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RETIRING by Lucy Penumbra

Twenty-six days to go. Well, it’s time. It’ll all be in good hands with Tanner here, and whoever would have thought, in the year 1998, that I would be saying that? Well, he straightened himself out; most of the time I guess they do. Guess I did the same thing myself, for that matter, although that kind of wildness, well, we didn’t see that around here back when I was in school. Over in Springfield, I should say, since we didn’t open up here until the year before I came on, ’85. Thirty years. Thirty years.

Yes, it’s certainly time. Donna’s been after me for five years now, and I know she’s right. We don’t see enough of the grandkids, don’t get to Maine as much as we’d like, and I do know my back aches at the end of the day more than it used to. Still, I think I would have gone another two or three, at least, if I just wasn’t so darn down-hearted about the things I’ve been seeing here lately. This isn’t the place it used to be, and I’m not talking about the library renovations or the student store. I mean the way things are done, the way people feel. It all looks very nice these days, and I don’t just mean to credit myself: the red tile and the whiteboards and the hand dryers, that’s all better, all very nice. But for two years I’ve been seeing more people angry or crying or hiding from something than I can about stand any more, and I am pretty sure they’re not going to be listening to me to know how to fix it.

I suppose the first time I saw something that just wasn’t right was about two and a half years ago. It was the day they called the cops in to take away that boy that was shouting. He was saying awful things, pure filth coming out of his mouth, tears and snot coming out of him too, throwing off the staff who tried to hold him. Ms. Welling told me later he had been in a fight with one of those Crichton brothers, Randy I think it was, tried to punch Randy out because he called his sister a whore, or worse. Then Mr. Tarkington had called them both in the office and suspended Bruce, that’s who it was, five days longer than Randy because he threw the first punch and he’d already been suspended twice for some stupid stuff, and then, now Tina told me this later, because she was right next to his office, told him that would bring him up to twenty days for the year so he couldn’t graduate. That, and that Randy had been holding sway over every teacher and half the kids in that place for nearly two years, insulting them, threatening them, even threw down that desk in Mr. Halfitz’s class that one time, but hardly got more than a talking to, and everybody knew it was because his dad was on the Board. Thing is, I felt sorry for him too. Nobody to tell him no. Fact is, Tanner here was just as big a jerk in his way, but he had folks to straighten him out in time. Who knows, maybe Randy did too; I heard he dropped out and moved to Massachusetts, and I wouldn’t bet on it, but who knows, maybe he got himself right too. I just know it was Bruce who had the cops called on him, and Tina said Tommy was cool as cucumber doing it, and said he told Pete Lander when he showed up for Bruce that he was filing assault charges against him. I went home that night feeling like something was really wrong there, and I don’t know about the assault charges, but sure enough Bruce didn’t graduate. I saw him just a couple weeks ago, doing some mowing for the town, but he nodded at me like he still had some shame, like he still was seeing things weren’t going to pan out for him in this lifetime.

That just upset me for days when it happened, I guess because I knew that boy had a good heart, and what did the trouble come from? From defending that crazy mixed-up sister of his, and that was a good-hearted thing to do, too. Bruce was the one who used to tromp down to the lower level, I say tromp because he was kind of awkward and always wore those beat-up combat boots, and help Lucy bring the snacks to the day-care, carrying the trays or rolling the cart and then just smiling at those kids, even those twins who had something wrong with them, something genetic, I think. Rita Frazier used to let him be late to World Studies to do it, and you know if anybody tried that now they would say it wasn’t proper use of class time. Since Rita retired, I think Tarkington’s got most of the teachers toeing the line, scared to do or say anything to cross him. Well, most of them. But I guess it’s really since that fight that I started to notice, and not just how he did things, but how the others started looking scared, except for the Smilers.

That’s what I call them, or at least how I think of them; only Donna knows I call them that. Last year he got that new little posse, those two young ladies, Allison Ramirez and that other young one, and then Mr. Brisby, all high talk and good cheer, and something about their smiles just wasn’t right. There was something false there. Every time I scooted through a faculty meeting to empty the trash cans, it was them who was talking, and the way they talked, you would think those other teachers didn’t have a brain in their heads, just dying for these young pros to tell ’em something. I would see a few teachers roll their eyes, sometimes even stop themselves from laughing, but most of them, they were just too polite to call them on anything. Just too polite. I’d go in the Smiler classrooms and same thing, the kids scared or something, just polite and talking just right, only right answers, and those two smiling big and keeping it all in order. Something wasn’t right. Tommy Tarkington sure loved them, though, making them heads of departments, throwing over Rita in Social Studies, and I know she was mad, but she could just decide to get out. She’d had enough.

