Youthful looking, but silver-haired, television journalist Henderson Gruber had been a successful national news anchor nearly fifteen years. But he had given up that career when his wife, cosmetics mogul Kamala Kardashian, had been elected to Congress. They had established a second home in the nation’s capital and Gruber had decided to seek work flexible enough to allow frequent, often sudden, trips home with his wife. Few jobs, he realized, would allow that. But as a substitute special education assistant, he realized, he could make himself available only when convenient to their erratic schedule.
Gruber had just arrived at his first assignment and looked stunned. Washington, D.C.’s Joe McCarthy High School’s head secretary had just told him unexpected details about his class. “Ronald Trent’s room,” she continued, “is to the far right, past the security office. You’ll see the sign.” She smiled with pity. “At least you won’t be alone. Trent’ll be with you. But be prepared. Working in that environment won’t be easy. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Gruber grumbled. “I thought,” he explained with disappointment, “I was gonna assist teenagers with learning issues or who are wheelchair-bound.” Gruber had wondered why the cryptic posting for the position had appeared on the school district’s web site devoid of details and so late; it hadn’t been there the night before. But now he knew. The position was in a BES class. Students enrolled in a Behavior and Education Supports program were reputed to be among the most challenging. Oppositional, unfiltered, disruptive, disrespectful, dysfunctional, even criminal, they came to school to obstruct and cause chaos.
The regular assistant, Clint Hilliard, had left an early-morning message for the secretary and said problems had surfaced regarding the new house he and his wife, Belle, were building. “I think,” the secretary explained, “irregularities had been discovered regarding its foundation.” The secretary leaned in to Gruber and whispered, “But I think he just needed a break from those deplorables.”
Gruber stepped into the hall and strode with angst to the classroom, passing the security office and finding his room next door. That’s no accident, he assessed. There’s probably a lot of back-and-forth between the two rooms. He stood in front of the classroom’s closed door and studied the wall-mounted sign. “Room 45,” it read. Under the teachers’ names was a list of six periods. All were called “Socialization.” The bottom one had been altered with a black marker to read “Socialism.”
Ah, he thought, “socialization” to hide the truth, the stigmatic BES label. As Gruber reached for the door knob, he heard commotion from inside the room. He opened the door and slid in undetected. Eight students, five boys and three girls were running amok in the class. Gruber’s eyes darted to the teacher’s desk in the opposite front corner of the room, expecting to see someone attempting to rein in the inappropriate behavior. Instead, Ronald Trent sat back-to-the-class facing his computer, ignoring the commotion. Wispy hair, the color of L’ Oreal’s Orange Blossom swirled around his head.
Gruber refocused on the students. Two boys were playfully fighting on the floor. Another boy was sitting on a desk, egging on the grapplers. A fourth boy sat at a desk listening to rap through ear buds and spitting out the words like an angry machine gun. He appeared oblivious to the world around him. An ebony-colored youth stood by a window texting. Near him, a girl danced suggestively. Another girl standing in a back corner, applied make-up using a mirror on a closet door. A third girl slept with her head on her desk.
Gruber’s attention returned to the dancing girl. What is she dancing to? he wondered. She has no earbuds or head phones. Is she high? Her gyrations led her closer to the texting boy. He looked up, stopped typing for a moment, and grabbed the girl’s lower private parts. She swiped at his groin, but missed the mark.
“Bitch!” the boy exploded, as the girl’s undulations led her away.
Ronald Trent continued to stare at his computer, unaware anyone had entered the room or that sexual assaults were occurring near him. Gruber took a step toward him.
One of the wrestlers stood and stared at Gruber. “What you want, Bro?”
The boy sitting on the desk snapped, “Who’re you? Where’s Hilliard?” He shifted his position, crossing his legs effeminately. “Oh, Hillary, where are you?” he trilled in a mocking tone.
Both wrestlers laughed. The sleeping girl stirred, looked up, and replaced her head on the desk. Trent, looked over his shoulder, noticed Gruber, and stood. “Hello,” he both stated and asked.
“Henderson Gruber. I’m subbing for Mr. Hilliard,” the visitor said approaching Trent and offering his hand. Behind Trent, a nearly-naked blonde woman pole danced on the computer screen. Superimposed below her was the name, “Steamy Denims.”
