Black Tuesday (chapter one)
Early September, the day after Labour Day. Black Tuesday. Black Tuesday to all the children big and little who must go back to school. Summer over. No more goofing off. No more hanging out at the beach. No more riding bikes here and there with no particular plan. No more summer romances. Kids on the yellow school bus sharing their misery. “D’ya have a good summer?” “Not really, d’you?” “Na, it was pretty boring.” “What d’ya do?” “Nothing, went camping for a month.” “A month! How d’ya stand that? Where d’ya go?” “Ya know, out to Vancouver and back. Camped at Banff, crossed the Rockies, swam in the Pacific Ocean, went sea kayaking with killer whales. What a total drag! What about you?” “Oh my god! What a total bore! I mean totally. My parents dragged me to Paris. Did a house exchange in some old house. No cell phone, no friends, just a bunch of French people. And all the while we were there, some French people were living in our house, sleeping in my bed, using my computer. It gives me the creeps.” “Say, wouldn’t that mean that you were living in their house, sleeping in their beds, and all that?” “That’s not the same, anyway what a drag, what a lousy summer!” “Y’glad that school is back?” “No way man, you?” “Don’t make me puke!”
The bus pulled into the school parking lot; the kids dutifully got out and went to their habitual nesting areas. Some went to where their lockers had been last year. Some went to the gym office, some to the library and some went to the smoking area. The designated smoking area with all the irony implied in that title, is emblematic of all that is good and bad in Canadian society. Well not really. But if you really want to stretch a point, it is a symbol of the value that we put on freedom. Children, minors, who can’t sign a legal contract, can’t vote or get married or join the army without their parents’ consent, have the right to slowly put themselves to death in what can only be described as a painful manner. And our educational institutions provide them with a place to do it. Mind you they don’t have the right to buy the stuff, which begs the question: ‘Are they supposed to steal it?” No contradiction there.
Just like upstairs in the teachers’ lounge, there is no contradiction in the idea that the occupants of that room would feel very much like the occupants of the yellow school buses. As much as the kids see the day after Labour Day as Black Tuesday and hate everything about it, the teachers hate it more. Sure they may have devoted their lives to educating, forming and informing, holding and moulding the young minds which will one day be paying their pensions. But let’s face it: the end of summer sucks. Big time. Marking or golfing? Planning or sun bathing? Breaking up a fight or breaking open a 2 4 of beer? It’s a no brainer.
The conversations in the staffroom are not all that different from those on the bus. “Have a good summer?” “Not bad, but you know too short.” “Did you do anything?” “Painted the house.” “Went to the Maritimes.” “Taught at summer school. God what a drag!” Of course the summer is not anywhere near as long as the public thinks it is. Like when you get off the freeway after spending an hour in crazy traffic, your head needs time to adjust. Twenty minutes after you get out of your car you are still dodging cars and honking imaginary horns, pressing down on imaginary brake pedals. So is it with teachers. For the first two weeks of the summer, you’re head is still spinning; you’re still thinking about the kid that swore at you last or the timetable that they have given you for next year. And the last two weeks of summer are even worse. The nightmares where you are standing in front of the class with no idea what you are supposed to be teaching or worse you are standing in front of the class and you’re naked or they’re climbing all over the desks and throwing things out the window you’re yelling and they don’t hear you. After two weeks of nightmares like that it is almost a relief to go back to school for real. Almost.
Mind you, don’t go into the IGA complaining about having a short summer. People hate teachers and the main if not only reason for that hatred is the long summer. They don’t hate hockey players, or members of parliament or university professors or unemployed actors, all of whom have even longer summers. But they hate teachers. And teachers know it. The most feared question a teacher has isn’t one from the classroom “When is this period over?” “Sir, were you a nerd in high school?” “Miss, can you explain human reproduction again? Can you give us a demonstration?
No the most hated question by teachers is the one asked at a party: “What do you do for a living?” Harmless enough, but you never know what the reaction to the answer will be. “I teach high school.” Everybody went to high school. Everybody has an opinion on teaching. Everybody has a teacher that they didn’t like. Some remember the teachers that had a good influence on them. Most remember the ones that didn’t.
Mrs. Groennecking, who taught English at Lord Byron Secondary School for many years used to be married to a lawyer. His version of the question was: “Do you teach or do you have a real job?” Maybe he thought he was being funny. Mrs Groennecking didn’t. Her teaching career lasted longer than her married life. She divorced him. And while there were other reasons to do so, the fact that he wouldn’t stop asking the question played its part.