I started seeing some kids just hanging in the halls, snarls on their faces, sauntering slow as Grade B syrup when anyone told them to get to class, and Brisby just talking to them like they were something too precious to disturb, almost begging them to go to class like a personal favor. They’d get those same fake smiles like the new teachers, start for class but still slow, slow, and you could tell they didn’t respect him, just like, come to think of it, you could tell those new teachers didn’t respect the old teachers, thought they didn’t have a clue. And that’s not right, because if you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you know these teachers who’ve been around awhile, they deal with crap every day you just wouldn’t even know to expect.

And then I started remembering back when I first came and Don Wilder was teaching Math here, real funny guy, said things you just couldn’t say around here any more, like jokes with a little hint of sex to them, what was that one, about the penguin and the Doberman? He was kind of a slob, too, shirt always untucked, hair messy, getting there late most days, just in time for class to start. Like I said, I was new then, just trying to hold on to a job for once, so it made me pretty nervous to see, and he wasn’t much younger than me. I was sure he was not going to stay long. But then I started seeing how he encouraged those kids, staying after to keep ’em going, not just the ones going to college, learning Calculus and all that, but those who were having trouble just getting their fractions down, and those kids started shining, knowing they could make it.

So when it came out he was going through a divorce, and his clothes were not just sloppy but they weren’t clean, man, I was really worried about him, and when I caught him taking a nip out of a flask in his desk drawer one afternoon, I had to speak up, I had to say, Man, these kids need you, and you’re gonna get yourself fired, and you’ve gotta pull yourself together, and he looked glum and scared. Sure enough, one day he came just about stinking, and when that little group of girls that was always hanging in the bathroom came in late again, he asked them, “So, what, you think you can just come to class whenever you feel like it? We started five minutes ago, and you can just get the hell out and march yourselves to the office.” Sure enough, they told Mrs. Palmer he was drunk, and some other kids came down later and said the same thing, and next period they pulled him into the office.

But Palmer knew she had a good teacher, even before I knew it, and she knew sometimes people go through some things and just are not at their best. I know she did because he told me, caught me in the hall and said she was giving him a month off to get his shit together, his words not mine, and he thanked me for being honest with him, took a medical leave and got a sub, and you know, he did, too, and if any parents had complained, Palmer must have had some way to shut them up, and when Don got back, he was better. Five years later he married that speech therapist they had for awhile, and they moved to California, had a couple of kids I heard. And do you think Tarkington would ever in a million years have done something like that for a teacher? No, never in a million years. Mrs. Palmer was probably the best we’ve had, and she stayed until she was sixty-nine, Donna sent in crab Rangoon and sugar cookies for her retirement party, and Rita and Hank and those of us who’d been there almost from the start knew it was a sad day for the school.

We went through three principals in between. First Francie Hilliard in Counseling became the interim, that lasted a year and a half, and even she knew that was kind of a mistake, almost a joke, because she didn’t have any idea of what she was doing, and that meant nobody much else did either, except for Tina, who probably really ran this place more than anyone else for awhile. People don’t realize, think she just sits at that desk and answers phones, but she knows everything that goes on around here, and she’d remind Francie of the meetings and covering cafeteria duty and when to call the town sheriff to find out about snow days. That was okay, because the staff then had been around awhile, and they knew how to pretty much run their own show. Then that Ryan Henley came, Mr. All-Business and Have Another Meeting Henley, I heard some teachers call him, and suddenly there were Saturday Schools and Workplace Initiatives and Circles of Compassion, all sorts of buzz words, and before he could do too much harm he went on to be Superintendent up the road in the Northeastern district–what he really wanted all along, I think. And then that joker Michael Madrona, who lasted less than a year before they found him in his car in the back lot with a student, and Francie had to step in for the last two months of school, and Tina had to remind her to get her remarks ready for graduation. And by that time the Board was needing to prove itself–well, at least long-timers Grotsky and Crichton and Maria Flood, who’s on five boards in town and teaches part-time at Bentley Academy and always knows just what we need here, or so she thinks. They started what they called a Nationwide Search but really I think every college with an Administrator’s Certificate program within 200 miles sent their new graduates our way, ready to whip us into shape and bring us into the 21st century, whether that was a good thing or not. The night they interviewed Tommy Tarkington he brought all sorts of graphs and PowerPoints to show them, asked me to set it all up, and if you ask me he was obfuscating their view with all his science so they didn’t think to ask if he had any common sense. They were all real excited when they hired him, introducing him to the faculty like he was the answer to their prayers, and when someone sent an anonymous letter to all the teachers saying he was a jerk of a boss back when he sold fitness memberships in Boston, nobody paid it much mind.