The girl with her head on the desk looked up. “Did someone say ‘Gruber?’” she asked. “That’s fuckin’ funny. Gruber. That name is so retarded.” She giggled and rested her head on the desk again. “Grooooober,” she mooed before she dozed off.
“Clint’s not here?” Trent asked. “I just thought he was hiding in the staff lounge again, going over his personal emails, his thousands and thousands of emails. None of which he should be doing on school computers. He should be fired for that.” Trent peeked at his computer as Steamy Denims slithered behind him. “Well, welcome. I’m not sure I really need you since I’ve got everything under control. Totally under control.” Gruber looked around at the turmoil. “Yeah, I run a tight ship here. I’m a great teacher. Great. Everybody says I’ve done a great job here. Great. I’m the greatest teacher this school has ever had.”
“Where’s Hilliard?” the girl applying make-up yelled from across the room.
“Me?” Gruber asked, unsure to whom the question was directed. “I don’t know. He posted the absence maybe two hours ago. Apparently, it was last-minute.”
“Good,” the boy sitting on the desk said. “I’m like sick of him and his whole family.”
“His family?” Gruber asked.
“It’s like a damn dynasty. They’re everywhere and they’ve run this school for ever. His dad is a sucky principal and Clint is a fuckin’ faggot. Little Hillary thinks he’s so coo ‘cause he was secretary of st…student council like a hundred years ago.” The boy flipped off the absent Clint Hilliard. “That shitty family makes me want to hurl. I wish someone would just shoot them all.”
“Especially that bitch cheerleader,” the dancing girl spat with venom. “How does she fit in anyway?”
“She’s the principal’s granddaughter,” Trent replied.
“Well, I shoulda made the fuckin’ cheer squad, not her. She’s a cow.”
The wrestler who still lay on the floor, sprung up, began mock-cheerleading and chanted “Knock her up, Knock her up.” The other boys joined him.
Gruber looked at each student, then at Trent, wondering how this behavior was allowed and why the teacher hadn’t tried to stop the inappropriate language. “I take it,” Gruber said, “you don’t like the Hilliard Family.” He put his hands in his pants pockets, leaned against a table housing a computer, and smiled as if he’d found a way to handle the situation; he’d speak their language. “Well, I ain’t Clint Hilliard, so I don’t know who the hell any of you punks are.” He nodded at the ersatz cheerleader. “Bro, why don’t you put down your pom-poms and tell me your name?”
“Punks. Pom-poms,” the boy said with a laugh. “Dawg, you’re funny. I might give you a fuckin’ chance. I’m O’Donnell, Rich O’Donnell.”
“O’Donnell came here from Kentucky this year,” Trent interjected.
“Really?” Gruber asked. “I went to Louisville for two years before I transf…”
“Oh, another asshole college boy,” the other wrestler interrupted. “Big fuckin’ deal.”
Gruber smirked. Charming kid, he thought. He addressed the youth. “Bro, who are you?”
“Rooney Juliando. Why do you want to know? And I ain’t your damn ‘Bro.’”
“Because we’re gonna share this room all day, maybe for several days.”
“Not if I can help it, faggot.”
“Whoa!” Gruber reacted with surprise. “Why did you call me that? You don’t know anything about me.”
“We know enough,” the texting youth chimed in, stepping away from the window. “You went to college and you’re wearing a button-down collar shirt with a retarded alligator on it. Anyone who dresses like that is a faggot.”
Gruber laughed at the absurdity of that statement. “Not sure I agree with you, but you are entitled to your opinion.”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” the boy returned with sarcasm and stepped back to the window. He looked out expectantly, as if he were awaiting a furniture delivery.
“What’s your name anyway?” Gruber asked.
Trent interrupted. “That criminal punk is Carl Benson. His dad is a well-known surgeon and one of my close black friends. And now I’ve got his son in my class. He’s one of my African–Americans.”
A chime rang from inside the room’s front wall. “Here is today’s bulletin,” the secretary’s voice announced. Trent silenced it by aiming a remote at the hidden speaker. “We never listen to those announcements,” he said. “They’re all fake news.”
The dozing girl raised her head and sat up, exposing a makeshift pillow, a stack of one-hundred-dollar bills, covered in drool. She looked at Gruber with clueless confusion.
“I’m Gruber. What’s your name?”
