Mar 4, 2018 4:50 PM
(It is terribly important to note that I do not represent any of this as exact fact. My memory, like all memories, is imperfect and this writing is, most definitely, reconstructed from memory.)
As the knob turns…
I stood in front of that large oak coloured door that led to the Principal’s office, set against the otherwise faded yellow main office of Charlottetown Junior Public School, waiting.
My entire life I’ve been plagued by the feeling I got the first time I was sent to the principal’s office. You know that feeling; a subtle mix of defiant confusion and impending dread. That unique sort of palpitation that comes with knowing that only moments before, a disembodied voice had come out of a box on the wall of your 3rd grade classroom and summoned you to the office. What had I done? I don’t think I did anything. I certainly had no memory of doing anything. I mean, I usually knew when I was doing something. I especially knew when I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to. My mother was like a ninja when it came to punishment, so I was well schooled in the art of cataloguing any questionable behaviour on my part for the purpose of generating an appropriate excuse should it ever come up. That day however, try as I might, I had no idea why the voice had called me down to the office. I wracked my brain and…nothing. But the voice had called me…and certainly it wouldn’t waste the valuable resources and of the illustrious and important main office if I hadn’t done something especially heinous. Principal Farquar was an important man, he wouldn’t be involved with me unless I had screwed up so bad that only his learned wisdom and mighty judgement could be trusted to deal with my obvious incompetence. This much was obvious to me.
So, I stood in front of that fake oak door, I think it was some sort of veneer, to the Principal’s office, for the first time in the fall of 1979. As sure as I’m telling you this now, I still feel like I’m standing there today. Waiting. Staring straight at a doorknob. Waiting for help from a knob. As the door knob was at my seven-year old eyes’ height, I became a bit transfixed by it. As soon as that knob turned, some scary next thing was going to happen. So I stared at that doorknob, every millimetre of its cold formless surface, desperately trying to keep it from moving. Waiting…
Walking up the steps to 5050 Yonge Street thirty-three years later, I did take a second to notice that there were handles with thumb latches on its otherwise knobless doors. It was cold out. It was an exceptionally cold day for March 4th in Toronto and the howling wind made an otherwise sunny day feel even more out of place. I was happy to be inside, but to be where I was felt like I was a scared and desperate seven year old. For a teacher working for the Toronto District School Board, being summoned to the main school board building at 5050 Yonge is not unlike being called to the Principal’s office. As an actual educator, you have no earthly reason for being there and, if you’re being honest with yourself, you can’t really even figure out what of any use happens in the building at all.
I saw Hayssam. He came over.
“Did you tell anyone about today?” he asked
“My family,” I responded flatly.
“Okay. There are students here.”
Hayssam ushered me past the group of about 10 of my drama students (and one of their mothers) who all seemed to force bright smiles of encouragement at me. They were clearly as worried as I was. Of course, they looked to me to ease their concerns, as I had done dozens of times before presentations or on opening nights, but the most I could muster was a half-hearted smile and a puzzled shrug of my shoulders. Hayssam had gotten us an elevator pass and our room assignment from the front desk and led me away. As the elevator closed, I heard a voice.
“We love you, Jones!” was the last thing I heard as their teacher.
Worried that It would make things worse, I turned to Hayssam after the doors closed.
“I honestly have no idea how they would know about today” I said, channeling my seven-year old self.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “How are you?” Hayssam had this great skill to cut through a moment. A pretty handy trait for a union rep.
“I think that’s about right, unfortunately.” Hayssam also didn’t sugar-coat things.
The elevator opened into an empty hallway lined with exterior windows on one side and windowless doors on the other. The wind outside howled.
“We’re supposed to wait here,” he instructed.
“Okay.” I noticed the brushed steel doorknobs that spotted the doors.
“Remember,” Hayssam half-whispered, “If you can, don’t bother saying anything. They’re not here to listen.”
“How does this work?” I asked.
“They’re going to read you a letter.”
“That sounds almost pleasant.” I tried to joke.
A door at the end of the hallway opened and two men appeared. One was tall and one was not. Both had receding hairlines with the remnants combed forward as youthfully as possible. The shorter man carried nothing while the larger had a single envelope with him. They were talking loudly and laughing about a basketball game. As they approached they suppressed their jocularity, as if to put on their proper “official” faces. Both men shook Hayssam’s hand first. The taller one turned to me.
“Ian Alison,” my superintendent said, holding out his hand.
“We’ve met,” I responded “Four or five times.”
Hayssam smiled. We had met. Many times actually. Not a year before, Alison had taken his children to the production of The Rocky Horror Show we had produced at Oakwood CI, the school I taught at. I remember this vividly because we had warnings on the posters about not bringing kids under 12 and then the superintendent showed up with what seemed like a six and eight year-old. When I approached before the show to say something, my principal at the time, Ellen Austrom, shooed me away.
“Oh Jeff,” she sort of cackled, “You worry too much.”
