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

Augusta Throckmorton School.
 
Part Two.

At registration for the 1999-2000 school year I had a good time talking with some of the high school students. Eleanor was on a tear, though. One boy showed up with his hair dyed light blue and she ordered him off the premises until he returned it to the original blonde. And she berated one boy about his beard so badly he was led away crying by English teacher Ed Darby. I didn’t bother going to the in-service gossip-fest.

Though Ed was the same age as me, he seemed much older. He was fond of offering unsolicited advice, and figuring out what other people should do with their lives. What he was not was a good listener. He told me if I followed his advice, he would keep an ear to the ground with the administration, and tell me what I’d need to do to get hired full-time the following school year.

He suggested I make myself invaluable, to volunteer for things, sign up as a substitute teacher, find ways to make myself useful.

There had been an elevator in this building when it was the Augusta Throckmorton Dormitory, but when it was converted into the Augusta Throckmorton School the elevator was disconnected and the car stopped on the first floor and converted into a storage closet. One evening after school I spent several hours cleaning out that closet and re-organizing it.

After that I tackled the basement book stacks, which had become a catch-all for outdated textbooks, broken lamps, and other crap no one wanted to repair or carry the extra twenty-five feet to the dumpster. I stayed late several evenings, and then, over the Christmas break, stayed late into the night. I stirred up so much dust it set off the fire alarm twice. I also filled up the school dumpster to the rim twice. Ed came to check on me. He folded the seats down in his SUV and we tossed the rest of the old textbooks and other crap in there, drove them to my apartment complex, and filled up the two dumpsters there.    

I served as an exam proctor, which was pretty fool-proof work. I read out the instructions, told the kids when to start, read the paper for a few hours, then told the kids to stop. Spoiled Cara Bloom got mad at me when I wouldn’t let her continue to write after the exam time ended.

I was asked to sub for an art class with five high school boys. The boys started to work on their projects and I began doing the “New York Times” crossword puzzle. The guys said they normally worked with music playing. I saw a big CD player on a table. I knew that whole part of the building was empty at that time of day, so I said as long as they kept the noise down, it was okay with me. They went next door into the Music classroom and came back with some CDs. They put on a funk compilation.

When “Love Roller Coaster” by the Ohio Players came on, I told them how, when I was a kid and this song was popular, an urban legend sprang up about a scream that comes up in the background. The story was that when the band was recording the song a woman was murdered in the adjoining studio, and the microphone picked up the sound. Well, naturally we had to play the song over and over about ten times.

Years later I ran into one of those boys in a video store and he confessed that the only thing he remembered learning in that school year was my “Love Roller Coaster” story.

Administering the Federal funds was a bit of a pain in the ass, but I tried to keep it simple. About $2,000 of it went to buy news books for the Library, which doubled the skimpy annual budget I had from the school.

We had funds available so our math and science teachers could take career enrichment courses, but none of them gave enough of a damn to take the classes.

I didn’t bond with many of the other teachers. Some were okay, but many were rather stuck-up. I was surprised to learn, when I tried to talk with them, that most were completely ignorant of any topics outside of their area of specialty. Never mind that many of them had Ivy League educations.

I had to go to meetings twice a year for my Federal fund duties. These were always held on Austin Independent School District property, usually at some school that was way the hell away from my neighborhood. The public school teachers were a little less pretentious than those at my school, but they seemed either a little more scatter-brained  or obsessed with administrative, bureaucratic regulations. The latter wanted to divide up their funds in the most complicated way possible, and it took them several hours to fill out their Federal forms. Since I kept my allotments simple, I was able to skip out of the meetings early.

Once in awhile I felt I got to even the odds. When almost the entire Eighth Grade class was picking on one boy for being a geek, I made them back off, and threatened them with detention unless they shut the fuck up. Another time some girls were picking on a boy, taunting him, and accusing him of being a “faggot.” I gave those girls such a tongue lashing and made them look so ridiculous in front of their classmates that they never bothered that boy in my presence again. I didn’t know if he was gay or not, and he was probably too young to know himself, but I did know he’d had a difficult childhood, and I felt sorry for and even protective of him.

One day I came to work and saw about four older men in suits milling around in the Library. I went into the office to ask who they were and was told they were representatives of the Gideons International, there to give a presentation on Jesus and give the kids Bibles. I took Ben, the Texas history teacher, aside and muttered,

–Well, I guess that kills my plan for an afternoon screening of “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.”  

Another time our British PE instructor announced that we’d soon be having a school Games Day. Among the traditional English events would be something called “Wellie Wanging.” Students would be trained beforehand, so they would know how to properly compete in these games.

I took Ben aside yet again and told him,

–There’s not a teenage boy alive that needs lessons on how to wang his wellie.

