“Withholding.” (The Augusta Throckmorton School, Part I.)

Augusta Throckmorton School–1998-2000–2 years–Part-Time Librarian, Substitute Teacher, Textbook Buyer.

Part One.

On Saturday, August 15, 1998 I finally made my escape from Bryan/College Station. I had a crew of six or seven friends to help me move, and it took us about forty-five minutes to load the moving truck and a jeep with my dog Fred, my cat Poose, 7,000 books, and tons of other crap. I was so excited to see the last of that backwards little burg that I almost undid my pants and mooned the city limits sign, but restrained myself out of deference to the friend who was driving me.

We made excellent time, got to Austin, unloaded in thirty minutes, and I treated everyone to lunch. I started working at Augusta Throckmorton School in Monday the 17th, and after two days of registration and in-service, classes began on the 19th.

After my interview I was so happy. I was finally getting the fuck out of Aggieland, and I also thought I’d found an ideal work environment, where everyone was happy, pleasant, and civil, a place I where I could make myself at home for years.

But the in-service day began to reveal that the school was a truly peculiar place.

The Director, Eleanor Lathrop, was on first impression, a nurturing grandmotherly type. Her second impression was of a snobbish, social-climbing, intolerant political and cultural reactionary, who was determined to keep the modern world locked out of her school.      

The in-service sessions were held in the Library that was now my domain. The entire staff gathered around a collection of ugly, poorly-made plywood tables. All of the employees, old and new, were introduced. Then Eleanor and her Principal, Patsy Tucci, a young, slim, smiling blonde with a somewhat severe vibe, read aloud announcements about the upcoming year’s plans.

At one point Eleanor addressed herself to the chief PE and health teacher, and went on at length in a vague manner:

–…Miss Tate, if you would please, when you get to that unit in your health class that makes our young people so very uncomfortable, would you please give us some kind of advance warning, so we can be prepared if they start acting strangely?

I turned to a male teacher and muttered,

–Is she talking about sex ed?

–Yes.

Eleanor droned on, saying that perhaps we should contact Marywood, a Catholic home for unwed mothers who were studying at UT, and see if we could borrow their lifelike baby dolls, which cried and howled at odd hours of the day and night. Every teenager in the school, male and female, would be required to carry this doll around for several weeks, and this, she reasoned, would prevent them from having extramarital sex.

The second half of the day was devoted to an in-depth discussion of every student in the school from Grade 6 to 12. (Augusta Throckmorton was a K through 12 school with about 180 students in total.) I thought this discussion might be helpful, because I obviously didn’t know any of the students, but it mostly was a big gossip session. This student came from a troubled home. That one was dropped on her head as a child. This one had learning difficulties and problems with the hemispheres in his brain. That one’s parents didn’t think he was smart enough to go to college. This one had rich parents who loved to donate money to the school. That one’s mom wanted him to go to school at Oxford, while he wanted to open a surf shop in Maui.

One of the problems with this session was it created a false impression in my mind, and I started out treating students based on what others had said about them, only to find that those profiles were, for me, inaccurate.

Take for example, high schooler Hugo Hillford-Scott. He was supposed to be the school’s biggest trouble-maker, so when I got him in a class, I was wary and a bit chilly towards him. Though he looked like a regular American teenager, he was in fact British. His origins were only occasionally betrayed when he’d refer to his mother as “Mum,” or pronounce “garage” as “GARE-idge.”    

One day we got into a conversation and I found out he was from Twickenham-on-Thames. I asked,

–Wasn’t that where Alexander Pope’s villa was located?

Hugo brightened up and got very excited and confirmed what I’d already known. And I never had a second of trouble with him.

I had been warned that the high school was full of rowdy hooligans, but that the kids in the elementary and middle schools were angels. In fact, the opposite was the case. High schools got to go off campus for lunch, and I didn’t come to work until 12:30 in the afternoon. Many of the high schoolers would get stoned during lunch, so by the time I had to deal with them they were laid-back, quiet, and pleasant.

During my job interview, Eleanor had asked me if I wouldn’t mind also overseeing some study halls in the Library while I did my library work, and also handle the administration and distribution of Federal Title II, IV, and VI funds. I was so desperate to get hired that, as with other job interviews, I told Eleanor whatever she wanted to hear, and agreed to the extra duties without really thinking about them.

