Enrolled in Old School
It was a quiet day. I knew it wouldn’t last. In a short while, I would have solid proof that my instincts were correct as I finished my lunch in my counseling office at Park Ridge High School where I have been for the last ten years. It seems longer when I get a quiet moment to myself.
“Are you Mr. Sowell?” A student knocks at my door. Like most of the other students, his clothes are full of holes and his flannel shirt appears as if it has not been washed in over a month.
“Yes, and you are?” I stand up, dropping my trash into the garbage can.
“Holton Brisbee.” He answers as he slouches into my tiny closet of an office.
“What can I do for you?” I asked hoping that there was something I could do for him.
He sighs, rubs his red eyes with his fingers and lets his head loll back, “My old man kicked me out of the house.”
“How old are you?” I ask as I pull out my pad and clipboard.
“Sixteen.” He drops his chin to his chest.
“You are a minor.” I said as if he hadn’t realized this.
“Sure, but he doesn’t care.” He sniffs. “I was caught smoking weed in my room.”
“I see.” I write this down as I nod.
“You have no idea what he’s like.” Holton shook his head.
“You are right, I don’t.” I agreed. “Could you tell me a little about him?”
“Not without getting an in-school suspension.” He tried a smile, but it failed miserably. “He’s not a happy man.”
“Not happy?” I nodded.
“Are you gonna repeat the things I say?” His voice turned up a notch to hostile.
“Sorry.” I apologized.
“Didn’t mean to be such a a-hole.” He slumped in the chair, “I spent the night in the park on a bench.”
“I am sorry.” I nearly swallowed my words when I realized I was again repeating myself.
“S’okay.” He shrugged as he wiped the tears from his eyes with his filthy thumb and index finger. “I had a rough night.”
“Do you want to rest in the nurse’s office?” I suggested.
“Naw.” He shook his head, “I got nowhere else to go.”
Crap, I hate not having the answers to student’s conundrums.
“Would you consider returning to your house?” I asked, feeling as if I was already running out of viable solutions.
“I’d rather walk through Hell barefoot.” He dropped his head to his chest again.
“I understand.” I shrugged and sighed.
“I didn’t mean to bother you with my problems.” His voice sounded as if it came from under a boulder. He got up, paused and said, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Sowell.”
“If you need someone to talk to, I am here for you.” I stood up as he exited my office.
“I know…” He turned his head wearing another strained smile, “I’m gonna talk to my girlfriend. Maybe she’ll let me spend the night…on the sofa.”
“Good luck.” I felt as useless as an icebox at the North Pole.
“Chuck, you got a minute?” Principal Dalton called me into his office.
“Always.” I got up and walked to the next door where his office was. His office was nearly as large as a classroom, but we had a good working relationship.
“What can I do for you, Eric?”
“I read your notes on Brenda Spendell.” He opened the folder.
“She is the fifteen year old student who is pregnant.” I sat in the chair across from his desk.
“Yeah.” Eric shook his head, “Her uncle.”
“I beg your pardon.” I shook my head.
“Her uncle got her pregnant.” Eric swiveled in his chair to conceal his emotion, “Dirty bastard was just released from parole. She’s such a sweet kid.”
“So I gathered.” I put my fingers on the bridge of my nose.
“I hate being enrolled in Old School.” He turned back to face me.
“Old School?” I had never heard him talk like that before.
“How old are you, Chuck?” He asked, looking directly into my eyes.
“Thirty-two.” I answered.
“Old School.” He pointed at me with his thumb. “Students who deal with us don’t trust us because we were enrolled in Old School.”
“I’m not following you.” I shook my head.
“Do you remember that old thing from the sixties, ‘Never trust anyone over thirty years old?’” He managed to smile. “My dad went to Woodstock or so he told me.”
“Yup. He told me about the over thirty thing.” He chuckled, but it sounded dry and lifeless. “Now it's Old School.”
“Man, you are making me feel old.”
“We aren’t young anymore, you know.” He sniffed, “Some of these kids weren’t born for 9/11.”
The lightning bolt nearly knocked me out of the chair. I remember clearly sitting there watching television when the planes hit the World Trade Center, Pentagon and some open field in Pennsylvania. We had been in a war that had been going on before most of them were born. It was hard to believe that such an event was not part of their memory as it had a part of mine. Now I understood what he had been saying about enrolling in Old School.
Despite the fact their memories did not contain the reaction to the events of that day, their lives were filled with personal tragedy, nonetheless. As a school counselor, I heard what I would call the tip of the iceberg. When Brenda had come to see me, she left out the detail about how her uncle got her pregnant.
No wonder our students had difficulty trusting anyone enrolled in Old School. We had promised them so much, but in reality, we had delivered so little and what we did offer seemed so inadequate in light of the weight that was crushing them.
