By Mark Traphagen on June 10, 2010
The following is a text version of a story I had planned to tell at The Monti Story Slam in Durham, except my name didn’t come up in the draw. The Monti sponsors evenings of adult storytelling before live audiences in the Triangle region of North Carolina. Their events have become so popular they usually sell out within an hour of tickets going on sale. The theme of the night for which I prepared this story was “guilt.” I’m preparing another story for the next Slam on June 22, with the theme “crushes.”
DISCLAIMER: This story makes use of explicit language that may be offensive to some as an essential part of the story.
This is a story about how I ended up on a school bus and a principal’s bench, neither a place I wanted to be. And it is a story of how I ended up in those places at the age of 37.
We had recently moved to a new town and I needed a job. This is why I said yes to teaching middle school at a private evangelical Christian school. I only mention the “Christian” part because that will come into play with the guilt theme late on, as you might guess. But middle school! Most teachers consider taking on a middle school class the equivalent of agreeing to guard Hannibal Lecter, in his cell, with no weapons. Well, he’s allowed to have weapons. But like I said, I desperately needed a job, so I said yes.
And it turned out that I enjoyed my sixth graders more than I could have dreamed I would. They were funny, engaging, curious, and when we clicked, I had moments of teaching nirvana that I still miss today. But the thing about sixth graders is that while they are on the verge of becoming teenagers, they are also still very much children. And the thing about children is that the same thing that enables them to be so lovable, so irresistible, so very charming, is the exact same thing that allows them to be the most hurtful, hateful beings on the planet. It’s the honesty, the lack of any veil, of any subtlety. If they love you, the love light shines from them like a thousand suns. If they dislike you…well, you get the picture.
I was fortunate to become one of the popular teachers. The kids liked me; the parents liked me. Life was good. I had a nice tan from the light of a thousand suns. Everyone loved me.
Except the Parnell twins.
Even in the nicest of classes, there is always some kid who just hates you no matter what. And in my case, it was some kid squared. The Parnell boys would do anything to get my goat, lead it out of the barn, and then mercilessly slaughter it. With the safety of years I can look back and almost admire them. At the tender age of twelve they had turned intimidation into an art form, and themselves into prodigies. If they were twelve today, they’d have an “Intimidating Our Teacher” video up on YouTube, and it would be viral in a day.
So this is how I came to be on the school bus, where I did not want to be.
Our school building was formerly a drug rehab hospital and had very little open land on the property. So in nice weather we took our physical education classes to a park about a half mile down the road. Since this was physical education class and the park was within easy walking distance, we of course bussed the kids to and from the park.
Ms. Kelly, our phys ed teacher, was anything but the stereotypical gym teacher. She was gentle and meek and had almost certainly never in her life raised her voice above what my mom used to call “indoors voices.” In sum, the perfect target for our aforementioned artistes, the Parnell boys. After a few weeks of Ms. Kelly being reduced to tears on a daily basis, the school decided it was time to place security forces on the gym bus.
Now it happens that phys ed period was also my one-and-only “free” period of the week. Any teacher will tell you that free periods are dangerous time, always an endangered species. The administration figures it’s free time, so you’re not doing anything, right? And so it was that I was voluntold (voluntold: when someone else decides you volunteer to do something), I was voluntold to ride shotgun on the gym bus. Only without the shotgun. Remember the Hannibal Lecter analogy? Someone in administration thought I was good at handling the Parnell twins. I guess they hadn’t seen the boys’ YouTube video.
Once the Parnell’s had seen that they could make Ms. Kelly cry on cue, they weren’t going to stop practicing their art just because I showed up. It didn’t seem to matter that I threatened—or even that I was there at all. They went right ahead with their taunting and sassing. And it was really, really getting to me. I could handle them going after me, but when they made Ms. Kelly cry…well, it was like they were attacking Mother Theresa. Something was building up in me, and it wasn’t going to be pretty when it came out.
And it wasn’t. About the third bus ride I lost it. The Parnell’s had Ms. Kelly sobbing before she had even released the parking brake on the bus. I felt the screw come loose in my head, but there was no screwdriver at hand to do the repair, and I launched down the bus aisle at the boys. Before I knew it was me saying it, the words spewed from my mouth: “SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU LITTLE BITCHES!!”
