by: Michail W. Mulvey
The rigors and fallout of a life spent in Education….
“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be theeducation of our heroes.” – Plato
Mr. Wallace left at exactly 2:40 pm as allowed by the contract between the teacher’s union and the board of education. Those with papers to correct, tests to grade, lesson plans to write, and email and phone messages to answer, would soon follow. The untenured would still be in their classrooms long after he left, hoping to impress the suits with their dedication, and, at the end of their four-year probation period, earn tenure – and the illusion of security.
Mr. Wallace, on the other hand, had nothing to prove. He’d been teaching for almost thirty years. His papers corrected, tests graded, lesson plans ready, and email and phone messages answered, he walked past the school office not caring if the principal, Mrs. Ewell, saw him leave, hoping it would annoy her, even.
He was confident in his abilities and respected by his colleagues. His students thought him tough but fair. Parents wanted their children assigned to his classes. His students’ mastery test scores were the highest in the school. His caring but no-nonsense approach to classroom management was copied by his team.
He should have been content, but as Mr. Wallace drove out of the faculty lot and down the street, the knot in his stomach made him reach for the Zantac in his shirt pocket, his second of the day.
When he arrived to the restaurant, he rested his head on the cool steering wheel for a moment. A passerby might have thought him sick or drunk or praying. But he was just tired. And soon he would be drunk. He rubbed his tired eyes, waited for the Zantac to kick in then stepped out of his car.
As he entered the restaurant, he noticed the new sign over the door. It read, La Scala. This restaurant was on its fifth owner in almost twenty years. He had watched as they came and went, almost as often as superintendents and principals in the school system he worked for. With each new owner, the menu and décor had changed, but, for the most part, the patrons, remained much the same.
He knew Francine would be tending the bar. Francine, an attractive woman in her early forties, always managed to put the smile back on his face after a long week in the classroom. She was a fixture, just like him. Well, almost. She was only on her fourth owner. On a slow afternoon she would sometimes do a shot of Stoli with him, especially after she’d proudly displayed her latest tattoo.
“Hey! How’s it goin’?” she asked.
“It’s gone. It’s Friday and payday, and I’m thirsty as heck,” he replied, laying his wallet on the bar.
“Stoli and tonic?”
He forced a smile and nodded in the affirmative, wondering if it was a good thing that Francine knew only too well his favorite poison. But he was a regular and she was a pro. It was her job to know such things.
“TGIF,” she said as she placed a coaster, then the drink before him. “Menu?”
“Not yet. I’m waiting for my teammates.”
Francine smiled, patted his hand, then walked back to the end of the bar and resumed cutting lemons, limes, and oranges for the after-work happy-hour crowd. As they did just about every Friday payday, his team would soon join him. And since it was a payday, there was a good chance most of the school’s faculty would follow.
The large, flat screen TV at the end of the bar was tuned to SportsCenter. As he watched the talking heads rattle on about another over-paid athlete caught committing some off-field felony, he toyed with the idea of calling in sick on Monday. He had accumulated somewhere around 160 sick days. It could have been more but he’d lost count.
It was only the third week of October, but he had already taken a couple of what the teachers called ‘mental health days.’
“Mental health days,” Mr. Wallace told his un-tenured teammates, “are sick days you take when you aren’t really sick but you need to just lie in bed all day or lounge on the couch in your sweats trying to work your way back from the edge of the ledge. Don’t ever call in and admit you’re taking a mental health day,” warned Mr. Wallace. “Just cough into the phone and say you’re not feeling well. Mental health days are those days when you’re afraid that if you go to school you’d be fired for telling a parent or an administrator, or both, that you’ve had enough and they could all go fuck themselves. And don’t ever feel guilty. Your health comes first, especially your mental health,” he told them. “Think of it this way, there are a billion people in China who won’t give a rat’s furry fart if you stay home that day.”
Mr. Wallace wasn’t quite on the edge of the ledge, but he wanted – he needed – to spend a day with his granddaughter, Julia, who was just over a year old. Or was it sixteen months? He’d lost track. Another reason to spend the day with his little princess. His daughter, a fifth grade teacher in a nearby town, was on an extended maternity leave and would appreciate the day off from raising her daughter.
He would sit with Julia in the back yard, he thought. They’d both watch as the sun made its leisurely way up and through the trees on a late October morning. He’d smile as he thought of his sub trying to herd his students into homeroom at 7:20 in the morning, helping those who’d forgotten their locker combinations, their lunch, their lunch money, their books, their homework, or their gym shorts.
