From the boisterous guffaws, I could tell there was trouble around the corner. I knew without looking who was causing it and who the victim was. Don’t ask me how I knew. I just did. Any teacher of my years and experience would.
Ever since Milt Schavotzniak had been hired as a custodian at Rolling Meadows Senior High School, trouble had surrounded him. He had become the unwitting source of entertainment for five seniors on our football team. Each school day they devised a new taunt or prank designed to mock Milt’s limping gait.
Why do some teenaged boys pick on those they deem weaker than themselves? Why do the same boys idolize a teacher they think is everything a man should be, but often isn’t? I don’t know.
As soon as I appeared, the boys stopped their mischief.
“Good morning, Mr. Sands,” said Rick, their unelected leader. He leaned against one wall of the corridor, hands in his pockets, and flashed me an innocent grin.
His comrades in troublemaking followed his example. Their saintly act was almost convincing. I say ‘almost’ because I observed the result of their latest prank.
Milt was stooping over to pick up and throw away handful after handful of soggy paper towels from the floor. From the appearance of his uniform, I could tell he had slipped on the wettest portion of the floor.
“What happened here?” I demanded.
Before anyone else could say a word, Milt apologized. “Jes’ a little mess, Mr. Sands. I’ll have it cleaned up real soon.”
“Yeah, real soon,” Rick mimicked “See ya ‘round, Milt.” The boys sauntered away toward their next class.
“Okay, Milt. What really happened?”
Milt shook his head. “Oh, they’re jes’ bein’ boys. You remember how it was, don’t you?”
“You don’t have to take this. Say the word and they’ll be on the bench until they get splinters.”
Milt sighed. “Now you know I don’t want to cause trouble. Some of them are good enough to get college scholarships. I won’t have that stolen from them.”
In my heart I wanted to do something to stop their bullying, but I owed a debt of gratitude to Milt. I would not violate his trust.
Before fourth period, I heard a scuffle outside my classroom. I groaned internally and stepped from the room.
“Aw, let me help you up, Milt. C’mon, guys, help me with Limpy.”
As I took in the scene, my muscles tensed. Milt was on the floor. Blood dripped from his nose as he held his stomach with both arms and gasped for air.
All of the self-control Milt had taught me through the years fled. I twisted Rick’s arm behind him and slammed him against the wall.
“Let me show you how it’s done, tough guy!” I growled.
“Don!” Milt rasped. “Not that way! I . . . need . . .” and he passed out.
“Get an ambulance!” I sank to my knees beside Milt. Rick stared at me, shock registering in his eyes.
I watched him sprint for the superintendent’s office. Guess I can start looking for a new job tomorrow.
But the five boys did not file assault charges against me. Instead, they began to come to my classroom to ask for updates on Milt’s condition. They seemed repentant for their actions.
When Milt was out of the hospital and one month from returning to the job, I showed them the Purple Heart that he had given me upon his return from Viet Nam.
“Milt deserved this medal but he gave it to me to remind me of my brother and his last commitment before he died.”
They shifted positions and stared at the floor.
“He was a chaplain in the same Army unit as my older brother Doug. One day they were ambushed. When the unit pulled back, half of the men had fallen. Milt . . .” I swallowed the grief that still rose in my throat whenever I spoke about it. “Milt had pulled back with the others. But then he heard someone calling for help. It was my brother.”
I paused, then continued. “Milt saw it was no use to move Doug, but he stayed with him, preparing him to come to Jesus. When the mortar fell, Milt’s leg got shattered. Milt came home a hero. Doug came home in a body bag. Doug’s in Heaven now because of that man.”
“We didn’t know, Mr. Sands,” Rick murmured, staring at the medal in my hand.
“Now you do.”
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