Contemporary High School Fiction


                                     By David L. Elkind

Hal Baxter hung up the phone and smiled. He had just finished negotiating a favorable settlement without having to bring a lawsuit. His client, Tom Langston, would get a substantial amount of money that would last for years.

Hal did the representation on a continent fee basis. The firm would get a substantial payment without having to litigate the dispute.

“I’m really happy to get this done for Tom so quickly,” Hal said to his associate, Karen Spiegel. “He deserves it and needs it.”

“You’ve always spoken favorably about him,” Karen said. “In my three years here, I’ve never heard you speak so fondly about a client.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Hal said. “All of my clients are large corporations and I usually deal with their general counsel. Many GC’s fit one of two types. Some are used to having a lot of money and can’t understand that for many of us money doesn’t grow on trees and we’ve had to work hard for everything that we have. They were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and look down on anyone that doesn’t have their gilded background. The other type are just plain dumb. Every decision they make is a mistake. Many of them were born standing under a pigeon.”  

“Tom doesn’t fit either of those paradigms,” Karen said.

“That’s right,” Hal agreed. “Like me, he was born with very little but busted his rear to make himself successful. He served DGR well for many years, but they wrongly fired him months before his stock options would have vested. They felt that they could act with no consequences, but they were wrong.”

Karen smiled. “They hadn’t considered our capabilities and how much Tom knew.”

“They didn’t realize that Tom knew six former DGR employees who were also fired just before their pensions vested. Once we had them lined up, DGR had no choice but to settle. They would have been crushed if our case went to a jury.”

“There’s just one thing I don’t understand,” Karen said. “This is about the fourth settlement I’ve participated in with you. In every other one, you seemed to enjoy being the hardass lawyer. You were sharp, even nasty to our adversaries in the other negotiations. In this matter, you were courteous and polite with DGR and always very accommodating to them. I’m glad your approach worked, but I don’t understand why it was so different this time.“

“That’s a good question,” Hal said, “and the answer is because this situation was radically different than the other ones. In the other situations, we were locking horns with the other side. We had totally different views of the merits and already were in litigation. We reached settlement only after we showed them that we were going to kick the crap out of them. Until then, each case involved highly adversarial litigation. This matter was different. The first time we met with DGR, we told them that we found six other people that they had similarly screwed. They knew right away that they had no defense, and the only question was the amount of our damages, which would have increased as the litigation went forward. That’s why I was so courteous to them.”

“Your style was much different with them,” Karen said.

“I used a different negotiation tactic because of the circumstances. I started by validating their position. That immediately made them comfortable with us and more willing to listen to our point of view. I then spun away from their position to ours. The strength of our analysis then won the day. Each settlement negotiation is different. You need to determine what you need to do and act accordingly.”

“That’s amazing,” Karen said. “How much experience did you have when you developed that approach?”

Hal laughed. “Believe it or not, I had my first major negotiation when I was about 17.”

He remembered back 25 years before, when he was beginning his senior year of high school. The only regret Hal had was that this would be his last year of high school. He had put Roosevelt High School on a pedestal. It was an excellent school on a beautiful, 70 acre site. From an academic perspective, it was considered one of the best schools in the state. The student body was also one of the most diverse, and everyone got along well. Hal’s best friend was a black student named Ron Banks. When there was a rare fight during the past year, everyone hid it from the administration, and several students successfully mediated the dispute. 

Hal and Ron already were deep into football practice when school started. Hal expected to be a starting wide receiver and Ron the starting running back. Both came to practice in excellent shape after working out together every day during the summer, and each had done well during the practices. “Looks like this could be a great year for us,” Hal said to Ron.

“I’m not counting on anything until Coach Kessel posts the starting line-up and I’m on it,” Ron said.

“I appreciate your caution,” Hal said, “but no one has touched you during practice.”

That Thursday, nine days before the first game, Hal and Ron went to Kessel’s office to see his list of starters for the game. Hal was listed as the starting receiver, but Ted Phillips was listed ahead of Ron as the starting running back.

“This is ridiculous,” Hal said. “Ted’s a nice guy, but even he would acknowledge that he can’t touch you. We’ve got to something about this.”

Ron looked defeated. “You know I’m upset,” Ron said, “but I think we both know that there’s nothing I can do about this. I guess I just have to suck this up. I don’t wish Ted harm, but I hope that I get the chance to show what I can do so that Coach realizes he has to let me play.”  

Hal was known to be straight-laced and non-confrontational, but this offended his core value of fair play. “I’ve got an idea,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you yet because I don’t know how this will play out. But I’ll know in a couple of days if this is an option.”  

