Summoned to the Principal's Office: A Short Story (Part II)

The Xeroxed copies of Babylon Revisited lay scattered across the desks.  A few had carelessly fallen to the floor in the chaotic hustle of students out the door. 

It was instantly quiet.  6th period would be starting in a minute, and Henshaw had no students coming in, it was his prep period.  He slumped down to his cracked pleather desk chair and exhaled.  It seemed like forever since he had taken a breath.  His heart was racing; his blood pressure was through the roof.  What had he just done? 
Martin Luther King Jr MLK poster Integrity  character foundations influence
What teacher doesn't have an MLK
poster in his or her room?

His shocked expression turned to ironic smirk as he found the poster of Martin Luther King Jr. near his desk with the title: Integrity.  He forced himself to read the subtitle:  When your character is built on spiritual and moral foundation, your contagious way of life will influence millions. 

Henshaw suddenly wanted to cry.  Why today?  Of all the difficult kids, and hairy situations, and heightened emotional exchanges of hormonal kids; why had he chosen today to retaliate and say those thoughts he had always had, yet had always easily held in check?  Where were you Dr. King, ten minutes ago?  This philosophy of integrity that he had worked so hard at emulating, was gone.  Poof, like that, he was a hypocrite.  The exact kind of teacher he hated when he was a student.  Holden Caulfield would’ve called him a phony. 

And what about his job?  Surely it wasn’t in jeopardy.  It’s not like he touched a child.  It’s not like he hit a kid, or said something sexually inappropriate to a kid.  His union would back him, if it came to that.  He wasn’t a new teacher.  He had tenure.  That stupid kid!  No, the student wasn’t stupid, it was just a stupid exchange of emotional beings, and Henshaw had briefly lowered himself to their maturity level. 

Henshaw felt the familiar pangs of anxiety.  It’d been so long, he almost forgot the fear, the millions of thoughts flooding the mind overloading the body and causing it to quake.  He deeply inhaled and exhaled again, like he did in college before he gave a presentation.  He was a teacher now, he gave presentations everyday, thousands in a year, but that old fearful sensation was never that far away.  Right now it felt like he had never beaten it down. 

Surely he would be summoned by administration.  Oh how he wished he had been more supportive of the newest batch of principals.  He had already outlasted four head principals, three moving on to whatever greater roles existed for that ladder climbing species, and one to a sudden heart attack that knocked him into retirement.  All four had been friends of William’s.  Or as friendly as a working relationship of employee and supervisor can be. 

But William had stopped trying to impress all the new faces that just kept rolling in.  He holed up in his room, and studied the curriculum, trying to become the best teacher he could be, while ignoring the social political aspect of his job.  The new Athletic Director didn’t know him, as he gave up coaching girl’s basketball years ago, nor did one of the vice principals.  His bi-annual review was coming up, and he had only briefly emailed the new Head Principal, James Cladwell, as to when he would be available, it was their only source of communication in the first four weeks of the school year.   Henshaw had also stopped voluntarily signing up for committees: like the curriculum committee or the literary committee.  He was tired of wasting his time talking, arguing, creating, changing, motivating, presenting, accommodating, and negotiating and then not seeing anything significant really change.  The only thing he could directly impact was his own classroom.   Plus, he was no longer a new teacher, his family, his daughters were growing up, and he wanted to actually be there for their growth.  But now, as a teacher who wasn’t heavily inundated into the current school culture or brand, one only concerned with events inside his own classroom, he realized he was an outcast.  He was expendable. 

Did he have any allies of importance in the administration?  Surely, his department head would vouch for him, but who else would have anything positive to say?  He was merely an average teacher.  A few students had come back and visited him, a few told him he was their “favorite teacher,” and he was generally liked by the teaching staff, but would anyone, past or present go to bat for him? 

