Skip to main content

Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
Home
Contents
Biographies
Submissions
Archives
Editors
Contact Us
Publications
Policies

 

School’s Out Forever

 

by Ricky Ginsburg

 

 

 

Clarence Tutwyler strode onto the beach in his sport jacket and sneakers, loosening his tie as he marched toward the ocean. Halfway across the sand, he yanked the tie free with one hand, clicked off his cell phone with the other, and hissed loud enough to awaken a dosing sunbather, “Never again, you bastards!” Reaching the water’s edge, Clarence kicked off the sneakers without untying them and threw his sport jacket onto the sand. Without unfastening a single button, he ripped open his white dress shirt, one of over thirty of the exact same brand, size, and vintage in his closet at home, and let the ruined garment drop from his shoulders. And then, just as a wave rolled up and soaked him to the knees, the forty-six-year-old, now former schoolteacher, stepped out of his trousers, boxer shorts, and socks, and dove into the surf, as naked as a baby on the day it's born.

 

Thinking back on his life, while he swam out from the beach, Clarence never really wanted to be a schoolteacher; hated children and had none of his own, at least none that he was aware of. Teaching had been an alternative to working in his late father’s dry cleaning plant; it had the deceptive appeal of regular holidays and summers off for the rest of his life, something the once avid surfer couldn’t bring himself to refuse. College was a snap, even the additional courses required for a teaching certificate with a specialty in Science failed to delay his graduation six months early, and the benefit of a five-to-one ratio of females to males made late night studying a never-ending fantasy.

 

He’d given it twenty-three aggravating years, fully half his life so far, and today, the fourth day of the new school year, was his last.

 

His teaching career had grown at the speed of a coral reef. Placed initially in a sixth-grade class, taking over for a teacher who’d passed away after holding court in that same classroom for almost forty years, Clarence even felt resentment from the janitor on his first day. It wasn’t until after Christmas break that several of the newer teachers in the school began greeting him in the morning and even then, it was simply hello or good morning.

 

The one-year assignment slowly became a decade that was filled with unruly children more deserving of a whip than any mule. Native Floridians, who considered any outsider to be a weed, and transplants―children who brought their bad attitudes with them after their young parents had moved from the Northeast where a bad attitude was as important as a suntan for them now. Clarence was certain he’d have throttled at least a dozen of the foul-mouthed brats if a biology teacher in the high school hadn’t resigned over a sex scandal, late in the spring of his eleventh year. Finally, there was an opening for a position that Clarence had the expertise to handle and a chance to escape the horrors of prepubescent children.

 

High School may have been a step up in pay, but it was a tumble down the evolutionary ladder as far as the students were concerned. During the thirteen years Clarence taught at Broward Central, his car was stolen twice, his motorcycle tossed into a canal, and the running shoes he wore to school and then replaced with a pair of nondescript wingtips he kept in his desk were glued together―sole to sole.

 

But this morning it all came to an end.

 

Clarence was late, fifteen minutes by the official clock in his classroom, and even though it had happened before, his tenure protected him from any rebuke or penalty from the principal. The cause of this morning’s tardiness was an overturned tanker truck on the interstate and its load of gasoline that had turned six lanes of asphalt into Florida’s version of the La Brea tar pits. The inferno was a hundred yards from his exit onto Commercial Boulevard and as best as Clarence could figure, the accident must have happened at the same moment he passed the previous exit, five minutes north.

 

Leaving the car parked on the shoulder and fortunate to be wearing sneakers, Clarence walked around the wreck once the fire was out and jogged the last two miles to school. He was a block away from the school grounds when he came upon a phalanx of police cars―Ft. Lauderdale Police, Broward Sheriff’s office, a state trooper who had been taking his son to school before his shift started. Clarence walked up to the closest uniformed officer and asked what was going on.

