It’s twenty-minutes into third period, ninth-grade English. I’m letting the laughter subside — the kind that always breaks out after kids read the lines in Act 2, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio and Romeo bump into Juliet’s nurse in the sunny Verona square, and Mercutio cracks, heavy on the sexual innuendo: “Fancy meeting you, fair gentlewoman, and at the very prick of noon — when on the classroom intercom I hear the exasperated voice of Ginny, secretary to the three vice-principals, shouting over the hilarity.
“Your eleven o’clock appointment is waiting, Mr. Illidge!”
“Your eleven o’clock appointment.”
“I wasn’t aware of any appointment.”
“You’re to come to the vice-principal’s office immediately. And bring your day-book with you.”
“What about my class?”
“Someone will be down to look after them.”
“Should I wait?”
“No! Get down here immediately!”
“They’re grade nines —”
The intercom blips off.
My interactions with Ginny normally light-hearted and friendly, they’re anything but, when I enter the office waiting-area. Her eyes wide, looking petrified, she’s standing at the door to Fred Muncaster’s office, one of our three vice-principals, her arm in front of her, a shaky finger pointing inside.
I step in, no sign of Muncaster, but a man and a woman have stationed themselves beside his desk. They turn to me at the same time, neither speaking while they look me over.
The man appears to be in his early forties, has close-cropped, reddish hair, a thick bushy moustache of the same color, wears a navy-blue windbreaker, a light blue shirt and tie, grey flannels and black, thick-sole shoes. For some reason he has a blue latex glove on his right hand that he’s trying, unsuccessfully, to cover with his left. In her early forties too, the woman with him has short brown hair, a black nylon parka on with fur trim around the hood, dark-blue pants, black thick-sole shoes and like her partner, a holstered gun on her hip.
“What’s going on?” I ask her after a short silence.
“I’m Detective Ross. This is Detective Kendrick, York Region Police. We need to speak with you about the letter you wrote to the director of the board of education.”
Kendrick turns behind him, and with his latex-gloved hand grabs a clear-plastic sleeve off the desk, a sheet of white 8 ½ by 11 inch paper inside, that he holds up for me to see. A letter of some kind.
“It’s libelous!” Kendrick informs me, his voice louder than it needs to be.
Before things escalate, as from Kendrick’s manner I know they’re bound to, I turn for the door.
But he spurts over and intercepts me, just as I’m reaching for the handle. He rears up, throws his shoulders back, chest out belligerently, and blocks the way.
“I’d like to go, please.”
“Sit down, Mr. Illidge.”
“We’re just asking you to read the letter, Paul,” Ross says, like it’s no big deal.
“What’s the point, if you’re so sure I wrote it?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“What kind of answer’s that?” barks Kendrick.
For half a second it crosses my mind to lift my leg, knee him in the groin then make a run for it around the corner to the principal’s office. I could call for the union rep. Raise a royal stink — but Kendrick seems to have read my mind. He sets his ungloved hand squarely on my chest.
“Sit down,” he grunts, applying pressure.
“You help us out,” Officer Ross says with a genial shrug, “and we’ll see about helping you out.”
“Let me have a third-party present, and I’ll see about helping you out.”
Ross shakes her head.
“No can do. This isn’t that kind of visit.”
“What kind is it?”
Arms still folded, she shrugs again.
“It’s just informal at this point.”
“Doesn’t feel too informal to me. How ’bout I —”
“Sit down,” Kendrick cuts me off. “Read the letter and we’ll be done here.” Almost my height, he brings his face forward, levels his eyes with mine, his hand pressing harder, so I sit.
One look at the clear-plastic sleeve in his gloved hand, and it dawns on me that it’s been “dusted” to pick up my fingerprints: whether I read the letter or not is immaterial; they just want me to touch it.
So that I won’t, when I put my hand out I take the sleeve between the knuckles of my index and middle fingers, lower it onto my day-book, Kendrick too busy with his stare to notice the ruse.
As I’d landed awkwardly in the chair, I’m adjusting my position a bit, however in a lapse of concentration, I lose hold of the sleeve. It slips from my knuckles and lands on the floor at the toes of Kendrick’s boots.
Down on my knees, I’m fuming at myself for the mistake during my frantic but fruitless attempts to pick the sleeve up using only my knuckles, the task not made any easier by the fact that, even though I’ve done what he ordered and taken a seat, Kendrick isn’t backing off. With no room to move, my head inches away from his crotch, one hand on his hip, the other on his gun, I can just tell he’s taking in every second of my panicky performance.
