At the end of an ordinary day in February 2015, the phone rang in my classroom. It was a vice principal, asking me to come to the office. Once there, I found myself falsely accused of hitting a child in class. I was alone in a room with a vice principal and a police officer who tried her best to be kind. I signed a statement as I wept, saying I hit no one. The school principal told me Child Protective Services would investigate. My life as an ordinary first-year teacher seemed over.
After Mr. Horner told me to go home, I did. I went home. First I asked if I needed to put in a request for a sub. Mr. Horner, looking at the bare walls of the little room, said he would take care of that. “Go home and get some rest, all right?” He leaned over and squeezed my shoulder in a gesture meant to be sympathetic. I flinched, and he pulled his hand back.
Suddenly, the principal, Mrs. Annie Upton, was in the doorway. “Colleen,” she said when she saw my red eyes and heard me crying. I felt exposed to the elements, standing in the middle of a winter storm without my coat. I knew she hated criers. Criers were weak.
“Go home. We had to call CPS,” she said in the extra calm voice she used when she was annoyed. “It is required by law. We did not expect them to take the case. Anjoleena can’t even remember when this happened. She said it was about a month ago. I have never seen a case that did not turn out the right way. You just have to calm down and let the system work.
“Are you hearing me?” She looked right at me, unlike Mr. Horner. I saw a flick of distain, quickly swept away by the same look she gave students who earned her forgiveness. “I need to leave now,” she said. “I have to go pick up my husband.” Then she was gone. Mr. Horner and I were alone.
I had a million questions, but didn’t know where to start. I walked, my feet heavy, to my classroom, my eyes still spilling tears. I was determined that no child would see me and know that I had been crying. That would be unprofessional. It also would be all over the school by the end of first period the next day. The time was about 5:20 p.m., so the chances of running into children were slim. For that, I was grateful.
I assumed I needed to put lesson plans together for a substitute teacher the next day, so I spent the next hour in my classroom writing a note to whoever would sit behind my desk the next day. I had a set of emergency plans – a scavenger hunt through students’ old literature textbooks. It was already copied and ready to hand out to my students. I got the rest of a sub packet ready: rosters, seating charts, instructions on how to do the work and when to turn it in, what to do during a fire drill, what button to push in case of an emergency, how to call the office. There was a list of required sub information, but I had never used a sub before. I had never missed a day of school, and it was now Feb. 23, 2015. I was on autopilot, thinking only about the task in front of me. I wanted to do the right thing by my students. That was all I thought about, the mantra I repeated in my head.
Meanwhile, my eyes, my throat, my head weren’t going along with the plan. My eyes burned and watered. I refused to think of it as crying. My throat periodically closed up and I made choking noises trying to catch my breath. My head pounded. All of the teachers were gone. I don’t know if the principal, Mrs. Upton, was still was in her office, or Mr. Horner, the vice principal. Neither came to my door to offer advice or tell me how to prepare for what was coming. I did what I thought was right. I was afraid to call them. I fully expected someone might burst through my door and arrest me, but that didn’t happen.
My cell phone rang, but reception in my brick classroom was bad. The call went to message before I could answer it. “Hi Mom. This is Cole. When are you going to get home? You always get home before now.” The clock over my classroom door read 8 p.m. I didn’t call back. Oh, God. Cole, I’m sorry, I said to myself. I cried some more for him. Almost done. I wrote my agenda on the white board at the front of the room, including a writing warmup for students’ journals. “Explain a visit to the dentist to a kindergartner with a mouthful of cavities.” That would work.
I was used to taking home a lot of work and spending a few hours before bedtime honing my lesson plans. I was a first year teacher, and I was making it all up as I went along. I have to admit that. I left through a side door. My car and Mr. Horner’s were the only ones in the parking lot. Alone in my car, I screamed. Hoarse, guttural screams. No words. No one to hear me. I screamed for my future, for the work I had put into a new career, for the child who accused me, for the rest of my students, and most of all for Cole, for my family.
Where was I? I had been driving without thinking and went right past the road where I should have turned off. I was driving without thinking about driving. I turned around and found the backroads route I always took home. I was suddenly dead tired, my eyelids heavy as big-screen TVs. I rolled down a window and let cold air blow on my face. I felt the tires hit gravel. I must have fallen asleep for a microsecond, enough for the car to veer off the road and onto the slim gravel shoulder.
I made it home that night. I don’t know how. I stepped through the door and into the light of the family room. A chorus of scared words came from my three teen-agers and my husband as they looked at my red-rimmed eyes, my hair stuck to my damp cheeks.