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Sporting Chance


Two hours after the school board hired me, I sat with my new principal in his office.

"Jeremy, I'm glad you decided to call me. I just wish you'd done it sooner so we could talk."

"It's like I said, no point in bothering you until I completed the courses I needed to teach in Georgia. I still don't understand why I had to take those extra classes if I didn't need it to teach on the college level."

"Yeah, a lot of us think it's a racket too but that's the way it is. You can teach physics and chemistry to college students, pass or fail it's a done deal but you've got to be trained HOW to teach physics and chemistry to high school students and then if they flunk it you get blamed for it. Go figure."

"It could be worse. At least I don't have to worry about somebody breathing down my back about whether or not I made a justified kill."

"There'll be a few times when you WISH you could make a justified kill," Marcus laughed. "How did the general take your decision not to re-enlist?"

"We haven't spoken in over a year. He hung up on me when I called to tell him I'd left the army and I haven't heard from him since. Mom said she doesn't think he'll ever forgive me and my sister Karen told me they don't even mention my name to him to avoid an explosion."

"It's a hard thing to be the one who ends a five generation military tradition. The general had probably already laid out a plan that would end up with his son another general in the Pentagon."

"The general can kiss my ass. I spent ten years as a Ranger and most of that time was in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't even want to think about how many people I killed and I've got two fucking Purple Hearts. I've more than satisfied the Easton family tradition as far as I'm concerned."

"Yeah, Captain, you have but you're the last son of your line and I guess his expectations of you are higher."

"Bullshit, I've got four cousins and all four of them are military."

"The general doesn't see it that way. You're his only son. His brother went into the Air Force and he doesn't count that as military, at least not in the Easton tradition."

I laughed.

"I know, he and Uncle David spar over that one all the time. That and two of David's sons went into the Navy, his daughter went into the Marines, and David, Jr. went into the Air Force like Uncle David. Not a one of them went army. It annoys Dad more than anything, I guess, and he wanted me to retire from the army."

"Somehow I knew when I was training you back at Fort Benning that a lifetime career isn't in your blood. That's why I told you then to call me when you decided to get out."

"How did you know, Marcus? Even I didn't know then."

"Captain, I was in the army for thirty years and for a good part of it I trained soldiers. You don't succeed at that unless you learn how to weed out the ones who aren't going to make it. You turned out to be a fine officer but I knew your heart wasn't really in it. I guess part of it is that I knew the only reason you were in this man's army."

"One day I realized that I'd accomplished every goal I'd ever really set for myself and I wasn't interested in carrying it any further. I didn't call Dad, I didn't discuss it with anyone, I just didn't re-enlist. That's what pissed him off the most, the fact that I didn't call him and give him the chance to talk me out of it. I don't need anyone's permission to live my life, that's my call and no one else's."

"Jeremy, that one statement's why you were such a good officer and why you'll be a good teacher. You know the right thing to do and you don't need someone else to hold your hand. I could use more like you."

"So what's going on with your teachers? The day I walked into the Board of Education office downtown for my interview I got a sense there's a lot of tension and I could be a big part of it."

"The story doesn't change no matter what line of work you're in these days. It's the budget and not enough money to pay the bills. To make a long story short, we've a mass exodus of families leaving the county to find jobs elsewhere and schools get their money based on the number of students we teach."

"That's nothing new. Even the military has had cutbacks although the general public would never believe it. I just want to know why Mrs. Fowler kept giving me an eat shit look the entire time I was in the office."

"Peggy's sister teaches French at the high school. Pauline got cut back to two French classes a day and she's had to take on English grammar and literature for the other three classes. Pauline was mad as hell but it was that or cut her back to part-time."

"That's all? Are they crazy or what? She's lucky she's got a job."

"You're going to run into a lot more like Peggy and get ready for it. You're what these people call a hybrid teacher and right now there's a lot of them who're scared to death you'll be a huge success. Plus, you actually have a master's degree in chemistry and geography from Harvard and only about a third of the faculty's has a master's degree and they're all master's in education. A degree like yours can open the door to teaching on the college level and a M.Ed. can't do that, not easily.

