Trigger warning: Bullying
That week, it wasn’t even lunchtime on Monday when Jamie found himself sent off to the principal’s office, his eyes still red from the latest tormenting from Mike and the others. All the way down the hall he told himself he didn’t care, he was numb, he could take it.
All the way down the hall he couldn’t convince himself, no matter how he tried.
At least Mrs. Burroughs was sympathetic as usual. “Oh, Jamie, not again,” she said as he lay the crumpled discipline slip on her desk. “When is Mrs. Anderton going to do something about those boys?”
“Not your concern, Frances,” came Principal Morton’s stern voice from his office. “Jamie, get in here.”
Jamie knew the drill – if he wanted to get his side of the story in, he had to do it now. “I was just minding my own business, Mr. Morton, and – ”
“Shut!” Mr. Morton snapped as usual. Jamie knew by then not to wait for the “up”. It was always just “shut”. Despondently he focused his eyes on the bright springtime sun in the parking lot out the window while his nemesis read the discipline slip. “Shoving, are we, Bronie?”
“That’s ‘Brone,’ and Mike shoved me first.”
“Mrs. Anderton saw you shove Mike, Bronie, not the other way around.”
“But that - ”
“But nothing, Bronie. You have got to stop antagonizing those other boys, because I am not going to tolerate your CONSTANTLY DISRESPECTFUL BEHAVIOR TOWARDS YOUR CLASSMATES UNTIL THEY CAN TEACH YOU A LESSON I CAN’T SEEM TO!” By the end of his tirade, Jamie’s ears were ringing and he was crying again. “Now get back to Mrs. Anderton, and you’d better not get on my radar again this week, young man.”
Jamie shook his head and looked at the floor. He knew better than to say anything. Mrs. Burroughs gave him an encouraging smile as he shuffled back past her desk, but he didn’t even look up.
As soon as he was gone, Mrs. Burroughs stood up and took a deep breath. “Mr. Morton, don’t you know how the other boys treat Jamie?” she asked.
“What did I just tell you, Frances?” the principal grunted.
“It’s just that…”
“Shut! Mrs. Anderton is one of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with, she knows what’s what. If she says he’s the problem, he’s the problem, understood?”
Mrs. Burroughs returned to her desk without a word. It was no use, not if he thought that highly of Mrs. Anderton. Mrs. Anderton who still insisted on being called ‘Mrs.’ and who dressed like Mrs. Burroughs’ own teachers had half a century before and who rarely missed a chance to remind the younger teachers that “boys will be boys” in the break room.
Jamie kept to himself for the rest of Monday. He didn’t bother complaining when one of the other boys threw his coat and mittens on the floor. Mrs. Anderton noticed as much with approval as he was dressing up to go home. “Doesn’t that feel better, Jamie? Ignore the others, don’t antagonize them, and they’ll stop.”
“No they won’t,” Jamie mumbled as he picked them up and put them on. “The only way to stop them is to beat them up, and I can’t because they’re a lot bigger than me.”
“You shouldn’t settle things with your fists anyway!” Mrs. Anderton admonished him. “Didn’t you learn that lesson this morning?”
“Mike shoved me first!”
“I didn’t see him shove you, I saw you shove him. Besides, you’re always antagonizing him, James. No wonder if he doesn’t like you.”
“Me antagonize him?!” Jamie had finally had enough. “Who always calls me ‘Bronie’? My name is James Brone!”
“Oh, I thought it was Bronie too,” Mrs. Anderton laughed. “Besides, he’s only teasing. What do we say? Names will never hurt me?”
“Sure, Mrs. Anderson,” Jamie hissed, emphasizing the S as much as he could.
“Don’t you be that way with me, young man!” Mrs. Anderton snapped. “I am the teacher! Go home.”
Jamie was gladly making his escape outside when the other sixth grade teacher, Mr. Forman, stuck his head in the door. “Everything all right, Marian?” he asked.
“Oh, just Jamie being his usual impudent self,” Mrs. Anderton sighed. “And the poor little thing wonders why the other boys don’t like him!”
“They’re not still tormenting him over his name, are they?” Mr. Forman asked.
“Brone, Bronie, what’s the difference?” Mrs. Anderton said. “I mean, it does have an E at the end. In my day, we didn’t correct our teachers even when they got something like that wrong. The grown-ups were gods! Why should it be any different now?”
“Is that why you became a teacher, Marian? To be a god?”
“Well, no. I became a teacher because I didn’t want school to end. I figured life didn’t get much better than cheerleading and the senior prom, and sure enough, it never did. The only other thing I ever wanted to be was a pilot, actually, and of course that wasn’t going to happen!”
“Not good enough at math, were you?” Mr. Forman asked.
“My best subject, I’ll have you know. But come on, girls don’t grow up to be pilots!”
Mr. Forman looked at his watch. “Oh, uh, sorry, Marian, I forgot I have to pick my wife up downtown.”
Mrs. Anderton hoped Jamie’s brush with Mr. Morton on Monday had knocked some sense into him. She was pleased at first on Tuesday when she arrived to find him dutifully ignoring Mike and Jason’s usual “Bronie Bronie Bronie!” taunts, which she also ignored until the eight-thirty bell rang.
