W.A.R. Part Six - Commencement
Chapter Nine - Privilege
by Jeff Wilson
We had a nasty winter storm come through the week between my birthday and Christmas, but for the most part, it was a mild winter. It wasn't too cold, and there wasn't a lot of snow. That meant we didn't have any days off from school for weather, which meant we would all be able to graduate on time and get the hell out of there.
As December turned to January, my thoughts and the conversations with my fellow classmates turned toward what was next on the horizon. What were we going to do after we got out of school? College started to turn up in more and more discussions. Sarah Taylor had already been accepted to Stanford. Joey would be following in his father's footsteps at NYU. Bobby was going to go to Ohio State on a football scholarship. Emily was considering either Washington and Jefferson or Duquesne University. Dustin was considering going to one of the nearby state colleges, but was waiting to see if someone would offer him a scholarship after the baseball season. Brett hadn't thought about college at all, as he had no intention of going if he could help it.
"I don't like school now," he said. "Why would I want to pay to go be miserable?"
As for me? I was trying to figure out how I would pay to go to either Pitt or Penn State. With my knack for mathematics, my guidance counselor and most of my teachers were telling me to get into accounting or business management. One teacher was telling me to consider something else though.
"You can do a lot with a Law degree," Miss Winston told me one day after class. Our relationship had greatly improved since I'd snapped at her before the Christmas break. She knew that it had been a stressful time for me and we had put the confrontation behind us.
"Are you trying to get me to be your little gay hero again?" I asked.
"No, I know you're not looking to do something like that. But I do think you have the debate skills that could serve you well once you learn to contain your emotions. You have a strong sense for justice. I think you could do the world a whole lot more good than just making more money for rich people."
"Let's see. I could become a rich person myself, or I can save the world with my brilliant mind. I might need a minute or two to work on this one."
"You don't always have to be a smart ass," Miss Winston replied.
Then, in the middle of January something very weird happened. Sarah Taylor missed a week of school. There were rumors that she'd gotten pregnant and had an abortion. Who knows what really happened, but I do know that what happened afterward threw the school into a huge controversy. Sarah didn't do any of her school work during her little vacation. She'd missed a major exam in Mr. Hartley's history class and she hadn't turned in a paper that was due in Miss Winston's advanced biology class. Mr. Hartley gave her a make-up exam and according to reports I'd heard she bombed it, but Mr. Hartley still gave her an A anyway. Then she turned in her paper to Miss Winston a week late, and it was so poorly written that Miss Winston suggested she re-write it. Sarah refused, and Miss Winston gave her an F for the paper, and a C for the grading period. That grade would have knocked her out of contention with me and Joey for valedictorian. But then a funny thing happened. Miss Winston had a meeting with the principal and the school board president who just happened to be Sarah's father. After that meeting Sarah just miraculously happened to get an A for the grading period.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Joey was heard angrily protesting in the hallway once the news got out just before lunch on Friday.
I shared that sentiment. "It's fucking bullshit," I said as I vented my frustration to Brett at lunch. "If I had tried to do that garbage, I would have ended up with an F instead of an A!"
Before Brett could reply to me, Joey stormed up to our table and sat down. "Can you believe that shit?" he asked.
"Guys, what did you think was going to happen?" Brett asked.
Joey was livid. "That fucking bitch takes a week off to get an abortion and then that stupid dyke Winston gives her an A? It's fucking ridiculous! I can't believe that cunt got away with it! If I tried that shit my dad would have fucking kicked my ass, not gone and had my grade changed! I've been paying for getting that dumb bitch pregnant for a year now! It's not fucking fair!"
"It sucks when people use their influence to make your life miserable, doesn't it?" I said.
"Fucking right, Roberts!" Joey replied, missing the irony of my statement. "You better talk to Winston about this before I do. I'm going to kick that dyke right in the cunt!" Joey stormed off to his friends, where he was obviously expressing the same frustrations he'd shared with us. "Grades don't mean anything in this stupid piss ant school! It's all about who you know!" he ranted loud enough for most of the cafeteria to hear.
"Not very self-aware, that one," I said.
"He's just mad because he's not used to being screwed."
"You're saying he's used to being the screwer instead of the screwee?"
"Something like that. He is right though, we should talk to Miss Winston."
I was hoping to do just that, but when I got to her room for class, she wasn't there. In her place was a substitute teacher who informed us that Miss Winston would not be returning and that someone else would be teaching her classes for the remainder of the year when the board could find someone qualified.
"Damn lucky, too," Joey fumed. If looks could kill, he would have blasted Sarah Taylor with laser beams right through her skull. I was more worried about what had happened to Miss Winston. After school that day, I asked Brett to drive to the farm where she lived with Susan. Brett and I walked onto the porch and knocked. Susan answered the door.
"I thought we might be hearing from you," she said. "She's in the den. Come on in, boys."
We found Miss Winston sitting quietly in a chair, watching television.
"Pat, they're here," Susan said.
Miss Winston smiled and welcomed us to come and sit down on the couch. Susan left us alone to talk.
"I suppose you want to know why I changed Sarah's grade?" she asked.
"I'm more concerned about why you left."
"I resigned in protest," she replied.
"What? No!" both Brett and I replied.
"I'm afraid so. When the school board starts deciding what grades we as teachers are allowed to give to our students, it's time to get out."
