a satire by Christopher Paslay
When beloved high school principal Dominic Rossetti is forced to open a charter school so his uncle Tony, an organized crime boss, can embezzle the money to fund a strip club, Dom is thrown into a humorous yet tragic situation: he is compelled to run his uncle’s bogus charter school while trying to educate Philadelphia’s children.
Part 14 of 25
The Kid wasn’t angry about World Peace no more; he was happy. He said in his journal that he had this new energy, and he was ready to take on the new school year, full force. He’d run both schools, Eisenhower and World Peace Charter, as best as he knew how. Everything was pretty much set to go at Eisenhower—the Kid had put in 10 and 12 hour days all summer—and as for World Peace Charter, well, he would do all he could to keep up the charade, at least for a while. There was no way he could just pull the plug now, not wit the, um, prospect a having a relationship wit Gina. If he came clean about World Peace Charter now, that would be the end a her, no doubt about it, even if he told her his whole story, showed her his journal and his newspaper articles and all that. Anyways, the Kid had a plan how to stop the whole thing naturally, without Tony flipping out and without the Kid ruining his reputation and going to jail. He was gonna make sure World Peace failed the state math and reading tests, failed them horribly; this way, the District would close them down and prob’ly revoke their charter.
Now, though, the Kid had a bigger problem to deal wit: folks from the Philadelphia Unified School District and State Department of Education was gonna be coming to World Peace Charter on the first day a school and doing a whatchamacallit—a walk through. They was gonna be walking around wit their clipboards and taking notes and whatnot, expecting to see all the great programs the Kid had promised, all the cutting edge instruction. See, like I says before, just cause World Peace was a cyber charter, that didn’t mean they didn’t have to have a real building to serve as a headquarters, to be the place where they had meetings, kept the supplies, and ran the books. The principal was supposed to be there fulltime, five days a week, and so was the C.F.O. Once a week—every Tuesday—all the teachers was supposed to be there, and the counselor, too, having meetings, getting supplies, checking in wit the principal; the other days the teachers worked from their computers at home, teaching their students daily lessons on these . . . what’s it called . . . Internet webinars, which was all done online by text and email.
Course, the only time the students didn’t learn online was the first Tuesday of every month, when the students hadda come in to school in person and have a regular school day wit regular classes, where they had the opportunity to talk face-to-face wit their teachers and counselors, and wit the principal, too. They was supposed to check in about how things was going wit the cyber curriculum. Was there any problems they wanted to talk about? Anything they still didn’t understand? Was their laptops still running good, or did they need to talk to the computer tech fella in his office? This was supposed to happen the first Tuesday of every month, see. Which meant on the first day a school, when the District and State jack-wads was coming in wit their clipboards to observe the Kid’s state-a-the-art charter—100 percent green, home to Egyptian Math and Israeli Science—there was supposed to be a building fulla happy teenagers, getting their rosters and going to class to meet their new teachers, the counselor going from room to room to see if any a the students had any problems or issues, and the principal overseeing it all.
What was in World Peace Charter now, six days before its grand opening? Nada. Zilch-o. Zero. Nothing but empty desks and classrooms, blank freakin blackboards, and a room fulla textbooks and junked computer equipment. How in God’s name was the Kid gonna pull this off? Make it look like World Peace Charter was up and running and living up to all the hype and hoopla? The Kid didn’t have no clue. He didn’t, but I did. I hadda plan to make the whole thing work, just like magic, badda-bing, badda-boom. I told the Kid my plan over dinner at the Butcher’s Café in South Philly, my treat. We hadda get people, I told him, a buncha people to pretend to be students at the school; that was the hard part. We also hadda get some folks to pretend to be the teachers and staff; that would be a bit easier. Then we hadda set up the school to make it look like classes was in session, that all that good stuff that Dom wrote about on the World Peace Charter website was taking place. And we hadda do all of it—the whole kit and caboodle—without any a the people knowing what we was really doing; Dom shook his head and said it was impossible.
