Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Grudge

If I've been sounding odd lately, here's the deal: I was enjoying dinner out this past Sunday, when I was rather rudely reminded of a most unpleasant story from my past, the memory of which I am ashamed to say still gets me riled up, much as I would like to believe that I long ago moved beyond it. Although I doubt I will ever forget it, it is an episode that I have heretofore kept private, because, even though I have always felt myself the wronged party of the story, I worry that it will still make me smaller in the eyes of those who would hear me fixating on it. For the very few people who already know the story, I can't promise that this will be the last time I tell it, but perhaps the rest of you will find parts of it enlightening. So, without further ado, let's go back to high school.

Spring 2000 - I was nearly finished with junior year, and it was time for me to select classes for my next and final year.

For math, it was either Math 150 or AP Calculus. A college-level course, Math 150 was supposed to be the most challenging option, and that traditionally would have made it my choice. But I had studied enough to know that there was no future for me in mathematics. I was not fearful of the challenge, but I had no one else to impress besides myself, and I no longer cared. It was time to start acting sensibly instead of idealistically. None of this advanced math I learned would be staying with me beyond that class. Why labor another year for nothing? On the other hand, I already knew and liked the teacher for the AP Calculus class. So it was decided then--AP Calculus was to be, in all likelihood, my final math class.

Not long after I submitted my selection, that AP Calculus teacher announced that she was moving on to better things, having accepted a position at the local community college. Oh well.

Fall 2000 - Senior year. AP Calculus was my first period class. The teacher, new to the school, was one Mr. J. No, wait, that's too obvious. Let's just call him Roger. Before the semester was over, he would become the one man I truly considered my enemy, but, going through introductions that first day, he seemed nice enough.

On the second day of school, I arrived several minutes early to first period. There were only maybe two other students in the room when I got there. Studying his roll sheet, Mr. Jaffe turned to me and asked if I had attended Green Elementary. I had not. He seemed surprised and confused by my answer. He had apparently known or heard of another student of the same name at Green Elementary.

Eerie. It was not an uncommon name, although I have never met another, but this was not the first time I had heard about this. Flashing back to eighth grade, a classmate of mine had previously mentioned having known of this other Henry at Green. This classmate could not provide any more details, and, to this day, I have no idea if there ever really was such a person. Whatever.

Later that first week, Jaffe outlined his plan to get to know his students better. He invited us all to meet with him during the daily free study period. He laid out a schedule that had him meeting in alphabetical order with a few students per day over the next week. Of course, he noted that this would be very casual and, despite the schedule, attendance was strictly optional. STRICTLY OPTIONAL. On my scheduled day, I declined to show. Neither he nor I ever mentioned it afterward.

A short time later, Jaffe decided to begin class by offering some frank advice for all of us planning on college. A proud UCLA graduate himself, he described the crossroads before us. We could be nameless numbers, keeping to ourselves, quietly attending to our studies while going unnoticed amid crowds of thousands of students. That was an option, and it was okay, he said, although his tone, highly judgmental, spoke a contrary sentiment. Alternatively, he told us, we could be active, vital participants and contributors, sharing in and embracing the college experience as he knew it. Or we could be nameless numbers, he said again.

Now, all this so far has been prologue, though perhaps the relevance of these details will become apparent later.

The story officially began, however, one Monday, still early in the school year, when Jaffe asked me, having arrived early as usual, whether I had been in class the previous Wednesday. Shouldn't he know? He's the one with the roll sheet. He need not have specified the day; I had not suffered any illnesses during the school year yet, so I had not missed a class yet.

Tuesday, I arrived early again. Jaffe called me over to his desk and explained the situation. He informed me that he had received a detention slip for me. The charge was truancy.

Now, anyone who had ever had a class with me--classmates and instructors--would have thought this absurd. I was not necessarily a model student--my participation scores would have been on the low end--but I was a straight arrow. Truthfully, I HATED missing class, because I didn't have much else going on in my life.

But Jaffe was the new guy; he didn't know me that well. He asked again if I had been in class the previous Wednesday. He told me that his own records indeed had me listed as absent that day, but he supposed that maybe he had made a mistake. My answer--the truth--remained the same. He seemed to accept my word, and I thought that was the end of it.