And he may have just been a salesman, “IMHO” as my granddaughter says, but this dude was determined to show he could make this school into something. He had Community Forums and Library Fundraisers and came to every game and exhibit, stood in the halls every morning and said hi to all the kids, grinning at them and always looking nice in a tie or at least a starched shirt, which Tina told me his wife pressed for him. He started the Excellence Initiative and made speeches every chance he could about how We Can Do Better and Our Children Deserve More. The year started out pretty cheery for us all, but then I started to notice some things about how he spoke to people. When Alan Corning quit the Art department without even having another job to go to, I wondered but thought, well, he’s just being artistic. Rita retired, but she was probably going to anyway, at least in another 5 or 6 years. Then that fight happened, and Bruce was gone, and I started to feel grim about going to work.

By the end of the year, the Tonklin boys and Lizzie Chesterton were gone, and Ms. Pinkle heard him say it was just as well, since they were bringing down the test scores, anyway, and since Ms. Flood had nominated him for Regional Educator of the Year, those data points were something they really needed. Theresa Jones left at the end of that year, after only one year here, and she could see what was what, and teaching Science she knew she could get a job just about anywhere. Francie tried to talk to him once, tell him some of the kids needed less pushing, not more, but he made it clear it was his way or the highway, and she backed off, trying to smile like the rest of his posse, join the Movement.

And then, last year, he went after Clyde Falbey. Clyde had been our librarian for ten years, taking over from Mrs. Biddle, who barely let the kids take out any books, much less actually make themselves at home in the library. I saw on the Annual School Report how he had increased circulation 300%, and every day you saw kids in there, for class yes, but also just to hang by the desk, asking him, what should I read next Mr. Falbey? Sometimes he’d get stressed, with every teacher asking him to pull books on this subject and that, and teach Media Techniques, and cull and order books by the deadlines, and once he snapped at me because he said the trash hadn’t been emptied in 4 days, but then he apologized when I told him I’d been out sick, that time I had the flu. Boy, you better believe I got the shot every year after that, things were such a mess when I got back–that was before Tanner came on under me, Abbie Straight couldn’t hustle for anything. So, I knew he was a little touchy about his library, but then when Tarkington started in on how they needed to remodel and ditch half the books and get those kids doing all their research online, Clyde became downright grumpy. What Sandra told me later was he started sending articles and things to Tarkington about his library philosophy, and that didn’t sit too well with Our Fearless Leader.

I guess this went on over the summer, too–sometimes I’d see both of them show up for a library meeting, along with Ms. Flood and that new science teacher, Allison? and the new board member, Arthur Drake. They had ’em in the library, and sometimes they’d have measuring tape with them and look at things on the computers, making plans. Then one day when I was doing the windows in there, trying not to listen but you really can’t help it, I heard Clyde getting angry and giving a sort of speech, how all these plans were about having a library that other people would think looks good but didn’t show any respect for books or any respect for kids, and then he, obviously talking to Tarkington, asked him if he even liked books, if he even liked to read.

Everybody got silent, and then Ms. Flood stepped in and said they all needed to just think about the matters at hand, and they took some sort of vote on the paint color, and Mr. Tarkington nominated the Bahama Sun and everybody voted with him except Clyde, who abstained, and then the meeting was over and the others left while Clyde went into his office to work.