While he sipped his Irish breakfast tea, his sub would be taking attendance, taking a lunch count, collecting permission slips for the next field trip, collecting money for the latest fundraiser, dealing with tardy students, taking phone calls from the main office, all the while trying to bring some semblance of order and discipline to a mob of adolescents, many of whom had just left a permissive home environment where they were rarely held accountable for their sometimes inappropriate or rude behavior. Well, not all of them lacked self-discipline, he thought, but too many, especially at this point in his life and career. And for all this, his sub would earn $95, before taxes.
“What do you want to do today?” he’d ask little Julia. “Play with your toys? Jump up and down in your bouncy chair? Watch Ruff Ruffman, or Clifford the Big Red Dog? How about Curious George?” Mr. Wallace liked George, that mischievous monkey with the IQ of a 7th grader who always seemed to get into some kind of predicament but always came out learning a valuable lesson. George made him wish life truly did imitate art.
“We’ll eat lunch out on the back deck then maybe we’ll take a nap,” he’d tell Julia. Yes, after lunch he’d take a nap too. He’d nap while his teammates wolfed down a soggy tuna or bologna sandwich, or a slice of cold and soggy, cafeteria pizza. Inhaled a container of fat-free yogurt and chugged down an oversized cup of lousy, lukewarm, faculty room coffee, all during their twenty-minute lunch hour, sometimes shortened to five or ten minutes because their principal wanted to talk about some trivial shit that could have waited until the end of the day.
With nothing but the sound of the wind dancing with the leaves in the trees, it would be peaceful out on his daughter’s back deck. He and Julia would enjoy a serene, leisurely, non-confrontational lunch. He wondered how his sub would survive lunch duty. Two adults, a teacher and an instructional aide, trying to ride herd over seventy to eighty thirteen to fifteen-year olds, all hormonally-charged and bursting with an energy bottled up for the last three hours. And they’d be armed – the kids, not the teachers.
Hope my sub doesn’t take one in the head with a not-yet-ripe pear or an over-ripe apple or a black and yellow banana, he thought. While Julia’s down maybe I’ll lie on my daughter’s comfy couch, the one in her family room. The room with the big French doors that overlooked her leafy backyard. Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine. Pinot Noir? Malbec? Riesling? And I’ll listen to NPR. Or a CD. Something by Debussy, perhaps. Clair de Lune. Or Borodin’s Nocturne. Or The Lark Ascending by what’s-his-name. Or maybe I’ll just lie there and enjoy the silence and solitude.
For a minute he almost felt guilty. He’d be working on a bottle of Riesling, watching his granddaughter crawl around the backyard, playing with leaves and sticks and chasing bugs while his co-workers were teaching. Later, with Julia in his arms, he’d lounge in a deck chair and watch the autumn sun slowly inch its way towards the horizon while his colleagues pulled afternoon hall duty or detention duty or bus duty or attended curriculum meetings or meetings with helicopter parents or suffered through some other after-school gathering called by the suits from the main office or the stupidintendent’s.
The administrators might discuss next year’s budget – more likely budget cuts – or a revised set of core values or the revised district mission statement or the district vision statement or the school master plan or maybe they’ll call a meeting to address some other non-issue, real or imagined. Or they might discuss the importance of the upcoming federal and state-mandated proficiency tests, yardsticks meant to measure student progress, but, more often than not, used as clubs to beat teachers about the head and shoulders.
His principal might want to discuss the upcoming open house or parent-teacher conferences or the next fundraiser or the upcoming school dance or some upcoming overnight, yellow-bus field trip. Or she might want to discuss the upcoming in-service, professional development day where Professor Zippedy from the University of Doodah would tout the latest pseudo-pedagogical horseshit, like the much-mocked and, for the most part, discredited Self-esteem Movement.
Dr. Dickhead would yak away all day about some laboratory-tested but useless educational innovation that would probably have little positive impact on the teaching-learning process but, when hyped, would make the parents think their school was on the cutting edge and their tax dollars were well spent.
As Mr. Wallace finished his drink, his teammates walked in. “Mr. Wallace! Fancy meeting you here!” said Eileen, the English teacher on his team.