The next day, I arrived early again and he called me over again. He held out a detention slip and told me that I needed to serve the time for having skipped out on the first three class periods last Wednesday. I began to insist again that it had been issued in error, but he cut me off.

"They had a signature!" he yelled impatiently, as he thrust the detention slip at me.

His intensity startled me, and it took me a minute to process his words. I didn't understand what he meant, but other students were beginning to fill the room, and I didn't want to get into this in front of everyone, so I took my seat. As I sat in a daze while he lectured, I slowly grasped the full horror of my situation. At some point during third period on the previous Wednesday, someone had apparently signed in my name on the tardy sheet. So there was evidence, however flimsy, against me, while I had nothing but my own word, which Jaffe flat out did not believe. What followed was one of the most miserable realizations of my life.

Back then, I had this picture in my head of me over here, The World over there. We were too incompatible to ever be friends, but we could exist apart in separate grace. But this incident exposed that grace as a sham. There were evidently people out there who hated me for no good reason, who wished to do me harm just because. And that was not the worst part.

Jaffe may not have noticed, but I had been in class that day, in which case there should have been witnesses. Yet, as I looked all around me in that classroom, feelings of despair and isolation nearly overcame me. I had no friends in that class, nobody who would even have noticed whether I had been present or not on some random Wednesday. Maybe I could have asked the girl sitting in front of me, and maybe she would have vouched for me just because she was nice. But not even I would have trusted her memory on that. I was a quiet student who kept to myself. There was nothing memorable about me, not on that day or any other.

As the worst first period of my life wrapped up, however, I suddenly recognized my way out. Again, the charge was that I had been truant for the first three periods of class. Jaffe's records were consistent with that accusation, but what about my second and third period teachers? They had been around much longer than Jaffe. They knew me and liked me, and I trusted them.

Rushing to my second period class, I asked the instructor if he had received any detention notices for me. He sounded surprised that I knew he had. As it turned out, he had received the slips and thought them so ridiculous that he had simply sent them back without even bothering to involve me in what he thought was a clerical mix-up. My third period teacher then said the same. That settled it, right? The evidence was much more strongly in my favor. I had two teachers with hard data to back me up, and I now felt confident that there were others who could vouch just as well for my character.

I headed to the administration building during my free period and informed the receptionist that I needed to resolve a detention case. She referred me to an office I didn't even know existed. The head of the "department of detention" was some Latina lady I had never seen before. She looked not even thirty yet. Let's call her Ms. S. She listened to my story, but I'm not sure how much she understood. There was no "case file" to look over. She just glanced at my detention slip, which didn't tell much. To my severe disappointment, she either had no real authority or had no idea how to wield it. She was just another bureaucrat with no answers beyond the standard procedures she'd been drilled in, which clearly didn't cover my complicated case. She told me that, as long as Jaffe maintained his position against me, the case would remain open until I sat that hour of detention. Her personal advice was that, even if I was telling the truth, I should serve the detention anyway just to get it over with.

Was she out of her freaking mind? Ma'am, you do not know who I am, but I do. It may be about all I know, but I will not compromise on that for all The World's satisfaction. I will make this ship my coffin if it comes to that, but I will not be bitch-slapped. No, I would live my way, and they all would be the ones to bend, not to me, but to justice. To truth.

The detention was scheduled for Friday. It was still Wednesday, so there was time. I attended the rest of my classes as normal that day.

On Thursday, I did not arrive early, and first period proceeded as just a regular class. I returned to Jaffe's room during my free period to go over the situation as it now stood. I insisted again that the charge was bogus, noted that I had my other teachers as reliable witnesses, and explained that, according to Ms. S, I only needed his support now to resolve this once and for all.

"Who is Ms. S? You were not in class!" he replied, again sounding exasperated. Pretending to be busy overseeing a club meeting, he gave me no other response except a threatening look that seemed to be daring me to keep it up.

