In the last installment of my rise and fall, I was ousted yet again from another school district, mainly because of my own brash behavior but also from slightly unfair circumstances. I could argue that my only “crime” was using strong language in the company of adults. They could argue that I misused school property. When you boil it all down, it’s their house and they make the rules. Although I could have successfully argued through an attorney to save my job for that year, they still would have tossed me out the following year because I had not yet reached that magical first day of my fourth year. Past practice has shown that 99.99% of the time you truly have to break the law before they can fire you when you’re beyond that magical day.
After being fired that past spring, I was still paid through the end of that school year and then collected unemployment compensation during the summer. I then spent another stressful set of months applying for teaching positions and attending interviews, but the interviews were fewer and farther between. What did not help is that I had not yet learned how the evil spinster Cheryl Smith, NOT of Cherry Hill, NJ, was working behind the scenes to sabotage my attempts to gain employment. During that difficult summer, I managed to gain another teaching position in a middle school in a town I will call “Pinelands,” NJ. I have a good reason to avoid saying the actual name of the town, but I can’t tell you the good reason because I have stalkers who like to cause trouble for me. I really don’t need stalkers causing trouble for me because I seem to be fully capable of causing my own trouble.
I got the phone call confirming that I was selected for the job as I was walking up the gangplank of a cruise ship. The phone reception was poor, the signal was breaking up, and I was freaked out because I was not 100% certain that the human resources guy on the other end had clearly heard me accept the job. Luckily, all was well, and I had a great week in the Caribbean knowing that I actually had a job when I would arrive home. “I had a job.” That sounded great, and it would last about as long as an echo.
School was set to begin during the first week of September, and I promptly arrived during the last week of August to set up my classroom. I had a collection of movie posters that I was rather proud of, including an Italian version of Silence of the Lambs, and a very colorful one for the Romeo and Juliet film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. I got hold of all my needed supplies, learned the curriculum for the 6th grade Language Arts classes, and felt fortunate to have about eight computers in my classroom. I attended the meetings and orientations for new teachers and was totally determined to behave myself. I was going to be a good boy. I was a good boy. It didn’t matter.
On the day before students arrived, we had a big meeting with the principal in the auditorium, and I realized that I would be working for a lunatic. On paper, his name was Mr. Romano, but he didn’t like that and referred to himself as Mr. RomAHn. He looked like a skinny Jimmy Smits, talked a good game, but he was a slick salesman. Mr. RomAHn remarked that there were two factions developing in the building. Some were with him and some were against him. He talked about the union’s attempts to ruin his plan to improve the school and that every single one of us had better decide if we were going to be “part of the solution or part of the problem.” He said that a showdown seemed inevitable, and he asserted that “when push comes to shove,” he will prevail and those who choose to fight him will be gone from the building. He even had a small entourage who followed him with clipboards and ready pens to jot down all of the brilliances and inspirations that might unexpectedly cross his alleged mind.
When all staff broke for lunch after the confrontational speech, a nice guy introduced himself as “Ray,” and he was the union leader in that building. Oh great. Union guys. Any time I had gotten near one, bad things seemed to happen. Ray was nice but quickly rattled off a list of the many bad things that were in our future if the teachers did not band together against the Mr. RomAHn. As Ray and I talked, I watched RomAHn walk by and give both of us a glance that let us know he was watching. I immediately felt awkward because I was new, just trying to keep a job, and already I was getting the evil eye from the boss.
Ray informed me about the building being full of mold, teachers out sick for more than a year, and at least one teacher who had died of mold exposure even though RomAHn insisted the building was clean and safe. During the previous school year, Ray apparently had taken a personal tour with a custodian who showed him areas of the most severe mold running rampant through the ceilings. However, that same custodian was replaced during the summer, and Ray could not find the guy no matter how he tried. Ray explained how strong the union was in the district and that they would eventually get rid of RomAHn. They were so strong that they successfully negotiated a contract that included a teacher’s right to wear jeans and flip flops to school. I thought that was a tad unprofessional, but I wasn’t in any position to disagree with anyone. I was a good boy. I was a good boy. It didn’t matter.
Then came the first day of school. I was excited to greet my new students, and everything went very well. Around lunchtime I found a note in my mailbox that instructed me to visit the principal’s office at the end of the day. My quick assumption was that there was a schedule change. As the secretary opened the door to the principal’s office to let me in, I saw Mr. RomAHn go out through a rear office door as the assistant principal sat at his desk. It went something like this:
Me: I got a note saying that Mr. RomAHn wanted to see me. Do you know where he is?