Eileen Smith, in her early thirties, had waited to enter the teaching profession until her kids had entered junior high. Mr. Wallace knew that her husband, a tenured college professor, had wanted his wife at home to raise their two boys.
His teammates called him Mister Wallace, “Out of respect and deference for our elders,” Eileen teased him. But it was also a way of recognizing his competence, if not his longevity in the classroom. Mr. Wallace smiled as his colleagues sat down around him at the bar.
“Another for me and whatever my friends here are having,” said Mr. Wallace, holding up and waving his empty glass at Francine. “First round’s on me. Happy Friday!”
“You rock!” said Sandy, the team science teacher.
“No, you rock, Mrs. Allen,” he replied, pinching Sandy playfully on the arm.
“What can I get you all?” asked Francine.
“I’ll have a Bud Lite,” said Gary Kaplan, the team social studies teacher, “….and a shot of Grey Goose.”
“I’ll have a rum and coke,” said Eileen, “Bacardi.”
“Make mine a Pinot Grigio,” said Sandy.
They were all un-tenured, and they all looked to him for guidance and support. He did his best to mentor them through the choppy waters of their first years in the classroom and so far they’d done well. They were not only good teachers, they were also good students. They’d learned how to deal with the so-called ‘helicopter parents,’ those well-meaning but sometimes annoying parents who called or left emails almost every day, asking how their kids were doing, what they had for homework that day or questioning some decision on the part of the teacher.
“Just tell them that, down the road, what you’re doing will earn their kid early admission to Harvard,” joked Mr. Wallace.
The helicopter parents could be demanding, even difficult at times, but were nothing compared to the handful of troubled kids who took up ninety per cent of a teacher’s time and attention.
His teammates varied in age from early twenties to late thirties. Gary, at twenty-two, was the youngest. Sandy Allen, at thirty-eight, was the oldest. Eileen guarded her age for some reason, but Mr. Wallace guessed she was somewhere around thirty-five. At fifty-six, Mr. Wallace was the team elder.
Just then, Amanda, one of the school’s PE and health teachers, walked in. “Wait till you hear about the meeting I just left with Mrs. Ewell and Jennifer what’s-her-name. That big blonde on your team. You know, fourteen going on twenty, chest out to here, and her parents. You don’t ever want to deal with them! Francine, I’ll have a Guinness.”
“To Fridays,” said Sandy, interrupting Amanda’s narrative.
“To Fridays,” echoed the team, holding up their glasses in a toast.
“So, what happened?” asked Eileen, setting her empty glass down on the bar and signaling to Francine for another.
“Remember I told you about the problem I had with Jennifer in health class last week? Tuesday, was it? Anyway, we’re talking about STD’s when Jennifer comes out with ‘Can you get AIDS if you give head but spit it out?’ The class went nuts. Not a totally inappropriate question for that class if you think about it, but I knew she was just trying to get a rise out of me, so I reported her to Mr. Darcy.”
Mr. Darcy, the assistant principal, was respected by the faculty and did his best to soften the impact of Mrs. Ewell’s sometimes counter-productive leadership. But Ewell was everywhere, especially when and where she wasn’t wanted or needed, doing her best to keep the parents and her employers happy, even if her decisions weren’t always educationally sound.
“And that wasn’t the first time she’d acted out last week,” Amanda continued. “Christine told me about an incident in French class between Jennifer and Robert, that quiet, big huggy-bear of a kid. Anyway, Chris said Jennifer went over to Robert, put her sweater over his head and jiggled her boobs in his face. She and her girlfriends laughed like friggin’ hyenas. When the bell rang, Robert just sat there, red-faced, with a book in his lap.”
Mr. Wallace had little trouble with Jennifer. Early in his career he’d learned through trial and error how to deal with students like her. By the end of the first week of school his students knew his rules and boundaries. “Life is a series of carrots and sticks,” he’d tell his students. “You do well, you get a carrot – a reward. You mess up, well, you have to deal with me,” he warned. He kept a coffee can of mini-Tootsie Rolls in his desk as rewards and a pad of detention slips on his desk for those who acted up. His teammates, on the other hand, were still honing their classroom management skills and suffered the occasional classroom faux pas.
