Integrity

 

 By Andrew Lawrence Crown

August, 2009

Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2009. All rights reserved.

 

 

Played eighteen holes with my son this morning in the bright sunny heat of a clear blue-skied morning like those clear pristine Arizona skies absent of any trace of humidity or moisture even though we were not in Arizona where I wanted to be in my retirement but instead on the public course Brookwoodie near our home in the western suburbs of Chicago. Usually we have to endure the humidity on these August Illinois mornings when you can see the moisture beading up on the skin of your forearms and you have to wonder whether it is sweat emerging from inside of you and excreted through your pores or whether the cooling droplets simply condense out of the thick hot air onto your arm like the morning dew on the grass. We were lucky to find the day unseasonably dry and cool and also crisp with the possibility of new beginnings both for my son who was about to embark upon his new career as a teacher and for me who was already in the market for a retirement home in Arizona after finishing my own career as a high school teacher several months earlier. I relished this opportunity to provide my son Mike with what I thought I had the right by now to refer to as the wisdom of my advice, that wisdom acquired after thirty-two years in the trenches of the troubled public schools of the City of Chicago where my son would soon be teaching history, following in my footsteps with his newly and dutifully earned master’s degree in education from my Alma Mater the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

            I had tried to push him in the direction of college teaching while he was an undergraduate in Urbana, hoping he could see the advantage of avoiding the frustrating politics and social pathology plaguing the Chicago Public Schools and earn himself a more rewarding career as a college professor, but he was far too impatient to endure six years of graduate school and dissertation, and furthermore he was fond of announcing that if thirty-two years of high school teaching was good enough for his father then he would at least try his hand at secondary teaching before deciding whether he would like to invest the time required to climb that higher and more esteemed career ladder as a college professor. His appointment as a history teacher in a prestigious magnet school, much like the one in which I spent the bulk of my career, was to be his first real job after college, and it had to be some kind of cosmically determined arrangement of circumstances that he would embark upon his career as a history teacher a few short months after I had retired from mine and was spending more and more time thinking about the possibilities for real relaxation and repose in Arizona. If I had been granted the chance to do it all over again I might have taught in the suburbs rather than in the city where many of the students were up against poverty and disadvantage on a daily basis, or I may have returned to graduate school to earn my PhD and taught college, or I may have entered the bar, just as my own father, a conservative businessman who read the Wall Street Journal daily, had urged me to do when I had the vigor of youth and opportunity to do it. Certainly I would have earned more money had I followed any one of those other paths instead of teaching in the city schools, not to mention that I would just as certainly now be in a better position for retirement and less hesitant and apprehensive about my plans for the new home in Arizona. Yet I can still say with certitude that while I often wonder how things would have turned out for me and my career if I had followed the advice of those many people who urged me to stay out of the Chicago Public Schools, I have few real regrets and a great deal of fond memories which have made my endurance of what I already referred to as the social pathology of our urban schools tolerable.

            In spite of the attempts of his grandfather, a lifelong Republican, to steer him towards a conservative path ever since Mike was in his early teens and conscious about politics, and in spite of my efforts to push him towards college teaching, my son was a liberal like myself and his mother. He thought I was a great man for what I had contributed as an educator to the alleviation of poverty and social disadvantage, while my view of the entire proposition that education was the civil rights issue of the new century was that I had simply done my job by offering my help and assistance to whoever was receptive enough and willing enough to receive it. Now it was my opportunity and duty to help my own son with some advice from a retired veteran of the public schools who liked to consider himself to be wise enough at least to have some worthy advice to give, and also a good father who desired to do his best to help Mike avoid the many pitfalls and traps that lay in wait to ensnare a young teacher and a young man starting out on his career. Indeed, if he wanted to merely keep his job, not to speak of excel in it as I believe I had, he would have to listen attentively and follow my advice carefully.

            As we tallied up the score and packed our clubs into our golf bags before heading to the clubhouse for some lemonade and a late brunch, I began to relate to my son my story which I composed as a sort of cautionary tale with dire warnings of the hazards awaiting a young man in the Chicago Public Schools which presented themselves in various forms, now as mal-intentioned blackguards on the faculty who would befriend you out of the most scheming self-serving designs and heap laudatory praises of your teaching ability upon your shoulders one moment while never hesitating in the next moment to drive the knife in deep whenever your back was turned, now as the seemingly innocent young girls who were anything but that and as the students of the most consistent and kind men in their sometimes very sad lives would proclaim in true sounding tones the heartfelt songs of love and adoration for we of principle who had to struggle so hard to turn a deaf ear to the siren call.

