Sammy peered into the bathroom mirror, watching helplessly as red blotches spread like connect-the-dots across his face. Intent on creating a safe distance from the eighth-grader shaking down the younger kids for lunch money, he’d scampered away from the bully. Once outside the lunchroom, he shoved his sandwich down his gut without checking its contents. Big mistake!
Crumpling the bag with the remains of the offensive sandwich, he slam-dunked it into the garbage can, which was already overflowing with used paper towels. He paced back and forth anxiously. No way can I go to math now. Focusing on how to extricate himself from his unfortunate dilemma, he failed to notice the entrance of a girl with purple-streaked hair and piercing blue eyes.
“Hey,” came a mocking voice.
Sammy whirled around, his heart pounding. “What are you doing in the boys’ bathroom?”
“Escorting you to math.”
He shivered so hard, his teeth chattered. “Someone’s going to see you and you’ll be in big trouble.
“I don’t think so.”
Sirens went off in Sammy’s head. He instinctively inched backwards. “What do you want?”
The girl eyed the urinals. Then she spat on the tiled floor. “You guys actually pee in these stinky things?”
A loud noise split the air.
“It’s the bell. We’re going to be late,” Sammy said, suddenly eager to get to math class.
The girl flicked a blotch on his cheek. “You can run from the lunchroom, but you can’t hide.”
Sammy stepped backwards, puke clogging his throat.
“Think you’re big shit, dissing me in class? You’ve got learning disabilities. You’re not supposed to do better than me.”
“I don’t diss you.”
“You calling me a liar?” Ellie asked, advancing on him. “You need to be taught a lesson.”
A girl was beating him up. “Just let me get to math and I’ll make more mistakes from now on,” he pleaded.
“And get even more attention from Mr. Gimmel and Ms. Maven?”
“You make them hate you,” Sammy mumbled.
A wild daring took hold of him, and he kept going. “You act crazy in class.”
She grabbed him and pushed him through the stall door. “I’ve had enough of your backtalk. Get in that stall and face the toilet.”
Sammy froze, his feet heavy on the floor tiles. “What?”
The next thing Sammy knew, he was on his knees, his face being smashed into cold clean water, then lifted. Sputtering through the waterfall, he looked up from his kneeling position in time to see Ellie slam past Tremayne, who’d just entered the bathroom.
“You okay, man?” Tremayne asked, helping Sammy to his feet.
Sammy stood there, tears flowing down his cheeks.
“Shit! A girl done that to you? Let’s get her ass booted out of here.”
“No, don’t say anything,” Sammy begged. “You’ll only make it worse.”
“I ain’t afraid of nobody. You comin’ to the principal or do I go myself?”
Sammy’s eyes fell to the front of his shirt. “I’m dripping wet.”
“You in or out?”
Sammy meekly followed the older boy out the bathroom door. He cast his eyes down as he drifted past the school custodian and his mop bucket.
Only twenty minutes until first-period! Mitzy Maven yanked open the door to Room 206 and plopped her briefcase on the battered wooden desk. Then she slid into the ergonomically-correct computer chair and checked her staff email. Dozens of emails for Norman Stein, the behavior disorders teacher. Only a handful for “actionlady.” Not surprising. After all, she was the new kid on the block. For all the other teachers knew, the stylishly dressed learning disabilities specialist who inclined her head as she passed them in the hallway each morning could be harboring a Saturday Night Special in her rose-colored Prada.
Mitzy sighed as she scrolled through her messages. If only she could breathe in Norman’s repertoire of disapproving body gestures. Nicknamed “Lion Man” by his cubs, the whiskered teacher who shared her classroom dealt with his special needs kids in a low-key manner that elicited respect from students and colleagues alike. At thirty years old, she possessed more real-life experience than Norman. Yet she remained clueless on how and when to exert her role as disciplinarian and imparter of all that was wise and true.
Teaching was Mitzy’s second career. In her first vocational incarnation, she’d spent six years writing investigative reports on every topic from gang-bangers to disgruntled employees. She’d luxuriated in her news editor’s grudging approval of a story and the resulting high-fives from colleagues. Even more affirming were the hundreds of emails “action lady” received from the public, praising her “hound dog ability to ferret out the truth.”
There were also those intangibles so soothing to one’s soul. Like zooming off to the nation’s capital to interview a bigwig in Congress, then dining out on sushi or shrimp and charging it to her expense account.
Then the Enron and Tyco Toys scandals occurred, an endless barrage of corporate malfeasance that sent her cynicism barometer crashing through its glass ceiling. But as long as those monthly bills on her silver Nissan 350 Z kept rolling in, she’d felt chained to her job.
Her “earth to Mitzy” moment occurred while researching a feature story entitled, “Is Your School Really Providing Your Special Needs Child With Services Guaranteed By Law?” One out of every seven kids had learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder. When these students shuffled off the bus on the first day of school, they expected the new academic year to turn out exactly like those in the past years: failing grades, verbal put-downs, and negative self-talk. Their average to above-average IQ was a curse, for they recognized their inability to meet the expectations of parents and teachers.