I soon realized that running study halls was going to be the main bulk of my work. Teachers would dump students into my study halls, and little children, pre-adolescents, and teens would be jumbled all together, not getting along, and making a tremendous noise. This would piss off the foul-tempered teacher who had the classroom next door to the Library, and she’d stomp off to the front office to complain that I wasn’t controlling my kids.

Cassandra, my predecessor as Librarian, still worked as a Fourth Grade teacher in the school, so she was handy to give me advice on how to proceed in certain areas, what to do, what not to do, and how to deal with those Federal funds.

The first time I worked as a substitute was when Cassandra had to go off to the dentist for an hour. Her children were monsters. I couldn’t get them to shut up or behave or listen to me. All they’d do was shout and giggle and mock me. When the bell finally rang everybody ran out into the hall to go on to their next class. I went to the water fountain and bent over to get a drink. Two of the Fourth Grade girls ran up behind me, and swatted me square on the ass with the palms of their hands. I turned around and scolded them, but they ran off giggling.

I told Cassandra and Patsy about this, and the next day the little girls were called into an office and lectured about why it was inappropriate to touch an adult’s ass.

Worst of all were the middle-schoolers. They were rude, willful, loud, destructive, arrogant, and disrespectful of authority. There was one boy, a fat little cocksucker named Isaac Bloom. (He and his stuck-up sister Cara had the surname “Bloom” while the parents went by “Blum.” Go figure.)

A parent donated two computers to the Library. Sure, they were probably ones he’d owned for years and wanted to dispose of, but that’s beside the point. Another parent, who was so rich he was already retired, though still in his thirties, offered to design a library cataloguing program to my specifications and load it to one of those computers. But when I wasn’t around, Isaac and his friends vandalized my computer, pulling out wires and breaking off pens and pencils any place they could stick them.

Isaac then made a rather bold charge in front of a group of students:

–Mr. B______, I think you’re an anti-Semite. You single me out because I’m Jewish.

And I responded,

–No, Isaac, I single you out because you keep acting like a jerk.

Most of the people who had kids in this school were nouveau riche, with newly-minted computer fortunes. Having their children in a private school was just one more step towards the creation of life as a perfect Ralph Lauren ad.

Some of the parents were fine people, but others were rotten. There were some women so rich they didn’t have to work, so they often came up to the school in the afternoon and gossiped in the front office. One of these women was Margo Swofford, a loud mouth from Fort Worth, who had initially seemed okay. In fact, when Cassandra insisted I waste one of my Saturdays and have a Library work day, Margo was one of the few parents that showed up, and she vowed to give me any kind of help in the Library I needed.

But one day I heard the very married Margo (who was married to a much older man who worked for my old nemesis Bob Munson at Minton-Caldwell Funeral Home), moaning in the office to another mother:

–I want me a cowboy.

The other mother said,

–I see cowboys all the time jogging around Town Lake in the evening.

–No, I don’t want me one of them rainbow flag-waving Midnight Cowboys—I want me a real cowboy—a Fort Worth cowboy!

Well, one afternoon, about a month into the Fall semester, Tracy, a loud, talkative, and very stupid Eighth Grader (she was the one who had been dropped on the head as a child), was holding forth about the times she’d been baby-sat by her much older cousin. The way she was talking it sounded like something inappropriate had happened, but she was too stupid to realize it. And I made the mistake of quipping, solely for my own amusement,

–He didn’t ask you to play “Glass-Bottomed Boat,” did he?

See, I had just spent the previous three-and-a-half years hanging around a bunch of adults with very vulgar senses of humor. And I had no experience being around kids, except for brief visits, twenty years before, with my dad’s feral grandchildren. I had remembered a series of old “Saturday Night Live” sketches where Buck Henry played a pedophilic uncle, who was often asked to babysit his nieces, and he’d have them sit atop a glass-topped coffee table in their night gowns, while he crawled underneath it and ogled them. This was called “Playing Glass-Bottomed Boat.”

I realized the second those words cleared my lips that I’d said something really fucking stupid.

Tracy asked what I was talking about. I refused to tell her, and then she and all her rude, disrespectful little girl friends demanded I tell them. I refused. A few minutes later the final bell rang and as I was making my way out to the parking lot, Tracy’s friend Pamela Swofford, daughter of Margo, asked me what “Glass-Bottomed Boat” meant. Again, I wouldn’t say.

