Mother McCarthy called on me to write a proverb:
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. [Proverbs 23:14]
I had avoided chalkboards ever since a boy scraped one with his braces. It sent electric currents through my skull.
“What did you say?”
“Defy me one more time, and you will see me after class.”
She paddled me ten times. Twenty times for mooning a crossing guard. Thirty times for blackmail.
After the third beating, my parents pulled me from St. Agnes and sent me to public schools from thereon.
My Social Studies teacher looked like Kirk Cameron from Growing Pains.
One morning, she was doing something in her jeep with Ms. Bates that would’ve cost them their jobs. The moment they opened their doors, I peddled past the football stadium and buried the secret in my gut. Any time Ms. Shoebill glanced my way, I would clench my stomach.
I waited for them again from across the soccer field. My only friend, an exchange student from China, rolled up to my station:
“What’re you doing way out here?”
I pulled the binoculars from my eyes.
“OK, don’t tell this to anyone, but Ms. Bates and Ms. Shoebill are…you know.”
“But this stays here, all right? If the school finds out, it could ruin their lives.”
“Who am I going to tell?”
“I’m just saying. After all the schools I’ve been to, I’m pretty soft about reputations.”
Ling and I rested on our bikes like two rangers on horseback.
Through each day, we looked for them on campus. I was like an ornithologist to a rare new species, followed by the gentle voice of Richard Attenborough:
The Social Studies teacher rests under her favorite sycamore for lunchtime, where she snacks on apples and saltine crackers while absorbing a paperback before she retreats to her pedagogical habitat. During class, she assigns her pupils a quiet study session and grades papers to the tunes of Tori Amos. Once the workday is through, she coaches girls softball.
After the Seventh Period bell, my partner and I traded intel.
“And she was wearing an argyle sweater.”
“And a collared shirt underneath.”
“She was under that tree.”
“Eating apples? Reading a book?”
“Damn. Her life is worse than mine. And no sign of her with Ms. Bates?”
“Nope. Are you sure you caught them?”
I wondered that myself.
For her lessons, she hammered the students with dates dates dates: the date of the Versailles Treaty; the date when George Washington crossed the Potomac; the date when Lincoln’s brains fell into his popcorn.
One day, she hit everyone with an oral quiz. I raised my hand.
“Aren’t we going to learn about people?”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought Social Studies meant the study of people, not the study of dates.”
“Just focus on what matters,” she said.
The only thing that mattered was a passing grade. If I failed, my father would’ve given my Nintendo to the Gupta family next door.
I overheard two boys in homeroom:
“You want the answers to Shoebill’s midterm?”
“No shit I do.”
“Go to the Pepsi machine by the racquetball courts at 12:30. You’ll see Scott Renna selling them for $10 a pop. He’ll ask you if this is your first deal. You say ‘yes.'”
Among other goods, he sold cassettes of him screwing virgins. I stuck with the exam.
“Is this your first deal?” he asked me.
“I mean, no.”
He sneered at my shoes.
“How much were them Agassis?”
“For those gay things? What a ripoff.”
“What do you mean ‘gay’?”
“They’re all bright. Why don’t you wear some Jordans?”
Because they were for douchebags, but I kept that to myself.
Before class, I taped the answers to the underbrim of my Pittsburgh Pirates cap. During the test, I was straining my eyes up at the bill. No one else wore hats. They must’ve cheated in ways of their own.
Shoebill crept next to me and yanked it from my head.
“Really? Are you serious?”
In front of everyone, she tore my Scantron to pieces. I wanted to stab myself in the neck with a No. 2 pencil, but she took that as well.
“Who else?” she yelled. “Raise your hand.”
No one peeped.
“You stay after class,” she said to me.
Once the bell rang, she dismissed them and locked the door.
At her desk, I pleaded guilty on one count of cheating. She stashed my ballcap in her drawer and clasped her fingers over the pile of exams.
“Now, I have a strong case.”
“To have you expelled.”
“I never trusted you, and here’s why. In my book, this is a white-collar crime. Can you tell me what that is?”
“Um, when someone does crime in a white collar?”
“This isn’t a joke, Young Sir.”
I was serious.
“My father’s in prison,” she said.
Pulling out her softball bat, she pounded the desk. Her stapler jumped.
“And I say good riddance!”
I had no words, yet my whole body stuttered, not only at her fury but also at the thought of myself, a confused freshman who gorged himself on too much Mac and cheese, as a criminal. Lower than fertilizer. At least dirt produced flowers. I was better off beneath it. Expulsion in that town sucked up every speck of a child for good.
