The ringing phone split the sudden silence of my classroom just after the last 7th-grader rushed out the door to freedom. I could hear and smell the buses through the open doorway at the end of the hall. The phone was a signal that my name was about to become AA – alleged abuser. I was about to lose the name Mrs. LaMay, 7th grade language arts teacher at Lincoln Middle School. My reputation, my livelihood, my health, my very freedom, would be on the line within minutes. A child who had been in the school office all afternoon accused me of hitting her with the back of my hand. The girl filed a police report charging me with assault.
“Mrs. LaMay, can you come down to the office for a moment, please?” I recognized the voice as that of Vice Principal Jack Horner, even though he did not identify himself, as he normally did. “Sure.” I quickly glanced at the mess the kids left in my windowless but cheerful classroom – books on the floor, shredded paper, candy wrappers (though candy is forbidden), pencil shavings. I thought of Mr. Abu, who would soon be pushing his janitorial cart down the hall to clean up behind the 29 kids in my Core 3 class. Usually, I helped by getting books off the floor and using my own dustpan and broom to clear the worst of the floor leavings. Today, I turned off the lights, shut my door and turned the knob slightly to make sure I locked it. Thievery was a problem at the middle school where I was a first-year teacher.
The office was right around the corner, and on the way there, I thought I must have forgotten to sign a form. In schools, I discovered that first year, there are always forms to sign. If I needed to leave the building for any reason during the day, there was a form for that. Whether a child was simply late to class or was calling me a bitch or worse under her breath, there was a form for it. Teachers turned in all forms, preferably neatly typed, to the office. Mostly, we never heard anything about what, if anything, happened to kids whose names were on the forms. Discipline at my school was inconsistent, it seemed to me. But what did I know? I was new.
When I reached the school’s administrative offices, I remember the nice office women, the same ones who worked at my own children’s schools, directing me to an empty room. I had not been in this particular room before, and I was alone. The air was stale and cold. What happened to the office staff? Where was Mr. Horner? I stood in the room instead of sitting down. Then, Mr. Horner was there, along with the school resource officer, Susan Dempsey. She had papers in her hand. We all sat down. “What’s going on?” I asked, a sliver of fear jabbing my throat.
“Anjoleena Marchardo is saying you hit her during class a month or so ago, and we are required to report any allegation of child abuse to Child Protective Services,” Mr. Horner said, looking down at the table. “Can I just ask you a few questions, Mrs. LaMay?” the school-resource officer asked. I started to sob. Seeing this, Officer Dempsey said gently, “Oh, no, not the crying. Can you think of any reason why Anjoleena would make such an accusation?” I couldn’t hear her. My mind raced with thoughts of a jail cell, of my children being taken from me, of losing my first teaching job, the job I got after working two years to get my teaching license.
And what would my students say about me? “No,” I managed.
Dempsey slid a piece of paper across the table toward me. It had a blank space for my statement, my account of what happened. I had no lawyer, no union representative, and no offer of one. Neither she nor Horner looked at me as I wrote, “I did not, and never have, hit Anjoleena Marchardo.” That is all. I put my head in my hands and wept. Within a half hour, Principal Annie Upton told me CPS had “accepted” the case, whatever that meant, and I was to go home and wait to hear from the principal.
That was day one. Twenty more were to come, and things would get worse before they got better. I went home that first day in shock. How could a 12-year-old’s lies put so much that mattered to me at stake? I was guilty without a trial. After three investigations and three weeks, I had the official answer. I was innocent.
I did not know then that nothing could really clear my name at Lincoln Middle School, where one of the darkest, most haunted chapters of my life was about to begin.