Teacher Kendra Desola opens an anonymous email to find that someone’s photoshopped her into a snapshot from a student party, and this bogus picture means jail time for her if it gets around. When a staff member turns up dead on campus, that photo becomes the perfect set up to make her murder suspect number one. Kendra plays off an unknown adversary — and the police — as she seeksto prove her innocence before the killer can kill again.
Vice Principal Zant’s enraged voice easily penetrated the office’s thin walls, which provided only a token sense of privacy. Kendra inched closer to the windowed partition and took in the unfolding drama through the dusty blinds.
The setting and script were familiar, as were the lead protagonists. The boy’s black hair and matching attire made a bold silhouette against the dingy beige walls. From her vantage point she could just see the glass tank that housed the VP’s pet tarantula.
This would be the umpteenth student rescue operation she had mounted since the newly promoted Zant had arrived at Standard High, vacating his previous niche as the worst English teacher in the district. Upon hearing a hall monitor make reference to a skirmish in Zant’s office, Kendra had detoured from her path to the teachers’ lounge.
“Empty your pockets, son!” The Vice Principal slammed the behavior slip to his desktop.
“I ain’t your son. Your son’s in a cage at the zoo.”
Mr. Zant reared from his chair, affronted at the student’s impertinence, although he couldn’t have been surprised. “I’ve heard enough!”
His bulk poised to move in on the gangly teenager seated before him. Then, for once realizing he was showing a lack of self-control, he retook his seat and conjured up a frosty and very fake paternal smile.
Kendra froze. Although she’d chalked up a moderate success rate in her duels with Zant, the encounters stretched her courage to the limits and she knew hours would pass before she’d recover from what was to come. Mr. Zant thought to cover his ineptitude by attacking anyone who questioned him. Kendra braced herself, turned the doorknob, and stepped in. The Vice Principal’s chair squeaked at the intrusion.
“Ah, look who’s here. It’s Ms. Desola. But I don’t recall asking you to come down. Really, there’s no need for you to be here. I’m sure you have plenty of your own work.”
Kendra made a show of setting down her load of books and lunch bag while she frantically worked up a fitting reply. Sensing that the heat was momentarily blowing in another direction, her student assumed the facial expression of an orphaned puppy.
“Ms. D., I ain’t done nothin’.” Jon shuffled his feet, or what could be seen of them under his voluminous jeans.
The VP countered. “The only place where I’m sure you haven’t done anything is inside a classroom.” Zant smiled at his riposte.
Jon blinked and offered, “At least I ain’t been inside my sister.”
Mr. Zant bridged the desk with his hands as he stood. “For that, I’m adding two more days to your suspension!”
In spite of the closed quarters, the office temperature dropped very low. Kendra prayed that Mr. Zant’s lips would be frozen shut before he traded another insult.
She moved closer to the boy, hoping that her proximity might silence him. The telltale odor of adolescent sweat made a lie of his posturing. Jon was one of the “at risk” students, dyslexic and below norms in both achievement and emotional growth. If he was expelled from Standard High, he’d totally give up on school and his life would unlikely proceed in a positive direction.
“Mr. Zant, can you please tell me what happened?”
Zant appeared to be on the verge of dismissing her, but then sighed and settled himself into his chair, fingering his silk tie into alignment. “Jon was chasing after Anita Hodges, and tried to set fire to her bandana with a lighter. When the hall monitors asked him to come to the office, he took off. They ran him down near the cafeteria. That’s how you found out, I assume?”
“I didn’t do anything to her stupid do-rag! That bitch is lying,” yelled Jon, unhelpfully.
For once, Zant ignored the kid’s profanity. “We have a witness, Anita’s girlfriend.”
“Why do you want him to empty his pockets?”
“Why do you always question every move I make, Ms. Desola?”
This complaint was one with which she was familiar, but she preferred to regard her character trait as “attention to detail.” She stood her ground. “Why the search?”
“Anita told the hall monitors that Jon put the lighter in his pocket. We’ll get it from him one way or another.”
Jon burst out, “I don’t have a lighter. You wanna strip me, you perv?”
