Through the thin wall between the two classrooms, Miss Whitfield can hear everything Ms. Lucca says.
“If you get married before you really know yourself, there’s a good chance you’ll end up divorced. Look at me! I married a man!”
Ms. Lucca calls her advice “Real Talk” and the kids love it. So does Miss Whitfield who sometimes worries that advice for teenagers shouldn’t sound so profound.
“Girls, it took me thirty years to love these hips. Whatever you think your flaws are, learn to love them now.”
“Boys, don’t be jackasses—I say that to you from my heart. Girls, don’t be afraid to dump that jackass’s ass.”
Ms. Lucca likes to call people jackasses, but she does it with love, and Miss Whitfield suspects that’s why they like her so much. If she were more like Ms. Lucca, she would tell her ninth graders that her jackass, who has not called her in weeks, has a scar on his ass where he was once gored by a bull on his uncle’s ranch. Once, she traced the jagged mark with her finger and even kissed it, but he said the skin was dead there and he couldn’t feel a thing.
He has other scars too, from the war, but those he wouldn’t let her touch.
Eventually Ms. Lucca gets around to math. “What’s the standard deviant?” she asks, and Miss Whitfield imagines a petty criminal with piggish eyes and a polyester tracksuit. Math is not her thing, but she has begun to enjoy the language of mathematics. When Ms. Lucca says, “the axis of symmetry,” Miss Whitfield pictures a secret mountain top location where world leaders in shiny unitards negotiate peace treaties. And when Ms. Lucca mentions the coordinate planes, Miss Whitfield almost cries; the coordinate plains are where her boyfriend—is he still her boyfriend?—herds his uncle’s cattle under a dusty sunset.
* * *
Sometimes Ms. Lucca brings in real world problems to make math relevant. “What are your chances of finding love?” she asks one morning.
Miss Whitfield—who is grading papers while her students write an essay answering the question: “Do Romeo and Juliet really love each other, or are they just infatuated?”—lifts her head and listens.
“What does this have to do with math, you ask?” Ms. Lucca laughs heartily. “I’ll show you. Raise your hand if, one day, you want to find love.” There is a long silence. “Oh, come on now. Don’t be shy. Everyone needs love.”
Miss Whitfield is tempted to raise her hand. She had love once. Was it love? Or infatuation? Why does she think was and not is? She looks out at her students; one has given up and has fallen asleep. Do any of them know the difference between real love and infatuation, and if not, how can they possibly answer the question?
“Have you ever looked around, at your school and your various other communities, like church groups or athletic teams, and wondered, how many potential girlfriends or boyfriends might be in that particular pool of people?” Some of Ms. Lucca’s students titter and Miss Whitfield guesses that they are looking around the room nervously, assessing each other. Perhaps they have already picked someone out. Her own students are quiet today, even the loud-mouthed boy who said he didn’t believe in love at first sight. “That’s just damn stupid,” he’d said when they began the play. “Like you might want to do her, but it don’t mean you want to marry her or nothin’.”
Ms. Lucca’s voice is crisp, confident, almost rehearsed. “We’re going to use a tool called The Fermi Estimation to arrive at a number of potential partners.” Enrico Fermi, Ms. Lucca tells them, was an Italian physicist, known for his ability to make almost accurate calculations with no real data. “What we call educated guesses,” she says.
On the notebook she has dedicated to writing down Ms. Lucca’s gems, Miss Whitfield starts a fresh page. She can always finish grading later that night on her balcony on the eighth floor—the highest floor—which she has, lately, begun to regret. If the cowboy ever came back and stood underneath, calling out her name, his voice wouldn’t make it past the fifth floor.
Ms. Lucca clears her throat. “Let’s start with a basic question: how many intelligent, sophisticated women are there for me to date? Because I don’t want to date just anyone off the street.” She sighs audibly. “Real Talk: I want someone with a college degree, not some dumbass who can’t read subtitles once in a while.” Dumbass, another one of her favorite words.
Miss Whitfield walks between the aisles with her notebook, pretending to read over her students’ shoulders, but really she is concentrating on Ms. Lucca’s voice, which sometimes goes in and out depending on where she is standing.
“So I have to break the big question down into smaller components. The first question, then, should be: how many women live near me? In Sacramento, that would be about 200,000.”