“I have to say, that, for the most part, I hadn’t had much trouble with Jennifer,” said Gary. “until that incident two weeks ago when I made the mistake of giving the class a few minutes of down-time at the end of third period. I know, bad move on my part. Jennifer and her girlfriends were cackling and joking about something when she asks, ‘Hey, Mr. Kaplan, wanna go out?’ I tell her no, I’m flattered but I don’t want to go to prison. So she says, ‘I won’t tell anyone.’ Then one of her girlfriends yells out, ‘You should go out with her, she gives good head.’ The kids fell out of their chairs laughing. When the bell rang I just let them go. I should have written them both up but I didn’t want to deal with Mrs. Ewell.”
“I had lunch duty last Thursday,” said Sandy. “She and her girlfriends were chasing each other around the cafeteria, trying to pull each other’s pants down. I reported them to Mr. Darcy. He called Jennifer’s parents and told them they needed to meet and discuss her repeated inappropriate behavior.”
“Well, I was at that meeting with Jennifer’s parents today,” said Amanda. “Not sure why I was the only teacher there – she’s on your team.”
“Mrs. Jameson dropped in unexpectedly,” said Sandy with an apologetic look. “She wanted a list of her daughter’s missing assignments. She could have called or sent me an email, but it was quick, and it got me out of that meeting. Sorry.”
“I told Ewell I had a doctor’s appointment. I did. With Dr. Bacardi and Nurse Cola,” said Eileen, smiling sheepishly and holding up her drink.
“I just walked out. I didn’t want to deal with it,” said Gary. “I’ll make up some excuse if Ewell calls me to her office Monday morning.”
Mr. Wallace made no excuses. He ignored Ewell’s note about the meeting and left at 2:40 sharp. He knew if Ewell were there she’d just tell the parents whatever they wanted to hear.
“Anyway, let me tell you, Jennifer’s father is one scary dude. He had what looked like prison tats up and down his arms, his eyes were bloodshot, and his speech was slurred. He looked like he was about to jump over the table and shank someone. And Jennifer’s mother looked tired and washed out. I had my cell phone in my lap the whole time, ready to dial 911.” Amanda chugged her beer and waved to Francine for another.
“So, Darcy tells the parents the purpose of the meeting was to discuss ways to modify Jennifer’s behavior. He listed several incidents, including that day in the gym when she grabbed her girlfriend’s breasts from behind, squeezed, and yelled ‘Honk, honk!’ Her girlfriend chased Jennifer around the gym, laughing and trying to grab Jennifer’s breasts, all the while yelling, “Honk, honk yourself, bitch!”
“After a few minutes, Darcy stops, waits for either an explanation, an apology, or a suggestion as to how we all might mute Jennifer’s outbursts and modify her behavior. Instead, Jennifer’s mother comes out with, ‘Well, what do you expect? There’s nothing to do in this town.’ Mrs. Ewell, who hadn’t said much of anything up till then, suddenly butts in with, ‘You’re right. There should be some sort of after school program, like a theater group for gifted students like Jennifer.’ I sat there dumfounded. Gifted? At what? Giving boys chubbies? Then Jennifer, sensing her parents had the upper hand, pipes up with, ‘Yeah, there’s, like, nothing to do in this freakin’ town.’ That’s when I stood up and said, ‘Sorry, I have to return a call, a parent,’ and left.”
They all turned and stared into their drinks. Mr. Wallace, on the other hand, stared at the talking heads on the TV over the bar. He’d heard it all before. The excuses. All too often.
“I’ve been thinking of retiring,” he suddenly said, breaking the spell. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”
“Because of Jennifer?” Amanda asked.
“Can you afford to?” asked Sandy. “You don’t have thirty-five years yet, do you?”
“No, not because of Jennifer. And no, I don’t even have thirty years yet, but the retirement board will let me buy my three Army years and that’ll get me to thirty-two. Those two years at Sacred Heart don’t count. They should, but won’t. If I retire next year my retirement check will be less, but I’d find a way to make up the difference, sell a kidney or two, maybe a couple dozen pints of blood, bring back all those empties piling up in my garage, maybe start a second career as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Mow lawns in the summer, shovel driveways in the winter. Hang around the town green with a sign that reads, ‘Will teach for food.’ Might even have to resort to that brand of screw-cap wine I saw at the package store the other day. I’ve talked about retirement with my wife and she said that if it would make me happy that I should go ahead and retire, we’d manage, financially. Speaking of wine, Francine, another round? And how about a plate of nachos? Who’s up for onion rings? Francine, can we get an order of onion rings? What do you call those little meatballs on a stick?”
