Just Like Romeo and Juliet
While trying to decide what to do when I grew up, I taught high school English, journalism, and drama–for more than 20 years. When my high school became a middle school, I had to learn to shift my focus from masterpieces of literature to “do not stick that pencil in his eye.” Before long, I was transferred to the high school where I learned that the lessons learned are not always what the teacher thought he was teaching.
For example, I learned why I might have better chosen to teach the Scottish play than Romeo and Juliet. At least one of my students seemed to take away a unique lesson from the star-crossed lovers.
When the school was undergoing a dreaded evaluation team visit for Southern States accreditation, the “balcony scene” took on new meaning. Early one morning, a teacher heard noises coming from what should have been a vacant auditorium balcony. Entering, he found two students, one proudly (and manifestly) male, and the other, a female, kneeling in what appeared to be religious adoration of the pillar of flesh that rose before her. Some call it a “compromising” position. What was certain was that the young man enjoyed school, at least for the moment.
Their being at least partially au naturel naturally raised the teacher’s suspicions, even before the male member (and the associated person) bolted, awkwardly pulling up trousers as he—some would say less than gallantly—bolted from the scene, leaving his lady love to face the consequences.
The astute teacher perceived that something was afoot—and something evidently was not—and concluded that the two were not participating in a recognized student activity. Well, he recognized the activity, but it was not formally sanctioned by the drama department, even for team-building.
Calling upon a distaff faculty member to supervise the young lady as she rearrange her clothing—and to guard against her joining the object of her ministrations in rapid retreat, the first teacher gave chase to the gangly youth.
Despite the young man’s entanglements, the teacher, who had not had the same opportunity to warm up, was unsuccessful and the sprinter won what was later termed a one-sided three-legged race.
I heard the story at lunchtime. While various teachers expressed disgust and contempt, amusement and a soupcon of jealousy lurked beneath their disclaimers. The discussion was among the most animated I ever heard in the faculty room.
Despite the words, jealousy and envy pervaded the conversation, providing a clear subtext.
The incident crossed my mind more than a time or two during the following class. I compared my sexual repression and backwardness throughout junior high and high school—and college and graduate school… and beyond—and was aware that my own annoyance at the lack of self-discipline and judgment was tempered by some degree of amusement and an unhealthy dose of envy. My Catholic condemnation vied with my admiration of their youthful passion and audacity. I was most troubled by the erstwhile Lothario’s abandonment of his lady love, leaving her to face humiliation alone. I could remember no equivalent tale of public display of amorous activity, other than the legendary tale of high school seniors Tommy and Becky in the shallow end of her swimming pool—before the admiring eyes of Becky’s younger brother and his friends from a covert coin d’avantage.
As students worked, I was circulating through the classroom when my attention was drawn to a student who was intently writing what appeared to be a lengthy note. Two factors contributed to his drawing my attention: First, as he was devilishly handsome and charming and not known for applying himself assiduously to his work, the intensity of his writing was out of character. Second, he looked up too frequently with eyes filled with mingled innocence and anxiety. Innocents don’t continually scan the area for observers.
I suspect that he saw my eyes light up. Notes are the single most exciting way for aging and listless teachers to catch up on gossip. They give up the goods without forcing teachers to admit to interest in the more lurid aspects of student life.
Gently sliding the note from the desk of the student, whose now bug- eyes revealed something a few degrees beyond abject terror, I told the young man that I would save the missive to savor at leisure. He released his grip and resignedly slid down in his chair.
During the next period, my planning period, I discovered the forgotten note when I opened my drawer. Making a student squirm for inattentiveness might break up the routine, but the thrill passes quickly, and I usually dispose of them unread. I drew it from the drawer and my hand hovered over the waste basket before curiosity moved me to open it.
The prose appropriately defined purple. In lurid and lascivious detail, Romeo revisited his most delicious memories from the morning’s tryst in the balcony. My non-sleuthing had revealed the identity of the (unsatisfied and fleet-footed) mystery cad. This was more invigorating than breaking up a fight between mean girls. And far safer.
After reading the note a dozen or so times to be sure that it was the evidence I suspected of the, um unlawful entry—and to commit some of the better turns of phrase to memory to substitute for my own relatively drab and dull existence, I cut along to share the wealth with the administrator charged with investigating the balcony caper. (Who says that school is dull?)
He purposefully donned his reading glasses with his wonted air of resignation and bored tolerance. (He always purposefully donned his reading glasses, as if it were a stage direction to self: “”purposefully don reading glasses.”) I saw his eyebrows dance a quick jig and his eyes widened as drops of perspiration formed on his upper lip. His eyes flicked to mine at intervals. I mentally reviewed the procedure for cardiac resuscitation, should the need arise.
I believed that it was right—in fact, my only responsible option—to share the note with administrator, but in my heart, I knew that I was sadly exhilarated at breaking the most scintillating case we had had at school in memory. And the associate principal was the only one with whom I could justify sharing it. Showing it to anyone else would have been unprofessional and inappropriate. I was aware that I felt more excited than was healthy, and visions of Major Burn’s sneering tattling danced a pathetic ballet in the shadows of my mind.
Recall that we were under the scrutiny of a visiting team whose purpose was to find fault with our school. That is the only fun in serving on an accreditation team. Therefore, it is no surprise that faculty had been sternly admonished to keep a tight lid on the scandal while our visitors were on-site.
When the initial excitement wore off, the administrator decided that both students should be removed from school until the scandal died down and they had a chance to collect themselves, so he suspended both of them for ten days.
This must be scanned.
That it might be a mistake was evident from the moment the students were informed and the boy sat up straight and grinned, his dimples prominent. They looked at each other and, although they tried to suppress their glee, the corners of the young lady lips definitely rose in a demure smile. The prospect of having to spend the next ten days alone together did not appear to depress their collective spirit.
They appeared eager to get on with their punishment with all due haste, and I doubt that it was coincidence that, while Juliet left the office with averted eyes, Romeo left the office with his literature book held in front of him.
Their return at the end of two weeks saw them as relaxed and happy as a couple fresh from their honeymoon, and their stature among peers was clearly elevated.
As the subplot of this affair had been keeping the accrediting team ignorant of the embarrassing incident, faculty and staff had been warned not to breathe a word of extracurricular activity in the balcony. (The etymology of “obscene” sprang, unbidden, to mind.) The visiting team was concluding its examination, and we breathed a collective and metaphorical sigh of relief at our success in keeping the secret from the grown-ups…visiting team. Tension among the school staff was almost palpable. The principal was unwontedly stiff and unsmiling.
The faculty gathered in the auditorium for a summary of the team’s findings; the principal’s face seemed rigidly set as we approached the study’s climax. (I heard it.) Before a tense and silent faculty, the chairman solemnly intoned that after considerable deliberation the team had decided not to include a recommendation to install cots in the balcony.
The stillness of the room was broken with a whoompf of faculty guffaws, and the crimson glow emanated from the vicinity of the principal, spreading from his neck to his hairline.
It probably says more about my own maturity–or lack thereof– that although I did what I thought I had to, I carried a niggling sense of having betrayed a young man of whom I was very fond. We have remained in contact in the 40-plus years since, but never in four decades have we alluded to that incident, although I often wonder whether he thinks about it when we talk.
Certainly, it has not entered my mind since.