THE PIPS SQUEAK
(July 9, 2003)
There I was, age 14, meekly strolling the grounds of Venice High School at lunch time. I kept to myself, as I was a new kid at school, guarded and withdrawn. I was shocked when the vice-principal, Mr. Wilbur Van Vleer, motioned in my direction.
"Me?" I said, pointing to my chest.
A nod. I obediently approached. To what did I owe the honor?
"See that potato chip bag over there?" said Wilbur Van Vleer, pointing at. . .a potato chip bag.
I saw it clearly. You couldn't miss it. I also saw Van Vleer's pig-bristle crew cut, beady eyes, and the great big "V" tie-clip.
"Go. . .pick it up."
Um. . .pick it up?
What, I wondered, did Van Vleer want with a discarded potato chip bag? Did he collect them? Was he hungry? Did he have a bad back, and couldn't bend over to get it? And why was he talking to me, when groups of more socially advanced students lurked in the shadows nearby, necking and smoking pot? Shouldn't he have been rousting them?
I brought him the bag, awaiting the next mysterious order.
"See that trash can over there?"
"Go throw it away."
I walked over and deposited the bag. Was this a game?
"Now," said Van Vleer tightly, "I see that your shirt tail is out."
Well, he was one observant vice-principal! Yes, by gum, it was out. That's the way I wore my shirts in those days, especially the squared-off flannel one that made up 50 percent of my shirt wardrobe.
"Tuck it in."
"We don't allow untucked shirttails at Venice High," he said, and walked away.
I was a trusting young fellow, respectful of authority and eager to please those who would guide me to responsible adulthood. In other words, I was a little slow on the uptake. It abruptly hit me that I had been punished for having my shirttail out, even though it wasn't really a tail, by being ordered to pick up some kid's greasy potato chip bag. Huh?
I suddenly remembered the day my old man registered me as a student at VHS, right in Van Vleer's office, only to have Old Pig Bristle snippily command him to put out his cigar. "Goddamn pipsqueak," Pop had muttered as we left the office.
"Goddamn pipsqueak," I muttered, and untucked my shirt.
We don't allow untucked shirtails at Venice High. Right, but they did allow skirts that, to my delight, barely covered girls' hindquarters. They did allow sideburns and long hair. They did allow race riots. They did allow me to be kicked and shoved by black kids who mistook my idealistic fledgling self for a cracker racist. They did allow necking and pot-smoking at lunch hour.
The point of all this, folks, is that just about every school administrator---high school and college---I have ever met or dealt with is as cowardly, arrogant, and ineffectual as Mr. Wilbur Van Vleer and his big "V" tie-clip. Pipsqueaks, the lot of them.
And I recently read in the Los Angeles Times, to my substantial dismay, that the pips are still squeaking---and still at my beloved alma mater. Here's the deal:
Two student reporters of the Venice Oarsman---Naldy Estrada and Julio Robles---were doing research about VHS health teacher Jacqueline Domac's anti-junk food campaign, and accidentally discovered something rather scandalous about Ms. Domac. Seems she once had a romantic relationship with a 16-year-old male---a rather famous 16-year-old male, one Edward Furlong, co-star of "Terminator 2."
Whoah! The student reporters must have wondered if the health teacher's behavior was healthy, and how it was that she had not been T-2'd from her job. So they did exactly what the New York Times's Jayson Blair did not: they carefully and irrefutably vetted their facts with many official sources and public records (including some plainly found on the Internet), and wrote up the story. With guidance from their advisor, an L.A. Times reporter.
Estrada and Robles, you see, had this idea that students and parents from Venice High maybe should know that a (then-29-year-old) faculty member once had a boyfriend who was 16. Not only that, but the faculty member had lived with the young fellow for three years, later filed a civil suit against him, claiming that she and the actor had a "quasi-spousal" relationship. Then there was the "domestic dispute" that Estrada and Robles uncovered, in which the health teacher had kicked and grabbed at cops and earned a "disturbing the peace" conviction (later expunged.)
Even if you put the best face on these decidedly peculiar events---misguided behavior by a well-liked teacher, etc.---you are still left with. . .a teacher having an affair with a minor.
This is a news story, right?
The principal of Venice High, one Janice Davis, refused to allow the Oarsman to print it. According to Estrada and Robles, Davis ordered them to turn their tape off, refused to answer on-the-record questions, and announced that Jacqueline Domac was none of their business. The absurd excuse: something about a teacher's right to privacy. What's more, as the student reporters later wrote in an L.A. Times op-ed piece, Domac sent a letter to Davis threatening to sue any media outlet that published information causing her emotional or physical stress.
Folks, do you wonder why kids grow up cynical? Do you wonder why creepy con artist punks like Jayson Blair don't take journalism seriously? You wonder why there is generally so little respect for authority? You wonder why TV newsmannequins can't get their verb tenses right?
Davis should have given those kids a plaque.
I worked for the Oarsman for almost three years, and was editor-in-chief for one. Administrators aside, Venice was a great school, and the Oarsman a great school newspaper. Had I been advisor, I wouldn't have thought twice about encouraging those students to pursue that article. Principle would have taken precedent over any principal, even if it cost me my job. I think that parents and students deserve to know when a teacher has had a romantic relationship with a minor.
Estrada and Robles behaved with more ethics and guts than most of the White House Press Corps.
Principal Janice Davis pulled a Wilbur Van Vleer on them. She should be fired. Or at least made to pick up potato chip bags on the front lawn. With Domac holding the trash can.
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