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Tom Mason, Chicago area high school teacher, has been teaching at Grover Cleveland High School for a while - long enough to loathe the faculty meetings and long enough to know that as bad as they are, they aren't fatal. Usually. Having had all he can take of the endless bickering, picking and factional disputes, he sneaks out of the meeting for a short break only to find the meeting over when he returns, the usual suspects having departed to the four winds. Having decided that this was a sign of his good ...
Tom Mason, Chicago area high school teacher, has been teaching at Grover Cleveland High School for a while - long enough to loathe the faculty meetings and long enough to know that as bad as they are, they aren't fatal. Usually. Having had all he can take of the endless bickering, picking and factional disputes, he sneaks out of the meeting for a short break only to find the meeting over when he returns, the usual suspects having departed to the four winds. Having decided that this was a sign of his good fortune, he decides to see if the stockroom actually has the supplies he needs. What he finds there however is a trysting couple in the dark (one married, the other not) and, once the light is turned on, a dead body in the corner. The body is that of one of his colleagues who stormed out of the faculty meeting earlier, a blackboard eraser stuffed into her lifeless mouth. Having disappeared from the meeting at roughly the same time, Tom finds himself in the unwelcome position of prime suspect and with the help of his husband, former baseball player Scott Carpenter, he'll have to figure out who really killed the other teacher before the crime is pinned on him.
The initial torture consisted of the mind-numbingly boring speech delivered at the onset of every meeting by Mabel Spandrel, the head of the department. She had a soft voice that droned from opening syllable to closing pluperfect subjunctive verb (e.g., The teachers wish the administrator had been eaten by a fire-breathing dragon before she started speaking). I could picture the punctuation in her speeches pleading for release. I, however, was not about to join the cynics in the back who placed bets on and then counted how many times she used the phrase "educational leaders." I would never countenance such disrespect. Besides, I always lost money in the pool. I always came in too low. Well, some-body’s got to hold out hope.
Behind Mabel’s boring exterior lurked the heart of a python combined with the cunning of a particularly petrified rock. She was dangerous enough as a dolt. Give her a dose of intelligence and there was no telling what ghastly calamities she might perpetrate. She had a business background and had never spent a minute in a classroom until she got here, a surefire guarantee of an attitude of contempt from veteran teachers. Getting business people into schools had been a big trend for several years. And if kids were widgets, it might have made sense.
After communication-challenged Mabel nearly droned us to death, Francine Peebles always made a plea for civility and decorum. Francine headed the "can’t we all get along" faction on the faculty. Frankly, come the revolution, I’d vote for her to lose her head first, and I’m passionately against the death penalty and not all that fond of revolutions unless they’re really done right. Francine’s peace bloc was a vocal splinter group that managed to irritate everybody equally.
Being someone unwilling to scream publicly at my colleagues, I was often placed in Francine’s group. The danger with seeming to be neutral was that both sides rushed to you with their latest lunatic plans, half-baked schemes, and harebrained proposals. This was always done in strictest confidence with whispers and glances around. I expected someone to suggest we meet at the third pillar from the left outside of Pierre’s. At the very least, you’d think they’d offer to buy me a cup of coffee late at night at the nearest Star-bucks. No luck on any of that yet.
I compounded this nearly lethal mistake of not publicly disagreeing with them at the top of my lungs by listening to them. Patiently. My lack of opposition caused the less discerning to assume I was on their side. The lack of discernment about themselves, their colleagues, and the importance of their issues had reached epidemic proportions.
The two major factions divided the department almost evenly between the suckups and the non-suckups. I hate suckups. It makes no sense to sell your dignity and self-respect at any time. It was even more ludicrous to sell them for the few silly privileges that could be accorded to someone sucking up at Grover Cleveland High School. What ever it was the suckups so desperately desired, I neither needed nor wanted.
Within fifteen minutes of Spandrel’s finish and Peebles’s plea, acrimony erupted.
I glanced out the windows. Rain poured down. A few desperate leaves clung to the trees. Late afternoon October gloom was rapidly rushing toward evening.
Over forty of us jammed into the Learning Center for the monthly battle. The pro-and anti-suckup warfare, plus the usual academic infighting, had been exacerbated in recent years by the wild ambition of younger teachers and the mad, although usually inept, machinations of Mabel Spandrel. I loved the passion of these new college graduates and their allies. I hated their blind adherence to the latest education trends. I also admired their eagerness to try out new things in the classroom. As for Mabel, even torture, as envisioned by right-wing Republicans, might not be enough punishment for all the inept and outright stupid things she’d done.
Then again, many of the non-suckups were the "old guard." Too many of them adhered fervently to the dictum, "I’ve done it this way since dirt, and you can’t make me change." A whole bunch of folks in this faction needed swift kicks in their butts. I understood, all too well, the arguments for their position. A lot of them, however, were close-minded dinosaurs who refused to admit that maybe what they were doing in their classrooms wasn’t the most effective approach.
