We Are Kindling Schist because in U.S. education, "it was always burning." Read. Comment. Submit.

AMBUSHED By Lucy Penumbra

I knew it was going to happen that way. Seven people, all sitting in a circle looking up at me, and even though I’d taken my pill an hour ahead like Dr. Merrill prescribed, my hands started sweating and shaking as soon as I walked in. I wasn’t sure who to look at, and it took me a minute to settle on Amy, the counselor. She was small and young, and she looked friendly. But she couldn’t save me from everything that happened next.

I knew what would happen, so I’d told Harry I couldn’t go in, after he brought home the note from Mr. Tarkington and then listened to the machine and knew I’d heard the message already. “Yeah, I figured, ” he snarled, same as he does for anything I tell him. He doesn’t realize yet that there is just no point, that I’m not going to be able to do anything for him, and he’s going to be disgusted with me anyway, so why go and have them prove again that I can’t? But then two days later, after I’d put the note away and hoped they’d just let it slide this time, I got another message on the machine, and the day after that a certified letter saying Harry would be suspended for five days unless I came to the meeting. And then James found out about it and yelled purple pox on me, about how he has already been twice this year and he has a job to go to so we can make the rent every month, and it was time I stepped up and got my butt in gear and all that, and I cried and said, okay, I will, I’ll go, I’ll call them tomorrow, and in the middle of it all Harry stormed to his room and slammed it, and then James went and kicked it and yelled “You better watch yourself, Mister. I’m about this close to…” And then he stomped out of the house, and how I wished Karly was home from Johnson State to calm everyone down, but last time she was here she said she wasn’t coming back until Christmas, and I knew she meant it, and I couldn’t really blame her.

I put on lipstick that afternoon, and the blouse I’d bought when I was still working at Allison’s Gifts and Flowers, and it’s still in pretty good shape, a classic look, so I don’t think anyone would know it’s almost eight years old. I drove over and walked in without thinking about it, but then when Mary at the front desk nodded and told me to go on in, even though she is so kind, I know she knows all about what Harry has been doing and also how I just never come in, and that’s when I got nervous, but it was too late to leave then.

Amy asked if she could get me some water and I could feel my mouth getting dry as she said it, but I said, no thanks. Mr. Tarkington introduced Harry’s five teachers and said how concerned they all were and then looked at a paper and read about what had happened last week. The letter home had said something about it, about Harry picking on some kid in his class, but now Mr. Tarkington had each of the teachers say what they had been seeing happening. His math teacher said the two didn’t have his class together, and Mrs. Carp, in Computer Literacy, said how Harry pretty much stayed focused on his work in her class and how creative he was with figuring out the weekly challenge. So I started thinking maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all, but then the history teacher and science teacher said they’d caught Harry making threats to the kid, and then his English teacher, Ms. Pinkle, started in on some story about how she’d come upon them in the hall. She said this other kid was crying and Harry was calling him a fag and saying he better not see him near his locker again, and then she asked some other kids who said the crying kid usually was late to class if it was near Harry’s locker because he was going the long way so Harry wouldn’t catch him there. After hearing the good things, I had to ask, was it possible the other students were making these things up? Because Harry is a little heavy, you know, like me, and he’s had his share of teasing, at least in third grade and fourth grade when that kid from South Korea was here, boy, he was a mean one, that was for sure.

Mr. Tarkington said he knew Harry was a great kid, and just at that age where boys sometimes start acting out like that, and maybe some of the other kids had been picking on him some and he was just angry. He said the other boy had never come to him complaining about anything, so it might be I was right and we were making too much of it. He said maybe we should just talk to Harry about it a little, see what they could do for him to make him feel more at home, that maybe he should bring both the boys in his office and just have them shake hands.

Ms. Pinkle said no, no one had seen anyone teasing him that she knew of, and she saw the look on Harry’s face talking to the other kid, and he looked furious, and he was up close to him and had his fists clenched, like he really might hit him, and the other boy was scared. So I said, well, sometimes he’s just that way, you know he’s done that to me before, but he’s never actually hit me, and I don’t think he ever would, and sometimes he says things, just blowing off steam, and I don’t think he means them. Ms. Pinkle said whether or not he means it, he’s got to stop doing it. And then I looked at her and remembered Harry telling me what a bitch she was, always on him about something, and I said, well, maybe some people just don’t understand children and it’s time for them to move on to something else in life and get someone who really likes children in the classroom, and she turned red and clenched her mouth shut and everybody got quiet. She started to say something else and Mr. Tarkington gave her a look like she was a bad kid and she gave one back, like he was a real idiot.

