I started writing this as a submission for a series on the end of summer, but it ran long and I didn’t have the heart to cut it by half. Happy back-to-school week, however you choose to celebrate it.
In 15 years of school, I was called to the principal’s office exactly four times.
I was never afraid to go. I was a good student and didn’t have anything to hide – besides, my parents were teachers, and even if the principal wasn’t the exact same person I’d seen tipsily leaning up against our living room wall at a staff party, I knew the type. Just a guy with a job. I saved my fear for people who’d earned it.
The first time was in grade seven.
“I’d like you to explain,” the principal said, “where this book was found.” He held up a copy of a science book, a how-to guide on simple experiments you could do at home. Baking soda volcanoes, prism-induced rainbows.
”I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t know; I thought that book was at home, or maybe in my book bag.
”It was returned to the school,” he said, “by a person who found it in a graveyard.”
”I don’t know how that happened,” I said.
“Just make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me that my bus stop was right beside an old country church, one that had no proper graves, but had old gravestones cemented into its foundation. The book must have fallen out of my bag there. I’ve always wondered why he had no follow-up questions. Maybe finding books in graveyards was just another Tuesday morning at St. Martin’s, Ennismore.
The second time was in grade eight. It was at a different school, and I’d only been there for six months or so, but long enough to have developed a serious crush on another student, and long enough for it to have become public knowledge.
”Congratulations!” the principal said, “Your class voted for you and Matthew to be Queen and King of the winter carnival. I’ll take you guys out to Dairy Queen next week.”
That was the prize. Half an hour in forced conversation with two people, both of them strangers, one whom I loved. I think of that scene every time I drive by a Dairy Queen, and every time I hear someone say, “kids are such assholes.”
The other two times were in high school, and the conversations started the same way: the principal shuffled some papers, sighed, pushed the chair away from the desk and said, “So I guess you know why I called you down here today …”
”I think I have some idea,” I said, the first time.
I was leaving a lot unspoken. Things like, “Yeah. My geography class. Listen: I know my attendance has been, shall we say, sub-par. But I take issue with some of the subject material and the teacher is obviously not interested in making it relevant for students …” but also: “I am a tragically unpopular person who has, by some miracle involving long legs and confused hormones, managed to acquire a boyfriend-type-person, and with all due respect, that map showing shifts in urban density can colour itself, because have you even met this guy? He is pretty awesome and he plays in a band and he has amazing hair and no, of course you wouldn’t understand because you’ve been bald since your 30th birthday.”
He continued: “I’d like to congratulate you on being chosen to represent our school on exchange to Japan over the summer.”
Okay, so I had no idea.
The second time I was given that lead-in, I offered the same response, but things played out differently.
“I was very disappointed to see your letter to the editor in yesterday’s newspaper,” the principal said. “I can appreciate that you want to toot your own horn, but it gives the community the impression that we’re not united in our purpose.”
”That letter was not about tooting my own horn. The kids at this school raised hundreds of dollars to donate to environmental causes, and I thought ‘the community’ deserved to know about that, because frankly, planting two more trees in an already overcrowded courtyard in honour of Earth Day was nothing but a craven photo opportunity and I think you know that, too.”
He pulled the chair back in and looked at me for long time.
”So I think we’ve come to some kind of understanding, here,” he said.
”Yes, sir,” I said. “I would say that we have.”