Nearly three weeks after visiting Cranwood, I found myself once again at McCarran International Airport. This time I was awaiting a flight to San Francisco. The bomb scare had the TSA surveillance queue backed up like a toilet with a wooly mammoth in it. The line literally descended down the stairs to the ground floor—the departing gates were on the second floor.
Arriving three hours early had proved futile, since I still missed my scheduled flight, as had hundreds of other passengers. My interview at Varsity Preparatory was either going to be canceled or pushed back into the afternoon.
Realizing that I was not going to pass through the security cordon in time to catch my flight, I called Mimi, the administrative assistant to the headmaster at Varsity, and informed her of the situation. Mimi extended apologies to me as if it had been her fault that I had missed the flight. She sympathized with me as if I were a very important white man who had been inconvenienced by a person of color.
After conferring with the boss—I had waited on the line while in line—Mimi assured me that there really was no need for me to meet with the chief of the physical plant, the head gardener, the cafeteria dishwasher, the librarian, the assistant business manager, the soccer coach, and the alumni director. This news relieved me.
The next flight to San Francisco left in approximately one hour, so I roamed around Terminal C in search of espresso with a shot of vanilla liqueur. Eventually, having circled all the way back to Terminal B, I found the espresso, but not the shot. “Later for that anyway,” I thought.
The plane departed on schedule and arrived on schedule. However, when I went to baggage claim to retrieve my valise, I discovered that it was not there. Luckily, I was already dressed for the interview, but still needed a change of clothes for the two days that I would be staying in the city.
The agent of claims could not tell me why the valise was neither on the flight that I missed nor on the flight that had just arrived. After all, I had checked the valise before entering the TSA queue. At any rate, I gave the agent my number and the address at The Powell Hotel, where I would be staying. He informed me that my bag should arrive within the next few hours and that it would delivered to me free of charge.
En route to campus, Mimi assured me again that my late arrival would not pose a problem and that my schedule for the day had already been adjusted. Though the headmaster’s administrative assistant, Mimi seemed more akin to a parent-volunteer in an alumni office. She was polite, organized, and informal.
It started to sprinkle outside, so Mimi rolled up the windows. We made small talk the whole way and I occasionally stared out the window, thinking if I could stomach living again in the Bay Area. Having left in 2001, I vowed never to move back. San Francisco had once again seemed like Boston, Oakland was blanching, and Berkeley had seen better days.
When we arrived at the administration building in which the headmaster’s office was located, Mimi stowed her purse in a desk drawer and asked me to take a seat. Before she began to tap away on her computer, she asked me if I cared for something to drink.
As I sat sipping a mug of water, I recalled how Professor Barnum, my first dissertation adviser at Stanford, used to make me wait upward of a half hour before he would emerge from his lair. Upon entering, I never once discovered any evidence that he had actually been busy or working at all. There were no scattered papers or open books or file drawers with their tongues hanging out—nothing.
Sooner than expected the door swung open and out waltzed Murray Kornbluff. He donned an executive blue blazer, gray flannel slacks, a maize-colored, button-down Oxford, and a pair of Italian—I surmised—driving loafers with tan socks. Shaking my hand, he invited me into his office and closed the door.
The walnut paneling of the room verged on ebony. The ambience seemed less typical of a headmaster’s office and more like a ski lodge, save for the Navaho rugs serving as tapestries and the African masks and Polynesian statuettes judiciously sprawled about. I sat alone on the plush suede sofa and Kornbluff sunk into one of the matching suede chairs. Both sofa and chairs were upholstered in the school’s color, navy blue, and trimmed with pearl-gray piping. A single pearl-gray pillow bore the school’s motto in a Gothic needlepoint: CONSCIMUS DIVITIARUM, which translates as WE ARE CONSCIOUS OF RICHES.
“So, you’re here in one piece,” Kornbluff began. “What a misfortune!”
“Yes. There was a bomb scare at the Las Vegas airport and the airline misplaced my luggage,” I informed him.
“What luck! But you’re here.”
“Yes.” Obviously I was there.
“Midas Jones speaks very highly of you. Do you believe him?” he asked.
“I have no reason not to believe him,” I replied. Midas Jones owned a head-hunting firm in Oakland and was responsible for arranging the initial contact between a handful of West Coast private schools and myself, including Varsity Prep.
Picking up a sheet of paper from the long, walnut coffee table, Kornbluff began to read in a theatrical tone of voice: “Picaro Fuscus is a rare and stellar candidate for Varsity Prep. He brings erudition, prior experience in private schools, as well as charm, cordiality, and wit to the table. What’s more, he is creative, has published articles, and harbors an entrepreneurial spirit minus capitalist greed. I highly recommend him.”
“What do you think of that?” Kornbluff asked.
“I’m a bit shocked?”
“I had no idea Midas thought of me in those terms.”
“Perhaps we should forego this entire interview and make you an offer right now.” I did not respond, although my mind spun busily trying to figure out the angle being taken by this bourgeois Euclid.
“Let’s see,” he continued, “you’re like Ralph Ellison meets Ed Bradley at Michiko Kakutani’s flat in SoHo.”
Of course, Ellison wrote Invisible Man for which he won the American Book Award in 1953; Ed Bradley was a journalist, most noted for his weekly spot on “60 Minutes”; and Michiko Kakutani wrote book reviews for the Arts section of The New York Times. Admittedly, I failed to see Kornbluff’s logic: Ellison did not rank among my favorite authors; Bradley never inspired me to pursue a career in journalism; and apropos of Michiko Kakutani, if I died without writing a book review, I would still rest in peace. So, again, where was Kornbluff going with this interview?