 

“One of the students is holding a classroom full of kids hostage.” The officer, a sheriff’s deputy almost a foot taller than Clarence, pointed at a pair of helicopters circling overhead. “Media just got here, but the SWAT team is stuck on the interstate.”

 

Clarence nodded. “Yeah, I left my car there and jogged in.”

 

“You a teacher?”

 

“Yep. One of the few, the proud, the crazy.”

 

“Good day to be late for class, professor.”

 

Surveying the scene, Clarence dug around in his pockets for his cell-phone. “I should call the principal and let him know I’m here.”

 

The deputy pointed down the street at the flashing lights and crowd on the other side of the school. “Don’t bother, everyone’s out of the building. What’s your name? My lieutenant is standing with the office staff down there.”

 

“Tutwyler. I teach…”

 

“Clarence Tutwyler?”

 

“Yes. How…”

 

Grabbing the microphone from his cruiser, the deputy keyed the radio, “17-Baker, I have Tutwyler.”

 

“Bring him around on 57th Court, quickly.”

 

The deputy acknowledged and opened the back door of the car. “Hop in, I’ll drive you around.”

 

“Wait a minute.” Clarence took a step back. “Bring me around where? Why?”

 

“The kid’s been demanding to talk to you. Says he’s going to shoot someone unless you speak to him.”

 

“Me?”

 

“Yeah.” The sheriff’s deputy reached out his hand. “Please, sir, get in the car.”

 

The boy’s name was Ramon Santiago, third generation American from grandparents who’d escaped Cuba in the early fifties, right after Castro’s first attempt to take over the island failed. His mother had died during childbirth and his father was in prison, serving fifteen years for breaking and entering, leaving the grandparents―in their eighties―to deal with the boy’s upbringing. Ramon had grown up playing football with boys three and four years older than he was, but with his six and half foot height and enough weight to knock most of them down as though they were cardboard bowling pins, it was no surprise that he’d been selected for the varsity squad in his freshman year.

 

However, it was football that stifled his interest in studying; the prospect of a professional contract and the chance to escape from the barrio he called home was strong enough to call him away from the textbooks. Clarence had failed the boy last year and, in doing so, forced Ramon to repeat eleventh grade. Now the boy had taken hostages, threatening to kill them, if the teacher who may have hamstrung his life didn’t show up to talk him out of it.


Principal DelVechio had joined the school system several years after Clarence had been promoted. A man who could have sat in for Humpty Dumpty, he was easily missed below the shoulders of a sea of students in a hallway, but when he commanded authority, even passersby on the sidewalks outside the school stopped and listened.

 

Clarence had been a particularly sharp thorn in the stout man’s rump, owing to a degree of jealousy his boss harbored over rumors of the teacher’s single lifestyle. DelVechio managed to steer any conversation he had with Clarence around to the impression a forty-six year old, single man made on his students; usually ending it with, “I’m sure the school board would be happier if you were married, Mr. Tutwyler.” To which Clarence would reply, “I don’t care if they’re happy, sir, just as long as they pay me to teach their children.”

 

The sheriff’s deputy deposited his passenger behind a row of police cars on the east side of the school. Another deputy, carrying a shotgun and wearing a thick, gray vest with “BSO” on the back, escorted Clarence under a streamer of yellow plastic tape, and over to an inner perimeter of cars. The principal was standing next to a group of uniformed and plain clothes men, gathered around a folding table with the floor plans of the high school spread out in front of them.

 

DelVechio waved Clarence over. “Nice to see you this morning.” He looked at his watch, nodding several times before he spoke again, “Glad you could join us.”

 

“Go screw yourself, Francis.”

 

One of the uniformed officers turned from the table and extended his hand. “Mr. Tutwyler?”

 

Clarence nodded.

 

“I’m Lieutenant Zalinski. Any idea why this boy wants to speak to you?”

 

“He’s run out of people to threaten?”


The lieutenant raised his eyebrows. “He’s got seventeen hostages in there, Mr. Tutwyler, and a loaded nine-millimeter automatic. Serious might be the order of the day here.”

