by George Morse
Cindy Meyer figured Miss Payne, the principal’s secretary, must have graduated from the Adolf Hitler School of Secretarial Studies. The woman, known around the high school as ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’, barked out relentless streams of orders and reduced anyone approaching her desk to blubbering incoherence with a baleful stare.
Cindy reported to the high school office at the beginning of third period, ready to begin her Office Practice rotation as a student aide. Her knees trembled as Miss Payne explained the aide’s duties and showed her around the office.
When the tour ended, Miss Payne said, “We’ll need you during your lunch period today. You can eat at the front desk.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cindy welcomed the opportunity to avoid the cafeteria, the thirty agonizing minutes when she would sit alone hiding behind a book. A skinny girl with mousy-brown hair and a quiet demeanor, she’d never found a circle of friends, never been on a date. Classmates often told her, “You think too much.” Although she was a studious business major, with a ninety-eight average (the third highest in her class), the honors students often laughed at her, mocking her for ‘taking pathetic courses like Accounting and Bookkeeping’. The athletic girls laughed at her, too, since she often stood befuddled in gym class as volleyballs flew by her head and basketballs bounced off her fingertips.
A little later, as Cindy sat at the office desk trying to figure out the phone system, the door to the principal’s office crashed open. A heavyset boy in a black, ‘heavy metal’ sweatshirt ran out, screaming “I hate this goddamned school!”
A moment later, the boy shattered the glass door of the office with a savage kick, then yanked it open and sprinted toward the front entrance.
Principal Meaker emerged from his office, scratching his head. The boy’s actions had clearly surprised him, since he was generally a soft touch when dealing with students.
Miss Payne took charge of the situation. “Call the custodian!” she directed Cindy. “Tell him we need a clean-up.” She turned to Meaker. “I’ll phone the family, the police, and the Superintendent’s office.”
“We’ll need a new door,” Miss Payne added. She frowned at the principal. “Third one this year. You need to write a requisition.”
Cindy was reminded that her goal in life was be just like Miss Payne—capable and very clearly in charge.
* * *
At lunchtime, Cindy pushed open the office door, now covered in plywood, and took a seat at the front desk.
Miss Payne said, “I need to run down to the cafeteria. Hold the fort for a few minutes.”
The office was quiet until two young female teachers stopped to pick up mail and began to chat with each other. A thin boy wearing a button-down shirt came to the desk. He looked around, handed Cindy a note, and scurried away.
Cindy scanned the note and picked up the P.A. microphone. “Hugh Jass, please report to the main office,” Cindy read. “That’s … Hugh Jass to the main office.”
After the announcement boomed over the loudspeaker, Principal Meaker peered out of his office with a questioning look, and the two teachers began to laugh. Miss Payne burst through the door, demanding to know, in a steely voice, “Who authorized that announcement? Where did it come from?”
Cindy’s hand shook as she proffered the note. “A teacher sent this down…”
The secretary grabbed the note. “Which teacher? I can’t read the signature.”
“I…I don’t know,” Cindy said. “Some boy gave me the note and said it was from his teacher.”
The two young teachers began to laugh again, and Miss Payne quieted them with a look. Principal Meaker said, “Let’s discuss this in my office.” He ushered Cindy and the secretary into the room, gestured for them to take seats, and closed the door.
Miss Payne said, “Miss Meyer, you’ve been had.”
“What?” Cindy said.
“There’s no student named Hugh Jass,” the secretary said. “Just like there’s no student named Ben Dover, or Moe Lester, or—”
Color drained from Cindy’s cheeks. “Oh, no! Oh, no! Everybody will know I’m the one who… They’ll all laugh at me! Oh, God! It’ll be bad enough in class, but what about study hall and…cafeteria? I’ll be so embarrassed… What will I do?”
Principal Meaker said, in a reassuring voice, “Why don’t you just stay here in the office for the rest of the day? Maybe things will settle down after that.”
Tears began to well up, as Cindy said, “Okay.”
The Principal gave her a tissue. He added, “I understand you’re a business major? High average?”
“Well, maybe you’d like to spend all your free periods as an aide. You seem like an honest, hard-working young lady, and with all the budget cuts and staff cutbacks, we could use the help, both here in the main office and down in the counseling center.”
“Yes, I’d like that.” Cindy’s hands still trembled. “I’d like that a lot.”
* * *
After school, Cindy waited for the halls to clear before heading to her locker, where she gathered up her books and assignments. Leaving school, she didn’t take her usual route home. Instead, after a careful glance around, she walked through the faculty lot and out to the football bleachers. Rounding the corner of the snack shack, she ran into the boy in the button-down shirt. He’d been waiting, and he gave her a high-five.
“Well?” he asked.
Cindy took off her backpack, rooted around inside, and pulled out a key ring. She held up the shiny keys, one at a time. “Main office, counseling center, records room… I’ll make copies. In a few days, I’ll have the password to the grading system. You can start lining people up. We said we’d charge fifty bucks for a transcript change, but…let’s make it a hundred for the honors kids and jocks.”
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George Morse is former high school principal. He lives in Hamburg, New York.