There’s Nothing Pleasant in Pleasantville
When I previously ran this series last year, I never finished it. I stopped with chapter 16, the previous one, and I just left it at that. So even those who read all this crap last year – here comes the new stuff, and it’s only about two, maybe three chapters, and then it’s done. I hope somehow this reaches those who had been on board back then.
The difficulty for me with this chapter is that nothing is a lie, for course, but i don’t know for sure how the truth affects one’s decision to use or not use real names. Most of the names in this series are changed to protect allegedly innocent, but I don’t like using pseudonyms because I feel as if what I’m writing is somehow less truthful. It’s not a lie to change a name, unless I’m also trying to hide someone’s guilt or innocence. This chapter kind of fits that. Kind of.
This chapter is mainly about my friends in a bad school district, but there’s a little background information I must explain before I get to those whom I will call the Five Stooges. This chapter is also far longer than I want it to be, but it all belongs in one chapter, so we’re all just going to have to deal with it. There’s also a big cliffhanger at the end. Jus’ sayin’.
Pleasantville was/is/and – for a while – will be known as a place where things disappear. That means both money and people. It’s a school district that is handed far more state and federal money than it deserves through a program formerly known as Abbott. It’s based on a court ruling known as Abbott v. Burke. To sum it up, an idiot noticed that in certain New Jersey towns, such as Haddonfield and Milburn, the test scores were higher and their school district’s average per-pupil spending was higher than the spending in poorer towns, such as Camden and Pleasantville, who also had lower district test scores. So, other idiots with legal power decided that all we needed to do was throw more money at the poorer districts, and somehow that would somehow make those kids smarterer. Where was this money going to come from? Yeah, about that.
There are roughly 588 school districts in New Jersey. The Abbott ruling legislated that of all the school funding money collected by the state, roughly 70% would be given to just the Abbott districts, those deemed to have a certain poverty status in conjunction with low test scores. There were about 30 of them. So, 30 schools shared 70% of state funds while about 550 school districts share about 30% of state funds. Sounds fair, right? Yeah, except, no.
The first problem with Abbott v. Burke was that idiot judges decided that money was the reason for high test scores in Haddonfield, Princeton, Milburn, etc. While those towns did have more income per capita, the money itself wasn’t the reason they had smart kids. Those parents – the ones earning that income per capita – had more education and were simply better at preparing their kids for school. Kids in those towns went to school ready, willing, and able to learn. More of those kids had stable homes, likely with stable parents, who spent more time with their kids and nurtured them differently than the parents in those other 30 towns. It wasn’t that the parents in the poverty towns were dumb. I mean, yeah, I’m sure some of them were, but I’m also sure that there were more single parents in the Abbott towns like Pleasantville and Camden. There were more kids home alone at night while parents worked second jobs. Those kids also lived among more gangs and crime than in Haddonfield, Princeton, etc. Those kids had parents who didn’t care as much about school or didn’t have the time to spend preparing their kids for school. Money was not going to fix that. However, money was given, in boatloads, to those towns.
So as cash rolled into Pleasantville, the school administrators did plenty to reap the benefits. More “friends” were given more jobs that were do-nothing jobs, such as sitting in hallways, watching kids on playgrounds, faux-secretarial positions in which people did little more than make coffee and run out for doughnuts/donuts. A recent audit showed that there were at least 40 teachers there who attended to zero students. So what were they doing all day? Anything they wanted. Why? Because they either were friends with the right administrator or they went to the right church. Which church was the “right” church? The one that certain administrators also went to, and the ones at which the pastor was also the father of a certain administrator.
People slowly learned that in this town, the test scores were so historically low that there were no expectations. Everyone was expected to fail, so it didn’t matter if you did or didn’t try to improve your kids. Failure was normal and not anything that raised a sculpted eyebrow.
I slowly learned this during my five years there, and what helped was what I will call “The Five Stooges,” consisting me, Tim, John, Joe, and Mike. These names might or might not be real, and I’m not going to explain which or why, nor will I explain why I won’t explain why. Just let it go. Actually, I had a few more friends, but these guys are the most entertaining and significant.