 

Clarence folded his arms across his chest. “Fine. I’m serious. I don’t know why he wants to speak to me. Perhaps he’s pissed that I failed him last year. Maybe his girlfriend wouldn’t put out and he wants my advice. Or maybe I’m the only name he could come up with on short notice.”

 

“Well, regardless of why, he’s demanding to speak to you or he’ll start shooting.”

 

The lieutenant called to one of the other officers, who walked over with a cell phone and handed it to Clarence. “Just hit redial, sir.”

 

Tapping the key, Clarence put the phone to his ear and waited as it rang on the other end. Ramon answered on the third ring.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Ramon, this is Mr. Tutwyler.”

 

“Hey, Mr. T, what’s up? How was your summer?”

 

“Busy like they always are. How was yours?”

 

“What do you think, man? My abuelo kicked my ass for a week when he found out I was stayin’ back.”

 

“You should have studied once in a while.”

 

“Hey, man, I tried, you know.”

 

“Yeah, I remember you came to class one day in March, a Friday as I recall.”

 

“Come on, Mr. T, don’t be dissin’ me in front of all these peoples.”

 

Clarence held the phone at arm’s length and shook his head. “This is a kid who cut class to watch the NFL draft.” He brought the phone back to his ear. “So what do you want, Ramon?”

 

“I wanna talk to you, Mr. T.”

 

“We’re doing that.”

 

“No, man. Face to face.”

 

“You want me to come in there?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“With you holding a loaded gun?”

 

“Come on, Mr. T, you and I are tight.”

 

“Let me see what the police say, Ramon.” Clarence shuddered. “I’m going to call you right back. Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

 

“Don’t be long, Mr. T.”

 

The line went dead.

 

Clarence turned and looked at the crowd of armed men encircling him. “Why don’t you guys just shoot him and get it over with?”

 

Lieutenant Zalinski took the phone from Clarence and placed it on the table. “We can’t see him.” He pointed at the floor plans. “He’s in your classroom, facing the courtyard, and he’s closed all the blinds.”

 

“No infrared scopes or anything like that?”

 

“You’ve been watching too much television, Mr. Tutwyler.”

 

“Hey, I’m a science teacher.”


“Jeezus, Clarence, this is a student you’re talking about.”

 

Principal DelVechio wiped the gathering film of sweat from his forehead.

 

“Yeah, a student who needs a map to find the school.”

 

“Gentlemen, we’re talking about an armed hostage-taker.” The lieutenant shook his head. “With seventeen frightened children in there as well.”

 

Clarence took off his sport jacket and flung it over his shoulder. “Well, I’m not going in there to get him out.”

 

“Don’t worry, we weren’t going to send you.” Lieutenant Zalinski turned and walked over to the gaggle of officers who were drawing lines on the floor plans and barking orders into walkie-talkies.

 

Principal DelVechio grabbed Clarence by the arm. “What if he shoots one of the students?”

 

“What if I go in there and he shoots me?” Clarence pulled his arm away. “Why don’t you go?”

 

“Because he asked for you, Tutwyler.”

 

“Good thing he didn’t ask for the Pope.”

 

The ringing of the cell phone interrupted their deliberations; Lieutenant Zalinski answered the phone and then handed it to Clarence. “He’s getting agitated, be careful what you say.”

 

“Ramon?”

 

“You said you were going to call me back.”

 

“Hey, calm down, man, it’s only been five minutes.” Clarence looked at DelVechio and sneered. “How about if Mr. DelVechio comes in there? Would that be okay?”

 

“Don’t screw wit me, man. If you not in here in five minutes, I’m gonna shoot someone. Would that be okay wit you, Mr. T?”

 

“And what would that do, Ramon? What’s it going to solve besides you getting shot if you do it?”

 

“Look, Mr. T, I’m done talkin’ on the phone wit you. Look at you watch. Five minutes and then I start shootin’.”