All was still well after the first recess, when Jamie had the sense to wander off to the farthest corner of the playground on his own. After they filed back in, Mrs. Anderton kept an eye on the coatracks. Once the kids returned to their seats, all the coats were hung neatly – except one. “Jamie,” she said, “Don’t you know how to hang your coat up?”
“But I did!” Jamie said – and then he looked behind him at the rack. Once again his coat was on the floor. “Not again!” he said.
The rest of the class burst into laughter, and Mrs. Anderton smiled and nodded along with them. “Not again indeed, Jamie,” she said. “Hang it up, and do it right this time.”
“But I did!”
“Doesn’t look like it from here,” Mrs. Anderton said.
“Yeah, Jamie, how irresponsible are you?” Jason snickered.
“Jason, that’s enough.” But Mrs. Anderton kept her tone gentle as she said it. He did have a point, after all.
On Wednesday it rained too hard to let the kids go out for recess. Mrs. Anderton reluctantly let the kids get out the board games to play at their desks, though she’d have preferred to just have extra class time. Naturally the girls all clustered on one side of the room to play and the boys on the other – all but Jamie, who stayed at his desk and pulled out a paperback book.
Mrs. Anderton was having none of that – the poor kid needed to learn to socialize, after all. “Jamie,” she said, “It’s recess. You should play.”
“No one wants to play with me anyway,” he said, not even looking up from his book.
Mrs. Anderton snatched it away. “You can have this back after school,” she said. “Now go join the others!”
Kristie Russell, always too kind for her own good, spoke up. “Jamie, want to come join us?” she offered.
“Oh, uh, sure!” Jamie finally got up from his desk. “Thanks!”
“No, Christie,” Mrs. Anderton said. “Boys play with boys, girls play with girls.” She glared at Jamie and pointed at the corner where the other boys were snickering and whispering to one another. “Go!” she ordered.
Jamie carried himself like a condemned prisoner, and Mrs. Anderton felt like telling him to stop looking like such a victim. But she knew he wouldn’t listen. With all the kids sorted, she returned to her desk and took the opportunity to dust off the three Teacher of the Year awards on the shelf behind her desk, and did her best to tune out the immature prattle coming from both sides of the room.
She was disgusted, but not surprised, to find Jamie crying and Mike chortling as they returned to their desks when the bell finally rang. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she sighed, wondering to herself if there might be any jobs open at all girls’ schools next year. “Jamie, how many times to I have to tell you to ignore them?”
Jamie just shrugged and didn’t look up.
“I’ve a good mind to send you back to Mr. Morton’s office,” she said. “But we’ve all seen how much good that does.” As Mike was still laughing, she added, “That’s enough out of you, too, Mike.”
On Thursday the sun had come back out, but Jamie was absent. When Mrs. Anderton got to his name in roll call and got no response, a couple of the boys cheered. She looked up to see who the culprits were, but they were silent and still by the time she did. “Boys will be boys,” she muttered underneath her breath, and she picked up her marker for the first lesson.
She didn’t even get ten minutes into that lesson before Mrs. Burroughs’ voice piped up on the intercom. “Mrs. Anderton?”
“Mr. Morton would urgently like a word.”
“Right away, yes.”
She put the marker and her book down on her desk and looked at the kids. “I want it quiet until I get back!” Not that she was worried – without Jamie there, they’d probably behave themselves.
She was right. When she returned several minutes later, she could hear light chatter from the hallway, but nothing too out of turn. As she approached the door, she wondered if the kids would see the bad news on her face.
Evidently they did, for the room fell dead silent the moment she appeared in the doorway. Even Mike was quiet for once.
Mrs. Anderton waited for some – any – of the kids to speak up. For the first time all year, none of them did. Blinking back tears, she stepped up to the middle of the whiteboard, and at long last she spoke.
“All of you listen, and listen up good. We just got a phone call from Jamie’s mother. It seems she called him down to dinner last night and when he didn’t come to the table, she went to his room and found him with a knife he’d stolen from the kitchen, and he’d tried to slit his wrists.”
All the girls and some of the boys turned and glared at Mike. But Mrs. Anderton wasn’t done.
“He’s in the hospital and he’s going to recover. But he might not ever be coming back to this school. Those of you who teased and tormented him? Congratulations. I hope you’re happy.
“Are you going to tell our parents?” Jason asked, looking terrified.
“I’m sure the guilt you already feel will do just fine as punishment,” Mrs. Anderton declared. “Just don’t ever let me catch any of you picking on him again when he comes back.” She blotted her eyes with the tissue she’d clutched in her hand all the way up the hall. “If he comes back.”
After school was out that afternoon, Mr. Forman stopped by to find Mrs. Anderton crying again at her desk. “You all right?” he asked.
“Such a silly little fool!” Mrs. Anderton shook her head.
“Oh, look, it won’t do any good to beat yourself up now…” Mr. Forman began.
“I meant Jamie!” she snapped, throwing her latest wadded tissue down on her desk. “If it was that bad, why didn’t he come to a teacher? Why didn’t he talk to an adult about it? Don’t boys ever learn anything?”
Mr. Forman was speechless. He turned and left the room without another word. Mrs. Anderton thought about calling after him, but thought better of it. She supposed it was further proof she was right – boys never learned anything. Even a full-grown man like Mr. Forman couldn’t think to say a kind word or two when a lady needed it most!