Momentarily and to my surprise, Kornbluff relented, allowing me space to recite my standard cant. I spoke of teaching African epics, comparative historiography, and world history at Brandywine. I recapitulated my time as an assistant professor of history. To conclude, I shared my pedagogy for making Latin—supposedly a dead language—interesting and relevant for so-called at-risk freshmen at the Agassi Academy in Las Vegas. Just in time for this last bit, the assistant head of school had entered the office and taken up the other suede chair next to Kornbluff. When I finished my recital of the challenges and triumphs of my students at Agassi Academy, I noticed that Judith Munson fought back a tiny tear in the corner of her left eye.
After apologizing for being late, Mrs. Munson formally introduced herself to me. Apparently, she had had to set the caterer straight about the menu for her daughter’s upcoming graduation party. Her daughter was graduating from Berkeley.
By this time, the hour had arrived for me to teach a lesson to a ninth-grade world history class. Their teacher, Mary Aspen, wanted me to address the Mexican Revolution, a subject in which I had absolutely no interest. Nonetheless, I had, as usual, prepared thoroughly for the lesson.
In short, I employed the Socratic method to induce students to question the “revolutionary” aspect of the Mexican Revolution. Drawing on their prior knowledge, I asked each of them to come to the board and to write down one historical detail that would support the claim that the Revolution was indeed a “revolution” and one that would support the claim that it was not a revolution at all, but rather a transference of elite power. Once many of the the so-called facts of the Revolution had been recorded, we then discussed whether the Mexican Revolution was a revolution or an anti-revolution.
While numbers of students drew insightful deductions from the facts on the board, Kornbluff sat along the wall between two members of the history department, with his arms folded across his chest, his eyes completely shut, and his head bowed in reverence to Hypnos. (Hypnos is the Greek god of sleep.)
Next came lunch. Different from others schools that I had visited, the faculty at Varsity Prep did not eat in the cafeteria with students, but in a separate dining room above the administration building, where a single chef served home-cooked fare. I sat at one of the six Harkness tables with members of the history department—the most interesting of which was a teacher of Chinese history who wore a ten-gallon cowboy hat, a rhinestone-studded shirt, black leather chaps, and a pair of green, lizard-skin boots with silver spurs. Even so, the conversation proved bland and predictable. Mary Aspen kept asking me why I did not eat pork, and I kept telling her that I was on a diet.
After lunch, Mimi escorted me back to Kornbluff’s office for an exit interview. In the car, on the way to campus, Mimi had explained that Varsity conducted both an entrance interview (at the beginning of a candidate’s visit) and an exit interview (at the very end of the visit). Symmetry was another virtue at Varsity Prep.
Kornbluff asked me what Chef had served for lunch—everyone called the woman “Chef.” I told him that Chef had served arugula salad with cherry tomatoes, baked potatoes, grilled asparagus, and lemon-braised pork cutlets. Kornbluff blinked his eyes once, and began to tell me about a thought experiment that he had only moments ago conceived.
Resuming his place in the suede chair, he started by clearing his throat: “What do you think of thought experiments?”
“Depends on the thought itself,” I replied.
Kornbluff ignored my comment and dove headlong into an extended monologue: “What would you say to working part-time as a member of the history department and the other half as assistant director of our year-round tutoring institute called Urban Prospects? You see, our present director has been with us for nearly twenty years and she is retiring the year after next. We do not have an assistant director—as a matter of fact, we’ve never had one: the reason being, Joanne Villanueva is a one-woman operation. Here’s where you come in—you will spend part of your time here next year learning the ropes from Joanne. Then, when she retires, I will appoint you as the director. Midas thinks highly of you, and Midas is usually right about such things. You’re well spoken; you dress smartly; and you’re multicultural. Additionally, you will receive a full-administrator’s salary. But I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud. It’s not a reality, mind you. It’s a thought experiment.”
Kornbluff had emphasized thought experiment as if he had been pronouncing “deoxyribonucleic acid.” Again, I could not put my finger on him. I had come here to be interviewed for a position in world history and now Kornbluff was dangling before me a position that did not even exist.
“Well,” Kornbluff persisted, “what do you think?”
“Perhaps it is an opportunity that deserves further consideration,” and I paused. “That is, if it is real; if it is something that is actually going to be created.”
“Don’t jump the gun,” Kornbluff fumed. “I don’t know yet. As I said, it’s just a thought experiment. But I can make it real, if I choose to. I may not choose to do so. I may choose to do so at a later time. But then again, it may be advantageous to hire you as assistant director, so that I don’t have to conduct a national search next year. You can simply slide into the position. But I don’t know. It would require a lot of work on your part. Do you believe in working weekends?”
“It’s not an article of belief with me; I work whenever and wherever necessary.”
“Well, you would have to work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday and four hours every other Saturday, except during the month of August and holidays.”
Growing exasperated, I simply told Kornbluff that I would consider an offer if one were actually, as opposed to experimentally, made. I also stressed to him that I did not want to lose sight of why I had come to Varsity in the first place, which was to get a job teaching world history.
“Of course I understand your position,” he said. “Here, take my card. In two weeks, give me a call. By then, I will have made up my mind about this hypothetical assistant directorship.”
Remaining open to both possibilities before me, I accepted the card. Kornbluff said, “Well, I think that about does it for the exit interview,” as he rose from his chair and shook my hand. I said good-bye, Kornbluff opened the door, and Mimi was already standing by her desk with keys in hand. She was going to drive me to The Powell Hotel at Union Square.
Two months later, I called Kornbluff, since it was already late May, and I had not received any word from Varsity.
“I’ve abandoned the thought experiment,” he trumpeted. “Also, we’ve offered the world history position to another candidate,” he said brassily.
Without saying a word, I hung up.