Place: A Friends School
Note: This story is fiction. It is also true.
The door to Matthew’s office was open a few inches, but Teacher Ellen still knocked tentatively. The door was big, the oak was heavy and dark, but not ornate. The sign that read “Matthew Evans, Head of School,” was small and visually unimposing. But no matter how modest, to her it still meant “The Boss.”
Matthew was an open-minded and friendly boss, to be sure. And encouraging to junior teachers with lots of ideas.
But still, the boss. His office where Ellen’s future as a Quaker private school teacher would probably be decided. It was also where the buck stopped, where the school’s most unpleasant tasks got done.
Like this one, Ellen thought, when she heard him say, “Come in.” She glanced back at the two students behind her. The girl, thin, her dark hair still tousled, was trying for an air of defiance. The boy, an entitled preppy if there ever was one, didn’t need to work for an insolent expression; it came with the pedigree.
Yes, Ellen, she thought, waving them in ahead of her, admit it: you’re prejudiced against seniors who drive their own Beamers. She admitted it.
They took their places in front of the broad, dark desk, The students in front, Ellen behind and to their left. She noted again that, no matter how affable Matthew could be in faculty meetings or bantering with students over lunch, he was also master of a dead-serious poker-face.
She had only seen it once before, when a student drug dealer was expelled. But that once made clear it was one of the tools of his trade as school head. The stern poker face was as necessary as his ability to charm donations out of wealthy parents for new programs and raises in teacher pay.
Matthew was examining a sheet of paper in an open folder. His jacket was off, but his tie was a solid navy blue and his demeanor entirely businesslike. He let them stand there in uncomfortable silence for a long moment.
Then he dropped the paper, glanced up and said, “Teacher Ellen?”
“It’s just as you see there,” Ellen said. “I went into the drama building last night, to get a book I’d left in a classroom, and on the way out I heard noises from the auditorium. I went in quietly, and, um, found Kevin and Connie on the mattress behind the stage. They were, um, unclothed, and apparently having sex.”
Matthew shifted a stony gaze to the students. “You knew this was completely against the behavior code?” He said.
Connie stared at the floor and nodded. Kevin’s response was something between a nod and a shrug.
“And you also understand,” Matthew went on, “this infraction is eligible for immediate expulsion?”
More nods, but from the corner of her eye, Ellen caught the hint of a curl to Kevin’s lip, which she took to mean, “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Connie,” Matthew intoned, “I’m sending you home for a month. Report to the Counseling Office, and they’ll escort you to your room to pick up your things. You may go.”
Connie started to sniffle, then put a hand to her face and shuffled out.
Matthew waited another long moment. It seemed to Ellen he didn’t even blink.
“Kevin,” he said, “This is your second incident. You were lucky there was a different head of school that time. I’m sending you home til after Christmas.”
“But I’ll miss finals,” Kevin protested.
“Not if you want to graduate,” Matthew said coldly. “You’ll make arrangements with the teachers by email, and your return is subject to their certifying that all the work is up to date.”
Matthew picked up the folder. “Report to the Counseling office, and you are not to speak to Connie there, or anywhere else on campus.
When Kevin’s footsteps had faded down the long old hallway, Ellen realized she felt as if she had been holding her breath through the whole ordeal.
Matthew shook his head and the poker face dissolved into a tight smile. “That’s definitely not the fun part of my job,” he said, “but sometimes –” he opened his palms, left the rest of the sentence hanging.
Then he stood up from the desk, stepped to a hanging file drawer, and slipped the folder in a slot. “Enough of that!” He said, as if he’d opened a window to banish an unpleasant odor.
“Now,” he was settling back into his chair, “I’ve got lots to do, but tell me a bit about your sophomore field trip.”
Ellen was relieved; the encouraging boss was back. “It was great,” she said. “The Old Roadside Friends Cemetery is a goldmine. It’s got gobs of Quaker and antislavery history, and the kids seemed to love cleaning it up. There’s lots more work to do, though.”
“What about the neighborhood?”
“It’s pretty rough,” she said, “but we had no trouble. We visited the Baptist church across from it, and the pastor was welcoming. Said he was glad to see Quakers taking some responsibility for what’s still their property. He invited us to visit a service, and I set that up for this Friday.”
“Excellent.” Matthew was beaming now.
A bell clanged, echoing up and down the hallway outside.
“Time for my class,” Ellen said, and turned to go.
“Keep it up,” Matthew said. “Your history & heritage program is great. I wish I’d had a history teacher like you when I was here.”
Matthew had only a couple minutes of quiet before Victor Washington, the Development Director, was in the doorway, a thick folder under one arm. “You wanted the latest on the fundraising campaign,” he said. He tapped the folder. “Got it right here.”
Of course, Matthew knew most of what was in Victor’s spreadsheets and charts. As head of school, he had to deal with more than student misbehavior; teaching, and teachers; campus sports, boards and committees. Besides all that, every day, maybe every hour, he thought about raising money.