“Meatballs on a stick,” said Francine, looking up from her cutting board and smiling.
“Yeah, we’ll have an order of meatballs on a stick. When I worked the numbers I found your retirement goes up dramatically as you approach thirty-five years. Like they know you’re at the end of your rope but want the experienced, veteran teachers to hold on as long as possible, just before they’re ready to snap.”
“You’re not at the end of your rope,” said Gary. “You’re our rock. You’re the glue that holds this team together. And you stand up for us. You can’t leave us yet.”
Yes, he’d stood up for them. He stood up for Eileen when Mrs. Ewell gave her a hard time for handing out a detention to a student who’d tossed F-bombs at Eileen in class. “What did you do to provoke him?” Mrs. Ewell asked.
He stood up for Gary when Mrs. Ewell threatened him for giving out too few A’s the first marking period. “We’re going to have to visit your class to see what you’re doing wrong,” she said. Gary’s mistake was setting and trying to hold his students to high standards.
He stood up for Sandy when one of her students threw a rock at her head during an outside fire drill. “Why doesn’t he like you?” asked Ewell. “What have you done to incur his hatred? Are you sure he was even throwing that rock at you?”
He’d stood up for all of them, time after time. And he’d fought off the suits, again and again, by filing union grievances when they tried to punish him for speaking out, especially at meetings. Mrs. Ewell came after him for standing up at a faculty meeting and suggesting the school publish the names of the students who hadn’t made the honor roll. “It would save time and paper. Think of the trees,” he’d said facetiously, eliciting stifled laughter from the faculty. But he wasn’t done. “Maybe we should all just hand out A’s to everyone. That should make the parents happy, wouldn’t it, Mrs. Ewell?”
But he’d paid a price. He chewed Zantac like they were candy and spent too many late afternoons with Francine at La Scala. His wife was beginning to wonder if there was another woman.
Francine brought out a large plate of nachos and another of onion rings, and an order of meatballs on a stick. She refilled their glasses then went back to cutting up citrus for the happy-hour crowd that would soon roll in.
“But I’m just sick of the fighting. Tired of Ewell. When the kids act up we get no backing. Darcy does his best to mute her incompetence, but Ewell butts in and screws everything up.”
“Ewell’s a survivor. She’s trying to save her ass by making the parents happy,” said Amanda.
“When they don’t get what they want, they threaten to hire a lawyer,” said Eileen, “and Ewell caves like a cheap tent in a stiff breeze.”
“If a parent came in and said she wanted to hang me by the balls, Ewell’s response would be, ‘Wait here, I’ll go get a rope,'” said Gary, downing his beer and signaling Francine for another.
“If we’re lucky, the parents don’t even bother coming to school when there’s a problem, like when Robert brought in that water bottle filled with Grey Goose and hosted an early morning happy hour in the boy’s lav. Darcy left several messages on their machine, but Robert’s parents never even bothered to return his calls.”
“I was tempted to ask for a hit myself that day,” said Sandy, who had decades to go until she could even think of retirement. Not long after she was hired, Sandy, a former inhalation therapist at a local hospital, had expressed regrets about changing careers, especially at the age of thirty-five.
“When my door is closed and I’m in front of a class, teaching, I love it. It’s when I have to deal with parents that I wish I’d stayed at the hospital,” said Sandy. “And, to be fair, it’s not all of the parents, just some of them.”
“You’re right. For the most part, it’s not the kids who suck the joy out of teaching,” said Mr. Wallace. “Well, there are those kids who require a lot more time and patience than the kids I taught long ago – you know, the ones I call the ten percenters. But, you’re right. It’s the parents of the ten percenters who are the real problem,” he continued. “I almost feel sorry for these kids. They’re just the product of poor or incompetent upbringing. Or maybe genetics, who knows. One after-school meeting with these morons would send Mr. Rogers on a two-day drunk. After listening to their bullshit excuses, I need a half-dozen shots of Stoli to unclench my ass. They can ruin your whole day after just ten minutes of listening to them try to explain away their kid’s inappropriate behavior, behavior that thirty or forty years ago would have gotten them expelled or sent to Juvy Hall. Some of them even try to blame you for their kid’s behavior, bad attitude or lack of effort: ‘He says you don’t like him,’ one parent told me, as if that’s any excuse. I wanted to say ‘Just because I hold your son responsible for his poor choices and don’t hand him undeserved A’s doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like him, even though he’s a jerk. No, I’m sorry….you’re the jerk.’ But instead I say nothing. It wouldn’t do any good anyhow and I just don’t give a shit anymore. Instead, I come here after school.”
