Chapter 6: Someone Gets Slapped
The English Department at Howell was a great unit with an excellent leader, a former Marine named Dennis Cleary, but unfortunately for me he resigned at the end of my second year. Had he still been there for my third year, I might also still be there. Dennis was loved by teachers and hated by administrators because he did things his way and he did things successfully. He knew how to respect people who respected him and how to help people who needed it, even when they didn’t ask. He never stopped smiling because his career had been good, he bought a vineyard in California, and he was going to make his own wine in his retirement. As soon as he was out the door, the building administration went to work. The assistant principal Rose Traficante hired one of her best friends, a rather manly woman by the name of Maryann Banks, to dismantle the English Department. By the end of the year, everyone from Cleary’s English troupe was either transferred to another school or released. In New Jersey public schools, your job is protected if you make it to your fourth year in one school district. I was one year short, I would be gone in June, and there was nothing I could do about it.
In a well-run school district, the board of education will not fire someone unless the school principal and department supervisor can prove that they’ve worked with the targeted teachers in order to help them improve and avoid being released. In a poorly-run district, they’re happy to get rid of you and save a few bucks by hiring a new person who will be about three years down on the salary ladder from where you were before they kicked you out. This was not a well-run district. In fact, they went out of their way to get rid of me, and it bothered me that it was never directly explained why. I don’t mind if someone doesn’t like me as long as they can at least state so in a polite way. If you think I’m bossy or pushy, just tell me and be prepared with examples.
Before a teacher reaches that magic fourth year and getting a pretty much iron-clad lifetime position – also known as “tenure” – the school board can fire you for absolutely any reason or no reason at all without any proof or evidence at all. They can just say, “We don’t think you fit well in our school.” For me, they wanted to at least have half a leg to stand on, and that starts with finding flaws in job performance. Usually those flaws are found during observations, when an administrator sits in your room for a full period, takes extensive notes, and writes whatever the hell they want. I’ve read observations for teachers in which not only was the wrong name on the observation form but everything described was not only inaccurate but impossible. Those impossibilities are sometimes just typos and clerical errors, but that is enough to disqualify a poor evaluation. For me, my job performance was fine, but they still found a way.
Teachers with tenure usually get one or two observations a year. Non-tenured teachers get at least three. My first one that year was about a week before Christmas. My second one was the very next day, and that wasn’t a coincidence. After the first observation, the supervisor gave me a bunch of recommendations for things I should do differently. She came in the following day, too soon for me to have made all of her changes, but she gave me a very poor evaluation because of exactly that – I had not employed her recommendations. On the day before the holiday break, she told me that I would be gone at the end of the year. There’s a “stocking stuffer” for you.
My teaching day was split, with Howell for the first four classes and Freehold for the last of the usual five class periods for high school teachers. When I asked about monthly staff meetings at Howell, I was told to just attend meetings at Freehold because everything was the same since it was all the same school district. That didn’t stop the supervisor from downgrading my evaluation on the basis that I never attended any staff meetings at Howell. Sneaky bitch that Ms. Banks. I tried to defend myself at the “Soooo sorry to see you go” meeting at the end of the year with the principal and supervisor, but it didn’t matter. My representative told me ahead of time not to waste my time putting up a fight. When they want to cut you loose, they can do it without a reason. And they did it. It was my first time being fired but not the last.
One last note about Howell: I had an interesting discussion one day with the principal, a very smart but slick guy named Matt Herman. It was right about when all high schools were hit with a statewide test called the HSPE – High School Proficiency Exam. I didn’t know much about it, but Dr. Herman said, “This new test is going to ruin education. Just you wait and see.” In a later chapter I’ll explain how right he was.
The following year I was unable to secure a full-time teaching position, but I was able to snag a job as a replacement for a teacher who was taking the year off to have a baby, also known as “maternity leave.” That was at the Walter O. Krumbiegel Middle School in Hillside, NJ. Here’s how Hillside was described to me: “If you can make it out of Newark, you go to Elizabeth. And if you can make it out of Elizabeth, you go to Hillside.” So it was about on the third level of bad cities in the state. It didn’t take long to find that out.
The teacher I replaced was a well-loved grandmotherly type, so it wasn’t going to be easy for a short, big-mouthed white guy to replace her. Skipping ahead, I can tell you that I was asked to stay another year when that teacher announced she wasn’t returning, but I turned them down.
That year was the only time I ever had a student bring a gun to school. Well, the only time of which I’m aware. I’m sure there have been other times, but those kids kept them hidden and nobody knew. Although I’m not certain, there’s a good chance the kids who weren’t caught with a weapon were smart enough not to bring a rifle. Not the kid in my class. He walked into the room with a backpack on and the barrel of a small rifle sticking in the air like an antenna. I was amazed the kid had made it up to the third floor of a school with nobody seeming to notice. I watched as he strolled to the back of the room and hung up his backpack on a hook in a long coat closet before taking his seat. First, I sent a kid down to get the principal. Then, I walked to the closet, took the backpack with the rifle, and carried it up to my desk. When the kid saw that I had his rifle, he panicked, ran to the window, and climbed up on the ledge. It was one of those older, more traditional schools with the tall, narrow windows. He put one foot on the outside ledge. I yelled, “Wait!” Everyone froze. “Look down,” I said. “You see a red car?” He shook his head. I said, “Okay. Class, take out your homework.” The kids were shocked that I was ignoring him. He was shocked but also sad and returned to his desk. Wasn’t long before the principal arrived to escort him away. Never saw him again.