 

Silence replaced Ramon’s voice and Clarence clicked the phone shut.

 

“Well, isn’t this just wonderful.” Clarence kicked some loose gravel and walked several paces away from the police and his principal. “What’s next, give us your nuts or we’ll blow up the school?”

 

DelVechio waddled over to face him and shook his head slowly. “Look, no one can force you to go in there. I don’t even know if the police will let you go. But if you don’t and some innocent students die because you won’t at least try to talk him out, you’re the one who’s gonna look bad on the nightly news.” The chubby administrator lowered his voice, “And I’m certain the school board will take some kind of action, tenure or not.”

 

Clarence grabbed the principal by the shoulders. “What the hell are you saying, Francis? Was that a threat, you little worm?”

 

“Get your hands off me, Mr. Tutwyler.” DelVechio spun out of his grasp. “No one is threatening anyone here. I’m just stating the facts as I see them.”

 

“Now there’s some cover-my-ass bullshit if I ever heard it.” Clarence marched over to the folding table and slammed the phone down on the floor plans. “What if I do go in? Can you shoot him while the door is open?”

 

Lieutenant Zalinski shook his head. “Forget it. I can’t let a civilian go in there. What if he shoots you? What if he decides to make you another hostage?”

 

“What if he kills someone while we’re standing here arguing about it?” Clarence poked the heavy vest. “These things really work?”

 

In a flurry of phone calls, Lieutenant Zalinski made it clear to his superiors that their options came down to two―storm the building and take out the hostage-taker before he made good on his threat or take a chance that the teacher could convince his former student to give himself up peacefully. Clarence would have been much happier if they’d decided on force, but someone with more authority than the lieutenant made the choice and within a few minutes, he found himself garbed in a Kevlar vest, standing in the hallway to his classroom with four police sharpshooters hidden in the shadows.

 

Both he and Zalinski had spoken to Ramon and convinced the boy to let all of the female hostages go, in exchange for five minutes with Clarence―door open and Clarence had to stay in the hallway. They would give Ramon his face-to-face, but, as the lieutenant described it, he was not going into the “kill zone.”

 

Clarence knocked on the door of his classroom, something he’d never done before, as though he was asking permission to come into his own house from a stranger. One of the students opened the door halfway, a boy whose name he’d not yet committed to memory.

 

“It’s okay, son. They’re going to get everyone out of this in one piece.” Clarence pulled the line from some episode of Law & Order he’d seen; the words seemed as phony to him now as they had been the first time he’d heard them.

 

Ramon called from inside the room, “Yo, Mr. T, you alone out there?”

 

“No. There’s a dozen cops with shotguns and teargas. Christ, Ramon, what the hell do you think?”


“Don’t be screwin’ wit me, man.”

 

“Look, I’m about to shit myself. Let the girls out and we can talk.”


“You come in here first.”

 

Clarence shook his head. “That’s not what we agreed to.”

 

“Hey, man, who’s got the gun?”

 

“Ramon, if I walk away from this door without those girls they’re going to come in shooting. You understand that?”

 

There was an uncomfortable pause and Clarence could hear sobbing from inside the classroom.

 

“Ramon, did you hear me?”

 

“How do I know they’re gonna let us talk, Mr. T? How do I know they’re just not gonna come in here anyway?”

 

“God dammit, Ramon, how do I know you’re not going to shoot me the minute you see my face?”

 

“Come on, Mr. T, this ain’t about you.”

 

“Prove it.” Clarence pushed the door all the way open with his foot. “Let the girls out right now or I’m leaving.”

 

There came the sounds of chairs scuffing the floor, book bags banging against desktops, and then hurried footsteps, as a chain of female students rushed out of the classroom. Clarence guided them toward the waiting police officers. All of them had tear-soaked faces, many of them still sobbing as they ran down the hallway to safety―eleven girls in total.