Now, I know she knew about the content of the show because she had been given a script, I had explained the warning to her before we printed the posters and she had already seen the show the night before. Still, that night when I heard the senior student playing Frank N Furter sang the line, “a mental mindfuck could be niiiiiiiiice!” loud and clear over an instrumental break, I cringed.
After the performance, Alison came right up to me with his kids in tow. He was beaming.
“Ian Alison” he said as he stuck out his hand.
“We’ve met.” I smiled.
“That was just….just awesome,” he continued “you are exactly the kind of teacher we need here! Congratulations!”
“Thanks,” I said.
Then there was a long awkward pause. And another one. Finally and thankfully his kids, his little kids, dragged him away.
Unfortunately they weren’t present at 5050 Yonge. Unflustered or unaware, Mr. Alison continued to speak.
“This is Andrew Gold. He’s from Employee Services.”
We all stood there for a moment. And then another moment passed. I remember thinking that this awkward pause thing was a strange sort of management style.
“Andrew, get the door,” he instructed.
“You’ve got the key,” Gold sort of meekly responded.
“Well, I don’t” Gold sort of apologized with this comment.
“Is it open?!” Alison demanded as he reached for the nearest doorknob.
He shook the doorknob with his back turned to us for what felt like a bit too long to be reasonable. He stopped and exhaled slowly. He straightened up.
“You forgot the key?” Hayssam asked.
“Andrew is going to step back into my office and grab it from my secretary. It’ll just be a second.”
Andrew dutifully shuffled but not quite ran back down the hall and disappeared. We all watched him go. Then we all turned back toward each other. And then there was yet another excruciating pause. And then…
“How ‘bout this crazy weather?” Alison asked with a friendly smile.
Seriously. He tried to chat about the weather. Now, I’m not saying that this isn’t a vaguely polite thing to do under normal social circumstances, and I have no trouble believing that this particular person has little else in his conversational arsenal, but we all knew what we were there for. Worse, he knew that my professional fate was in his hands, literally at that point, as the envelope in his left hand contained my discipline letter.
“That’s some wind for March!” he continued with literally no encouragement.
When Gold lumbered back from the mysterious nether regions beyond the hallway, he had with him a handful of keys. He went immediately for the door and Alison got behind him, as if to hurry him along. The first key appeared to fit, but the knob wouldn’t turn. He tried the next one. Not a fit. The next one…nada. Alison exhaled loudly at this point. Gold dropped the keys.
“Oh, for the love of….” slithered out from under an embarrassed breath. I don’t know from whose.
Hayssam looked back to me and rolled his eyes.
After a few minutes, the two highly paid officers of a multi-billion dollar corporation managed to unlock the door and led us into the dark room. They hit the lights to reveal a large broom closet. The interior walls were lined with steel shelving units containing various cleaning products and sundries. The room was a slightly rectangular room that wasn’t longer than ten feet or so length wise with most of the floor taken up by a large wood veneer work table. The kind of table you would find in a school library that hasn’t been renovated since the 1980s.
Alison and Gold sat at one end of the table and motioned for us to sit at the other. For our comfort we were offered stackable, plastic moulded chairs. Mine wobbled. Somewhere there was a middle-school history classroom in want of décor.
After Gold cleared away two used but dry mops from the table, Alison began. He methodically removed the letter from its envelope and handed me both the letter and the envelope. He produced another copy of it from his jacket, cleared his throat and began to read. He didn’t speak freely or with any humanity at all. He read me a letter that he, himself, had written to me, signed and then handed to me. I’m sure that there is a joke in this somewhere. In fact, I know there is. TDSB administrators had long since begun the practice of reading memos that we had already received out loud at meetings as if to consciously waste the time of those in attendance but this was a special kind of waste. This was the end of my career. This was the end of 12 years of dedicated hard work. This wasn’t a joke.
Alison read the entirety of the letter, including the dates and signatures. Then, they both quickly got up and left. I imagine they were concerned about the seriousness on my face. I imagine they had some sort of training that indicated you should only tell an employee being recommended for termination by the board in a windowless broom closet. I hope they wondered if I was going to attack them. I hope they worried.
I was shocked. Floored. Not just because they had told me that I was suspended without pay pending the board’s vote to fire me that coming Wednesday evening, but because two of the three reasons they listed for my firing had never been mentioned to me before that moment. I had no idea what they were talking about. I was destroyed.
“So that’s it,” I sort of mumbled to Hayssam, “I get to be a disgrace now…”
In that moment, for the first time, I broke down. I felt every wrong thing that I ever did and relived a lifetime of guilt for all of it. My whole life. From the time I punched Rebecca Claire in second grade to the time I yelled at my sister while my mother dying of cancer in the next room. It all fell on me at once. I knew I was supposed to be defiant and strong. It all felt so useless, though. I was battered. I felt that I deserved failure. There could be no other explanation for dedicating my life to a profession and having the ones I was working for, that I had given much of my adult life to until that point, leave me on the floor of a broom closet weeping over a letter.