By this time, my wife (future ex-wife) had graduated college and was also teaching, but it wasn’t a major problem when I told her I wasn’t going back to that school when June arrived. I applied to many other schools and was very lucky to land the best teaching job I ever had, which I would then hold for the next six years until, like an idiot, I walked away from it. Yeah, I’ll explain, don’t worry.
There are two main reasons you’ve likely heard of Seaside Heights, NJ. One is for the stupid TV show Jersey Shore and its cast of idiots. The second reason is Hurricane Sandy and the devastation it brought to the expansive boardwalk there. You’ve likely seen the image of the rollercoaster in the ocean. I spent many summers working on that boardwalk during my college years. Just north of Seaside is Ortley Beach, a small town full of hotels, motels, and bars. North of Ortley is Lavallette, a lovely little town that just happens to have a great beach. Take away the beach and it seems like any other small town with a handful of great restaurants. Joe Pesci has a home there. When I left Hillside, I interviewed in Lavallette, and things went well enough that I was called for a second interview, but there was a tough decision to make before that interview.
I had relatives with a summer home in town, and my uncle spent many summer nights at a local bar with most of the members of the board of education. Seemed like a no-brainer to call up Uncle Ray, let him know that his bar buddies were interviewing me, and he’d take care of the rest. The problem was that my uncle was kind of an Archie Bunker type. You just never know when he might shoot his mouth off about something. The guy was always great to me, but I wasn’t sure how well received he was by the bar buddies. What if he just happened to piss someone off on the day before I called him? I decided to keep quiet and either win or lose the job on my own. Luckily, I won. On the first day of school, two board members walked into my classroom and said, “Why didn’t you tell us you were Ray’s nephew? It would have saved us all a lot of time.” That’s a double-edged sword with public education. Lots of teachers, maybe 50%, get their job because of who they know and not what they know. I can’t complain. It has worked in my favor on a few occasions.
I grew up going to the beach for a week, sometimes two weeks every summer. I waited a long time every year to have my nostrils filled with that unmistakable ocean air when we hit the bridge that reached over to Long Beach Island, and at some point I promised myself that I would do whatever I could to be able to smell that ocean every day. Working in a school only one block from the ocean was pretty close. It was a wonderful school, nice kids, great teachers, all in one building that ran from kindergarten to 8th grade before sending students to another town for high school. To this day, I occasionally go to their website and read the staff directory to see the people I worked with, great people, friendly, helpful, everything. Some of the staff are now former students, and I like to think I had something to do with their choice to be a teacher. I sometimes think about taking a drive and visiting, but then I’d just feel really sad for having walked away.
One person who is no longer there was Roger Caruba, the best principal/superintendent I ever worked with. When I had a run-in with a parent because I had the “audacity” to give her the first B of her educational career (it was 7th grade), this mother wanted me tarred and feathered, but Mr. Caruba told her that I had the final say, and if it’s a B, then it’s a B. When I learned about the heat he was taking from the parent, I offered to change the grade to an A, but he wouldn’t let me. When I wanted to expand the school newspaper into a classroom assignment and make it a regular part of the 8th grade English curriculum, he said, “Great. Let me know how it works out.” And when the angry father of one of my female 8th graders came into the school wearing a gun on his hip, Roger was there to greet him at the door.
The following year – huh, what? Oh, right, yeah – the angry father with the gun. Okay, fine, but there really isn’t much to it. It’s a beach town, and most kids go to the beach on most warm afternoons when school lets out. One particular day, a girl walked past her father in her bathing suit, which was small enough that it showed some kind of a mark on her shoulder. When her father, a prison guard, asked how she’d gotten a bruised shoulder, she flippantly said, “My teacher hit me.” He immediately called the principal and stormed to the school in uniform, including the gun. I was told he was coming but not why he was coming, so I really wasn’t prepared. I practically pissed myself when the principal arrived in my room first and prepped me for the meeting. I had absolutely no clue what the man was talking about, and I explained as such when he squeezed through the doorway into the room. He demanded answers, I had none, and you can be sure I did not like that my non-answers only angered him more. His daughter was at his side, perfectly quiet, until the father turned to her and asked her again how she got the bruise. She then, rather sheepishly, admitted that it was not me who had hit her but her boyfriend. The father turned to me and said, “Oh, sorry.” And they left, and that was all the apology I was ever given. And for the next three months I had to look at that little bitch of a kid and think about how her father seemed ready to shoot me, and after her little bitch lie was on the table, all he had to say was “Oh, sorry.” I asked the principal to remove her from my class, but it wasn’t possible because the school was so small that there was only one class for each grade level, so there was nowhere to move her. Kyla Graham. Little lying bitch, and I don’t care that I didn’t withhold her name.
My teaching career was great. I was the baseball coach, in charge of all of the school computers and network, having run most of the cables throughout the building with the help of a custodian. I had various other roles that brought in extra income so I really could take summers off – because most teachers work all summer, contrary to popular belief. I loved the school and the town. I had my first child, a beautiful daughter who is now at Boston University, and we had enough money for my (then) wife to stay home with the kid for a couple of years.
Just when everything seemed great, I made a dumb-ass decision that sent everything to Hell.