Welcome to my latest fiction serial These Hallowed Halls. It’s the sixth in the Operation Quickline series featuring Sid Hackbirn and Lisa Wycherly as counter-espionage agents who have a thing for each other if only they can make their divergent values work out. When we last left them in Sad Lisa, their relationship was at an impasse. Now, they’ve been split up to go undercover at a small arts college in Wisconsin. To start from the beginning, you can click here. Or you can click on the archives here.
Monday morning, I stood outside the classroom across the hall and two doors down from my office and took a deep breath. The note pinned to the bulletin board next to the door said, “10 a.m. – Basic Composition 11, Mayfield.”
My first class. According to my course list, I only had twelve students enrolled, even though maximum enrollment was twenty. That had surprised me. Most first year English Composition classes were overflowing.
But the answer to that little riddle was immediately apparent when I walked into the room. Nineteen pairs of eyes were riveted on me, clearly wondering if I was mature enough or disorganized enough to be the teacher. Well, back when I had been one of them, that had been what I had wondered.
I smiled. Even when I had been teaching, before Sid and Quickline, I’d felt the same things and that was comforting.
One pair of particularly bright blue eyes caught mine and my breath. Yes, they looked at me through a pair of light-colored tortoise-shell glasses rather than contact lenses, but I knew them all too well. He smiled gently. He knew for sure that I was the teacher.
I stepped to the front of the room. Casement windows on one side added light to the fluorescent fixtures above. The chalk board at the head had been freshly cleaned, but there was the odd ding or two that bespoke the years of service. The students had all wedged themselves into the chair units with woefully inadequate little tops that were supposed to provide space to write notes on. There was a desk at the front, on which I dropped my purse, which was still doubling as a briefcase. The worn desk had enough drawers to serve as my office, but I was willing to bet that it was empty. When I was an adjunct at a community college, those drawers had been a lifesaver. But now I had an actual office.
“Good morning, everyone,” I said, slightly louder than normal. The students stilled. “I’m Dr. Mayfield, and this is Basic Composition 11. Given that I have twelve of you on my course list and that there are considerably more than that sitting here, I must ask, are you sure you’re in the right place?”
There was a general shuffling, nodding, and other indications that said they were all in the right place.
“Then I assume that some of you are trying to add.” I could see several faces looking very hopeful, including his. “At this point, it looks like there’s room. However, I’m not signing any paperwork until the class is dismissed. After you hear what I’ve got to say, you may not want to stick around.”
I had a feeling that there was little I could say to discourage anyone. Basic Comp, or some variant thereof, was one of those general education classes that everyone hated but that everyone had to take. I pulled a stack of freshly dittoed papers from my purse. Fortunately, I had convinced Mrs. Spinetti to run enough copies on the ditto machine for the full enrollment for all three of my Basic Comp classes that morning, pointing out that I would be forced to ask her for more if all three classes filled up.
“This is the syllabus for the course,” I announced as I handed a small stack of copies to each person at the head of the five rows of desk/chair units. “While these are being handed around, I’ll call roll.”
The name he was using was not on my list and he did not answer to any of the others I called. I tried not to keep looking his way. He wasn’t a big man, just under average height and very well proportioned. His hair was dark, wavy, and precision trimmed, as was the beard he absently scratched. It hid a decidedly cute cleft in his chin. I couldn’t help smiling. He may have carried a navy-blue day pack instead of a briefcase, but even in khaki slacks and a blue polo shirt, he looked dressed up. But then, he would look dressed up in a t-shirt and cut-offs, although he’d sooner be caught dead in that attire. [Damn skippy, I would. – SEH]
“I’ll get the rest of your names later,” I said after checking off the names I did have. “As you can see from the syllabus, the objective of this course is to teach you how to write clearly and correctly in the English language. If you happen to already know how to do so, then you are in good shape. However, I will venture to argue that just because you think you know how to write does not mean that you, in fact, do. I think all of us will agree that the best way to learn how to write is to do it. This is why you will be turning in a writing assignment every time we meet.”
A subdued groan rippled through the students.