But I had that part covered, too, see. There was this guy I knew from the old neighborhood. . . we went back a long time, prob’ly 50 years . . . and he was a partner in this movie casting agency, and he owed me this favor, see. His office was based in Philadelphia, and about five years ago, he was helping this movie director set-up a scene down at 3rd and Arch Streets where a crowd a like 200 extras was to stand outside this big building that was supposed to be a jailhouse and shout, “Free Bob-Bob! Free Ta-Ta!” It was some movie called “Comet Man” about these religious cult leaders who stole all this money in a whatchamacallit, in a Ponzi scheme, and end up getting caught and locked up by the cops, but the true followers a the cult can’t believe it, and was trying to bust Bob-Bob and Ta-Ta outta jail.
Now, my casting agent friend from the old neighborhood—Eddie Gunsenhouser—he had a problem: there was this big old union beef going on down at 3rd and Arch Streets, and a buncha union guys was picketing the movie, cause the producer a the movie . . . not Eddie, this other guy . . . did some rehab work on the building that was supposed to be the jailhouse, and he didn’t use union labor. The job only cost something like $30,000, but the local wasn’t having it, they wasn’t gonna let some Hollywood piss-ant and his private contractors take bread outta the mouths a their members’ famb’lies, not a friggin chance. So like a dozen union guys was down there wit the big inflatable rat, screaming and handing out flyers, telling everybody on the street not to go to “Comet Man,” that the producers was thieves and anti-union. A coupla union goons even threw around some a the camera people setting up their equipment, and according to Eddie, told them that if they didn’t get their cameras outta there, they’d stick them so far up their asses that they’d have to open their mouths to take off the lens caps.
Eddie was all besides hisself about this, see, cause his client, the director a the movie, was supposed to do this scene in one shoot and then fly outta Philly to Arizona where he was gonna film the spaceship landing, and he didn’t wanna be behind schedule; his backers would have his nuts on a plate. He didn’t know what to do to get the union guys to back off so he calls me up, outta the blue, and asks if I could help him out. Could I talk to some people a mine, get shit straightened out. Well, I hadn’t seen my boy Eddie in a while, but we went back a ways, so I took care of it for him; by that afternoon, the union backed off. He was all happy and thankful and whatnot, and he says to me, he says, “Manny, if you ever need a favor, don’t hesitate to call.”
I told the Kid I could call Eddie up and see what he could do for us. The Kid rolls his eyes, and says, “I don’t know about this, uncle Manny.” But I didn’t care, see, I just went wit my gut; the Kid mighta known about education, but I knew about stuff like this. So sitting right there, sitting right at the table in the Butcher’s Café, I take out my phone and dial Eddie’s number. It goes to voicemail, and I leave a message: Hey, Eddie, it’s Manny Genitaglia, long time no see, babe. Just calling cause I need a favor. Member Comet Man, and how I helped ya wit those union guys, well, I got this thing . . . and I need your help. Call me back as soon as ya can. Tell Marie I says hi.
The Kid just rolls his eyes again.
“What?” I says. “I’m trying to help you out. I would be nice if—”
But then my phone rings, see. My phone rings and it’s Eddie, and so I answer it. “Eddie? Hey, ya fancy-shmancy movie prick, how the hell’s it hanging?”
Eddie says it’s hanging a little to the left—a stupid joke from when we was kids—and then we start talking, catching up on the past five years . . . his daughter just made him a proud grandpa and the new baby’s name is Cassidy . . . and Dom gives me this look and kicks my leg under the table.
“That’s great,” I says, “but let me get down to why I called. I got this favor to ask ya, and let me just say this, I’m really in a pinch here, Eddie, a pinch-and-a-friggin-half.”
