Serving as a school principal meant I became a personage of importance to some degree in town. Not important in the way a wealthy stock broker could be important at the country club, but important to parents, even the parents at the country club. To them I had special knowledge about the quality of the schools in the community, and because of that power over the destiny of their children. Like an inside stock pick, parents were eager to find the schools and teachers that were “good.” They defined “good” as being effective for the learning of their children, emotionally nurturing to their children, and a high quality curriculum.
But this also meant not being distracted by too many wild or poverty stricken kids who brought not only lice and scabies, but also something worse. They could bring their unemployed, poorly educated, and druggy families into contact with the children of the hyper-involved middle class parents who more than anything wanted to see success of their own children. You can’t blame them. Who wants their kids to be failures? These parents already know their kids are commodified and are trying to deal with it early. Middle class parents thought, “Want your daughter to be friends with a future jailbird? Not really.” So they guarded their kid’s contacts in groups such as soccer teams and schools. So I was rarely surprised when I was asked to give an opinion on a teacher or school—which was also a dog whistle question about who the classmates would be. Since the schools were often the only hope for these kid with problems, I didn’t want to stigmatize them (or mine) so I normally gave vapid generic answers like, “All the quantitative measures of curricular quality seem to average out among pedagogic styles of the schools and teachers.”
But I was very surprised on a special day, the day of my vasectomy when this topic came up. I lay on my back on the table, feet in the stirrups, fairly embarrassed that the nurse was attending this surgery and hearing the traditionalist doctor lecture me about remaining faithful to my wife once I was checked out as ‘shooting blanks,’ as he described it. But while I thought she would leave the role of discussant in our session to the doctor, the nurse joined right in and she asked me, “So, which are the good schools in our town?”
I replied, “You have me at a disadvantage, nurse.”
With that, she hit the exposed vas deferens with the electric cauterizing gun that the doctor earlier explained would help insure the best seal after he cut them, but also made me jump like the frog I resembled on that table.
“OK, I’ll talk, “ I said. “Maple Street School, my school, is great but stay away from Mesa Elementary.”
With that she hit me again and my legs jumped again. “What about Center Street School,” she demanded?
“It’s average, 2nd grade great but 5th grade is awful,” I confessed.
I don’t know if it was her newfound sense of power or if it was medically necessary but she got me a couple more times with the electric cauterizing gun and I continued to answer any questions about schools she asked. The doctor seemed not to care, or perhaps he thought it was some kind of moral training that should include pain, pre-chastening, ahead of the supposed temptation that ‘shooting blanks’ was supposed to bring.
Back at home, I lay on my bed, frozen peas packed around my personal parts and drank several beers. But I felt fairly better the next day so I went back to work.
It was still early, before 9:00am when Maureen, a seasoned and delightful first grade teacher showed up at the office with little Harley (yes, after the motorcycle) in hand. She said to Harley, “Now just sit here on the principal’s bench in the hall while I talk to him about the trouble we had.”
Harley said, “OK,” and hitched himself up on the bench.
Maureen stepped into my office and closed the door. In mock outrage she said, “That kid called me a fat old bitch and I am very upset about it. I’ve been on diet for 2 months!” With that, we both laughed.
“I’ll talk to him and see what’s up,” I said.
Maureen left and I stepped into the hallway to talk with Harley. He looked up at me calmly as I asked him if he said bad words to the teacher. He nodded his head.
“Well then,” I said. “That usually means you are in some kind of trouble.”
With that Harley flipped out. “In trouble” was probably some kind of trigger to extreme punishment or something else in his experience. He jumped to his feet on the bench and started screaming in a pretty severe tantrum. He grabbed a picture from the wall and threw it down the hall. He then just began kicking the wall first with one foot, and then the next.
I grabbed him from behind by his shoulders to get control of him. This was legal at that time since there were no guidelines for restraining kids. But he was really fast. He spun around and grabbed my necktie, yanked me towards him and tried to kick me right in the groin. This caused me to jump backwards but Harley didn’t let go of my tie. I was stuck between protecting my groin and holding off Harley. Naturally I protected my groin and Harley swung in the breeze, yelling and banging off the walls as I turned from right to left in the hallway.
Harley finally calmed down and I was able to get him into my office where I could call his mother. The little boy began playing with the blocks and other toys I kept so parents and I could talk without interruption. His mother came immediately with her own father who started yelling as soon as he got into the office. “Why are you picking on Harley?” he shouted. “I’m calling the cops if you don’t stop picking on Harley!” I handed him the phone and said, “Call them now so we can get them to help in this situation.” He stopped yelling and stared at me for a bit. This method always worked since I had a hunch he really didn’t want to talk to any police officers.
When Harley’s grandfather finally calmed down I spoke with the mother about Harley. She said Harley had always been like this, unpredictable and crazy angry. She didn’t know what to do. I recognized the flat affect of this mother immediately. She really didn’t know what to do, and apparently had no choices about where she could live. I told them Harley should go home the rest of the day since we needed some time to organize a program for him. The mother agreed, appeared compliant and said she would be back in the morning for a meeting time I set with the other staff.
Unfortunately, Harley’s family didn’t show up, and I never saw Harley or his mother again. As far as the middle class parents in his class were concerned, this was a good thing. No crazy angry grandpa or other similar family, no drugs, no bad peer group membership for their kids. The teacher was still great. And I wasn’t about to call the nurse with the cauterizing gun to tell her that sadly, things had improved for her child in the learning environment of one of my first grade classrooms.