“LEAVE ME ALONE!” Sandra Billingsley recognized the sobbing voice around the corner. Someone was picking on Karen — again, she thought. She slammed her locker door shut and ran around the corner to the hall where the freshman lockers were. (*)
The anger rose in her chest as she spied the Wester brothers each pulling on an arm of her friend. Karen didn’t even come up to their shoulders. The tiny Black girl had been bullied mercilessly since the day she arrived from Washington DC.
For Sandra, the scene triggered rage on so many levels. She had arrived in this Ohio town only two years before, also from Washington. She and Karen had become friends quickly, because Karen’s father had also just retired from the Army. Like the Billingsleys before, the Monroe family was starting a new life in the Midwest. As the only 12-year-old in the high school, Sandra had been about the same size as Karen was now. In middle school, she had known the constant terror of large boys and mean girls tormenting her everywhere she turned.
As a freshman, however, Sandra had Marty and Walter. Her eldest brother was a senior and Walter was a junior. No one picked on her after the first week of high school, except her own brothers. Of course, they annoyed her at home on the farm, but she learned to dish out as good as she got. Her two younger brothers never tried to wrestle with her after she knocked Marty into the pigs’ slop.
By the time Marty had joined the Navy and Walter had left for the Marines, Sandra had begun her growth spurt. Though skinny and gawky, she was taller and stronger than most. A farm was hard work; her parents cut her no slack for being a girl.
Karen did not have anyone. And that really pissed Sandra off.
“You heard her!” She barked. “Karen, drop!” The small girl fell as the two bullies let go to face their furious classmate bearing down on them. Sandra’s bookbag swung up from behind her butt in an arc that pushed Jerry Wester clear over Karen and into his brother. Sandra reached down even as the inertia of the swinging bag pulled her away from the pair. She caught Karen’s wrist and pulled her away from the collapsing heap of adolescent male flesh.
“Get out of the freshman wing, you two. Now!”
Jimmy Wester had a cut on the side of his face, and he was dazed from having hit the floor under the weight of his brother. The two staggered to their feet. Jerry clenched his fists. “What’s a nigger to you, Billingsley?” he said.
“A friend – don’t even think of it.” The book bag was already swinging as Jerry started to move. Another trip to the floor took the rest of the fight out of him. Jimmy helped his brother up, and the two leaned on each other as they staggered to the end of the hall around the corner.
“Why did you do that?” Karen asked, as Sandra helped her pick up the papers and books that the Westers had pulled from her locker. “I get that all the time, and now you’re going to be marked for helping me.”
“We Army brats have to stick together, right?” That brought a weak smile to Karen’s face. “Besides, the Westers are just bullies. They harassed me, too. People around here know about them.”
With the locker stowed and Karen’s bag packed, the two friends were barely in time to catch the school bus.
“Pass the beans, please, Sandra.” Chief Warrant Officer Martin Billingsley, US Army (retired), swung his gaze at his two sons sitting across from Sandra. “What are you two smirking about?”
Their mother paused cutting her steak.
“James, Arnold, answer your father.”
Jim looked down at his plate, then at his younger brother, who was staring at a green bean as if willing it to fly, then up to their father.
“Sandy kicked ass today, Dad.”
Sandra gasped. Marcia started to speak, but her husband held up his hand. “We’ll deal with the language later. What do you mean, son?”
“It’s all over the school. You know the Westers in Sandy’s class.” Martin nodded. “Well, she beat the sh— heck out of them this afternoon.”
Arnie added, “they were picking on Karen Monroe.”
“Master Sergeant Monroe’s little girl?”
“Yes, sir. She’s a freshman.”
Martin looked at Sandra. “Is this the pair that got Marty sent to the principal when you were a freshman?”
“Yes, sir. Same ones. It’s the third time they’ve picked on Karen, that I know of. I’d just had enough. Sorry, Dad.”
Martin and Marcia exchanged glances. “Pretty thick-headed, aren’t they?”
“What about the other two times?”
“Karen didn’t want me to report them. She said Negro kids learn to put up with this. The second time, though, I did report them. Nothing happened.”
“Does the administration usually ignore bullying?”
“No. Remember those other two guys that tried to pick on me when Marty and Walter were on a band trip? They got suspended for a week.”
“You think Karen’s suntan makes a difference?”
“I don’t know, Dad, but after the second time, I drilled with her, so I could have a clear shot if it happened again.”
“Just a simple thing. I shout ‘drop!’ She falls to the floor, which gets her out of the way. I figured it would be the Westers, which meant dealing with two of them.”
“So you practiced fighting?”
“Not really. We practiced her dropping and my swinging the book bag. I always have it with me.”
“The principal will be calling us now,” said Marcia.
“Who’s going to report it, Mom?” said Jim.
“Whoever was there.”
Jim and Arnie exchanged a glance and giggled again. Their father smiled quickly, then forced a frown at them.