I was actually extremely pissed off by this point, but, as always, I hid it rather better than he had. I would not be baited into a dramatic scene, which I grew increasingly convinced was what he sought. At any rate, I was done dealing with him. His mind was made up, but he, like Ms. S, did not seem to get that I was NEVER serving that detention. I was done wasting my time asking useless fools for help. It was time to move on to demanding satisfaction from people who actually mattered.

Walking out without another word, I headed to the administration office and explained my case to the receptionist, somewhat more forcefully this time. She was an older lady with a Slavic accent, and I didn't know what her responsibilities really were, but I was determined that she was going to fix this immediately. She responded by digging up the tardy sheet for that day, and, sure enough, someone had put my name down in the middle of third period, although it was block letters and not really a signature. I was silently furious, not only that someone would do this to me, but that they could get away with it so easily. I explained to her how flawed this system of zero verification was, after which she asked for a sample of my handwriting for comparison. She then asked another old lady to take a look, but they found the comparison inconclusive. Nevertheless, without asking for any further evidence, they canceled my detention because I looked like a "good head." Still not feeling satisfied, I asked them what measures they had in place to stop this from happening again. They answered quite honestly that there were none.

Having cut through the bureaucracy and overcome Jaffe's insane determination to railroad me, I had finally gotten the false charges dropped. It hardly felt like a victory, however, as I had already suffered the injustices of having my time wasted and my character placed in doubt. And there were still unanswered questions nagging at me. Who would have framed me? Why? HOW WAS IT THAT JAFFE HAD ME MARKED ABSENT ON THE VERY DAY THAT THAT SOMEONE FRAMED ME FOR TRUANCY?

I shall warn you now that the facts of the case end approximately here. What follows is speculation, and I will leave it to you to decide whether I am proceeding reasonably.

I was not in the habit of making enemies, and as I considered all the possibilities, the prime and only suspect was Jaffe himself. What was his motive? Young guy, new to the school and the job, didn't know me, maybe he wanted his own episode of Boston Public, with me playing the delinquent. Maybe he felt slighted by my having missed our attendance-optional meeting, so he wanted to teach me a lesson. Maybe he had even convinced himself that he was helping me out by teaching me the hard way the value of connections. His pretentious lecture about nameless numbers spoke to his self-importance, so I wouldn't have put it past him to manufacture a situation that would cast him as some maverick TV teacher absolutely determined to help his difficult students even against their wills. And guess during which period he didn't have a class to teach. Yep, as I discovered after a bit of investigating, third period was his prep period, so he had motive and opportunity.

For a long time, I was all but certain that Jaffe had indeed been the one to frame me. Then, over the years, distance from the events calmed me down a bit, and I began to consider another possibility. Maybe, when he marked me absent that day, it really had been an honest mistake. I remembered, on the second day of that saga, when he had asked me to check my memory against his records, he had shown me his attendance book, which had me listed as absent on that Wednesday. I noticed at the time that his method, which may have been standard, was to mark the boxes on the attendance grid for students who were present. Absences were denoted with empty, unmarked boxes. Because there were typically far more students present than absent, there were likewise far more check marks than blanks on any given day. A careless person, too automatically checking off boxes down a column, might well have missed a space or misplaced a check. Maybe Jaffe was an especially careless roll taker, who made that mistake frequently, in which case the chances of it happening on the very day I had been framed for truancy would not have been that terrible. It was conceivable, if not excusable. In that case, he would not have been corrupt, as I previously believed, but merely incompetent.

As for who had framed me, if not Jaffe, it could only have been some random young offender who happened to know my name. I'll probably never know the whole truth, but I do know that Jaffe wronged me by siding against me when the better evidence pointed in my favor, by dismissing me with undue anger when I was the one suffering the injustice, and by making me feel miserable, if only for a moment, over my pathetic social situation. How could I not hate him?

For the rest of high school and beyond, Jaffe was a dead man to me. There would be no more arriving early to his classroom, no more morning greetings, no courtesy laughing at his lame jokes in class, no acknowledgment of his existence whatsoever unless a curt reply was directly demanded. We never discussed the incident again, and the truancy did not impact my report card in any way.