And so I tell Eddie the deal, the whole deal, cause I know I can trust him. Eddie just listens, occasionally saying stuff like holy cow and sheesh and oh man, and when I’m done telling him everything, when I’m done asking his advice on what to do, he says real casually, “Well, I could just pretend to shoot a promotional video for your charter school.”
“A who?” I says.
“You need 100 kids to pretend to be students, right?”
“And you need them to show up at 7:45 and stay until 2:45, right? Go through the day like they’re taking classes at this charter school?”
“No problem,” Eddie says. “I’ll just make a casting call, and hire 100 actors to play students in the promotional video we’re gonna shoot. I do stuff like this all the time. I’ll need to get on it first thing tomorrow, but I think I can pull it off. Course, if something happens, I’m gonna play stupid. In fact, I’m gonna need Dominic to sign a contract and officially hire my services for the filming of his video. Just for liability, you know about that stuff, right?”
“Liability?” I says.
“Yeah, liability. I know you saved my ass a few years ago, Manny, but I got a reputation to protect. If you guys get caught, I can’t lose my job. I can’t go to jail. We have to do this legally, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I says, “well you owe me, Eddie.”
“I know I do. That’s why I’m gonna help with this, and keep my mouth shut about it. Now listen, here’s what we need to do . . .”
And so Eddie tells me how it’s gonna go, and I sit there and listen, even though I wasn’t too hot about having the Kid sign any contracts. Eddie says he’s gonna get together a shoot for a promotional education video for World Peace Charter—like an advertisement for the school—and that he’s gonna hire 100 actors to play students in the video, and these actors is gonna be ready and prepared to go through a whole school day, from 7:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., just pretending to be students during their first day a school. It wasn’t really that hard, actually. There was no set lines or script, it would just be . . . howdoyasayit, ad-libbed, kinda like one a those reality TV shows. Eddie would tell the actors: you are all freshmen on your first day a high school. Listen to the teachers, and do what you are told. Oh, and by the way, don’t look for the cameras, cause they are hidden, see. And the cameras are always rolling, so don’t say nothing to no one about the shoot, or it will ruin the video. There are no breaks, no changing scenes, just one big take—so don’t frig it up. You are all freshmen, happy freshmen, on your first day of high school. Understand?
That’s what Eddie told me. The only problem, though, was that he couldn’t hire a buncha 14 and 15 years olds, that wasn’t legal. He hadda hire actors that was at least 18 years of age, and he was gonna have to pay them for a day’s work, too. He said he’d do the rest free a charge—cause he owed me—like writing up the contract for the video, and advertising the casting call, and all the other bullshit he said went along wit setting this whole thing up, but he hadda pay the actors; there was just no way around that. He didn’t need to pay any cameramen or crew, cause there wouldn’t be any, but the actors . . . yeah, they would get paid, absolutely . . . he hadda reputation to keep.
“So what’s the deal?” the Kid asks after I hang up the phone wit Eddie.
“We’re good to go, kid. In like flint.”
“What did he say? How’s it gonna work?”
I tell him everything Eddie told me, and the Kid actually thinks it has a chance to work.
“We gotta pay for the actors, though,” I says.
“What? We have to pay for the actors? How much?”
“Not much,” I says, and play wit a piece a lettuce in my salad on the table in front a me.
“How much?” the Kid asks again.
“I don’t know . . . something like $11,500.”
“Yep. That’s what Eddie told me. He said it’s standard pay. Background actors, cause that’s what they’ll be, get paid $115 a day, which really ain’t much, when ya think about it. Do the math, kid: a hundred times $115 is $11,500.”
The Kid was pretty pissed, I ain’t gonna lie.
“Where am I supposed to get $11,500, uncle Manny, huh?”
“I don’t know, kid. I don’ know.”
“Eleven thousand, five hundred dollars?”
“Yep. And the actors will all be 18 and 19 years old, maybe 20.”
“Yep,” I says. “Why don’t you eat your soup, kid, before it gets cold.”