“You will also be responsible for a twenty-page term paper due before the final.”
The groan got louder.
“Don’t panic. The paper won’t be that bad. There will be progress assignments throughout the quarter, so you won’t have to stay up too late the night before it’s due. You’ll also be graded on a midterm and a final, plus a spelling quiz on Fridays and a grammar quiz on Mondays. All your writing assignments will be typed, or they will not be accepted. I realize that might be a little hard on some of you, but I do want to maintain my eyesight and my sanity this term. Any questions?”
Jason de Boeur, a tall, freckled kid with wild brown hair, raised his hand.
“What about absences?”
“Planning on them already?” I shot back. The class laughed. “I do not encourage absenteeism. However, I do realize it’s sometimes inevitable. I do not grade on attendance, but you still have an assignment due every class period, whether you are here or not. If, for some reason, you cannot make it to class, leave a message at the department office and we will make arrangements. Fair warning. I am not inclined to be lenient. Also, you will get your assignment for the next class at the end of each class period. I do not generally give make-ups for quizzes or exams, so if you are not in the hospital, you’d better be here.”
I then went over the syllabus, answered questions about how the tests and homework would be graded, what to do if the bookstore was out of the required text book, and how to find a typewriter (there were plenty in the library).
After all of that, I cleared my throat. “What I’d like now is for all of us to get to know each other. Some of your work will be read to the rest of the class and we will be critiquing it. I’d like that criticism to be among friends. In addition, anything said in this classroom, stays in this classroom. Now, why don’t we get our desks arranged into a circle and begin?”
I winced at the deafening noise of desks scraping against the floor. Once settled, the students let their stories out. For the most part, there was a sameness to them. They were almost all arts students, whether from the music, or the theater, or the fine arts departments. Most of them were fresh out of high school and many from different parts of Wisconsin.
Jason de Boeur, for instance, was clearly the resident clown, a declared theater major, and from the nearby town of Combined Locks. Dennis White, by comparison, was from New York, attending Martin because his father had, and a declared animation major, but with a computer science minor. Sherry Van Wettering, whose family name decorated the Fine Arts building, had Brooke Shields hair and the attitude to match. She was a history major – one of the two majors the Humanities department offered, the other being English.
Then there was Terry Michaels. She looked like she was still in high school, with a waif-like figure and mousy dark brown hair. She barely mumbled her name, said she was a declared Sculpture major, but really wanted to do arts education. It was a little odd that I didn’t recognize her because I knew that she was on the Quickline team, and I’d seen pretty much everyone in the organization more than once. We caught eyes for a second and then I let it go.
Then his turn came. He shifted in his desk and scratched his beard.
“My name is Ed Donaldson. I’m a Second Career student. I got into real estate after high school and, fortunately, was successful enough to allow me to quit for a while and get an education. I am enrolled in the Bachelor of Music program with a major in piano.”
“When did you get out of high school?” Sherry asked, flashing her huge brown eyes.
“Too long ago,” he said with a subtly lascivious gleam.
Finally, it was my turn.
“As you know, I am Dr. Janet Mayfield,” I said. “This is my first term here at Martin U., but not my first term teaching. While I do love teaching basic composition, my specialty is Shakespeare.” I paused as the five theater majors cheered. “My office hours are listed on the syllabus. In addition to that, I hold what I call Off-Campus Office Hours on Sunday afternoons. The idea is to provide a more informal way for you to ask questions and get whatever help you need to pass this course. Or get some free pizza or other food.”
I got a few more cheers in response.
I grinned. “Now that we’ve all introduced ourselves, you’re going to do your first assignment right now. This will be the only, and I do mean only, exception to the typing rule. For the rest of the class period, I want you to write an essay on what is your favorite food and why you like it. I’ll give you a hint, I’m more interested in the why than the what. Everybody ready?”
“Dr. Mayfield?” Rita Farley, a quiet blonde raised her hand.
“All I brought was my steno pad. Is that all right?”
“I have some extra binder paper. Anybody else need any?”