            “Mike,” I began after we ordered the lemonade and walked over to the buffet table, “I want you to listen carefully to what I have to say to you now because what I am about to describe to you really happened to people I know and it could happen to you and destroy your career if you are not careful and allow yourself to partake of the forbidden fruit, perhaps for the mere pleasure of the sensations attached to that experience, or worse because you do it to spite the very image of the better man and teacher you know you should be after you allow yourself to grown mean, bitter, and angry when you find your goals stymied by the immovability of the system. Mike, son, you’ve got to promise me you will protect yourself from anger, be on the watch for cynicism, never allow yourself to emulate or imitate in any way that thoughtlessly and instinctively, I even have to say constitutionally and compositionally bitter, as if the very matter out of which he was formed was tainted with a bitter taste and sour smell, that rascal Conan O’Dougal who I had the misfortune of working alongside for just a few years which were just a few years too many.

            “From the very first I met him I could tell by his very appearance, muscular and well groomed in a semblance of professionalism which he thought entailed the mere wearing of a neatly pressed shirt and tie and not the equanimity, attitude, modesty, and decorum of the true professional, I say I could tell by this spotless outer image which was merely a show of appearances concealing the inner stain which lied beneath what he presented to the world as his false truth, that he was far too fond of himself. He was fond of himself, he truly loved himself more than he deserved to be loved by anyone, including his own mother or his poor wife who most of the time was left completely in the dark concerning his many affairs with faculty and students alike, both of whom for some reason were attracted to his exaggerated masculinity like many women are, seeing him as a “real” man whose many defects were to be dismissed as incorrigibility. But I was not a woman or a girl and there was little I saw which attracted me to a “real” man like O’Dougal who was far too fond of himself, lacking all trace of a healthy modesty or even self-awareness anywhere underneath his tough guy image and bluster, that school boyish football player braggadocio which made him an egotist truly in love with himself and no one else, over-impressed by his quite ordinary credentials. A graduate of one of the lesser state schools, he thought his mediocre GPA was like a funny joke to be dismissed of its significance because, as he so often proudly proclaimed, he did more drinking than studying when he was away at school, and he was fond of asserting that most everyone else who could claim a more prestigious background had acquired his credential through a family connection, political clout, luck and good fortune, or even outright bribery.

            “The scandal at my own Alma Mater the University of Illinois only confirmed him in his conviction that everyone else but he had benefitted from the advantage of a lucky break, whether they were born into it or paid for it in cash. According to the Chicago Tribune over 800 recent applicants to the University of Illinois received special consideration due to pressure from the Trustees of the University who considered political clout to qualify one for admission to what has become the elite public university of the State of Illinois. The fact that applicants with lower than qualifying ACT scores and middling high school academic records were granted admission over more qualified applicants who lacked clout confirmed O’Dougal’s suspicion that everyone who had achieved anything in life had done it by bending the rules. He never failed to remind me that he considered my own credentials earned some thirty odd years earlier (high honors upon graduation from graduate school, summa cum laude as an undergraduate) to be more a product of my good fortune to be born the son of a successful businessman than to have been due to my own intelligence or work ethic. Everything I thought I had earned by virtue of my talent, pluck, and gumption he belittled and detested, while he, the unfortunate son of a Peoria factory worker at the Caterpillar tractor plant, was to be respected as a real scholar because he had written an incoherent master’s thesis and graduated in spite of the several Fs on his transcripts which he claimed resulted from when he cut class too often to drink with his fraternity brothers.

            “So he felt justified in accepting “gifts” from the principal of our award winning selective enrollment high school, she as a reward for his loyalty making him her chief advisor and underling, in a way an informer for the principal, who reported to her the goings on at the school and every and any aspersion of her name by the faculty who he quite literally spied upon. O’Dougal had no qualms about his special position and treatment because he said that everyone else in this city was on the take, so why not him too when every sensible person knows that a little money is needed to grease the wheels on which the immovable system slowly runs. Everyone, including the police officers stationed at the school for security purposes, knew exactly who had purchased his new SUV for him, and few on the faculty seemed to mind because however disappointing and despicable it may seem, O’Dougal was right about politics in Illinois and especially in Chicago, and even unfortunately in our school. There were a significant number, far too large a number of people like O’Dougal who were on the take or involved in dealings of questionable ethics as high up as the our Senator in the U.S. Congress who accepted the disgraced governor Blagojevich’s appointment, and as low down as the school security guards who colluded with the student drug dealers to make some money on the side from illicit drug deals instead of reporting them to the police. So O’Dougal was not at all ashamed of the political gifts he received from the school’s chief administrator which he viewed as a legitimate compensation for services rendered as a staunch ally of the principal whose every move he defended with tenacity and vigor like he was her bulldog, including all of the occasions on which he defended her when she fired qualified faculty for political or personal considerations.

