Hang In There Mister Z by J.D. Hager
The room was scary quiet. Kavin’s five periods of U.S. History were hands down the loudest collection of teenagers ever assembled into a single location. Each subsequent class shattered the volume record set by the previous, and the current lack of noise in the room felt like a foreboding absence. Kavin should have been correcting papers or planning lessons or something, but lacked motivation, despite the collection of cheesy motivational posters on the classroom wall. The dictionary is the only place success comes before work, coupled with a man standing on the summit of a presumably dangerous, unclimbable peak. His beard was covered in ice as if he had burrowed through a glacier, and he grimaced like he had just stabbed himself with a crampon. That poster sucked the motivation right out of a person, and every time Kavin looked at it he just wanted to curl up by a fire and take a nap. He would have taken the posters down long ago but the room wasn’t really his to redecorate. They did make him wonder about Mr. Atkinson though.
Just as Kavin was about to check his Facebook again, an office aide appeared in his classroom with a green appointment slip from the office. “There must be some mistake,” Kavin said. “I don’t have any students right now. It’s my prep.”
“I know,” the girl said. She handed him the green slip anyway, and then slid away so discreetly he wondered if she’d even been there.
The green slip indeed had his name in the name spot, scribed in perfect, loopy cursive. The Principal box was checked, along with the Immediately box. Even with the written evidence in his hand it still felt like a mistake. Since when did a teacher get called to the principal’s office? Granted, Kavin was a substitute, but he was long term. A contract was signed. It was official for six to eight weeks, not to mention only fourteen units, a reading lab, and a student teaching gig separated him from being a fully credentialed educator.
But despite all that, Kavin still had absolutely no idea what he was doing. He worried that he had broken some law or union code, or that some tightly wound parent had logged a formal complaint concerning his ineptitude. Perhaps he swore in front of a class again and somebody told. Maybe they knew about his compulsive Facebook checking. He had no idea why he was being summoned to the principal’s office, but was certain, beyond any doubt, that he had landed in some serious doo-doo.
Even though the green slip clearly indicated immediately, he still had to wait when he got to the office. Principals always made you wait. Kavin spent a lot of time in the principal’s office growing up, and had to wait each and every time. The last time he got called to a principal’s office he waited, way back in tenth grade, and waiting there at the office door with that little green appointment slip brought it all back.
In tenth grade Kavin was one of many students suspected of pulling a prank which eventually led to a school wide evacuation. An infamous pair of gym shorts were set afire and stuffed into the P.E. equipment cart, and the resulting conflagration damaged not only the main stage and the MPR, but also part of the school kitchen. Those shorts had been on display in the boys locker room for weeks and were super gross. The anonymous hero that perpetrated the act did the school a favor, even if everyone had to go a couple months without pizza or garlic bread or those delicious cheese zombies. Nobody cared that the drama class had to perform their production of Death of a Salesman on the football field in front of an audience of thirteen people. Nobody cared that Biff Loman’s soliloquy went unheard due to the poor acoustics and shoddy sound equipment. Mostly people were upset about the cheese zombies, and even then it was worth it because those disgusting shitty shorts were finally gone.
They grilled Kavin that day in the principal’s office, but he never cracked. He may have lied a little when he said he wasn’t involved, and lied a lot when he said he didn’t know who did it. Everyone knew, everyone except for the grownups trying to figure it out. Kavin remembered thinking that grownups were so clueless, and promised himself that he would never be that clueless if he managed to grow up. Coincidentally, after that moment in the principal’s office in the tenth grade Kavin never got in trouble again, not during school hours at least. It wasn’t because he stopped making bad decisions, but because he finally figured out how to avoid getting caught by clueless grownups. And then people started calling him mister and he was suddenly a grownup himself. Still waiting to see how that turns out.
“She is ready for you,” the Office Manager told Kavin as she exited the principals office. He stood and tucked in his shirt as best he could, but because he wasn’t wearing a belt it looked awful. His pants were too big and sagging so low he was breaking the dress code. He untucked and entered the office.