"It's a master's in geophysics and it's from Columbia. But I've also taken more chemistry courses than most chemistry majors and I've taken enough geography courses to have a major in that, too. And don't forget all those education courses I took at the University of Georgia."

"We cut seven positions, two retired but five we didn't renew their contracts, and that's just at the high school. You represent the loss of four teachers, Jeremy. You'll be teaching chemistry, physics, and geography. That, and you'll be the assistant football coach and you'll be coaching tennis. You're in three departments and you're one of three people on the whole damn staff that can teach in more than one academic department. They're all scared to death that if we lose more students they're going to be let go for more teachers like you."

"That's not my fault! Why don't they just pick up some summer classes or night classes?"

Marcus waved his hand at me diplomatically.

"You know that, I know that, but just take it easy with them, Jeremy. How old are you?"

"Thirty four."

"Well, some of these teachers are close to retirement; they don't even have time to get certified in something else but that cuts no ice with the budget axe. Plus, most of them haven't done anything but their field for so many years they'd have to start on the ground floor to pick up another certification. Just be patient with them, that's all I'm saying."

"I've got you, I understand. I'm just glad you warned me before I stepped into somebody's face. That Fowler bitch had my hackles up and she was just a secretary. I was afraid I was walking into a war zone."

Marcus laughed.

"Well, I'm glad you could get Victoria Moon's place. I vouched for you to Harold so you be sure keep it up like he wants it, you hear?"

"Oh, I will, I promise you. Man, I lucked into a goldmine with that place. The house is in perfect condition and the inside's immaculate. And the lawn and garden, dude, that woman must have worked in them seven days a week."

"She'd had the house remodeled last year and it was her pride and joy, Jeremy. She taught English and Social Studies here at the high school for thirty five years and then after she retired she'd substitute for us when we couldn't find anyone else. Her husband Jacob owned the Over the Moon restaurant and when he died their son Harold took over. She died a month before you got here and almost every person in the county came to her funeral. So keep the place up like she did or you'll piss off a lot of people."

"No problem. Mom likes to garden and I guess I took after her. It'll be a nice way to wind down after a hard day."

The three bedroom country home I moved into was on a half-acre of landscaped lawn with carefully sculptured bushes and flowers. A garden out back had a crop of vegetables that were ready to harvest and I kept expecting to see the Munchkins in this merry old Land of Oz. After Marcus vouched for me, Harold set the rent at a reasonable rate with the added bonus of getting half price at the family restaurant. I'd blindly promised to maintain the house and landscape but now I was beginning to wonder if I'd find myself mowing the damn lawn at three o'clock in the morning.

I started on the payroll the last week in July. Marcus stopped by my house to see me the Saturday before I was to report on Monday for pre-season football training. I was watering the garden and I was startled when I turned around to see him standing behind me.

"Don't go all karate ass on me, Jeremy," he laughed. "I just never thought I'd live to see you working in a garden so I wanted to make a mental picture."

"Yeah, the things we'll do for a little peace and quiet."

"Are you telling me to get lost?"

"No," I grinned. "I'm just wondering what that stack of papers is under your arm. Something tells me that's work for me and I need to finish watering and put this hose away."

"You don't have to rush inside just yet. Just make sure you've got all this stuff read and taken care of by Monday morning."

"You're so good to me, Marcus," I rolled my eyes. "I thought it was crazy filling out all the military forms but this isn't much better. At least I'm not writing home to parents that their son is dead. I filled out a shit load of paperwork the day I got hired. Does it ever end?"

"No, and if you were expecting to have less paperwork as a teacher you must have gone to a different school than the rest of us did. Your paperwork has just begun."

"I know," I sighed. "I'm really looking forward to pre-season football training. Speaking of which, when am I going to meet the head coach, what's his name, Baker?"

"Patrick will be at the first faculty meeting on Monday. He had to go to a conference down in Atlanta and he's spending some time with his girls too while he's there. His ex-wife lives down in Atlanta with her second husband so he goes down when he can to see the girls. You know how it is, when football season begins a coach is a ghost to his family."

