Mottled groups of the wayward kids who walked to school each day instead of riding in air-conditioned vehicles sauntered to the outside reception area from different directions – some from the alleys, some from the side streets. All were gathering in the school bus loading area for the first day of school. For the older sixth graders, it was their last year of elementary school here, and they were looking forward to being wonderfully comfortable operating as the familiar rowdy group. I know this about those kids because I’m one of them.
Except right now I’m sitting on an old wood chair in front of a PE coach’s desk. He has a phone receiver cradled in his near-non-existent neck and is dialing with one hand while he’s tapping a breathtakingly large wooden paddle with the other.
This is quite a turn of events, and it started with that first school day gathering back in my neighborhood. Everything there was going as expected. We were herded into an outside waiting area in front of the school with everyone else in our grade, chatting and horsing.
Instead of hustling us to class, the adults and younger student monitors wearing neon orange Safety Patrol belts loaded the sixth-grade group into hot, running buses. This seemed odd, a field trip before we’d even met any of the teachers. After a few sweaty minutes, the chatter was growing, mostly from students who had overheard their parents’ morning discussions at home. The boisterous students, myself included, were having a hard time taking in what we were hearing: We were to ride a bus each morning to the south-central part of the city to attend a school there, instead of here with the other neighborhood kids.
The parents were calling it “bussing,” which was appropriate since the bus ride would be some 30 minutes long. It was quiet on the bus during the first few minutes of the ride, which you’d think would have made the bus driver happy, but she wasn’t. She was a good-sized lady that looked to be the type to shut down any ruckus early, but she made no such move. She just stuck to the job at hand without saying anything. She didn’t even have her big visor mirror pointed at us.
Well, even the bang-around delinquents I was hanging with in the back of the bus picked up on this lapse of enforcement, and soon our initial horseplay escalated into full-blown pro-wrestling moves. Girls were breaking the silence in the front by yelling at us to knock it off, and someone was just getting ready to deploy some stowaway fireworks when we turned the corner off the main highway to where our new school was located. When this happened, the whole bus went silent.
I suppose I was a little spoiled living in a neighborhood near the water, even though the town was not new (actually kinda run down) and our place was the clear leader as the junkiest house in the area. The neighborhood we pulled into that Monday morning was worse than any I’d lived in by a long shot. No boats, like in our neighborhood, but a ton of cars in assorted conditions in nearly every yard. There was a lot of trash blown against chain link fences, and walking along these fences was the largest number of kids and parents I’d ever seen walking on one sidewalk. They were all walking in the same direction, at various speeds, pushing baby strollers and moving groups of kids along using an assortment of verbal methods. As we soon found out, they were all heading for the neighborhood school for the first day.
We parked behind the school and got off the bus. There was a clear view of the playground and groups of students gathering. What wasn’t in view were many adults looking authoritative.
When the students saw us getting off the bus, groups of boys came running over to test out the newbies, also using an assortment of verbal techniques. Even the local girls got involved, which initially was a shock to me. I was so taken aback by the insults that I didn’t respond appropriately, and, as I would find out later, I failed the how-tough test. From what was being said, these kids all thought we were rich out-of-towners. Unbelievable.
Since the first bell had not yet sounded, the bussed-in kids banded together on the side of the dirty playground. The smattering of adult monitors present paid no attention. There was comfort in our gathering and once the shock wore off the boys, the tougher ones began to return verbal fire—getting a little down and dirty now—and before things could escalate further on this memorable first day, the bell rang, and we ran for class.
I found myself in a class with none of my friends. Before the teacher spoke, the old wooden intercom system speaker box sitting high on the classroom wall (right next to the slowest clock in the world) made a crackling sound. The principal of the school began to murmur some kind of welcome announcement that was completely incomprehensible. It was so garbled that I laughed out loud and, of course, was sent to her office to meet her. She was even more incomprehensible in person.
The only redeeming feature from that confrontational first day is that my buddy Jimmy Roberts and I, on the ride home in the back of the bus, came up with some practical plans for increasing our truancy schedule this year. Part of this plan was to catch my mom in a receptive state when I get home, so I could relay the news to her that school this year is looking like it’s going to be a little rough. I’ll need to earn her sympathy for the possible bust that can happen when I’m ditching bigger chunks of the school year, something that my stepfather isn’t so sympathetic to.
As it turned out, “a little rough” was somewhat of an understatement. Fights were breaking out each morning on the back playground, with all the local toughs now hanging near the bus drop-off area, waiting. Even Jimmy Roberts, the toughest amongst us, was taking beatings and suggested we stay in a gang to protect ourselves. But once we did that, we were identified as the problem at the school and began frequenting the principal’s office even more.
