Thursday was a fuzzy blur to Ted. He conducted exams for his students in his other classes, and tried to think about the game, but that only kept bringing his mind back to the special meeting later that night. As he sat at his desk during the last period of the day watching his freshmen plow through their World History test, he reviewed his handling of Bobby Craig. He searched for mistakes, for things he could have done differently, but no matter how he looked at it he kept coming up empty. The boy had failed, despite all the help Ted could give, and it would likely cost the player his future and both of them a state title. More than that, he thought. I’m probably finished here.
What if they restore his eligibility tonight? Ted mused. His integrity would be intact and he’d have his star player back. He rolled that around in his mouth for a few minutes, but the taste was repulsive. It would be wrong, it would be dirty and unethical and he couldn’t do it. Sanctioned cheating was still cheating. No way out there. At that moment he decided that if the School Board overruled him and reinstated Bobby, he would resign immediately and accept the Varsalones’ offer. His heart ached with the realization that this could be his last day in Stockbridge, that after everything his family had done here, it could all end tonight.
He gazed about the classroom, at the backs of the twenty-five young kids bent over their desks. There was Meg Heather’s long blond hair, in a plaited braid this morning. Mike and Lisa, he thought, knowing they’d understand but not sure if they’d agree with him or not. There were several freshman football players in the class, including Jay Scarpinski, a hell-on-wheels linebacker that Ted had looked forward to having on his varsity. Now he’d never see what kind of player he could become.
The bell rang, and the students dashed off final answers and brought the completed exams to his desk before heading off to whatever waited for them after school. More than a few regarded him with a mixed look of concern and disbelief, as if he were a zoo animal with a large sign hanging on his cage: North American Football Coach. Endangered.
Ted gathered his things into his shoulder satchel and moved down the hallway toward the locker room. He was enveloped in a sort of fog, watching the usual post-school scene with a strange detachment, as if he were not there but rather watching from afar. A couple of his players and students nodded at him in greeting, but most of the kids made no sign of recognition except to move out of his way, so that instead of dodging and weaving his way through, he had a clear path.
He noticed his footsteps had betrayed him, carrying him not down to the locker room, but into the math wing. He stopped walking and stood quietly, watching Jill outside her classroom, talking animatedly with her department head, Clark Morgan.
Clark taught calculus, was a bright and able educator, and his son Al was a stalwart on Ted’s offensive line. He was a large man, tall and ponderously fat, with thick glasses perched over a thick moustache that made him look like a nearsighted walrus. He was popular with both students and staff, but as he noticed Ted standing a few feet away, he stopped talking to Jill and stared darkly at his colleague from the history department. It looked briefly as though he might say something, but instead he turned and lumbered off down the hallway.
Ted took a few steps toward Jill, but she raised a hand in a gesture of refusal. He knew from the look on her face that she’d been defending him against Clark Morgan, and that this was tearing her apart as much as it was him. She also knew as much as he did that the worse this got, the more any chance of him staying diminished. She looked at him for a long moment, green eyes full of sadness and a little bit of pride, then backed into her room and closed the door.
Ted leaned against the corridor wall and closed his eyes. What else can they take from me?
Practice that afternoon was, oddly, a little better than the day before. It seemed that the staff had decided to go about their business as if Bobby would be reinstated tonight. They gave Ted a wide berth, as though he was in his final hours as the head coach. Ted spent most of his time with Chris Stanley, doing everything he could to make the boy ready should he need to play Saturday. The junior backup was nervous and jittery, and his passes were well off the mark. It was still an awkward, uncomfortable exercise, and when seven o’clock came Ted was relieved. It was not unusual for his assistants to address the team after practice, so he stood aside as Terry McAllister spoke to the players in a low, rumbling drawl. It was dim and cold on the practice field, lit only by a few sparse light banks glowing high above the turf. Ted watched his breath puff out in front of him, embracing the clean, crisp air that filled his lungs. He tried not to think that it could be his last practice. Finally the players broke their massive huddle, and shuffled off to change and head home.
Who am I kidding? Ted chuckled grimly to himself. Nobody was going home. He headed for the auditorium, knowing it would be full.
Full was an understatement. As he walked through the corridor leading to the assembly hall, there was a low buzz like thousands of bees that grew louder as he approached. As he moved into the huge room, the noise hit his ears like a physical blow, a thousand people crammed into the space, all talking at once. Ted moved to the stage, where a long table was standing. The nine members of the Stockbridge School Board milled about behind the table, engaged in their own conversations. There was Tap Avery, tall and thin, in an immaculate gray suit, perfect brown hair shot through with silver. He caught Ted’s eye, and smirked, a self-satisfied look that turned Ted’s stomach. Something inside him snapped, and as he looked around the auditorium, Ted decided there was no way he was going to allow that smug bastard to have his way.
