Ronan’s Negative Numbers

(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

God, where would that girl fall on a diagnostic psychometric measurement test on the DSM-IV? She is always noticing the negative. Maybe she needs a trip to the nearest St. Anthony soup kitchen or better yet a stint as a relief aid worker in Africa.  Ronan found himself perplexed by another rant from Kaja. They weren’t in class but she was outside the medical building speaking with one of the graduate student researchers. From what Ronan could hear Kaja wanted to design a statistical study one way while the actual researcher preferred another method. Kaja’s voice alone indicated intensity. It even seemed like she got tenser when she noticed walking by.

If she had been the approachable friendly type he might have added her as a facebook friend during that first month in class. Had he been a PhD candidate in clinical psychology he may have even diagnosed her as possibly anti-social but she had a fair number of friends. Some fellow classmates even described her as fun to hang out with. Rumors swirled on campus that as soon as you turned 21 to drive up to the bar she worked at and order a house Mojito. Kaja apparently was quite the mixologist in West Hollywood. So good that she was only 18 and able to serve alcoholic drinks legally. The owners and patrons found some loophole in L.A. County that gave her a permit. Kaja being such a control freak didn’t drink anyway. The idea of losing control scared her. Bartenders need good people skills to stay employed. Kaja was supposedly a favorite at Bleue Spinnakers. How come she was a stiff as a tree to him? Ronan didn’t like being judged unfairly. He wasn’t used to not being popular.

Ronan shook his head as he walked towards the business school. Intelligence and being good with figures didn’t make you CFO material. Playing politics did. Kaja was  pretty gifted at math. That was obvious. The odds in her favor were in decline despite that. Promotion grids measure not just test scores. They measured the ability to lead. Kaja’s loose cannon personality decreased the probability she would get past a manager role. If she were pleasant like his girlfriend Kendra she had the makings of a well paid financial analyst. He was certain she would get a CFA designation without much struggle. Kaja had potential but she reminded Ronan of one of the kids he coached at the Boys and Girls Club the summer after grade ten. The kid was named Jakob and his own worst enemy. Combative and opinionated Jakob was good on paper but lousy in person. He ended up a mechanic instead of an engineer. Ronan felt Kaja was heading in the same direction. A pity she didn’t learn some tips from someone like his Kendra. If so, she’d be primed for a position at a place like the Boston Consulting Group. Being a revolutionary wasn’t the road to a better life. Ronan wondered if perhaps Kaja would ever grow out of it. He gravitated to people with potential or at least wanted to help them reach it.

“The next time you talk to someone make sure you smile Kaja. You may just close a deal that way,” Ronan muttered under his breath.


Kaja’s Journal entry number 77: I thought Captain America would be my hero!!

(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

Journal Entry number 77:

Just got my mid-term exams. Not only was I on the right side of the bell curve but two standard deviations above the mean! I got an A+ and Professor O’Hare has selected me as one of the 8 candidates for a TA next year! If I get it I’ll get a tuition discount, free academic credit, and an increased probability of getting into Teach for America after graduation!  That’s my positive number for the day. Now my negative number. I met Captain America. Yes, the Captain America I envisioned in the intuition workshop in Manhattan a year ago. And he turned out to be an anti-hero for me. Mr. Malibu ROTC is handsome like I envisioned but he looks at me as a pretender who doesn’t quite belong at the same school as him.

Last year when Zhara and I went to New York this is what I wrote. I guess logic should have been in charge instead of my intuition:

It was one of those events held at Barnes and Noble or one of those booksellers in mid-town. During the weekend event there was one meditation and writing exercise on the very age old oracle question: who will be my true love? The leader told us after our meditation to write whatever came to mind and be as detailed as possible in order to verify accuracy.