The Library was the red-headed step-child of the school. No one had any respect for the idea of it. I think the only reason Eleanor even had a library was because it was required for the school to be accredited. Any time I pushed for the Library to be expanded, she’d say it wasn’t necessary, that the students could go over to the UT campus nearby and use the libraries there.

Students were allowed to run amuck in the Library before school and during lunch, and “After Care,” which had some supervision, was held there after school. The little bastards climbed the bookcases like ladders, pummeled shelves with their fists until they broke apart, and tossed large books onto the floor and, using them as surf boards, skidded on them across the carpet. A large part of my work day was devoted to picking up bits of toys, drink bottles, and candy wrappers that had been pushed into hidden nooks. Nobody in the school gave a good goddamn about ending this state of affairs.

The Library had been a drawing room in the days when the building was a dorm, and the chief feature of the room was a fireplace. In addition to the ugly tables, my desk, the magazine rack, and a few other cabinets, Eleanor had also crammed into the room a grand piano, an electric organ, and an antique pump organ that didn’t work. The curtains dated back to the dormitory days, and were seldom cleaned out of fear that they’d disintegrate.

Even after I got a new computer, one the kids didn’t vandalize, Eleanor used to make me hide it under my desk whenever she’d have a reception in the room. This was because she found computers and other modern appliances ugly.

The kids kept breaking bookshelves and so our shelving capacity kept going down. I made some architectural sketches showing how we could add several new, simply-constructed, and sturdy bookcases without changing the arrangement of the room too much. I showed them to Eleanor, but she shook her head.

–Thank you, J___, but we really couldn’t do this without sacrificing the room’s chief function as a lovely drawing room.

Eleanor also believed that books should be stored in rooms all over the school, in what she called “branch libraries,” which were either classrooms or the froofy sitting rooms she was always decorating in obscure corners and awkward spaces in the building. “The Fairy Room,” for example, was decorated in a storybook motif, and was an excellent place for lower-grade teachers to take their young students for story time.

But some of the bookshelves were located in a niche along one wall. There was a concrete ledge, three or four feet high and covered with carpet, and reached by a narrow spiral staircase, the perfect  size for little kids, but too small for adults. There was maybe three or four feet of headroom between the ledge and the ceiling, which meant that if I wanted to straighten or inventory the books on those shelves, I had to do it on my hands and knees. There was a similarly charming, yet inconvenient nook on one end of the stacks room.

There were three separate card catalogues, none of which were up-to-date.

Because there was no central storage place for the book collection, no accurate catalogue, no supervision of the children in the Library during most of the day, no library security system, and no officially observed check-out system, I had no idea of our complete holdings. When a child wanted a book he took it home and never brought it back. If he wanted to destroy it, there was a good chance it would never be replaced. If it was replaced, there might not be a shelf on which to place it.

It goes without saying I never got to teach the smaller kids library skills, though I campaigned for it, and some parents and teachers asked me about it.

Nobody gave a damn, and I wondered why I did.

Some parents started donating books to the Library. Initially we got some good books, but then I noticed the quality of the donations going down. The parents were just dropping off the crap they’d cleared out of their attics and garages. I started taking these books over to Discount Book City, selling them, and using the proceeds to buy books we actually needed.

Eleanor had been named for her aunt, and after the aunt died, her husband donated her library to the school. Most of these books were dusty “Book-of-the-Month-Club” selections from the 1950s, or turgid anti-communist material by J. Edgar Hoover or the John Birch Society, but there were a  few respectable selections that I could add to the Library collection, though I knew no one would ever look at them. Most of the donation stayed in the basement stacks.

I suggested we name the Library after the aunt. Eleanor loved the idea. I had a brass plaque made and installed over the door. There was a big ceremony with speeches, photos, and refreshments. But my brown-nosing did me no good with Eleanor.

I continued substitute teaching. I sat in on Kindergarten, Spanish, German, English, government, PE, and geography classes. In the geography class I had to put on a “Lonely Planet” where an Australian traveler visited Indian. Isaac and his buddy Jake made a vulgar comment in an Aussie accent and I laughed until I cried. I laughed so loudly that half of the class thought I was going to have a heart attack and the other half laughed along with me. Eventually another teacher came to the door to see if someone was getting injured. I calmed down, then thought of the joke two minutes later and began laughing again.

I helped out at a recess. Fourth-Graders were playing on the steep hill behind the school, gathering large rocks. The boys were building a fort. The girls were building a play house, with a big stone seat.  Suddenly I took over and began supervising the construction project, and felt a re-awakening of a sense of play that had died decades before.

Over the next few days and weeks I heard reports that the play house and play fort were getting bigger. I felt strangely proud. But other kids who had recess at a different time wanted to use the stones to build different things.