“Bethie Dee Foss. Who are you?” She appeared to be unaware she had commented on his name earlier. “Have they told you I don’t belong in this class? I’m unqualified. Should never have been placed here. I should be at private school with the other rich kids.”
“You belong here,” O’Donnell corrected. “Actually, you belong right there.” He pointed at a faded, threadbare sofa along the back wall. “Lying on your back, naked, with me on top of you.”
“You are such a retard,” Bethie Dee Foss charged.
Disgusted, Gruber’s eyes darted to the boy listening to rap. He motioned to him to remove the ear buds. The small, pre-pubescent, olive-complexioned boy pulled out one purple bud with a snap. “I’m Gruber, dude, What’s your name?”
“Marco Trujillo,” he answered with a thick Mexican accent. The youth wore a Texas A&M Aggie football jersey. He attempted to replace the ear bud.
Gruber motioned to stop. Marco looked at him. “What?” he shouted with impatience.
The visiting substitute tilted his head to the side. “What up, Marco? You really don’t look happy here?”
“Why should I be happy here? I hate this fuckin’ school and this damn room. But, most of all, I hate Trent.”
Gruber looked at Trent who, instead of trying to mend whatever division existed, mocked Marco’s anger in an exaggerated manner. Gruber refocused on the student. “Why do you hate him? What did he do to you?”
“What did he do to me? He took my mother. I haven’t seen her in two months. She’s probably dead.”
“That’s a lie, Beaner!” Trent erupted. “I did not kill your mother.”
“I didn’t say you killed my mother. But, where is she then?”
“Look, I wasn’t the one who crossed the border between the students’ part of the room and my desk area. You did that and you knew that is wrong. You know what the rules are. It isn’t my problem if she never got home from your disciplinary meeting.”
As Gruber was about to press Trent on his disturbing comment, a bell dinged from the computer on Trent’s desk. Both men peered at the screen. “Oh look,” Trent said with excitement, “a video message from the school district superintendent. He leaned in and listened as his boss announced that the district had annexed a neighboring school, Krymia Peninsula High.” Trent turned to Gruber. “I love that man. Voldemort Wooten is a god to me. Wanna see a picture of him riding a horse shirtless?”
“Not really. But what is that huge red square building in the background? Is that school district headquarters?”
“No. That’s Wooten’s winter palace.”
A female voice interrupted them. “Does this look OK?” the girl applying cosmetics called from the back corner. Gruber spun in her direction, saw the girl facing the class, and noted that it didn’t look OK. Her make-up was caked on, clearly overdone. The other students turned, their faces reflecting obligation rather than interest.
“Holy shit!” Juliando exploded. “You look like a ho.”
Gruber looked at the girl, and in an effort to be supportive, nodded and smiled as if he approved. “What’s your name?”
The girl flipped her shoulder-length brown hair with an arrogant snap. “Tara Applebee-Flanders. I speak for this class at student council meetings, so I always have to look on fleek.”
“No, you don’t,” argued Carlson. “You don’t speak for me.”
“And you have never looked on fleek,” derided O’Donnell with a laugh.
Carl Benson turned away from the window and burst into laughter. “You look like a friggin’ dyke trying not to look like a dyke.”
“Fuck you all. You’re a bunch of bastards,” the girl said. “You all deserve to be in special ed.” She turned to the mirror to add a fourth coat of blue eyeshadow.
“Hey,” Trent called from the front of the room. “This is not a special education class. That is fake news. This class is for…”
“…criminals and rapists like us.” O’Donnell finished the sentence. “We’re a bunch of losers.”
“You are not losers!” Trent corrected. “You are the greatest students in this school. Greatest. Really greatest. Or I wouldn’t have chosen you to be in my great socialization class.”
Gruber stared straight-faced, trying not to react to the series of lies Trent was spewing. He looked at the boy who had been sitting silently, except for the chanting, on the desk. “Dude, what’s your name? Do you ever talk? Do you ever have an opinion?”
“Spike Zentz. And no to both questions.”
“Well, I figure, if I don’t say anything or make any waves, my past record might be ignored and I’ll get into some college somewhere and become a teacher. Maybe Harvard. Maybe Indiana. Maybe Electoral. My dream is to replace Mr. Trent.”