Here is what I wrote: High intelligence, good at finance, tall and lean but stocky, wavy brown hair and eyes, a foreigner to me, someone who came from a very different background, and has travelled. Originally from somewhere in the American southwest. He was in Los Angeles currently and I picked up the name Roland or something like that. I also picked up that he was in a uniform, was kind of James Bond like, and possibly in service to the flag. I would meet him in some kind of debate conference and we would be within 5 years age difference. He would be good at architecture, superstructures, and had a lot of diversity in his business life such as media, publishing, finance, etc. A versatile guy and one very bright with words himself. Someone who was into doing a lot of things behind the scene with the intention of good works. A philanthrophic type who didn’t need to broadcast his activities. Kind of like good works without glory kind of deal. Then the workshop leader said to give a name to this person after the 15 minute freestyle writing exchange. Although I had already picked up the name Roland I got an image in my eye of Captain America, the Marvel Comics character. This was utterly strange since I was planning to stay in the Bay Area for college with no intention of checking out Los Angeles.  Nonetheless, that is what I came up with. My girlfriend’s cousin had a love wish she called Greek Knight so I was inspired by her to keep the name of my wish as Captain America. I also saw him riding a motorcycle like me.

Now, as for my favorite St. Anthony … my dear friend Marie mentioned how she prayed to him about her own wishes and dreams. So, since the Catholic “wonder worker” saint had granted my wish to come to California I decided to “test it out”. I prayed on his feast day last year to help me and Marie out on the dating scene. I also, jokingly asked if this wonderful match could look like Hugh Jackman. This was impossible because only Hugh Jackman can look like himself. Nonetheless, I put it out there as I donated to to St. Anthony’s Bread.

I forgot about it again.

Until today after statistics class. There he was. Captain America himself. His name was Ronan. He was born and raised in Malibu but spends lots of time in L.A. He is in the ROTC. He is at the top of our class. He’s handsome. And he thinks I’m a wannabe mathematician.  I got so nervous when I saw this son of the establishment that I felt totally tense. My palms were sweating. I even got a tummy ache. This never happened in middle school or high school. I don’t think I can be around him too much or I’ll fall three standard deivations below the mean into the negative range. Love at first sight this is not. Tension over a bad crush is. I’m not going to let on that I had this reaction. I want to be O’Hare’s TA. Malibu Ronan doesn’t need any more breaks in life. Ronan rides a motocycle. His smile is even better than Hugh Jackman’s. What were the odds of meeting him? Maybe 20 percent but there he is. And he looks at me like the female version of Red Skull.

Unknown number

(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

Ronan only noticed Kaja when professor O’Hare announced her name after the mid-term exams in their first year statistic class. O’Hare had finished grading the test and after handing them out in class announced which of his statistics students were being considered for a TA. Kaja’s name was called along with his and five other undergraduates to stay behind after class. He found himself sitting beside her as O’Hare pitched the possibility to the candidates. Ronan instantly noticed the defensive posture, the anxiety underneath a stoic face, a palpable intensity to get through school. When O’Hare had the students introduce themselves it was Kaja’s self-description that had Ronan feel tense for good around her. Kaja didn’t look intimidating. She had the friendly Rachel Green haircut that Jennifer Aniston was sporting on Friends. Her dress style was actually very laid back and sporty. When she said she had been born and raised in Berkeley Ronan was quite surprised. He would have guessed Long Beach.

“My name is Kaja. I am a math and psychology major. I was born in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia and raised in Berkeley. My family and I came to the United States when the war broke out. After college I plan to go back to the Bay Area and do a two year service with the Oakland Teaching Fellows or Teach for America. I’m also considering teaching English abroad in Japan. I live off campus with my cousin in Buena Park and work as a bartender at Bleue Spinnakers Dive Lounge in West Hollywood outside of school.”

Ronan thought she wasn’t so much an idealist but single minded in her pursuit of what she wanted. Her words were well thought out but it was something underneath it. Like a girl who had decided life was harsh and short so she had to be in a hurry for something she couldn’t identify. Kaja was not the kind of person he was used to meeting. His crowd never had someone like her as a token representative of some particular demographic group. Ronan could have liked her as a person if her gestures hadn’t radically changed when he did his own introduction.

“I’m Ronan Larson. I’m in the ROTC program and studying for a degree in international finance. I was born and raised in Malibu. My mother is an interior designer and my dad is a real estate developer. After college I am going to active duty for a couple of years and plan to get am MBA afterwards. I live off campus in Orange County with my girlfriend.”

It was then that Kaja seemed to tense about and it was him and no one else in the room. That set the tone of every interaction between them from college to now. They were peripheral to one another but he wasn’t used to being made wrong. She wasn’t offended so much as she was keeping her distance out of some kind of mistrust. Ronan had no idea what made her so guarded around him. He would have asked for her number as well since he liked networking with classmates. But her body language said to stay away.