So then that quiet Amy who seems so friendly started asking, was everything okay at home? Was there anything they could do? Is it possible we might benefit from some family counseling? and talking about some Healthy Families group she runs Thursday nights and how–and I lost it a little and said, really, I don’t think Harry’s father is going to want to take his Thursday night after working 10 hours to come to such a thing, and Harry sure as hell wasn’t going to be caught dead there, and what did they think, I should be the one to go, because I’m obviously the whole problem here? And I started crying, and sweet little Amy put her hand on my arm and said no, no, that’s not what this is about, and suddenly I didn’t think I could stand to hear her sweet little voice another second. I pulled my arm away and got ready to bolt, but then Ms. Pinkle spoke again, and she sounded tired, as if she was having to plow through this but had to anyway. “Listen, you’re worried about him, we’re worried about him. He’s gotta stop doing this kind of thing, and we’ve gotta come up with a way to do that. Maybe we’re not going to come up with anything right this minute, but we’ve got to work on it, and meanwhile I know Mr. Tarkington is going to have to do what the handbook requires to keep Harry from being anywhere near Tomas.” Now Mr. Tarkington turned red and a couple of the other teachers squirmed in their chairs and a couple more nodded, apparently pissed at Tarkington too, and I started to get mad again, but then I saw Ms. Pinkle had tears in her eyes, too, like maybe she didn’t know what to do but wasn’t really against me or Harry after all.

So I said thank you, that seems fair, and Amy said she thought we needed to meet again in a month to see how things were progressing, and I got up in a blur and said good bye and nodded all around, and I drove home without noticing anything along the way.

When I got there I just sat in my chair in the den and sat and thought. I thought about how different Karly was, always friendly to everyone and sociable and getting pretty good grades, and kind of taking over whenever she was home, like she’d been doing, come to think of it, since she was not much more than 12. She used to take Harry to the town pond after school when I was still working, and when I’d pick them up I’d find them sitting there in their towels, and sometimes she would have bought him an Icee or something over at Drummond’s, and they’d have blue or red lips and tongues, and wave at me when I drove up. He was good as gold for her, but happy too I thought, full of jokes and hugs, and calling out to the other kids who were coming and going. And then there was that day when just as I pulled up he tripped going to throw his cup away and bashed the side of his head on the concrete divider, and the blood started to gush, and he ran to Karly, who clutched him tightly, but when he heard me call out and saw I was there he ran to me, sobbing not so much in pain but in fear at all the blood, and Karly held one of the towels to it and someone called James and he raced over from work, there in ten minutes and the blood slowing some by then, and he took us to the emergency room. Harry wouldn’t let go of my hand the whole time they put the stitches in, his eyes fixed on me, still scared, until they were done, and then his dad rumpled his hair and called him brave and Harry finally smiled. When we got home, Karly rinsed the towel in the sink and then put it in the washer without even being asked. I put my arm around her and said I was glad she’d been there and she put hers around me and said I’m glad YOU were there.

I missed her and wished she’d just gone to CCV for her first two years so she could live at home, and I wondered if she’d come back to Rutland after college or just move somewhere even further, like Burlington, or who knows, even Boston, and then when would I ever get to see her? And how I’d tried so hard to be there for my mom after Dad got killed that February, drunk on the pass, no guard rails there yet, and I tried to comfort her for years and help with Brandon, who was so little he barely knew what was going on, or so I’s thought, but Brandon told me years later he thought, like I did, that as awful as it was when it happened, maybe it would be a sort of relief to Mom after everything she used to go through, but she just got harder and meaner. I swore I would never be like that, and I haven’t been, and I swore I’d never let a man hit me, and James never has, even when he’s so mad at me he’s about to explode, and he doesn’t drink a drop, and I wondered, when he works so late, does he really have to or is it just easier than being at home? I’ve tried so hard to do things right, but it turns out that’s still not enough. And I started to wonder, someday when Harry was really angry or disgusted with me, would he hit me? Was he a mean kid? Was he a bully? Because you can’t just leave your child the way you can your husband, even if I had wanted to. And I cried again.

It was dark when Harry came in, and I was still sitting there. He was quiet for a minute and then asked, “So, did you go?” I looked at him and said, “Yes, I went.” I didn’t know what to say, and finally I said,”I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what we’re going to do,” and he said, his face a little scared, like the kid I remember, “I don’t know either.”

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