Except it wasn’t the principal’s office we were being sent to now. It took only a few weeks for school officials to recognize the new gang issue, and they promoted one of the PE coaches as the new Dean of Discipline. It is this morning that I have the honor of being one of his first customers.
“So, I hear you’re one of the gang members causing playground trouble in the mornings,” he said when I sat in front of his desk.
While outside his office waiting for my turn, I saw the kid in front of me leaving. It was a freckled kid named Harry, one of the toughs from our neighborhood. He had scurried out of the office, rubbing his backside and hiding his tears, so I already had an idea of the direction the new sheriff wanted to go.
I looked at him evenly, then casually hoisted an elbow and placed it on the arm of the chair, leaning slightly on it. “Why don’t you come out there in the mornings yourself? Then you can find out firsthand what’s going on,” I told him.
He flinched, but only slightly, barely visible. While first-time stepfathers like the one at my house may not bluff very well, school administrators happen to be excellent at it, I knew. I also know that kids whose mothers work at bars at night and sleep during the day, leaving said kids to roam the streets and neighborhoods by themselves, have no problems at all calling bluffs on disciplinarians who go after the easiest targets, instead of tackling or even trying to find out where the real problem is.
The response caught him off guard, but it was a quick recovery.
“Son, I have a basketball team to coach at night and a softball team in the afternoons,” he said. He shifted his massiveness in the padded chair and asserted himself again. “Besides, this isn’t about me. It’s about you. And you have been written up for fighting on the playground. And the punishment for that is a choice: three licks or three days. Your choice.” He slowly reached across his desk and lightly touched the rather large wooden paddle sitting there, the same apparatus, one would assume, which had inflicted the last punishment dished out to that kid Harry. The new dean now smiled slightly.
“Licks” was the kids’ term for swats with the big paddle board. While this form of painful guidance is frequently applied throughout elementary school, as my brother Tim could attest, it now stood to reach another level here in this out-of-town school. A dose of “licks” every day would not be part of this complete breakfast, I decided. “Days” meant days of suspension from school.
“Well, in that case, I’ll take the days,” I said, keeping eye contact.
The dean seemed to be expecting that answer. “Why don’t we see what your parents have to say about your decision,” he said, picking up the phone and referring to a number he had scribbled on a pad. This seemed to be the plan from the start, since my phone number was already sitting next to the phone before I even entered the cluttered, musty office.
This was a plan, however, that traditionally didn’t go the disciplinarian’s way. My mother was usually sleeping in after her shifts at the bar, and my stepfather was typically at work during the day. This meant a yellow phone with a long, half-tangled curly cord on the kitchen wall that doesn’t get answered. An unanswered phone call back in the neighborhood school (oh how I miss that place) means suspension and a note sent home needing to be signed by a parent, which was perfectly fine. As I might have mentioned, I’ll play hooky once or twice during a typical school year. It's uncanny that my cursive writing looks exactly like my mother’s, I tell you.
Just as I began wondering if my stepfather Paul was home today, he picked up the phone.
“Hello, Mr…” and the dean checked his notepad before saying my last name, which of course was not the same as Paul’s. After this confusion was cleared, the dean said, “Well, I have your son here in my office, and he’s in trouble for fighting… no, it’s not Tim, it’s ….,” and then the guy had to look down at his pad again to remember my first name. Unbelievable.
“He has a choice of punishments. Three swats with the paddle or three days' suspension from school. Uh-huh. Absolutely.” The new dean then leaned over and, with a distinctive smile, handed me the phone.
“You know which one to pick, right?” Paul said before I even spoke. Although Paul’s preferred punishment device was the belt around his waist, he had no problem with an upgraded experience via large paddle, especially when it came to the frequent calls from school regarding my brother Tim.
This needs to be good. “It wasn’t my fault,” I blurted, sounding juvenile. Paul kept silent. Okay, this needs to be something a little better than that.
“Besides,” I continued, “one of these choices would let me help you get ahead of schedule on… the project we’re working on.” He was close to finishing his latest big project: rebuilding a dilapidated cabin cruiser he found in a boat yard near the house. The tentative name of the boat was The Topaz Beetle. I was helping work on that boat on the weekends, and my hands were callused with tiny black cracks on the knuckles and around the fingernails.
Yea, I was basically asking for extra slave labor days for myself at this point, but anything was better than here.
Paul was a new stepfather with no kids of his own. He rarely wanted to know a bunch of details about our school scene; his only demand was that we attend school. When it was required, that is. He also knew that I detested fighting, and only did so when Tim or some other school hoodlum forced me to.
There was a long pause on the other end. “Then you can work for me like a man who never wanted to go to school,” he finally said, then hung up. The click was loud, and both of us in that office heard what was said. I handed the phone back to the new dean. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
“I’ll take the days,” I told him.