“Who was there, Sandra?”
“Just the four of us, sir. People showed up later, but not before the Westers left.”
“So, the only witnesses must report that they got their heads handed to them by a girl” he stretched the word “two years younger than they?”
“Something like that.” Sandra scowled at her brothers. “Oh, stop it, you two. It wasn’t funny.”
“She’s right, boys.” Martin looked at his daughter. “What will you do next time, if there are witnesses?”
“The Westers are bullies, Dad. Everyone knows it. The other two times there were people around. All I had to do was confront them. If anyone faces up to them, the other kids come around, and they back down.”
Marcia said to her husband, “Now that I’ve heard this, I’m more concerned about the lack of response from the front office, dear.”
“Me, too. Sandra, write down the details of what happened when you reported the second bullying: times, dates, who you reported it to, and so forth.” He looked back at Marcia. “You’re on the faculty, and I’m an angry parent. Let’s decide together how to handle this. We should at least talk to Karen’s parents.”
“I agree. Sandra, can you write that up tonight?”
“About the language.” Martin scowled at his sons. “You two get KP for the next two days, one for each utterance. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Having extra turns washing dishes was a light punishment around the Billingsley farm.
“Thank you for seeing us, Sergeant.”
“Please come in, sir.” Zebadiah Monroe stood six-foot-four, all of it muscle. He took their coats, and introduced his wife, Samara. Mrs. Monroe was a tall woman, easily five-eleven, slender, with angular features.
“We’re both retired. Would you call me Martin?”
They settled in the living room, where coffee was waiting, with some small cakes. Martin and Marcia both took in the shadow boxes with Zeb’s ribbons and medals: Combat infantry, paratrooper, and Special Forces. Marcia’s eyes were drawn immediately to the pictures.
“These are fantastic – and familiar. Who is the artist?”
Zeb laughed and patted his wife’s shoulder, “I told you that you couldn’t hide out here in the Midwest, dear.”
Marcia gasped, “Samara. Of course! Samara Majib. You were teaching at the George Washington University. We saw your exhibition at the Corcoran a few years back.”
Samara smiled and looked down modestly. “Guilty as charged.”
Martin cleared his throat softly. “I think you two need to meet for shop-talk. It will be over my head, for sure.”
“Me, too,” said Zeb, shifting to face Martin more directly. “On the phone, you sounded very concerned.”
Marcia answered. “We are. You know I’m Karen’s art teacher, don’t you?”
“Yes, is this a parent-teacher conference?”
“Goodness, no, though I understand Karen’s work now, meeting you, Samara. It’s about our daughter Sandra, who has befriended Karen since school started. Has Karen talked to you about the bullying at school?”
“A little. She has been dealing with bullies all her school years,” said Samara. “And she has talked with some enthusiasm about Sandra. Sandy, she calls her. As far as I can tell, your daughter is her hero.”
“They are friends,” said Martin, “and Sandra does not suffer bullies lightly. Her older brothers protected her when she was a freshman, until she grew a little and could handle herself.”
“Karen is even smaller than Sandra was in middle school and freshman year, and she was bothered by some of the same bullies when we came here. Things came to a head last week.”
“The Wester boys?”
“She basically trashed them. No witnesses, so officially, no one will probably hear about it.”
Zeb smiled at that. “A senior and a junior beat up by a girl?”
“And two years younger.”
Martin said, “we wanted to talk to you about the earlier bullying before we go to the administration. After all, Karen is the victim here.”
Martin and Marcia outlined what they had learned from Sandra about the lack of response to the earlier incidents. Zeb and Samara admitted that Karen had told them about a half-dozen cases of insults and shoving when Sandra was not around.
“It seems that the Assistant Principal, Mr. Engels, is the key to this,” said Marcia. “He received Sandra’s complaint, and he is responsible for discipline.”
“You mean he doesn’t discipline?” Samara asked.
Martin and Marcia looked at each other. “That’s why we’re here. We think there’s racial bias involved, because he did suspend some students who bullied Sandra when she was a freshman.”
“What do you propose?”
“Not sure, but we know we should not take action without discussing it with you. We’re almost as new here as you are, so we don’t know if the problem is deeper than one administrator. After all, the Wester boys did not get their language from Mr. Engels. That’s their parents and their friends.”
“Makes me miss the Army even more,” said Zeb. “At least we felt like we had some recourse against the bigots when they acted out.”
“I understand that.”
“Then there’s your situation, Marcia,” said Samara. “Isn’t this Assistant Principal your superior?”
“Yes, although the District Fine Arts Coordinator looks out for his special teachers. Still, it won’t be pretty if we go public with this.”
“We’re not looking for a solution tonight,” said Martin, “but any ideas would be appreciated, and we don’t want to move on this unless you’re on board with it.”
“I’m glad you’re not trying to rush this. Our daughter may get ahead of us if we let her.”
“Karen may do what Sandy did. Start growing in time not to need help.”
