Holy crap. Part 15. That means about 30,000 words you’ve had to suffer through. You have my sympathies. At the end of Part 14 I bugged out of the Trenton charter school. Where I went to next was in some ways better, in some ways no different. My interview was nothing special except that I was surprised at how impressed they were when I explained a very simple way to write a certain essay that had been an area of great difficulty for their state test scores in recently. Years later I was told by one of the people on the interview committee that, when I left, they said, “That guy knows things that we don’t know.” They were right.
Pleasantville is about 8 miles west of Atlantic City. Not a month goes by, usually, without at least one murder. Not a year goes by without the schools mourning the death of children, usually by gunfire. Also not a year goes by without teachers in trouble for drug offenses or smacking kids and administrators arrested for theft of funds. It is a perfect example of mismanagement in New Jersey, a place where extra money is taken from other towns throughout the state and then sent to Pleasantville so they can find a way to waste it or lose it.
I arrived in Pleasantville in mid April of 2005 and just did my best to finish out the year in order to have a place to call home the following year, and it worked out. My first 2 ½ months that finished the year were inconsequential. I taught a writing class because, in that school, writing and reading were in separate classes instead of one combined language arts/English class. I didn’t care. I had a job. The school was over an hour away. I didn’t care. I had a job. It was a school that caused me to create my favorite saying: If I’m the smartest guy in the room, then I must be in the wrong room. I didn’t care. I had a job.
When September arrived and my first full year at Pleasantville began, I learned that my teaching position had been changed. Instead of writing, I was teaching something called Character Education. It was a “special area” class, something in the direction of art and music, instead of an academic class such as science or math. Once a week kids came to me so I could teach them about bullying, peer pressure, study skills, getting along with others positively, and a handful of other things. Me, someone who had been fired for explicitly discussing sex through school e-mail, fired after being falsely accused of being with a 5th grade girl, I was teaching character behavior. Go figure.
Less interesting than what I was teaching was who I was teaching with. With whom I was teaching. The other people doing the same damn thing. They were Joe and Kathy, and the only reason I’m naming them is because they’re important in two very different ways, but before I discuss them, I must go back to Dave, who had been my best friend and was also fired for discussing sex and other things in e-mail with me.
Up until this current year, the only way a New Jersey school could fire a tenured teacher was by filing tenure charges, which have repercussions at the state level. What that means is that if a school attempts to get rid of a tenured teacher, then that teacher is automatically examined by the state board of education as to whether or not that person should ever be a teacher again. Ever. So, you’re not just kicking them out of your school. You’re potentially kicking them out of the profession forever. That is what happened to Dave. He wasn’t just released from that school. He would no longer teach ever again. It killed me to think that I was a catalyst in that. He was married, had three boys, and had a lifetime wrapped up in education, and I helped blast it apart.
One of the last conversations I had with Dave was on the very first day of that first full year at Pleasantville Middle School. I called him when I saw five police cars in front of my building. Of course I thought I had already screwed up. Turns out the FBI was there to arrest five of the nine members of the town’s board of education. There was corruption, and the FBI set up a sting operation that proved not only successful there in Pleasantville but had echoes heard in five other towns around the state. It was good to know that at least it wasn’t about me.
Pleasantville Middle School was grades 6, 7, and 8. It was a nice, new building that sat on a former landfill. Constantly there were rumors about strange odors and gases wafting into the building. Constantly there were teachers sent home sick, regurgitating, occasionally diagnosed with cancer. I taught on the third floor, so I was less worried than others. We had a principal who was a good cheerleader, a good hand clapper, a good smiler, but she wasn’t a good principal. She sat down when it was time to stand up and vice versa. We had a connection, having been born and spent early years in the same city in Northern New Jersey. We attended the same college. When her father was ill and in his last year, I steered her towards a fabulous home and hospice care facility, and she was grateful. And when it was time to decide whether or not I received tenure in that school district, she told me, “Figure out what your supervisor wants and do it her way. Do what it takes to make sure you stay here.” I found that odd because whether or not I stayed there was her decision, not the supervisor’s, although the supervisor could make recommendations. That was another trait of hers, pass the buck and let someone else either make the decision or take the blame. She just wanted to show up at meetings, speak, and walk away while people clapped.
Joe and Kathy, the teachers I was working with, seemed like decent people. From there, one went up and one went down. So to speak. Kathy was a sad woman with scraggily long, curly hair that was never once cut in the six years I knew her because, as she said, her husband would not let her cut it. She often confided in me and others about her sorry excuse of a husband, who is one of several people stalking my blog. Do not be surprised if he attempts to leave comments here or even attempts to contact some of you directly. If he does, it will not nearly be the worst thing he has attempted to do to me. He regularly reads what I write and has done some amazingly creepy things to me. A few years ago I was reading blog entries and came across a post about nostalgic toys. I left a comment about the Slinky because I knew an interesting story about how it was invented. Two days later, I found a Slinky in the mailbox, roughly 75 miles from his home. That was creepy.