 

Clarence called into the classroom, his hand on the doorframe, “Six boys, Ramon? How many hostages do you need?”

 

“They’re stayin’ here, Mr. T, until we’re done talkin’.”


“Let me see them, Ramon, just to be sure they’re all right.”

 

“That ain’t part of the deal, Mr. T.” Ramon’s voice became angry. “Don’t you mess wit me now. You want some trust, I give you some trust. Now it’s your turn.”


Clarence turned and looked back at the snipers, somewhat unnerved by the rifles pointed more at his head than the open doorway. “I’m coming in Ramon, alone.” One of the officers shook his head violently, mouthing the word “No,” and reached for his radio, but Clarence flipped him the finger and slipped into the room, closing the door behind him.

 

On his first day in the high school, Clarence had rearranged the classroom with the aid of several of the students so that the door was in the back of the room where he could see everyone as they entered. The layout allowed him to continue teaching even as students wandered in late for class. For Clarence, the classroom was a theater, he the lone actor on the stage, and the students forming his captive audience. He let no one disrupt his performance once the curtain was raised.

 

So coming into the room now, teacher and student were separated by a field of empty desks with only the front row and the stage occupied. Ramon sat on the teacher’s desk with the gun pointed at one of the boys. Taking a deep breath, Clarence held his hands out in front of him and sidestepped to the middle of the room along the back wall. All six of the boys were facing away from him, but he could taste their tension the moment the door clicked shut.

 

“I don’t know much about guns, Ramon, but if you get nervous or a bell rings and it spooks you, you’re going squeeze that trigger by accident and this whole thing is going to come to a sudden conclusion.”

 

“Don’t worry, Mr. T, I been around guns long before I could throw a football.” Ramon lowered the weapon and winked. “Ain’t nobody gonna get shot today, Mr. T. It’s all good.”

 

Clarence dropped his hands to his side and did his best to force the image of calm authority onto his face. “You want to tell me what’s going on here?”

 

The boy looked up at the clock on the wall, rubbing his bloodshot eyes with his free hand. “I’m done, Mr. T. Stick a fork in me.”


“Done?”

 

“Yeah. Finished like a bad meal and all that’s left is the indigestion.” Ramon pointed the gun at the ceiling. “You believe in God, Mr. T?”

 

“No,” Clarence admitted, “but I did once, a long time ago.”

 

“Well, I do. Always and forever. So I got to see this as part of his design, his plan for me, and ain’t no good fightin’ against it.”

 

“You think God wanted you to fail?”

 

Ramon shook his head. “No. God’s too busy to be concerning himself on just me. But the way he works is like tossin’ dice. You drop ‘em and there ain’t nothin’ you can do once they leave your hand.”

 

Clarence walked cautiously up the center of the classroom, stopping three rows away from the front, and slid onto the top of a desk with his feet on the chair in front of it. “Do you think His plan included this?”

 

“I don’t know, Mr. T,” Ramon sighed, “but I know that mine didn’t.”

 

“Then why the gun?”

 

“Two things you can’t get without one.” Ramon ran his free hand along the barrel of the automatic. “Help and respect.”

 

“You want respect, you’ve got it.” Clarence pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting back a sneeze. “Shit, respect is easy when you point a gun in someone’s face. And help is free, all you have to do is ask.”

 

“Well, I’m askin’.”

 

Clarence folded his hands in his lap. “Okay, tell me what you need. But let me caution you in advance, I can’t change your grade from last year. If that’s what this is all about, you’d have been better off to shoot it out with the police and save yourself a whole lot of time and trouble.”

 

“Can you turn back the clock, Mr. T? Can you make this all start over so I don’t screw it up again?” Slipping off the front of the desk, Ramon began pacing back and forth across the front of the room. “See, I know where I screwed up. I know how to change things. But I can’t because the clock only spins one way.” He paused in the corner, underneath the flag, and rapped the side of his head with the butt of the gun twice as though knocking his brain back in gear. “You can rewind a movie and play it back, why not your life?”