Two other students raised their hands. I handed out the paper. While they wrote, I thumbed through an academic journal. I kept one eye on the students, trying to avoid Ed. I kept catching myself gazing at him. He caught me one time and smiled gently. I blushed and buried myself in the journal.
Ten minutes before class was supposed to end, I called a halt to the writing, then gave them their assignment for the next class. There was a bit of a traffic jam around the desk as students dropped off their work, and those who were trying to add waited for me to sign their forms.
Terry Michaels dropped her paper and left quickly. She was already on the roll.
Ed Donaldson, better known to me as Sid Hackbirn, remained at his desk until he was the last person in the room with me.
“Are you going to add or not?” I asked.
He got up and handed me the form. “I’m adding.” He paused. “I like your natural hair color better.”
“And you know why it’s not,” I said, trying not to sound too acerbic.
“I do.” He smiled and my heart raced.
“How’s it going?”
He winced. “Not particularly good, I’m afraid. I am besieged by the usual freshman woes. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to get this class. I spent all this last week auditioning and taking placement tests and I still had to fight my way into Beginning Theory. Then this morning, I tried to get into three different math classes.”
“Did you get in?”
“No. That’s why I’m here now. Otherwise, I was going to have to get into your Tuesday/Thursday section. Fortunately, your classes are the only ones that are open, but I didn’t want to take a chance on the Tuesday/Thursday being full.”
I looked at him. “You don’t seem terribly put out by it all.”
He shrugged. “It could be worse.”
“Hm. I’m guessing that means the women here are to your liking.”
“Can’t complain.” He grinned, but there was something off about it.
“You reprobate.” I smiled anyway. “Speaking of, you’d better card Sherry Van Wettering. Something tells me she’s still a minor. You don’t want that kind of trouble.”
“I never want that kind of trouble. But you’re right. Extra caution is in order.” He looked around, then lowered his voice. “Since I’m here, you got anything for me?’
“Not really. You?”
Underneath his essay was a nine by twelve manilla envelope. Sid took a quick look out the door, then pulled out some photos and sheets of descriptions. They were the known KGB agent and the two suspects.
“I’ve seen her,” Sid said, pointing to one of the photos. “Apparently, she’s a secretary at one of the paper mills.”
“What about the police reports on the two students who were killed last spring?”
“In the envelope.” He put the photos and descriptions back. “There’s not much there. The only thing the two murders have in common was that they were traps set for the victims.”
“Even the kid who got injected?”
“Yeah. It was some sort of spring-loaded ampule. No way to tell who set it.”
“Your downstairs neighbor told me it was a KBG nerve agent that killed him.”
“That is not in the police report.” Sid paused and grinned. “He doesn’t waste much time, does he?”
“Broke into my place Friday night.” I rolled my eyes. “He’s nice enough and he’s really feeling the kid who got poisoned.”
There was a slightly awkward pause. I pulled the papers that had been left on my desk together.
“So, what classes do you have?” I asked.
“This one, Beginning Theory and Analysis, Intro to Communications, and, hopefully, Intro to Calculus, and one and a half hours Individual Performance Studies.”
“One and a half? What’s that?”
“Private lessons.” Sid shuddered. “One hour a week on piano and half an hour on organ, and who knows how many hours practicing my fingers to the bone in the meantime.”
“But you’re really good. I mean you play Tchaikovsky and Chopin and all that heavy-duty stuff.”
Sid laughed. “I’m not nearly as good as you think, at least, not on a professional level. Those private classes are going to be killers.”
“Well, save some time for your typewriter. I expect you to work like everyone else. I’m not going to let you slide through for friendship’s sake.”
Sid’s sigh was exaggerated. “I was afraid you’d say that. I suppose it’s some sort of compliment that you think I can keep up.”
I grinned. “We’ll see.”
He laughed, then smiled tenderly. “I’m glad I’m here.”
“So am I.”
I had an hour and a half to visit the Faculty Dining Room for the snack they provided, then eat the lunch I’d brought back in my office. I also started in on the papers I’d collected. Reading the essays, I could already see that I was going to have to be a real hard nose about the typing rule.
