No better time for this story than today. It was published long ago, but I used it here years ago too. All of that being said, today is, after all, Ash Wednesday; and confession, today especially, is good for the soul. It's a true story--most of it. I'm the teacher who couldn't catch the blasted kid in the parking lot. My first year, rural Wisconsin, BlackHawk High School. True story. Mostly.
* ~ * ~ * ~ *
It was lucky Conroy was in his office, or in total exasperation Jamie Laarman would have spilled it all to the secretary--that's how angry he looked and how badly he needed to unload his frustration.
"He's not coming back in," Laarman told Conroy, his principal. "I've had it with the kid. He's a jerk, and he's pushed me over the line. He's out of my class forever."
Conroy swung his chair away from the computer screen and stood. "Shut the door," he said. "And right now, who's with your class?"
Laarman felt behind him for the knob. "Nobody's got my kids. They're ripping the room apart, and frankly, I don't care."
That Jamie Laarman didn't slam the door, Conroy thought, promised hope.
"I came to tell you that that little fiend is not coming back into my class."
"What'd he do?" Conroy said, pointing to a chair that Laarman refused.
"Smarted off," Laarman said.
Conroy let that comment sit, didn't push this first year teacher's rage, pointed instead once more at a chair that once more Laarman refused. “What exactly did he do?” Conroy asked.
Laarman looked up to the ceiling as if he’d suffered a titanic exasperation. "He gave me this look," he said.
"What'd he say?" Conroy asked.
"He just gave me this look–he didn't say nothing," Laarman told him.
Jamie Laarman was a first-year English teacher and a good one too, so Conroy let him have that double negative–it was for emotional emphasis after all, and emotion was something Laarman was full of. "You want me to boot him out of your class because he looked at you funny?" Conroy said. Do I have this right?"
"You didn't see him," Laarman said. "It was pure belligerence."
"He didn't say a thing? he didn't moon you? didn't slug anybody? didn't cuss? didn't flip a bird?"
"Don't take his side," Laarman said.
"I'm not,” Conroy said. “I'm trying to find out what happened–that’s my job, remember?" He pointed again at the chair.
"I left my class alone," Laarman said. “I don’t have time to sit.”
"Once more now, Jamie. Tell me again how it went–he gave you this look, right?"
"He gave me this look, and I blew up," Laarman told him. For the first time since he’d stormed into the office, Jamie looked away. His eyes dropped. "And he knew it. The minute he saw the look on my face--I didn't even yell--he took off."
"He took off?" Conroy said.
"Out of the room."
"Out of the room?"
"Outside the school?"
"Right out the door and outside the school."
"So Mr. Laarman actually chased Bob Westgaard right out the school–-through the hallway and everything?"
"Into the parking lot."
"The parking lot?"
"Around the cars."
"You’re pulling my leg."
"And you never caught him, either."
Rage darkened Laarman's face. "How did you know?" he said.
"Westgard's half your size–-like a middle guard chasing some defensive back.” Laarman looked ashamed again. “Besides,” Conroy said, “if you'd caught him, right now you'd be confessing to murder–-mad as you are."
"That's right," Laarman said. "And what gets me too is that stupid ash on his forehead." He pointed to his own face, pulling his eyes cross-eyed.
Conroy broke into a laugh. "Let me get this straight here now–-Bobby Westgaard, who’s not one of my all-time favorites–-comes back from church at noon hour with ash on his forehead; he smarts off in your class, gives you some kind of mocking look that threw you into righteous fit; you chased him out of the room and into the parking lot.” He couldn’t help but chuckle. “And you didn’t catch the little devil either, so the two of you–oh, no,” he said. “So the two of you probably did this dance around the cars, right?”
Jamie Laarman looked out the office window.
"And the whole class was watching?"
Jamie looked down at the clenched fists.
Conroy was on a roll. "And all of this happened on Ash Wednesday, and what really ticks you off, Jamie, is that this Catholic kid smarts off while he's got ash on his forehead."
"No," Laarman said. "It's not prejudice."
"Come on," Conroy said. "That's what gets you, isn’t it? that the ritual doesn't count-- that ash on his forehead doesn't mean diddly to this punk, Westgaard." He stood up and put both hands on the desk, then leaned slowly backward. "You got burned by a kid with ash on his face, and you’re thinking that if he’s so damned religious as he thinks he is, then he ought to behave like it that's what you're steamed about, isn't it? Sheesh, this is Ireland all over again, you punk Protestant."