This is the final copy of Chapter one of Celts & Kings.
Bang! The door to John Michaels’ office slammed shut rattling a coffee mug on the shelf as the student stormed into the room. “Why’d you give me a D- in your course? I need at least a B+,” he shouted. “You’d better change it.” The student, a sallow-faced young man barely out of his teens, stalked toward Michaels.
“Are you threatening me?” John Michaels was furious. He half rose from behind his desk.
“I want to know why I got a D-,” the student shouted. His face was pinched, red and blotchy with anger.
“Unless you calm down, I’m going to call security.” Michaels picked up his phone. “You come storming in my office telling me I’d have to change your grade. That’s not the way we do things around here.”
“OK, so I’m sorry. Now, how can I get my grade changed?” The student stood glaring at Michaels.
“Once again, Roger, I’ll tell you. You got a D- because of your poor attendance. When I averaged your participation grades in with your other ones, that’s what the numbers showed. Although your other grades were mostly Cs, you missed 8 out of 19 classes, that’s 42 percent of your classes. As you know, my grades are based not only on tests and projects, but on attendance as well. It’s crucial that you be at as many classes as you can. Non-attendance hurts your final grade. You were told that in the syllabus and at the beginning of this semester. Now please open the door.”
The student rose and opened Michaels’ door. “Look, can’t you please cut me a break?” Roger pleaded in a quieter, more pleasant tone.
“I can’t do that. I warned you several times about your attendance and how it would impact your grade. Also, if I do that for you I have to do it for everybody.”
“Look, my old man’ll kill me.”
“I’m sorry. You should have thought about that earlier.” Michaels stood and walked to the door. The discussion was over.
“You’ll regret this,” the student said as he stomped from the room.
Michaels, about thirty-six years old, tall with an angular face, sighed. This is getting old, he thought. One more example of “bottom-line thinking” where the only important thing was the final outcome, money, grades, etc. Too many of these kids were too concerned about getting high grades with as little effort as possible. This was not what he signed up for ten years ago when he went into teaching American history at the college level. They acted more like high school kids than college kids. Of course this obsession with grades was merely a reflection of the larger culture’s obsession with money as the value that is the ultimate goal. When the culture allows everything from sports stadiums to national monuments to be sold to the highest bidder, what else are students to think?
It had been ten years since he had raced down the Champs Elysée to stop an assassination plot in Paris. A lot had happened since he and his wife, Janet, along with his best friends, the Dryers had returned from Paris. Tom and Annemarie Dryer now lived two streets over. Tom taught economics at the same university as Michaels while Annemarie was an editor for a well-known women’s journal.
Janet taught special education at a local elementary school. She recently received a promotion to department head.
He and Janet had a six-year old son, Sean. Sean was named after John Michaels’ maternal grandfather who had emigrated from Ireland. John wasn’t sure where in Ireland his grandfather came from; he thought possibly County Donegal. Both maternal grandparents had died in an accident when John was four.
Michaels eagerly anticipated his next appointment. Megan was a student who loved learning and he enjoyed his many discussions with her. She was a graduate student working on her Ph.D. dissertation on ancient Irish Celtic Cultures. Although he was not her advisor, she felt free to approach Michaels for suggestions and advice on how to do a particular piece of research. Perhaps it was the unusual, even mystical connection that drew them together. Almost as if he knew what she was thinking and she knew what he was thinking.
There was a knock and a smiling face peered around the door as Megan stuck her head in. “Am I interrupting?” she asked. She was wearing a short black skirt and a silk white blouse. Earrings dangled from her ears and sparkled in the sunlight brightening the room. Her blonde hair was tossed over her shoulders with one ear exposed. Her face was beautifully sculptured, with a classical look. As always, her eyes expressed laughter and delight.
“Come on in,” said Michaels. “I was just finishing up final grades. Have a seat.” He pointed to the chair in front of his desk.
She sat down and crossed her legs. Trying to avoid staring, Michaels checked the door. It was open. Good. He made it a personal policy to always leave his office door open when students had appointments. These days you never knew what a disgruntled student might say.
“Well, how’s it going?” he asked.