Zant yanked open a drawer and brought out a pair of latex gloves. He set this 21st century gauntlet on his desk with practiced stagecraft. Kendra recognized the VP was enjoying this a great deal. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for staff to use the gloves when handling student clothing, but she was certain Zant meant something more invasive.
She said, “Jon, if you haven’t got the lighter, then show us you don’t have it, okay? Please, let’s get this over with.” She sat next to him and nodded in encouragement.
Jon glanced at Kendra and then at Mr. Zant. Slowly, the boy emptied out all five pockets of his cargo pants. He put each object down on the seat next to him, one by one, with quite a bit of what Mr. Zant was sure to label as “attitude.” What appeared was the usual student hoard: candy bar, bus pass, crumpled dollar bills, iPOD, a long key chain, and a piece of folded binder paper. There was nothing else.
“He must have ditched the lighter somehow.” The spittle reached Kendra across the desk. “No matter, we have a witness. We don’t need the lighter.” Zant pointed the behavior slip at Jon. “This is the 16th time I’ve seen you in my office this semester, but this is going to be the last time. Standard High is not the right place for you.” Zant folded his hands in a “done deal” gesture.
The boy hesitated, then mumbled, “Do what you gotta do. Can I go to lunch?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? No, you are going to wait right outside until one of your guardians comes to get you. I’m giving you a five day suspension.” He swept up the iPod. “I’ll hold this for your guardian to pick up. You know the rules. If we see them, we keep them. Now get moving.”
The VP waved the boy out and motioned for Kendra to stay put. Zant swiveled his chair, popped the lid off a plastic bin and placed the iPod on a mound of confiscated digital cameras, cell phones and like devices. Then, as if she wasn’t there, he leaned to a small wall mirror, and carefully examined both sides of his face before turning toward her again. His closely spaced, dark eyes studied Kendra as if he was deciding whether she was worthwhile prey or just a nuisance.
“Ms. Desola, that boy is a liability to the entire school. I’m not waiting for him to burn it down. I don’t see anything ‘special’ about him. He’s just a gangbanger hiding behind a disability label. It’s too bad you’ve got misdiagnosed kids on your class list, but Downtown isn’t responding to that problem, and our school can’t fix these kids. Why spend more of our time on a new behavior modification plan when nothing will change? Or is Jon’s problem just due to lack of supervision? I expect you to be monitoring your students.”
Kendra cut off the tirade before she had to endure any more of the familiar browbeating. “I do monitor my students. And if you really want me to know what my students are up to, why don’t you ever call me when one of them winds up in your office? But, to the point, Mr. Zant, I don’t believe there ever was a cigarette lighter. Anita Hodges loves to get people in trouble, and is smart enough to know that no one will believe Jon.”
“I’m not interested in her right now.” Mr. Zant was clearly enjoying himself. With a flourish, he tilted back his head and popped a handful of breath mints into his mouth. Kendra wished, just once, they’d land in his thick hair, and that he didn’t notice for at least two hours. His behavior was so strange, she wondered if he did share common eating habits with his pet spider, as her students often suggested.
Zant resumed, “You’ve got only 25 students on your class list, yet they all seem to wind up in my office. What do you do all day, then?”
Kendra stifled a scream. Zant was on a roll. It was pointless to state the obvious; she saw her students only during the periods that they were assigned to her classroom. Most of the day, they were dispersed all over the huge campus, either in the other classes for learning disabled kids, or mainstreamed in general classes. She had 25 different schedules to coordinate.
“Mr. Zant, this incident occurred at lunch. Are you asking me to give up my lunch to follow students around?” She glanced from her wristwatch to her sandwich bag. “Speaking of which, I’m out of time. I haven’t eaten, I have a class to teach next period, and the bell is going to ring in about—” Kendra’s bold declaration faltered with the untimely loosening of a hairclip. Strands of curly brown hair flared wildly around her ears.
Zant made use of the moment. “Call Jon’s guardian and schedule a conference right away. Let’s get moving on expulsion.”
Kendra shook her head so fiercely that her glasses slid down her rather flat nose.
