Thursday, March 30, 2006


In Which I Cross the Line...

As usual, the trouble began with the phone calls.

I had come home early the day Thomas showed me the note, so it was only around 4:30. I knew the school staff worked til 5, so I went ahead and called the number on the Disciplinary Action sheet sent home by Mr. Assouline, the Dean of Discipline who had--unfairly I thought--sentenced my first-grader son to a week's worth of detention.

I've talked to other journalists about this and we agree: You can generally sense who is a caller and who isn't. I had a feeling this guy was no caller. He was the kind who used voicemail to shield himself, a barricade against intrusion on whatever the hell it was he did when he wasn't meting out justice based on half-assed evidence. But I've spent half my life trying to get people on the phone.

People who use the phone as a shield are not much different than the leaders of France when they built the Maginot Line (which, as you may recall from your World War II history, was a line of forts and bunkers and defenses to keep the Nazis out of France. Rather than fight against immovable battlements, though, the Nazis simply went around the line). I had my suspicions that this guy might be that kind of person, but thought I at least try to call a few times in the hopes of catching him at his desk. If that failed, I'd find a way around his Maginot Line and go all blitzkreig on his ass.

So I dialed the number. Interestingly, the phone didn't even ring. I was immediately shunted into a voice mailbox where a nasally male voice informed me, "You have reached the Dean of Discipline's voicemail. Please leave your name and message and he will return your call soon." Beep. I left a message, but it seemed to me this wasn't even the guy's number, just a mailbox in the system. Yep, not a caller, but a stonewaller.

Time to go around the Maginot Line. As an experiment, I dialed one number down, changing the last digit from a 2 to a 1, figuring I'd still get an extension at the school.

I got the school library. "Oh, I'm sorry," I said in my most sincere voice. "I was calling for Mr. Assouline. He's not at 1211?"

"Oh, no," said a pleasant female voice. "Wait a sec," she said and I had a mental image of her scanning a phone sheet tacked to a bulletin board by her desk. "He's at 1247." The shit, I thought. Doesn't even give parents a real number to reach him when he sends home those notes. Arrogant ass. But what did you expect from someone who voluntarily refers to himself as the Dean of Discipline?

The librarian was part-time and unfamiliar with the phone system and so couldn't transfer me, but that was okay. I redialed, and this time the phone rang. And rang. And rang. I got another voicemail. Same nasally voice, only this time he talked about himself in the first person. "This is Alan Assouline," he said, and I was amused to realize he pronounced it Ah-zo-lyne, which was definitely not how I was pronouncing it (nor, I decided, would I pronounce it any other way in the future). Instead of leaving a message, I hit zero and rang out to the office secretary. I told her who I was and asked for Assouline.

"Let me ring you through," she said. "I'm pretty sure he's in his office." Then there was some clicking, followed by more ringing. Once again, I got his voicemail. If he was in his office, the shit wasn't answering his phone. I left a message and asked him to call me back right away. Of course he didn't.

In my line of work, one of the worst parts of writing a story, I think, is not so much reporting or pulling all your information together in a coherent way. It's the waiting for callbacks. Drives me nuts, because I'm an impatient person who demands immediate gratification. So when I'm reporting a story, I have a nice long call-sheet of potential sources and if I don't get one, I just call the next person on the sheet. It keeps me busy, although it does sometimes mean that I end up with 20 people calling me back and nowhere near enough space to work them all in. But usually, it means I get just enough people to put a story together.

Problem here was, there was only one source I needed to reach. I had no one else to call.

Or did I?

After dinner that night, I started looking through all of the various papers Thomas had brought home from his teacher. Finally, I found what I was looking for: a class list. Sure enough, there was Jackie, the girl Thomas had defended from the bully. And there was Andrew, the bully himself.

I thought briefly about trying to call his parents, but instead I decided to find Jackie's parents. Her last name was Korean, and a common one, alas. Two and a half pages in the phone book were devoted to that last name. I asked Thomas if he knew where Jackie lived, but he doesn't pay attention to stuff like that. I drummed my fingers on the table for a moment. "Which bus does she ride?" I asked. I had paperwork from the bus company somewhere showing which zones were serviced by which buses. That would narrow it down to a couple townships at least.