The words travelled through the air like a huge cow patty. I think they were actually visible, all brown and runny, and they stank, too. But the Parnells caught them nonetheless, and embraced them, and clutched them to their chests like the Treasure of the Nile. They now held what every bully kid longed to possess—no, really every child—no, actually every one of you, too: the power to bring down an authority figure. It was no longer the manure ball of my words they held in their pudgy, grimy little hands; it was my very soul.
Have you ever been on Death Row? I don’t mean literally on Death Row. If you have been on an actual Death Row, you should be telling a story, not me. I mean the Death Row of guilt and certain doom; that horrible hang time between the commission of an unforgivable act and the pronouncement of inevitable judgment. That is guilt in its purest form. 100% guilt with no buffers, no additives, no sugar coating. That is where I lived for the next two periods, if you can call the existence of a zombie “living.” The only reason I didn’t walk straight down to the main office and hand in my resignation was a thin hope that maybe, just maybe, the Parnell boys would decide not to use the nuclear codes I had let slip to them. Of course, this was like hoping they would decide they never needed to masturbate again.
Eventually the call came on the intercom, and I was summoned to the principal’s office. And that is how at age 37 I came to find myself sitting on the bench outside the principal’s office, the second place that day I did not want to be. Once the school secretary sensed I had built up enough sweat and stomach bile, she ushered me into the office of Mrs. Edgecomb, our principal.
In order for you to fully enjoy the extent of my suffering—and you are enjoying it, right, because it’s not yours?—I have to take a moment to describe Mrs. Elizabeth Edgecomb to you. Mrs. Edgecomb was the quintessential Southern Grand Dame. She did not have poise and dignity, she was poise and dignity. She carried herself about with a regal air that made the Queen of England look like the before picture of Eliza Doolittle. We all swore that she lifted her hairdo off her head each evening like a football helmet and placed it on a special stand until morning. Above all, she brooked no nonsense. All the staff respected her because we feared her like Great Jehovah come down as a 62-year-old platinum-haired and girdle-spanned Athena. Not only had she never uttered the f-bomb or b-word, such words had never been allowed to enter her air space before.
As soon as I saw the Parnell twins seated by her desk, not even attempting to conceal their triumphalistic grins, I knew I was done. I began composing the words of resignation in my head.
With a wave of her regal hand she directed me to the remaining chair. She did not even glance in my direction, which I took as a sign of certain doom. I had already passed from existence as far as she was concerned.
Mrs. Edgecomb turned toward the twins and asked, “Now that Mr. Traphagen is here, perhaps you boys would indulge me by repeating what it is you say he said to you?” The boys faces lit up even more, if that were possible. Not only were they going to get me sacked, they were going to get to say bad words in the principal’s office twice in one day!
Randy, the more dominant of the pair, spoke up, delight dripping from his tongue. “Heh…heh…he said….like….heh….shut the FUCK up, you little BITCHES!….heh.”
There it was. I gripped the arms of my chair and waited for the trap door to open beneath me, the one over the chute straight down to hell. Mrs. Edgecomb leaned forward, but not towards me, towards the gloating boys.
“Did you boys consider for one moment that perhaps the reason that Mr. Traphagen was driven to say such terrible things just might be….THAT YOU LITTLE BITCHES DO NEED TO SHUT THE FUCK UP?!?!”
My jaw beat theirs to the ground only because, being older, mine was looser. The two pairs of twelve-year-old eyes went instantly as big as had been their hubris only a moment before. The experience of shock and awe lasted only a moment, though, as then Mrs. Edgecomb proceeded to tear these little twerps down to their atomic structure and then rebuild them into fine, respectable, humble citizens of the Republic which I am sure they remain to this day.
Once they were dismissed, looking glad to be still alive, Mrs. Edgecomb finally turned toward me. “I’m quite certain that we have all learned something today, have we not, Mr. Traphagen, and that no more need be said about this matter henceforth?” I indeed said no more, not just because I wanted to agree with her, but because it would have been no more possible for me to speak at that moment than for Miss South Carolina to identify the Western Hemisphere. I stumbled out of the office, realizing that mercy has a greater power over one’s life than condemnation ever will.
And that’s how I came to be on a school bus and a principal’s bench at age 37.