            “Yes he was an egotist and more accurately an ego maniac driven almost to the point of madness with his self-absorption and self-confidence. It was hard for me not to consider that all of it, the bluster, the will, the posturing, the very smell of his exaggerated angry masculinity was his manner of overcompensating for some subconscious sense of gaping lack and deficiency. Sure, he liked to joke about how he and his fraternity brothers drank their way through Carbondale, how he drank his way to a 2.8 GPA, but without openly acknowledging it he obviously felt his inferiority and so attempted to befriend those of us on the faculty who actually were in reality a product of the elite schools. There were many of us working there since the high school was selective, and O’Dougal wanted, he demanded impatiently and persistently, repeatedly, confirmation from us, because we as true academics and teachers were the only ones who could really give it to him, confirmation and assurance that he had some worth in our eyes, if not to match then at bare minimum to partially corroborate the manner in which he and he alone viewed himself.

            “And strangely enough for all of his double dealing and chauvinism for the administration he was not a terrible teacher when one considers the effectiveness of his store of worksheets and other curricular materials which he used to keep the lower level students who always presented all of us, not just O’Dougal, with discipline issues. These worksheets of O’Dougal’s were essentially didactic in nature, doing little to stimulate or inspire higher order or critical thinking and analysis among his students, but they achieved their central purpose effectively and efficiently, which was to keep the discipline issues to a minimum with the tough kids from the Cabrini Green housing projects which were a short walk from the school. The projects, though situated in the heart of the city and bordered by upscale gentrified Lincoln Park, gave the school its diverse mix of lower achieving and largely minority regular level students who attended the same school with upper level and intellectually gifted students who were largely white and Asian, but also constituted of a significant number of other minorities. It was a never ending source of anger and inexhaustible store of bitterness for O’Dougal that the gifted coordinator at our school (a woman almost certifiably insane with a rigidness and conniving duplicity acquired from weathering the political storms in CPS for over two decades and a long study of contemporary philosophy and psychology which convinced her that there was no just God who ruled the universe and therefore no reason to aspire to goodness or morality, a woman who really is a character in her own right deserving of her own story which I shall have to wait for another opportunity to tell since I have only begun to scratch the surface of O’Dougal’s nature here and have much more to tell you about him) obstinately refused to allow O’Dougal to teach the most gifted of the gifted students at our award winning selective enrollment high school, leading O’Dougal to despise her with a vehemence and certitude of indignation that was nothing short of frightening.

            “I hope that bitch gets run over by a truck,” was how he so often summed up the essence of his hatred. Truth be told he may have been able intellectually to handle the rigors of teaching the gifted, but the coordinator, who I would like to talk to you about at length some other time because her brand of insanity was really unique, would never permit it. While I didn’t wish to see her run over by a truck, I, like most of the teachers at the school who had to work with her in order to teach the top students, was loath to deal with her deceitful nature, irrational, contradictory directives, and impossible demands. But her story will have to wait for another time for me to tell it because I’m telling you O’Dougal’s story now, and Mike, I don’t want you to ever let yourself turn into a man as bitter and as seething with jealous anger as O’Dougal because his kind of resentment is dangerous, a communicable fury which will infect and damage everything you care about in your life.

            “I first heard of his most unlikely of relationships with the student Shandra from another student, one of Shandra’s close friends who was enrolled in my Contemporary American History class the year before my retirement. This friend of Shandra was named Shiquita but everyone called her Quita for short, and she approached me without diffidence one day after the dismissal bell had rung and I was organizing some papers at my desk. Like most of the girls from her part of town, the Cabrini Green housing projects which were being torn down by the city to aid gentrification, leaving its residents insecure about their housing arrangements for the future, she was direct to a fault and barely concealed the identities of the as yet unnamed persons involved in the illicit affair, though it was soon obvious to me which teacher Quita was referring to, even while it took me slightly longer to figure out who the student was. Quita, a junior, approached my desk without a hint of shyness, dressed in a tight sleeveless button down shirt which was flagrantly in violation of the school’s unevenly enforced dress code with the buttons almost popping off the shirt it was so tight and inappropriate even for the weather on a cold, cloudy, rainy day in late March.