But again I was thwarted. "She doesn't ride the bus. Her mom and dad pick her up," he said. Well, crap.

I stewed for a moment, until I realized Thomas was looking at me. "Why are you trying to find Jackie?" he asked.

"Well, I just wanted to talk to her parents. You said she was quiet and didn't like to talk, but maybe her parents could get her to tell Mr. Assouline what happened."

Thomas looked thunderstruck, as if this had simply never occurred to him, and I realized once again just how young 7 really is. Too young to be told he's getting detention, I thought. And then I amused myself with an idle daydream about showing up at Assouline's office with Blaze and yelling "Loafer!" which is the signal for my dog to attack and remove someone's shoe (and occasionally give the victim's leg a bonus humping while he's at it).

Thomas said something I hadn't caught.

"What, buddy?" I asked.

"I bet Mrs. Doohickey knows where Jackie lives," he said.

I slapped my forehead. Of course! My neighbor was a substitute teacher and had worked at Thomas' school several times last year, but not so much this year. I dialed her number from memory (we are on the neighborhood watch together, you recall). We chatted for a moment and then I began the story you've already heard. As soon as I said the name "Assouline," I heard a snort that I mistook for laughter.

"Sorry," I said. "I know he pronounces it differently."

"Oh no," she said. "That's how we all pronounce it when he's not around." She didn't really have any vital intelligence to provide me--she had no idea where Jackie lived. "But that Andrew is a trouble-maker. Well, you remember how much he was into throwing rocks and stuff. But he's sneaky too. And when he gets in trouble, his parents never do anything. There's some problems there at home, I think. Not that that gives him the right to pick on other kids. I know he sees the school counselor, but I guess it's not helping. Did he really call sweet little Jackie fat?"

"That's what Thomas told me," I said.

Then my neighbor gave me one piece of information that would ultimately come in very handy. I thanked her and rang off.

Next day, the moment I got to work, and probably around the same time Thomas was handing Assouline his Disciplinary Action sheet, I called Assouline's number again. And again, I left a message, still using my professional, courteous reporter voice (although I could feel it becoming more brittle by the second). I also zeroed out and left a message with the secretary. Just in case.

Once again, the end of the day rolled around, no phone call.

Wednesday morning I called again, leaving messages with anyone who would take one. Soon it would be Friday and Monday was meant to be the start of Thomas' detention. If I wanted to meet Assouline and stop this travesty of justice before it began, I really needed to meet him this week. Also, I was getting pissed.

Which explains why I called again at lunch. When she picked up the phone on my last call, the secretary, who did a creditable job of not sounding exasperated, said, "He IS here and I've given him the other messages. I'm sure he'll call you when he has time."

"That's okay," I said in my sweetest nicest sincerest interview voice, "Will you please let him know that this is my last phone call to the office?"

"Sure, dear," she said, and I could swear she sounded vaguely relieved as she was about to hang up. But I wasn't quite finished.

"Oh, and will you also let him know that if he is unable to return my call by the end of business today, that's fine," I added. "I know how busy he must be. I'll just give Earl a call and take it up with him." Then I hung up.

And--holy shit, would you believe it?--the Dean of Discipline, Assouline himself--called me back 15 minutes later!

Oh, Earl, by the way, is Earl Flynn, Ed.D, or "Dr. Flynn" as he is known in the school system. He's the superintendent. The vice-principal's boss's boss. Never met him, but I got his name off the school Web site, and I'm sure he's a nice guy.

And I have to confess, Assouline did his best impersonation of a nice guy too. "I am SOOO sorry I haven't called back sooner," he said through his nose. "The principal is out of town and I'm just swamped between his duties and my own. But as far as Thomas is concerned--"

"Oh listen," I said. "We don't have to do this by phone. I'm perfectly happy to come to your office. I'm free this afternoon. School's out at, what? 3:45? I could meet you any time from then on."

