bayrunns’ marriage was in trouble. Somehow Bill had got it into his head—maybe it was that latest bumper sticker we’re seeing, “Teachers Stick It Out Longer”—that educators were not just powerful in the classroom. Putting it as delicately as possible, did Diana and I have something that he and Linda clearly did not?

I was embarrassed but I was deeply touched, too. Here was another human being in pain and looking to me for help. Truth to tell, I was also at a loss, not being the sexual athlete that Bill imagined me to be. Then I remembered a passage in A Movable Feast where Hemingway is giving some bedroom tips to a supplicating Fitzgerald. Papa says something like, “So I told him a few things you could do with pillows,” but Papa doesn’t specify beyond that. Well, I could specify or I could turn the man away. Looking down at a shaken Bill Bayrunn, I knew that the latter was not an option. So I jammed my imagination into gear and put pillows to totally new uses, sketched a veritable Kama Sutra for pillows.

Then for good measure I threw in a pair of handlebars, some bungee cords, and a set of diving weights.

I hope they don’t hurt themselves. Really.

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