Her: He’s not here.
Me: I just saw him go through that door.
Her: He had to leave. Anyway, you need to get over the superintendent’s office.
Me: Okay. Do you know what it’s about?
Her: No. That’s all I know.
I was not feeling any love. I showed up at the superintendent’s office to meet the big boss, Mr. Mark Cowell. The conversation went extremely similar to this:
Me: you wanted to see me?
Coward: Yes. You cannot work here. You are released. Please get your things and go.
Coward: I can’t tell you.
Me: Why not?
Coward: I can’t tell you that either.
Me: So, you’re firing me, but you won’t tell me why you’re firing me? Don’t I have a right to know?
Coward: You might, but I can’t tell you.
Me: Why can’t you tell me?
Coward: I was given information about you that is disturbing.
Me: What information?
Coward: I can’t tell you.
Me: Who gave you the information?
Coward: That’s not your business.
Me: So someone told you something about me, and you don’t like what they told you, so you’re firing me? But the person’s name is not my business? How do you even know that what they told you is true?
Coward: I don’t know, but I trust the person.
Me: What if the person is lying?
Coward: Why would they do that?
Me: Because people do that. If you were me, wouldn’t you want to know what you’re being accused of and who is accusing you?
Coward: That’s not the point. The point is I can’t take a chance on whether or not it is true.
Me: If what is true?
Coward: I can’t tell you. Just get your things and go.
Me: This is insane.
Coward: That’s your opinion.
Me: That’s anyone’s opinion who might be fired because some unknown person said something that might possibly be true but might not be true, and I don’t even get to know who said it or what they said.
Coward: I’ll tell you this much. You’re a disgusting person who doesn’t deserve to be a teacher, and I would never take a chance on you. And if I could have my way, you would never teach anywhere ever again. Now please get out!
I was told to go to the union office, but I didn’t bother because I knew it was just a song and dance. I went home rather depressed, slept late the next day because I was told not to appear at the school until after students were dismissed the next day. When I arrived at the school, I was met by a central office administrator who treated me like a criminal by walking immediately behind me and ignoring any questions or comments I had. When I got to my (former) classroom, my Silence of the Lambs and Romeo and Juliet posters were gone. I said, “Are you fucking kidding me? Someone stole my posters?” The “warden” following me had nothing to say. Although it doesn’t mean much, that administrator who was following me would be fired a few years later because he was sleeping with a female teacher whose husband was also a teacher in the district.
After emptying what had not been stolen from my classroom, I stopped at the human resources office to sign some papers. I liked the human resources guy, John. He hired me based partly on a recommendation from a mutual friend, and he seemed like a good guy, someone you’d have a beer with. Actually, he is dedicated to Grey Goose vodka, which I learned from a different mutual friend who wasn’t a mutual friend until about six years after I was run out of town on a rail.
As I was about to leave John’s office, I grumped once more about the insanity of being fired because someone said something that might not be true, and John gave me sort of a sympathetic look. He went to a filing cabinet and pulled out a folder, then sat it on the table in front of me. He said he was going to leave the room, then I was to open the folder. He’d give me a minute, and then he would come back, but I was to close the folder before he returned. I was confused and too dumb to understand completely. He left. I opened the folder. Sitting on top of a handful of papers was a hand-written note. It said, “Mark, call Cheryl Smith. 856-xxx-xxxx.”
After about three years of trying to get jobs, being close to getting jobs, and getting denied or fired from jobs, it was not until then that I realized how Cheryl Smith, NOT of Cherry Hill, NJ, really worked. She had written a very nice recommendation letter for me, knowing fully well I would use her as a reference, and then knowing fully well that she would trash me when someone called her because they were considering hiring me. This is why I have no trouble stating her name here and the town where she does NOT live. This is why I don’t care if she were to read this and complain about anything I may have said because there is nothing that I have said that (1) is not true and (2) if anyone should be answering questions about one’s behavior, it should be her and not me.
It was September. I was facing a long stretch of months not working. Luckily, I had recently met a fabulous, generous woman who was very willing to let me move into her home. If not, I would have been forced out of my apartment and likely would have had to live with my father, only about two hours away from my kids. As for the woman, all I will say is that I spent about a year as her housekeeper before revamping my résumé and eventually finding yet another job in yet another school district.
Positives? I would get paid about $10,000 more at this next job than any previous job. Negatives? My blood pressure would rise about 20 points. Spoiler alert! I won’t get fired in the next chapter.