By Paul Russell
[Louis, the headmaster, interviews for a new teacher.]
The young man came striding across the threshold of Louis's office with all the vigor and self-possession his recommendations had promised, and though something in Louis's soul paused there momentarily, he dismissed that pause as nothing but a shadow. Tracy Parker's handshake was firm, his smile clear and winning. And scrupulous punctuality, in Louis's book, always boded well.
"Please." He gestured, and Tracy seated himself with the loose-limbed ease of someone who makes himself instantly at home. In deference to the mid-August swelter, he wore no jacket. He'd rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt and loosened his tie. His hair, Louis noticed, was in some need of a trim.
"Not to worry," Tracy apologized as if having intuited his interviewer's thoughts. He ran long fingers through lazy, straw-colored locks. "It's as shaggy as you'll ever see me. I just didn't have time to get it cut."
Certainly it was a promising start. Louis dabbed at his brow with a handkerchief and said, "Thanks so much for getting yourself up here on a moment's notice. I hope you won't hold the weather against us. The humidity can really be quite ferocious."
Tracy smiled indulgently. "It's just as bad down in the city," he said.
"I think you'll find the humidity is even worse up here," Louis told him with some certainty. Then, glancing needlessly over Tracy's resume: "I see you've been doing carpentry work the last few months."
Tracy held out a bare forearm. "How's this for a tan? It's probably the best shape I'll ever be in. At least my body. Though I'm afraid my brain's turned to mush. I get home at night and all I do is watch TV. I can hardly wait to get back to the life of the mind. Slumber of the mind is what I call the last six months or so. I'm incredibly excited. Books and education and learning are what my real life is all about."
"I have to say, "Louis told him, "that we were really very interested in you back in April. But unfortunately we only had the one position. Though now, as it turns out, we still have that position."
Tracy nodded amicably. "You've been left in the lurch," he said. Comfortably -- or perhaps it was nervousness -- he rested his right ankle on his left knee, and proceeded to massage the knob of his anklebone.
Louis was a little disconcerted to see that Tracy wasn't wearing any socks. "Left in the lurch. You could say that," he admitted.
"What an odd phrase," Tracy said reflectively.
Louis didn't follow. He kept watching, with some skepticism, the gap between khaki cuff and black loafer.
"I mean, 'Left in the lurch.' What do you think that means, exactly? Left in the lurch." He mouthed the phrase with relish.
"You've got me," Louis confessed. The curiosity of the young intrigued him.
"Do you ever think what a peculiar language we speak?" Tracy went on. Whatever the cause, he seemed admirably able to generate his own enthusiasms out of thin air. "When I was in college, I studied in Germany for a year. I hardly spoke a word of English the whole time, and what it made me realize was what an amazing language English really is. This crazy, jumbled-up language, not like German, that's so consistent, no exception to the rules. English seemed so alive -- like, I don't know, some kind of slithering snake. I don't think the German department ever forgave me, but Germany was definitely an important learning experience for me."
Perhaps, Louis thought with a sight, the young man would turn out to be something of a bore when one got to know him. This penchant his generation had for saying everything at once. Still, to call English a snake was somehow odd and interesting.
"I have a long-standing interest in Germany myself," he felt he should mention, if for no other reason than to spare Tracy the need to fill him in too fully on what he called his learning experience.
"Have you been there?" Tracy asked animatedly. "I mean, I'm sure you've been there. But a lot?"
It made Louis smile. "Oh, fairly frequently," he told Tracy. "My wife and I. We've traveled all over. Munich, Dresden, Berlin, Stuttgart. We enjoy the cultural offerings, especially the opera. There are some splendid provincial operas, you know. We were in Freiburg -- "
"Freiburg," said Tracy. "That's exactly where I was -- at the university. Freiburg im Breisgau."
It was Louis's turn to be dogged. "There was a production of Rosenkavalier we saw four times," he went on. "So fiercely intelligent. And then we were in Berlin later and saw another production, much better singing, the orchestra was magnificent, but the production was a complete mess. No idea behind it. That's what you can get in those smaller theaters. Exciting young directors who have ideas. Who aren't running on automatic."
He stopped. He'd been on the verge of saying, "Running on automatic is the problem with most people's lives." But he was wary of seeming to preach. It proved an increasing hazard as the years went by, and there was nothing like the subject of music to draw him out. You should have been a musician, Claire was always telling him -- but he had no aptitude whatsoever for music, except as a listener.
"Opera's a bit out of my league," Tracy admitted with a smile. "I think it's definitely an acquired taste."
"Well," Louis teased, "isn't that what education's all about?"
"And I'm always willing to be educated," Tracy affirmed. He smiled broadly, even remarkably, Louis thought; as if a smile could be generous enough to enlarge the recipient as well. He'd seen enough. The spark was there, the earnestness, the enthusiasm. It shone through whatever inexperience might cloud the young man.
Besides, with the semester starting in less than three weeks the position needed to be staffed immediately. He'd been wrong about one candidate already, but proceeding with caution wasn't something he could afford at the moment. That Tracy would take the job seemed a foregone conclusion. Still, he felt he should talk him through one or two things. Youthful enthusiasm could be blind to the broader realities.
"You haven't taught much before," he noted.
"I taught a year in Japan..."
"But not American students," Louis cautioned him. "Especially not our particular brand here. The Forge School fills a certain niche."
He was conscious of choosing his words carefully.
"Our students are not exactly, for the most part, what you would call model students. They're quite talented, many of them, but for one reason or another they haven't performed well in their previous schools. Still, they're boys who should go to college. They come from affluent families, they have good prospects out in the world. But they need an extra bit of prodding. Our mission is to make sure they don't damage their futures too much at this stage in their lives. Our job, to be blunt about it, is to get them into college. If I may say so, most of our students suffer from a kind of inattentiveness to their best interests. That's the main challenge: to get these boys to understand their best interests, at least in terms of education. As simple as that. It's not just about getting them into college. It's about teaching the value of education. We're a progressive institution in the best sense of the word. We try to help each of our students find his place and fulfill his potential there. If that interests you, then I'd like to offer you the chance to work with us for the coming year."
He'd been long-winded -- he knew that -- but Tracy's attention hadn't seemed to flag. The young man furrowed his brow only for a single, inscrutable moment. Then, looking Louis in the eye, his gaze bright and direct: "I think this is something I'd be good at," he said. "I have to tell you, to be honest -- I could make twice as much money carpentering, but this is where my life is. I'm sure of that."
1999 Paul Russell.