"Too bad he wasn't able to be at my interview."

"We don't do that kind of thing here. They used to do it and they had a lot of problems with department heads interfering with hiring and firing. After a couple of bad blow ups they stopped it completely and department heads have no say whatsoever about it anymore."

"I'm sure that goes over with a bang. I hope this Coach Baker and I are on the same page about football."

"Oh, you guys will be on the same page, trust me. If not, you soon will be, I'll see to that."

Marcus grinned but I heard the distinct threat in his voice. No bullshit will be tolerated.

"So what's this stack of paperwork you're bringing me? Come on in and have a Coke."

We went inside and sat down at the kitchen table. I got us two Cokes while he spread the paperwork into different stacks.

"Most of this is memos and forms for coaching; parent releases, student insurance, codes of conduct, and all the things you need to be familiar with when you walk on campus Monday. The rest of it involves your other teaching duties; your official roll book, memos, lesson plan requirements, curriculum for physics, chemistry and geography, things that make my head pound thinking about them."

"Didn't you teach before you became an administrator?"

"Yeah," he grinned, "but American history ain't nothing like chemistry and physics."

"And I need to know all of this on Monday? Pardon my French but why in the hell didn't you give me this a week ago, Marcus?"

"Now don't go getting your panties in a wad, Jeremy. I got most of the academic material yesterday and official teacher pre-planning doesn't start for three weeks. We're only having a faculty meeting on Monday because most of the teachers are going down to Georgia State for a two week conference before pre-planning starts. You've got plenty of time to digest that stuff and the coaching material is pretty basic. You saw a lot of this same stuff when you played sports in high school so it shouldn't take you more than a couple of hours to review it and get up to speed. Are you already getting cold feet?" he grinned.

"No, are you joking? Just for curiosity, why am I not in this two week conference?''

"Your priority is pre-season football. The university's going to send all of the printed material and an overview synopsis to my office. I also contacted a buddy of mine at Georgia State who told me the whole thing is a crock of bullshit anyway. It's just a scam so Georgia State can pocket some money."

"That's comforting to know. How are you paying for if you're so broke?"

"We're not," he grinned. "They're getting a federal grant to teach it. One hand washes the other, remember?"

"Who exactly is my supervisor? I'm in three departments with three different department chairs and then there's you. I'd like to know before I meet the others."

Marcus snorted.

"I'm your boss and don't forget it. If the others try to pull rank you can diplomatically tell them to fuck off. You call me if you need to be absent, I approve leave days, and if you've got a problem you come to me. Baker's athletic director and his responsibilities as director are to oversee the operation of the entire athletic program, supplies, planning, that sort of thing. Don't forget that while he's the head football coach you're the coach of the tennis program."

"Yeah, but you and I both know it's going to be a real bitch if the two of us don't get along together. And what about my other department chairs? You haven't told me much of anything about them."

Marcus was silent for a moment and I knew there was a lot more he hadn't told me.

"Look here, Jeremy; when you were interviewed we told you there's some friction at the school about having to let some people go last year. We lost two teachers in the Social Studies department and two in the Science department. The Social Studies department chairman is Steve Curtis and he's a real asshole. He's paranoid as hell and thinks his department was hit too hard in the cutbacks."

"So he's going to be on my ass?"

"Let's just say he's extremely aggressive, nothing that a six foot five former army Ranger can't handle. Just don't back down to him from the start and if he gives you shit give it back to him in spades. He won't have the balls to mess with me about it."

"Okay, and what about science?"

Marcus rolled his eyes and laughed.

"You really want to hit me hard today, don't you? The science department's a horse of a different color and I don't know if you're going to like me too much after you hear what I've got to say. It's one reason why I came over to see you today."

"Stop, stop," I laughed. "Do I need to get some vodka to put in my Coke?"

"No," he chuckled. "But that's another thing. Never even hint that you drink alcoholic beverages and if you want some be sure you pick them up in Atlanta. One of our math teachers got fired because he picked up a six pack of beer on the way home at the corner deli one night and the community said he set a bad example for the students, that maybe he was drinking while he was driving."