            “Mr. Erickson,” she loudly announced to me and the now empty room whose other students had all left hurriedly as the bell had rung, “I know something that don’t nobody posed to know. It’s a secret and I swore down my life upon it not to tell nobody bout it, but I just can’t take it anymore keeping everything to myself. It’s something all bout love and all that, and since I remember you told us in class that you be married more than twenty years to the same woman after you divorced your first wife who you told us was a lawyer who argued you sick and tired about your miserable teacher salary until you couldn’t take her complaining anymore and the two of you split, so I thought that probably you knows something bout love and relationships and men’s and women’s characters and patterns, so here I am because I got something I just got to tell you because I can’t hold it in no more. Do you understand Mr. Erickson?

            “Yes, I think so,” I said because I did really understand her way of speaking which can sound almost like another dialect to someone who, unlike me, had not spent over thirty years teaching the youth of the inner city. I understood her language and the language of her peers passably most of the time, and when I did not I was never hesitant to ask for clarification which students like Quita were only too happy to provide, although not without an exaggerated display of feigned exasperation, humorously responding to my genuine interest in acquiring greater fluency in the language of the urban teenager and her streets with declarations such as, “Damn Mr. Erickson. Don’t you know nothin bout how us black kids talk? We heard you was down with the scene, but it sounds like you don’t know no kind of hip hop talk.”

            “Yeah,” another would chime in. “We thought you was down Mr. Erickson, but you ain’t down. That’s bogus.”

            “Yeah. Bogus,” they would all agree after which I would nonchalantly dismiss their mocking complaints and get on with my lesson, just as I urged Quita to get on with her revelation of the secret that was so troubling her.

            “Yes, I think I understand you Quita, although I’m not quite certain I am such the expert on love that you consider me to be. Lost that first wife in spite of everything I did to try to make her stay Quita, so like everyone else I’ve had my share of disappointments and failures in life. No, I don’t feel like I am an expert on relationships between men and women, love relationships or otherwise. My real area of expertise is American history, not love.”

            “That don’t sound right to me Mr. Erickson,” she vehemently disagreed while brushing her colorfully beaded braids away from her face. “I remember you told us way back like in November when you was teaching us about the origins of the Cold War in contemporary American history, that you been together with your wife over twenty years. Damn straight Mr. Erickson, that be like pretty amazing to me cause me and my boyfriends, we be together for like a month, two months tops, before we both get sick and tired of each other and spend more time arguing and fighting than enjoying life together. Them boys Mr. Erickson, they always turn mean and selfish, can’t trust none of them boys. Mr. Erickson, can you tell me why them boys always be deceiving and lying? None of them be any good. One of them, a real gangsta boy I shoulda never let myself get next to, even cheat on me with my younger sister who is still only a freshman. It’s almost like I hate them boys I can’t stand them so much. Sometimes I wish I been born a lesbian so I wouldn’t never have to associate with no lying, cheating, dishonest boys. What you think about that Mr. Erickson?”

            ‘Well Quita. Young love is fickle. One day Romeo proclaims his undying love for Rosaline, the next day he drops poor Rosaline like a hot potato for fair Juliet.”

            “What that means that word ‘fickle’? Sometimes I can’t understand what you saying you use so many, like, different kinds of words. Everybody in your classes agree that you don’t talk like a normal person. I guess that’s cuz you be like too smart or something.”

            “Fickle,” I carefully explained, “means constantly changing one’s opinion or goals so that for instance, one moment a certain boy likes a certain girl, and the next moment he likes her friend or even her sister who is still a freshman, if he is a real low down scoundrel.”

            “You see, you gone did it again Mr. Erickson. Don’t nobody in my neighborhood talk like that. Scoundrel? You a different kind of man. You talk different. I guess you can’t help it or change it even if you tried because you an old white dude. I don’t mean you no disrespect sir but you is a white dude, you is white all over even in the way you talk. Scoundrel? Scoundrel? Sounds new to me but I know it ain’t. Was that Romeo or his girlfriend Rosaline, or the one who he left her for, fair Juliet, a scoundrel? Who were all them people anyway? They your students?”

            “They were not scoundrels and they were not my students, though I can say I have met and seen many students who have experienced something like what they experienced in the sense that I know young people do have a tendency to fall in love too easily. Quita, have you ever read Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare?”

            “No,” Quita answered. “But I heard about it. My English teacher Mrs. Hampton said she wants us to read it in class, but the Department Chair thinks we won’t understand it so he won’t let Mrs. Hampton teach it to us.”