Lord Byron Secondary School. That’s the school where the yellow buses were heading Lord Byron Secondary School located in Byronville, Ontario. School population on most days 950, give or take a few dozen sick kids, kids pretending to be sick or just plain skippers. Population of Byronville 450 or at least that’s a good guess. So the school is actually bigger than the village. It’s because kids get bussed in from all over. As for the size of the village, truth is that no one has counted in a few years. Byronville is an unincorporated village in the Township of South Missachewopa, in Granite County. The locals claim that Missachewopa is Mohawk or Ojibwa ‘for we may be hicks but at least we don’t live in Toronto’. But they are probably joking.
Byronville is named after Nathanial Byron who arrived here in 1850 something and thought it was a good place to build a mill, there on the banks of the Missachewopa where there are rapids. Nathanial Byron was the kind of man who probably never heard of George Gordon Byron, better known just as Lord Byron, English poet and lover. Nathanial Byron was a down-to-earth man who believed in an honest day’s work. Lord Byron probably never worked a day in his life. You couldn’t count writing poetry as working, just like you wouldn’t count being a lover.
But in the 1960’s the Powers-That –Be at the Granite District School Board thought that naming the newly-built school in Byronville after the famous English poet made perfect sense. The name of the school board comes from, of course, the name of the county. A lot of people think it’s a pretty good name for the county. Located in the Canadian Shield it is pretty much made up of rocks and trees. Way back when the land didn’t belong to anyone-except of course the Mohawks and the Ojibwas-the British were giving it out to folks who had served the Empire. These folks were mostly retired soldiers who were supposed to clear the land and build farms on it. Well they cleared the land alright, but what they found was pretty lousy land for farming and as if that wasn’t enough the rocks on the land had a pretty crappy sense of humour. See these new farmers would get rid of the rocks one year and then with all the freezing and thawing that went on, there’d be new rocks the next spring. They had been pushed up from beyond the surface of the ground. Back breaking, frustrating work that gave over only small harvests. Well pretty soon any farmer with any sense got the hell out of there and headed for the West or at least Western Ontario where the land is good. Only people who stayed were the ones that lacked intelligence or ambition or maybe the imagination to believe that life could be better.
Funny thing though is today the rocks and trees and lakes that make up Granite County make it a pretty nice place to live. There’s lots of huntin’ and fishin’ and boatin’ (if you come from Granite County you don’t say the ‘g’). No one needs to have a cottage ‘cause the whole place is like a cottage. Still a lot of people do have cottages, a cottage being a place where you don’t cut the grass and you don’t worry about the kids spilling Coke on that old rug. From the look of things, a lot of folks only have cottages. Life here is pretty good. And as for those folks that made the big farms in Western Ontario, well they’ve got to have a second job to afford the farm. They have to work long hours for little pay. City folk don’t appreciate them. Would have been better if their ancestors had stayed put.
So those teachers in the staff lounge there on Black Tuesday are all wishing they were huntin’ or fishin’ or boatin’ or at least staying in bed for an hour or two more. Why would anyone want to be in a school on a nice day at the beginning of September? Still teaching is the tour of duty that they signed on for, it’s who they are. So they might as well get on with it.
“Did you see today’s timetable? An hour and a half for first period! Extended home form so we can do what? Hand out insurance forms, letters about picture day; how long is that going to take? And then what? 80 minutes of grade nine applied science! What was Bunny thinking?”
“It’s not Bunny; it’s Doyle. Bunny wouldn’t know what we are doing on the first day or any other day for that matter.” It was true Principal Bunny took very little interest in the day-to-day running of the school. In fact he took very little interest in the school at all. Most days he wasn’t even in the school, having gone to meetings at the Board Office or to conferences. Vice Principal Doyle usually was at the helm.
“Anyway, grade nines on the first day are like deer in the headlights. They still don’t know where they are or what they’re supposed to be doing.”
“Not these guys.” Barovsky joined the conversation. “Remember grade eight day last year. What a bunch of rabble! One kid had a water pistol. Another was throwing skittles at the other kids. And the Vanhoven kid had a joint behind his ear just waiting for a chance to light it.”
“There’s another Vanhoven kid! exclaimed Mrs Templeton. “How many does that make?”
“Don’t know. I’ve lost count.” responded Barovsky “Maybe 8?”
“What is this one’s name?”
“Kieran, I think.”
“Another name that starts with K?”
“They all do. Let me think. There’s Kira, Keil, Kalvin, Kreig, Kayla, Koko and what’s her name?”
“The one I didn’t name. Tall girl with braces. Speaks with a stutter.”
“No I said Koko. Pay attention.”
“No. It’s there on the tip of my tongue. Kaileigh! Yeah that’s it.”