His steps suddenly lighter than they had been in days, Ted mounted the stairs to the stage and sat down at a side table where a hastily-made paper tag displayed his name. Next to him was Principal Beck, who smiled and patted him on the knee under the table. Across from them, at a similar table, were both Robert Craigs, senior and junior. Bobby was in a buttoned shirt with a loosely knotted tie, hair unkempt as usual, looking down at the microphone before him in terror and, Ted thought, more than a little shame.
The board members broke off their conversations and made their way to their seats. Tap stood behind his seat, fingering his gavel, savoring the moment. He then rapped the small wooden mallet against its pad on the table, and the burgeoning crowd began to settle down. Once the auditorium was silent, the chairman took his seat. Ted wondered where Jill was in the audience, but the stage lights made it impossible to see much detail beyond the first few rows. He put her from his mind and focused on the matter at hand.
“This special emergency meeting of the Stockbridge School Board is now convened,” intoned Tap Avery in a smooth, confident baritone. “We are meeting in public session to determine whether to accept or deny the petition of Mr. Robert Craig, appealing the academic suspension of his son and seeking to reinstate his athletic eligibility.” There was a low murmur from the crowd, which quickly subsided as Tap continued.
“First, we will hear from the petitioner, Mr. Robert Craig, Sr. Sir, please present your petition.” The elder Craig adjusted the table microphone in front of him, and cleared his throat. He then began to read from the pages in front of him in a slow and deliberate voice.
“Chairman Avery, members of the Board, first thank you for convening this special hearing on such short notice. It is gratifying that you recognize the urgency of this matter. Our request is simple. We ask that Mr. Gray’s decision to render our son academically ineligible for athletic participation be overturned. Bobby is willing to engage in whatever makeup exams or extra credit is needed to repair his grade average, but we feel this decision by Mr. Gray unfairly targets our son and deprives him of his future livelihood. We respectfully request that Bobby’s eligibility be restored. Thank you.”
Mr. Gray, thought Ted wryly. Not Coach. He shook his head.
“Thank you Mr. Craig. Will the members please note that before me is a petition signed by over a thousand registered voters in the school district, supporting Mr. Craig’s request.” Tap indicated a pile of pages in front of him, then turned to face the other wing of the stage. “Ms. Beck?” Beth Beck pulled her microphone closer.
“Thank you Mr. Chairman. As Principal of Stockbridge High School I support Coach Gray’s decision and find that it is based on sound pedagogical standards and that the young Mr. Craig has been given every opportunity to fairly achieve the required marks. I recommend that the Board reject Mr. Craig’s petition as irregular and without merit.” She paused. “Sir, I want to see Bobby play Saturday as much as anyone, but if we make an exception here, the message we send to our students is terrible. The rules cannot be different for regular students and star football players, Mr. Chairman. Coach Gray’s decision was the right one and you should support him.”
God bless you, Beth Beck.
“Thank you, Principal Beck,” Tap muttered. “I will now open this matter for comment from the Board.” After a brief pause, a number of hands went up along the table. Here we go, Ted thought. Tap pointed first at Eileen Thomas, an older woman who had been on the Board for years.
“I don’t like it,” she snapped without prelude. Tiny and topped by a shock of thick white hair, Eileen had once been a formidable Board member, but as she got older she became more unpredictable and ornery. “The boy failed an exam? In my day I don’t even know if the football players took damn exams. Frankly I don’t know what the one has to do with the other. Let the boy play, he’ll make up the work.” She sat back, hands folded in her lap, as if that were the end of the discussion.
“I’m sorry Mr. Chairman,” said Sally Bergeron coolly when she was called on next. Sally was new on the Board, a homemaker with two kids in the junior high. “It seems to me that Mr. Gray has done everything right here. It also seems to me that he has every reason to make sure Bobby can play on Saturday, and no reason to suspend him except because it’s right. He’s exactly the kind of teacher we should have in our schools, and I hope he stays long enough for my girls to be in his class.” Ted had never met Sally before, but he was grateful that a rookie Board member would have that kind of courage.
“Sally,” grinned Ron Nelson from down the table, shaking his head patronizingly. “This isn’t some afterschool special.” Ron was a housing contractor with a junior son who started at cornerback for the Wolves. “You can’t really be that naïve, can you? Look at him sitting over there. He can’t stand to see this kid do what he couldn’t, so he’s going to hold him back. It’s petty and small, and I wish it wasn’t true, but…”
“Oh come on!” shouted another member of the Board Ted didn’t know, Isaac Bond, an older man. “You can’t be serious!”
And it went on like that for nearly an hour, as the nine people sitting behind the long table discussed right and wrong, high school sports, and a little too much psychoanalysis of Ted for his taste. No consensus seemed to be emerging, and as far as Ted could tell, the Board was fairly well split, with four members on either side of the issue. The ninth member had been quiet throughout the proceedings, and as the evident stalemate continued, she patiently raised her hand. Surprised, Tap called on Marilyn Turner. Her son Dave had graduated with Ted, though they hadn’t been teammates and Ted only vaguely remembered him. A dignified retired secretary, Marilyn spoke in soft, precise tones when the room fell silent as she was recognized.
