This is a true story. Names and locations have been changed to protect the criminally parochial.
I was standing in the gym, minding my own business. Minding your own business is often the worst thing you can do, especially when you’re 15, too smart for your own good and surrounded by the lowest form of human life: the high school administrator. An unnerving presence burned into my back, the type of feeling that there’s no logical explanation for. The feeling you can’t describe without resorting to tautology. Being watched feels like being watched. I spun around to see one of my high school’s vice principals making an ugly face, probably the only kind she knew how to make. Her wrinkled face contorted into the shape of an old Yankee woman seeing something she doesn’t understand.
“Miiiiiiiiiister Pell…” she said, drawing out the first syllable, her efforts at intimidation landing squarely in the camp of self-parody. “What on earth does this patch on your bag mean?”
She pointed towards a small piece of cloth on my bag displaying a swastika crossed out. The patch covered a Prussian eagle on my messenger bag, the coat of arms of the DDR sticking out slightly beneath. To any normal person the meaning was as self-evident as a “no smoking” sign. To a high school administrator it’s an opportunity to feign confusion before engaging in unprovoked harassment. I briefly explained the origins of my patch, a stupid and naïve grin of placid adolescence across my face as I related the tale of how I got it and what it meant. I was about to learn that few things are more dangerous than being smarter than the musical comedy dictators populating the corner offices of America’s public schools.
“Modify it.” Her face pulled tightly around her pursed and angry lips.
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means remove it. And watch your mouth.”
I laughed quietly. “I’m not removing it. What about that kid over there with a Confederate flag on his jacket?”
She gestured wildly toward the far end of the gymnasium, beckoning another vice principal. She briefed him curtly before he laid the good cop routine really thick, as if auditioning for a B-grade noir. “C’mon little buddy, be reasonable! You know you can’t walk around here with that thing! Give us a break, champ! Help us out! Just maybe cover it up with something. That way you can show it off after you leave school.”
The pair escorted me to the principal’s office. I was asked to remove the patch by the principal, refusing once again. He looked at me incredulously. He was clearly a man used to getting his way. The secretary called my mother and told her that I was suspended indefinitely. I sat nervously in my seat, more or less confident that I was in the right, but wondering how my mother would react (or overreact) once she walked into the school.
My mother arrived and we both went into the principal’s office, her face a mask of plastic smile hiding livid confusion. I half paid attention to the conversation between my mother and the fat administrator with the gin-blossomed nose.
“So you’re telling me that I can go outside and smoke next to that sign with a cigarette crossed out?”
“All syllogisms are not universal, Mrs. Pell.” He clearly thought much of his Franciscan education, emphasizing the fifty-cent words and lightly toying with his Providence College class ring. “However, if you son can prove that the symbol on his bag is against Nazism, we’d be happy to let him back in school.”
My mother exited his office wearing her indignant face. “Come on, Nick. We’re going to the library.”
A trip to the library’s reference section beat the shit out of sitting in school all day. Hell, I might actually learn something at the library. My love for the library’s reference section is how I first learned about dictionaries, thicker than standard ones, filled with symbols. I photocopied about 20 pages from two or three books, different variations on the red-circle-with-a-line-through-it design.
I wasn’t so much a smart kid as I was too clever by half. I really thought any of my work might matter when we met with Principal Rummy the next day.
“I don’t get it.” My father boomed. A tall and imposing ironworker with hair halfway down his back, he made Principal Rummy shift around in his seat nervously and sweat gin. “He did what you told him to. He has twenty fucking pages here proving that the symbol on his bag is against Nazis. And from what I’ve read you can’t keep him out of school. What about this… the case he looked up.”
“Tinker.” I said softly. “They have to prove a material and substantial disruption to the learning process.”
“Yeah. The Tinker case. You can’t keep him out of school for this.”
“Mr. Pell, I merely asked him to produce documentation. I never said that I would let him back into school.” I wondered if he even knew that he was lying. “Frankly, at this point I’m concerned about the boy’s safety. He’s had numerous run-ins with neo-Nazis at our school and I’m worried that this will provoke violence against him.” He oozed all the sincerity of a politician expressing concern for the poor.
“What about the Tinker case? You have to let him back in. It’s the law.”
“I’m going to break the law.”
My father raised his eyebrows in the furrowed wrinkle of incredulity that I used to rub my fingers across when I was small.
“You’re sitting here in this office as a representative of the school system and telling me that you’re going to break the law?”
“Well, let us say that I’m going to test the law.”
“You’d better hope I never see you on the street or I’m gonna have to ‘test the law.’”
My eyes bugged in unison with Principal Rummy. I stifled a laugh, but he looked like he was about to shit his meal. He didn’t, instead swallowing audibly, then nervously shifting his alcoholic corpulence around in the chair. We all went home and had dinner, a funk of anger and confusion hanging over the table.
I called the ACLU the next morning and described the facts of my case. The woman I spoke to was particularly impressed that I knew about the Tinker case. The ACLU doesn’t take quixotic cases they know will lose. A meeting was scheduled for that day to determine if they would take my case. I would hear from them by five o’clock, I was told.
I hung the phone up and related the information to my slightly overwhelmed mother as I grinned widely from ear to ear.
“Can I go outside?”