“So is this kid as bad as all the rest?”
“What do you think? He comes to grade eight day with a joint.”
“What happened to him?”
“I called down to the office. Bunny wasn’t there-no surprise that. But Doyle and Swift both weren’t there either. Noseworthy was acting Principal for the day.”
“What did she do?”
“What do you think she did? Same as she always does when she fills in at the office. Gave the kid a few jelly beans and told him not to bring drugs to school.”
“The kid brings drugs to school and all we do is give him jelly beans and tell him not to do it again! I’m counting the days to retirement.”
“How long is it?”
“Too long. Anyway Noseworthy isn’t going to raise a stink about anything. She is so desperate to get into Admin.”
“Why let that go? Wouldn’t taking a stand be better for her career?” asked Ryan, the new guy. Actually he wasn’t new. He had been at LBSS for a couple of years. But that still made him the new guy. Barovsky and Mrs. Templeton had seen lots of teachers come and go. It was easier just to call them the ‘new guy’ than learn their names. Actually he was the ‘new, new guy’. Jones, who had been there about fifteen years was still thought of as the ‘new guy’. Time moves kind of slowly at LBSS.
“Don’t you know Mrs Vanhoven? She would be in Bunny’s office like a bat out of hell. You know Bunny and parents. Whatever they want, he gives them. And he would hold it against Noseworthy for having caused him a problem. She is better off just doing what she did.”
“How did Bunny get to be Principal?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how does someone with no backbone get into Administration?”
“No you mean how does a person with a backbone get into Administration. Do you understand the word lackey?”
“But aren’t Principals supposed to be leaders? Aren’t they supposed to be people that we look up to?”
“There was a time when… “started Mrs Templeton “when Principals made their reputations on how well they took care of their schools. Parents, trustees and school board officers were all people who had to be finessed. Now Principals just do as they are told. Don’t look to any of them for support. The only thing that counts for them is their careers.”
“Isn’t that kind of harsh?”asked Ryan the new guy.
“Give it a few years and you will understand what we mean.”
It was more than a few years that Mrs Templeton had been at LBSS. Could have retired a while ago, but didn’t want to. She had seen lots of Principals come and go. There were all kinds. Some go getters. You know, always out in the hall, talking to kids, making people believe that they cared about Lord Byron. They would know lots of kids’ names, would be seen at lots of games and not just football. Usually they didn’t care that much about academics as long as the kids who went away to university did well enough. Then there were the Principals who saw themselves as intellectuals. They would actually read curriculum documents and expected their department heads to make sure that their departments covered what was expected of them. They were just as likely to call a teacher into the office for having marks that were too high as ones that were too low. It really didn’t matter what kind of Principal was in the main office. Principals might think they’re in charge, but they’re not.
She actually liked a Principal like Bunny. The more the man was out of the school, the more the teachers and the students could get on with things without being bothered. If only he had a backbone. Some students and some parents needed to be put in their place and a spineless Principal just wasn’t going to do it. Still she had been lucky. She hadn’t taught too many of the Vanhoven clan. Most of them didn’t do so well in science and didn’t tend to take the senior classes. Having an awful lot of seniority, Mrs Templeton didn’t get the difficult junior classes. She taught only senior chemistry and physics and the students there were only concerned about getting into a good university not firing off spit balls.
Ryan, the new guy, didn’t yet know what he didn’t know. He had the look of a farm boy seeing the big city for the first time. He loved science; he loved the environment and he was determined to show the kids the way to save the planet. He got all the lousy classes. When he talked about the environment, his classes looked at him like he was speaking a foreign language. But he was bound and determined. He would make a difference. No one in the science staffroom had the heart to tell him otherwise.
He would have to wait for the good classes. He would have to wait for his own desk. He would have to wait to his own classroom. And it could be a long time. And he wasn’t alone in that regards.
“Dude!” in walked Roberts a wannabe gym teacher who was doing science until some phys ed came along. He wasn’t known for his intellect. “How was your summer?”
“Alright, dude.” came the answer back from Rickards also a jock teaching science only so long as he had to. “Did a tour of Major League Baseball stadiums of the north east.”
“Cool! How long did that take you?”
“How long did what take?” Rickards had his mind elsewhere. He hadn’t planned anything in advance and was hoping to wing it today. So now he was frantically trying to think of something to do with his students.
“Barovsky, do you have anything I can use today?”
“Rickards, are you nuts? Are you going to wing it on the first day?”
“Well not exactly. So, do you have anything?”
“What rabble you are! Why should I help you if you’re going to be so unprofessional.”
“Russman, cool your jets.” said Roberts, who had a nickname for everyone. “You’re the department head. You have to help him.”