Hubert Jackson used his father’s police revolver to remove the top of his head with a single bullet. Norma Willoughby died in an automobile accident when her boyfriend driving the car had a BAT of over .2. Her boyfriend survived the head-on accident with minor injuries.
“Should I call home for Holton?” I asked as I stood up.
“Sure.” He sighed, “I can’t have him spending another night on the park bench.”
“Hello.” A hostile voice answered on the second ring.
“Can I speak to Mr. Brisbee?” I asked checking my watch.
“Yeah, who’s this?” His voice still had an edge to it.
“I’m Mr. Sowell, counselor at Park Ridge High School.” I replied.
“Yeah and you want to know all about my deadbeat son, Holton, right?” He let out a long sigh.
“Well, he is a minor and he spent the night on a park bench.”
“He has a grandpa who lives in town. He had the choice to go there.” Mr. Brisbee explained.
“What happened to make you kick him out of his own home?”
“Look, you have no idea what I put up with him.” He was angry again.
“You are right, I don’t.”
“Well, I am at the end of my rope with him.” He sounded dejected. “He smokes pot with his buds. My wife and I can’t take the smell, you know. And then he drives into town. One day that boy’s gonna kill someone.”
“I just want to make sure he’s safe.”
“How can that fool be safe doin’ the things he’s doin?’” He raised his voice again.
I had run out of things to say. Mr. Brisbee had his mind made up and there was nothing I could say to change it.
“Where does his grandpa live?”
“Gunder Retirement Community.” He answered.
“He can’t spend the night there.”
“Why not? He’s done it before.” Brisbee snapped.
I would find out later this was not true. Holton did visit his partially disabled grandfather, but he never spent the night, because there were rules forbidding such a thing.
As the fifteen minute commute turned into a forty minute ordeal, I had the radio tuned into an “oldies” station who were playing some of the songs of my youth, Springsteen, Billy Joel, Queen, and Elton John and while they made me feel young, I realized none of my student had ever heard of any of them.
Marilyn was cooking dinner when I walked in. Jacob was playing with his trucks on the living room floor. Seeing me, he sprang to his feet and gave me a hug.
I was blessed with such a satisfying home life, but then I realized that I was rapidly becoming the exception not the norm.
“How was your day, Chuck?” Marilyn asked as she turned down the heat on dinner.
“Same.” I sighed as I opened the refrigerator and pulled out a beer.
“I don’t know if I could put up with what you do.” She kissed me on the cheek as I opened my beer.
“It gets difficult at times.” I admitted as I took a quick swig.
“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Go play with your son. He’s been so good all day.” She nodded.
And so that’s what I did.
The weather had changed, so when the police found Holton Brisbee numb from hypothermia moments from death, they rushed him to the hospital. I made sure to drop by around nine, but saw that his mother was crying over his bed.
“You must be Mr. Sowell.” I heard a growl of a voice and when I looked up, Mr. Brisbee was walking toward me. “What are you doing here?”
“I came by to see how he was doing.” I answered, putting a thumb to my nose.
“Well, he doesn’t need you nosing around.” Mr. Brisbee sounded as if he was looking for a fight.
“He spent the night on a park bench, didn’t he?”
“So? It was his choice.” Mr. Brisbee snapped.
“No it wasn’t.” I shook my head as he assumed a more defensive stance. “He came close to losing his life.”
“He’s made that choice several times with his pot smoking buddies.” He took another step toward me. My stomach tensed up a bit seeing him make such an aggressive move.
“Tell you what, I’ll just go.” I took a step back.
“It would be for the best.” He nodded.
I took my leave and walked out. With one last glance, I saw his mother still at his bedside wiping the tears from her eyes.
“You did what you thought was right, Chuck.” Mr. Daulton shook his head.
“I did, but I just don’t feel I did any good.” I sighed.
“It’s just we’re from the Old School now.” He laughed.
“I don’t feel what we had was so bad.” I pointed my finger at him.
“It wasn’t. We had the best music. We had values you could hang your life on. You had people you could depend on. You had places to go where you knew they knew your name. We had television with shows that were actually funny. Movies had real stars in them with stories no one had ever seen before. No sir, we had the best of the best. But that Old School is burning down all around our ears.” Eric shook his head, “One day some one’s gonna realize we had the best of the best.“
“They have all this technology.” I shrugged.
“And what good does it do them?” He chuckled, “Einstein once said that as we develop our technology we will lose touch with our humanity. When you look around, you realize he was right on the money.”
Wednesday was just another bland routine kind of day until one Mrs. Bently, an English teacher walked in to report she thought she saw a student with a gun stuffed down his trousers. Miranda Bently had only been teaching at Park Ridge for three years. According to the line Eric had drawn, she was not Old School.
“Trevor Hoffman.” She identified the student.
I knew Trevor well since he struggled with social interactions and was a frequent target of bullying.