“Who gave you the answers?”
“Don’t try pleading. I caught you redhanded.”
She stood from her desk and leaned forward.
“If you tell me this kid’s name, I might not report you to Principal Wible.”
Principal Wible? He used to be a warden at the prison in Lerdo. The town’s name was scary enough. After serving detention with him, some kids left high school for good.
“Can I retake the test?”
“No, you may not.”
“Can you give me a week?”
“What? To find an answer?” Closing her eyes, she pinched the root of her nose. “You sound just like my father. I don’t accept his collect calls. You see? That’s what happens. Your family disowns you.”
She was breaking me down, but I wouldn’t squeal. Ever since Catholic school, I’d hated snitches. Sure, I deserved a severe sentence, but not from the hand of Principal Wible.
“Mother McCarthy, I hope you’re watching,” I said.
I turned around and pressed my palms into the desk.
“Go ahead, grab the bat. Get it over with.”
“Don’t be stupid. You have ten seconds to give me a name.”
The theme from Jeopardy was looping in my head. When she picked up her phone, I blurted out Scott Renna.
“Oh, I see.”
“I won’t ever do it again.”
She hung up.
“Will you say my name?”
“Not if you’re telling the truth.”
“But I noticed something in the parking lot.”
“What did you see?”
I came close but just couldn’t. My first attempt at blackmail had involved $2 and a slice of Hawaiian pizza. Besides, blackmailing a teacher would’ve sunken my morale even lower, and I was already below the dirt. All I wanted was her pity.
“Him selling the copies.”
“And I should’ve never bought them, but my Mom is very sick.”
“What does she have?”
“Ebola? Your mother has a rat disease? How odd. Was she in the Congo?”
“I meant e. Cola.”
“You mean E. coli?”
“My prayers to your mother, but this is still a white-collar crime. Now go to the chalkboard.”
“No,” I said.
“Because I have a condition.”
“What? How do you expect me to believe that?”
“I can’t write on chalkboards.”
“Do you have a doctor’s notice that says you can’t?”
Scott was selling those, too, but I didn’t know it would come to this.
She made me write the sentence: My name is Chris Pasquetelli, and I’m a cheater. My name is Chris Pasquetelli, and I’m a cheater.
The squealing chalk, the dry-heaves beneath an album by 10,000 Maniacs; my teeth and fingernails were screaming like boiling lobsters. I had to flatter my way out.
“Doesn’t Natalie Merchant have a great voice?”
But she ignored me for the rest of the period.
When she released me, I ran to the nearest bathroom and held my hands under cold water.
Ling found me in there.
“I heard what happened.”
“She made me use the chalkboard. It was torture.”
“What if you get expelled?”
“It’s OK. I snitched on Renna.”
He scanned for any shoes in the stalls. Getting close to me, he muttered:
“Yeah, he was bagging on my shoes anyway. Karma’s a bitch.”
“Chris, don’t you realize what this means?”
“That I’m a rat?”
“His dad works for the mob.”
“Who do you think? Aldo Renna’s a mobster.”
Well, I was always the last to know.
“Do you have any ideas?”
“Go somewhere. Go somewhere far.”
“Ling, I’m fourteen years old. Where would I go? And if the shit hits the fan, what am I going to tell my parents? ‘How was school, Chris?’ ‘Oh, I got expelled. What’s for dinner?’ I’m better off telling them in Chinese. At least you can help me with that.”
But my friend offered me no more advice.
That night, I stayed in my room and couldn’t sleep for a second. I pictured Bossman Renna and his goons waiting outside with hammers and boxcutters.
“You ratted my son, you stool pigeon. What’ll it be? Head or thumbs?”
The next morning, Wible’s voice leaked through the intercom like a toxin: “Will Scott Renna please come to my office? Scott Renna, please come to my office.”
A group of students whispered behind my back:
“It must be the tapes.”
“So who do you think told on him? The deaf one?”
“No. I say Monica, the one with scoliosis.”
Wible called out a list of other names as well as mine. Going to his office, I tried to conjure up the right words and the right body language.
His secretary kept typing on her typewriter, piercing my eardrums with each stroke. The platen jerked like a chickenhead until she hurled it left again and started on the next line.
“What’s he like?” I asked her.
She snickered — nothing else.
At the second period bell, Renna came out of Wible’s office. By his smirk and the way he tucked a cigarette behind his ear, he must’ve gotten off scot-free. The secretary scowled at me without the need for words, so I went in.