“Listen, Jockstrap. Don’t call me Russman. And yes I’m department head and I don’t have to do anything.”
“Boris, help the lad. He means well. He is very busy at home and could use our help.” Mrs. Templeton had a soft spot for Rickards. On the other hand she couldn’t stand Roberts. Most people couldn’t tell them apart.
“Okay, for you Vera, I will help him.” Barovsky and Mrs. Templeton had taught together a long time.
“Okay, Mr Rickards. Listen up. First of all you need to give them a lot of busy work. Have them write out something long.”
“You mean, like the phone book.” asked Roberts, who probably should have been planning his own lessons.
“No, not the phone book.” shot back Barovsky with an air of disgust. He continued. “You save the phone book for a Friday afternoon in November when you either have to kill them or yourself. Rickards didn’t know if he were kidding or not. On the other hand, it never occurred to Roberts that he wasn’t anything but serious.
“Make them copy out the Rules of Safety in the Science Classroom. They’re on page xxi on Science Now, Science Wow. It really doesn’t matter what they copy as long as they copy. It keeps their little hands busy.”
“Then what?” Rickards was starting to feel better about facing the little devils.
“Then go over the curriculum summaries that we have to give them on the first day. Tell them all about the evaluation policy and stress that they have to get things in on time or they lose marks.”
“The Ministry doesn’t allow us to take off marks for lateness anymore.” injected Mrs. Templeton who tended to go by the book.
“Yes, Vera, I know Ministry policy. I am after all the department head. But the kids don’t need to know anything about those stupid policies. God I am sick to death of all this Potential Intelligence crap. Listen, Rickards, tell them if they do anything they fail. Hand stuff in late, they fail. Copy off their neighbour, they fail. Plagiarize from Wikipedia, and they fail for two reasons: they plagiarized and they were stupid enough to use Wikipedia. Fail them early and fail them often.”
“And they buy all that?”
“Listen. The first day of grade nine they buy anything.”
“Then blow something up.”
“Blow something up?”
“Sure. Like hydrogen gas in a balloon.”
“Are you nuts? Like the Luxembourg?” Roberts thought he was showing off his knowledge of history.
“You mean the Hindenburg? No just a plain balloon. Fill it with hydrogen and use a candle on the end of a metre stick to light it. And sprinkle copper salt on the balloon to get a green flame. They will think you’re a magician.”
“Sounds dangerous.” said Rickards
“Sounds cool.” said Roberts. “I’m going to use that today.”
“It’s not dangerous. Just remember to keep a safe distance and use a metre stick to light it.”
Meanwhile in the cafeteria the conversation was no less intellectual.
“How’s your timetable?” said Madison, a deer-in-the-headlights grade nine.
“Shitty.” answered Kieran, who thought a lot of things were shitty.
“Who do you have?”
“I got Mad-as-hell for French. God she is scary. Yells at you as you’re walking in the room.”
“I got French next semester. I hope I don’t get her.”
Mad-as-hell Tremblay had the kind of reputation that meant that all the in-coming grade nines who didn’t know much, knew that they didn’t want her for French. She struck fear in the hearts of her students. Truth be told she struck fear in the hearts of the teachers. She was mad about something, no one knew for sure what, and she let everyone know she was mad. People pretty much let her do whatever she wanted. Obviously that included Principal Bunny.
“Is it true what they say about her? Does she smoke and drink in class? Does she ride a motorcycle? Did you see the knife?”
“Oh yeah.” answered Kieran, who never let the truth ruin a good story. “After you come in, she barks at you to sit where she tells you, give you a form to fill out and then she sits down at her desk and lights up. And she’s got a mickey bottle in her purse.”
“Yeah, I saw it and when she took out the bottle I saw the knife.”
“You are so full of shit.”
“I swear to God I saw it.”
“Who else you got?”
“I got Roberts for science. He’s pretty cool, but he’s got no eyebrows. It’s really creepy.”
“I got Roberts too. I thought he had eyebrows. I would have remembered if he didn’t have eyebrows. Who else?”
“Yeah, for sure no eyebrows and a really funny haircut. I got Niemi for gym.”
“What’s he like?”
“Old. My older brother Kreig had him and my uncle Kane had him too. He tried pulling the same trick on me that he pulled on my brother and my uncle.”
“I’m just sitting there, like doing nothing. And he has a bird, starts yelling and screaming at me and pulls me into the gym office. Then like, he pretends to be hitting me, making a big racket. Then he tells me to go back and sit down and shut up and like if I ever tell anybody that he didn’t hit me, I’d be in big trouble. I guess the class is supposed to be freaked by that but they were all like laughing and talking about it.”