Although my sympathies lay with the old guard, I was sick to death of all of them.
Once in a while a brave soul would dare to suggest that both sides of the new-versus-old-techniques factions were talking about the same thing except that now some boob in college academia had given a random educational process or approach a new name. This, of course, was heresy. Far more important to impose your trendy or traditional educational philosophy or psychology or methodology or vocabulary on the unwilling. Never mind that study after study showed it was the teachers’ relationship with the pupils that was the key to success in the classroom, not the methodology employed.
The current buzzwords were "best practice." There were always new buzzwords. "Best practice" meant that in your classroom you always used what the research showed to be the best way to get your children to learn.
This is news?
Another big problem was that what the research said was the most effective methodology kept changing. The upshot was that every few years some idiot reinvented the educational wheel. The bizarre shape of this twisted metaphorical sphere often depended on the political orientation of the researcher. Making other people jump through hoops can be so satisfying for the Nazi wannabes.
Today’s fracas was over who was going to go to the latest trend-setting seminar. It was going to be a full week in San Francisco paid for by the school district.
Petty debates about silly privileges among those who educate the children in this world? You better believe it. Then again, if it had been just a Saturday in Kankakee, maybe they wouldn’t be hauling out their verbal bazookas.
There were those in the battling factions who counted the number of times who got to go to which conference and calculated how far away from home the trip was. There were those who didn’t want to leave their classroom for the slightest bit of time, figuring it was too much of a hassle to come back after a substitute teacher screwed up their lesson plans. Others assumed they were too valuable to the children in their classes for students to do without them as a teacher. A few radicals thought they’d been hired to teach and would prefer to do that rather than trot about the countryside ingesting information that a reasonably intelligent person could pick up in the latest educational or teachers’ union journals. I was in this last group.
Today, Carl Pinyon, one of the young rebels, actually produced copies of a chart that showed who had gone to which conferences over the past thirty years. Demands to know how he got the information and from whom escalated into accusations bordering on hysteria.
Boring diatribes alternated with shouts, yells, and banging fists.
I graded papers.
It irritated some on both sides that I usually did this throughout the warfare. Today I pondered for quite some time what to do about Fred Zileski. Poor Fred was a senior. He was a little shaky on capital letters at the beginning of sentences and had yet to be convinced that something, assumedly punctuation, was needed at the end of each set of words he put down. One hesitated to label as sentences the bits of prose that escaped from his pencil. They were, in Fred’s own unique way, his attempts to express himself. He was a big kid, a football player, kind of quiet usually. I’d been trying for over a month to figure out any practice, much less a "best practice," that would convince Fred to give capitalization and punctuation a try. No luck yet. I figured if we got past those first two hurdles, we’d work on making sure a verb had something to do with his sentences. I’d already surrendered the spelling battle. All computers came with spell checks these days.
Complicating Fred’s problems was his parents’ continued hostility seven years after their divorce had become final. His mother was currently president of our school board. Because of her, Fred had been placed in honors classes for more than half of his elementary schooling. She’d become president of the board to ensure his being in such programs. To say Fred hadn’t gotten the help he needed is grossly unfair to understatements. As far as I could tell, in any school district, the criteria for being in the honors program were aligned to one basic standard. The cutoff line was wherever it was necessary for school board members’ kids to get into the program. A travesty? Yep. And it happens far more often than rational people would imagine. And Fred was paying the price. Kids are always the ones who pay the price when adults’ egos get skewed.
When I looked up from straining to read Fred’s writing, Jourdan Chase was on his feet. He was bellowing at someone I couldn’t see. "You’re the one who doesn’t have respect for his colleagues. You’re the one who’s been sucking up so fast since you’ve been here that a vacuum’s been created on the third floor. We can barely remain upright for the gale of wind blowing through as you rush about trying to undercut and backstab the rest of us." Jourdan had been with the department since the advent of the printing press. Most of the time he was an annoying dope. Except when he took on the suck-ups in the department. At those moments a lot of us would have voted for him for sainthood.
In moments the object of his attack stood up. Gracie Eberson pointed her finger at Jourdan and screamed back, "You’re the one keeping this department from moving forward. You’re the one who says no to everything before the explanations are even finished. I watch you shaking your head ‘no’ at any new idea." In her early twenties, Eberson affected billowy granny dresses on her sixties-hippie frame. Her hair hung in cascading auburn ringlets down to her waist. She wore rhinestone-studded pink-rimmed glasses. She often attempted to drape herself in a veil of Earth Mother serenity, very much absent from this afternoon’s response. The other problem with her usual persona was that her voice normally sounded like something between a shrill mouse squeak and a bandsaw about to break.