Miss Whitfield writes, 1. How many men live in my area? She frowns. Her area. It is not such a simple concept. What is the radius of her area? And how far is she willing to go? She thinks of her mother in her hometown, 500 miles away, who called to tell her about a new neighbor, a lonely widower with a young daughter. The cowboy is more than 1000 miles away; his area includes rivers, mountains, and plains. Only open spaces for him, he has decided. No cities, no roads, no possibility of roadside bombs.
Ms. Lucca claps her hands. “Next question: how many people are in the right age range? Without giving my exact age away, I’m looking for someone between the ages of say… thirty-five and forty-five. Let’s call that twenty percent of the female population. So about 40,000 women.”
Miss Whitfield writes down 24-29. About ten percent. Can she afford to be that conservative? Is she being, as her mother accuses, too picky?
“Now, how many of the people in my age group are single?”
No married men, no men with girlfriends!!! Miss Whitfield writes. No men with dead wives either. The loud-mouthed boy has begun to snore. She crosses the room, taps his shoulder and waits for him to sit up.
“So the first three questions are pretty universal, right? It’s question four that matters most.” An urgency has crept into Ms. Lucca’s voice, that special tone she gets when she wants students to sit up and listen. Miss Whitfield abandons the boy and moves back to the front of the room, just in time to hear Ms. Lucca say, “It’s question four where your values come into play.”
Miss Whitfield writes, Question 4 reveals values. Then she underlines and circles values. Proximity is not a value, she reminds herself.
“My question four is: how many single women in my area have a college degree? Remember, intelligence was one of my criteria. So let’s say, based on college retention rates, that about thirty percent of those eligible women will have a degree. So 12,000. That’s still a big number. I’m feeling hopeful.”
Returning someone’s phone call is a value, isn’t it? Doesn’t it reveal character?
Tonight, on her balcony when it is dark, she will find not the brightest star, which is probably burdened with a million wishes, but a smaller, more modest star, one usually overlooked and therefore free to focus all its astral energies, and make an extravagant wish on Ms. Lucca’s behalf for a beautiful, smart woman who likes foreign movies, big hips, and straight talk.
Ms. Lucca is moving quickly, her heels clicking across the linoleum. “Of the 12,000 how many will be attractive?”
Ms. Lucca chuckles ruefully. “I don’t need to date a supermodel,” she says. “Lord knows, I’m not one. So let’s go with twenty-five percent, which is how much?”
“Three thousand,” someone says.
The cowboy is not handsome, but something about the way he used to grin, that crinkle by his eyes, the hint of a dimple, made Miss Whitfield’s heart leap.
“Conversely,” Ms. Lucca continues, “I have to consider how many of those women that I’m attracted to will like a brunette with wide hips. And because many people are pickier than me, let’s say ten percent, so 300. Boy, the number is getting smaller isn’t it?”
How many men will find Miss Whitfield’s curly brown hair electric and not merely frizzy? And her eyes, which are round and inquisitive, but maybe a tad too close together? She wishes her lips were fuller. She wishes she were taller.
“And because relationships are not just about location and looks, my last question is: of these remaining women, how many will I get along with? Would you guys say I’m friendly? Easy going? The nicest teacher you ever had?”
Ms. Lucca is grandstanding and her students reward her with hoots and hollers so loud Miss Whitfield’s students sit up and listen. A girl in the back yawns, revealing a silver stud in her tongue and says, “Man, I wish I was in that class. They always have fun.”
“So… five percent? Ten percent?” Ms. Lucca asks. When they continue to yell, “higher, higher!” she laughs and says, “Okay. Fifteen percent, but no higher. So what’s the final number?”
“Forty-five,” someone shouts.
“That’s right. So according to Fermi’s Estimation, there are forty-five women in Sacramento who might be a good match for me.”
“That’s it?” someone asks.
“Well, I suppose I could change my criteria questions. That might open up more possibilities.”
There is a long silence until finally, a girl says, “But you can’t really confirm that number, can you? I mean these are just guesses.”
“Funny you should ask. I’m on a couple different dating websites and this number is really close to what eHarmony gave me. Guess their number.”
“Forty! Thirty-nine! Thirty-eight!” The kids shout.
“Forty-three potential girlfriends. Isn’t that amazing?”
Miss Whitfield marvels at the number. Forty-three women for Ms. Lucca to love. But how to find these women? Where are they? Who cares if the number is three or 103 if you can’t meet even one?
