Spoilers: Through 3x19 for Community
Word Count: 1,182 (of 18,470)
Disclaimer/Notes: See Prologue for disclaimer and general notes. Thanks to 0penhearts, whose disdain for eighth graders informed this chapter.
Part II: Eli Whitney Middle School
In which Jeff visits the principal's office
"Jeff? What are you doing here?"
Jeff paused on his way out of the administrative offices of Eli Whitney Middle School and looked up into the face of Ed Cieslewicz, the principal. "Oh, hey, Mr. C. I had a detention with Mrs. Sanders."
Ed frowned. "You had a detention? Here?" That was unusual, to say the least. He didn't keep close tabs on disciplinary matters—that was why he had a Vice Principal, in his opinion—but the school was small enough that he knew his students pretty well, and he had never known Jeff Winger to be a troublemaker. And even if he was, it didn't make sense for him to be here instead of the detention room. "Why, what were you doing?"
"Running. And talking back," Jeff added, with just a hint of anger. Ed thought that was odd too. Jeff had been know to vigorously debate his teachers when he thought the test answers they expected went beyond what the question asked, and once he'd brought a copy of the U.S. Code to school with him to challenge a question he'd gotten wrong on a social studies worksheet, but was otherwise respectful, and Ed had never seen nor even heard of him getting angry.
"And you're here instead of the detention room because…"
Jeff shrugged. "Mrs. Sanders met me in the hallway outside the detention room and said she wanted me to come here instead."
Ed had been a teacher long enough to recognize an evasive answer when he heard one. Jeff's answer was no doubt true, but it shed no light whatsoever on why the Vice Principal had brought him here instead of having him report to the detention room, which is what Ed actually wanted to know. He was trying to think of a way get that information without embarrassing the boy when Jeff asked a question of his own. "Mr. C, do you always say that we're the best students you've ever had?"
"Yes," Ed admitted, "just like I tell both my children they're my favorite. As far as I'm concerned, you're all great kids and every class that comes through here is the best."
"Even the ones who have a lot of bad stuff inside them that they were born with?"
The name Tara Maxfield floated through his head, and suddenly he had a reasonably good idea of what had happened. Unfortunately. "We all have bad stuff in us, Jeff, that's nature. But we also have a lot of good stuff. Don't forget that, OK?" Jeff smiled weakly, obviously unconvinced, and left the office. Ed watched him go, then went to have a conversation with his Vice Principal.
He found her in her office, her fingers flying over the keyboard of her typewriter. "Helen," he said, walking in and dropping into one of the chairs facing her desk.
Helen looked up from the typewriter. "Ed. Just give me a little time to finish this up while it's fresh in my head." As she resumed typing, Ed cast his eyes around the small office. A book was sitting open on the corner of the desk nearest to him. Picking it up, he saw it was a yearbook; marking the open page with his finger, he flipped to the front cover and read the title: Crusader 1965. In the center, an image, rendered in gold, of a flaming heart, encircled by thorns and topped with a cross. Turning back, he scanned the page until he found a familiar last name. He closed the book and tossed it back onto the desk, where it landed with a bang, causing Helen to glare at him.
"Who's Billy Winger, Helen?" Ed asked. "Ex-boyfriend?"
Helen made a face. "Ugh, never. He was a horrid boy, even by eighth-grade boy standards. Disrespectful to his teachers. Rude to his fellow students. Lazy. And he smoked."
Ed pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. "I can't believe we're having this conversation again, Helen."
"I'm sure I don't know what—"
"You don't remember delivering a harangue on the evils of premarital sex to an eleven-year-old girl who just happened to be the daughter of a former classmate who'd dropped out of school when she got pregnant? You don't remember the disciplinary letter that was put in your file when her mother complained?"
"I was concerned that without a proper role model at home—"
"Harassing students over what you consider to be the moral failings of their parents is not your job!"
"My job is to make sure students behave themselves," Helen said, "and Jeff Winger is clearly following in his father's footsteps. You know as well as I do he puts forth the minimum possible effort in class, and what he did to poor Miss Peck—"
"Teachers don't have a right to demand incorrect answers to their badly phrased trick questions," Ed said. "And you know she was already thinking about retiring."
"He doesn't smoke yet, I'll grant him that much," Helen said, undeterred. "But mark my words, bad seeds bear bitter fruit, and Billy Winger was as bad as they come!"
"I don't care if he was Rosemary's baby!" Ed said. "You don't punish a son for what his father did—"
"Jeff earned that detention by his own bad behavior! He was running in the halls, and he talked back when I refused to write him a late slip."
"—And you certainly don't tell him he's he's got bad stuff inside him that he was born with!"
"I told him that so he would understand I could help him!" Helen said. "I know first-hand what his father was like, so who better to keep him from going down that same path? Just like Sister Mary Regina helped me when I was his age," she added reverently. "Without her help, I never would've realized what a despicable creature I was back then. How despicable we all were."
"Just because you let a bitter old woman strip you of your self-esteem," Ed said, quietly but with intensity, "doesn't give you the right to do the same to someone else." He sighed. "You lucked out on this one, Helen. When I talked to him, Jeff didn't seem inclined to talk about what happened in here today, and no one else witnessed it, so I don't have grounds to write you up. But from now on, Jeff Winger is out of your jurisdiction. Any disciplinary matters relating to him come to me, understand?" Helen nodded, her lips pulled tight. "I need to hear you say it, Helen."
"I understand," she said through clenched teeth.
"Good. Hopefully, I'll be able to undo some of this damage before the year's out."
At the end of the year, when Ed stood in front of the graduating students and told them they were the best class he'd ever hand, he made a point of finding Jeff in the audience. He would never forget the look of skepticism on the boy's face.
Prologue | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Epilogue