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Principal Swank leaned back, his rolling chair squeaking beneath him, and placed his fingers behind his head as if he intended to take a nap. “We don’t tolerate bullying here, Brandon.”
Brandon shifted in his chair. He was embarrassed that his feet didn’t quite touch the floor, even though he was sitting right on the edge of it, almost falling out. He looked down. “But I… don’t like Randy.”
“Alright. I see. I understand, young man. I don’t like everyone either.” Mr. Swank looked out the window where a robin was building a nest in a tree. “Take Mr. Pryor, for example. Can not stand that guy. Total arse. But I have never pushed him down on the playground.” He pushed away from the desk and walked over to Brandon. His large belly protruded over the button on his pants, which was now at eye level for Brandon. “Just try to be nice, okay kid? It makes us look bad when these pansy ass kids come crying about bullying. I’ve gotta tow the line here and make sure we don’t get local press and all that. Got it?”
Brandon stood up. He wanted to get away from that belly and those pants. He wanted to go back outside before recess was over. “Yes. I think so.”
“Get on with you, then.” Swank gave Brandon a friendly pat on the bottom as he moved toward the door. “And I don’t want to hear about this again. Next time I’ll have to call your mom.”
As he left the office, Brandon could hear Swank muttering something about how he wouldn’t mind giving Randy a good swift kick, himself. He headed outside, not sure whether he was really in trouble or not. But he thought to himself about how his parents always told him to stand up for himself and say what was true. Wasn’t it true that he didn’t like Randy? Didn’t he stand up for himself by pushing Randy down for sticking his tongue out at him?
In the teacher’s lounge, Swank grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down by the window where he had two magnificent views. He could see the female teachers in the lounge, bending over to reach the coffee creamer in the mini fridge. He could also see Minnie Worland out on the playground, directing traffic and keeping the little shits from killing each other. Minnie was very pretty. Today she was wearing a blue summer dress that stirred something in him. Earlier he had heard the shushing sound it made as she passed him in the hall. He wondered if he could convince her to stay for an after school meeting.
Meanwhile, he was distracted by Sharon Ashton, who was fixing her coffee. The other teachers had left, and only Sharon remained. She was wearing a tight skirt and could not actually bend down to get things out of the mini fridge. Instead she had to bring her legs together and squat down. He watched as her legs pressed together and she made a delicate business of crouching. It was amazing how she got it done. He felt that flutter again, and wondered what his wife would say if she saw him keeping tabs on the younger teachers this way.
“Sharon? A word please?”
Sharon walked over with her coffee in hand. She had a tight smile on her face that suggested she was not very interested in conversing with him. He thought quickly about how to break the ice. “Good morning, dear.”
She blinked, took a slight step back. “Um, yes. Good morning.” She looked toward the door. “I was just heading back to my class.”
“Surely you have a minute for the school principal.” He stood up. It was always the best way to command respect in these situations. Sure, he was probably packing an extra 40 pounds which possibly compromised a few people’s respect for him. He sensed it. But he was six foot three, and he towered over most of the teachers, which gave him considerable advantage. He smiled as she looked up at him. “I’m just doing an informal survey. How do you think we are doing on the bullying score?”
“Well, it’s certainly a good topic. But I’m afraid it’s not something we can cover in a brief teacher lounge discussion. It’s complicated at best. And there’s a committee devoted to education around bullying. They have a good program in place, Mr. Swank. But the effort really must be ongoing.”
Swank felt a kind of heat rising around his neck. “Ms. Ashton. I will thank you to answer the question I have asked. I’m not looking for a thesis on the topic. Was I not clear when I asked you how we’re doing? Was there something vague about the question? My thought is that anyone with a standard level of intelligence could respond with such phrasing as, ‘I’m glad you asked, Mr. Swank. It’s going well.’ Or ‘We really have a problem on our hands, Mr. Swank.’ I view your response as nothing short of insubordination, Ms. Ashton, and I ask you to consider the tone you use in your communications with your superiors. We wouldn’t want your standing here to be at risk, would we?”
She was blushing now and looked as if he had given her a slap. Which of course he had not done. Though he felt mildly gratified, he let out an exasperated sigh. What did it take to toughen people up around here?
Sharon pressed her lips together, then smiled. “My apologies, Mr. Swank. It won’t happen again.” She glanced at her watch. “Is there… anything else? I’m afraid I’m keeping my classroom waiting.”
He swallowed the anger that was welling up inside him just then. “Go. But we’ll be discussing this again, Ms. Ashton. This is not over.”