            “Forget about the Department Chair and put that one on your summer reading list.”

            Quita stared at me with a look of impatient disbelief.

            “Summer reading list? I don’t read nothing during the summer Mr. Erickson. I’m so tired of reading and studying and anything related to school work, I don’t got the impulse to do nothing but chill with the sisters and the hommies, real gansta types, G-boys, some of them be real bad dudes Mr. Erickson, get into trouble all the time just because they be bored out of their heads in the summer time.”

            “Well, perhaps you can do yourself a favor this one time and read the play this summer Shiquita. I know I’m not an English teacher but I don’t think you will be disappointed.”

            “Well maybe. It do get awful boring after a while, hanging out with nothing to do. Maybe I’ll give it a try if I can convince myself to try to be all sophisticated and smart like one of them gifted girls.”

            “We all have our unique gifts Shiquita. It just takes a little longer for some of us to discover what they are.”

“She stood there silently after I said this, thinking to herself. I could see that she was mulling over the idea I had suggested to her and had gotten lost in its possibilities for diversion from her ordinary city girl summer routine. Meanwhile she had completely forgotten why she had waited after class to speak with me. I had to interrupt her moment of silent contemplation and remind her of why she had come to speak to me with such urgency only several minutes earlier.

            “Quita,” I reminded her, “Didn’t you say you came to speak with me about something that was bothering you. A secret or something like that.”

            “She slowly emerged from her pensive trance and abruptly almost shouted as she hurriedly made her way to the door and left my room to reunite with her friend Shandra who was waiting for her in the hallway.

            “Forget about it Mr. Erickson. I think I remember that word now. I know what it means. Scoundrel. We studied it in English class once on an ACT vocabulary review list. I think my friend been lied to by a scoundrel. I got to go talk to her now. Thanks for talking to me today Mr. Erickson. I do appreciate you taking the time to hear me ramble on like I always do.”

            “You are a girl with much to say Shiquita. If you change your mind and want to talk about what you originally came here to talk about, you know where to find me.”

            “True that,” she shouted as she walked to the door. I walked to the door myself and saw her moving quickly toward Shandra, her long beaded braids flopping back and forth across her shoulders. I watched her greet her friend excitedly, reaching out to firmly grasp each of her arms in her own hands before, beginning, as excitedly as she had almost run down the hallway to greet her, to talk to her friend. As the two of them fled down the stairwell at the end of the hall I distinctly heard the words ‘scoundrel,’ ‘fickle,’ and ‘Rosaline’ amidst all of the rest of their banter which from a distance sounded like the incomprehensible chattering of adolescent girls.

            “At that moment I had not considered the possibility that Shaquita had come to me to speak about the relationship between her friend Shandra, a student, and O’Dougal, a teacher. Instead I had assumed that Shaquita merely wanted to discuss a relationship among students, the kind that quickly form and just as suddenly dissolve with the rapidity and predictability making up the tumultuous drama that is so much of the social life of the American teenager. It was only a few days later when O’Dougal himself helped me to piece together the details of the affair. I was in the men’s room washing my hands and O’Dougal was there too, trying to talk to me as he always did whenever the two of us found ourselves together in the men’s room in between class periods. He looked too pleased with himself as he usually looked, but there was also a sense of perturbation and annoyance close to outright anger just beneath the surface of his determined expression, a sense of indignation which was always there and never really left him. Washing his hands vigorously just as I was drying mine with a brown paper towel, he flexed the muscles in his forearms where his sleeves were rolled up in a manner as aggressive as his tone when he launched into a series of statements which sounded more like accusations against me, though it was he and not I who openly revealed the secret which he dared not reveal to anyone but me. For some reason he trusted me, perhaps because I was a veteran teacher and he assumed I had seen it all before and would not be disturbed by one more case of an infraction which was more common than most people realized, or more likely because something with him was amiss and he just had to get it off of his chest, even if this meant he would tell me everything though he knew I, as a respected teacher, had the confidence of those school leaders in the administration who he also had to know would be forced to terminate his employment if they ever discovered the true nature of his relationship with Shandra. Even his patron the Principal, who had made him her right hand man and chief confidant, would have to let him go if the affair became public, because a politically tested hack as shrewd as she would realize that if she attempted to protect him she would have to face the legal consequences as well as he and place her own position at the school in jeopardy.