“Good, except I am having trouble finding resources to support my hypothesis about the source of troubles between Irish Celtic and English Anglo culture. As you know, my theory is that one of the major differences between the English and the Celts was not merely cultural, but also the way each viewed the world. There were fundamental differences between them that could never be reconciled and fueled animosities that led to centuries of war and plunder.”
“Talk it out; maybe your thoughts will get clearer.”
“The Celtic mindset is radically different from the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Anglos depend on logic, reasoning and sequential learning. They see differences between objects and people. Intellect is more important than feelings. We Celts, on the other hand, recognize the value of the unseen world. We are intuitive, often expressing feelings rather than ideas. These feelings are often expressed through music, stories, and myths. Which do you prefer, a breakthrough in, let’s say, fuel technology, or a new form of music?”
“I don’t know; I never thought of it in that way. Fuel, I suppose, because of my training.”
Megan smiled. “Exactly my point. The Celt would appreciate the music more. Each culture doesn’t understand and appreciate the other. Anglos thought Celts were barbarians. But look at it in another way. Have you ever felt like you didn’t fit in? Somewhat different? Maybe seeing an injustice really pushes your buttons. You feel that you need to do something about it when everybody else says, ‘What’s the big deal? Life is unfair.’ Maybe you feel more moved when you read a powerful story than most people do. That’s the Celtic side in you.”
“Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about—feeling out of place, that is. I’ve felt that many times.”
“You know, I’m really nervous about this dissertation. I don’t know how it will go.”
Michaels smiled wistfully. “I can certainly relate to that.”
She smiled, “Yes, I know. You told me about what happened when you went for your dissertation exam. How they flunked you. I have to say I really admire you for sticking up for yourself back then. You didn’t take no for an answer. It must have taken a lot of guts to do all that.” She leaned forward slightly, smiled, cocked her head, and recrossed her legs. “Have you thought about getting in touch with your Celtic side, John?”
Michaels blushed. “Well, I guess I could fly to Boston to watch the basketball team,” he smiled. What a stupid thing to say! How could he act like such a jerk?
Was she teasing? Was this an invitation? Although he was flattered, there was no way he was going to get involved with someone else, especially a student. However, he couldn’t help wondering, fantasizing—what if the situation were different? What if he was available?
After she left, he thought about the last ten years. Maybe his Celtic side was more visible ten years ago. After all, you didn’t do crazy things like steal French cars and horses without having some sort of wild side. Had the last few years settled him down? Was he becoming something he swore to himself he would never be, just settled? Had the passion he once had gone away? The passion he’d once had for learning, teaching, and making a difference—had it disappeared?
The phone rang. It was Janet reminding him to pick up some groceries and Sean’s prescription from the pharmacist. Also, she had a PTA meeting at school tonight. The principal wanted all the teachers there, so he’d have to pick up Sean from school and he and Sean were on their own for dinner.
An hour later, Michaels met Tom Dryer for lunch. Even Dryer seemed to have settled down. He no longer sported his scraggly beard; he had been clean-shaven for years and his hair was neatly trimmed. After being seated, Michaels spoke first, “You know, I think one of the students is hitting on me.”
“What? Is she blind? Who?”
“Megan O’Rourke. No seriously, we were talking about her dissertation and about how Celtic thought is so different from Anglo thought, you know, Celts are more into intuitive things and she asked if I wanted to get in touch with my Celtic side. It’s how she said it. Sort of teasing.”
“What’d ya say?”
“Something stupid. I made a joke about flying to Boston the see the Celtics play.”
“Not too cool, John. But damn, she is hot! Stay away though. You know that new department head, what’s his name, Hillstand, is just looking for an excuse to get rid of you. What a pompous ass he is!”
“You’ve got that right! A few of us in the History Department are thinking about filing a grievance about his new rules. He’s insisting that we follow the curriculum exactly—no innovation, no creativity. It feels like we spend more time in his stupid faculty meetings than we spend on doing our jobs. Each time, there’s some new rule or form to fill out or procedure to follow.”
“I’m glad I’m in economics. Hopefully, our department head will stay.”