The classroom door inched open and an attractive, stylish African-American girl oozed in. No one noticed. “God damn bus!” she exploded, as she stood in the doorway, hands on hips. It was obvious she wanted to be noticed. Teenage heads pivoted to the door.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Trent acknowledged the girl, “Amy-Rosa Prentiss. It’s so nice that you could join us, Amy-Rosa. Even if you are late again. Miss the bus?”
“Yes, Mr. Trent,” she replied. Her tone was sweet, artificially sweet.
“The hell you did,” the teacher countered with anger in his voice. “You were seen talking with someone I instructed you to never talk to, Amy-Rosa. Never!”
“Who’d she talk to?” Juliando asked.
“Special Ed Counselor Roberta Miller.”
Gasps were heard throughout the room.
“Yes, Amy-Rosa was talkin’ shit about what goes on in here with that witch-hunting witch Roberta Miller, weren’t you, you disloyal, lying dog?”
“Who told you that?”
“The journalism teacher, Shawn Cannady.”
“Well, that’s not true. He’s telling you alternate facts. All Ms. Miller and I talked about was…um…um…how Hilliard uses school equipment and time to handle personal emails. Yeah. That’s what we talked about.” Amy-Rosa tapped her faux-Gucci handbag. “I even recorded the whole conversation like you said. Remember, sir? You ordered us to secretly record any meetings with people who could get you fired.” Amy-Rosa smiled slyly. “And you can have that recording for $130,000.”
“Get the hell out of my room!” Trent roared.
Gruber stared in disbelief as Amy-Rosa turned and, exiting the room, slammed the door. The students in the class, although they had acted shocked by Amy-Rosa’s turning on Ronald Trent, behaved calmly, as if confrontational exchanges like this were normal.
As soon as the door closed, the girl who had been dancing near the windows shouted, “Hey, Gruber, why haven’t you asked my name?”
“No reason,” he lied. In fact, he found the girl so unattractive, he was afraid to address her. “So, what is your name?”
“Really. Your name implies Asian roots,” Gruber returned with surprise, “but you’re so blonde.”
“I turn more tricks as a blonde.” Kelley announced, as she sat down on the sofa along the back wall. She tucked her legs under her.
Before Gruber had a chance to react to Kelley’s comment, the closet door burst open, banging it into Applebee-Flanders, who crashed to the floor. A boy and a girl rushed out of the closet.
“How long do we have to say hidden? It’s been months,” the girl asked. “I think I missed a period.”
The boy gazed at Applebee-Flanders on the floor. “Sorry for the collision.”
“There was no collision!” Trent roared from the front of the class. “None. No collision. That is fake news. There has never been any collision with rushing people. Now get back in there,” Trent cried. “You two don’t exist. You’re in hiding so you can’t testify against me.” He looked at Gruber. “You did not see or hear them.”
“But I did see them. Who are they?”
Silent Spike Zentz spoke. “Yvonne Katramp and Jerry Douchler.”
A pair of burly hands, each adorned in brass knuckles, reached from the closet and forcibly pulled the pair back into the dark. “Whew,” exhaled Trent. “Remember. None of you saw anything.”
“But I did see them,” Gruber argued. “We all saw them.”
“No, we didn’t,” denied Juliando.
“Well, I saw them.”
“That’s a lie,” the teacher charged.
“But I saw Yvonne Katramp and Jerry Douchler come out of what appeared to be forced hiding.”
“Do I need to call my lawyer, Mr. Gruber?” Trent threatened. “Yes. I do.” He pulled out his cell phone.
Gruber protested. “No. No. You’re over-reacting. There’s no need to…”
“Shut up,” Trent ordered, “you useless, lazy, lyin’ liberal.” He listened to his phone long enough for it to have rung several times. “Michael Kern, where are you? Michael Kern? Michael Kern?” Then he exploded. “You’re my fuckin’ fixer. You’re supposed to answer your phone 24/7. Your damn job is to fix shit for me. You’re my fixer.”
The classroom door flew open, crashing into the wall with a sudden bang. Trent, startled, dropped his phone and focused on the door. “Oh, Michael, you’re here. How’d you know…”
As Gruber wondered why the teacher needed a “fixer,” he spun around to look at Trent’s lawyer. He, however, immediately fell to the ground as Michael Kern pointed a revolver at Ronald Trent’s head. A moment later, it was a smoking gun.