I. Principal Katz
The roles must be filled. A high school must have politicians, athletes, beauties, scholars, musicians, poets, actors, clowns, insiders, outsiders, and large numbers of the unexceptional. At the start of the school year, there may be any number of vacancies, but over the course of the year, the positions will be filled. It was true at my school and it was true at yours and it was true at Pennsbury. A school with no athletes will somehow identify sports stars. Celebrities of some sort will always emerge. The common trait of a school’s most famous students–celebrated for something, good or bad–is their exalted sense of themselves. But the status of the prominent is ultimately conferred by all the ordinaries who make up the great middle in any student body. These anonymous souls, passing through school with shuffling feet and quiet voices, have no idea how important they are.
Who would the notables play to if this great middle- class audience did not exist? Finally, there must be a person seeking to direct the populace. The school must have a principal, its mayor and police chief in one. It’s a rule.
The hands of Bill Katz, the principal at Pennsbury High, the lone high school of the Pennsbury school district, trembled slightly whenever he lifted the microphone to make the morning announcements. The kids who took the microphone after him–Matt Fox, the school president, and Bob Costa, the junior-class president–didn’t get it. What could Mr. Katz possibly be nervous about?
He towered over everybody. Except for his paunch, Mr. Katz still looked like the basketball star he once was. When he graduated from Pennsbury in 1967, he was a stick. His picture, in black and white, had been plastered all over The Falcon, the school yearbook. Soon after, The Falcon went color. The yearbooks from the 1970s were done in Kodachrome, and the children of those kids were present-day students. Mr. Katz’s yearbook was from a distant era, even though he’d been in the second class to graduate from the new building, as people still called it decades after it had opened.
His prom date became his first ex-wife. His second ex-wife was the mother of his two boys, one at Boston University, the other at MIT. That was what the teachers at Pennsbury knew about Mr. Katz. Beyond that, he was a mystery. His devotion to the Pennsbury prom–and to the idea that the prom should always remain in the Pennsbury gym, to hell with what the rest of the country was doing–was well known throughout the school district. But other things, like who he spent his weekends with, were unknown. Nobody at Pennsbury had ever seen him eat.
Young teachers were timid around him. He had a low, raspy voice that made people work hard to hear him. He wore button-down shirts daily, always with a sport coat and tie. His clothes were exceedingly sturdy and vaguely retro, as if he had raided a men’s department at Sears years before and stocked up for life. His only concession to the sadistically hot days at the start of the school year was short-sleeved shirts.
For most of his adult life, the most reliable address for Mr. Katz had been Pennsbury High, 705 Hood Boulevard, Fairless Hills, PA, 19030. He had been the assistant principal or the principal at Pennsbury for two decades, plus his four years as a student. He knew his school. He knew the kids and how they lived. Mr. Katz, the son of a career army man, had spent his high school years in Levittown. Even though Pennsbury was massive–Mr. Katz’s building housed the junior and senior classes, with fifteen hundred kids, while the ninth- and tenth-graders were in a neighboring building–it was intimate to him and to very few others. He knew where the kids would go “on campus,” as he liked to call it, to try to cut class or smoke cigarettes or engage in “inappropriate physical behavior.” He was privy to the most private details of the students’ lives. He knew about their health issues, their sex lives and drug problems and learning difficulties. He knew about their parents’ problems, too: unemployment, spousal abuse, gambling addiction, alcohol and drug abuse, credit-card debt. No different than anywhere else. He was exceedingly discreet about what he knew, just as he was about himself. If he dated at all, the teaching staff didn’t know about it.
What they knew was that he drank coffee from the time he came in, shortly after six a.m., until the time he left, ten or twelve or more hours later. He kept a coffee warmer on his desk, in an office that was crowded with manuals and textbooks and industrial furniture. Behind his desk he kept a tall thermos filled with coffee. He lived on cashews and Hershey’s Kisses and peanut M&M’s. His diet could only have contributed to his trembling hands.
As he took the microphone on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Mr. Katz’s hands were shaking more than usual. As principal, he worried most about the safety of his kids. After that there was an endless list of things that kept him busy. How did his students compare to the state norm on standardized tests? How did they behave on the class trip to Washington, D.C.? Would the football team make the play-offs? But safety came first. September 11 was a painful reminder to Mr. Katz that there were forces in the world beyond his control.
The attacks had hit close to home. There were Pennsbury kids who had older siblings or fathers who worked in the World Trade Center, seventy miles away from Yardley and Newtown, the two wealthy pockets of the Pennsbury school district. (From Yardley or Newtown, a commuter crossed the Delaware River to Trenton, New Jersey, a ten-minute car trip. From there it was an hour-long train ride to Penn Station, in Manhattan.) There were kids whose fathers flew for American or United. Soon after the attacks, Mr. Katz learned that the father of a girl in the district had been the pilot of the Boeing 767 that crashed into the south tower.
And now it was the first anniversary. He had thought hard about the best way to recognize the date. He had considered asking his teachers to devote the day to studying issues related to the attacks. But in the end, he decided a little would go a long way: a moment of silent meditation followed by the reading of a poem written by the daughter, now a ninth-grader, of the pilot, Victor Saracini.