Brandon marched in with the other children from the playground, all of whom were pushing and laughing noisily, though Ms. Worland implored them all to walk in an orderly fashion and to shake their sillies out and leave them at the door. Randy, who was walking along behind him, suddenly stepped on the back of his shoe. His foot slid out and he nearly went flying. He turned around and stopped, which caused Randy to run into him. He was so mad, he couldn’t think straight. “You did that on purpose!”
Randy pushed passed him. “Did not! Stop holding up the line!”
Brandon looked at Ms. Worland who was giving him a mildly stern look. “Let it go, Brandon. There’s no call for that now. You too Randy. Both of you just cool off, right now. And get back in your line order.”
Randy stepped behind him again as he retrieved his shoe and slipped it back on. He felt so mad. How could one kid make him that mad? Randy was always doing something to annoy him. They were walking again. “You started it,” he said, just loud enough for Randy to hear.
Then the most irritating thing of all happened. Randy flat tired his other shoe. And this time he did go flying.
Ms. Worland looked back and forth between them, obviously assessing their guilt. Randy held his hands up high to suggest he’d had nothing to do with Brandon sprawling on the ground. In fact, he reached down and helped Brandon up.
But it was the same thing as a lie. A terrible lie. Randy was manipulating the whole situation in his favor. As soon as he was up, Brandon took a swing, clocking Randy in the ear — hard.
“Ow!” Randy began bawling. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he ran to Ms. Worland holding his ear.
This could not be good.
Principal Swank’s office smelled mean and sweaty. Brandon imagined this must be what a prison smelled like. Mr. Swank sat behind the desk staring at him, saying nothing. The clock could be heard on the wall, creeping its way toward the dinner hour, which Brandon would undoubtedly spend alone in his room, aching with hunger. Had Mr. Swank called Brandon’s parents? Were they on their way? The look of fury on the principal’s face made him afraid to say anything.
Finally, Mr. Swank raised up his powerful hands and brought them down with a thunderous slam on the desk. Brandon jumped and felt as though he was going to wet his pants.
“You have defied me! You have defied the rules of this institution.” The principal’s voice sounded like the roar of a stormy sea.
“I… I’m sorry.”
“My ass. You’re sorry? Oh really. That’s just perfect, isn’t it?”
“Do you know what this means? Randy’s parents are on the warpath. They are going to read me and the anti-bullying committee the riot act. We are all going down. And the local press will be on this like white on rice.” Swank was standing now, leering over Brandon like a giant. He reached down and picked up Brandon by the collar and heaved him against the closed door.
Brandon felt his head crack against the door and he nearly fell to the ground. But Swank lifted him up. His face was red as a beet. “Look, you little shit.” Spit flew from the principal’s mouth. “I ought to beat the crap out of you. But that won’t go over well, will it?” He gave Brandon another mild push, as if he was very tired. As if all of this had worn him out.
Brandon felt a pang of sympathy. He wondered if Mr. Swank was perhaps a very unhappy man.
There was a knock at the door. Brandon stepped aside and Mr. Swank opened it to find Brandon’s parents there.
They came rushing in, clearly upset. His mother sniffed and she was carrying a little wad of tissues. “What have you done?”
His father said nothing, which was never a good sign. He had the characteristic white line around his lips that meant he was very mad.
Brandon looked at the window, and briefly wondered how hard it would be to get to it, open the window and throw himself out before they could stop him. He imagined his small 9 year-old body slamming to the ground two stories down. Then he started to cry, very quietly.
“Look,” Mr. Swank said. “We’re just having a little chat. Brandon here is sorry. Aren’t you, son?”
Brandon nodded. His tears slid into his mouth and tasted salty.
“He’s suspended for a day. And we’re going to get him into our anti-bullying program. Okay? Kids just need to learn. That’s all.”
Brandon’s mother looked with kindness upon Mr. Swank. “Oh, you’re so kind. Thank you for being lenient with him. I’m not sure what’s going on with this boy. He hasn’t done these things before.”
“A good licking may get him to change his mind about doing it again,” Brandon’s father said.
“Ah now,” Mr. Swank said. “Go easy on the boy. Listen, I tell you what. I’ll personally take him under my wing. I’ve got some special ways of helping to redirect kids. Deal?”
“Thank you,” Brandon’s mother said.
Principal Swank shook hands with Brandon’s father. They were all set to go, and Brandon’s mother stepped out, followed by his father. As Brandon turned to follow them, Mr. Swank grabbed just a few hairs at the back of his hairline and tugged, hard. A small shooting pain ran up Brandon’s scalp. But with fear in his gut, he swallowed a scream.
“Don’t you worry,” Mr. Swank called after them. “We’ll straighten him out.”
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