“Oh, of course. Looking at the two of you, that will be impressive.”
“Yes. Meanwhile, maybe I could teach her some moves. She’ll need them if she turns out half as beautiful as her mother.” He smiled at Samara.
“I feel better, Zeb,” said Martin. “We came here as an angry father and a vulnerable teacher. I’ll hold off until we talk some more. I have all the details on the report that the Assistant Principal ignored. I’ll make a copy for you.”
“Thanks. I have an idea about it.” He walked over to the desk, where he retrieved a folder. “These are my notes from what Karen told us. I’ll add your material. If this follows the pattern I think it will, I may just pass a suggestion to a friend.” He smiled. “Everyone has a boss, even the Assistant Principal.”
Martin and Marcia stood. She said, “Are you free after school hours, Samara?”
“Yes. Karen can babysit Zeb here.” They chuckled.
“Shall we hold a parent-teacher conference in that new espresso bar next to the courthouse?”
“Excellent. Four-thirty tomorrow?”
“I’m looking forward to it very much.”
Sandra and Karen sat on the little pier that Sandra and her brothers had built. They had taken off their shoes and were swinging their feet in the duck pond. Saturday of Indian summer was almost as hot as September had been. The Monroes had come over for lunch. The grownups were chatting on the back porch. Jim and Arnie had taken their bikes to the junior high school for band practice.
“That’s a new dress, Karen. Nice.”
“Thanks. Mom says she will need to start sewing, because I’m starting to grow.”
“Last year, I was about your size. I grew all this much since then.”
“I wish I were taller. Then the Westers wouldn’t bother me so much.”
“You will be. Look at your parents. I bet you’ll be taller than I.”
“Hard to believe.”
“Well, trust me. It happens. Neither of my two older brothers wore out a pair of jeans or shoes, and Jim and Arnie are wearing them now.”
“One advantage of siblings.”
“And you have tits,” said Sandra. She ran her hands over her own flat chest.
“I wish I didn’t. Boys are starting to notice, and it bugs me.”
“Have you had your period?”
“Yeah. Started last month. Not much yet. Another thing I don’t look forward to. You?”
“Not yet. My mother says the women in her family tend to start late. I hope I don’t start in the middle of gym class or something embarrassing like that.”
“My mother made me carry a pad in my purse starting last year. She said she could tell I was going to need it.”
“Well, maybe I can get out of high school first. I hear that college kids don’t care about stuff like periods and hair.”
Sandra reached over and picked up a flat stone. She skipped it across the pond.
“How’d you do that?”
“You never skipped stones?”
“Probably would have gotten arrested trying that in the pool on the National Mall.”
Sandra laughed and stood. She selected some flat, smooth stones. They skipped stones until Karen could almost reach across the pond. Most of Sandra’s stones were lying on the far shore.
“Want some orange juice? I’m thirsty.”
On the way to the house, Sandra asked, “any more trouble with the Westers or any of the others?”
“Not since I talked to Dad after our last run-in.”
“You told your father?”
“Oh, yes, then I had to tell him how awesome you were and please don’t go teach the Westers a lesson.”
“But I just swung my book bag at them.”
“That’s not the point. When he calmed down, he said he would teach me self-defense. He even apologized for not noticing sooner that he should have been doing that.”
“Of course. He was a Green Beret, you know. He could kill you with one hand.”
“Yeah, but he told me it’s mostly attitude and knowing how to stay out of a fight when possible. He said he’d teach me that, too, and how to pick my fights so I don’t take the rap for them.”
“My brother Marty could have used that lesson.”
“You told me about that one. I think your dad and mine have something cooked up.”
“What are they doing?”
“I don’t know, but after your folks came to our house last week, Dr. Mitford came.”
“I’ve never heard of the principal visiting anyone’s home.”
“Me, neither. Anyway, they went into Dad’s study for an hour, then he left.”
Sandra caught up with Karen getting on the school bus.
“Karen, did you hear about Mr. Engels?”
“I was supposed to see him today, but he wasn’t in. Mrs. Spivey told me to go back to class.”
“He’s not coming back.”
“Apparently, last week, Dr. Mitford asked Mrs. Spivey for the files on student complaints for the last three years. Mr. Engels was breaking all kinds of rules handling them. I don’t know the details, but the Faculty got a briefing after lunch today. Mom told me that the Mrs. Schmidt will be Acting Assistant Principal until they can hire a new one.”
“Wow! Does this have anything to do with us – you know, and the Westers?”
“I don’t know, but Mom said that we should feel free to report any bullying. Not just them. Apparently, Mr. Engels wasn’t investigating the complaints or documenting the outcomes. Mrs. Schmidt won’t be like that, you can count on it.”
© 2020, 2022, JT Hine
(*) In American secondary and undergraduate schools, a freshman is a first-year student; a sophomore is a second-year; a junior is a third-year; and a senior is a fourth-year.