October found me eager and excited, brimming with confidence and creativity for my work . . . at least during weekends. However, Monday mornings broke with the din of a funeral march, disturbing those few early morning dreams and ushering me upstairs upon the family couch while reruns of Law and Order painted visions of murder and desperation before sleep-filled eyes. Waiting to leave the house proved the most trying, as my imagination, planting visions of screaming children and growling soccer moms, tried its damnedest to wrack my body with anxiety, upset my stomach and basically ruin the whole of my week.
Thankfully, I had Dunkin Donuts and their wonderful battalion of iced coffees to attack my flagging spirit and sleep deprivation. Truly, the smell alone had a soothing effect; the extra-large galleon-sized container of liquid energy, a balm to my worries. My imagination, drowning in legal stimulants, learned to behave, and I drove to school, happily contemplating Thanksgiving and Christmas break, only three months away.
The fallout from the field trip befell us the following Monday when Dr. T took us in the conference room for lunch. Slowly Ms. P spilled the story, downplaying our absence at the deli (a little) and deleting the abusive pot-smoker entirely (to be fair, the kids were not involved at all).
“. . . and the true shame of it all is that the trip was going so well up until that moment. The man was somewhat of a jerk.”
“The kids had a lot of fun,” Catherine agreed. The adults however, felt hot, tired and slightly insane by dusk of the second day.
“Well, we’re going to have to rethink all future field trips,” Dr. T nodded. With the exception of the 8th grade retreat, this would prove the last of the year. Individual class trips, the school-wide visit to the Smithsonian were cancelled and never broached again. The school’s mounting financial troubles discouraged any excess expenditure, but I wonder if this incident marred any future possibilities. In fact, even the 8th grade retreat, a Unity tradition was cut short from a week camp-out to a single over-night in stink bug-infested cabins – I’ll reveal the details of that particular debacle later.
Nonetheless, at the moment Dr. T smiled and reassured us that everything would be fine. None of the parents seemed particularly upset or worried, and none of the kids appeared noticeably shaken.
“. . . and how are you doing, Murph?” she asked as we strode out. “I just want to tell you what a fantastic job you’re doing. Really. Thank you.”
“Oh, um . . . thanks,” I muttered. “No . . . prob.”
She stared at me seriously frowning somewhat as if panicked that I might stride out the door, into my Explorer, and never return, turning ex-patriot in Canada. Then just as suddenly, the smile returned, she nodded with the enthusiasm of a man on a pogo stick, and we returned to our classes.
That was her way: uncertain with just a pinch of creepy. If any of the parents had voiced a concern, I doubt our jobs would survive the night. That too was her way. Dr. T wore a cloak of careless enthusiasm, bearing optimism’s shield with the mutability of a used car salesman, readily giving parents, donors, and children whatever they demanded for the sake of the school. No prayer in school? Fine. Pledge of Allegiance got you down? Burn it. No dyslexia? We’ll make it work. Severe emotional trauma? Well, if you’re willing to pay the tuition . . .
“She’s crazy,” Jess whispered to me one afternoon as I swept construction paper the size of confetti off the floor.
“What happened?” I smiled. Of all the teachers on staff, Jess seemed just about as lost as me, struggling day by day to survive. To relax, she recently took up dancing. I took up playing MMORPGs and drinking two or three bottles of cheap pinot noir.
“You know how crazy the fourth grade is,” she began, absently flexing her feet. “I barely teach. Seriously, it’s an hour long mosh pit. I spend most of the time wiping tears and threatening various punishments, which I can’t even inflict . . .”
The school’s policy toward punishment was rather new age, forbidding detentions or suspensions. Students that misbehaved were at most sent to the office for a ‘time-out’ or met with Dr. T for a ‘peace table,’ where students discussed their feelings with one another or their teachers. This worked well with the younger kids, but over time the older students learned to spout the necessary feel-good jargon to appease all involved. In the end nothing changes but everyone feels really good about it.
“. . . which only provokes more tears.”
“Exactly,” she sighed. “So I went and spoke to Dr. T and she suggested using Post-it’s on the desks of the kids. Like three-strikes. Once all the Post-it’s were removed, they would not be allowed to go outside or participate in a fun activity. Something like that.”
“Okay . . .”
“So that was last week. The moment I started removing Post-it’s the kids went crazy. Seriously, it was like I killed Santa Claus. Phone calls came from the parents. Little Billy’s been calling me a monster, Sgt. Slaughter, or some other nonsense . . . stop laughing!”
“Sorry,” I cough. Jess, a former social worker, embodied one of the sweetest, most-patient teachers on staff, the kind who herds flies and wasps outside instead of batting them with a rolled copy of Vogue. Sgt. Slaughter (the wrestler, I assume, not the G.I. Joe character) staged gymnastic stunts for the amusement of adolescent boys; Jess, a teacher, faced down a room of screaming, sneering, biting adolescents without screaming, sneering, or biting back. Jess’s far tougher than Slaughter.
“So what’d Dr. T do?”
“We had a round table today with the whole fourth grade. All the kids sat around the table and professed their unequivocal hatred for the Post-it system. One by one, they yelled at me while she looked on. Then when they finished, she looked at the kids and told them that I was to blame. That I wouldn’t use the Post-it’s anymore! It was HER idea! God . . . I felt like crying!”