"Oh, er, well, I have a budget meeting with the committee and, that won't work," he said. "But about Thomas--"

"Mr. Assouline," I said. "We are going to discuss Thomas' situation in person. If we cannot meet tonight, tomorrow or Friday to discuss it, then of course the detention you plan to give him all of next week will have to be postponed. Can we meet tomorrow morning before first bell?"

"I'm an early riser," he said sniffily. "I'm here when the custodian opens the door at 6:30."

"Then I'll meet you in your office at 6:35," I said pleasantly.

"Uh, er, all right," he said. "Tomorrow, then." And he hung up.

So if you're reading this first thing this morning, I'm probably at the guy's office right now. But I'm telling you, I won't be in a good mood. I hate early morning meetings. I'm never fully awake, the coffee never kicks in fast enough, and I am a complete and total absolute prick to be around.

All in all, it sounds like the perfect time to meet him...

He sounds like someone that didn't know what to do with his life, so he went into education. I hate those people. So many teachers are great at what they do, and love to teach, but some of them...

I am glod you are meeting face to face, and even happier that it will be without your morning coffee ;)
GOOD FOR YOU. In person meetings are so much better...people can say anything they want over the phone b/c it makes them feel safer. Can't wait to hear how this goes!
I can't wait to hear how this plays out. I love the image of you bringing Blaze...and him humping the guys leg. The kind of guy who hides behind his voicemail and his secretary is no match for a pissed off parent. Especially one with your tenacity. Almost makes me feel sorry for him...he has no idea what's about to hit him. Almost, but not really.
Oh, SNAP! What happened!

I would like to read the Magazine Man book of And Justice Was Served stories. Please make one, please.
That phonecall dodging nonesense drives me batty. You (and your kid) are like a customer at a restaurant and your asparagus was burned. Imagine if the maître d'hôtel wouldn't come to your table because he was busy dealing with the gal who supplies the fresh basil. That's nuts.

Seriously, I have a problem with the fact that I can't just check in with my kid's teachers when I need to. You would think that anyone in the educational system would be happy to talk to an interested, sincere parent. Imagine you are an EMT arriving at an accident site. As you are assessing and assisting the victim, their personal physician shows up, offering help. What would you do?
Go, MM, GO! If I ever have a situation when I have to deal pleasantly with an Assouline, expect an email asking for a strategy plan.
I had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting a fellow with a similar, vaugely S&M title at my son's high school. While my son was not blameless nor misunderstood, the guy seemed to revel in the misdeeds of others, like a skinny hippo rolling in a mud wallow. And every time I met him, his face was always sunburned and peeling, even in the middle of a midwest winter.

I started refering to him as the Boiled Nazi. Not mature, but the most satisfying aspect of an unpleasant situation.

I'm squeeeing with delight at this. I think an informative meeting with the principal is also in order when he returns, you know, for feedback on how 'well' Mr. Assholio handled things in his absence. wink. wink.
MM, you -- much like my mom -- are very much a "don't f$%^ with my family" person. My dad used to call her "an ankle-biter". Anyway, I think it kicks butt and I'm sure Thomas totally appreciates it.
You are a damn fine phone caller!
also... just read the bad news. I'm so, so sorry, MM.
So what happened?
How can ANY educator, a person who presumably has been trained to understand the developmental stages of children, take a "zero tolerance" stance on anything having to do with a first grader?!

My hyper-sensitive injust-ometer is pinned in the red zone on this one. Can't wait to read the results of your one-on-one meeting.
I'm waiting impatiently to see how this turns out. Having worked with kids, I know there are days when it's a HUGE challenge to remember to listen to each kid's perspective, but it's simple respect. So, it has to be done. and every now and then, a grown up might even learn something. So, teach Assouline a lesson, did you?

Jen (in Iowa City with no blog)
Just reading about you righting wrongs and sticking up for the "little" man (especially your little man) is a catharsis for me. I love to hear how you deal with things. Your sneaky phone number trick is one I've used many times myself. And I'm pretty sure I know but I have to ask. Your pronunciation of his name rhymes with "gasoline" doesn't it?
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