“Mr. Chairman, I would like to hear from Mr. Gray.” There was a hushed ripple of sound through the audience, a wave of audible anticipation, as Ted rose to speak.
“Thank you, ma’am. It’s certainly been interesting to sit here as the good members of the Board have been discussing my relative merits. But really, this has nothing to do with me. This is about Bobby Craig.” He pointed at the young man. “I love this kid. The idea that I’d hold him back from some dusty record of mine is as ludicrous as it is insulting. He’s a far better player than I was. He’s a great high school quarterback. He’s a no-doubt Division I college quarterback, scholarship material. But he’s not pro football good. And as much as I can teach him on the football field, my responsibility in the classroom is far more important. In five years he’s going to be doing something other than playing football, and if we fail to prepare him for that, shame on us.” Ted paused, looking down and rapping on the table with a knuckle.
“But this is also about more than Bobby, it’s about the other students, many of whom are here. None of them are going to be pro football players, either. Most of them are going to have to get into college on their academic records, and I won’t cheapen their efforts by giving away for free what they’ve worked so hard to earn. We prepare these kids in the classroom and on the practice field for life, trying to teach skills and knowledge but more importantly by trying to impart character and judgment. How can I look these kids in the face ever again if I tell them to make good choices and then bend the rules because it would be convenient?” He turned back to the Board. “How can you?”
“Finally, this is about more than these kids, this is about you, all of you. It wasn’t so long ago, eleven short years, that I was a student,” he continued, lowering his voice to just above a whisper. “It might as well have been a century. When I screwed up, and a teacher or coach threatened to tell my father, I was scared to death. I would have cleaned out all the school bathrooms with a toothbrush on my hands and knees if it meant my old man wouldn’t find out I’d talked back on the practice field or failed an exam. Now, the kids are the ones threatening to tell their parents! And somehow I’m still scared to death. Scared that if I say the wrong thing to a girl whose skirt is too short or touch one of my players the wrong way on the shoulder, everything I have could be taken away from me.
“Well,” he laughed. “Go ahead. Be agents for your kids. Be their lawyers. Be their friends. Be anything but a damn parent. And when you’ve driven out the educators and coaches who are actually trying to teach these kids the lessons you seem to have missed, when men and women of integrity and passion do something other than teach because it’s a lonely, losing battle, then there’ll be no one left to blame. I’d say I look forward to that day, but I’ll be long gone, folks. So will Beth Beck and Mike Heather, and…” he almost choked up, his voice catching, “…and Jill Ward. Ask your kids who their favorite teacher is, and they’ll be gone.
“I know the Board’s going to vote however it’s going to vote tonight, and whatever comes of that, so be it. But I’ll tell you right now, if you’re in favor of changing the rules for one kid because he’s a helluva football player, then shame on you. If you made one phone call asking for one of these members to vote that way, shame on you. If you signed your name to that petition over there, shame on you.” Ted’s voice had risen steadily through his comments, and he had almost shouted the last sentence. He stood, the cavernous hall deathly silent, no one breathing, but he was finished. Finding his seat, he looked straight ahead, his eyes on Bobby. The senior returned his gaze with swimming eyes, eyes full of regret that Ted would give anything to make right. Beth rubbed his shoulder as suddenly the silence was broken by a few solitary claps that became full-fledged applause. Surprised, Ted glanced to the audience. It seemed that more than half of them were on their feet, shouting encouragement. Gratifying as that was, Ted noted that many appeared to still be sitting, some yelling the opposite view. He knew there would be many who resented his words, but he was beyond politics now. If this was to be his last night in Stockbridge, then he would leave with the truth on his lips.
Tap Avery angrily pounded with the gavel, shouting into the microphone for order. It took several minutes for the chaos in the seats to settle down, but eventually the tumult was reduced to a low rumble. The chairman looked at the other members of the Board, who seemed disinclined to continue the debate. Ted wondered if he had made any difference. Sure, he thought. You probably made it worse.
“Very well then,” grumbled Tap. “If there are no more comments, I will entertain a motion at this time.”
“Mr. Chairman.” It was Ron Nelson. “I move that the Board accept Mr. Craig’s petition and reinstate Bobby Craig’s athletic eligibility.” There was a pause, and then Eileen Thomas chirped, “Second.”
“All those in favor?” Three hands rose in the air, and slowly Tap Avery added his for four affirmative votes. Some voices started to whoop with joy in the auditorium, others shouted in livid fury as the chairman asked for those against. Five hands were raised, and bedlam exploded in the hall. Ted heard little of Tap Avery’s final comments, his head in his hands. His decision had been upheld. It was all he could do not to throw up.