“What did you see?” I had my pad out writing down the information.
“He was wearing a hoodie, but when he sat down, the hoodie revealed he had a gun stuffed in his pants.” She explained.
“Do you know what kind of gun he had?” I asked, but she shook her head slowly.
“Security.” I pressed a special button on my phone.
“Officer Pendell here.” The speaker buzzed a bit.
“Got a student. Trevor Hoffman. Armed with a possible pistol.” I spoke into the receiver of the phone.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked. Miranda was timid by nature which a lot of the older students took advantage of when they were in her class. There were a few occasions when security had to be called into her class. Troy Benton was one of the leaders of the Goon Platoon who were a marauding gang of bullies who mercilessly preyed on students like Trevor.
Trevor had been identified as autistic before he even started kindergarten since he had difficulty maneuvering the social aspects of the academic atmosphere. He loved to read and was known to open a book during a class he considered boring or a waste of time.
“We got the student.” The radio buzzed. “He’s in the gym and has a student hostage at gunpoint.”
“Chrisssstttt.” I hissed, “I have to go.”
Ms. Bently froze like a statue as I ran out the door.
It only took me a minute or so to get to the gym.
Officer Pendell was there. So was Trevor. So was Troy. With his arm around Troy’s neck and a gun pressed against his temple, Trevor made his ultimatum, “Back up. I have unfinished business.”
“What is it, Trevor?” I asked.
“Is that you, Mr. Sowell?” He asked as Troy squirmed, but could not break Trevor’s grip.
“Yes, Trevor.” I answered. I could see the gun. It was his father’s army issued .45 from Vietnam.
“Get this freak off me.” Troy begged.
“I am not a freak. I hate it when you call me that.” Trevor tightened his grip which made it difficult for Troy to breath. Students began to gather around the entrance.
“Please stay back.” Officer Pendell warned, but nobody seemed to heed his warning.
“C’mon, move along.” I went over to where the students had gathered. Principal Dalton had joined us as we took cover near the entrance of the Boys’ Locker Room. Eric made sure the students had cleared the area.
“What’s going on?” He asked.
“We got Trevor Hoffman holding Troy Benton hostage.” Officer Pendell reported.
“Hoffman? Oh he’s a weird one.” Eric shook his head.
“Let’s not use that kind of language to describe him.” I informed Eric as I stepped from the safety of our cover.
“Far enough, Mr. Sowell.” Trevor waved his gun at me.
“Just want to talk to you.” I put my hands up.
“I am done talking.” He put the gun back on Troy’s temple. “I want to blow his brains out for all the times he made me feel bad about myself.”
“I’m sorry, dude.” Troy was close to tears.
“Trevor, please, don’t do something you will regret later.” I put my hands out.
“I’m tired, Mr. Sowell.” He sobbed, “I got home and my dad calls me the family pet. I don’t like that.”
“I don’t blame you.” I agreed. “People should not be calling you names.”
“It was all in fun, dude.” Troy explained.
“It wasn’t funny.” Trevor bit his lip.
“Chuck, get back here. The police are on their way.” Eric informed me.
“If the police come, I will shoot him.” Trevor jammed the gun against Troy’s forehead.
“No need for that.” I put up my hand.
“They will put me in a home. A home with kids like me.” He began to sob again. “I won’t go back there. I’d rather die.”
“Nobody needs to die, Trevor. Just put down the gun and we can come to an understanding.” I pleaded.
“My mom and dad promised me things, but they never made good on them.” I watched helplessly as he put his finger on the trigger and cocked the hammer with his thumb. A squeaky sound was emitted from Troy’s throat. I saw a couple of blue uniforms flash by the open gymnasium door, the police had arrived.
“I promise you we will talk. Just like old times.”
“I like talking to you.” Trevor's knees seemed to buckle a bit. “We can have lunch together and talk about the Red Sox's.”
“They have good pitching this year for a change.” He put the gun to his side. “They got a good hitting third baseman.”
“Drop the gun.” One of the police officers commanded.
“Trevor, if you don’t do as they say, they will hurt you.” I shrugged.
“I don’t want to get hurt.” He groaned.
“I don’t want to see you get hurt.” I took another step. I was close enough to reach out and touch him. I could see the anguish and terror in his eyes. With one quick move, Troy was able to break free from Trevor’s grip. He ran across the gym and into the protection of the police. “They don’t want to hurt you either.”
His watery eyes flashed to the police officers standing near the entrance of the gym. There was a thud as the gun he was holding hit the wooden floor.
I did not lunge for it, I simply bent over and picked it up off the floor. The police entered the gym, none had their guns drawn. It was over.
I could feel my knees start to buckle. Eric steadied me, “You really showed them something today.”
There were reporters and media waiting for me when I emerged from the gym. If I am old school, I am damn proud to be an alum.