Jeff Haunt’s wife is hearing voices.
Still, the seventh grade science teacher at Springfield Middle School in Paterson, New Jersey, should be standing at his classroom door while homeroom 715 walks in. In last week’s teachers’ meeting, Principal Jaffe talked to 70 plus teachers in the auditorium without the need of a microphone. He made it clear that every teacher of 715 had to stand at the door with a clipboard to check off students’ names as soon as they walked in the classroom. This mandatory procedure was enacted after the district cracked down on the school when one of the girl students, Deenesha Benticore, was supposed to be in Mr. Haunt’s class, but was let out of the class with a bathroom pass and never returned. Haunt never called down to the office to report it. In her absence, she snuck out of the school from the side door and was gang raped in an alley by four boys from Springfield High School just three blocks away.
The principal, of course, took the heat, and in turn, he gave it back to Haunt.
The day after the incident, Principal Jaffe slammed his fist on his desk and said, “Jeff, I swear to God, if there’s another problem in your classroom, you’re out of a job.”
But Jeff Haunt, 5’6 and 130 lbs. soaking wet with a back so rigid that it reveals a whole column of vertebrae, isn’t standing at the front door of his room, even after getting chewed out last week.
Instead, he’s sitting at his computer and clicking through Google trying to find out if schizophrenia is somehow linked with pregnancy. He scrolls down the page, the light glaring off his glasses. He finds articles about pregnant women who have schizophrenia, but nothing about older mothers who had become schizophrenic because of their pregnancies. Haunt takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes with the back of his sleeve and stares at the screen. He’s been looking online all day and hasn’t come up with anything. He doesn’t know what to do.
“I can’t take it anymore, Jeff,” he can remember his wife, Marigold, saying to him for the first time last night in bed. Her voice is even louder in his head than the din of the teenagers who are entering the room, “I hear it every day now. It’s the reason I had to quit my job.”
“Yo, say that again, ma’fucker,” a voice shouts, pulling Haunt out of his trance and bringing him back into the classroom, which has spitballs, spread open textbooks, and gum wrappers all over the floor from last period.
“Jaylon!” Haunt says, standing up from his computer, and pointing down to the floor, “Sit—down.”
The boy, Jaylon Taylor, stands even skinnier than Haunt, with wiry muscles and skinny legs. Still, he is both feared and revered in Springfield Middle School, and he stands over his peer, Maurice Kasper, with his fists balled up, ready for action. The boy he stands over is at least 50 lbs. heavier than him and has a neck like a bulldog’s.
“Yeah, sit yo’ bitch ass down like Mr. Haunt says,” Maurice says in his baritone voice, still sitting in his desk and swiping the air with his large hand, “You act like you really gonna do somethin’ wit’ your punk ass.”
“Maurice, stop provoking him,” Haunt says, moving from behind his desk to the side of it but not getting a step closer, as he’s fearful that he might be punched in the face again like last time when he took away a girl’s test because he caught her cheating.
He had heard from his only friend at the school, Steve Covington, that many of the teachers had laughed at him in the teacher’s lounge following that incident. And upon hearing that, it stung him almost as much as the punch itself, as the idea of people laughing at him takes him back to his childhood with the neighborhood bullies.
“Son, say that again,” Jaylon says, and another boy stands up in the right hand corner of the room and points at Jaylon, his fat body heaving.
“Yo, Maurice, you gon’ take that shit sittin’ down, my nigga?” the student, Jordan Romain says, sweat pouring down his face and dreadlocks, “He called you a pussy on the basketball court, too, man. He think he better than you.”
“Yo, son, stay outta this,” Jaylon says, turning his head to Jordan. But it’s at that moment that Haunt sees everything happen in slow motion. Maurice’s fist crashes into Jaylon’s stomach and makes him collapse into the desk next to him, causing him to bang his head on the metal bar by the bottom of the seat. The girl in the desk he falls into is already out of her seat exclaiming, “Fight, fight, fight!”
Before Haunt even has a chance to think, Jaylon is already up off the ground, throwing a punch at Maurice, who is out of his seat and already pushing his desk into Jaylon’s midsection. The other students in the desks next to his move out of the way and join in with the chant: “Fight, fight, fight!”
