Justin Brooks could have been a poster boy for S.A.T.U – Sullen Attitudinal Teens United – if such an organization existed. He was slouched so far down in his chair that most of his rear end was hanging off the edge, while his long, blond ponytail dangled down the wooden back on which his head rested. With elbows planted on the chair’s arms, fingers interlocked under his chin, he stared at Mr. Shirley and silently dared him to say sit up. What Mr. Shirley really wanted to do was reach across the desk and jerk him upright with just enough force to wipe away the smirk. However his position as Principal denied him that option – as did the law - so with a sigh, he sat back in his chair and mulled for a moment. Retirement in eight years seemed very far away.
“Why are you here Justin?”
Justin pasted an injured look on his face. “Hey Mr. Shirley, I didn’t do nuthin’! I was minding my business, on my way to home room, when this guy walked up and started messin’ with me. I tried…“ He stopped when he saw Mr. Shirley wasn’t listening but was fishing in his pockets for something. He watched as a pack of Wrigley spearmint gum was pulled out of a breast pocket. Only after Mr. Shirley had opened the pack, carefully selected a stick, unwrapped and popped it into his mouth, did he look up at Justin.
Slowly starting to chew, he said, “You misunderstand me, Mr. Brooks. I want to know why you are in this school. This is the third time this month you’ve been in my office for breaking some rule or the other. You are sixteen years old; able to drop out without parental consent if you want to. You must want to because you continue to be trouble on a stick. So I repeat. Why are you here?” Waiting for an answer, he popped his gum loudly.
Justin shifted slightly in the chair. His eyes now mocking, he replied, “I wanna get an education. You know, go to college and become a big time lawyer or somethin’.“
“Oh, I see.” Mr. Shirley stopped, as if considering that answer. “And I believe that because…?” He started to swivel gently from side to side. “The last time I looked, you were wowing your teachers with your Ds and Fs.” All the manuals said sarcasm was a poor guidance counseling tool, but with teens, Mr. Shirley wasn’t so sure. The manuals also frowned upon teachers chewing gum. It set a poor “tone.” He popped again.
Justin put his hands on his knees and sat up a little straighter.
“Hey man! Are you supposed to be telling kids to drop out? I mean, isn’t there a rule or somethin’ about helpin’ them stay in school?” He sounded indignant.
Mr. Shirley linked his hands across his stomach and continued to swivel and chew. He appeared to be savoring the gum’s flavor. “Oh I’m sure there is. Are we being recorded?” He glanced around the room as if searching for a tape recorder.
Justin now sat straight up in the chair, his eyebrows knitted together in a frown. Who was this man? This wasn’t the uptight martinet all the kids called “Mr. Surly” behind his back. His nonchalance was unfamiliar… and uncomfortable.
“Are you gonna give me detention?”
Mr. Shirley chewed in silence for a moment. “W-e-l-l-l, I don’t think so, Justin. After all, it didn’t do much good before, did it?” Pop. “No, I think we’ll try something else.”
Wiping his hands on his thighs, Justin asked “What d’ya mean?”
Mr. Shirley smiled at him as he leaned forward and crossed his arms on the desk. “What I mean is, I am going to call your parents and tell them you are suspended from school for three days.” Still chewing, he cocked his head to the side, daring Justin to speak. He nodded when nothing was forthcoming,then continued.
“After that, if I see you in my office for anything more than a hall pass, I will expel you and suggest to everyone concerned that an alternative school may be more beneficial.” He sat back and gently started swiveling again. “Are we clear?”
Justin slowly nodded his head, got up and turned to leave. His hand on the doorknob, he looked back when Mr. Shirley said affably “By the way, Mr. Brooks, would you like a piece of gum?”
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