Everything was green. Intense. Vibrant. The sun reflected off the wet grass as the kids walked across it. They still separated by the rules of old. Jocks among jocks. Burn-outs among burn-outs. Nerd among nerds. But this was no “Breakfast Club.” One of their own had been found dead.
The rumors were flying fast. He had died of a drug overdose. They found him with a dildo up his ass. He was kidnapped and held for three weeks before being killed. He was a drug dealer and shot when a deal went bad. He got in a fight with a gang member. He was a gang member himself. He was found with a gang member up his ass. Young imaginations are capable of great creation.
I glided across the walkway as the eyes turned upon me. A few smiled. Most just stared. And then they whispered to each other as I walked past.
The building was at least two stories, maybe even more. Flat roofed. Concrete façade. Lots of glass. A modernist pavilion executed on a budget. John Adams Charter School. I got to the door but I couldn’t see in because of the reflection. I think that’s when it started hailing. Portland weather is so unpredictable.
I walked down the crowded hallway. I had forgotten what schools sounded like. That constant rumble of voices. The clang of metal lockers slamming. The sneakers squeaking on the linoleum floors. And then the bell rang. Like packs of scurrying rats. They rushed by and then disappeared out of sight. Learn well, my children. The taxpayers expect results.
I entered into the office. The Principal was expecting me. I stood for a moment waiting. I saw a kid about Eric’s age run in. He was trying to explain why he was late again. Something about his father.
I was lead into a tiny, over-stuffed office. Its windows faced a leafy courtyard. The hail had already stopped. “Strange weather we’re having” he said. It was the Principal of the school, Todd Williams. A man in his late-thirties. Educated at Oregon, he was a local, born and raised. It was his idea to create this charter school. It was one of several that had risen from the ashes of the Portland Public School System. Adams was about “Progressive techniques built upon classic methods of education.” The more he tried to explain what that meant to me, the less I seemed to care. All I knew was that parents seemed proud when their children passed the admissions exam to attend. “My child is at Adams” seemed to have some meaning to them.
After talking about the weather, Mr. Williams voiced his “deep concern” for his students and how they would react to the tragedy. Eventually, we discussed Eric. Mr. Williams took pride in knowing each and every one of his students. Or so he declared. From the way he talked about Eric, he was probably briefed. Prepped for the interview by other teachers in order to have something properly authoritative to say.
“Eric was no angel” he explained. “But overall, he was a good kid.” I asked about the discrepancies that had cost him his wings. Eric had gotten detention a couple of times in the last year. He’d got caught skipping class and going to the iHop instead.
He’d always been one of those students that frustrated teachers. He was extremely bright and possibly even gifted. But good luck teaching him anything he didn’t want to learn. His grades in some subjects had been exceptional. Most notably, History and Chemistry. In all else he was distinctly average. In the last semester his grades had taken a plunge across the board. “Do you have any idea why?” I asked. “No, but it’s not uncommon for Seniors. Most of them are already accepted at college and they, mistakenly, think they can slack off.” The college reference rings true. After Eric had been told NYU was a no-go, he probably didn’t see much of a point.
I got the names of his teachers and wrote them all down. I was particularly interested in talking to his history teacher. Maybe she had some insight into his brain that a manila folder with grades and tests scores couldn’t capture. What was more important to me was his friends. Eric had many, or so I was told. They might actually be able to tell me something about him.
I should have known such a request wouldn’t go down easy. Williams produced a litany of reasons why he thought that it was a bad idea. “I’m afraid we have to respect the privacy of our students.” “I wouldn’t want them any more upset than they already are.” “We’ve brought in grief counselors. Maybe after some time has passed in which they were allowed to heal.” They should have awarded him a PHD in Bullshit. “This is a murder investigation. Your co-operation isn’t optional.”
Calls were made and lawyers were consulted about my questioning the kids. I told Williams I’d start with Eric’s locker and the teachers first while he took care of the details. I’d have to pull some out of class but I figured the kids could use the quiet time. Their formal interviews would come soon enough.
Not surprisingly, Williams even gave me grief over getting into Eric’s locker. I explained that the dead had no expectation of privacy. He was swayed. He got the maintenance guy to go with me down to Eric’s locker.