            “Mr. Erickson. John,” he began. “The students are right about you and marriage. You are an expert on family matters.” Evidently Shaquita had talked to him about our conversation of a few days earlier; or rather she had leaked to him its details, though he sought unsuccessfully not to make this obvious to me. “You are an expert about the matters concerning women as much as you are knowledgeable about United States history.”

            “I have managed to stay together with Ruth for over twenty years, so I guess that can be considered something of an accomplishment. I know something about women, I suppose that’s as true as anything else is, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand the passions which govern the female heart or understand how to respond to them the same way I understand how our constitution was designed to control the passions of the multitude or the elite who rule them.”

            “Passion,” he mused. “I’ve been grappling with my passions recently and it’s making me wonder whether or not my marriage is worth all of the trouble it takes to maintain it.”

            “Have you met someone who is leading you to question your commitment to your wife?”

            “Yes.”

            “Where did you meet her, “I asked him though by now I had already figured out the answer to that question.

            “I can’t say where I met her,” he replied.

            “Do you mean you can’t remember or you don’t know?”

            “I mean I can’t answer that question. I can’t tell you or anyone else the answer to that question.”

            “I see. And your relationship with this new lover, it is already far advanced? You’ve slept together already?”

            He hesitated, and then with his unflappable exterior of self-confidence loudly proclaimed, “Yes, and it’s been like nothing I have ever experienced before in my life.”

            “How’s that again?” I asked for clarification and because I wanted him to continue with the details of the affair.

            “I’ve never experienced a pleasure so intense before. She gets me so excited I can’t control myself around her. The delights I feel when we are making love, I’ve never experienced such pure joy with any other woman, including my wife.”

            “You think you are being fair to your wife by indulging in this affair?”

            “I’m ready to leave my wife and run away with my new lover, but I know it’s just not possible because there are complications and important reasons why no one else would approve of what I fully realize would be another one of my rash and impetuous decisions. It might be possible to keep her longer than I fear I will be able to if we moved far away, to another city or another state, I’ve even considered that we might have to flee to another country because the truth is I can’t keep this thing above board without tarnishing my reputation beyond repair. My wife you say, am I being fair to her you ask me? Most of the time I feel like our marriage is too much the farce I never wanted it to devolve into. She hardly ever sleeps with me and when she does it just doesn’t compare anymore. It’s not like the experience or thrill I feel when I am together with my new lover. With my wife I feel like we always follow the same old routine in love and everything else, that we are going through the motions out of obedience to some expectation that comes from somewhere I don’t know where it comes from but it doesn’t come from inside of me or inside of her. Instead I think we are simply attempting to please not ourselves, but the very notion of convention itself. I’ve been married seven years now and I don’t know how much longer I can tolerate the absence of inspiration or discovery in my life. When we are not fighting or arguing we are hardly talking to each other because we both realize the essential boredom we feel in spite of the fact that we are both still young and should be filled with enthusiasm for our happiness which just isn’t there any longer.”

            “So it’s all about boredom and excitement Conan. You are doing this for the usual reasons. You are doing this, you are imposing what you must know will one day turn into a crisis for you and your wife when she finds out about your affair because you need some thrills? Think about the long term cost weighed against the short term gain. Think about what you are doing to your wife and yourself.”

            “I’ve thought about it John. Thought about it long and hard, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to take hold of the opportunities that present themselves to me when they are there for the taking. This new love, if you can call it that, love, and maybe you can’t. But it is like nothing I have ever experienced before – the thrill of it, the joy of it, the excitement of it when we spend our stolen hours together at hidden locations during the night when I don’t sleep a wink because I am so immersed in our love making. I’ve considered what I will be giving up if my wife leaves me, but I feel like the considerable loss will be a small price to pay for what I will gain. A reason to look forward the dreary days when I feel like moving these city kids towards comprehension in this run down old building is like trying to move Mount Everest and only the passion filled moments in between the drudgery keep me going and give me a reason to show up for work each morning at 6:30 a.m. John, you know I have told you before that I don’t consider myself to be a man who has been blessed by good fortune, born as I was the last of five sons of a Caterpillar plant worker in quiet, ordinary Peoria. I’ve never had the advantages of your prestigious education and I’ve never traveled in the social circles of the wealthy and powerful elite. Anything I’ve ever gained, all of the accomplishments which I say without modesty make me damn proud of myself, have been the fruit of my own labor and horse sense. I’m the guy the Republicans talk about, the one who pulled himself up by his bootstraps when I earned my master’s, I say I earned that degree through my own efforts. While everyone knows my grades weren’t stellar, I’m rightfully proud of the way I’ve made my own luck and dragged good fortune into my life kicking and screaming and hollering like a banshee by my sheer force of will. I remember when they all laughed at me John. They scoffed at me in my face, my brothers and the old man did, when I told them I was going away to school to become a teacher. They thought I could never do it, that I didn’t have the talent for it, and they hooted and hollered around that dinner table after I announced my plan until I had to get up and leave silently amidst all of their shouting and I left the house for three days wandering through the quiet streets and parks of Peoria thinking how I might never come back to that house again even to visit my own mother who like my father was weighed down by the struggle to rise up into middle class comfort and always remained a woman of modest ambitions. But I knew I was different from them, from the ones who laughed so heartily at my plans and that was when I decided to make fortune call on me, when I first ordered luck to serve me, when I commanded fate to do my bidding. I always since the moment I left them there at that dinner table and walked out alone into the silent night full of anger at the very moon and stars above me, I have agreed with myself to answer fortune’s call and then make it obey me. I feel like, I just know that this new love is fortune calling me again. Sure, you’re right, my wife will be devastated, but a man only gets one life to live. This is a chance for happiness I can’t let pass. I can get from her what I can’t get from my wife if I am fearless enough to live courageously regardless of the pain this causes me and others, including God himself who I know suffers for my selfishness.”