“That isn’t for you to decide. You can’t change a Special Ed. student’s placement by yourself. It has to be decided by a team. Maretta Edwards should be there also. She’s our parent outreach person.”
Zant smiled sardonically. “You set up your meeting, then, but do not invite Maretta. I made it clear that you no longer have a Department Chair. That’s just one reason why you Special Ed. teachers are the laughing stock of the faculty. You don’t do anything all day but you want to have a Department Chair.”
Zant had already turned back to his computer, as if these remarks didn’t even merit eye contact. Perhaps the man wanted to bait her into another argument, but Kendra had neither the time nor the stomach for another round.
“I really must get back to my room,” she said.
At the door, she had to step aside to make way for Allana Jarney, who stormed up to Zant. Kendra could just hear Allana ask, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Rain pelted Kendra’s eyeglasses, blurring her view as she navigated a course through treacherous puddles and potholes. The walk from main building to the portable classrooms took several minutes.
When the original, two storey, brick building no longer held the increasing student population, a row of “temporary” prefabricated classrooms had been planted on what had been a softball field. A few years later, more of the wooden portables arrived, including the ones that now housed three Special Ed. classrooms. These additions, in their U-shaped configuration, made it almost impossible to supervise the students who chose to run from behind the buildings to the football field. The bleachers, that backed against a row of large oak trees, provided a spot for all sorts of undesirable activities both during and after school hours. From there, it was an easy sprint off campus, over or through the ragged chain link fence that marked the school boundary. Surveillance cameras seemed to have no effect on truancy, to say nothing about non-students who sneaked on campus for various destructive purposes.
Kendra crossed the deserted basketball courts. Today the students were sheltering near the portables. Kendra quickly leaped to one side, barely avoiding a collision with a boy careening down the handicapped ramp on a rolling desk chair. The lid popped off her drink, sloshing over her forearm.
A perfect end to the perfect lunch,” Kendra muttered, hugging the wall to dodge a stream of water cascading from the overhang. Several noisy students immediately burst upon her, nagging, complaining, offering up the latest tidbits of news. Kendra apologetically squeezed past them into her classroom and bumped the rickety door until it locked behind her.
She flopped into her desk chair and tore at her lunch bag. The condiments had soaked through the sandwich wrapper and were headed for her desktop. She ran to a supply corner to get paper towels and had barely grasped the roll when something moved at her feet.
Her scream brought the next-door teacher through the door that connected their classrooms. They both watched a small snake glide over the linoleum and slip through one of the many gaps in the plywood siding.
“Are you okay?” The man held a half-eaten cookie in his hand. “You’re lucky it wasn’t a rattler.”
Kendra nodded, still out of breath from her dash across the floor. The teacher said, “Want me to check the rest of the room out for you?”
“No, I’m fine. See, I can even breathe now. That critter was harmless, go back to your lunch. These portables are like sieves, you know. This place is a zoo even without kids.”
The teacher smiled and retreated to his room. Kendra cautiously approached the closet. The floor was still not bare. There was an envelope that should not have been there. The note inside read, “Check your email.”
There was one new message in her email inbox. The subject line was “Your graduated students.” The sender name was “A Friend.”
Curiously, she opened the new message. It read, “You’ll love this photo!” She saw that there was an attachment. She never opened unknown attachments on her home computer, but didn’t the school network employ all kinds of elaborate security measures?
She clicked on the attachment. What opened was a vaguely familiar photograph of four of her male students seated in a convertible. But in this version, the centerpiece was Kendra. Her slim and scantily clothed body was entwined with two boys in the back seat. A caption read, “For your eyes only, for NOW.”
She closed the attachment as quickly as her shaking fingers allowed.
“Who’d do this to me? Who the hell would do this to me?” she raged. “I do everything I can for the kids, work my butt off…” Then the tears came. She pulled off her flooded glasses and thoughtlessly wiped them on her shirt. Thudding shoes on the walkway outside acted as a curb to her self-pity. She still had to finish out the day. Would she come face to face with the person who’d done this before the day was out?