“God, like that is so jag.”
“I know. What a TQ!”
Black Tuesday over. Yellow school bus heading home. Older sister to younger brother. “So how was the first day of grade nine?” “Totally cool. The science teacher blew himself up.” “Yeah, when I had Jones in grade nine, he blew up a balloon on the first day.” “No, it wasn’t a balloon. He blew himself up. There was a big green flame all around his head and his hair got on fire.”
Seems Roberts forgot the part about the metre stick.
Some kids didn’t go home on the yellow school buses. Some went to hang out in the smoking area. Some had never left the smoking area since they got there in the morning. Some went to hang out in the doughnut shop up the hill from the school. They stayed there nursing an ice cap or a coke for as long as the owner would let them. But when enough became enough and they were sent on their way, they all pulled out their cell phones and called their parents to demand that they be picked up-not their fault-old man Dobbs or Witch Watson had made them stay after school.
Others appeared to use their time after school more productively. They got changed in the washroom or at their lockers and headed for the gym or the football field where various teams were holding try outs. It might be the first day of school but there was no time to waste. Gotta get going, gotta be ready on time for the season opener. And you gotta know that the other schools started last week, maybe even last month despite the agreement which didn’t allow any school team to practise before school started. But every kid who has a friend at another school knows, the Knights, the Eagles the Reds and even the poor Rouge-et-Or at the French school (population 67, record for the past five years in all sports 0 for everything) had all started last week before Labour Day. Only the Gaylords of Lord Byron Secondary School kept to the rule of not starting practises before the school year started.
“It’s not fair, Coach.” said Simpson an offensive lineman who nickname was Skates because the other teams pushed him around like he was wearing skates. He was back for a fifth year of high school in the hopes of finally starting.
“Of course it’s not fair” offensive line Coach Taylor. “But we play by the rules at L.B.S.S.”
“And we always lose.” retorted Simpson
“Can we get jackets this year?” asked Sears, a nose-guard whose nickname was Invisible.
“You know how it works, we win the county championship and we get leather jackets. No championship, no jackets.
“But we never make the playoffs. How are we going to win a championship?”
“I guess that’s going to have to change then. Anyway let’s see what Coach Kidd can do.”
Coach Travis Kidd had transferred to L.B.S.S. at the end of last year. He had been brought in from Chevalier with the promise of the Arts headship when Mr Cohen retired. At Chevalier he had lead the Knights to five consecutive championships. He might have been paid to teach band and guitar, but Football Coach was his real profession. Before the pre-season testing started he wanted a few words with the team.
“Alright, Ladies. Listen up!” bellowed Receivers Coach Johnson.
The fifty or so hopefuls who all wanted to be starters on the senior team grew silent, with the exception of a few who continued to talk.
“I’d advise you girls to be quiet right away.” Johnson warned.
A tall skinny kid at the back continued talking. He seemed to be talking to no one in particular. Johnson looked at Kidd for confirmation of what he was about to do. Kidd nodded his approval.
“Alright, Ladies. You asked for this. Fifty push ups. Whole team. Next time I ask for quiet, I expect to get it. White, you lead them.”
Jordan White was another fifth year back not to take more courses or to raise his marks. He was back only to play sports. With the entire team looking at the cause of their misery, White went over to the tall, skinny kid, stepped on the toes of his right foot with his cleats. He gave him a silent look which summarized his personality perfectly. As his eyes were saying ‘I like to hurt people’ his mouth opened enough for him to say in a low and menacing voice: “You little shit! Don’t you ever fuck with us again!” With that he turned, walked in front of the whole team, took up the push up position and waited for the team to do the same.
For you and me White appeared to be very angry. And he was. But it wasn’t about doing fifty push ups. He could do a hundred in his sleep. On a good day he was full of rage. He hated school. He hated his parents. He hated the fact that the football team never won. The tall, skinny kid was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“One.” he barked with a drill sergeant’s voice”
“One” came the choral answer from the team.
“Two.” and so it continued until the numbers were nearing the forties and the team was nearing the end of their ability to push their bodies off the ground.
“Finish up with one-hand push ups.” came the instruction from Johnson.
“Yes, sir.” answered White who was alone in not showing any signs of fatigue. He continued calling out the remaining numbers and completing the remaining push ups using only one hand. Very few of his teammates bothered to try to do one handed push ups. They just pretended to do them. For their part the coaching staff pretended not to notice.
“Sir, we’re done now.” said White.
“Good. Now I trust that will be the last time someone doesn’t listen.” The teams collective eyes were fixed again on the tall, skinny kid. “I’d like you to welcome our new head coach, Coach Kidd.” A round of applause followed.