Finally I manage to nudge the sleeve against the toe of his shoe so that a corner comes free. I snag it, stand up, return to the chair and read.
It’s a letter dated the previous September, from a group calling itself the “Dead Poets Society,” writing to the director of the school board with accusations of incompetence, professional misconduct and criminal wrongdoing on the part of the previous principal at Laurel Downs, Melora Nichols, who was relieved of her duties in the middle of the previous year because, as was well known in the community, the school descended into chaos under her leadership. Yet here the director of education has seen fit to promote Ms. Nichols to board superintendent, with Laurel Downs, from which she’d just been removed, one of the main schools under her supervision. The group considered this decision terrible ethics for any organization, let alone a school board, asking the director what it was doing for the quality of the students’ education; wondering how anyone, teachers as well as students, could be expected to perform well in an atmosphere that was clearly toxic. Surely there were more qualified and experienced candidates for superintendent out there. It was signed “The Dead Poets Society,” Melora cc’d, as well as the provincial minister of education.
I glance up at Kendrick, then over at Ross.
“And you think I wrote this why?”
“There’s a lot in it that applies to you.”
Ross crosses her arms and makes a face.
“You’re an English teacher. Who else would know about the Dead Man Society?”
“The Dead Poets Society,” I correct her. “A 1989 movie with Robin Williams —”
“So you know it!”
“Of course I do.”
“Williams playing an English teacher who gets in trouble with his superiors.”
“Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?”
“I’d say so.”
“Unh-uh! Kendrick objects. “You had an axe to grind with your superiors too.”
“It’s common knowledge, from what we’ve learned.”
“Well, you were misinformed.”
Ross nods, uncrossing her arms, setting her hands on the desk beside her.
“Forensics tells us the letter was written by a white male in his mid- to late-forties.”
“That describes half the men teachers in the school.” I get to my feet, chest to chest with Kendrick, the sleeve clenched in my knuckles.
“Why did you write it, Paul?” he erupts in my face. “What did you think you were going to accomplish? Where did you think this was going to go? I’ll tell you where it’s going to go. To jail, that’s where it’s going to go!”
“Level with us, Paul,” says Good Cop Ross, “and this all goes away.”
“Level with you about what?”
“The Dead Poets Society.”
“You felt the superintendent was out to get you —
“She was out to get all sorts of people.”
“But it was personal for you,” Kendrick says. “You wanted to get back at her.”
“Revenge is above my pay grade.”
“Haw-haw,” says Kendrick, returning the sarcasm.
“I was the staff liaison,” I explain. “Responsible for giving the principal news she never wanted to hear. Now she has the chance to settle old scores.”
“And why wouldn’t she, after a letter like this?”
“I’m not aware that ‘incompetence, professional misconduct and criminal wrongdoing’ are in a superintendent’s job description.
“You were upset with the way she was trying to run the school.”
“She didn’t know how to run a school.”
“And you’re still upset! In fact you’re real angry right now, aren’t you? Getting angrier by the minute! Anger is just eating you up, isn’t it, Paul?” Kendrick with his face closer than ever, the bristling moustache, the acne-scarred cheeks, clenched jaw thrust out so the tendons in his neck are bulging. “Because you got caught. Because you’re in trouble with the law and it could mean the end of your—”
“I’m not angry.”
“You are! Your face is red! It’s getting redder. Right now you’d like —”
“My face is red because I have high blood-pressure. It spikes when I’m dealing with assholes.”
His own face so red now that it looks like I might have precipitated a cardiac event, Kendrick shoots me a killing look.
“Haw-fucking-haw . . .
“If you didn’t write it,” Ross intervenes to cool things down, “maybe you know who did.”
“Can’t help you there, I’m afraid.”
“Too bad,” she says, a warning tone in her voice.
“This isn’t over!” Kendrick lets me know. “Not by a long shot! He rejoins Ross at the desk, taking his eyes off me for the first time since I entered the office. He holds the plastic sleeve in his latex-gloved hand then slips it into the large manila envelope that Ross holds open.
“We’ll meet again — I promise you!” hollers Kendrick, returning to me for a final glare, a couple of seconds’ worth before he breaks away, steps around me and opens the door.
“I’ll look forward to it,” I tell him, smiling as I move around him. My back foot barely out the door, Kendrick, as a coup de grace to our encounter, slams it closed behind me with such force that the walls shake, pictures rattle, brochures on the notice boards fly from their holders, Ginny running in from the main office, shock and commiseration on her face when I catch her eye as I’m leaving.
Heading out to the hall, I notice on the clock above the staff mailboxes that it’s three minutes to twelve.
The prick of noon, indeed.