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Authors: Mark Richard Zubro

The Principal Cause of Death

BOOK: The Principal Cause of Death
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For Michael and learning
the meaning of friendship
For their invaluable assistance I wish to thank Mike Kushner, Peg Panzer, Rick Paul, and Kathy Pakieser-Reed.
Outside my classroom windows, red and gold autumn leaves danced and swayed against the backdrop of magically clear blue skies. Even the aged panes, unwashed by countless janitors, couldn't keep out the glory of the afternoon. Water seeped around the warped and sagging sashes whenever it rained. After each blast of a storm, I expected to find glass strewn across the floor, but over the years they'd held. The day outside sparkled through them.
Fifth period, lunch just over, the quiet murmurs of education drifted through the hallways of Grover Cleveland High School. I leaned over Dennis Olsen's desk, for the fifteenth attempt since school began to convince him that capital letters did indeed come at the beginning of every sentence. I dipped deep into my reservoir of teacher patience and began to explain again.
This was Life Skills English class, which means, Make sure they can sign their name and count their change but don't expect much more. I had higher expectations. I wanted them to be able to read and fill out forms, balance a checkbook, and perhaps acquire another skill or two. I knew I couldn't turn them into nuclear scientists, but I wanted more than bare literacy.
Dan Bluefield banged open the classroom door, pushed his way down the aisle toward me, and thrust his pass in my direction. “Here, Mr. Mason,” he said.
An inch before my fingers touched it, he let the piece of paper drop to the floor. He turned on his heel, shoved a kid out of a desk, and sat down.
Grover Cleveland High School has had problem kids over the years, and eventually I got most of them in this class.
Dan Bluefield was the toughest kid I'd tried to teach since Dennis Rogers fourteen years ago. Among Dennis's many achievements at Grover Cleveland: biting off the tip of a kid's finger; attempting to set fire to the gym; and attacking and wounding three teachers. Dennis earned straight F's in my class, managing to be disruptive, abusive, and rude. He'd made my days a living hell. I sighed with relief every time I saw his name on the absence list. I cheered for joy whenever they announced an assembly during the period I was supposed to have him in class. Last I heard, he was serving eight to ten years for armed robbery somewhere in Texas.
Dan Bluefield made Dennis look like an angelic first-grader. Parents, teachers, police, and a variety of state agencies had been trying to cope with him for years.
To his dubious credit, Steve Bailey, the kid who Dan shoved out of the chair, tried to punch back. Dan was six feet tall, thin, and wiry. Steve only came up to his shoulder. Without standing up, Dan gave Steve a powerful shove. Steve tumbled over several desks and fell to his knees. I got between them and restrained an enraged Steve.
“Dean's office,” I said to Dan.
“Just came from there,” he sneered.
At that moment I hated him more than anything in the universe. Hassling me was one thing; hurting other kids in my class was not going to happen as long as I was able to stop it. If I had wizard's powers, I'd have fried Dan on the spot. I wanted to take his sneers, smirks, and stupidity and beat the living shit out of him, but eighteen years of patience and training won out, and I said, “Dan, you have to go to the dean's office. You know you can't assault students.”
He smirked, “I didn't assault him. He was in the way. I just asked him to move.”
The other kids in the class watched the confrontation. For them this was great entertainment. No matter what happened, I knew they'd be on Dan's side. Didn't make any difference who was right or how many times Dan had made them miserable. One of the verities of the teaching world is that the students will take the kid's side versus the teacher. You cannot win a confrontation with kids. You can flatter your ego that you got the best of them, but you can't beat them.
The snotty little creep still sat in the desk he'd evicted Steve from. With both hands I grabbed the top of the desk. My knuckles turned white and I felt the desktop wobble. The desks were forty years old and years of seating teenagers made them treacherous at times. Last year one had collapsed under the minuscule weight of a scrawny freshman.
With my face an inch from his, I said, “Get out. Now. I, for one, am sick to death of putting up with you.”
He laughed at me. He knew I wouldn't hit him. All the rules forbade hitting students, and ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, I agreed with those rules.
I put more pressure on the old wooden desktop. It gave a groan and snapped in two. Dan jumped up and eyed me warily, edging toward the door. Grasping a piece of desk top in each hand, I advanced toward him. Dan snarled and spat, sent another kid and desk sprawling, and stormed toward the exit. His parting shot just before he slammed the door was “Fuck you, faggot.”
I strode to the intercom and called the office to let them know they had to be on the lookout for Dan.
Very little education got done for the fifteen minutes left in the period. I'd surprised myself with the towering anger I'd felt and how much I'd wanted to hurt the kid.
Class ended, the kids left, and I sat at my desk, staring out the window. I watched the breeze play with the undropped leaves as dappled sunlight created shifting patterns
on desktops, chalkboard, and floor. In two weeks Scott and I would be among the glorious fall colors in the woods in our cabin on Lake Superior. I gazed at a group of kids, dressed for PE class, trotting under the trees on their way to the athletic fields beyond.
The perfect weather couldn't prevent me from getting angrier and more frustrated. Fifteen minutes of planning-period time passed before I gave up trying to get any work done. I walked down the ancient and worn halls to the library. Small knots of students worked silently at the tables. I found Meg Swarthmore, the librarian, at the front desk.
“What's wrong, Tom?” she said as soon as she saw me.
I motioned her into the office behind the desk. We could talk in privacy, but she could still keep an eye on her charges through the glass in the door.
At sixty-six Meg is semiretired, working flexible hours, setting her own schedule. She used to be the ultimate clearinghouse for all school gossip, but she's given that up as well. “Too many hassles with the younger teachers” is the way she put it to me. She's a tiny woman, not much over five feet tall, and plump in a grandmotherly way.
