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It’s early to leave for the teacher work day before starts, but at one in the afternoon Tyler shows up at my door.
He chuckles as he walks in. “Man, you got screwed with this move. Look at that.” He’s referring to my window-wall of brick.
Perversely, I want to argue with him. “It’s fine,” I say.
He laughs and coughs out a garbled version of the word bullshit. “You got stuck with this room because you’re representing the union. I guarantee it.”
I shake my head. “It was the only third grade room open.”
He smirks. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah. Is Peggy meeting us there?”
He nods. “If she’s still alive.”
I shake my head. Peggy Young has been the head of the English Department at the high school for thirty years. She’s my high school counterpart with the South Hadley Education Association. In truth, the high school teachers have more to lose than we do if the contract negotiations fail. The school committee wants to eliminate extra pay for coaches and phase out department heads in favor of curriculum coordinators who will do the job of a department head but with no extra pay. That, along with increases to the cost of our health insurance and a freeze on pay raises for another year have pitted the teachers union against the school board.
Tyler and I step out of the room and I close and lock the door, then we head for the parking lot. Of course I have to get a ride. My car insurance doesn’t cover rentals, which may be the dumbest decision I’ve made lately.
I get in the passenger seat of Tyler’s Hummer. I don’t know how he affords to drive it, unless it’s fueled by unused testosterone. He drives us out of the parking lot, crushing lesser vehicles under his wheels — not that’s not really true— as he turns out of the school and toward Newton Street. I find myself thinking back to this morning’s meeting with Zoe and Jasmine Welch. Zoe is nothing like I assumed when we had the accident. My first assessment was irresponsible college student. I couldn’t have been more wrong—she was a military policewoman stepping into the role of mother after her parents were killed. Which makes me … an asshole.
I’m pretty sure it is too late to erase that first impression. But at least we’re on board and in agreement on how best to help Jasmine.
Still… it’s hard to set aside the sad look in her blue eyes. She’s a damned attractive woman… beautiful really. And clearly overwhelmed with grief and the weight of her new responsibilities.
I try to imagine how I would have felt at—what, twenty-three? Twenty-four? She can’t be any older than that. How would I have felt if my parents had been killed and I’d suddenly been sole guardian of an eight year old sibling.
Tyler comes to a stop at the light at Newton Street. It’s the main thoroughfare through South Hadley, running from the bridge to Mount Holyoke College, where the name is changed to College Street. Tyler turns on his left turn signal and taps the steering wheel. I glance over to my right and my eyes fix on Zoe Welch.
She’s a hundred yards away, on the other side of College Street, getting the mail from an ancient mailbox in front of an old worn-down colonial. The house is desperately in need of a paint job and probably a lot more. A police car sits in the driveway, along with her minivan, and Jasmine is sitting in a rocker on the porch next to a female cop.
That explains how the Amherst cops knew Zoe—this woman must be a friend.
“Check out that chick’s butt,” Tyler says. “God I’d love to get a piece of that.”
“Don’t be a dick,” I say.
“Why the hell not?” he asks, chuckling.
I shake my head. “She’s the older sister of one of my students. Their parents were killed in a car accident last week.”
Tyler’s eyes widen and he curses. “Professor Welch’s kid?”
“You know him?”
He shrugs. “Well, yeah. He was a professor at Mount Holyoke. Freak accident, it was in the papers last week. Where have you been?”
“Not reading the papers I guess. Light’s green.”
He jerks a little, taking his eyes off Zoe, then steps on the gas and turns left toward South Hadley Falls, the area which passes for a downtown in this sleepy little town.
After a couple of thoughtful minutes, Tyler says, “She’s still smoking hot.”
I ignore him. Five minutes later we’re parking in front of the town hall, a three story structure across from a park and field that butts up against the Connecticut River. This part of town doesn’t have the bucolic feel of the rest of South Hadley. A number of badly neglected homes compete for space with several condemned buildings. The liquor store, gas station and police department line one side of the street just around the corner, right across from a an old three story house, long since condemned.
The town hall, however, is a nice building, three stories of stone and marble built in 1908 as a combined town hall and high school. The high school moved out in the fifties, but the town hall is still here. I’ve had some of the most stressful moments of the last school year here.
I never wanted to take on the job of union representative. For one thing, I’m pretty new to the district and teaching in general. I’m too young. And for other reasons, I try to keep a low profile whenever possible.
We climb the three flights of stairs to the third floor and the school department.
Peggy Young is standing in the large vestibule outside the school department. She’s a formidable woman. Seventy years old if she’s a day, she has a sharp wit and makes plenty of self-deprecating comments mixed in with acid remarks about the youngsters running the school committee. She’s been teaching at South Hadley High School since before I was born, and every member of the school committee was once one of her students.
It astonishes me she hasn’t handed out detention slips to them.
“There you are,” she says to me. “It’s about time, the meeting begins in less than five minutes. I see you brought along your jock friend. Is he going to keep his mouth shut this time?”