The photo was altered, but how could she prove that? The female body was almost identical to her own and, unfortunately, she didn’t have any birthmarks to prove otherwise. None of the featured youths had a motive and they lacked the necessary expertise with Photoshop. Even to her eyes, it looked completely legitimate. What about other students, or even a coworker? It would be a fine mess if Zant had found out…but no, he wouldn’t have found out anything yet. Damn it, who was after her?
Every teacher worried about accusations like this. At best, she’d be fired and never teach again, but criminal prosecution was more probable. Even if she wasn’t prosecuted, her entire life was going to be scrutinized. She’d be ruined.
A bitter taste spiked her tongue. She cursed her stress-related habit of chewing on pens. Well, you couldn’t get more poisonous than this email. Kendra looked more closely at the sender’s email address but it told her nothing.
Something tweaked her memory and she went over to a bulletin board where she habitually pinned up photos. Most had been given to her by the kids themselves: shots of students dressed up for a dance, in their school sports uniforms, holding a baby brother, posed in gowns for their graduation picture. Although the board was still crowded with photos, she saw gaps where snapshots might have been dislodged. Or someone had removed them. She didn’t see a photo of four boys in a convertible.
“Come in and shut the door.” Mr. Zant waved Jack Sermon to the wooden bench that a now retired teacher had dubbed The Rack. “You’re late, as usual. I have another evaluation at 1:15, so we have to rush.” Zant’s body language belied his words; the VP leaned way back in his chair, manipulating the limbs of a plastic action figure he’d confiscated from a student earlier that morning.
Jack shrugged. “Sorry. You know how things go. Soon as I start to leave the classroom, the kids all want something.” He furtively pushed a pack of cigarettes farther down into his pocket. “And then someone asked me about a union matter.” He sat back and released his grip on a small thermos jug and some rolled up documents.
“So decent of you to come.” Zant replied. He set the plastic toy on his desk blotter and drew a sheaf of papers from an envelope. “Now that you’ve honored me with your esteemed presence, let’s get going on this. Did you bring the teacher section of your evaluation?”
“I want to talk to you about that. Don’t you know you used the wrong form? I’m a Special Ed. teacher and you used the evaluation form for a Program Specialist. That form is only good for someone in a managerial position. Perhaps you were confused, since some of my duties are actually administrative.”
A choking sound came from Zant’s direction as the VP took a sip from a cold drink cup.
Jack realized that at some point he’d picked up his thermos and was picking at its charging bull decal. He longed to aim the horns of the School Mascot at the Vice Principal. Jack continued, “To be sure, as a union rep., I take on tasks that most teachers aren’t asked to do, but according to the evaluation procedures agreed to in our contract, you are obligated to use the credentialed teacher form to evaluate me.”
“Thank you for that detailed explanation, Mr. Sermon, but let’s not get bogged down in that petty stuff. A form is just a form.”
“But Mr. Zant, this form doesn’t address actual teaching activities or the special services that I provide to my disabled students.”
“Mr. Sermon, all I want to know is did you or did you not fill out the section of the evaluation where you rate yourself?”
“No, I did not. I was waiting for you to give me the appropriate form. In a nutshell, I will not put my pen to your attempt to misrepresent my performance.”
The VP remained motionless except for a delicate fingering of his toy. Each caress of the plastic was an abrasion to Jack’s tenuously held temper. But Jack was determined to win this battle. He knew he was in the right.
Jack continued, “In case you don’t know, I helped negotiate the section of our union contract that spells out how teachers are to be evaluated. The only area on this Specialist form that applies to me refers to conducting student assessments. By the way, you can’t get me on that the way you’re going after the rest of my department.”
“It’s true your paperwork is complete, Mr. Sermon, but that is only one part of your job. After all, we at Standard High are dedicated to having the highest degree of student achievement.” Zant was clearly mocking the theatrical tone in Jack’s manner.
“I’m glad you bring that up, because there is another big problem with your evaluating me. You never showed up in my classroom to do the scheduled observation, so how are you able to rate my classroom performance?” Jack felt his heart rate zoom. He toyed with the notion he might not live long enough to take the early retirement for which he longed. He rubbed sweaty palms along his thighs.