That first year I spoke with Kathy probably more than anyone else. She was smart and interesting to talk to with a good sense of humor. She had a subtle, dry wit, often making those comments that took you a few seconds to understand, but they were all well worth it. Occasionally, she told me a little extra than she told others. Her husband sat home and smoked pot all day while figuring out ways to scam the state and collect unemployment or disability money. At least once he had intentionally fallen down a set of stairs and caused an ankle injury to collect state money while sitting home and smoking more pot. They had two kids who needed to be fed, dressed, and brought to school. Kathy’s husband slept all morning while she got them ready and then often showed up late to Pleasantville. On more than one occasional she was threatened with being fired because of her poor attendance. The only reason she didn’t get fired was because the union president was so far smarter than the school administration that it was really unfair. If he wanted to, he could have probably talked the board of education into firing themselves.
Kathy’s husband, Rob, was in the process of turning their garage into a “man cave.” For Christmas he bought the family an air hockey table. His rationale was that 25% was his, 25% was Kathy’s, and the other 50% was for their two kids. According to that, it was for everyone. Right.
Kathy had not much of a clue what she was doing and basically waited for me to tell her what I was doing with the character education class so she could just copy what I had prepared. I didn’t mind, although I could have kept my plans to myself and let her do her own work. Oh well. I’m a Libra. That’s how we work. When she came to my room about once a week with another story about her sad husband, I wondered about her goal. Was she trying to get sympathy or maybe hoping to get to know me better? I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter.
Very early in about my fifth school year, after gaining tenure and going back to being an English teacher instead of character education, I was told to report to the principal’s office. She told me I was being accused of sexual harassment by Kathy for allegedly asking her to go out for a drink with me after school. It was also alleged that in teacher meetings I was constantly following her and engaging her in “personal” conversations. I was instructed to avoid her at all cost, not talk to her, and nothing. I wanted to laugh and smash something at the same time. I was greatly confused, but then things became clear.
Shortly before that time, I became very close friends – as had been my unintentional habit – with the union president, “Mike,” about whom I’ll provide more detail in another chapter. Let’s just say for now that Mike eventually became one of my greatest friends, although the current state of that is highly questionable. Mike and others were growing disappointed with the leadership in the building and planned to take action. I was asked to individually e-mail about 15 select teachers to join us in a school improvement committee. We weren’t inviting all teachers because we didn’t want anyone to know who else was or was not invited. I had suggested to the president to invite Kathy because she was smart, but apparently not as smart as I thought. When she left her e-mail open at home one day, her husband pounced on the computer. When he saw that I had sent his wife an invitation to meet someplace after school, he immediately assumed that I was trying to “hook up” with his wife. First, eww. Second, no. Third, I easily proved him wrong when the union president explained. The problem was that Kathy made no effort to help and even fostered some doubt through her silence. Reality was that she was constantly attacked by her husband, and this was a moment in which she could send his anger in a different direction and maybe get a little sympathy for herself. Part of the irony of the situation is that I was a union representative whose job it was to assist colleagues who were either being accused of or were accusing others of harassment.
The day immediately before I had that meeting with the principal, all English teachers attended a workshop. I got there first and sat at a table with one other teacher. There were probably ten other tables in the room, and my table, with about eight chairs total, had six empty. When Kathy arrived for the workshop, she sat at my table instead of any of the nine others. Would it really make sense for her to sit where I was sitting if she really thought I was harassing her? “I don’t think so,” I told the principal, “and I can bring you a witness who was sitting with me.” And I did. And the principal shrugged and said, “I’m just doing what my boss tells me to do.”
That incident went away, but there were residual effects. As stated, Kathy had often been verbally and physically abused at home, and she needed to redirect her husband’s aggression, so she chose me. He started by e-mailing threats and warnings. When I politely told him to get lost, he sought to sue and make money. When that failed, he made it personal. He did the Slinky in the mailbox thing I already told you about. One night I arrived home to find strange marks that turned out to be cigarette burns on my deck furniture. As I was studying the dark gray marks, my neighbor approached to tell me about a weirdo dressed in all black and walking around on my deck while yelling at someone on his cell phone. Luckily, it was a late day for me, and he left before I arrived.
I mentioned someone named Joe, a fabulous friend with the body of a gorilla and the heart of a kitten – unless you got him angry. If you saw Joe, you might think you were looking at Tony Soprano. But if you knew Joe, then you’d know he was only half Soprano. That Soprano half inside of Joe was ready to unleash hell upon Kathy and her husband, and I had to work to stop him. If I were in trouble, Joe might not be the first person I would call, but he would definitely be the first person who would show up. I hope I know him for a long time, and I’ll tell you more about Joe and others in Part 16.