They both stood as they traded accusations. This was a bit different. Usually everybody conducted their assaults while firmly planted on their butts. Jourdan and Gracie were on opposite sides of the room. Their voices continued on high rant. Others began trying to shout over them. A few tried to get them to calm down. Others sat back in horror. A few in the back snickered. Gracie smacked her rolled-up grade book on the top of a computer monitor. Jourdan banged his fist on the countertop of the circulation desk. Moments later, it crashed into shards and splinters. Then Gracie swung her arm around and dislodged the monitor, which lurched six inches to her left. A second later, it plunged to the floor. The loud banging and smashing called a halt to all other noise. Then Jourdan stormed out the exit nearest him, and Gracie the one closest to her. Each slammed the respective doors through which they stormed.
Only a demented and bored English teacher would refer to them as storm doors. I confess to neither.
An utterly satisfying silence ensued for three seconds. Then the remaining combatants started again.
My friend, Meg Swarthmore, the aged and beloved librarian, would be pissed about the destruction. She always left immediately after school on faculty-meeting days. Today I’d urged her to stay and watch the fun. She’d peered at me over her reading glasses and said, "Perhaps, Tom Mason, you and I have a different definition of fun." She told me once that, sickeningly amusing as she thought it might be to keep score and see the budding of burgeoning gossip, she preferred to miss the pervasive hostility. I’d fill her in over our usual Friday-morning breakfast tomorrow.
I toughed it out at the meeting for as long as I could. After another half an hour, I left my stack of papers and eased out the back. Slowly, no need to rush. The battling educators and ungraded papers would be waiting for me when I got back.
I sauntered into the departmental office and ran off a test. Figuring a few more side trips wouldn’t hurt, I stopped in the washroom. Then I made a parent call I’d been putting off all day. I used my cell phone and called from the foyer near one of the school’s side doors. It was quiet, and I could watch the rain as the sky darkened. The call was to Mrs. Faherty, another board member. Her kid, Spike, was in my classes and came for after-school tutoring, as did Fred Zileski. Mrs. Faherty had only recently been appointed to the board to fill a vacancy. I’d never heard of her saying a word at a board meeting. She had a delightfully realistic view of her juvenile delinquent. She and her husband attended every conference with her kid, and they had for years. The kid was passionate about his motorcycle and little else. The machine was one of the few holds she had over him. I called her once a week to update her on Spike’s progress. This week he’d completed an entire essay. Unlike Fred, Spike was quite bright, something that Spike did not want teachers to be aware of.
After I hung up, I realized I’d been gone nearly half an hour. I decided to forego a stop in the departmental storeroom on the third floor near my classroom. I did need masking tape and copy paper, but even I didn’t have the nerve to be gone this long. Such an extended absence as mine would cause comment.
I eased back to the library to find only two people present, two custodians cleaning up the mess Jourdan and Gracie had made. The meeting had ended five minutes after I’d left. I’d missed the end. I decided not to weep.
I picked up my papers, then climbed back to the third floor and headed for the storeroom. It was a former teachers’ office. Those had long since gone the way of good intentions. Any number of nooks, crannies, hallways, classrooms, and offices had been closed in recent years for the numerous patches, temporary fixes, or reconstructions the building needed. Five school referendums in a row had failed to pass in our district. The community had said no to taxes. The result was their kids attended a school that had been falling apart when they tried to pass the first referendum twenty years ago. Now the rapidly deteriorating building gave decrepit a bad name.
One minor example of what needed to be fixed was the door to the supply room. It could easily have been used to create sound effects for any number of Hollywood horror movies. Purchasing a can of WD-40 might require the passage of a referendum and the replacement of the entire custodial staff.
As I walked into the supply room, I flipped on the light. Two men standing near a broken copier jumped apart. I’d seen enough to know that they’d been attempting to jam their tongues down each others’ throats while their hands were on the front of each others’ pants.
One was a young member of the English department, Brandon Benson. The other was a youthful gym teacher named Steven Frecking. The choice of venue was odd. Not quite as odd as the fact that Benson was currently married to a woman. Benson was five-feet-seven with black hair cut short. His blue jeans said size twenty-eight on the patch on the back. He wore a white shirt, now half untucked, a blue tie now askew, and a blue blazer half off his left shoulder. Frecking was over six-feet-two with narrow hips and broad shoulders. He had played quarterback for his small Wisconsin college. He wore a pair of gym shorts that were only slightly looser and covered only a bit more than a pair of knit boxer briefs. His baggy T-shirt wasn’t long enough to conceal either how far down the shorts now were or how enthused he was about the activity they’d been engaged in as I entered.
I turned to leave and then stopped. In a far corner I saw a designer shower-clog and a foot. I pointed to it. "Who is that?" I asked.
Excerpted from Schooled in Murder by Mark Richard Zubro
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Richard Zubro
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Minotaur
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher
Posted September 16, 2013