I told her what just happened, including how badly I wanted to hurt Bluefield.
“You're human,” she said. “You've done wonders with some of these kids in the past. You will in the future. Why should you be immune from wanting to flatten the little creep into tiny pieces? Every teacher he's had since the first grade has wanted to do the same.” She told me about an episode when Dan was in the fifth grade. Meg'd been working for a few days in the elementary-school library, filling in for a sick coworker.
“Bluefield tried to glue a stack of books together. I told him to stop. He wouldn't. When I reached to take the books away from him, he tried to slap me. I was too quick for him. I held his arm, and when he couldn't get away, he tried to throw a fit. You know how sympathetic I am to that kind of nonsense.”
Meg was tough. I'd seen her cow the 250-pound starting center on the football team. She never touched the kid, but she backed him up against his locker and let him have it, all in a calm near-whisper. The boy was in tears before she let him go.
She sighed. “Must have been seven years ago that I had my run-in with him. I almost got in trouble for restraining the little monster.”
“You never told me,” I said.
She mused a minute. “I thought I did. It was the usual nonsense. The father got all bent out of shape. Claimed I was picking on his creepy offspring. He tried to accuse me of inflicting corporal punishment.”
In the State of Illinois teachers have the right to use corporal punishment on children. Different school districts have varying policies on using the right. In some places only the principal can administer corporal punishment. In the River's Edge school system, however, it is strictly forbidden for anyone to hit a kid.
Meg said, “You remember the administrator we had at the time? What's his name—Wellington? Napoleon? Whatever. He had this big investigation. Several fifth-graders claimed I attacked Bluefield. The principal called parents trying to get them to twist more information out of the students. It was almost as if he were trying to build up a case against me. He even had several meetings with the parents of the students. Totally nuts. The only thing that saved me was that a couple of the kids who gave the strongest testimony about my alleged attack hadn't even been in the library at the time. One had even been absent from school that day. I only found that out because one of the parents thought the whole investigation was silly nonsense and called to tell me. I found out from her that her kid hadn't been in school that day. It blew over after a week or so, although they still put a nasty letter about the incident in my file, as if I really cared about that.”
A few administrators use the teachers' personnel files to get revenge. They can lie on evaluation forms or write
letters that are totally false, and put them into a teacher's file. Essentially a teacher can't do a thing about it. The teacher can write a rebuttal and have it attached to the record, but any stranger reading the file is at least going to have some question about what happened. The most difficult, but probably the best, attitude for most teachers to take is that this is an administrator's petty way of exacting childish revenge and to forget about it. The truth is no one outside the school district can see what's in your file, anyway.
We talked until the bell rang for last hour. Still a little annoyed, I went through the motions of a Seniors Honors English class. Eventually the machinations of Richard II, and explaining them to high-school kids, began to absorb my attention. For the moment I forgot about Bluefield.
At the end of class Georgette Constantine, the school secretary, showed up at my door with a note telling me to meet with Robert Jones, the principal, at four-thirty about the incident with Dan Bluefield.
I had tickets for that night to see Scott pitch in the last game of the season. I didn't want to be late. I asked Georgette if I could see Jones any earlier. She said he had meetings until then.
I sat down to grade papers while I waited. Kurt Campbell, our union president and one of my best friends on the staff, stopped by as he was leaving. I told him about the incident with Bluefield. He told me I didn't have anything to worry about in terms of the contract or the legality of what happened and not to worry about it.
Around four I strolled down to the teachers' lounge to get a can of soda and relax for a few minutes.
Outside the science lab I heard the tinkling of broken glass. I glanced up and down the deserted corridor. Lockers with paint chipping from years of use, lights in the ceiling with fixtures worn and cracked, and a tile floor gray from thousands of trampling kids and scrubbing custodians. All this, but nary a human. Sunshine streamed from a few of the windows in the doors of rooms that faced west.
The tinkling came again. I walked to the door of the science lab. Since the lab was on the east side of the building, little light filtered into the room. As I reached for the doorknob, I heard a resounding crash from inside. I hesitated: Should I go for help or barge in?
Suddenly I had no decision to make. The door to the room crashed open. Dan Bluefield stood in front of me. He squawked and backed into the room. I followed. The front of the room was totally intact. But glass-fronted floor-to-ceiling cabinets stretched the entire length of the rear wall of the room, and shards of glass from one of the doors covered three feet of floor in front of it. Upended microscopes and shattered beakers obscured the top of the nearest table.
Then I noticed her, cowering in a corner. A woman in her early twenties, with blood dripping from her nose and a cut on her lip. I recognized her as one of the student teachers from Lincoln University.
“He hit me!” she wailed.
I moved to go to her. When Bluefield tried to block my way, he took his eyes off her, and she darted toward the door and fled down the hall. I hoped she would send help; because I'd moved to help the woman, Bluefield was between me and the door.
“Why, Dan?” I asked.
A switchblade appeared in his hand.
I backed away from him, my eyes frantically searching for the intercom button. I'd been in the Marines in Vietnam, but I wasn't eager to risk nearly twenty-year-old skills against his youth—and a weapon. I might have tried shoving him aside and dashing down the hall for help, but the expert way he held his knife, and his aggressive stance, made it doubtful that such a strategy would succeed.
In the dim light his gray eyes appeared almost translucent. “You want to talk about this, Dan?” I asked.
His response was to begin edging steadily toward me. I spotted the intercom switch in the wall near the exit, under the American flag.
He saw my eyes flicker toward it. He gave a short laugh. “No help coming for you, faggot teacher. I'm going to hurt you a little bit.”
BOOK: The Principal Cause of Death
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