Humbled by the courage of these students, Mitzy delved deeper. Apparently, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Ronald Reagan, Tom Cruise, and Cher all had learning or attention problems. Even George W. Bush had a word-retrieval problem; yet he’d been re-elected president.
As a journalist, Mitzy had showered her interviewees with fake compassion. This time, however, tiny molecules of empathy for the families she was interviewing seeped into her consciousness. That, plus a traumatic Christmas Eve hostage incident, forced her to examine public service options previously undetected on her personal radar screen.
After stuffing her oversized duffel bag with the hundreds of printed-out emails she’d received following publication of her special education article, Mitzy submitted her resignation to the Chicago Tribune. Then she’d waved good-bye to her peers, tearfully traded in her Nissan for a Celica, and enrolled in National Louis University’s eighteen-month Teaching Certificate Program.
Mitzy’s gaze fell to the bottom subject line of an email from Roz Cohen, the director of special education and Mitzy’s supervisor at White Oaks Middle School. The email read: Ellie Barge is scheduled to return to school on Wednesday. Her multidisciplinary parent-teacher conference will convene on Friday, 8:30 a.m.
Mitzy smiled ruefully. Her two-week hiatus would soon be a blissful memory, like her ex-lover’s caress.
Mitzy swiveled around in her chair. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt your email reverie,” said Norman Stein, the short, muscular special education teacher. He snapped open his briefcase and extracted a cascade of papers. “Say, what’s happening with Ellie? Rumor has it she’s coming back this week.”
“Rumor’s right. She’s due back in school tomorrow.”
“Bet you’re excited.”
“More like ambivalent,” Mitzy confided. “Even though it’s hell cajoling her to write an expository essay, I know where I stand with her. When she says ‘I hate you,’ I tell her she’s stuck with me until she completes the goals in her individualized education plan. Besides, I’m fascinated by the insights she shares in her writing.”
“Screw IEP goals! No way could I put up with her rude behavior.”
Mitzy shrugged. “I’ve only got Ellie in the mornings so it’s not so bad. Sammy’s the real challenge. He talks in monosyllables and refuses to look me in the eye.”
Norman laughed. “That behavior describes three-fourths of my students.”
“I’m more concerned about Ellie’s father ranting about the teachers persecuting his daughter,” Mitzy said.
“Influential bank executive inflicts psychological horror on school staff,” Norman joked. “Sounds like one of the investigative reports you used to write.”
Mitzy flushed. “You read my stuff in the Tribune?”
“Well, yeah! You were kind of a household name, you know.”
Mitzy struggled to mask the pleasurable warmth of recognition. “Too bad Ellie’s dad vetoed placing her in a self-contained class for kids with behavior disorders. You’d work wonders with her.”
“No thanks. I’m already on ‘saving souls’ overload with the kids I have,” Norman said, plucking out materials from a tightly packed bookshelf. “Speaking of saving souls, weren’t you doing more of that through the exposés you wrote?”
“I thought so,” Mitzy said, “but after a bullet whizzed by me on Christmas Eve 2003, I decided there might be a safer way to save the world.”
Norman whistled softly. “There was this postal worker who’d just been terminated. He came through the front door. The post office was packed. I was the last person in line. All of a sudden I feel his arm cuffing my throat, dragging me backwards, while he’s screaming, ‘Christmas is the season for sharing. Everybody down on the ground!’”
“You must have been scared shitless.”
“Yeah. Next thing I know, the police are shouting for him to release me. He grabs me tighter, cutting off my air passage. ‘You come any closer, she’s dead!’ My vision’s blurry and I’m starting to black out. Then I hear ‘boom, boom, boom’. People around me start screaming. His eyes are dazed. He loosens his grip. I fall to the floor. Then a final ‘boom’ and he’s collapsed in a pool of blood. Dead.”
“Whoa,” Norman said. “You’ve been through a lot.”
Mitzy shook herself from the nightmare. “Understatement of the year.”
A ruddy-faced student shuffled into the classroom and tossed a sweater-sized box on the desk. “Hey, Mr. Stein. Got a present for you.”
“Thanks, Jimmy,” Norman said. Expectation filled the air. “Lots of tape on there, huh?” Mitzy watched as Norman slid his finger around the box and removed the top, then waded through several pages of newspaper cartoons. “Great wrapping, Jim.” Then he reached in and pulled out … a dead goldfish.
“Ringo died last night,” Jimmy said. “He was my favorite pet. I was going to put him in my scrap book, but I thought you’d like to have him.”
“Jim, what would I do with a dead goldfish?” Norman asked, his voice rising slightly.
Jimmy turned bright red. Tears welled up in his eyes and started streaming down his cheeks. “You’re my favorite teacher. He was my favorite pet. You hate Ringo,” he screamed, running for the door.
Mitzy shook her head and swiveled back to her computer screen. “Looks like you’d better shake a leg.”
“Be gentle with yourself,” Norman tossed over his shoulder as he lumbered into the resource center after Jimmy.