But the Kid didn’t eat any a his soup, see. He didn’t eat anything the whole rest a the night.
The Kid went to Gina and Ashley’s house that Monday for a Labor Day barbecue. At first he didn’t wanna go, cause schools was opening the following day and he was real stressed out just thinking about it, but Gina said pleeeease, and even put little Ashley on the phone and she said pleeeease, so Dom had no choice. He’d pop in and stay for maybe an hour or two, he wrote in his journal, eat a hamburger and some corn on the cob, then split. There was too much going on in the morning, too much at stake for him to get all caught up at some Labor Day party. On the drive over to their house he almost had one a those howdoyasayits . . . panic attacks, but he pulled over and did his deep breathing and visualization exercises and it passed. Still, he wrote, he couldn’t keep his mind from racing a million miles an hour. Opening day at Eisenhower was all set, and the Assistant Principal, Mrs. Lankford, was gonna run the show. Course, the situation at World Peace Charter was much different. Nothing was certain there, see, and the whole plan could unravel at any time like a friggin ball a yarn.
Seeing Gina and Ashley made him feel a little better, though, he wrote. The barbecue was in back a Gina’s rowhouse in South Philly on her small cement patio, where she had a grill, a picnic table wit an American flag table cloth, a few deck chairs, and a cooler filled wit cans a beer and soda. The party was small, only a coupla neighbors—Darryl and Debbie from across the street, and Margie and her son, Chris—and that was it. Chris was Ashley’s age, but was all worried about the Phillies game inside on TV, and so he pretty much ignored Ashley.
Ashley had a friend to talk to, though, so she didn’t care that Chris was on the couch in the living room watching baseball. She was talking to Dom, see, and that was good by her. She liked Dom, thought he was neat and cool, and I ain’t simply saying this cause I read about it in the Kid’s journal, no; I seen the two together myself a few times, and they was quite the pair. The two a them was out back in the sun, Dom sitting on his chair and drinking a can a cola, and Ashley in her wheelchair sitting next to him, her legs propped up on a bench. They was talking about going swimming, and how much it bit the big one not to be able to go in the pool in the summer when you was in a cast. Ashley was a little sad, cause two a her girlfriends was at a swimming party that very day, see, but she couldn’t go cause a her legs. She coulda went if she really wanted to, but she woulda hadda watched from the side a the pool, and that woulda been friggin torture for her.
“How long until you get your casts off?” the Kid asks.
“Between two and three months. They put screws in my feet, and they have to heal all the way.”
“Did it hurt? The operations?”
“A little,” Ashley says. “The next day it hurt bad, but it got better. Now it only hurts a little when I walk on them.”
“It stinks not being able to go in the pool, huh?”
“Oh my God, I know.”
“I remember when I was like eight years old,” the Kid says, “and I had an ear infection this one summer, and all my friends were swimming in the pool at our swim club, and I couldn’t go in, I wasn’t allowed. And this one girl, her name was Dawn, she kept swimming over to the side of the pool to talk to me, to try to make me feel better. She handed me this penny, and told me to chuck it into the water, and she would dive down and get it. She was trying to include me into the fun, but watching her swimming wasn’t that fun, you know? I chucked the penny into the pool a few times, then I just took it and threw it at this fat old lady who was floating in the pool like a giant whale.”
Ashley bursts out laughing. “No you didn’t!”
“I swear to God.”
“Did you get in trouble?”
“Nope. The lady started looking around, but I left and went to the snack bar and got a hotdog.”
“That’s so funny,” Ashley says. “Hey, Mr. Rossetti, wanna sign my cast?”
“Sure. Gotta marker?”
“My mom has one inside, I think. Hey mom! Can you get the magic marker so Mr. Rossetti can sign my cast?”
“What’s the magic word?” Gina says.