Eileen patted his back. She, too, had her own after-school sanctuary, one she often retreated to after work and before her kids got off the school bus.
Mr. Wallace finished his drink and set the empty glass on the bar. “Long ago I had a parent, an Italian immigrant, come to school one afternoon and tell me I had his permission to smack his daughter if she got out of line. She was a sweetheart and never gave me any grief. Of course, that was almost thirty years ago and I was teaching at a parochial school at the time. Who’s ready for another round? Francine, another round here?”
“Speaking of flamers, one morning I get a call from the office, just before homeroom. It’s Ewell,” said Gary. “She tells me Elizabeth what’s-her-name and her father are coming down to my classroom, ten minutes before home room. ‘Can’t this wait?’ I ask. I know what it’s about, so I say to Ewell, ‘Didn’t we already discuss this?’ ‘The father wants a meeting, now,’ she insists.”
“So, here’s this six-foot ten pissed-off parent standing there like he wants to rip off my head and shit down my neck. He claims I had ‘humiliated’ his little princess in class. I tell him Elizabeth was doodling in her textbook while I’m at the board teaching and I simply asked if she’d please turn around and pay attention. I didn’t yell or even raise my voice, but she goes home, cries to her parents, claiming I yelled at her. Her parents buy her sob-story, call the principal and demand a meeting.”
“So, we’re all standing there in my room when Mrs. Ewell asks, ‘Now, Mr. Kaplan, don’t you have something to say to Elizabeth?’ I look at Ewell, wondering what she’s talking about. Then it dawns on me. She expects me to apologize. I look at Ewell, first in astonishment, then in anger and say, ‘No, I have nothing to say, so if you’ll all excuse me, my homeroom is waiting in the hall.'” Gary looked away for a moment, finished his beer and waved to Francine for another.
“Another ten percenter and her asshole parent,” said Mr. Wallace. “Here, have one of these meatballs on a stick.”
“Francine, can we get a round of shots here?” said Gary. “And an order of jalapeno poppers.”
“I have to get going,” said Eileen. “My husband will be home soon and I have to start supper. Besides, I’m starting to feel a bit too happy.”
“Come on, it’s Friday for Christ’s sake. One more,” said Amanda. “Let your husband make supper. Big shit college professor….sorry. And there’s no such thing as too happy.
“What if Jennifer or Elizabeth or any of them had accused any of us of inappropriate behavior?” asked Gary. “What if that little shit Elizabeth or Jennifer had lied and accused me – or any one of us – of inappropriate touching, for example? Even if you could prove they were lying their asses off, you’re dead. Not innocent until proven guilty. Not even guilty until proven innocent. Guilty. Period. Tainted for life. For the rest of your career, no, for the rest of your life you would always be that teacher accused of inappropriate behavior. And with Mrs. Ewell at the helm of the RMS Titanic, you’d be out of the profession, out of work, out on your ass. Rotting in prison, maybe.”
It was then that Mr. Wallace decided that, yes, he would retire at the end of this school year even though he had less than thirty years. He still loved teaching and he cared about his kids, but he was tired of dealing with Ewell, parents, and the suits downtown. More importantly, it had become clear to him that he was not safe at this school, not with Mrs. Ewell in charge. None of them were safe.
The faculty called their place of employment The Titanic Middle School after that ship that raced through the dark waters of the North Atlantic one night, looking for an iceberg. They knew for certain, though, that unlike Captain Smith, Mrs. Ewell would make sure she did not go down with the ship. She’d be the first one in a lifeboat. At the inquiry, she’d exonerate the iceberg and blame the crew. He almost felt sorry for her. Ewell was a survivor, just trying to make it through another school day like the rest of them, dealing not just with the kids, but their parents, the board of education, the superintendent – and teachers like him who tried to hold her accountable for her poor choices.