 

“Because movies aren’t real.”

 

Ramon pursed his lips and blew out a breath. “But they both come to an end, right?”

 

“Yeah, but that ending is written by someone else.” Clarence pointed at the gun. “Unless you think you can write a better ending to your life with that.”

 

Ramon stared at the gun, sliding his finger on and off the trigger several times. “Maybe comes a time when a man should make his own ending, no?”

 

Clarence jumped off the desk and walked to the front of the room, startling Ramon, who brought the gun up and aimed it at his teacher’s head.

 

“You said this wasn’t about me, Ramon.” Clarence froze with his hands out in front of him.

 

“Don’t make this about yourself, Mr. T.”

 

“Look, if you really want to kill yourself, I’d be the last person to stand in your way.” Clarence lowered his arms and took a step backward. “You don’t think I’ve seen a hundred, a thousand failures like you stumble out of my classroom? My job is to teach, not save lives, not build futures, and not have some disgruntled former student trash the start of another school year.”

 

Ramon’s eyes opened wide. “Do you think…”

 

“Yeah, Ramon, I think all the God damn time. I think about coming here every day and dealing with children who don’t yet realize the true value of an education. I think about the bad attitudes, the threats I get, the air conditioning that never works right, the traffic on the interstate. I think about the twenty-three years I’ve been doing this job where all I look forward to are the vacations.” Clarence kicked his chair, crashing it into the desk.

 

“The real question here is, ‘Do YOU think?’”

 

“I’m… I’m… Shit, man, you’re confusin’ me.”

 

“Then let me end the confusion for you, Ramon.” Clarence took a piece of chalk and wrote the numbers “1” and “2” on the blackboard. “Choice one, you put the gun on the floor and walk to the other side of the room. I’ll call the police and tell them this is over. Choice two, you stick the gun in your left ear and blow your brains all over the wall. End of story.”

 

Ramon brought the gun to his side, his breathing was heavy now, a runner who had crossed the finish line and now waited for the rest of the world to catch up. The six students, silent throughout the exchange, threw anxious glances between themselves.

 

In his mind, Clarence drew an image of the boy’s lifeless body in a pool of blood on the floor and instantly wiped it away. He thought about the breakfast he hadn’t eaten this morning and the jog to school with his car stranded on the interstate; nothing about this day had been right so far. And now this kid, this crazy, mixed up kid with a gun had really taken this day to task.

 

“We can’t stand here and stare at each other all day, Ramon. It’s your choice, make it.”

 

“Mr. T… I… I…”


The clatter of the bell announcing the end of first period disappeared in the explosion and glare of two flash-bang grenades, tossed by officers of the Broward Sheriff’s SWAT unit from the open ceiling tiles behind Clarence. The deafening noise was accompanied by a white light so powerful that everyone in the room went blind for several seconds. There were shouts, but no one could make out the words, and in seconds, the room was filled with armed men, tossing desks and chairs as they ran.

 

Ramon, in a panic to cover his eyes, brought the nine-millimeter automatic up and squeezed the trigger.

 

The insistent sound of the lifeguard’s whistle brought his swimming to a halt and Clarence bobbed in the ocean, ten yards past the safety buoy. The waves were much taller out here, the seabed too deep for even his toes to touch between swells. Other than the sound of his breathing there was a calm quiet this far from the beach―the splash of a wave on the back of his neck, the distant hum of a fishing boat, a jet headed south miles above him. Clarence looked across the water as a pair of pelicans swooped past in search of dinner, their wings held steady out the side, and wondered what it would be like to travel―flying somewhere without the need for a ticket. An itinerary devoid of destinations, parole from the prison his life had become.

 

The lifeguard whistled again and Clarence turned toward him. He waved, acknowledging the violation, and swam back slowly, his tears disappearing into the saltwater with each stroke.