“That’s right. I did miss the observation. I did get out to your classroom later on that day, but you, unfortunately, weren’t there,” snarled Zant. “Taking one of your little breaks, were you?”
Jack quickly deflected this line of discussion by going on the offensive. “You think you can write up an evaluation of my teaching for a period when you, in fact, observed nothing? I will be taking this to the Union.”
“Before or after I document for the Principal that you were out of your classroom during a time you should have been there? And while I’m doing that, I’ll tell her you’ve been seen smoking and lounging in your car—during class time, no less.” Zant made a tent with his fingers. “Speaking of Mrs. Prescott, I don’t appreciate that you went behind my back to get her to approve your so called ‘Inclusion and Tolerance’ seminar. I have the authority to make decisions about any activities we host at school, including your ‘faggot forum’.” Sorry if I tried to ruin your chance for a hot date,” smirked the VP.
Not at all surprised at the jibe, Jack narrowed his eyes and mentally counted his blessings; he had only two years left ‘til he could collect a full pension. Unless Zant managed to fire him. Yeah, Zant would definitely lie about what had been said in this room, so Jack curbed his reply.
“Mr. Zant, if you don’t want to facilitate acceptance of the diversity in our community, that’s up to you, but don’t think that you can force your bigotry on others.” Jack mentally added, and speaking of hot dates, your ex-wife told me you couldn’t heat up a teaspoon of water.
Zant shook his head. “You don’t judge me. I do the judging around here and if you don’t like that, fine. You have any other remarks for me to put on the evaluation you won’t sign?”
“Not at the moment.” Jack’s broad back hid the rude gesture he made with his rolled up packet as he lumbered away.
Nicole nudged the door ajar with her hip. “Mr. Zant, have you got a minute?”
“What is it, Nicole? Aren’t you assigned to VP Favor this period?” Zant gave her a quick head to toe appraisal. Nicole was squirming in front of him, working her fingers into the back pocket of her exceedingly tight jeans. She surely was a “babe,” as the students said. Zant wasn’t that far removed from those years that he couldn’t easily remember how it felt to be in class with girls like her. Next thing you know, she’d be calling him a dirty old man, but what should he do with his eyes? These kids thought a dress code was a cipher to be broken, not a clothing guide. He forced himself to look at her face, at that lovely wide mouth.
“I already told you that I won’t have you reinstated as a candidate, Nicole. Once you get a suspension, you can’t run for office.”
“This’ll make you change your mind.” Nicole held out an envelope decorated with her signature cartoon and moved forward to edge around the side of his desk. In a lower voice she continued, “Yesterday, after school, I was on my way to interview a teacher for the school paper and I saw the Special Ed. teachers having a little get-together in the room next door. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but when I heard what they were talking about I thought, like, maybe I’d help you out a bit, you know?” She upended the envelope and slid out two cassette tapes.
When Zant didn’t rise to the bait, Nicole made a gesture to put the tapes back. “Or, maybe you already know what they’re planning to do?”
He could see his tarantula in its tank, crawling mere inches from the girl’s arm. He was struck by the irony that the girl was a predator in her own way as well. However, her proposal was not without interest. The gleam in his eyes contradicted his careful words. “I don’t make deals with students, Nicole. Save your business skills for your senior vocational task.” He picked up his Army insignia paperweight and fondled it.
“Well, Mr. Zant, I think that you’ll find it very worth your while to listen to this. Tell you what, you can have ‘part one’ now. After you hear how their meeting was going, I just know you’ll want ‘part two’.” Nicole leaned forward, revealing several inches of cleavage. She dangled the tape before him. “I’m totally sure you’ll want to show your appreciation by putting my name back on the ballot and then I’ll give you the second tape. You know I should be senior class President.”
The VP gave her his most professional smile. “I’ll give it only my best, Nicole. Hand it over and go.”
“I knew you’d see the light, Mr. Zant.” She dropped the cassette into his hand and bounded out of the room, leaving a cloud of perfume behind.
