Madison gathered her things and started her quick march to the principal’s office. She half-expected to be called out of class at any moment, but when the announcement came she was nonetheless shocked to hear her own name. Usually it was the troublemakers who got called to the office that way. I’m a troublemaker now, she thought to herself.
As she entered the outer office, the receptionist said, “You can go on in. They’re waiting for you.” The receptionist had the expression Madison’s mother usually had just before the doctor was going to give her a vaccination shot.
“That bad?” Madison asked the receptionist.
“There was some yelling,” she replied, then she doubled-down on the empathetic look.
Madison took a deep breath and walked around the counter. She knocked on the principal’s door, and he shouted “Come on in,” in response.
Principal Anderson was sitting behind his desk, and Mr. Portnoy was in one of the guest chairs. Madison put her backpack down and sat in the chair next to her teacher. She folded her hands on her lap.
The principal stared at her a moment. “Quite a yarn you’ve spun,” he finally said.
Madison looked at Mr. Portnoy, who looked worried, then back at Mr. Anderson. “Do you take issue with the facts of the story, sir?” she asked.
He stroked his chin and appeared to be trying to dislodge something from his teeth with his tongue inside his closed mouth. “Maybe some minor details. But it’s more…” he paused and thought. “The gestalt of the thing. Running a story like this would not be good for our school community. People will be hurt by this, Madison.”
“Hurt?” she asked.
“There’s a fairly tense labor negotiation going on right now.” He turned to Mr. P., “This is off the record, by the way.” He turned back to Madison. “The SEIU is working on next year’s contract. The last thing the district needs is a controversy like this. Something like this comes out right now. Who knows? Maybe there could be a strike.”
Madison looked to her teacher for support, but he was staring straight ahead.
The principal stood and walked over to the window. Everyone was silent for what felt to Madison like hours. “I’ve never seen them empty those dumpsters,” he said. “But you had a picture of that. What time does the truck come?” he asked Madison, without turning to face her.
“Five a.m., sir,” she replied.
“Nancy!” he shouted suddenly. “Could you bring me the student handbook?”
Almost immediately, the receptionist from the outer office appeared in the open doorway, holding a small paperback book. The principal walked over and took it from her, and she scurried away. He looked in the index and then found a particular page. Madison saw a smile appear on his face for a moment, before he returned to the scowl he’d been wearing since she arrived.
“School doesn’t open to staff until seven, though,” he said.
“No, sir. I got here early for the picture. Then I waited in the parking lot for school to open.”
“Says right here in the handbook that being on school grounds outside normal hours is only allowed if there is staff supervision. Otherwise, it’s trespassing,” he said without looking up from the small book.
“Jeff! You can’t be serious!” Mr. Portnoy yelled, finally emerging from his apparent trance.
“What?” Madison asked. Fear struck her in the gut and she felt tears forming in her eyes. She hated getting emotional. She hated that more than anything. “What’s going on? I don’t understand,” she pleaded.
“Northwestern would be very disappointed to hear that a student they accepted was suspended for trespassing,” the principal said.
“That’s bullshit and you know it, Jeff!” Mr. P. objected. Madison was terrified, but she was glad to have someone on her side in this conversation.
“I’ll remind you that I’m your superior, Mike. And that kind of language, particularly in front of a student, could get you written up,” Mr. Anderson scolded. He turned this gaze to Madison. He was still standing in front of the window, and he appeared mostly in silhouette from her position seated in front of his desk. “Don’t you think Northwestern would be disappointed, Ms. Johnson?” he asked.
Madison lost all control of her emotions and started to cry. She wanted to make eye contact, but the window was bright, and she ultimately looked at the floor and waited for the waves of nausea to pass.
“You’re an asshole,” Mr. Portnoy said. “Go ahead and write me up. I’d love to tell the school committee why I called you an asshole in front of a student. A fucking asshole.”
“Now, now,” the principal said, returning to his chair. “This doesn’t need to get out of hand. You drop the story—and I mean really drop it, I don’t want to hear a whisper about any of this—and I’ll overlook the trespassing. We just pretend none of this ever happened.”
Madison looked at Mr. P. His face was red. Madison had never seen him angry, and it scared her. “What should I do?” she whispered.
“Take the fucking deal,” Mr. P. muttered. He took a deep breath and then turned to her. A calm seemed to wash over him, which made Madison feel calm as well. “There will be other stories, Madison. You know that we can’t break laws or school rules when we pursue a story. It leaves us open to attack and undermines our credibility. We chalk this one up as a lesson learned.”
A deep sadness fell over Madison as the weight of what was happening sunk in. She turned to the principal. “Okay,” she said, as calmly as she could muster. “None of this ever happened.”
Principal Anderson showed a smug grin that made Madison feel sick.
“Come on, Mads,” Mr. P. said. “Let’s go down to my basement office and talk.”
Madison glared at her principal a moment, then went to the door and collected her bag.