A few days later Patsy called me into the office. She said she had a lot of things to discuss with me. She asked about the “Glass-Bottomed Boat” line. I felt sick to my stomach, and thought I was going to black out, but I came up with a quick explanation and dismissed the question in a way that satisfied her without really answering her. Then she told me a parent had been going into a restaurant when she saw me coming out of an adult video store. The parent had decided that if I was coming out of an adult video store I must therefore be a pervert, and by extension, a pedophile.

I denied everything, saying I didn’t patronize adult video stores, that the only video stores to which I had a membership were Vulcan and I Love Video. But the parent, whom Patsy refused to identify, insisted that he or she had recognized my bike. Patsy was concerned because one male teacher had been fired the previous year because of his peculiar behavior toward the students, and many people thought he might be a pedophile. (For what it’s worth, this guy came sniffing around the school a couple times and I sensed a creepy vibe from him, but the students all assured me he was an okay guy.)

I walked back to the Library, just feeling sick. To be even suspected of pedophilia was beyond my understanding.

Then it came to me—the news stand!

I was a heavy smoker in those days, and every day at 12:20 I stopped by my neighborhood news stand to buy cigars, cigarettes, and newspapers, before making the five minute bike ride to the school. The front room of the news stand had racks of magazines and newspapers, and a humidor for tobacco, but there was a back room with a hidden entrance, where they sold pornographic magazines and videos. And now that I thought of it, the exterior of the building had signs advertising “ADULT VIDEO.” But I never thought of the news stand as a porn place because I never went into the back part of the store.

I went back to the office and explained this to Patsy, and added that though no one at the news stand knew my name, anyone there could testify as to what I did and did not buy every day.

She said that seemed like a good excuse, but she was bound to continue investigating the matter.

About a week later I came in to work and the middle school boys were wandering around in the Library, smirking. One of them, Dylan, couldn’t wait to talk to me.

–Well, Mr. B______….Ms. Tucci talked to us today about you.

–Oh, really?

–Yes.

–She talked to us quite awhile. She wanted to know if you’d ever done anything to us, or spoken or acted in any way that made us…uncomfortable.

Mother-fucker!         

I stormed down the hall and into the office and asked Patsy what this latest shit was about.

She said the same parent that had lodged the original complaint had seen me the previous Friday evening coming out of Pleasureland Adult Video. I said,

–Look, I did rent some videos Friday night at Vulcan, which is right next door to Pleasureland. I was in the parking lot in front of Pleasureland, but I live in this neighborhood, and from time to time I might walk past and adult bookstore or a head shop or some other unsavory place. That doesn’t make me some reprobate. But I am an adult, and sometimes I go downtown with my friends to a bar. Am I gonna have to look over my shoulder every time I take a sip of a beer in public, wondering that some Augusta Throckmorton parent is gonna see me and call the school and say, “Hey, that Mr. B______ is a hopeless alcoholic?”

–No, no. You’re an adult, and you can do whatever you want to do—whether it’s go to bars or watch adult videos. But understand, this is a delicate situation and this is a very excitable parent, and I have to handle this carefully….But one more thing?

–Yes?

–I got a report that you told some students your other job was as a pimp?

–What?

–You told students you were a pimp.

–No, I never…oh, wait—I bet that was Dylan Ruiz. Dylan was trying to act cute in front of his buddies and he said, “Mr. B____, we know you have another job. What is it? What else do yo do? You’re a pimp, right? I bet you’re a pimp, Mr. B_____!” And I said sarcastically, “Sure, Dylan, whatever you say. I’m a pimp.” But I was being sarcastic when I said it, because it was such a ridiculous thing for him to say.

I was allowed to worry about this shit for months. Then, on the last day before we let out for Christmas Break, everyone was standing around in the Library as some of the students were singing Christmas carols to piano accompaniment. Patsy sidled up behind me and whispered into my ear:

–J____, that business from earlier in the year is finally finished and your name’s been cleared. The parent that caused all the trouble was Margo Swofford. She realized she had been jumping to conclusions about you and had no cause to accuse you. You see, Pamela Swofford is desperate to be part of the popular clique of girls, but after hanging out with them all day she goes home and reports to her mom everything that’s happened at the school, and she flips out.

Nevertheless, for the remainder of the time Patsy worked at the school, every time she crossed the downstairs hallway and saw me sitting at my desk, she’d give me a strange look, as if she still wondered if I was all right after all. And I know that after I was suspected of that I felt I’d gotten the stink all over me, even though I’d been exonerated. Plus, when you’re a man in your thirties with no wife or girlfriend, people tend to talk. 

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