I’ve got your number

(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

Kaja first pegged Ronan as a man looking to make himself a legend after seeing the 1995 film Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer. Kaja noticed him at the theater with his girlfriend, the then reigning Miss Orange County, sitting in a corner. She was sure she heard him say that the Louanne Johnson character could be him someday. How cliché she thought. Her intention since high school was to enter education because her ultimate purpose in life was to study learning and cognition. Ronan just wanted to be famous.

The second they had met in the first day of statistics class Kaja felt her had Ronan’s number pegged. He was the epitome of Southern California privilege. Perhaps a trust fund victim who nursed some latent guilt over his good fortune. Kaja didn’t resent him for this relaxed life. An ancestor did well for his descendant and in Kaja’s logic, Ronan just happened to be one of them. No it was really simple why Kaja wasn’t so keen on Ronan. He thought he knew her by just one look. Ronan judged her the way country club boys say they don’t judge when subtly they are a harsher critic than a nasty gossip columnist. It was the posture, expressions, mannerism that established hierarchy and rank. Like a pack of wolves and the pecking order Ronan was the kind who said to stay away. No matter what Kaja did it was people like Ronan who were ready to shoot them down.

Kaja had learned as a child in Sarajevo that it took too much energy to be something else. Her younger sister Zhara used to say that being the genuine article was not an option when life was short. When the former Yugoslavia plunged into civil war that lesson was all too real. Kaja and her extended family were able to plot their escape just before the war broke out. Despite their efforts the family found themselves in a UNHCR camp in Italy for weeks while they waited for official permission to go to America. It was during this time that the six year old Kaja learned English from a UN volunteer. She also learned that in a matter of seconds and entire life and its treasures could be gone. Ronan and his sense of public service were admirable but he had never tasted the emptiness of nihilism. The kind of nihilism that dispossession brings. How could he ever reach students who represented the harsher side of America?

Calculating a Solution

(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

Kaja turned to Ronan to get a read on his expression. He looked as optimistic as usual like a male model smiling in a Brooks Brothers ad. She hoped she appeared stoic to him. If he ever sensed how much she detested his interference it gave him a probable advantage.

“How exactly is this going to work?” Kaja’s eyes darting back and forth between Morrison, Ronan, and Ward.

“You still run the department Kaja. I will implementing the new classroom lessons modeled after pilot projects in Minnesota designed to prepare their students for the state proficiency exams.”

“And how did Minnesota do? I suppose in a homogenous population they all improved about the same?”

“The students’ scores went up 20 percent.” War interrupted.

“I take it they were all from intact all American families with two parents in a stable environment? If so, I guess even the upper middle class native English speaking teenagers perform badly on tests then?”

“You just deflated your own argument Kaja,” Ronan said in a terse voice.

“I suppose I have. You’re right Ronan. I guess I just did. What else do you have in mind from Minnesota then?”

Ronan knew Kaja wasn’t really buying into what he was saying. She just needed time to find her next angle. The fact was she didn’t have a choice. The school board had signed off on his implementation strategy and Kaja either went along or got suspended. It was only a six month project. Could she not acquiesce for just a semester or so?

“Minnesota also did a motivation project. The kids needed some kind of tangible reward to match the level of their ability to delay gratification. What parents and educators found was that if the students wanted a prize they would study for it.”

And who would pay for the car or prom dress they asked for?”

“It wasn’t gifts but social benefits like being able to leave school early. Or get on the cheerleading squad for a month without tryouts.”

“I doubt my single teen mothers or the boys working two jobs to help their parents pay for the mortgage would find that helpful.”

“We are going to customize it for this population. That’s where you come in Kaja. You know these kids.”

“How can I not Ronan. I was once one of them.”

“So you are on board then?”

“I have no choice not to but I want to hear more. I need to be prepared.”

“The students did the most poorly on the logic games on the math portion of the state exam. That’s really was caused the scores to plummet. Minnesota and Massachusetts both addressed this problem by introducing a mandatory logic class. It’s a separate course to encourage reasoning skills.”

“You’re going to ask the kids to stay an extra hour after school?”

“No. Principal Morrison and Superintendent Ward have agreed that the logic course can be used as an academic credit in lieu of a science elective. Most of the students wait till the very last semester of high school to take their physics requirement. The state has allowed the San Francisco school board the authority to waive it given the history of the population’s performance.”