My second (or B) section of Basic Comp was not terribly exciting. A young man that I had not seen before identified himself as Tim Hannaford, one of the other Quickline team members. He said he was a freshman majoring in Drawing and Painting, and he certainly looked fresh out of high school, just like Terry Michaels had. I wasn’t sure what to make of him, but let it go. I went through the same routine I had earlier, without someone challenging me on absences, and Tim hung around after the dismissal just long enough to establish our team connection.
From class, I went back to my office to grade papers. Back before Quickline, my colleagues had teased me about assigning so much work for the students because of the way it would increase my workload. However, one of my graduate advisors, and then later, my mentor teacher had both pointed out that tenure committees loved the kind of dedication to teaching that grading tons of papers showed. I was no longer, technically, on tenure track, even if I wanted to appear as if I was. The weird thing was, I still cared about the students and wanted to help them learn how to write. I also knew that if I didn’t stay on top of the grading, I would be drowning in no time. Even if student evaluations were not a significant concern for me, one thing that would get me blasted in no time was not getting students their work back fast enough.
I was about to unlock my office when I noticed a note on my bulletin board. I unpinned it, shut the door, and unloaded papers onto my desk to grade. Just in case, I looked at the note first. It was from Mrs. Spinetti. Apparently, having students move their little desk/chair combos into a circle was strictly forbidden. I tossed the note into the little trash basket next to the desk and went back to work. I still had several papers from the A section (my first section) of Basic Comp to get through, plus all the ones from the B section (at that point, I decided to label each of my sections A, B, and C).
The work was a little demoralizing. I had already gotten the feeling from the papers I’d graded on my lunch hour that I was going to have to start at the very beginning of the grammar textbook that had been assigned. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly surprised. I do not know if writing skills aren’t being taught or students just aren’t listening (probably a bit of both). Either way, at least three-quarters of my students couldn’t construct a sentence correctly, or couldn’t spell, and only one person out of that three quarters could put together a decent argument.
That person was Sid. Alright, the name at the top of the paper was Ed Donaldson. But it was written in Sid’s atrocious handwriting and the words, phrasing, and style were all uniquely his. Sid has an innate ability to think and write in a logical flow. His grammar and spelling are the pits. Given that his visible profession is as a freelance writer, one must wonder how he could succeed. Well, until I became his secretary, he didn’t really. Since then, that business has taken off but that’s because I correct his manuscripts.
I will say this. I knew that he had not been taught writing skills. Sid’s aunt, who raised him, was a serious radical and had sent him to all sorts of freedom schools (mostly ones where she had taught). Somewhere in all that development of free expression and creative thought, he had managed to teach himself to read and do math well enough to graduate from a traditional high school, and later, Stanford University with a B.A. in Business. While at Stanford, he inherited enough money so he didn’t have to work and could hire me once Quickline had decided to give him a partner.
Having him in my class meant that I was finally going to have the chance to teach him to do for himself what he’d been burdening me with. But as I read his essay, I could see there were going to be drawbacks. He claimed that his favorite food was fresh fruit in general. That was an out and out lie. I knew darned well that he’d take a mushroom and black olive pizza over fresh fruit any day. His argument consisted of an overly familiar lecture on the benefits of eating properly and keeping fit.
The rascal was not very subtly telling me that he expected me to continue exercising and eating right. I snorted. The last thing I needed, or wanted, was a watchdog. Sid’s healthy (translate finicky) eating habits drove me nuts. In turn, my insatiable appetite drove him nuts. We were always fighting about food.
I spent a good ten minutes thinking up a way to tell him that I was going to eat what I liked and as much of it as possible. Finally, I smiled.
“As you can see from the red marks, your grammar and spelling need a lot of work,” I wrote. “Your paragraph structure is quite good, though, and you write in a nice, orderly fashion. However, you did not answer the question, which was why you like fresh fruit, not why you want to stay healthy.”
Or, in other words, Stuff it, Hackbirn!
With a little flourish, I gave the paper a B, recorded it, and went on to the next paper.