As he sat there, surrounded by friends and colleagues, a calm descended over him. He felt the tension leave his face and the knot in his stomach loosen. He looked in the mirror over the bar and saw a hint of a smile. If he could make it through the rest of this school year, he would be a survivor – again. At the age of nineteen, he had survived a Tour of Duty in Vietnam. There had been many close calls – snipers, mortars, RPG’s – times when he wondered if he’d make it home in one piece. Except for one big-ass mine in Tay Ninh Province that had almost killed him and his squad, his luck held out and he DEROS’ed stateside, three days before the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Sometimes he wondered which was worse, three hundred and sixty-five days fighting Charlie or twenty-nine years fighting people like Ewell and the parents of the ten percenters. In Vietnam he had a helmet and an M-16. In this town all he had was tenure and a piece of paper to cover his ass, his teacher’s contract.
He sometimes wondered if the war had anything to do with his sometimes short temper and his lack of patience, especially with people like Ewell and the ten percenters, those dysfunctional parents who should be reported to the department of children and families. But the war had been over for decades and he’d put it behind him. “Water under the bridge,” he’d say to anyone who asked about his time as a soldier.
There was a time when he looked forward to working with children, watching them grow academically and socially. Once upon a time he and his colleagues called their school Happy Valley Junior High. But no more. Had the world changed? Or had the teaching profession changed? Or both? Or had he just grown old? It hadn’t always been like this, he thought to himself. But now, too much was expected of him. Of all of them: Sandy and Eileen and Gary and Amanda, and the rest of his colleagues at The Titanic Middle School.
He worried for his daughter. Soon her maternity leave would end and she’d be back in the classroom. For his daughter’s sake, he prayed that The Titanic Middle School was an anomaly.
When I get home I’m going to download the forms from the teacher’s retirement board website and start the process, he said to himself. Somehow he’d find a way to make ends meet, even if he had to take a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart. His only fear now was that the bean counters at the state teacher retirement board would tell him they’d made a mistake in their calculations and that he didn’t have twenty-nine years after all, that he’d have to spend another five years at The Titanic Middle School before he was eligible for even a minimum teacher’s pension. He vowed that if that ever happened, if he ever got that call, he’d step in front of a speeding school bus.
“Yes, I’m going to retire,” said Mr. Wallace with a finality to his voice. For a minute his team mates said nothing, unable to process the reality of his decision.
“What will you do?” Sandy finally asked.
“Well, I’ve started a graduate program. Been taking courses at night. I haven’t mentioned it in case I didn’t like it or couldn’t handle the coursework at my age, but I’m thinking I might get a Master’s in English. Write a thesis on Horton Hears a Who. Take a postcolonial approach. Or a feminist approach. Or a postcolonial feminist approach. Might even take a couple of creative writing courses and pen my memoirs, something with a catchy title, like Thirty Years in the Trenches, Almost: The Imperiled Pedagogue Dodges Another Bullet or some other nonsense.
He hadn’t told them about the job offer either. One of his professors had suggested he come teach for the English department as an adjunct instructor when he finished his degree and retired from the middle school. The income would make up for the lower teacher’s pension and his professor promised he wouldn’t have to deal with any parents.
“Well, I have to get home,” said Sandy, finishing her wine and standing up. “Have to meet my kids when they get off the bus. Hope my husband doesn’t smell the wine or the shots of Stoli on my breath.”
“So what if he does?” said Eileen. “If he has a problem with a Friday after-school drink, or two, have him spend a day, or two, with you at school.
“Sit down and have another glass of wine,” said Gary.
“OK,” said Sandy sitting back down. “I guess the kids will be OK until their father gets home.”
Mr. Wallace took out a picture of his granddaughter, Julia.
“She’s a cutie,” said Amanda. “Looks just like her grandpa.”
“Jesus, I hope not,” he answered, running a hand through his gray and thinning hair.
“How old is she?” asked Eileen.
“Year and a half, almost. She’ll be two next July. The twenty-fifth,” he replied. “And when I retire, she and her grandpa are going to be spending lots of time together. I’m going to teach her how to swim, and ride a bike, and I’ll buy her a box of blocks, you know, the ones with the letters on them so I can teach her her first words.”
Mr. Wallace finished out the rest of the school year, smiling more than he had in years, it seemed. He laughed with his colleagues and his students – even told a kid to eat a box of Oreo’s before he went to the orthodontist. He took one class out to play kickball the first warm and sunny day in April. Even stopped attending faculty meetings, and after awhile, all meetings, except those at La Scala on payday Fridays.