“Maurice! Jaylon, Stop it!” Haunt yells, running towards them as the crowd around the two of them closes in.
Haunt grabs a student by the shoulder and gets pushed to the floor, making him hit the back of his head on the top of a desk. He gets up and sees floating dots like gnats in front of his eyes and stumbles over to the gray box on the wall by his desk, pushing the red button on it as fast as he can. Behind him, he can hear boys yelling in Haitian and girls squealing with delight as fists crash into body parts behind him. As soon as he hears the click over to the main office, Haunt is already babbling.
“Michelle, you have to send up security quick, there’s a—”
Haunt winces as if he’s preparing for a car crash when he hears the sound of glass shattering behind him. He stops hitting the button and an image of his wife appears in his head, getting dimmer and dimmer as if she’s drifting off into nothingness.
He turns his head from the button and looks at the now silent crowd that spreads apart to reveal the sole student computer in the room on the scuffed up floor. It lies face down with its blue backside pointing up like a capsized ship as glass pieces are scattered all around it.
“Hello!” Principal Jaffe’s gruff voice says from the speaker above him, making Haunt jump. He wasn’t expecting the principal’s heavy voice to come out of the speaker.
All of the students pick up their overturned desks and sit in them quietly at the sound of the principal’s voice, Jaylon and Maurice included.
“Mr. Haunt, are you there?” Principal Jaffe asks, his voice gruff and surly.
Haunt stays silent. (Jeff, I swear to God if there’s another problem in your classroom, you’re out of a job). His heart is pounding, making his brain feel light and fuzzy. He needs this job. Now that Marigold quit her job, she’s depending on him.
“I’m sending a security guard up there,” Principal Jaffe says, and the sound in the room clicks off. All at once, Haunt’s whole body slumps down. He feels like he’s 100 years old.
The kids don’t let out so much as a peep as Haunt drags himself back to his desk. When he sits down, Principal Jaffe’s voice rumbles through the P.A. system.
“I want the nearest security guard in Mr. Haunt’s room immediately,” Mr. Jaffe says, his voice hard and demanding like a jackhammer dislocating cement.
Haunt watches the newly reformed students take out other teachers’ assignments from their bags as he crosses his arms on his desk and rests his chin atop them. He looks at the students from behind a cup full of pencils and a tape dispenser and thinks about his wife showing him the greeting card messages she had written the past few months. The wording on them was disturbing and scribbled as if they were written by a child. He thinks about those papers and the tear stains left on them as Mr. Lawson walks in the room without even knocking, his large, light skinned frame commanding every single eyeball in the room.
Haunt looks up from his crossed arms and sees the cold, hard man’s brown eyes zero in on the downed computer in the corner and then down at Haunt, who doesn’t make a move.
Mr. Lawson takes his walkie talkie off his belt and says, “I’m here, Mr. Jaffe, over.”
“What’s it look like in there?” Mr. Jaffe says in bits and pieces on the other end of the walkie talkie.
“Worse than usual,” Mr. Lawson says, his eyes not leaving Haunt, “There’s a busted computer screen face down on the floor with glass all over the place.”
“And what about the kids, how do they look?” Mr. Jaffe says.
“Well, I see one knucklehead trying to hide that his shirt’s been ripped, and another with a bloody nose, so you know the two of them must have been goin’ at it,” Mr. Lawson says, and Haunt looks down but can still feel Mr. Lawson looking at him, as his nape begins to burn from his gaze.
“Tell Mr. Haunt to come down to my office immediately,” Mr. Jaffe says, “And watch his class while he comes down here. I want a written report if any one of them causes you a problem.”
“Will do, boss, over,” Lawson says, and he throws his thumb back to the door to Haunt. “Boss says he want to see you.”
Haunt gets up and walks past Lawson and doesn’t look back as he leaves the room.
In all his 47 years, two of those being a teacher, he’s never been more certain of anything in his life than the fact that he’s going to lose his job today. In the back of his mind, he sees Marigold reaching out for him, submerged in impenetrable darkness.