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Ms. Lucca says. “You should minus the number of people you’ve already dated because obviously that didn’t work out.”
Miss Whitfield turns back to her notebook and writes, -1. But when and why do you decide to give up on that person? What is the criterion for saying goodbye?
“I hope you find someone,” another kid says. For once, Miss Whitfield cannot hear Ms. Lucca’s response. Yes, Miss Whitfield thinks, I hope you find someone special, too. Tonight, on her balcony when it is dark, she will find not the brightest star, which is probably burdened with a million wishes, but a smaller, more modest star, one usually overlooked and therefore free to focus all its astral energies, and make an extravagant wish on Ms. Lucca’s behalf for a beautiful, smart woman who likes foreign movies, big hips, and straight talk. She will not wonder if the cowboy, tucked in his bedroll, is looking up at those same stars and thinking of her, or if he is remembering a different set of constellations over the deserts of Iraq where he seems to have left a part of himself. Probably the part that loved her.
The bell rings. Miss Whitfield’s students slam their books shut and hurry to the door, half of them already gone when she calls out, “Finish the essay for homework.”
At lunch, she locks her door and draws the curtains. It is question number four that she must figure out, the question of values. Is the college degree what matters? Five years ago, the question might have been: has he read Romeo and Juliet? Can he recognize iambic pentameter? Has he ever written a poem, even a bad one? Then, a year ago: does he love his mother? Does he want children? Does he like to laugh?
Now she writes:
Can he ride a horse?
Can he deliver a calf on a moonlit night?
Does he have dirt under his fingernails?
Does he live within distance of a cell phone tower?
What she wants is to write a question so specific only one man will be the answer.
* * *
“What does it mean when the rate of change is zero?” Ms. Lucca asks one morning. No one answers, so she asks the question again, punctuating each phrase with her characteristic dramatic pauses. “What does it mean… when the rate of change… is zero?” Miss Whitfield freezes at her podium, listening.
The cowboy has not answered his phone in a month. He might be on top of a mountain. He might have taken a vow of silence. He might have allowed the wind and rain and sun to whittle him down to nothing.
One of her students, a boy who is at least eight pages behind, lifts his head from Romeo and Juliet and asks again, “Is there a translation? Can we get this in English?”
Miss Whitfield sighs. “This is English. Look at line 97, when Mercutio says, ‘Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.’ Or the next line, ‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love.’ What is he really saying?”
Some students seem to ponder the question, their brows furrowed as they reread the lines. “Don’t be such a pussy,” says the loud-mouthed boy. The girl with the tongue ring raises her hand. “If love hurts you, you gotta hurt it back?”
Miss Whitfield nods. “Yes, good.”
Beat love down! It is not such bad advice; had Romeo listened, he might have lived.
Maybe over her summer break, with nothing better to do, she will write a Real Talk version of the play, the whole thing boiled down for their impatient, modern sensibilities. Romeo, love-sick and moping over a different girl, will not say, “Love is a smoke made with a fume of sighs.” Instead he will say, “Dang, love stinks.” Benvolio will tell Romeo, “Chill, dawg! They’s plenty otha bitches in the sea!” And to prove it to him, he will use Fermi’s equation. The whole outcome of the play would change. Romeo would not let his eyes linger on Juliet. So what if she teaches the torches to burn bright? So does that lady, and that one over there.
What Romeo needed was a physicist, not a friar.
Miss Whitfield is not supposed to take her cell phone out in class—it sets a bad example—but she does it anyway and scrolls through her contact list until she finds the cowboy’s name in glowing white letters. She hesitates, her thumb poised over the delete button—is she being rash? Should she give him one more week? One more day? She wishes she could ask Ms. Lucca for advice, but though they have smiled at each other in the hallways, they have never actually spoken. Then Ms. Lucca’s irritated voice cuts into the room again. “We’ve been over this a hundred times. What does it mean when the rate of change is zero?”
It means it is time to do something drastic, Miss Whitfield thinks. It means you have to beat love down. Her thumb sinks down and the cowboy’s name is—blip—gone! “Twill serve,” she whispers, putting the phone away. “Tis done.” It is not very Shakespearean, no sword fights, no poisonous dram, no public brawl, only a rising residue of regret, but that she will beat down, too.