The lights were out except for a desk lamp shining on his lower face. His eyes glowed in the shadows. He twiddled a silver pen between his black latex gloves. Oh, McCarthy’s paddle seemed like a teaspoon.
“Mr. Pasquetelli, close the door. What is six inches long, has a bald head, and drives women crazy?”
“I don’t know what?”
He pulled out a hundred dollar bill.
Ben was pursing his lips. Come on, Boy, don’t laugh. But Wible wouldn’t blink.
“What’s so funny?” he said.
“The joke, Sir.”
“That wasn’t a joke, that was a riddle. A riddle is supposed to make you think.”
“Now, several of Ms. Shoebill’s students were cheating. She has reported some, so I’m going through each student. Can you tell me what happens to boys when they cheat?”
“They get caught?”
“They keep doing it to their graves. In some countries, their hands are cut off, but we don’t do that here; we have other means. Even if they get away, those cheaters suffer something else. Their faces change; they grow ugly; they form wrinkles. They appear much older than they are. Did you cheat?”
He pulled out a yearbook.
“Mr. Pasquetelli, do you know a senior named Craig Bowman?”
Of course. At first, I assumed Craig to be the school janitor. The students called him Quasimoto. Wible skipped to the kid’s photo. Once a freshman with all his hair and the tiny features of a child actor, he smiled with a full set of hopes.
“Sophomore year, he was tagging the statue of Buster the Bull. As if my discipline wasn’t enough, he stole the answers to a Biology exam. If I had expelled him, the other students would’ve never seen the results of his actions.”
I sneezed before he finished his next thought. It splattered across his desk. He wheeled himself back on his chair.
“Excuse me,” I said.
Rather than speak, he was shivering like a wet dog in a storm. I pulled a bunch of tissues from his Kleenex box, wiped my nose and his desk in that order.
“No,” he cried.
“I’m sorry, I’ll use another.”
“No. Keep your hands off. You may go now.”
“But don’t you want to–.”
“I said leave.”
That sneeze, that ghost in the machine, must’ve stayed in a holding pattern for months. I balled up the tissues and stuffed them in my pocket. To pay respect, I held out my hand for a handshake, but the principal rolled farther back.
“No, I don’t shake hands.”
“Are you all right?”
“Please go now.”
I worried he would oust me for hay fever.
Before the end of the school day, I hid in a bathroom stall. No feet in the other stalls, no wires in the sinkhole, yet I couldn’t pee a drop.
Scott came to a urinal and pissed a thick stream of ego as long as the Nile.
“It was you,” he said.
My Agassis had given me away. Why didn’t I think of taking them off?
His eyes peered through the crack of my door.
“Was it you?”
“Yeah, well, he let me off anyway. See you around, Puss.”
As it turned out, some other freshman took the fall.
“You got any more of those doctors notes?”
Nothing between the Renna family and me ever came about. No one ever found out about Shoebill and Bates, either, at least not from me.
But Wible’s macabre eye for human detail followed me through the rest of high school and beyond. I checked mirrors for any signs of crow’s feet; for any hairs on my pillow. Some mornings, one eyeball was bulging more than the other.
Too engrossed in my body for any long-term goals, I tumbled into a junior college and onto a four-year school where I ensconced myself in the nook of liberal arts. Half of me somehow managed to cram towards a Bachelor’s. A course called The American Character sounded like a program on A&E. Professor Onion told us homoerotic stories of Ben Franklin and his exploits.
The knickers? The stockings? The buckled shoes? The thin glasses? His penchant for flying kites? Then again, it was the eighteenth century. Regardless, the steep tuition made sense. The nitty-gritty wasn’t cheap. None of Shoebill’s students gave a shit about the year when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They were more engaged in who slept with who; if Ben preferred top or bottom; if Jefferson used his left hand or his right hand; if Houdini ever gave himself fellatio. Onion’s lectures on orgies and male cuckoldry bolstered my grade point average to a passing standard, but they were useless in the working world except for cocktail parties. I seldom went to those.
At the twenty-year high school reunion, I drank too many IPAs and spilled the truth to Monica, the one with scoliosis.
“I was the one who told on Renna.”
Her eyes were about to drop in her Martini.
“For selling the answers to Ms. Shoebill’s midterm.”
“Oh. That fucker owns a hockey team.”
Ms. Shoebill arrived later in a suit and tie. I ducked out of there and got high in the parking lot.
The next time someone asks me what I think of the school system, I’ll tell them its downright rotten.