“Hello, Mister Zanzibar,” the principal said. She stood from behind her desk and stepped forward for a handshake. “My name is Jen Jans. So glad to finally meet you.”
“Hello Principal Jans,” he said. “Glad to meet you, too.”
“Please, call me Jen.” She smiled way too enthusiastically, and then squinted her face and shrugged her shoulders up as they shook hands, like she was overcome with joy.
“Okay, then call me Kavin, I guess.”
“Great, Kavin. Have a seat, please.” She gestured to a small table in the corner with a few chairs. There was a file on the table with his last name written on it—Zanzibar— in the same loopy cursive as his green slip. Kavin took the seat she indicated, and she likewise across the table from him. “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been speaking with all the teachers here, what with Principal Henry leaving so suddenly. I want to pick everyone’s brains. You know, see where everyone’s at. Figure out how we can all get back on track here.” She paused to smile enthusiastically again. “I’ve heard some great things about you, Kavin. You know, in the teacher’s lounge, on the playground, around the office.” She spun her index finger in a little circle and smiled again, only this time with no teeth. “It says here you are a long term sub.” She raised her eyebrows like that was suspicious.
“That’s right. I’m only a few units away from my credential.”
“I see. And Principal Henry hired you?”
“Yep. I think it was the last thing he did before he resigned.”
“Yeah. He told me that I was hired and that I should always lock the door when I left.”
“And do you, always lock the door?”
“Well, I would, if I had a key. They don’t give keys to long term subs. Security risk, I guess.”
“Of course,” she said, laughing like it made perfect sense to not give Kavin a key. Then her laughter stopped as quick as if someone flipped a switch.“And tell me, have you been subbing long?”
Kavin wanted to ask her the same thing. It was her third day as principal. Principal Henry had suddenly quit among a whirlwind of accusations, including fraud, embezzlement, and giving students Tic-Tacs that turned out to be viagra, but the school was without a principal for only a single day. By day two the district had appointed Jen Jans as the interim principal until a permanent replacement could be found. By Monday morning she had all her stuff moved into the principal’s office and was out in the crosswalk before school, waving at the carpoolers with the dead stare and empty smile of one those creepy animatronic robots they have at Disneyland. Nobody knew anything about her, so everyone immediately started googling. No one could get on a research project and start digging up dirt quicker than a group of teachers trying to avoid correcting stuff.
“Well, I was subbing here for two weeks in a row after Mr. Atkinson had his motorcycle accident. Principal Henry told me Atkinson wouldn’t be walking anytime soon, let alone coming back to work, so he hired me long term. And before that I temp subbed here and there for a couple years, after I graduated college. ”
“Great,” she said. “Not about Mr. Atkinson and his motorcycle. But your guest teaching experience sounds great.” The whole time she maintained her creepy toothless grin. Then she cocked her head and changed the look on her face into something closer to concern. “And are you interested in pursuing a career in education?”
That was a question Kavin asked himself everyday. He liked the idea of a career and the idea of education. It was just the combination he was questioning. It wasn’t so bad when he was a day to day temp sub. Less was expected of temp subs, or guest teachers as they liked to call them. Guest teachers were practically invisible, there and gone before anyone had a chance to say hello or get a name. Kavin could leave the room a complete disaster and just bail, knowing he wouldn’t be back the next day. When you were a guest teacher, it was always somebody else’s mess. The little badge they gave you in the office actually said Guest Teacher, and something about that anonymity appealed to him. But after he signed that contract and went long term, the expectations and stress levels rose exponentially. Now his badge had his name and picture on it. He had to come up with the lessons. He had to correct the papers. He had to deal with the existential crisis that paralyzed most teachers when that predawn alarm sounded every morning. But he also had to face facts. The current combination of crappy job market along with his lack of any practical skills left him few other options of gainful employment.
“I think so,” he said, nodding his head.