He couldn’t rely on the 5th period students.  They were there, they knew the truth, and they would mostly side with Mitchell.  Someone probably recorded it on his or her phone as well, as this generation of kids were always savvy about documenting socially awkward situations.  Both Mitchell and Henshaw were in the wrong, but Henshaw was the professional.  He, like all teachers, was held to a higher moral standard than almost any other job.  Again he looked at the Integrity poster.  He had always shown such great judgment, but today, he just cracked.  He let it all, 12 years of teaching frustrations, build up, and got offended over a stupid short story, and he cracked.  Maybe it was time for a vacation.  Maybe they would put him on administrative leave.  A vacation, though, is a positive.  An administrative leave, especially if the local media, or if the students found out, would be a blight that would follow him his whole career. 

All I did was call a kid stupid and mildly swear at him.  That’s all.  This stuff happened all the time in the 70s and 80s.  But William knew it was different.  Teachers today don’t get away with anything.  It’s guilty first, innocent later, forgiven eventually, but never forgotten, regardless of guilt. 

Nuns with guns black and white angry vengeful rifles
St. Mary's Catholic High School faculty photo 1946
He remembered how old retiree teachers of bygone eras would sometimes eat lunch with them in the lounge, sharing stories of a different time, when you could call out feminine boys as “queers,” or give two kids a pair of boxing gloves to “settle the score.”  Henshaw never liked these stories.  He wasn’t jealous that they were virtually free to do whatever they wanted in their classrooms with very little oversight by the administration.  Instead he got mad at how some of them were spineless in stopping racism, or bigotry, or belittling kids with mental deficiencies.   How some could care less whether the “dumb” kids learned anything.  Of course, he was stereotyping them, they probably weren’t all bad…

The bell ending 6th period interrupted his thoughts.  His last class of the day, Freshman English, would be starting, and William hadn’t done a thing with his 50-minute prep time.  He had sat, nervously predicting his next chess move, if he wasn’t in checkmate already, and hadn’t come up with anything.  His best hope was for a stalemate. 

The first few freshmen started filtering in. 

“What are these packets on the desk, Mr. Henshaw?  Is this what we’re doing today?” one of his still unknown acne faced adolescents asked.  Freshman always wanted to know what the agenda of the day was, so that they could respond to the teacher’s answer, whatever it was, with a groan. 

“What?  Oh, no…uh…we’ll just pass those forward when class starts.” 

Henshaw looked at his lesson plan for Freshman English and decided to scrap it.  Too much interaction. 

The bell finally sounded, and the least mature, and most easily distracted of all of Henshaw’s classes finally calmed enough to listen to their teacher.  “Guys, I’ve got a splitting headache, so please turn to page 456, and read The Most Dangerous Game silently and answer questions 1-8 at the end of the story.”  (Loud group groan).  The idea of not talking through Game usually would sadden Henshaw, since it was one of the few highlights of his freshman curriculum (as young boys love its violence).  But today, Henshaw didn’t care, and neither did the students.   Probably half the class didn’t read the story, and many were openly copying the smart kids’ answers.  The class was verging towards anarchy by the time the last bell rang, signaling the end of the school day.  The freshman noisily made their way outside his door, and the silence again befell the room.  Another fifty minutes of time to build a strategic defense, gone.  Any minute now, Cladwell would waltz into his room with a scowl on his face, and questions that needed answering. 

He tried to breath it out at his desk, but the anxiety wouldn’t let him sit still.  He made his way to the men’s room, relieved himself, and then lost his lunch all over the urinal.  He quickly flushed away the evidence, but seeing the orange bile swirling next to the deodorant cake made him heave again.  It had been years since William had thrown up. 

Afraid it might happen again, and not wanting to face students or faculty, he locked himself in a stall and sat hoping the world would stop whirling around him.  He had no idea how long he sat there when the secretary’s voice interrupted his thoughts.  The partially muffled intercom voice said, “William Henshaw, please report to the front office please.” 

William lurched forward and turned toward the toilet opening.  He tried to vomit again, but there wasn’t anything left in his system.  He thought about leaving for home, but he still was technically supposed to be on campus for another 30 minutes; eventually, it would catch up with him anyway. 

The two hundred foot walk, past colleagues’ rooms, the library, the counselor’s office, the campus security wing, the janitor happily waving to him, and various students either greeting or ignoring his presence, before he reached the office lasted an eternity.  He could smell the bile on his breath, and he thought he would be sick again. 