It was a red metal closet at the very end of the hall. The janitor cut the lock off. It was that same hotel feeling. There were text books and school supplies but little else. No photos taped to the inside of the door. No “Clash” decals or personal taste in anything indicated. In spite of knowing the odds were against it, I had hoped to find that missing laptop in there. It wasn’t.
The first teacher I interviewed was Mrs. Clayborn. She proved rather interesting. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with Eric. In her mid-forties and looking quite suburban, she had spoken French since age nine. Eric had been in her class for a year to meet his requirements. He had barely gotten by. She had little to say about him and barely knew him. She was far more interested in me. She had a ring on her finger and hair that was brittle because she couldn’t just leave it alone. Over-dyed and over-processed, it was a look I didn’t care for. None of this stopped her from making her play. She was looking for some excitement. I guess I was it but it wasn’t working for me. So, I just walked away. I’d love to say I didn’t even think about it but that would be a lie. I could have used the company.
Next on the list was Mr. Gerber, a man who seemed quite perplexed. Eric had done extremely well in his Chemistry class but almost failed biology. What frustrated Gerber was he knew how smart and engaged Eric could be. However, if it didn’t interest him, he didn’t bother. “It wasn’t like he didn’t try” he explained. “It was more like he just couldn’t. His head might know he needed to do well but if his heart wasn’t truly in it, it was hopeless.” I have to say, it sounded odd. Eric seemed like a pretty strange kid. I thought back to my own days and marveled at my consistency in comparison. Since age five I’d failed to meet expectations.
Gerber continued and advanced his theories on why Eric’s grades had suffered. “I think there may have been something going on at home. He never said anything but I know these kids.” A rather funny statement given what he said next. “At least Eric wasn’t on drugs all the time like some of the other ones. It really is an epidemic.”
He launched into a speech, both inaccurate and irrelevant, about the evils of drug-taking youths. It would have been be amusing to light up a joint as he continued to rant. Maybe I would have gotten a sermon on gateway drugs and jumping off of buildings. Gerber was just the type. Straight-laced and moralistic I could guess which way he voted. Not exactly the Mayor’s base. I thanked him for his time, feigning concern over the future of the next generation.
I was already bored and wanting to move on. I needed to talk to the kids. I kept to my word and continued the motions and, in hindsight, I’m glad that I did. Teacher number three was one of my favorites and not for what she said. She was young and perky with no ring on her finger, just the way I liked. She had been Eric’s English teacher and was filled with hope and faith.
As I stared at her legs, I felt like an ass. I remembered that night in the rain. Eric was dead and I was his advocate, this wasn’t the time to get laid. I remained all professional as she smiled. I listened as she spelled out her name. “Elizabeth Kamden with a K, not like New Jersey.”
The chatter ceased and we got down to business. “Eric was an angry kid.” I asked her what she meant. She had prepared for the question. She pulled out an essay he had written. It rambled on and on how the Baby Boomers had fucked him and how hippies deserved to die. It wasn’t well written and seemed incoherent but the point had been made well enough. Eric felt screwed and didn’t see the point of trying too hard. The country was already fucked.
“It’s not unusual for adolescents to be angry. I know I was at his age. What’s unusual about it is the way it’s written. Like he just sat down, vented and turned it in.” She explained to me that Eric was usually good with words. She showed me an earlier assignment he had done and I could see her point. It’s topic, “Themes in Of Mice and Men.” It was well thought out and polished. It followed all the rules. It was also mind-numbingly dull.
I looked at the date on the first essay, the one about the hippies. I expected it to be around the time his parents laid down the law about NYU. It was. The date on the other one was about a month earlier. “Eric was having a hard time with his Dad about then” I said. “Really? I never heard.” I told her about it. She said it all made sense. “Sometimes, people just need an escape valve.” I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the ranting essay or Eric’s plan to go to New York. I didn’t bother asking. None of this was helping my cause.
I made my way back to the Principal’s office for another scolding. Like it or not, the time was now. I was going to talk to the kids. And then the bell rang as I walked through the halls. I was caught up in the flood. They were all so young and intrigued by it all. So filled with gossip and cruelty. Sometimes I still hear the whispers.
BUY DOGS IN THE DISTANCE!