School Daze

Cathy:

You asked about people’s reaction at school after Tim was murdered, and my experience was pretty much the same as yours: I was a sophomore in high school, and none of my teachers or coaches spoke to me about it, even to express their condolences. My counselor never called me down to his office or even spoke to me. In a way, this didn’t really sink in during the first few days after I went back to school. I think I was in shock, at least to some extent; it was hard to concentrate and I was even unsteady walking in the hallways. The lights seemed to have an aura around them and nothing seemed to be at right angles; it was walking in a funhouse.

A few weeks later a friend’s mother was in the hospital for an operation. I saw my friend’s counselor come up to him in the hallway, put his arm around him, and ask him how he was doing. The counselor invited him to come down to his office anytime if he was having any problems at home or difficulty in class. I remember thinking, what the fuck — my brother got kidnapped and murdered, and my counselor didn’t say a thing. Did that mean we had done something wrong? What could that be? More than a decade later I saw an article in the local paper in which my 10th grade counselor was named guidance counselor of the year or something. Jesus.

My math teacher, Mr. Kish, actually penalized me for the work I missed. The course was the honors level geometry course, and it was very difficult. I missed the better part of two weeks of school while Tim was missing and during his funeral. The day I returned, there was a test. The stuff on the chalkboard looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics and I got a D. Then the guy gave me a D for the entire marking period. I’d never even gotten a C on a report card before. I went to see him after class with copies of all of my tests — one A, several B’s, and the one D — and asked him why he’d given me a D for the marking period. He told me he’d given me zeros for the two tests I missed entirely. He then berated me for not following up with him about the work I missed.

While none of my teachers ever spoke to me about the killings, there was one who mentioned them in class — Mrs. Ball, a worthless husk of a person who pretended to be an American history teacher. The course was called “Frontier and Western Movement,” and it consisted of reading one chapter of a very dry textbook every night, copying down the study questions and answering them in longhand on notebook paper. These sheets were handed in at the beginning of class, and this homework counted for a third of your final grade. Then the teacher would ask the same exact questions orally, picking people at random, and students had to answer from memory with their books closed. The oral answers counted for a third of your grade, and the exams accounted for the final third.

The course was so boring I basically used it as a study hall and did homework for other classes. One day during her Socratic Q&A she said to me, “There are no open books allowed during the questions.” I held up my book, said, “This is my math book,” and got back to work.

Up until that point I don’t think she had ever asked anyone more than one question during the same class period, but that day she asked me the next seven or eight questions in rapid succession. I assume she wanted to embarrass me for not paying attention, but since I’d just read the chapter and written out the answers the night before, I pretty much had the material memorized. She rattled off a bunch of questions, but I had the answers just as quickly. “Daniel Boone.” “The Cumberland Gap.” “The Louisiana Purchase.” “The Oklahoma Territory.” “The Trail of Tears.”

She eventually gave up and returned to the front of the classroom to read aloud about Daniel Boone. Still visibly angry, she paused, swatted the Map of the United States with a big pointer and hissed, “Daniel Boone put Kentucky on the map like the Oakland County Child Killer put Oakland County on the map.”

A couple of people gasped audibly. I should have walked out of the classroom and straight to the office or at least said something in reply, but I chickened out. I just kept doing my homework and pretending it never got to me. I’m still ashamed of that. But I’ll always love one very pretty girl who shook her head and scowled at the teacher for the rest of the period.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I was a huge wisenheimer, but there’s someone who had no business being a teacher. It was bad enough that almost no one even acknowledged the tragedy, but to use it to try to hurt a member of the victim’s family — a minor — seemed as unconscionable then as it does now.

Sent to me by my brother Chris.


There is nothing in the condolences handbook about death by serial killer.

I recently asked my brothers what they remembered about returning to school after Tim was buried.  I have heard second and third-hand that the principal and staff at Adams Elementary, where police were interviewing kids and Tim’s desk sat empty while he was being held captive somewhere, were pretty remarkable about how they dealt with this trauma.

My brother Mark was in 9th grade at Derby Junior High.  Here’s what he remembered about going back to classes after Tim’s murder:

I remember going back into class several days after Tim’s burial, and specifically chose Mr. Sheets’ class because he was the only teacher of mine I felt entirely comfortable with.  I arrived late in the afternoon class, which was awkward to say the least.  I remember the look on his face, but can’t remember the words he said.  His body language and the way he welcomed be back, though , made things much easier for me – I could tell nobody in that class knew what to say, but who could blame a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds?  Jerry Sheets, I could tell, was full of grief and sorrow, but really made me feel welcome.

The other teacher was Ms. Slick.  I didn’t have any classes with her, but she went out of the way to simply tell me how sorry she was, and that I had a lot of guts for going through with a wrestling meet during the time Tim was gone.  Maybe it was just an attempt to escape or feel normal for me to wrestle, when you think of it, but I really appreciated Ms. Slick after that.  Those were really the only two.

If you just think about how fucked up that was back then it is amazing.  I think (hope) schools are better prepared today to deal with all kinds of tragedies – but a serial killer? It is still pretty unimaginable.

Meanwhile, at Seaholm High School things were a little different.  I remember one teacher being kind enough to give me a hug and offer condolences.  His name was John Petrakus.  I never had him as a teacher.  I was a senior and I had been at the school for six semesters; I had been in many teachers’ classes.  One of my P.E. teachers, a guy we called Spanky, who never made eye contact with me or spoke to me directly at any time while I was in his class, let alone outside of class, ran into me in the hallway and welcomed me back to school warmly.  I remember being relieved.

I had missed some swimming unit in my current PE class while Tim was missing and during the weeks afterward.  The female Spanky, whose classes I had been in many times over the three years, arranged for me to swim laps for 50 minutes a day with some other class.  I don’t remember what she said to me, if anything, about why I had been gone.  I love to swim, but this was torture not only because I was stuck with some other class but also because it gave me a ton of time to think while my face was staring at the bottom of the pool.  I was also having a hard time with it because Tim had been suffocated and the thought of holding my breath was a total freaker.  So I started skipping class.  A lot.  She did not come find me and ask what the deal was; she stuck my “counselor” on me.  He called me down—not to offer his condolences or to ask if I was having trouble, but to tell me that Ms. Spanky said I was skipping class and what did I have to say about that?  Not one ounce of compassion.  So I tossed it back to him.  I looked him in the face and told him I was getting counseling—the real kind—during that time of day and that’s why I had been MIA.  It was a lie. That was the end of the discussion.  He never, not once, asked if I needed anything.  I walked out of that counseling department and never set foot in it again.  This guy had rubberstamped my college applications earlier in the semester and his work with me was apparently done.  It didn’t surprise me in the least.  He had told me at one point that because I had gotten a D in Algebra II that I would not get into college.  I thought of him a few times over the years, including after my graduation from law school.

Lucky for me, graduation was basically right around the corner and I did in fact graduate and get out of there.  Unfortunately for my brother Chris, he had two more years there.  What he told me about returning to Seaholm after Tim was buried broke my heart.  He told me this a few years ago but to see it in writing killed me.  That’s next.