From the outside, the school might look timeless and solid after almost two centuries in its wooded campus. But from inside, every single year, so much had to be paid for: buildings built, painted, trimmed, fixed, rebuilt, replaced. Teachers were underpaid, but their paychecks still added up. Tuition and fees kept going higher, but never quite caught up with expenses.
So Matthew, like every head of school, thought about fundraising every day. A head who didn’t was soon out of a job.
Matthew nodded reflexively as Victor said the money for a new swimming pool was on track; and the historic meetinghouse restoration was almost funded. These were places the alumni remembered, and things they had had fun doing: easy to raise money for.
“But where it’s still heavy lifting,” Victor was saying, “is the NIT.”
Matthew sighed. The NIT–or New Initiatives in Teaching. His favorite, and it was tougher. Computers were obsolete as soon as you turned them on. Software needed updates almost every week. And if something was focused on the past–like Teacher Ellen’s history & heritage plans– or you wanted more scholarships for poor or non-rich Quaker students–the first question behind closed doors was, “How will it help my kid (or grand-kid) get into Harvard?”
Like pulling teeth, and it never stopped.
These scholarships were also close to Matthew’s heart. Victor’s too: a scholarship student who finished top of his class. Now he looked over the newest report, frowning. “We need some new ideas for this,” he said, “some way to put it across better.”
Matthew shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Yeah,” he said,”you’re right.”
He turned toward the window behind his desk. An old clock was on a mantel next to it. Across the grass, he could see the corner of the meetinghouse. Beyond it cars were parked along the road to the campus entrance.
As he watched, two white campus vans drove down the road. Matthew shook his head at them. From this distance, they looked shiny and new.
“You see those vans, Victor?” He pointed. “We had to put a new transmission in one last month. And the U-joint in the other one could go any day. Several thousand bucks in all.”
He turned back to Victor. “But without them we have no field trips, for Teacher Ellen’s program. The kids like those trips. And getting their hands into American and Quaker history is–“
A discreet tap at the door. Doris, his secretary. “Excuse me, Matthew,” she said. “You’d want to see this.” She handed him an oversize yellow post-it note.
Doris understood how things worked, so Matthew frowned down at the note as Doris retreated. At a signal from him, She shut the door quietly behind her.
“Victor,” he said quietly. “It’s Mrs. Mickleson.”
Victor’s eyes widened. But he looked confused. This should be good news. Yet he could hear alarm in the way Matthew spoke the name of the school’s biggest donor.
“What–?” Victor asked.
Matthew read from the note. “She’s here, outside.” He glanced up. “No,” he added, “we were not expecting her. She told Doris she was in the city for a board meeting of the Mickelson Charitable Foundation, and asked her driver to stop here before they went back to Washington. She said she has something urgent to show me.”
He considered the note again. “Doris has very good radar about this sort of thing,” he said. “It sounds like a problem.”
Victor hurried the reports back into their folder. “You want me to go?” He asked.
Matthew hesitated. It might be wiser to see her by himself. But in Victor and his work, Matthew thought he glimpsed a future head of school, either here or another Quaker school. So maybe he should see this too, whatever it was.
Matthew shook his head. “You’ve been working with her,” He said. It wasn’t really a question.
“Met with her twice at the Foundation office,” Victor said. He checked his phone calendar. “Have an appointment in Washington next week.” He paused. “Did have, anyway.”
“Better stay,” Matthew said. “We’ll see what it’s about. If I need one-on-one with her, I’ll say so.”
A moment later, the three of them had finished a round of hearty greetings, and Doris had asked if anyone needed coffee or juice, which was declined with forced cheer.
Mrs. Mickleson was near sixty, dressed in a subdued but well-tailored pantsuit, a single string of pearls, and a black leather portfolio. Matthew knew she was not typically condescending or imperious. But he could sense she was all business today. Curiously, though, she also had gloves on.
She launched right in. “Matthew, I won’t take much of your time. There’s another board meeting in Bethesda at four o’clock, that I mustn’t miss.”
“How can we help?” Matthew asked.
Instead of answering directly, Mrs. Mickleson said, “My granddaughter Amy Singleton spent the weekend with us, and she talked nonstop about the school. She loves it here.”
“Glad to hear that,” Matthew said, though he had a definite sense there was a “But” coming.
“And she had some of her chums over for a swim, and that night I heard them out on the patio talking and carrying on about a field trip her class took into the city.”
Matthew wanted to smile and nod; something kept him from it.
“They thought I’d gone to bed,” she said. “But I peeked out when they went off to the kitchen for snacks, and there on a table was this–“
She flipped open a silver-tipped latch on the black portfolio, dipped two gloved fingers into it, and lifted out a thick plastic zip-lock bag. She held it up for them to see.
Matthew was struck by how out of place the bag looked. The plastic was thick but translucent, with white patches at the top as labels.