When Michaels returned to his office, there was a message on his voice mail from Hillstand to report to his office as soon as possible. It was important. When he arrived, Hillstand was talking on the phone and motioned for him to take a seat. He then turned his back to Michaels and continued on the phone for about ten minutes.
Why did you ask me here ASAP and waste my time if it wasn’t that important?
To Michaels, Hillstand was a truly poisonous old man, one of those arrogant types who thinks he’s always right. Most of the faculty thought him an anally retentive twerp with the sensitivity and personality of a marine-corps drill instructor. They called him “ole my way.” He was derided behind his back for sucking an empty pipe.
Hillstand hung up and turned to Michaels. “I was just talking to Roger Reed’s father. Samuel Reed is quite concerned about the grade Roger got in your history class. I believe you gave him a D-.”
“That’s right. Roger missed 42 percent of his classes last semester. That’s 8 out of 19 classes. School policy allows for only three cuts and then attendance is to be factored into final grades.”
“How were his grades?”
“Mostly C’s; if he had had perfect attendance, he would probably have a C or C+ as a final grade.”
“Well, there will be an appeal. I strongly suggest that you reconsider his grade.”
“What! What about policy? Attendance factoring into grades?”
Hillstand pointed his empty pipe like a pistol. “Sometimes policy has to be ignored for the bigger picture; I remind you that Reed is the head of the Alumni Association which raises thousands of dollars a year. It would not be good for your career or for the university to upset Mr. Reed. That will be all.”
“I said that will be all. I strongly suggest you reconsider Roger’s grade.”
Michaels stormed out of the office. The rage in him was a living thing, boiling, and bubbling. He stomped into his office and slammed the door. He tried to call Dryer, but Tom was out. Janet was teaching a class and unavailable.
“That son of a bitch! It’s bad enough he micro-manages the department but now he’s telling us how to grade.” He paced back and forth.
He was so upset he had to talk to somebody. If he didn’t talk to somebody, he was going to start throwing things. Neither Tom nor Janet was available. Who could he trust? Suddenly he had a thought. Should he do it? It could be crossing a line from a professional relationship to some sort of different relationship. The hell with it! He picked up the phone and called Megan’s pager. She rang back in five minutes.
“Megan, it’s me, John. Do you have a few minutes to stop by? I have something I want to talk with you about.”
“Sure, I can be there in a couple of minutes. I’m at the computer center doing research.”
When Michaels told her about Hillstand’s ultimatum her reaction was immediate. “How can he tell you to change your grade? Usually the administration is supposed to support the faculty, not undermine them. I don’t blame you for being furious. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I can’t afford to lose my job. We can’t make it on Janet’s salary. But how can I compromise my integrity? This is not teaching; it’s students and their parents buying a grade.”
“Maybe there’s another way of handling it.”
“I know you. Your integrity is important to you. So, let him appeal. Fight the appeal in front of the committee. Whatever decision the committee makes either way, at least you tried. That way you’ve kept your integrity.”
“Good, except for one thing. If the University overrules me, which it probably will to keep Reed happy, it violates its own attendance policy. Makes it clear to everybody that the University sold out. That opens the door to all kinds of problems, appeals and ethical issues. Maybe even lawsuits. If the committee rules in my favor, they risk losing thousands of dollars and alienating Samuel Reed, one of the most powerful men in the country. It’s easier for them and for me if I just change my grade. Then it’s wink, wink, nod, nod. Everybody wins except me.” Michaels turned toward her waving his arms in frustration. “That’s why Hillstand insisted I change my grade. He doesn’t want it going through the appeals process.”
“Look at the larger picture. If you change the grade, you save your job but compromise your integrity, your values, who you are. Pretty soon, there will be another Roger Reed, another compromise, and then more compromises, each one easier because you’ve compromised the last time. This isn’t just about Roger Reed. It’s about a system, a system that’s become so perverted that even one’s integrity can be bought or sold. It not even about the University system. It’s about a larger system, the culture that does the same thing. Everything in our country is on the auction block. Even truth is for sale. Just look at the elections in this country. Full of lies; truth sold to the highest bidder. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, Megan, I just don’t know.”