There was a new, humorless, stick-in-the-mud teacher with the preposterous name of Kenny Van Augustine, the kind of guy who wore a necktie with a short-sleeved shirt. Nobody liked him. When he’d approach the teacher’s table in the cafeteria at lunch, conversation would dry up. He was very much a law-and-order asshole, an unpleasant disciplinarian, and it was no secret he wanted to become Principal.

The last I heard he had stuck his fucking nose into the stone fort/play house matter and turned it into a major controversy. He even gathered students from the various grades involved, held a meeting, and had a formal agreement written up and signed. The fort/play house was dismantled and strict rules were imposed for what was to be done with the stones at every recess.

What a cocksucker. Some people just cannot let kids be kids.    

Every time I substituted in PE I insisted on wearing a windbreaker and a silver whistle, so I could look like a coach.

One day I was called in to sub PE for a class of Fourth-Graders (Why was it always them?), but since it was raining, I had to keep the kids indoors in the small basement room we had furnished as a gym. The PE instructor had not left me a lesson plan for a rain day, so I went into the equipment room and tried to figure out what we could do.

While I was rummaging in a box the kids came into the room and started grabbing equipment. Two boys grabbed long, hollow plastic tubes and naturally began sword-fighting with them. I totally forgot my age and station as a supposedly responsible adult and, as I had out on the playground, reverted to a child. I grabbed two plastic tubes, and the battle was on.

Soon I had about five or six little kids coming at me from all directions. I was fighting them with two tubes at once, giving them my best “Seven Samurai”/“Phantom Menace” moves. I was even fending off attacks from behind. They had the speed and youth, but I had the training, having taken fencing in college. They gasped over what amazing sword-fighting skills the fat Librarian had.

(This was the second time I’d fenced with a student. The previous year, I had a study hall with four Eighth Grade boys and needed to do some work down in the stacks. I made them go with me. During the period I started using a feather duster. Jake grabbed another and held it like a sword, and we began dueling, and easily kicked his ass.)

Everything was great until little Christopher came at me from my blind side. I accidentally whacked him square in the face and he began crying loudly. I tried to calm him down, mostly to make sure he didn’t run upstairs and rat me out and get me fired. He finally chilled out, I put away the plastic tubes, and brought out a red gym ball and herded everybody into the gym.

A few minutes later someone threw the ball and it hit Christopher in the face and he started crying again. And about forty-five minutes later we were all in the cafeteria, eating lunch. Someone accidentally knocked a container of chocolate milk all over Christopher’s pants, and damned if he didn’t start crying again.

I had very few disciplinary powers. I was able to send middle-school and high school students to detention, but not elementary kids, and since I wasn’t an official teacher, I gave no grades. I couldn’t really yell at the kids or do much else to control them.  

So one day I had a study hall which consisted mostly of, you guessed it, Fourth-Graders. They were making a lot of noise and refusing to shut up. I decided that when I looked up, whichever ones I saw when I looked up, were going to be punished.

I picked three kids, one of them Christopher. I said,

–You, you, and you—come here.

And I made each one stand with his or her nose in the corner. The noise stopped immediately, though Christopher started crying quietly.

A few minutes later the school secretary, a funny, gregarious, little Italian woman with whom I got along well, came into the room to deliver a phone message to some kid. As usual, she had a big smile. She asked what was going on with the three kids and I explained I was punishing them for talking.

She gave her message, then went back to the office. A few minutes later, Ed came in. He’d been principal since Patsy left over the Christmas holidays. (I suspected she’d gotten pregnant, and since she wasn’t married, she quit so as not to face Eleanor’s wrath.)

Ed asked if he could speak with the three kids in his office. About five minutes later the kids came back into the Library and Christopher ran across the room, crawled under a couch, and began crying again. Then Ed asked if he could speak with me in his office. All the children let out a mocking “Ahhhhhhhhhhh” sound. I was extremely embarrassed and felt like a little child myself.

Ed told me the secretary was furious when she saw I had the kids with their noses in corners, and considered it tantamount to corporal punishment. Ed said that in the future, if I had any trouble with any kids, I should just send them to his office, rather than trying to handle it myself. I’d never felt so impotent.

Ed was leaving at the end of the spring term to go start a charter school. This left an opening for high school English teacher, a job we agreed I could do on my head. One day I passed Eleanor in the hall and told her I’d heard of the opening and wanted to submit my name in consideration.

Eleanor was polite, though condescending. She treated me the way she’d treat an addled child who’d brought her a “bouquet” of wild flowers just yanked out of the dirt in a clump:

–Thank you, J____, for that. Really…thank you.

(The staff and administration always called me by my first name, the same as they did the janitor. I was apparently not worthy of being addressed by my surname.)

I told Ed about this and he explained that from what he gathered, Eleanor would never hire me in a full-time teaching position because I’d only gone to Sam Houston State University. She liked to impress parents of potential students when she took them around on tours, and since she had so many teachers that were Ivy Leaguers, someone from a minor state college just wouldn’t fit.