"What are you going to do?" Brett asked.
"I'm going to enjoy my retirement. There's more to life than Mon Valley High School, boys. We've got enough money, invested well, I'll have a nice pension from the school, and Susan is still working for a few more years. I started teaching in 1975. Thirty years is a long time to do anything. It was time to leave. I only kept teaching as long as I did because I enjoyed it. But if I'm not enjoying it anymore, it's time to go. I'm going to enjoy my season tickets to the Steelers, maybe go to more Pirate games, and enjoy my time with Susan. I'm going to be fine."
"And what about your students?" I asked.
"You mean what about you, Billy? You're going to be fine. You're tougher than I ever was, and you have this cutie here to watch over you. You'll be okay without me. I always thought you were a fine young man, Billy. I've been close to other students before, but no one ever challenged me like you did. You've got a sharp mind and a good heart. I hope you use it to make a real difference in the world."
"What about your other students? What is the club going to do without you?" I asked.
"The club you never wanted to join?" Miss Winston asked. "They'll be in good hands, won't they Brett?"
"We'll need a new sponsor, but yeah, we'll be okay."
"You're in the gay club?" I asked.
"Dude, how do you think I know who all the gay kids are?" Brett replied. "And it's not the `gay club,' you homophobe. It's the `LGBT Alliance.'"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You never asked. It's not like it's a big secret. I'm the vice president for Pete's sake. All you had to do was come to a meeting."
"You never asked me!"
"Billy, you're the one who had to make that decision. If there's one thing I know about you it's that the more someone tries to push you to do something the more you resist it. You wanted to be a closet case, so I let you be."
"Whatever. It doesn't change the fact that there are people in that school who still need you, Pat. You're walking away from a lot of people."
"I suppose you still think I'm being hypocritical?" Miss Winston asked.
"No. I know you're not a hypocrite. You're the best teacher I've ever had. They're never going to be able to find someone to replace you. I'm sorry if you ever thought that I didn't respect you. I guess I give people that impression sometimes. I know life is different for everybody, and that you have your reasons for doing things your way. I'm afraid of what's going to happen to that school without your voice to speak up for us."
"Well I appreciate that, Billy. And I wish I could tell you that everything was going to be okay at school. But I can't. Things are only going to get worse. I can see the writing on the wall. Manipulating teachers to change grades is only the latest in a long string of offenses and indignities. The school board has been trying to squash the Alliance since it started. I don't foresee anyone from the faculty stepping up to lead it, since many of them were against it in the first place. The board will disband it. The board has fallen under the influence of Carl Stevens. I believe you know him, Billy."
"Oh, we might have met a time or two," I replied.
"Stevens has been gunning for the school board ever since he came to town. He doesn't run himself, but he has put people in place who answer more to him than they do the voters and the students. They vote exactly how he wants them to. He's been trying to force me out and end the Alliance for a few years now. Now that he's stacked the board with his men, he'll be able to do what he wants. John Taylor wasn't one of Stevens' guys, but he might as well be. Billy, you're in a lot of danger. John Taylor won't be content to let his daughter share valedictorian with you. To those people, you're just a faggot who doesn't deserve to live, let alone represent the school as valedictorian. I'm afraid my resignation is only going to embolden the board."
"What about Joey?" Brett asked. "He could be valedictorian too."
"He could have been, until his private life became a public scandal."
Brett looked at me. I gulped.
"But his dad is on the board too," I suggested.
"True, he is the solicitor, but he has no vote and barely has a voice. He has influence, but Carl has more. Carl Stevens is interested in power, nothing more. He doesn't need Jack McKenzie anymore. That makes Joey expendable. They'll cast him aside if he gets in the way. You can already see the poor boy is starting to crack under the pressure. He never wanted to be the perfect angel those people wanted him to be. It won't be long before he crashes and burns. It won't be hard for them to find something to take him out, and once he's out of the way they'll be gunning for you. You can't win against these people, Billy. They are vicious and cruel. They don't care who they hurt."
"But I didn't do anything!" I protested.
"You didn't have to. You're in the way of what they want. But you did do something. You challenged Pastor Carl in the middle of his own church. That's not something he's likely to forget. I'm afraid you boys are in for a lot of abuse in the next few months. John wants his daughter to be valedictorian, and Carl wants you to be punished for daring to defy him. They both wanted me out of the way so they could get rid of any opposition. They won't stop until they get everything they want."
Brett and I just sat there on the couch for a moment, stunned by the gravity of Miss Winston's words.
"God, what is wrong with people?" Brett finally said.
"You can't win over everybody, but you don't have to let hate win, boys. Stay in love with each other. It's not going to be easy. But as long as you have each other you'll be okay. And you're welcome to stay for dinner. Susan and I were hoping you boys would stay, now that I'm not your teacher."
That's just what we did. Susan was an excellent cook, and it was great to be able to see how a mature couple who had been together for years could still be in love with each other. Now that she had time on her hands, Miss Winston was planning to spend more time fighting for the right for her and Susan to get married in Pennsylvania.
"Somebody has to stand up against the bullies," she said. "As long as you boys stay strong and united, you'll make it through. I promise."
That's all for this time! Hey, thanks for those of you who sent some encouraging notes last week! I really appreciated it! It's nice to know that people care!
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Next time: The Erotic Adventures of a Boy and His Bike