A Date With Dr. Jacque
FREIGHTERS 1,000 yards long rode high in the water as they pushed north toward the Lake Superior ore pits. Those heading south, laden with ore, rode low in the water like long rafts carried by the six-knot current. Across the river, power-plant chimneys and grain silos rose against the flat, evening Ontario sky, totems of an earlier industrial era. Powerboats scudded upriver, downriver, their running lights not yet on.I recognized the arch of her eyebrow as she moved past the restaurant window. I hurried to greet her. She was smartly dressed, as if for the captain's table on a summer cruise. It is an American impulse to first-name everyone we meet, to pull them, like it or not, into the hot tub of familiarity. But we need some people more in special relationships - as teachers, lawyers, advisers - than as friends. So it would always be "Dr. Jacque," as it was the other evening at dinner overlooking the Detroit River. Today she is a retired former deputy superintendent of Detroit's public schools, busy with bridge, golf, and trekking about the world with friends; and I am a writer and editor. But the margin of protocol had been set years earlier when she was the young standout math teacher at an east side high school, and I was a student who talked well and liked to tease. She was the student council advisor, and I would get out of my third-hour English class on any number of excuses to discuss matters like Cardinal Newman's book "The Idea of a University." I'd seen her only twice since the long-ago commencement, once when she had become a district superintendent, and later after she had been named the second-ranking member of the city's school operation. "If she were black, she would be the superintendent of schools, not me," her boss, Arthur Jefferson, told me on the latter occasion. This wasn't just schmooze. Intelligent, articulate, unflappable, elegant in her ability to lend an opponent no edge, she helped restructure the city school system to survive wrenching economic and social change. Threads to pick up: Did she resent missing the top job because she was white in a period of black political power? Had her advance been curbed because she was a woman? No, she had had more advancement than she had sought. She started out in a time when women teachers who married were expected to resign from teaching. (Read that sentence again.) She always felt she was as qualified as any male colleague. She was never going to allow herself to be intimidated. (She had been a debater, too.) She loved classroom teaching and declined to fill out papers that might have sped her up the ladder sooner. But the time came to accept wider responsibilities - more grades, more scho ols, community relations, financial planning - until she found herself responsible for practically the whole thing. Retirement: Had it been hard to let go? No. One fall some friends called and asked her along on a cruise; she had to decline. She thought about the meetings, the papers on her desk, an eventual new administration; a seed was planted. She shortly told superintendent Jefferson she wanted to leave in January. He did not look up and would not hear her; a week later he visited her office, which he seldom did, and asked her to stay until June. That was how it went. She found retirement a grand new adventure. Will the system "make it?" Not in her lifetime. A school system needs a troika: a student with the capacity to learn, a supportive parent, and a teacher qualified to teach. A critical mass of those ingredients is not on the city's horizon at the moment. This is not something she could personally supply. How do you get your ideas for columns? she asked. A word or phrase comes to thought, I replied. It resurfaces over time ... like "a date with Dr. Jacque." It has an energy I've come to trust. That's the way it is with careers, she said. The right timing for decisions you will recognize. "That's the only one I've ever seen," the young parking attendant said of Dr. Jacque's car as it was driven up to the curb. He held open the door for her, closed it, and watched admiringly as she pulled away in a Cadillac sedan as yellow as the full moon now reflecting on the river.