A few minutes later, Tarkington was back again, walking fast, and I heard him go in the office, and then I heard him start yelling, “This stops now!” and that sort of thing. Then I heard Clyde saying, “I need you to back up, Mr. Tarkington, ” and next thing I know he’s calling out to ME to come over there please, and I look and I see Tarkington right up in his face, his own face red, a foot and a half talker than Clyde, at least. Then he turns and sees I’m there and backs up a little bit, then says, “We’ll discuss this on Monday,” and goes out. I ask Clyde if he’s okay and he’s shaking and sweating but he sys, “Yeah, thanks, Jim.”
A few days later Tarkington pulls me over and tells me I’m not supposed to talk to anyone about what happened in the library since “it’s a matter of confidentiality,” and I don’t say yes, but I say, “I understand,” and I told Donna about it, and she didn’t think he had the right to ask me that either. Then from what I understand the campaign to fire Clyde begins, such as having Brisby pop in and observe him five times a day, and if he happens to be sitting down or something at the time, he marks him down as “not interacting with students,” and I know this because Clyde showed me the little mini-reports, “walk-throughs” they called them, that he had copies of. Then some parents complained that Clyde had given their son inappropriate literature–some graphic novel of Greek myths the kid had checked out during his English class library time, one picture showed a boob on one of the goddesses I believe–and Clyde got called on the carpet for that, and instead of apologizing he talked about freedom and censorship, and suddenly he was being fired, escorted right out the door in the middle of the day like some criminal, the Hargrove sisters, two of his best patrons, one eighth grade and one a junior, in tears.

The union took his case, but when Clyde told them what I’d seen and that I would testify for him, they didn’t seem interested, and I found out later from Tina, who found out from her friend from the union at the elementary school who’d been at the arbitration, that Tarkington told them all that had happened that day was he went in to Clyde’s office to tell him they needed to work on their professional relationship and Clyde told him he wasn’t interested in that. Of course Tommy T. looks so professional and knows how to smile and use that folksy friendly way, and Clyde gets so worked up, he might have sounded a little off, and the union lawyer didn’t seem too concerned about bringing in any of the other things that had gone on, and so the arbitrator, who didn’t really know either of them and said, well, Tarkington is your boss, decided against Clyde. Now he can’t get a job anywhere, and he’s looked, I know Sandra’s in touch with him and tells me, but she says he may be working for Temp Services doing some kind of filing in Brattleboro, has his house on the market but may get foreclosed on, because no one will look at him as a librarian, and you don’t get unemployment if you get fired. It’s just a darn shame, and it’s not right, not at all, and the kids have lost a damn fine librarian, too.
There are some kids I’m really going to miss here. Those Hargrove sisters with their teasing ways, always reading, always said hi to me when I came through the library, and in the hall too, and always call me “Mister.” Fred Correia and Michael Berbinsky always help out when we’re getting ready for an assembly or a big game or anything, and nobody has to ask, they’re just right there helping me set up. That little shy one, Margot, who I found crying in the bathroom last year, she’s come a long way, and she always smiles at me real big. And the staff and the teachers, Tina and Francie, Hank in the wood shop, Sandra Welling, Cindy Blomquist, they’re all good people. And that new teacher, Ms. Pinkle, Dorothy it is. She’s actually the last person I found crying, in her classroom after everyone else had left, telling me she probably wouldn’t be here much longer because she told Tarkington he was a horse’s ass for making Margot keep reading in front of her class when he was in there observing, correcting every sound the child made until she almost went back to crying again when she hadn’t all year, and now he’d be after her like he was after Clyde, and everyone else too scared to speak up for her, and she hasn’t been here long enough to get tenure.

Well there isn’t too much I can do about that, but I’ve seen how she laughs with those kids, and how she makes ’em work hard, too, says no even to those what hasn’t got anyone else to laugh with or say no to them. I’ve been around long enough to see she’s got just what it takes, and if nobody else does, well that’s just a shame. That was last Friday, and she’s been out two days since, I’d imagine from the stress. I’ve got nothing else to lose here, no reason to hide what I think. Mr. Tarkington and his Smilers won’t be taking any of my advice, but I did write her a little note and stuck it in her front desk drawer so she’d find it when she comes back, and I said in it, You’re a great teacher, and the kids are lucky to have you, and don’t mind too much what anyone else says. That might not help her much if she loses her job, but at least she’ll know.

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