Mike was the union president and the smartest guy in the whole district. He was a former attorney who – I believe – was disbarred. I’ll leave it at that for now. Jim was a guy with a fabulous memory and set of wheels in his head that made him an excellent poker player. Unfortunately, gambling consumed him more than it should have, and – I believe – his losses, combined with a back ailment, caused him to develop a substance abuse problem. He’s brilliant with technology and subverting rules. He’s excellent and hiding how zonked on pain killers he might be, but the sweat on his forehead usually gave it away. Regardless, I liked him a lot and always had fun around him once I got to know him.
Rumor was that Jim was banging a certain teacher with fabulous legs. Although she was a little older than most teachers in the building, she certainly kept herself in shape through triathlons. Eventually, from what I’ve been told, they’ve both left their spouses and are pursuing their own happiness together. I hope that’s true because few times have I ever seen two people so happy in each other’s company. They were both on my “favorites” list in Pleasantville, and I miss them.
Of the Five Stooges, Tom was the youngest and most physically able. He was a workout fiend and – I was told – a former male stripper. He was short but wide and built and loved to talk about exercise and hunting. And women. And more women. And women who would – never mind. Tom was one of those pure athletes who could play anything that involved a ball or stick-like object. Baseball, football, basketball, golf, anything. Maybe not hockey, but I’m not sure. He was also a hunter and regularly talked about the deer or turkey or whatever he had slaughtered. He had many positives but a few negatives as well.
Tom was racist, and there’s no denying that. I’m sure it drove him nuts to work in a town that was 98% minority. Most years, we had one white student in a school of about 600 kids. Tom once said one of the funniest (but wrong) comments in the middle of a poker game when he randomly blurted out “we should have picked our own damn cotton.” Wrong, but funny. He also had a short fuse and was reprimanded several times for getting a little too forceful with rebellious kids. He was once sent for “anger management” for cursing out a female student, but in his defense, the girl had cracked him between the legs with a book.
Joe, whom I mentioned in the previous chapter, was Stooge 3. He had the body of a gorilla and the heart of a kitten. There was nothing he would not do for anyone he liked, and I miss him more than anyone at that horrible school. He knew everything and anything about the New York Yankees, our favorite team. He and I, and that Kathy bitch who allowed me to be accused of harassment, worked closely together my first year, which was when I really got to know and love Joe.
He is proof that you can be a great person but a lousy teacher. He cared too much about pleasing everyone and was like those parents who want to be friends with their kids instead of a parent. He was too easy to take advantage of, and it happened on a daily basis. Money burned a hole in his pockets, partly because he always wanted to buy lunch for everyone but also because he was a gambler. Was a shame he lived that close to all those casinos. He knew horses, but he didn’t know them well enough. He knew craps, but he didn’t know that well enough either. Jim, the other stooge, had bookie connections and enticed Joe to bet more than he should have. Jim – I believe – made book himself on Joe’s bets and cashed in nicely.
Besides knowing everything about the Yankees and a little about horses and craps, Joe knew a great deal about the mob. I believe – no proof – that he was once involved in some form of the mob in the Atlantic City area. He had a relative who was fairly high up in the Teamsters and told too many stories about Atlantic City restaurants at which he would regularly see certain mob figures whose names I can’t remember but he could rattle off like the alphabet, and probably better. He had an odd scar on his wrist, and I always wondered if that was something self inflicted or punishment. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to ask him, but I also knew that I had some scars (emotional) of my own that I would not have wanted to talk about if I were asked, so I let it go.
What made me sad about Joe were holidays. He never failed to send me a “Happy New Year” or “Merry Christmas” text message. I always had the feeling he was alone on those days and very much wanted to invite him to my home, but I never did, and I regret that. I have been told that Joe would sometimes overstay an invitation, often doing his best to stay long enough into the night to be invited to stay. I was told that sometimes those nights turned into several nights, especially during times when school might be closed for Spring Break or something like that. However, I was also told that sometimes Joe may have been on the run from someone, wanted perhaps by someone to whom he owed money, and he was looking for a place to hide. If that were the case, then I can’t say I regret not inviting him because, having two kids, I would not dare do anything to endanger them. I can say I love Joe, but I can’t say I love him enough to bring danger near my kids.