Mrs. Ewell had tried to get him to meet with a parent who’d expressed concern over what Mr. Wallace considered a trivial issue, but he crumpled up Ewell’s notes and dropped them on the floor in front of the faculty mail boxes. He locked his classroom door and ignored her when she came to see him at the end of the day. She even chased him down the hall once at 2:40 pm. “Mr. Wallace, I’d like to see you in my office, now!” she yelled. But he ignored her and continued walking to his car. As he drove away, he saw Ewell in his rearview mirror. She was holding a piece of paper, a note from the parent of a ten percenter, no doubt, demanding a meeting to discuss some non-issue she should have taken care of herself.
He ignored Ewell for the rest of the school year, refusing to acknowledge her existence, refusing, even, to make eye contact. To him, Ewell was a useless impediment, an irritant, like a pebble in his shoe or a speck in his eye. A dangerous impediment for sure. Eventually she gave up and left him alone.
On his last day at The Titanic Middle School Mr. Wallace took his team out for a late lunch at La Scala. They joked and laughed and drank the afternoon away, celebrating not just his retirement, but the end of the school year.
They sat out on the patio, basked in the late afternoon sun while downing too many bottles of a decent Champagne he’d ordered just for the occasion. They feasted on sliders, curly fries, sweet potato fries, nachos piled high with chili and cheese, deep-fried calamari, onion rings, buffalo wings, cheesy garlic bread, and those little meatballs on a stick. Mr. Wallace and his teammates ate their way down the menu of appetizers and happy-hour specialties and did their best to empty that case of Champagne.
“I propose a toast: To all those parents who’ve supported us over the years, and I admit they were in the majority, we thank you,” said Mr. Wallace holding up his champagne glass. “And to all the parents of the ten percenters, those profoundly ignorant and totally incompetent morons in dire need of professional help, if not sterilization. The ones who turned many a good day to shit. You can all line up and kiss my aching ass ’cause Elvis is about to leave the auditorium.”
“Here, here,” his team mates replied in unison.
Secretly, he wished the children of those ten percenters luck. If he could, he might even apologize for lacking patience these last few years. “It’s not all your fault,” he would have told them.
“I’m gonna miss you guys,” said Mr. Wallace to his team. “But it’s time to move on, start a new chapter. I want to spend time with my granddaughter, work on that master’s and apologize to my wife for my behavior recently.” Mr. Wallace stopped for a moment to collect himself. “You and I have been through a lot together and I’m proud of you all, but more importantly, you’ve survived. Next year you’ll all have tenure. Will have earned tenure. And will have the teacher’s contract to protect you when Ewell gets on your ass. To survivors everywhere,” he said, raising his glass again. For a moment he thought of Mrs. Ewell and wished her luck. He wondered how long she had left before she, too, grew tired of it all and just walked away.
“We’ll miss you, too, Mr. Wallace,” said Eileen.
“Here’s to us, and those like us,” said Gary standing up.
“Yeah, to us,” they said in unison. They downed their drinks then tossed their glasses at the brick wall where they shattered into a million shiny shards that reflected the light in all directions, like the setting sun on a lake.
He’d read somewhere that almost half of those who enter the teaching profession leave after five years, and one in ten leave after their first year. He wondered how many of his team mates would be here again next June, celebrating the end of another school year. Sure, next year they’d have tenure, but the teacher’s contract was a leaky umbrella that didn’t completely protect them from administrators and the public, especially the parents of the ten percenters.
He worried about them. Sandy was already showing signs of wear and uncertainty. And he sensed that Eileen was having second and third thoughts and might soon heed her husband’s pleas to come home and resume her role as hausfrau and mother. He was especially worried about Gary, a dark-haired and handsome former college athlete, who, despite the incident with Jennifer, sometimes allowed his adoring fourteen-year old female students to hang all over him after school.
Mr. Wallace looked into their faces and saw that his friends and soon-to-be former colleagues were no longer smiling. They stared at the empty Champagne bottles and the empty plates with empty eyes and he wondered if it was just end-of-the-school-year exhaustion he saw in them. Or was it that they all knew that in two months they’d be back at The Titanic Middle School and it would start all over again.
“Michail Mulvey is an instructor of English, holds degrees in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, and has had over two dozen short stories published in various literary magazines and journals, print and electronic, in the US, the UK, and Ireland, some noteworthy, some dubious, some you’ve probably never heard of, and a couple that are now belly up. But in 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.”
Header art is by the incredibly talented Guy Denning.