“Thank you, Coach Johnson. Thank you, team. Before we start the fitness and speed tests I have a few words that I’d like to say to you.” He cleared his throat before starting.
“My fellow Gaylords.” If the team had been quiet before, they were now ghostly silent. Johnson touched Kidd’s elbow and whispered something in his ear.
“I’m sorry.” continued Kidd. “I’d forgot that you’re not the Gaylords anymore.” He started over: “My fellow Bengals, today is the first day of our first championship season…”
It was understandable that he called them the Gaylords. To all the players and coaches at Chevalier they were the Lord Byron Gaylords. The only people who used the name Bengals were people at Lord Byron themselves.
Back in the sixties when the school was opened, the Principal had imposed his idea on the staff. The first suggestion had been the Lords, but Mr. Rufus had said that it lacked imagination and umphff. It needed to be more groozy. The younger members on staff were pretty sure that he meant groovy. But he had clearly said groozy. He had a tendency to mispronounce words, which is unfortunate when you’re speaking to a large group of teenagers. Sometimes he confused similar sounding words. Probably the worst example of this was when, during his days as a science teacher, he gave a lesson on single cell organisms. Over the space of forty or so minutes he must have used the word organism twenty times. Only he never once actually said the word correctly. He thought he was saying organism, but what the class hear each time was orgasm. He never understood why the class was giggling so much.
In his mind adding gay improved the name. To be fair to the man’s memory the word gay hadn’t fully taking on its current meaning. But it wasn’t long before it did. Likewise it wasn’t long before other teams took advantage and started to taunt the poor Gaylords.
It was particularly true in football. The strong side of the Knights defence, for example, would chant gay and the weak side would answer lord. The Eagles offence cadence went something like this: “Down, set, hut, hut” then they would blow their opposite number a kiss and the centre would snap the ball. Any advantage that they gave away by telegramming when the ball was being snapped was negated by the distraction of the kiss. After the effect wore off, the Eagles would blow the kiss and not snap the ball. It was an easy way to pick up five yards for offside.
After a couple of seasons the name was officially changed to Bengals. The thinking was Byron Bengals had alliteration and tigers were big and tough. Unfortunately none of the other schools ever called the LBSS teams anything but Gaylords. Even now, decades later the Bengals had to live down being called Gaylords.
There is something about high school football that makes it different from all the other sports that kids play. Play is really not the right verb. Kids play other sports. Kids live and breath football. During the season everything else just gets in the way. Classes, home work, assignments, even part time jobs and girlfriends are unnecessary distractions. This is as true for a school like LBSS who always loses as it is for successful schools. The Bengal players gladly did the fifty push ups they were given as punishment. It was all part of being the coolest kids in the school. Or so they thought.
These kids would rather play football and lose than any other sport and win. Not that they didn’t want to win. It was just that most of them had given up the belief that it was ever going to happen. Sure, at the beginning of the season they’re all full of bravado and optimism. But if you listen closely you could hear the lack of confidence in their boasts.
They had a reason to believe this year though. Coach Kidd was a winner. He knew how to build winning teams and their first home game was against Happy Valley. Happy Valley was another rural school, smaller than Lord Byron. And this was their first year of senior football. For years the athletic director had worked against having a football team. He was a rational man who saw his school as not being big enough for football. A football team in a school of 400 would take every athlete in the school and every dollar that could have been spent on other sports. And at Happy Valley that sport was track and field. By concentrating on only one sport, Happy Valley had been able to be competitive. They regularly won medals in the county track championship and sent more than their fair share of athletes to the provincials. Two of their former athletes had actually gone to the Beijing Olympics. But within five years of retirement, Coach Black dropped dead from a heart attack. After a funeral service that filled the gym and renaming the track in his honour, the community waited about a week before they were in the Principal’s office demanding that football be brought to Happy Valley. There had been a widely-held belief that when the school was built, the money set aside for the football team had been spent instead on the statue that decorated the front lawn. There was a lot of debate about the statue. Mostly about what it was a statue of. Some said it was a horse; some said it was a loon; others, who knew more about art said it was a stylized tribute to Rodin’s The Thinker. All agreed on one thing though. They would rather have had a football team. On the first day of practise, only 30 kids showed up, including two grade nines, a kid with a club foot and three girls from the synchronized swimming club. It looked a lot like Coach Black had been right all along.
If the Bengals could not beat Happy Valley, they had no business calling themselves a football team.
