One morning, I sat pensive in my office–staring out the window. I barely noticed Mrs. Cooper when she entered.
“Mr. Fornale, you have a meeting on your calendar. It was supposed to start five minutes ago.”
“Mr. Paltjon is here.”
That stirred me. Mr. Paltjon–uncle of a former tormentor of mine–is our head of maintenance. He can fix anything. And I had something to fix.
I turned from the window. “Yes,” I said. “Please tell him to come through.”
I met him at the door.
“Mr. Paltjon,” I said warmly.
“Mr. Fornale, how ya doin’? Everything all right? Morning going well?”
“Managing,” I replied, moving toward my desk.
“Heat all right in the cafeteria? Hey, I got you the extra classroom keys for the substitutes! And I’ve got the custodians waxing the hallway floors this weekend.”
“Yes, yes–all very good,” I murmured. “”But I have a serious matter to discuss with you.”
I sat down. I motioned for him to sit, but his usual energy kept him on his feet.
“Serious? We just did our review last week, remember? I asked you if there was anything to add to the checklist–”
“No–nothing to do with the maintenance checklist.”
“Sound system in the gym? We worked over the weekend. It’s better than ever!”
“No. Not that, either.”
“Well, Mr. Fornale, I don’t know what–”
“It’s Harlynn,” I interrupted.
“Harlynn? My granddaughter? What does she have to do with–”
“Yes, Harlynn. Do you know what she has done? What she has been doing?”
“You got me there, Mr. Fornale.”
“Well!” I said, leaning forward in my chair, “She’s been bullying me!”
Mr. Paltjon stared at me blankly. He looked back toward the door to see whether Mrs. Cooper was still there. Perhaps she could help him understand.
“You know what I mean,” I went on.
“Uh…maybe. Bullying? Does this have anything to do with Krista? Look, she’s long gone from here. She’s at the high school, and–”
“No, Mr. Paltjon. It’s Harlynn.”
“Mr. Fornale, she’s nine. She couldn’t bully anyone, she–”
“Do you know what she did to me yesterday in the cafeteria?”
Mr. Paltjon sat down. He needed to take this in. “What?” he asked.
“She held a fluffy stuffed animal up to me and told me it was cute,” I grumbled.
Mr. Paltjon had no answer.
“And,” I continued, “she called two of her friends over to show me their stuffed animals!”
“Aw, jeez,” Mr. Paltjon murmured. “You know her. She’s just–”
“Just harassing her principal and inciting others to do the same!”
“Yeah…well, uh…look, I’m just her grandfather, so you might want to call my daughter–or my son-in-law. They’ll straighten her out.”
“What does your family have against me?”
Mr. Paltjon looked confused.
I went on. “First your niece, now your granddaughter. They have it in for me.”
“Mr. Fornale,” he cut in, “Don’t you think you’re just a little sensitive to the whole ‘cute’ thing?”
“Cute things are evil,” I retorted.
“Look, Mr. Fornale,” he ventured, “this is an elementary school. Kids like cute things. What can we do?”
I began to understand that my good friend Mr. Paltjon was simply not with me on this.
“Would you mind doing one thing?” I asked.
“Of course not. Anything.”
“Walk with me.”
Mr. Paltjon rolled his eyes as I rose, he followed me out the door, not suspecting that I knew he was shrugging perplexedly to Mrs. Cooper as we passed her desk. She and Mrs. Britten rolled their eyes.
We walked in silence to Mrs. Holmes’s class. As we entered, I walked past the desk of Isabella, who immediately put her hand on her dark blue water bottle.
“What?” I asked blankly.
“You always try to steal it!”
Really! She is so suspicious of me!
Isabella eyed me, keeping her hand on her water bottle as Mr. Paltjon and I walked by. We made our way to the back conference table, where Mrs. Holmes was meeting with Harlynn, Ava, and Jolie. The girls turned as we approached. Harlynn smiled at her grandfather. Then, the girls all looked at each other and grinned–mischievously.
“See?” I said, turning to Mr. Paltjon.
“Mr. Fornale,” Mrs. Holmes began, “Is there something I can do for you?”
The three girls all slunked over to their desks. I knew what they were up to.
“No,” I replied. “I am just stopping by to show something to Mr. Paltjon.”
“Oh,” she continued. “A maintenance issue?”
“Not exactly. Something…different,” I hinted, turning to look at Mr. Paltjon.
At that very instant, Harlynn, Jolie, and Ava walked right up to me, their hands behind their backs.
“Just watch, Mr. Paltjon,” I said.
All three girls held fluffy Ty Beanie Boos up to me.
“See what I mean?” I appealed to Mr. Paltjon. He suppressed a laugh.
“Is this funny to you?”
Just then, Rebecca, who was supposed to be working on her reading jots at her desk, stood up indignantly.
“No! It isn’t!” Rebecca protested. “You three, leave Mr. Fornale alone!”
Mr. Paltjon continued to snicker.
I walked over to Rebecca. “This is what I appreciate. A sympathetic soul.”
Rebecca glared at the other girls. Ava opened her sweater to reveal a pink T-shirt. She grinned brazenly.
Mr. Paltjon couldn’t keep it in. He began to laugh. “I gotta go, Mr. Fornale. I’ll stop by later.”
“What?” I asked, incredulously as Mr. Paltjon left, waving to the rest of the class. “You’re just going to leave me here? With these…mean people?”
I smiled in appreciation at Rebecca, then looked back to the other three girls. Jolie had gone to her cubby to fetch and put on a colorful scarf.
“Ha!” I snapped to her. “That’s magenta, not pink! It doesn’t count.”
“Mr. Fornale!” exclaimed Mrs. Holmes. She was now sitting alone at the conference table, annoyed. “May I please continue working with the girls?”
“Why are you asking me? They’re the ones that got up. Look at what they’re doing! You should give them lunch detention.”
Mrs. Holmes drew in a deep breath, released it, then continued–clearly trying to remain calm.
“Every day,” she began, “you walk in here and start trouble–”
“Now, just a moment–” I interrupted.
“You try to take Isabella’s water bottle–”
“I’m trying to take it back! She stole it from–”
“She never stole anything.” Mrs. Holmes was calmly beginning to overpower me. “You walk in while my students are working, and you wind them up…”
“You walk through, teasing the kids…”
“And then you have the nerve to be indignant when these three tease back.”
“They bully me!” I corrected.
Mrs. Holmes sighed. Jolie, Ava, and Harlynn smiled at each other, then beamed at me.
“May we get back to our work?” Mrs. Holmes pleaded.
I looked to Rebecca, who was sneering at the other girls. At least she was on my side.
I pointed to Jolie’s scarf. “That’s magenta,” I repeated. “It doesn’t count.”
I turned on my heel and began to walk out.
“But this is pink!”
Ava’s little voice, bold and loud–rare for her. I didn’t need to turn around. I knew she was still standing, pointing at her T-shirt.
I paused in my stride and grumbled. Do I turn around and give her additional satisfaction? I thought to myself?
No! Mr. Paltjon had deserted me. Mrs. Holmes was clearly on their side. My only defender was Rebecca, and we were no match for what we were up against. I looked to the other students at their desks. All had been watching the scene unfold. Andy was holding up a red and silver Beyblade, about to thread the launcher in.
With nothing better to say, I pointed to him. “Put that away, and do your jots!” I ordered.
He shrugged and stowed the toy in his desk.
I departed…for the moment.