When he got to the office door, he saw Nathan Mitchell standing there impatiently.  William pushed the door open unsurely.  The secretary smiled at him, and said, “I believe you have something of Mr. Mitchell’s?”

William looked up and saw Principal James Cladwell emerge from his office and perch himself at his doorway. 

“What? I have what?”

Student's mean text to teacher iPhone message
Exactly why I don't give out my
cell phone number to students. 
“My phone Mr. Henshaw, can I have it back now, please?”  Nathan said, with a sly grin. 

“Oh, uh, yeah.”  Henshaw fumbled around his pockets and found the phone in his front pants pocket.  “Here you go.”  He shot a questioning look at Nathan, but saw nothing but the fading grin. 

“Thanks…”  “Oh, and I accidentally took this, your story, here you go.” 

William reached out and took back his Babylon story, and thought he heard Nathan say something else, but was too focused on Principal Cladwell’s gesture waving him into his office, to hear it clearly.  He made his way into the office like a beat dog. 

“Sit down Henshaw, I’ve been meaning to have you in here for a heart to heart for some time, and then, when Mr. Mitchell came in here…”

“Look, before you say anything, he had it coming.  He was watching a YouTube video on his phone during class and when I asked for his phone, he got sassy with me.  I asked twice and he started getting insubordinate…”

“William, relax…”

“No, that kid, I wasn’t calling him stupid, I was saying his generation is stupid, and who knows, he might be stupid himself, but he just kept needling me, and I didn’t mean to call him a son of a bitch, or a hoodlum, or stupid, but he was calling me a porn addict and a boring old…”

“What did you say to him?”

“Well, I’m sure he already told you, I’m just giving my side of the story…”

“Your student, Mr. Mitchell, came in here saying he wasn’t paying attention in your class, and you called him out on it, and he realized you were right.  He said that story you taught today was really good, and he thought you were a really good teacher, and he wanted to apologize to you for using his phone in your class, but you weren’t in your classroom after school.”  “What are you talking about?  Are you telling me you cussed out one of our students, William?”  “Because, that…

But William, now, wasn’t listening.  He had just noticed the blue ink scribbling that defaced his copy of Babylon Revisited: 

F. Scott Fitzgerald Babylon Revisited scribners book cover
Read my review of
 Babylon Revisited on 
Mr. Henshaw.  I’m sorry for what happened in class today.  It was more my fault then yours, and I realize why you got all angry.  I’m not a bad kid, really. I read this story during my math class, and you were right.  It’s a great story about maturity and forgiveness after a lifetime of making the wrong choices.  My life is really crummy right now, and I think I took that out on you. I’m trying really hard to make the right choices.  You talk a lot about integrity and I think we both kind of sucked at that today, so for my part I’ll try and be a better student.  Sorry again, Nate.
P.S. Sorry I just “graffitied” this copy by writing on it. 

William, tears in his eyes, looked up at Cladwell, and interrupted him, “I uh, I have a ton of sick leave, would you okay some time off.  I think I need a vacation to get my priorities straight.”  How long had he been correctly analyzing complex literature, and now, in real life, he couldn’t even recognize good characters anymore, even when they’re right in front of his podium. 

“I’m glad you said that, cause I was going to recommend something very similar.  And when you get back, I’d love to have a real conversation.  It’s about time we got to know one another, William.  And also, I think you’d be perfect for this committee I’m setting up on education reform.”

Bart Simpson writing on chalkboard "I will not swear at students"  “Yeah, okay.  I was just thinking I needed to get involved with people again.”

“Not now, though.  Get out of here.  Take your wife to Paris or something and get your head on straight.  But by all means, go find Mr. Mitchell and apologize, I don’t need his angry parents in here cussing me out tonight.”  

Yes, all roads do lead to Paris.  Of course, on his teacher’s salary, William would probably have to settle for Paris, Texas. 


1 comment:

  1. Oh how many times have I ended up with my foot in my mouth because I assumed that I was talking about the same situation as the other person. Great story.