“I see. Anything else.”

“I think that is it for now Kaja. This meeting was meant to be a short 30 minutes. You first class today is not until 11:00am. Ronan and you will meet from now until then to go over the details.” Clearly Principal Morrison wanted to wrap up this meeting before Kaja had a chance to debate Ronan’s solution with him as referee.

“Thank you for hearing Ronan out Kaja. We appreciate it given the situation. You are still chair of the math department. You just know have an active on site resource.” Ward wanted this meeting to end to. “Principal Morrison and I now have to leave for a meeting with some of the Trustees who wanted to hear how this meeting went. We need to leave for the financial district in five minutes.

Morrison and Ward stood up to shake Kaja and then Ronan’s hands. The handshakes were a tight grasp on her palms. It was as if both her superiors were telling to her to stay in her place.

“Shall we go to your classroom to go over the timelines Kaja?” asked Ronan. Sounding very certain he was now outranking her.

Kaja wondered how Ronan came up with his tactics. Was a cut and paste type proposal gathered from a collection of articles in a teacher’s professional journal? Or did he just watch the Freedom Writers movie with Hillary Swank and tweak the details to suit himself?

Challenge the Exam

(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

Ronan knew this argument. So rehearsed and adolescent just as Kaja’s choice of attire. Her bohemian printed skirt and dyed wool sweater rounded out by colorful sandals and black pearls was so Berkeley looking. Sometimes he wondered why she was a math teacher and not a textile instructor at the local fashion design college. Kaja treated him the he was the establishment personified so they never really talked. She just ranted at him.

“Kaja, we are here to teach not be psychologists. We don’t have the mandate, authority, or resources to be social workers,” Ronan replied.

“That is not what I am asking for Ronan. I am simply saying that we need to have access to those who are able to deal with the emotional issues impacting proper learning. These kids are all anxious most of the time. While the 16 year olds in Pacific Heights worry about what Mercedes they will get on their birthday my students are wondering about how to pay the mortgage. I’m sure you know about the hierarchy of needs,” she snapped.

“Ok we are not here to discuss the current state of class and status in America Kaja. Ronan is here to solve a problem not implement a new social policy. It’s simple. We want higher test scores on the next state exam,” interrupted Principal Morrison.

“Let me add to that,” said Ward. “The state has accepted our petition to be included in a cluster of test re-takers in six months. Ronan has provided an outline on how we are going to prepare the kids. It’s a change in classroom teaching techniques, an increase in the practice exams like the last time, and we’re adding ESL to the program. Ronan suspects the language barrier caused the students to fail the logic games portion of the state test. We agree with him”

“Will there be a linguist involved,” Kaja asked cynically. “Since my students speak another language at home and are prone to street slang perhaps some interpreters will be on site?”

Principal Morrison looked annoyed but used to dealing with Kaja’s natural feisty liners. This morning wasn’t the time to discipline his rogue instructor in front of the Superintendent. Morrison knew Ward liked Kaja’s style. Morrison suspected Ward was more on her side than his but would never admit to it. Kaja was a natural teacher and her credentials were excellent. She always had new ideas to make Padua an inviting environment for the kids. If anything she was the math version of the Glee character Mr. Schuester. Kaja ran the math club and put in time for a lab to help kids struggling with numbers. She brought in video games designed to help kids learn math equations while playing on a gameboy. Kaja wasn’t a quitter but she wasn’t much of a team player which often hurt her chances for promotion.

“Kaja. I love your passion and sense of humor but we’re moving forward. This was not a meeting but an initial overview with Ronan on how we are implementing his scorekeeping plan. From now on you’re reporting to him but staying the chair of the math department.”

Kaja knew this was happening. She just didn’t like being reminded that Ronan was now her unofficial supervisor. This was a similar event to what happened in college when he got to be O’Hare’s TA in sophomore year over her. So the Malibu silver spoon got the cushy job on campus while she bartended in Hollywood and tutored for TutorCorps. It wasn’t all that bad she thought. Ronan was fair when he graded her tests. How could he not be when the answer is either right or wrong when it comes to math. Sure the numbers don’t lie but from statistics class she knew they could be manipulated and skewed by qualitative outliers. The bell curve is either in favor of a student or not. Life came down to your number, when its called, and when its up.