Cripes, he thought, that café latte girl was much more than her six feet of trouble. The tape seemed to jeer at him from his hand. Clearing his head, he locked it into a drawer. He’d listen to the tape later. That had been a real interesting little scene. The tape must have been made on the sly. It was probably illegal to even have it. Even if it actually did contain useful information, he had no intention of reinstating her as a candidate. He’d find a way to get the second part of the tape.
Zant wasn’t surprised to find out that the Special Education department was plotting against him. He knew they wanted to get him fired and any one of them might be the ringleader—except Allana—she was too lazy. That busybody Kendra Desola was right in the thick of it, he was certain, to say nothing of that shrew, Maretta Edwards. Of course, Jack Sermon had more reason than anyone to want him gone.
And wouldn’t Mr. Favor also relish that—less com-petition for the Principal’s job that was coming open next year. He shook his head. He intended to be Principal, no matter what. He wondered if all the rumors about Nicole being “Favor’s Favorite Flavor” had any substance to them. That would be useful information; he just needed proof of what the other VP was doing. He laughed as a plan came to mind.
He wished he had time to hear that tape now. But it was looking like another long afternoon. Even if he scrounged up a tape player, he feared being caught listening to the tape when Tamra Helens, the Special Ed. liaison arrived.
Hah, for all he knew, he’d hear Tamra on that tape! She would play both sides; he certainly knew what that woman was all about, every inch of her. He smirked at the memory. On the political front, however, he didn’t count her in his camp even though she was an administrator by title.
He’d really had it with all these so-called “Specialists” like her, who knew nothing. All they had were a bunch of theories and an endless list of acronyms—useless labels the kids used to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. That was a lesson only learned here, long after completing the boring coursework required for teachers who wished to upgrade to an administrative position. Well, he’d pull this department into shape with or without Tamra Helens’ help. He hadn’t put in eight years as a sergeant in the US Army without learning the real way to administrate.
He ripped open a packet of mints and downed a handful with the dregs of his lunchtime soda. He didn’t mind being in charge of attendance, student activities, and the after-school programs, but having the Special Ed. department on his back was a curse. Maybe he didn’t have the expertise to deal with that arena, but it wasn’t fair to load it on him in the first place. But no one wanted to oversee Special Ed. so it always fell to the lowest on the totem pole.
His VP job had turned out to be a far cry from the position of power and influence that he’d fantasized about. Instead, he caught all the flack from parents and staff while the Principal remained unscathed. During moments of introspection, he knew that he’d only been appointed VP because he had a relative up in the district office and this hole of an inner city school couldn’t fill the vacant position. He’d been desperate to get out of the classroom, so he’d jumped at the opportunity.
Zant supposed that his frustration sometimes drove him to what looked like pettiness and retaliation, but he knew what needed to be done here, especially with those damn Special Education people. He was sick of their expectation of “special” treatment. One minute they wanted extra con-sideration because their students had different needs, yet the next minute they demanded the same kids should be treated like everyone else. He saw no logic to that. And the com-plexity of the laws and constant risk of legal action gave him a huge headache.
Yeah, this bunch of incompetent teachers needed to get their records in order or a few staff would be leaving, but he wouldn’t be one of them. He wasn’t going to allow the school to be sanctioned by the state review team. Yes, he was nominally the site manager of the Special Education staff, but he had justifiably assumed that their paperwork had been completed—under the watchful eye of Tamra Helens. How was he to know those damn teachers never finished their behavior plans and were doubly out of compliance by not holding the state-mandated, student education plan meetings?
At times, he regretted leaving the Army. In the military a rule was a rule. Well, not to worry. Since Maretta Edwards wanted to be the Special Education Department Chair, he’d make sure that she was the one who took the heat when the state review team arrived!
Mickey Hoffman was born in Chicago, and attended public schools where she acquired the strong suspicion that some of her teachers might be human. She wasn’t able to prove this fanciful thinking until much later, when she became a high school teacher herself.
Before landing in the halls of academia, she worked in a variety of jobs, including computer typesetting and wholesale frozen fish sales.
The author is also a printmaker and painter and resides on the West Coast with her long suffering mate, eight marine aquariums and a very large cat. School of Lies is her first novel.