            “As he finished describing to me the nature of his existential quest O’Dougal threw away the paper towel he had been drying his hands off with. The bell rang and both of us had to return to our classes, but just before he walked out of the bathroom door I had ask a few more questions.

            “O’Dougal, how old is she this time? A sophomore? A junior? Tell me it is not another student,” I demanded even though I already knew it was the student, Shandra. He did not answer my question at first but only met my accusatory gaze with his own antagonistic glare.

            “It’s for real this time John. I know it is. I can feel its reality in my bones. I’ve never been drawn to anyone with this much force before.”

            “Are you trying to tell me that you are in love with a teenager, again?”

            “I don’t expect you or anyone else to understand. I knew you would not. I know it seems impossible, me being from Peoria and she from Cabrini. But we have a passion for each other, a mutual understanding. There is an energy I’m absorbing from her youth that turns our lovemaking into an experience I can only say I’m addicted to and I know I need her now like a junkie needs his heroine.”

            “We both returned to our classes and taught our students, I finding it hard to focus on the lesson as I thought silently to myself how I would be forced to inform someone in the administration if they did not already know of the affair by now. This was not the first time O’Dougal or anyone else at the school had allowed himself to become involved with a student. In fact, a few years before just such a case had been litigated, the perpetrator, a choral director who allegedly sent obscenely promiscuous e-mails to one of his female students, was brought up on charges of statutory rape and fired before the charges were eventually dropped after a skillful lawyer cast doubt on the integrity of the student witnesses giving evidence against the male teacher. O’Dougal knew of the case, but he must have thought he could get around it somehow because he thought his special relationship with the principal insulated him from the harm that could befall any other male teacher who allowed himself to become romantically and sexually involved with a female student. Though he had essentially flaunted the affair before me when we spoke in the bathroom, I, as a veteran who had seen it happen before, knew his relationship was doomed to be discovered anyway, and I also understood the Illinois law governing sexual relationships between minors and adults was clear. I knew he would eventually lose his job over it and have his name and reputation damaged beyond repair, tarnished far beyond what his lack of professionalism had done for it.”

By the time I entered into my discussion of the legal issues involved in the case, Mike and I were midway through our brunch at the club. He had been listening without interruption when suddenly he now took advantage of the opportunity to ask some important questions after he took a large bite out of some fruit.

            “What are the legal ramifications of a relationship like O’Dougal’s and Shandra’s,” he asked me.

            “The law is clear on this,” I explained. “Any sexual relations between a female minor and a male adult are considered by the law to be statutory rape, regardless of the degree of consent offered by the female in such a case. Willing or not, the law holds that the female minor does not have the capacity to offer legally recognized consent to a sexual relationship with an adult male, and the law holds that even if she clearly announces her consent, even by putting it down in writing on a signed document, the courts will not recognize this as legally binding consent and instead will most likely prosecute the male offender to the full extent of the law after which the sorry soul could find himself sentenced to prison with a seventeen year sentence. For a teacher trusted as he should be with the mentorship of our youth, matters would be even worse as it certainly will mean the end of his career when he is caught, his good name forever lost after being entered into an FBI database for criminal sexual offenders which other schools would check before considering hiring him.