Ed believed that Eleanor would probably keep me on as a part-time librarian as long as I wanted to stay, but I’d never be promoted to full-time anything. In other words, his year-long program of ass-kissing had been a waste of time. He frequently asked me what I wanted to do with my life, but would not wait around for the answer. He thought I needed to become a professional librarian.   

–You could start out getting some experience working at the Library downtown.

–Well, that’s kind of a nasty place, what with all those homeless people there….  

–Then after you sock away some money, enroll in Library School at San Marcos.

–Actually, from what I’ve read, that program is not accredited….

–You’ll love San Marcos! It’s a great small town!

–I really hate small towns….

–And you can go to class in the morning, then hang out in the afternoon on the river and go tubing.

–I don’t really like to do outdoor stuff….

And it went on like that for awhile, day after day, with him never listening to my feeling, opinions, or objections.

I knew I really didn’t fit in at this school. When the old janitor told me that students used to sneak up into the attic to have sex until he had a padlock put on the attic door, I was more amused than appalled. When students in the Senior Lounge were listening to such “improper” novelty songs as “Boys in the Hood” by Dynamite Hack or “The Bad Touch” by Bloodhound Gang, I made them turn the music up rather than off.

When I caught a student eating candy I’d just watched her steal out of a friend’s purse, and made a comment about it, she said,

–Well, ordinarily, Mr. B_____, you’d be correct. But we’re currently in the Matrix, so nothing is really as it seems to be. This is all a figment of your imagination.

I was impressed that she could think so quickly on her feet, and left her alone to enjoy the rest of her stolen treat.

During the last period of every day the teachers and kids of “After-Care” flooded into my Library. I resented the intrusion, and asked if it could be moved into the Cafeteria, where was much less for the children to destroy, but I was told by the indignant administration that “After-Care” had always been held in the Library, and parents who had become used to going in the front door and turning right, would not want to suddenly have to start turning left instead.

But because this damnable practice trumped my sovereignty as Librarian, I had to move my last period study hall to a different room. After a time in sitting room on the second floor, I finally transferred operations to the third floor Computer Lab. I figured if I wasn’t allowed to do my work, I wasn’t going to sit around and be bored, so I spent the hour farting around online, as did all my students.

I gave Eleanor my notice, then fell into a depression lasting a few days. Then my friend Carter Newton told me he’d visited the homepage of uRb-N-gUyDz-.com and saw they were looking for a Food and Drink Editor. I applied for the job, using a piece I’d written about the Food Channel for Carter’s website as a writing sample. One afternoon in the Computer Lab I had a lengthy online chat with the outgoing Food Editor, and the longer we talked, the more excited we both got. It looked like I might be the ideal candidate for the job, but of course, I had to interview for it first.    

Though I started my new job in June, I also stayed employed by the school over the summer, as I’d agreed to handle the ordering of the textbooks for the 2000-2001 school year. This meant I had to go by the school after work, at night, or on my days off. First, I had to go through every room in the building and inventory all the textbooks they had on hand, so I could know how many extra to order, and as I recall the ordering process wasn’t exactly streamlined either. It took some doing to get the orders correct.

I’ve always been scared of walking into darkened rooms, and an eighty-year-old, four-story brick building with creaky floors and other odd sounds was not the right place for me. I marveled how, even without the presence of teenagers, the building’s fourth floor still retained its legendary odor of stinky feet. I sat up using a computer in the Computer Lab late into the night. I read through student’s personal records in the front Office, and made innumerable photocopies on the Xerox machine.

One evening I showed up for work and couldn’t get the front door lock to work. I found a clothes hanger abandoned in the parking lot, and though I’m scared of heights, I climbed the fire escape on the east side of the building, trying the windows. Then I moved over to the first floor fire escape window off the cafeteria, found the latch only partially closed, jimmied it open with the clothes hanger, and tumbled into the room as the burglar alarm sounded. I ran to the Office as the security company called and told them not to send the cops out. Then I did whatever pressing work I needed to do.

The next time I came to work Eleanor was there with a new janitor/maintenance man. It turns out she’d fired the previous one and changed the locks, which was why I hadn’t been able to get in the front door. I told her how I’d managed to get in with a clothes hanger and she turned pale. A look of horror crossed over her face that she had ever employed someone who was such a skilled second-story man. She had me show her how I’d gotten in, and she ordered the maintenance man to have new security alarms and locks installed on all the windows.

I finally turned my keys in after school started in August 2000. I took a look around the school for old time’s sake. Most of the students were aloof with me, while a few ran up to greet me. About 70% of the entire faculty had left the school the same time I had. Most had quit in disgust over the way Eleanor was running things, but a few had been sacked. Not surprisingly, the rumor circulating among the students was that I’d been fired.

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