Principal Bunny had always wanted to be a Principal. He had always wanted to be Somebody. Being a teacher wasn’t being Somebody. Teachers were servants, waiting on students or their parents. Being a Vice-principal certainly wasn’t being Somebody. Vice-principals were just doormats, stepped on by the Principal from above and the teachers from below. There was no point in being a Vice-principal. The only point to doing the job was that you had to. You had to be a Vice-principal before they let you be a Principal. Only losers would spend their whole career being a Vice-principal.
As a young teacher as soon as he could, Bunny started taking the courses that lead to a job in Administration. It wasn’t that he hated the classroom. It wasn’t that he hated the kids. He taught Business. Business was safe. Kids chose to be there. Not like English or math. Most of them didn’t expect much out of Business and he was happy to provide that. His teaching style could be described simply as ‘Assign and Take up’. You know ‘Turn to page 23, class and do exercises 1 to 11’. Then he would go to his desk and read the paper or play solitaire on his computer.
He had endured the years as a Vice-principal: Chasing kids back to class, drafting suspension letters, dealing with parents and being the ventriloquist dummy for the Principal. He probably should have made Principal earlier. He certainly would have if they had gone by age or seniority. It wasn’t as if they were passing him by when a Principalship came up. It was just that other people’s names came to mind before his did.
Eventually Lord Byron needed a Principal, and to Superintendent White and Director Holzbein Bunny seemed like a good fit. L.B.S.S. being out in the country escaped the gaze of Trustees and the press. Bunny would have to try hard to screw things up there.
“Be careful what you wish for” say the Chinese. It applies to Bunny as well. Being Principal didn’t turn out to be everything he thought it was going to be. Sure, on the surface he got the respect of his teachers, but he knew what they were saying about him in the staffroom. And parents! There was no pleasing parents. Well actually there was a way to please them: When they complain give them everything they want. Funny thing though, the more you give them, the more they want.
So Bunny figured the best way to deal with unhappy teachers and angry parents was to not deal with them at all. His office had two doors, one leading to the main office and one to a hall where the Vice-principal’s and AVP’s offices were. After a fair bit of thought Bunny found the spot in the room where you couldn’t be seen from either door. If he moved his desk there, he could sit for hours and appear to be somewhere else. It apparently never occurred to him to just keep the doors closed.
Hiding out in his office only went so far. It soon dawned on him to put himself in a safer spot. In other words not at the school at all. The Board was already pulling him out for all kinds of training: Assessment and Evaluation, Multicultural, Asbestos, …Throw in a conference here and there, and some weeks a typical Principal is in the building maybe one day a week. Without much effort Bunny got that down to something like 0.26 days per week.
While it was easy to say that Principal Bunny didn’t care much about his school, he did care about one thing: the senior football team. Fridays usually meant being at the Board Office for the school day, then racing back to L.B.S.S. in time for the game. Seeing his boys win on a Friday afternoon was the biggest perk of the job. Or at least it was in theory. In practise it hadn’t actually happened.
That was going to have to change.
That was why Travis Kidd was brought in. In most schools passing over the existing staff to appoint a new head coach from the outside would have turned a few heads and bruised a few egos. But after years of not winning, the existing staff didn’t have any egos and were only too happy to have someone to blame when things went the way they always went.
Back in the staffroom there weren’t enough couches to go around. Too many dead-to-the-world teachers and not enough places to lie down. By the end of Black Tuesday teachers are dead-to-the-world. They have had the summer off from the demands on the human body that teaching represents. For those who haven’t done it, it’s hard to believe. But standing in front of groups of teenagers for as much as 250 minutes is mind-numbingly tiring. It’s not so much the standing as as the stress. All those new faces, all those new names, all those unanswered questions: where are the hot spots? What students need to be kept under thumb and which need to be allowed to blossom? What first impression am I making? Do they like me? Do they respect me? Will they listen to me? Is my shirt still tucked in? It’s so tiring. After a day or two it becomes tolerable. But on Black Tuesday all you want to do is die, or at least collapse on a couch.
“Shoot me now.” came the moan from Jones.
“I thought having a baby at home was tiring but this is murder.” intoned Rickards, his face firmly buried in a couch pillow. Mrs. Templeton, for her part, was in an arm chair, so silent and motionless it occurred to others in the room that she had ceased breathing.
Barovsky walked into the room, his tie still straight, his hair still perfectly coiffed, his argyle socks still matching each other and his tie. He was dead like the rest of them but there was no way in the world he was going to let it show.
“Jones, Rickards! On your feet! The public doesn’t pay us to lie around doing nothing like a bunch of rabble.” He didn’t comment on Mrs. Templeton.