Gina gets it, comes back, hands it to the Kid. He leans forward, draws his name—Mr. Rossetti—in big block letters on Ashley’s left cast, and feels Gina leaning next to him, watching him. He looks at her and she’s smiling, admiring him. He smiles back, and Gina leans forward real quick and gives the Kid a kiss on the cheek, just a peck, he wrote in his journal, but it got him going, got the butterflies flying in his stomach. He liked Gina, a lot, and he was nervous just how much he liked her. The thing that got him nervous most of all was how much Gina seemed to like him back, how everything he ever wanted was right there for the taking, but wit this came the, um, pressure a not screwing it all up.
He hadda take a leak, prob’ly cause he was excited and still a little nervous. He stood up and went to the bathroom inside—it was at the top a the steps all the way down the hall on the left, Gina’s neighbor Debbie said—and when he went in and looked into the mirror, he wrote, all his anxiety came rushing back. The first thing he thought of was World Peace Charter, and how folks from the Philadelphia Unified School District and State Department of Education was gonna be there first thing in the morning, clipboards in hand, ready to write their freakin reports. He thought a the stupid plan wit the 100 actors, how they was all set to show up at 7:30 acting like teenagers during their first day a school, roleplaying the part down to the nostril—clothing and everything. He thought a the phony teachers and staff, too, and their instructions, how I was gonna play Principal Bradshaw, and how the Gorilla was gonna be Mr. Kaplan, the C.F.O., and how the other teachers was gonna be played by five a Tony’s girls from Straight A’s, the ones that was college students and actually studying to be real teachers.
He thought a the school itself, he wrote, and wondered if the way he’d laid everything out was gonna be good enough to fool the folks wit the clipboards. He’d cleaned the place from top to bottom, tidied and straighten the desks, reassembled the busted computers as best he could, hung inspirational posters on the hallway walls and the school’s mission statement on the bulletin boards. He brought in globes, and maps, and stuck a small American flag in the corner of every classroom. He tested the PA system to make sure it worked . . . and it did, just fine . . . and programed the bell schedule in the main office. He brought in plants for the main office, and an old desk and leather chair for the principal’s office. He put phony names on the mailboxes in the mailroom, brought in one a Eisenhower’s photocopiers as a prop. As for lunch in the café, this was easy: the kids were required to brown bag it, which is what the actors playing the students was told.
Course, the thing that really stressed the Kid out was the lesson plans, and whether the phony teachers would be able to teach the material that he had written. He’d set everything up for them before hand, made the copies, put a textbook on every desk, and wrote step-by-step instructions on how to do the whatchamacallits . . . the activities, and even left scripts on how to answer the questions a the folks wit the clipboards, if they came up. It’s all a dog-and-pony show, Dom told everyone on the phone, including me. Just go through the motions, and show these jag-offs what they wanna see.
The Kid was still looking in the mirror, he wrote, still looking at his face. For a second he didn’t recognize hisself, how he’d let this whole friggin World Peace Charter thing spin the frig outta control, and he needed to start doing his breathing exercises and his mental imagery to stop from having a panic attack. He breathed deep, in and out, in and out, and tried to think a something pleasant, something to help him to relax. He thought a Gina, sweetie-pie Gina, in her white short-shorts and Hard Rock Café T-shirt that she was wearing, her brown hair pulled back into a sexy ponytail.
There was a knock at the bathroom door.
“Yes?” the Kid says.
“Oops,” little Ashley says, “sorry. I’ll use the bathroom in my mom’s room.” She hobbled on her crutches down the hall.
The Kid comes outta the bathroom and Gina’s standing there, standing and just looking at him.
“Sorry about that,” she says. “We didn’t know anybody was in there.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Thanks for coming here today, I know you’re busy with the start a the school year and everything . . .”
“No problem,” the Kid says. “I wanted to come, I like you guys.”
“We like you, too.”
Gina puts her hand on the Kid’s shoulder, and for the second time that afternoon kisses him, this time on the mouth, and the Kid can’t help but kiss her back.