I shook my head and said nothing.

"Back to the science department, Jeremy. The department head retired last year and you took his place. You've got two other teachers in the department, neither of whom can teach physics or chemistry. Ann Russell teaches biology and physical science and Ruth Williams now teaches in two departments. She's taught home economics for the last few years but after the cutbacks we asked her to pick up two physical science classes. She's really good, Jeremy, and you'll like her. Be nice to her, she's one of the best people on my staff."

"So what's the problem you're hedging about here?"

"Ruth Williams is faculty advisor for Future Homemakers of America and the Student Council. Plus she's the cheerleading squad coach. Her back's against the wall and she can't take on anything else. Yesterday Ann Russell called me to tell me she's four months pregnant and she'll be going on maternity leave in January, maybe earlier depending on if the baby is premature. We need a Science department chairman and I'm afraid you're all I've got."

I took a deep breath and exhaled.

"Just exactly what does this entail and how much more money will I get?"

"It's not too bad. You'd have to order new textbooks, plan the department curriculum, set class schedules, that sort of thing and you'll get paid the grand sum of twenty five dollars a month more to do it. Before you get your hackles up you need to know the bulk of your chairman work has already been done for this year."

"The two women didn't want the responsibility, did they?"

"No," he shook his head. "It's not what you think though. Ruth has too much to do already plus she doesn't really consider herself in the science department, just helping out. Ann Russell's afraid of her own shadow and has only been with us for a year. If you don't do it, Jeremy, I'm going to have to ask another department head to do it and I can assure you whoever it is won't have your department's best interest at heart."

"I'll do it, I'll do it. Why not? It's not like I don't have plenty of time on my hands," I replied sarcastically.

"That's the team spirit, Captain. Now let me get out of here because I need to go see Alicia Martin about helping me out when Ann goes out on maternity leave."

"Good luck with that."

He stood to leave and stopped.

"Before I forget, I've got your keys. It's everything you need access to and I shouldn't have to tell you to guard them well. The only people with more keys than you are the maintenance people, me, and the assistant principal. If you lose your keys it'll cost over five hundred dollars to change your locks and you'll end up paying it.

It looked like maybe thirty keys or more, all labeled and on a key ring big enough to wear on your arm like a bracelet.

"MY locks? And I have to pay? Bullshit!"

"Bullshit, hell! We're having to let teachers go because we don't have the money. If you think you can jackass around and lose those keys and we're going to pay your freight then you're crazy. Every person on staff has the same responsibility."

The bastard was serious.

"Wow," I deadpanned. "I fell really special. Now where's my top secret decoder ring?"

As Marcus left I could see the tired stress in his face. He was putting on a good front but his body was betraying him and suddenly I felt sorry for him. No way in hell would I want his job; I didn't think teaching was going to be a cake walk but I was beginning to see there was much more to it than I expected. Budgetary cutbacks definitely weren't new to me and I certainly understood what happened if I wrote a check when I didn't have money in my account to cover it.

Monday arrived sooner than I expected and I arrived to work early. I didn't feel comfortable using my key to open the front door on my very first day because if there was an alarm system Marcus hadn't given me the code. After about thirty minutes Marcus's car pulled in.

"Still an early bird, huh? That's good. I have to constantly stay on some of the teachers about being late. Come on into my office; Coach Baker should be here any minute. He's probably already over at the gym but he'll stop by my office around seven forty five."

We'd barely sat down before a man in cleats with athletic shorts and a tee shirt bearing the school logo arrogantly strode into the office.

"Jeremy Easton, meet Patrick Baker, the head coach."

Baker smiled and extended his hand for me to shake.

"Call me Rick. Everyone else does."

"So what do you think of your new coach, Patrick?"

Baker briefly flinched and I instantly sensed the friction between the two men. Baker was a couple of inches shorter than me, maybe 6'2" and looked like a handsome blond surfer. His skin was tanned with faint wrinkles, and he was probably in his forties but he probably still had women beating a path to his door.

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