“The public doesn’t pay us at all” started Rickards. But then he stopped. He wasn’t sure who paid his salary. No one had time to correct his misguided assertion. Roberts walked into the staffroom. His arrival was met with two ‘ohmygods’, one gasp and a prolonged bout of laughter from his friend, Rickards.
“Russman, you tried to kill me!” were the first things out of his mouth.
“Perhaps the thought crossed my mind, but the deed was never enacted.” came Barovsky’s defence.
“What?” Roberts was easily confused.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the part-time Russian.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said the full-time jock
“We never know what you’re talking about,” teased his friend. “But tell us what happened to your hair.”
“What happened to my hair? Russman happened to my hair! He told me to blow up a balloon on the first day.”
“No I think he told me to blow up a balloon. You just copied.”
“Whatever. It’s the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. And now I don’t have half of my hair!”
“Don’t forget about the eyebrows.”
“What about the eyebrows?”
“Have a look in the mirror.”
As Roberts spent a good part of his day checking himself in the mirror, it was surprisingly that he was unaware of his eyebrows, or more specifically his lack of eyebrows. Roberts took the mirror that someone was offering him. He stared at himself for what seemed like an eternity then exclaimed in a coolly determined voice: “Russman, you’re dead!”
“Listen, you serf. I am a disciple of Vasiliev, master of the Russian martial arts. I would advise that you not try anything with me.” Boris Barovsky was a little tough man. Picture Napoleon in a dark blue blazer, grey slacks, patent leather shoes and argyle socks with matching tie, if that helps. He was not the kind to back down from the larger and admittedly more athletic Roberts.
“Mike, I did the exact same demo and I still have my eyebrows. You must have done something wrong. Tell us step by step what you did.”
Before Roberts would get started with his version of the demo and explanation which would undoubtedly lead to the discovery of his lack of eyebrows was due to his lack of the metre stick which provided the safe distance, before all that could happen, in walked Mad-as-hell Tremblay and the room fell silent.
The room always fell silent when Mad-as-hell entered. She had that sort of effect on people. The entire school, staff, students and Admin, even the custodians who generally do whatever they want-walked in fear of being on her bad side. Actually to speak of her bad side is misleading. It implies that she has a good side, which she clearly doesn’t.
She walked straight across the room heading for the chair which had been occupied by Jones. But as soon as she entered the room Jones knew to get clear of the chair. She threw herself into the chair, took out a cigarette which she promptly lit and uttered “Calice, qu’ils sont stupides!”
Ryan, the new guy started to say” “I don’t think you’re supposed to …” but he didn’t get any further. Before he could finish the thought Mrs. Templeton, who for all intents and purposes was dead and gone, bolted up from her arm chair and arrived at Ryan’s shin in time to deal him a blow with her foot which left no doubt as to its meaning. Ryan, the new guy shut up immediately. Miss Delpeca helped him to a chair and comforted him until the pain went away.
Most teachers having recovered well enough and not wishing to engage Mad-as-hell in a conversation, left the staffroom and headed home.
Perhaps Barovsky’s background allowed him to see Mad-as-hell in a different light. He went over to her, lit one of her cigarettes -though he would never
ordinarily smoke in the school-and asked her: “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” His grandmother had made sure he was an educated man and for her that meant speaking French as well as Russian and English.
“C’est les neuvièmes. C’est toujours les neuvièmes. Ils m’ont annoncé aujourd’hui qu’ils ont fait envoyé les trois dernières profs qu’ils ont eues. Et elles ont fini par pleurer toutes les trois.”
“So they got rid of their last three French teachers. They aren’t you, are they? Elementary French teachers cry a lot any way, don’t they?”
“Mais je leur ai dit que s’il y a quelqu’un qui va pleurer, c’est eux.”
“Did you make them cry today?”
“Non, mais demain, c’est sûr quelqu’un va pleurer.”
“Yes, tomorrow they’ll be crying for sure.”
“Hi Honey, I’m home” called Niemi as he entered through the back door.
“How was your day?”
“Great! I used the ol’ take one of them in the back and pretend to beat the crap out of them. After that they’ll all behave.”
“Aren’t you worried that that trick is getting a bit old?”
“It should still be good until I retire.”
At the same time the last of the Vanhoven clan walked in his front door.
“Hi Mom. I’m home.”
“How was your first day of high school? Who are your teachers?”
“Mad-as-hell. She is going to be a piece of cake.”
“Yeah, old man Niemi, like Kreig and Uncle Kane. And he tried the same trick on me.”
“What, pretended to beat the crap out of you so the rest of the class would be scared of him?Pretty jag, eh?”
“Mom, don’t try to talk like a teenager.”