The Right Obligations

I don’t do it intentionally. Generally I am a very pleasant person. It’s just – you know – sometimes my job on the school board is difficult in ways I never could have imagined ten years ago. When I first took this job I wanted to prioritize school matters in a way that benefited students and parents. Now?

All we’re told to prioritize is the budget. Damn if the kids get the quality education that they want – and that they deserve. Who cares about the kids anymore? It seems that I’m the only one.

So when I slam my briefcase down on the hallway dresser my wife knows that something is very wrong. It wouldn’t take much indication for her to see that there’s something bothering me otherwise. She’s been a high school counselor since she was twenty-six years old – a solid twenty years now. Having been forced to read the signs of changing attitudes and behaviors in teenagers allowed her to grow in her ability to read people of all ages. There some days when my sneeze tips her off to how stressful my day has been!

“What’s wrong, Andrew?” Without a doubt she remembers that tonight I had an open meeting for parents. This was a big one but I hadn’t said as much to Melissa about it. There was a recent proposal made by a student and her parents regarding religious tolerance and school wardrobe rules. A recent debacle, which was somehow brushed under the rug, is coming back to make a loud and clear statement.

I wait until I’ve made it to the kitchen before I even respond; “The open meeting was a disaster.” They always are, to be perfectly honest, because the parents don’t always realize the restriction that even that board is put under when managing the future of our schools. I dread the monthly open meetings for the PTO parents, the working parents, and the barely-cares parents to come in and complain about every little thing that matters to their one child specifically. It sounds insensitive because it absolutely is – and it’s become a requirement in order to do my job effectively.

“What happened specifically this time?” Melissa coos gently as she careens down the hallway in what I imagine is supposed to be a seductive fashion. While I do enjoy all of the pleasurable activities she offers to me after a terrible evening, she isn’t the most graceful person. Most days she is so clumsy she can’t get her shoes on without acquiring a bruise from one of the doorknobs. She’s a beautiful woman but she is uncoordinated beyond belief.

I meet her in the hallway with two glasses of chardonnay. We keep a bottle for Friday nights spent dining in and watching terrible black and white movies. However, when I’ve had a particularly troublesome day, we break out the bottle a bit early; “There was an incident at the junior high a few weeks ago that made some waves. The principal thought that he’d covered up the issue but it became a very public matter at the meeting tonight. Try as I might, nobody seemed to be interested in the proposal.”

Melissa is far more aware than I anticipated. Generally the problems at the junior high stay at the junior high. Socially the kids are too old for the little kids and too young for the big kids. Even the staff doesn’t communicate very much amongst each other unless they’ve worked together in the past; “Is this about the Muslim girl? Didn’t another girl get suspended for yelling at the principal?”

Precisely that came up at the meeting tonight. The parents of the young lady that got suspended didn’t make much for waves as far as fighting the expulsion. They requested a private meeting with me asking that I personally include a rebuttal letter in her file. It had been my belief after that meeting they intended to remain silent on the matter. Even the young Muslim girl withdrew from the school in favor of a private schooling option. It seemed as though this was never going to make it to the mainstream media. Criticism over it would have varied widely and ultimately interrogated my ability to resolve disputes within my system.

I was wrong to believe that anything this controversial would be that simple. In all of my years on the board there was rarely ever something so easily handled. Rightfully, I should have put the principal on leave until a formal meeting could be held with all three involved parties and their representatives. I didn’t follow protocol. In some way I am to blame for the events that took place this evening.

“The girl that got suspended wrote a long speech about religious intolerance in the school system. She called for action to provide stricter policies punishing bullies and staff for taking negative action against individuals wearing religious garb. They also asked that the principal be relieved of his duties until such a time that charges can be filed against him for his discriminatory acts and abuse of power.” Melissa links her pinky around my belt loop while I am talking and escorts me to the living room couch. She fancies this piece of furniture above all others. I like to think it’s because I bought her this couch for her birthday back in college. It has sentimental value.

She nods and bobs and strokes my arms to reassure me that she’s listening. There’s no hiding that she has her own opinion on the matter. If she’s the woman that I married then I’m going to assume that she agrees with me. After explaining the proposal I keep quiet on the events that transpired after the speech was finished. I opened up the floor for questions and comments. I was hoping for a positive feedback on the matter. I hadn’t expected anything but the rallying of all parents behind this concept of protection that should have already been in place.

“So when are you announcing Gregory’s suspension?” she questions. Gregory has been principal for about seven years but the parents have always loved him. I can’t remember a time ever where parents complained of his behavior and treatment of the students. In fact, he’s been the most widely supported member of the administrative staff at the schools in a few decades. This is his first instance of misconduct.

“By popular demand there will be an investigation without suspension. The parents and board members alike do not want to remove him for fear of the damage it could cause to the junior high’s structure.” There wasn’t even a vote. The uproar that followed the call for Gregory’s suspension was horrifying. I watched with empathy as the family was booed out of the conference room. Next to nobody present wanted to see Gregory forced out of his position and I had to accept the terms that he would remain an active staff member. Sometimes you can’t win and I hated to admit this was one of those times.

Melissa understands the language I’ve used to reply to her question. I’ve intentionally chosen to leave specificity out it. I don’t say that I’m supporting this choice but that many people decided upon it. By doing this I reveal that I am not in favor of the result.

“You should do something about it. Maybe you can’t go against the majority in your profession but perhaps there’s something you can do in your personal life. Maybe it will satiate the guilt in the back of your mind?” Her mighty suggestion is that I take this to a power that can openly demand support is almost unfathomable. I could forward the proposal to the mayor. Bringing it to her attention could possibly override the decision that has been made essentially without me.

The only concern I have is that I’d be fired. As the head of household my income is important to our financial stability. Melissa could not sustain the bills on her own and it would be nearly impossible to find another job in education. Nobody would want to hire me after such a scandal.

“I don’t care what happens because it’s always about doing what’s right – not what’s easy.” Melissa couldn’t care less if I lose my job. She would rather see me do what we both know is the right thing to do ahead of saving face for the sake of our own financial stability; “If worse comes to worse – we can always sell the house.” The equity that we have in it would be the majority of one year’s salary. A severeance package may be offered as well since I could argue in any arbitration meetings that I was acting in the safety of students. Between the two I should be stable enough to redirect myself, and there’d always be retirement to pull from at that point were it not. Maybe it’s not the best back-up plan but it’s better than no place. I have avenues to take if the worst happens.

Melissa is right.

I don’t just need to do the right thing.

I am obligated to do it.


*Disclaimer – this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to real life events or individuals is unintentional.*

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