            “So O’Dougal thought he was insulated from harm due to his special relationship with the principal, but I knew he was as vulnerable as anyone else who played the fool against fortune. I knew that even while the principal was his chief benefactor and protector, she had to understand that an attempted cover up would tarnish her own reputation and place her own career in jeopardy.”

            “Sounds to me like he was in love Dad, but his best friend on the faculty had to fire him anyhow. His case seems so hopeless I can almost sympathize with him for it,” Mike said after he spit out the pit of the fruit. “But there, still I don’t completely understand his affair. If the law is so clear, and he with his horse sense had to know that eventually the principal would have to stop protecting him when her own position came on the line, why did he jeopardize everything he worked so hard for, his very rise above and out of Cat town for what had to be a fleeting affair with an adolescent with whom he couldn’t possibly have had anything substantial to talk about? After hearing you describe the way he talked about Shandra I do not believe that this ordeal was entirely about sex.”

            “It wasn’t,” I agreed. “His lover Shandra reaffirmed that view of the ordeal some weeks after O’Dougal was removed from the faculty and in the midst of preparations for a preliminary hearing leading to an indictment proceeding. She came to my classroom late one afternoon after I had finished teaching my last class and wanted to talk to me, much in the same way that her friend Quita had wanted to talk to me weeks before to reveal Shandra’s secret affair, except that Shandra was not like Quita in terms of her degree of reticence. In contrast to Quita, Shandra was quiet, shy, and modest when she spoke to me. She must have reserved that passion and excitement that O’Dougal fed off of for their private moments together, because when she spoke to me I could barely hear what she was saying she spoke so quietly and with such a timid hesitancy. She was as beautiful as young girls come, but just as I feared still only a sophomore. She felt guilty that the one man who had with his characteristic intensity paid her a more jealous attention than any other man she had ever met in her life, was already fired and facing the possibility of prison for, as he her first lover in life claimed, completely adoring her. I stopped shuffling the papers on my desk to give her my full attention as she spoke, and because I couldn’t hear her hushed voice over the sound of the rustling papers.

            “Mr. Erickson,” she began quietly, “Quita told me that I should talk to you. She said you her favorite and most nicest teacher, that I could trust you more than some of the other teachers here at our school because you are old and a family kind of man. Quita and her friends in your class, theys feel real close to you because you always listen to them and you don’t hardly never yell at no kids in class. You got an even temper and you be real nice to everyone. That’s why some of the brothers be calling you “Fam.” You know what “Fam” means? If you don’t I’ll tell you. That’s short for “family” for the brothers. You know, even some of them gansta boys are close with some other brothers who they love and respect more even than their own parents, so they calls all the brothers “Fam.”

            “You are right to think about who you can trust and who you cannot Shandra,” I responded. “You know you can’t trust everyone these days, even some of your teachers I think you have learned by now are not to be trusted. Go ahead. Continue. Tell me what you are thinking.”

            “Mr. Erickson,” she did continue, “I feels real bad about what me and Mr. O’Dougal done together. I don’t really want to tell you what we done because everybody in school is already talking about it. But my mother took me to church with her so I could pray to God and ask him to forgive us for what we done together. When we were at Church my preacher, Reverend Candor, said something kind of scary to me that makes me afraid that I might be punished for what happened. I think Mr. O’Dougal already been punished because his wife is going to divorce him and he already got fired and now he has to get ready for a trial. But I’m afraid because that preacher man told me that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. Now I’m afraid of God and lonely too because I can’t talk to or see Mr. O’Dougal no more and everybody else around here, even my mother is talking about me like I’m a piece of trash.”

            “After she spoke I tried to think of the most proper response, but for some reason I could not find the appropriate words for the gravity of the situation which I knew was the most serious one she had ever faced in her short life of 15 years. I resumed shuffling the papers on my desk for a moment which only made her more uneasy as the sound they made revealed my discomfort with the situation as much as my silence did. Then suddenly the words formed in my head and I spoke them to her before she left the room slowly with her head held down like she was in mourning.

           “Shandra. You don’t have to be afraid. Love will find you again someday, probably someday soon. See if you can meet it with a bit more wisdom next time.”

            And then she left the room with her head held down like I already said it was and I never talked to her again before I retired. And now I am retired and I’ve told you all about her relationship with O’Dougal so you can learn what you need to know about this job before you embark upon your new career as a teacher.”

            Mike nodded his head in understanding and we both left the clubhouse to make our way to the parking lot, and then to the car, and then finally to our home driving, driving while thinking silently to ourselves and with much internal reflection.