Joe was a schmoozer. He knew everyone and promised them anything they wanted. He delivered about half the time, but it made him happy to tell you that he would deliver, be it lunch or a new coat or anything. You wanted it? Joe would try to track it down. He would announce that there would be pizza in his classroom at lunchtime and everyone was invited. Six or seven pies would show up, and kids would swarm like flies, sometimes taking everything before any staff had a chance. Hey, at least he tried, but he didn’t give his wallet a break, and thus the gambling to make up for it.
So in the Stooge hierarchy we had Jim and Tom in the 4 and 5 spots. Joe and I were neck and neck as Stooges 3 and 2, although I place myself a little higher than Joe at times, but Joe usually outranked me. That leaves the top Stooge – Mike, the union president and former attorney. Mark was brilliant in many ways and I was often jealous of the things he would think of that escaped most people and occasionally me. He was the kind of guy who everyone should know – the guy you knew you could go to when you weren’t sure about something. I would often visit his office and begin a conversation with, “Hey, I have an idea, but it might be stupid,” to which he reply, “If you think it might be stupid, then it probably is.” We had a similar lack of hair up top and similar crop of facial hair, prompting many students to think we were brothers. We had much in common as we were only one year apart. He recognized that, in a district that lacked a lot of brain power, I was someone he should know better. He often consulted me just as I did with him. It was not uncommon for me to text or talk to him even more than my own kids or girlfriend. He once accidentally texted “Good morning, Sunshine” to me instead of his girlfriend, which was something I did not let go easily and often called him “Sunshine” when I wanted to make fun of him.
Mike started what became a once, sometimes twice a month poker game at my place. Although I lived near Philadelphia, I had/have a shore place only a few miles from both Pleasantville and with a nice view of Atlantic City, so it became sort of a “bachelor pad” for us to play cards, drink, eat pizza, and laugh at the rest of the school district. We shared excellent gossip about who was sleeping with who, who was in line to be either fired or promoted, and other such childish fun. Mike was the union president, and I knew two things for sure – he wanted out of that position, and he didn’t want just anyone to take over. Although he never said it, I felt he was steering me towards being his successor. In the summer, we golfed together about twice a week and regularly discussed the how’s and why’s so that someone might know what to do once he stepped down, or I should say “stepped up.”
The district administration hated Mike because he was too good. Mike filed roughly two grievances a week, and he won them all. The superintendent had tried again and again to cheat people out of money, raises, advancements, but not once were they successful while Mike was head of the union. How do you defeat a strong enemy? Make him a friend. They gave him an administrative position and took away their own adversary. That had three effects: 1. It allowed the administration to more easily get away with cheating teachers out of what they had rightfully earned or deserved, 2. It gave the administration more strength when cheating people because it was now Mike doing the cheating, and 3. It gave The Stooges a more powerful friend up in the administration. Mike’s office was in the same area as the superintendent, so it was a regular things for any of us to stroll through the complex en route Mike’s office. The administration area was more like Stooge Central. And it was fun.
I was becoming the most comfortable I had ever been in all my years of teaching. In many ways, I could write my own ticket. If I wanted a better classroom, better supplies, better schedule, all I had to do was tell Mike and it was done. Because of Mike’s administrative role, he literally could give orders to the principal, including when I might need certain days off to attend “union meetings,” which were held on a nearby golf course at about 2 in the afternoon.
At this point, with my years of experience, I was stepping into a little over $80,000 and two years away from solidifying a healthy pension. We, the Stooges, were not only on top of the district, but we were also ready to start taking over, making changes, making it a better school not just for ourselves but for the kids too. We had a plan to overhaul everything and literally save the school while having fun doing it.
That’s when everything exploded. That’s when you could have taken all the other shit that I told you about in all the other chapters, and you could double or triple it, and you could set it on fire and wrap it in barbed wire – and even then, this new slice of Hell would blow all that to pieces. I don’t even want to write about it – but I know that I have to.