As the weeks of October grew colder and Unity’s maples ripened into shades of orange and apple, more whispered rumors of the school’s principal floated my way. Being a rather reserved and quiet man by nature, I had accrued some confidence with the rest of the staff, swapping stories between classes, after school, and pretty much anytime Dr. T spent the day off-campus — which amounted to most weekdays. The other teachers discussed mismanagement and discipline problem while I listened, occasionally grumbling about the difficulties of scheduling research papers or the absence of Microsoft Word on the school’s laptops.
It seemed Jess’s troubles were not isolated cases. Several years ago, the middle school asked to hold a large ‘peace table’ which Dr. T supported, coercing each student, nearly twenty to thirty children, to publicly complain or ‘speak their minds’ about one soon-to-be-ex-science teacher. The young teacher – humiliated and ashamed by this verbal stoning – quit a month later, unable to control or teach children that no longer held any respect for her.
The teachers spoke carefully on the school grounds, conspiring behind closed doors and offices. According to Jane and several others, Dr. T had positioned spies among the staff, teachers or tutors who would report back to her. If the principal suspected dissent, you might find yourself replaced.
“A meeting after school. A call in the middle of the night. That’s all it takes,” Jane admitted, after I had laughed at the suggestion of ‘spies’ and even ‘microphones’ hidden in the classrooms! “I’ve known teachers . . . good teachers that crossed her too many times and then one Monday . . . they’re gone. Family emergency is usually the excuse we give the kids, though they know better. They’re smarter than that. We all are . . .”
Now I do not wish to suggest any bias. Or that I am relying upon exaggeration to inflate an otherwise dull tale — ’cause let’s face it if ‘truth’ and ‘accurate reporting’ is your thing, then you’ve come to the wrong place. Rumors are a rather untrustworthy form of proof. Indoctrinated at a young age by the contradicting moralities of “Doubting Thomas” (faith is good . . . ) and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (. . . unless common sense says otherwise), I resolved to trust no one until personal experience tilted the scales in either direction.
Yet . . . over the past eighteen or so years, Dr. T seems to have procured few friends among the staff, for while not all spoke against her (her spies?), none spoke in her favor (everyone else). And that in itself was important. Jane was not the first (nor the last) to suggest spies and bugging devices. Even those who dismissed the reality of the suggestion never dismissed the possibility. Around the school’s principal, only a few felt truly safe.
As for me, I fared rather well in this regime. Somehow I had managed in the past month to become a pretty decent teacher, earning some respect among the parents and students. Thus amidst all the rumors and conspiring whispers, the principal left well enough alone, allowing me to deal with the challenges of the classroom in my own way. It also helped that the prospect of losing my job did not concern me. Unlike others with families and mortgages, two SUVs and one-point-two kids, I never needed the pay-check, the morning stress, or the aggravation involved in planning lessons and grading tests. Planting a permanent fascination with science and history in the mind’s of my students seemed more important anyway. As such Dr. T wielded little fear in my mind.
And although her overly sweet, pseudo-condescending sycophancy challenged my patience at times during meetings and conferences — a marathon of Barney the Purple Dinosaur could not compete with the stupidity of those Friday staff meetings — if her methods helped the children learn to read and write, then who cared? Besides, I hated micromanagement — unlike imagination, your boss doesn’t improve with large doses of caffeine (not without severe health concerns, at least).
Ergo, it wasn’t until the first parent-teacher conference that I began to question her benefit to the school.
Imagine if you will, a table ringed by six or seven teachers, each praising the achievements of a single child, whose parents sat delighted at the far end, occasionally asking questions and voicing concerns. At the end of the meeting, the school principal interjects:
“These are the meetings I love, we all love. I just want to tell you what a joy, Jimmy has been in this school. Such a perfect gentleman. He is such a special child and we love him sooo much.”
What the principal fails to explain is that she has not visited the school in the last month, probably could not recognize Jimmy without her manila folder, and closed with the same speech to three other parents prior.
“Also . . .” Finally we come to the real business at hand.
“. . . have you decided what you’re doing with Jimmy next year?”
“Well, he’s doing so well. And there’s a chance his father might be transferred during the next month, so . . . I can’t say just yet.”
“Oh . . .” And the veneer breaks some. Not in the smile, never in the smile. Her face could be carved from porcelain. No, the break comes in the eyes, growing sharper, more agitated, hungry, and finally shriveling like some ripe fruit on a hot day. Just for a moment, and then
“We like to keep the children until they’re absolutely confident and prepared to enter a public . . . or rather ‘lecture-based’ learning environment. Diane, what level is Jimmy . . .”
His tutor replied that they’d been working daily on more challenging vocabulary, and that his confidence has soared over the past few years.
“Still . . .” Dr. T mused. “Another year may do him some good. He’s such a wonderful child. We’d hate to lose him so soon.”
The parent assured us that her husband is not entirely enthusiastic about the move, but that he might not have much choice.
“The economy is bad enough,” the mother sighed. “He has to go where the company tells him”
Everyone nodded. Mr. Murphy, the gym teacher, politely asked where they might be traveling. More small talk followed. The parent looked at the clock and announced that she had stayed too long. Dr. T thanked her, standing to shake her hand.
“And I know in these hard times, rumors emerge. I just want to remind you that we’re here to stay. Even if there’s only two children next year, we’ll still open our doors. So thank you. Thank you. ”
This too was repeated to all the our visitors throughout the day. After the third meeting, her voice echoed with desperation, almost pleading the parents to stick out another year. Now, I’m no business major and probably could not differentiate Keynsian economics from monetarism, or Fed from the FBI; however, announcing to your clientele to ignore the potentially vocal rumors with regards to your business’ impending failure seems somewhat . . . bad.
Just a theory . . .