“Why not? You’re not sick or in trouble.”
I grabbed my skateboard, my Walkman and my flight jacket, heading for the smooth blacktop of the nearby housing project to ride around, burning calories in a manic fury. I’m gonna burn that fat fuck so hard, I thought, furiously slamming my size nine Vans Old Schools onto the pavement, blasting my ear drums out and pumping my fist as I careened around the blacktop.
I came home, buzzing with the energy of a school day spent skateboarding instead of hunched over, head on the desk, trying to sleep over the sound of teachers droning on about subjects I either knew backwards and forwards or didn’t care about.
“The ACLU called.” My mother had a look on her face similar to the day she told me that Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. A small but noticeable knot formed in my stomach. “They’re taking your case. You have to meet with them tomorrow before they talk to the Assistant Superintendant.”
I spent the rest of the day watching talk shows and cartoons. When my friends came home we walked around the woods talking shit. By the time ten o’clock came I was uncharacteristically exhausted. I fell asleep soon after laying down, fantasies of brutalizing Principal Rummy with my skate deck flooding out reruns of favored sexual fantasies.
The next day I met with lawyers from the ACLU, which had agreed to take my case. They were both a right-winger’s worst nightmare — liberal Jewish lawyers who give a shit about people’s rights. They instantly loved me, the mouthy little asshole of a child that didn’t take shit off of imperious wannabe dictators. We were quite a fit, me listening closely as they explained the way the law worked, them indulging me as I went off on my Constitutional flights of fancy, telling them about how I was a communist and stories of the Nazis in my school hassling me, throwing things at me, spitting on me, calling me “nigger lover” and “faggot” as I skulked through the hall or chasing me down a flight of stairs.
The pair of lawyers disappeared for two hours into the office of the Assistant Superintendant. I sat around nervously waiting for them, thumbing through hardcore zines and books about history I’d read a thousand times before.
My legal team emerged, smiling and shaking hands with the official who looked slightly put out at having to deal with the situation in the first place. They sat down with me and my parents, briefed us a bit about what went on during the meeting and assured us that we had an ironclad case should this go to court.
“Do you think it will go that far?” My mother asked, nervously.
“It may. Nick may have to remove the patch for the duration, but we’re confident that this is a slam-dunk case.”
My dad put his hand on my back and massaged me a bit. We piled into the car and went out for a nice dinner, laughing a bit in amazement at the whole thing.
Word came early. I was to be let back into school with the patch on Monday. The Assistant Superintendant believed that my immediate suspension was a necessary consequence of sorting the matter out, but was happy to have me back at the beginning of the next week.
I did what any savvy teenage boy with a chip on his shoulder would do. I called the local media.
Day Six and Six-and-a-Half
On Saturday the reporters showed up around the house and mom dropped me off at the local newspaper office for my interviews. My media moment was over sooner than I thought it would be. I answered a few questions and posed for a few pictures. Once the reporters were done with me I pretty much forgot about my interviews and photographs. I skateboarded around the project. I hung out at the mall. I went to a diner and ordered cup after cup of black coffee, getting wired on caffeine until I could feel my hair growing. I played manhunt with my friends on the streets near my house, running until I was so winded I thought I would pass out, screaming obscenities at the entire neighborhood and stealing “For Sale” signs from neighborhood houses, planting them in front of the wrong house.
When I woke up on Saturday morning my mother had a slight smirk of disbelief on her face as she poured me coffee. She plopped two local newspapers down on the kitchen table in front of me. I was on the front page of both, wielding my bag and looking surly. I grinned widely, liking the attention but most of all loving that Rummy wasn’t going to be able to miss these. I cockily grabbed my bag and trotted off to the bus stop, getting glares from the usual suspects and slaps on the back from friends, allies and supporters.
The beginning of each class was like a miniature press conference. Everyone wanted to ask me what was going on, how it happened, why they wanted to throw me out, how lawyers got involved, didn’t my parents mind and all that. Sometime during the next-to-last period yet another vice principal came into the room and asked to speak to me. She spoke quietly, like a woman trying to discipline a child in a restaurant without attracting too much attention.
“There are some news reporters from the local television station here to see you. Now you don’t have to talk to them if you-“
“I want to talk to them.”
I sat seriously answering questions about my patch, racism in my school and why I chose to fight. I wasn’t the only one with something to say about it. Kids spoke in explicit detail about racist graffiti in the bathroom and racially motivated violence around the school. Pretty young things from far away lands who had the misfortune of landing in my hometown as exchange students talked about how they wished that they knew me. Even Rummy put on his best fake plastic smile and said that this was “by far, the most positive thing to happen in all my years” at the school.
No one believed him.
Epilogue: Day 1102
They fired Principal Rummy. I’m not sure what it was — his DUI charge or his inability to keep his dick out of the health teacher or his total lack of competency as an educator or his contempt for students, parents and the teacher’s union — but I know that what happened between me and him didn’t help much.
High school doesn’t last forever. It’s a really minor part of your life, and while I had a lot of fun there, most people didn’t. Despite what anyone says about these being “the best years of your life” the best years of my life generally involve being able to smoke a cigarette in my living room and walk into a bar without fear of being carded. Get through it, then get the fuck out of whatever shitty little town you live in and never look back.