“Well—” That all I manage to sputter out before Tyler speaks.
“You old battle axe. I’ll keep my mouth shut when you retire to the nursing home where you belong.”
She whips up her cane and taps him, hard, on the shoulder. “You don’t talk back to me, jocko. You might be a teacher now, but I remember when you skated by with nothing but C’s.”
Tyler says, “How are ‘ya, Miss Young?”
“I’ll be better when this contract business is over and I can get back to focusing on my teaching.”
Moments later, the superintendent appears, followed by two members of the school committee. Silently, we follow them into the meeting room. With any luck, we’ll get a settlement before things get much worse.
The superintendent sits down at the head of the conference table. A bad sign—Michael Barrington has been a thorn in the side of the teachers of South Hadley. He took over the job a couple years ago—the third superintendent in four years—and morale in the school system has been at an all-time low. Today his lips are tight, and he says nothing as he takes his seat.
The two school committee members sit at the table across from us.
Dianne Blakely is in her fifties. She had two daughters in South Hadley Schools until last year and has been a vocal critic of the high school faculty, especially since her youngest daughter was expelled from the high school for vicious bullying. The school system still hasn’t gotten its footing after a bullying-prompted suicide made international news a few years ago. Sometimes penalties are too harsh and sometimes things are just swept under the rug. Blakely’s daughter caught the wrong end of that extreme—a series of twitter posts including some graphic photoshopped images of another girl resulted in her being thrown out of high school for a year. I’m not supposed to know any details about that, but the fact is—everyone knows. There are few secrets in a town this size.
Although I have some secrets of my own.
The other school committee member is Susan Greeley. Susan is younger than her counterpart, probably thirty, and she has two children at the elementary school—one of them was in my class last year. Susan is generally reasonable and well liked, and I suspect she’s here to soften whatever blow is coming.
Blakely leaned forward and said, “Let’s bring this order then. Susan, can you take minutes? I’d like to record everyone who is present.”
Susan nods, her face a little strained. She begins writing on a pad of paper, as Blakely speaks.
“Mister Paladino, first of all, I hope you are doing okay. Your accident yesterday, was it serious? Any injuries?”
I shrug. “My car may be totaled, but no one injured. So that’s good news.”
“Well, then. Let’s get to business. Has the union accepted our latest proposal?”
I shake my head. “I’m afraid not. The proposal still doesn’t address our primary concerns. First of all is the elimination of department head positions and replacing them with this curriculum coordinator. We’ve addressed this several times—you’re giving teachers the same workload for this position, but taking away the extra pay. That’s not acceptable. It’s especially not acceptable that you did it by fiat after the union’s proposal last Spring.”
Blakely shook her head. “That’s an unfair characterization. The school committee acted out of fiscal needs, not—”
“You eliminated the position immediately after the union demanded a pay increase.”
“The Department head positions are not negotiable—”
I interrupt. “During our last meeting, the union agreed unanimously to file suit for unfair labor practices.”
The room drops into silence. Barrington, who has been silent up until this point, leans forward. “Do you think that’s wise, Matt?”
“Mister Barrington, the decision was unanimous. You changed the terms of employment for all of the department heads without consulting the union or modifying their contracts. The lawsuit was a compromise position. A significant number of the teachers are arguing for a walkout over the health insurance and retirement provisions.”
Barrington looks frustrated. “There will be no walkout while I’m superintendent.”
“Then I would urge you and the school committee to come up with some kind of compromise.”
Peggy leans forward and says in a stern voice, “Superintendent, you won’t intimidate the teachers of this town like you and your football jock friends used to do when you were a kid.”
Barrington flushes red. “Mrs. Young, you can’t—”
“I’m seventy years old. I’d been a teacher for decades when you were a pimply boy in my freshman English class. And I’m telling you now, if you don’t concede on something then you’ll have to figure out how you’re going to educate the children of this town without teachers.”
Blakely’s mouth forms a prim line. “It seems we are at an impasse.”
I sigh. “So you don’t have any alternative? No new proposal?”
Blakely shook her head. “No. This is as far as we go.”
I look to my left. Tyler frowns and nods. I look to my right. Peggy looks resigned. I nod slightly, then say, “Miss Blakely, Mister Barrington. On behalf of the South Hadley Education Association, I’m informing you that you have a one week deadline. If the school committee is unable to consider a compromise by next Thursday at midnight, then we will strike.”
Barrington pointed directly at me. “You’ll regret this, Matt. Don’t think I won’t forget it.”
I swallow. Barrington likely isn’t making empty threats. I’ve heard rumors of retaliation against teachers he doesn’t like.
Blakely stands. “We’re done here.”
My chair scrapes loudly against the floor as we all come to our feet. “Mister Barrington… Miss Blakely … Miss Greeley. Thank you for your time.”
I don’t trust myself to say anything appropriate as I lead the others out of the office.