Hal spoke to two friends, John Campo and Marlin Morton. Both had brothers who played on the football team. Campo’s brother Angelo had been a senior three years before, and Morton’s brother Caleb six years before. The Campos were white and the Mortons were black. Both older brothers were reluctant at first to speak to Hal, but both eventually opened up to him.

Hal felt conflicted when he finished both calls. He had uncovered a goldmine of information, but he realized that his long-held belief that Roosevelt High was a bastion of wonderful ideals and fair play had been badly tarnished. At this point, however, his focus was on helping Ron. Everything else had to be secondary.

Hal went to the gym Monday morning just before lunch, knowing that Coach Kessel would be there after teaching a gym class. Kessel smiled when he saw Hal.

“Good to see you, Baxter,” Kessel said. “You ready to start the season?”

“Absolutely, Coach,” Hal said. “I’m hoping to have a big senior year.”

“I think this could be a solid year for you,” Kessel said. “Parker has the best arm of any quarterback that we’ve had for at least a decade. If you get open, you should have a lot of balls thrown to you.”

“That sound great,” Hal said. “I feel good, and I’m ready to go. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve been working out with Parker a lot during practice and I think we’re comfortable together.”

“That’s great. I hope that you like our starting lineup.”

“I do, except there’s one important error.”

Kessel looked both bewildered and uncomfortable. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“The starting running back should be Ron Banks, not Ted Phillips,” Hal said. “I like Ted, but it’s not close.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Kessel said, his voice rising in anger. “I’m the coach, it’s my team. I decide who plays. Who the hell are you to tell me who I should play?”   

“It’s my responsibility as the co-captain of the team and someone who wants to win. Everyone knows that Ron is much better than Ted and would give us a much better chance of winning.”

Now Kessel was furious.  “Who the hell do you think you are to talk like that to me? I’ve got half a mind to throw you off the team. Your chance of a college scholarship would disappear.”

Hal wasn’t about to back down. “If you threw me off the team, I’d miss the season but it wouldn’t have a long-term effect on me. I’m going to an Ivy League school and they don’t have athletic scholarships. I’d be able to walk on to the football team next year with no difficulty. You also haven’t told me that you disagree with me that Ron is better than Ted. That means you’re ignoring that fact because you want to start Ted even if he’s not as good as Ron.”

“I’m tempted to lay you out right now,” Kessel said. “If I didn’t think that Phillips was better than Banks, why did you think I would start him?”

“You and I both know why,” Hal said. He forced himself to stay outwardly calm. “It’s because Ron is black and Ted is white.”

Now Kessel was screaming. “How dare you accuse me of racism,” he shouted. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

“Actually, you apparently have several,” Hal said. “I’ve only started finding things out, but three years ago you started Phillip Falco ahead of Jimmy Gary at receiver because Falco was white and Gary black. Gary played about one-fourth as much as Falco but caught more passes and had many more touchdowns. Falco’s career ended in high school, but Gary is starting this year for Miami University. Six years ago, you started Gary Mortensen, who is white, ahead of Pete Williams, who is black, at quarterback. When Mortensen broke his leg near the end of the third game, he had completed 30 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and six interceptions. Williams stepped in and completed about 70 percent of his passed, with 22 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. I’ve never heard anything about Mortensen, but this Sunday you can see Williams play for the San Diego Chargers.”

“That’s a bunch of garbage,” Kessel said. Despite his bluster, Hal could see he was shaken.

“I don’t think so,” Hal said. “I got this information just from speaking to two friends whose brothers previously played for you. Imagine what I’d find if I looked harder.”

Kessel clearly knew he had lost. He was in anguish as he tried in vain to think of something to say that would save him. “What do you want me to do?” he said weakly.

“I’m tempted to go to the superintendent of schools,” Hal said. “I know that you have tenure, but what you’ve done is grounds for immediate termination. But let’s take this one step at a time. You have a hundred percent choice. You can start Ted for one quarter. But after that, the position belongs to Ron for the rest of the year. If you don’t agree to that, this conversation is over, as is your career.”

Kessel’s head was down. “I’ve got no choice. You win.”

“Second, there won’t be any repercussions to me as a result of our little discussion today. Agreed?”


“Good. As for the big picture, it depends on how you act in the future. I’ll be following the team for the next few years. If I even think that you’ve made any decisions based on race, I’m going to the superintendent. So your future is in your hands. If I were you, I wouldn’t do anything stupid.”

Kessel hung his head.  “Thirteen straight winning seasons, four state championships, and this is what I get.”

“Imagine how good your teams would have been if you weren’t a racist,” Hal scoffed walking away.