“President Matt Fox will now read Kirsten Saracini’s poem “Years Gone By,”” Mr. Katz said. His voice was solemn. He was a foot taller than Matt, to whom he handed the microphone.
Matt Fox was being asked to do something out of character. Suddenly, he needed to be serious.
When he ran for president, everybody figured it was a joke. He was the short, funny Jewish kid with yellow sideburns who had run a for-profit boxing club in his backyard until the school shut him down. You don’t have insurance, an assistant principal had told him. You’re promoting your private enterprise on school walls. Young man, this will not fly!
The two girls he ran against were good-looking and popular. They played sports. They took honors classes. They were in the service clubs. Matt Fox, he was just a prankster. Once Fox and his little prankster crew went to the mall, put a diaper on the ground, poured chocolate syrup in it, placed a $5 bill underneath the diaper, and waited for some kid to retrieve the bill, watching from a distance and recording the event with a video camera.
On another occasion Matt and four accomplices went to the Red Robin–a restaurant near the mall, and a Pennsbury hangout–dressed as a family. Matt was the daughter, in a wig. Another kid, Zach Woods, was the father, with talcum powder in his hair. The mock family sat down and engaged in a simulated family feud while ordering Cokes and lunch. But Matt’s wig wouldn’t stay on straight and he couldn’t get beyond the line “But Dad.” The old-gal waitress just stared at them, her order pad frozen at midchest, not laughing or smirking or doing anything except looking at Matt and his buddies as if they were very strange. That was the Matt Fox who ran for school president.
Late in Matt’s junior year, there was an assembly for the candidates. The first girl gave a speech about how their class should have the biggest homecoming day, the most spirit, the best prom, the most exciting this, the most exciting that. The second girl followed with the exact same speech.
When it was Matt’s turn, something occurred to him. He was going to win. The girls would split the girl vote, and if he could just show a pulse and be funny, he’d have the boy vote and the presidency. He ditched his prepared speech and winged it. “If you vote for me, I promise you a future brighter than . . .” He named a noted Pennsbury pothead. The student voters roared. “If you vote for me, I promise free admission to Matt Fox Boxing!” More cheers. Right then and there, Matt vowed to himself not to put up any posters. Let the girls plaster the halls with their signs, he thought, I’m running as an outsider. “If you vote for me, I promise you this: Your senior year will be one big party!” Even the Goth kids in the back of the auditorium, drawing cubist pictures with gnawed Bic pens on their skinny, veiny arms–even they looked up at that. The election was his. It was May then, the May of his junior year. Summer was coming. Everything was easy.
Now it was September, the September of his senior year, and everything was serious.
At lunch, the senior girls were already making lists of potential colleges and prom dates. Matt couldn’t believe it. His plan was to apply to Penn State and only Penn State. The idea of lining up a prom date more than a half-year before the event struck him as bizarre. But that was what the girls were doing, ranking their potential dates as if they were college choices, with a Safe date, a Reach, and a useful boy somewhere in between. It was unsettling.
And now he had to read a poem written by a girl whose father was killed in the September 11 attacks. This was different. This wasn’t trumped-up seriousness. This was the real thing.
Matt cleared his throat, lowered his already deep voice, now the voice of his school, took the microphone from Mr. Katz’s quivering hands, and read Kirsten Saracini’s poem “Years Gone By.”
At 0 you wanted Victoria to be my name forevermore
At 1 you bought me Ernie while in a Japanese toy store
At 2 you called me “Big Nea” and helped me to learn to read
At 3 you let me hold Brielle and taught me to do good deeds
At 4 you wrote me letters when you went away
At 5 you made me go to church and taught me how to pray
At 6 you bought me a Mexican backpack and waved “bye as I went to school
At 7 you took me to Jamaica (which by the way was totally cool)
At 8 you played catch with me and taught me to play ball
At 9 you took me to get my hair cut in the mall
At 10 you brought me cookies and bars from your trips
At 11 you took me to Canc”n and gave me bargaining tips
At 12 you taught me how to survive in middle school, and for that I soared
At 13 you took me to the beach and taught me how to Boogie-board
And for all the years that come I know one thing will never change
You will always be my daddy and I will always feel the same
I love you
Matt ad-libbed nothing. The president handed the microphone back to the principal, who nodded his approval. The secretaries were crying. Mr. Katz gave Matt a pass so he could return to his class, photography with Mr. Lefferts, without harassment from the hall monitors. The hallways were empty, and Matt’s sneakers squeaked on the linoleum floor, still shined to high buff from a late-summer waxing. He made his way past the empty cafeteria. He turned a corner and practically bumped into a girl carrying her books the old-school way, in a pile, her arm underneath them, resting them on her perfect hip. Matt could see her navel. There was no jewelry in it. The girl was a well-known senior, a beauty, an athlete. They lived near each other.
“Nice job, Matt,” she said in a low voice.
Matt Fox was speechless. He had known the girl since kindergarten. For years they had ridden a bus together. She had never initiated a conversation with him, not even a hello. Now she was saying nice job.
Maybe, just maybe, Matt Fox thought, he was on her list.
©2004 by Michael Bamberger. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.