It looked like something from a police evidence locker, or a hospital morgue, somehow mislaid in the gloved hand of a model from Tiffany’s. The juxtaposition was so visually absurd it was almost funny.
Mrs. Mickelson was not the least bit amused. “These are some of the souvenirs Amy and her class secretly brought back from that field trip, which I gather was to an abandoned cemetery in the inner city.”
She pointed at it with her other hand, highlighting a thin cylinder. “That tube, Matthew, is a drug addict’s syringe, complete with a used and bloodstained needle.”
The pointer finger moved down past a round beige lump. “And this,” she grimaced, “this is a used condom, evidently left behind by one of the prostitutes who ply their trade there.”
She turned a withering gaze on Victor. “Mr. Washington, was this, er, excursion part of the new program you told me about? What’s it called–??”
Victor cleared his throat. “Uh, history and heritage, Mrs. Mickelson,” he said softly.
Matthew couldn’t let him take the rap here. “We think very highly of the program,” he said. “It often serves to bring together critical issues of the past and present in vivid, concrete ways.”
As soon as the word “vivid” was out of his mouth, Matthew regretted it.
“‘Vivid,'” Mrs. Mickleson repeated for emphasis. “I’ll say.” She waved the bag for emphasis, then dropped it back into the portfolio. Clicking the clasp, she looked from Victor to Matthew. Her lips were tight.
“Matthew,” she said flatly, “One of Amy’s classmates claimed she found bullet shell casings from some sort of pistol, but a teacher took them.”
She stifled a shudder. “I believe you know, Matthew, that I am no reactionary. The long record of progressive Quaker values is a big part of this school’s appeal. And both the Foundation and I have long supported research and advocacy for forward-looking and humane drug and social policies.” An eyebrow arched. “The Foundation director testified before the Senate just last year.
“But this–” she gestured toward the portfolio — “Amy and her chums treated them like carnival prizes. But do you realize how dangerous those — those objects are? Bloody needles? Germ and virus-infested debris from commercial sex? Bullets?”
She leaned forward. “Do I have to spell it out?”
Her eyes were wide, as the memory of Amy and her chums in close proximity to any of those objects closed in.
“No,” Matthew shook his head, a hollow feeling settling in his gut. “No, you don’t.”
Mrs. Mickelson sat back stiffly in her chair. “Amy’s sister Bethany is In Eighth grade in Bethesda. We’ve looked at Westtown and Sidwell, but she wants to follow her big sister here. And they have cousins in Baltimore who say the same thing.”
She tightened her grip on the portfolio, and stood up abruptly. “But Matthew, I couldn’t possibly support anything like this.” She raised a hand for emphasis. “If they need field trips, Washington is within reach, and so is New York. I’m sure they would be received by the most progressive and responsible policy groups in these fields, and there are model programs they can also visit. Safely. I–“
The hallway class bell clanged and cut her off. Mrs. Mickelson took it as a signal. Giving each of the men a single pump handshake, she turned to the door.
“Matthew,” she said, lifting the portfolio, “I truly respect the enthusiasm and spirit of adventure you bring to your work here. But I must remind you that those adventures involve some of the most precious parts of my life–and that of others like me.” She pulled the door open. “Amy and your other students are here to prepare for life, not to risk it.”
“I’ll see to it right away,” Matthew said. But she was gone.
Victor closed the door, leaned against it, and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Whoa,” he murmured. “That was, um, vivid.”
“Yeah,” Matthew chuckled, and realized he was sweating too. “Victor,” he said, “we need some time to decompress and absorb this, but we’ll talk again after classes are done this afternoon.”
“Decompress,” Victor repeated, and gave a low whistle. “Totally.” He opened the door.
“Oh, and on your way,” Matthew said, “can you stop by the History room, and ask Teacher Ellen to come down?”
“Check,” Victor said. The door clicked behind him.
Matthew turned again to the window, his fingers moving reflexively to loosen his tie and unbutton his collar.
One of the campus vans was now parked next to the meetinghouse, while the driver carried in some cardboard boxes.
Another field trip. Friday, which was tomorrow. He sighed. Not a chance for that now.
Matthew dropped his hands. No. The tie and collar had to stay tight.
He crossed the office to a coat closet. A mirror hung on the back side of its door. He looked into it, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and arranged his features into the disciplinary poker face. Yes, he practiced.
It wasn’t quite right for this next encounter. But he couldn’t think of how to add a note of compassion without undermining the hard necessity of what had to be done.
The tap came on the office door.
He took the chair behind his desk. “Come in.”
Ellen entered, smiling.
Matthew opened a folder on the desk, and looked down without seeing what was in it.
Compared to what he had to do now, he thought, dealing with Connie and Kevin for writhing around on an old mattress — was it really only a couple of hours ago? — that was a piece of cake.
More about some actual events that helped inspire this story here, here & here.