Hal called Ron. “You won’t be the starter on Saturday, but after the first quarter, you will be for the rest of the year.”

“What are you talking about?” Ron asked. Hal told him everything about his conversation with Kessel. “Oh my God,” Ron said. “You’re the best friend a guy could have, you’re brilliant, and you have brass balls. I can’t thank you enough.”

During the first quarter of the first game, Phillips had 15 yards on 6 carries in the first quarter, and 8 yards were on one play. Ron played the rest of the game, and had 130 yards and scored 3 touchdowns. Hal caught 5 passed for 80 yards and a touchdown. Roosevelt won easily.

That started a tremendous year for the team. Roosevelt won all 10 league games, and their closest victory was by 10 points. Ron had a sensational year, averaging 160 yards per game and scoring 13 touchdowns. He was given a scholarship by Ohio State. Hal caught 50 passes and scored 6 touchdowns. He told the college recruiters that he wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and he was accepted by Dartmouth.

The state championship game took place in mid-December in Springfield, which was in the middle of the state. Roosevelt’s opponent, Corning High, also was undefeated, and they had won their closest game by 13 points.

For several weeks, when Hal walked the family dog, Heidi, down Purcell Street, he often saw a man sitting in his den looking out the window at Hal. The man looked to be thirty and athletically-built, with short black hair and a square jaw. Every time Hal saw him, he had an expressionless look on his face. At first he made Hal feel uncomfortable, but Hal felt that the man didn’t look like a psychopath so he assumed he was just bored with nothing to do.

Three days before the championship game, the man stepped out his front door as Hal walked by. “You Hal Baxter?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Hal said cautiously. “Why do you want to know?”

“I’m Ken Blakely,” he said. “You may recognize my name. I was the starting quarterback on Kessel’s first championship team. I still hold all of the school quarterback records.”

“I’ve heard of your name,” Hal said, brightening. “Coach talks about you all of the time and holds you up as the perfect high school player.”

“I could have kept going but I tore my ACL freshman year in college and that was it for me. I just want to say two things to you. First, just win on Saturday. Second, I heard what you said to Kessel. That took guts. You showed that you’re a real leader, and you’ve backed it up with your play. Kessel’s lucky to have you.”

“Thanks. Hope you enjoy the game.” Hal almost ran the rest of the way home.       

The game was played in 40 degree weather, but a heavy rain made everything slippery. Corning scored a touchdown on a short drive after a Roosevelt punt returner fumbled the ball deep in Roosevelt territory. They also scored when a Roosevelt defensive back slipped badly, allowing a Corning receiver to turn a short pass into a long touchdown. They got their third touchdown on a long drive. Ron was held in check most of the game, but scored two touchdowns. When Roosevelt got a 30-yard field goal, Corning led 21-17.

Roosevelt got the ball on the 30 yard line for their last chance with 3 minutes left in the game. Four passes by Wally Parker, three of them to Hal, put the ball on the Corning 40. Two plays later, the ball was on the Corning 31. If Roosevelt gained just one yard now, the first down would stop the clock.

Parker pitched the ball back to Ron, who ran to the right. Hal ran down the field at a slow pace because of the running play. Corning’s defensive back ran casually well behind him. As he neared the Corning defense, Ron looked up and threw the ball downfield. Hal now was sprinting towards the goal line. The pass was behind him, but he caught it on the 10 with one hand and sprinted to the end zone. When Corning fumbled the ball three plays later, Roosevelt had won, 24-21. The team lifted Ron and Hal in the air, and Kessel hugged both of them, whispering “Thank you” to Hal.

That Monday, Hal walked into Kessel’s office. “I guess starting Ron turned out okay,” he said with a smile.

“We won because of you, because of your leadership in confronting me, and the way you and Ron played. This may be the best team I’ve ever coached, but you also taught me a life lesson. I’ve been thinking about all of the crap that I’ve pulled. You’re right, it wasn’t limited to the two players that you mentioned.”

“I’m glad to hear you recognize that,” Hal said.

“I don’t deserve to be the coach after all of the horrible things I’ve done,” Kessel said, his face near tears. “I’m resigning later today.”

“I don’t think that you should do that,” Hal said. “You’ve always been the best football coach. Now you’ve got the ability to be the best coach and a great person and leader. Please don’t give up on that.”

Kessel sighed. “Okay,” he finally said, smiling. “I only hope that when you graduate from Dartmouth, you consider joining me as an assistant coach and then take over the reins when I retire.”

“We’ll see,” Hal said, smiling back. He reached out his hand, but Kessel gave him a bone- crushing hug.                          

July 10, 2021 22:34

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