June 2001 - High school was nearly over and I had already been admitted to a university. Classes done and my immediate responsibilities taken care of, I took a few days off to attend my brother's college graduation, returning just in time for my commencement ceremony rehearsal. As I arrived on campus an hour early that morning, I bumped into a classmate. It was the girl who had sat immediately in front of me in AP Calculus--the one I thought would have no idea whether I'd been in class on any given day. She welcomed me back and asked me to sign her yearbook. I did so, after which she offered her sympathies for how the book had turned out. I had no idea what she meant. I had had a friend pick up my copy for me in my absence, but I had not yet collected it.

Upon receiving it later that day, I flipped to my picture. A printing error had left another student's name superimposed over mine, such that it was just an illegible mess of overlapping ink. Every copy was affected. My name was the only one that had turned out that way, and that was my only appearance in the book. And that was the second time (that I know of) that my name had been misprinted in a high school yearbook (it had been misspelled in my sophomore year). I should have asked for my money back, but I didn't think to at the time. Oh well. I knew my own name, so what really was the harm?

Fall 2008 - I received a letter from Jaffe. It was not a personal letter; it was sent out to all alumni of my high school. Apparently it was the school's fortieth anniversary, and they wanted past students to update their info for the records. Seeing that Jaffe had been placed in charge of this operation, I was disgusted to learn that, not only was he still teaching, but he had somehow risen to a position of greater influence. The memories still burning, I did not respond to the letter.

I did not attend the fortieth anniversary celebration, but my mother did. While driving home from work that day, I received a call from her. She told me that they had my class yearbook on display, and she wanted to know why my name was messed up. I explained that it was a printing error that had affected all copies. She asked why I had never had it fixed. I tried to explain that it was not quite feasible for the school to recall all sold copies and print a second run just to appease one student. She didn't sound satisfied. Neither was I.

January 31, 2010 - While I was enjoying dinner out with my family, my sister asked to be reminded why I disliked Jaffe. She was a current attendee of the same high school, and at one point I had advised her to steer clear of Jaffe, because he was a bad man. The other day, however, he had apparently been the guest lecturer for one of her classes. She thought he seemed nice enough. Thus the greatest fury of my life came rushing back, and now here we are.

So there you have it. Perhaps the only thing this story has revealed to you is that I can be a small and petty man who can bear a grudge. I apologize if I've disappointed anyone. I'm just going to treat this as therapy. I feel better already, and hopefully next week shall bring a return to normalcy.


Riyuu said...

Just because he seemed nice enough doesn't mean I actually approved of him in any way (and he gave my class homework - he doesn't even teach the class!). I had a run-in with him once near the end of 9th grade too and I thought he was a real jerk.

I just found it odd that he's so popular with a lot of students at school even though you said he was a bad person.

Czardoz said...

Sheep. All sheep. Lambs, if you will. Too stupid to know they're headed to the slaughter.

Scum is attracted to scum, which is probably why Mr. J Roger (if that is his real name!) was so popular.

Riyuu said...

Although I agree with you for once...

Why must you compare scum to something as harmless (and cute) as sheep (and lambs, I suppose)?!

Sam Kahn said...

I actually had a similar experience in college. A professor in a class gave me a low grade, which I didn't expect at all, and ended up preventing me from graduating with top honors. In every critique in class he would lavish praise on my projects, and after class when I would talk to him I'd point out faults in my project and ask for advice; he'd assure me it was all great. When the semester was over, I found out he gave me a low grade for the "sub-par quality" of my work, everyone else in class, including he regularly shat all over in critiques, got far better grades than I did. Being singled out like that came totally out of left field for me, and in the end there was nothing I could do.

Henry said...

That actually sounds a lot worse than what I went through. My experience at least never impacted me in any official way.

I had professors who disapproved of me personally, and that could bear on their subjective assessments of my work. But as long as they were open and consistent with their criticisms, I did not resent them. I do not pretend to always be right, and I cannot expect everybody to like me. It is only these deceivers and two-faces that make it onto my list (which does not actually exist).

Henry said...

"Scum is attracted to scum, which is probably why Mr. J Roger (if that is his real name!) was so popular."

Looking back, I do wonder, would I have been more a fool had Jolly Roger never revealed his true character to me through this incident?