“Wonderful,” she said, again smiling with no hint of teeth. It just looked so unnatural. She closed the folder and placed it back on the table. “You let us know if there’s anything we can help you with here in the office. We want to support you on your noble path toward teaching.”
“Okay,” he said. “I appreciate that.”
“Really, anything at all.”
“So how’s it going so far?”
“So far, so good, I think.”
She looked at him like she didn’t believe me. “Really? Are you sure?”
Kavin felt like she was waiting for a confession. “Well, I may have said a swear word during fifth period yesterday.” While he probably had used profanity at some point, he wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was in fifth period. Still, the confession made him feel better.
“Really? What did you say?”
“The F word.”
“Isn’t there only one F word?”
“There are many F words that are inappropriate for the classroom setting.”
“I dropped the F bomb.”
“F bomb? Why is that inappropriate?”
“I said Fuck, okay? F bomb means fuck, the king of all the inappropriate F words.”
“Oh my,” she said. She picked up the folder with his name on the outside and reopened it. She wrote something inside, slowly and methodically looping every perfect letter.
Kavin took this drawn out moment to re-examine the full complement of the rumor mill concerning the new principal. This school was Jen Jans’ fifth school in three years. She was the district’s go to administrator in a crisis, entering into regrettable situations and smoothing everything out like magic at even the most dysfunctional schools. She whipped things back into shape in just a few months, which was faster than the speed of light in school district terms. No one was sure how she did it, but one factor seemed to be her avoidance of creating meaningful relationships at the schools she took over. She came in like a stomach bug and cleared the deck, got things cleaned out and moving again, and then made everyone so thankful when she finally left that any new principal would be welcomed with celebratory fanfare and balloons.
A teacher at one of her former schools described her as Satan. A teacher at another former school described her as a Stepford principal—a smiling, jovial, well polished outer appearance, combined with the robotic and calculating machinery of a district android on the inside. Her appearance seemed so ordinary and milquetoast, with her sensible haircut and sensible shoes and skirt hanging down a sensible distance above the knee. The way she moved and her creepy smile did give her robotic nuances, which made Kavin question her humanity a little. Was it possible that she embodied a combination of many elements, representing the very trinity of evil—satanic robot principal?
She finished writing, and returned the folder to the table. “Zanzibar is a lovely name,” she said. “It sounds so exotic. Zanzibar.”
“What did you write in the folder just then?”
“I mentioned that you used the F bomb in class, and that F bomb equals you know what.” The entire time her grin never faded. “It happens,” she said. “Everyone drops an F bomb once in a while.”
“Have you ever dropped an F bomb?” Kavin asked.
“Heavens no,” she said. “When I said everyone I meant other people.”
Kavin let his gaze turn down away from her face. He saw her legs crossed beneath her skirt, sticking out from beneath the table. They were very tanned and ultra shiny. They looked not only waxed, but lacquered. He had an urge to reach out and touch them, just to see if they were real.
“I’m going commando today,” she said matter-of-factly. “Do you know what that means?”
He wished he didn’t.
She leaned in a little like she wanted to tell Kavin a secret. “It’s when you don’t wear any underwear. I must say, it’s exhilarating.”
Kavin had an urge to run, but was battling shock induced paralysis from her commando comment. He could hardly pull a breath, like he got punched somewhere below the belt line. He pushed himself and his chair slowly from the table, but couldn’t find his feet right away. It gave him an unobstructed view of the slow motion catastrophe that followed.
Principal Jen Jans leaned back in her chair and lifted one leg from her other leg. She uncrossed and recrossed her shiny varnished legs, pausing and positioning them as if to purposely confirm her commando status, and what Kavin saw was even more shocking than her lack of undergarments. He saw no tan lines, no hair, and no sexual organs—as smooth and as shiny as the crotch of a Barbie and/or Ken doll. If not a vagina or a penis then at least some combination of the two should have been there. Surgical scars. Tangles of hair and teeth. A wormhole to another dimension. At least any of those would have been something. He hoped it was some sort of mistake, though the unencumbered view left little doubt in his mind.