The Score

(Excerpt from Keeping Score, the precursor story to Capturing Captain America)

Kaja had noticed Ronan Larson from a distance as he hopped off his motorcycle. She knew he was coming to the meeting with Principal Morrison. The last time they met was about six months earlier at a Teach for America recruitment event at the Moscone Center. Ronan was giving talk about teaching English overseas through the Peace Corps while she came as an alumni representative for GEOS. The difference between her and Ronan was that she did spend a year in Tokyo teaching English as a Second Language to Japanese teenagers after completing a two year term with the Oakland Teaching Fellows. Ronan never actually participated in Teach for America. His uncle and mentor was on the advisory board and asked him to be on the panel because his ROTC background gave him credibility to talk about public service.

“Just another attempt at trying to be some Stand and Deliver movie plot main character for Ronan”, she muttered under her breath.

Kaja walked into Principal Morrison’s office and saw Ronan leaning against the wall staring right at her. He looked like another business casual preppy trying to be a cool laid back executive in designer jeans and brown leather jacket. Ronan’s hair had grown out from the crew cut he had at the Teach for America booth. If she didn’t know him Kaja wondered if he was there for a Macy’s photo shoot instead of a serious meeting with the district superintendent.

“Good Morning gentleman,” she said in her intentionally calm voice.

Hello Kaja, you remember Superintendent Ward from the last professional development day.”

“Yes,” she replied as she turned to shake Ward’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you again Mr. Ward.”

Ward was a Castro native who began his teaching career the same time Armistead Maupin’s first “Tales of the City” ran in syndicated short story form in the San Francisco Chronicle back in the 1970’s. He looked 35 but was actually closer to 50 and resembled a cross between Remington Steele and Connery’s version of James Bond. Ward was out and proud but his professional beginnings as a math teacher had him looking more like a conservative banker for the meeting.

“Thank you. Nice to see you again too Kaja. This is Ronan Larson the consultant I told you about who would be joining us,” replied Ward.

“Hello again Ronan.” Kaja extended her hand to shake his as well. It felt more like the boxer glove bunt that happened before a match than a handshake.

“Hi Kaja,” he said looking annoyed at having to say it.

She took her seat beside him as Morrison began to discuss the plan.

“The results are abysmal Kaja. Padua scored in the 10th percentile. Before you argue let me finish. I know what you and your team did to prepare these kids as best you could before the proficiency exam. I counted the number of hours and exercises you implemented. On the surface you covered all the bases but as Ronan put it in his report the numbers don’t lie. We need to try something else or we’ll be on probation by the school board.”

“Principal Morrison. I respect the results and am not questioning their accuracy or authenticity. What I am saying is that we are missing a vital element in improving score performance. While we are teaching these kids the material we’re ignoring the emotional component that’s in the way of their cognition.”

“We fed them so they would be able to concentrate.”

“I know and I’m thankful you supported me on that. We need more than lunches. We need to bring back a counseling program here. Partner with an agency that already works with the school board. Standards aren’t fair when we’re dealing with unequal social variables.”

“I hear you Kaja but it’s a matter of giving these kids the skills to perform under pressure. The exercises you gave them only covered the traditional methods of test taking. What they need is to be taught material in a different way in their regular classes to round out their preparation for a state proficiency exam,” Ronan interjected.

Kaja didn’t like Ronan’s tone. Sure the teaching style in the classroom needed to be revamped. The problem was the students didn’t see the point of trying. They saw no point to finishing high school other than getting it over with. Most of them were just trying to survive the streets, help their parents at home, and buy a car so they could do whatever they wanted once their 18th birthday came around. None of them cared about their scores. The only scores that mattered were those on a credit bureau report once they were ready to buy a car. School was just something the government made them do. Some of the students were already teenage parents who were looking to get a trade and work for the rest of their lives as soon as graduation was done. Math was only relevant to count how many hours they needed to work at Pizza Hut to save up for a down payment on that used car. Ronan would never understand that having a purpose was not the problem. Her students had one purpose. To get out of high school and work so they had the money to do whatever they wanted. Unlike Ronan, none of them saw the point of going to college and getting a profession. Instant gratification ran the motivations of Padua’s student population. Unlike Ronan, none of these kids were born into a set of circumstances that naturally gave them confidence. Unlike Ronan, most of her students felt unwelcome in the world.