Then the third period bell rang, and Kavin did something he hadn’t done in a long time. He jumped up and bolted from the principal’s office, without even a goodbye or a wayward glance. Back when he was younger Kavin had run out the principal’s office a few times, thinking he could just outrun the principal and all his other troubles. It had never actually worked, but he had high hopes this time.
Kavin suddenly remembered what it felt like to be a kid in class fleeing the scene of daily oppression, the forced attendance in overcrowded portables, bolting for the door at the first hint of any bell. It was instinctual. Thank goodness for instincts and the saving bell, opening that window to his escape. Kavin wondered if he should tell somebody, if anybody would even believe him. The best course of action seemed to be to forget about the whole thing. Like amnesia forget. Like blocked-from-the-memory-traumatic-event forget. Just pretend like it didn’t happen.
Kavin suddenly missed Principal Henry, in spite of his chronic halitosis and jutting nostril hairs and stifling clouds of aftershave. At least he was human. Kavin wondered if Jen Jans could make such a claim. Was she actually be some sort of scary, calculating android sent by bureaucrats to clean up educational messes, or was she just a clueless soccer mom plugging holes for the district? Maybe she’d had her vagina surgically removed and lacquered over. Was that even possible? He wanted to know more, and Kavin’s curiosity tethered his fear to flee for his life.
He saw his room with his temporary name plaque next to the door, handwritten by a student and barely legible. Some prankster had added an f to the end, so that now it read Mr. Zanzibarf. How long had that been there? When he stepped into that room he became an adult, his name no longer Kavin but Mr. Zanzibar. He took a deep breath, and reminded himself to not be clueless.
The door was open and already students were piled inside, doing their best to break another world noise record. Mr. Zanzibar entered, welcoming their mindless chatter like a return home. The students began applauding, and someone called out, so nice of you to join us, which was Mr. Zanzibar’s favorite thing to say when someone walked into class tardy. He stood in front of all those immature, unbearable, clapping eighth graders and soaked it in. For all the scrutiny and commando moments teachers had to endure, these nuggets of veneration almost made up for it.
About one minute later Principal Jans poked her head in, maybe to check if Kavin had actually made it to class. Kavin imagined a terminator like read out on her digital display as she scanned the room. The students’ noise level instinctually dropped when she appeared. Teenagers are creatures ruled by instincts they don’t understand.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but have we met?” he asked her.
She smiled enthusiastically again, and then squinted and shrugged her shoulders like she had in the office. It was like a little orgasm of joy, as if android principals could experience such things as orgasms or joy. She said nothing and then turned and left.
The next day Kavin received another green appointment slip during his prep, and he promptly crumpled it up and tossed it in the recycling bin. He was going to make the principal wait for once, and he wouldn’t meet her in her office again. He didn’t know what her game plan was, but if the principal wanted to see Mr. Zanzibar she would have to come to him.
Instead of going to the office he decided to take down the motivational posters that made him want to take too many sleeping pills. He placed them in the bin with the green slip, except for the poster with the sloth. Kavin liked the sloth poster. The sloth had such a happy look on his face, hanging upside down by three legs and extending the fourth as if waving at a friend. Hang In There, it said. Plus, a student had added a speech bubble to the sloth so that the sloth seemed to be saying Hi Mr. Z. To Kavin it seemed like the sloth was saying Hi Mr. Z, Hang In There, and he found that personal message coming from a smiling sloth quite motivational. Kavin then went to fix the name placard by his door.
J.D. Hager inhabits Northern California with one wife and a few other animals. He spends his days working undercover as a middle school science teacher, and his nights going to bed early and hogging the blankets. His stories have appeared at Bartleby Snopes, Hobart, Jersey Devil Press, and lots of other places. Fun fact #1: many of his stories are written on the backs of detention slips. Fun fact #2: his life goal is to one day perfect the art of combining a daily nap with the nearest beach. Find out more at JDHager.com.
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Tags: J.D. Hager, school, teachers