Poor Watkins had maintained a spotless record, making no enemies among colleagues, staff or administrators. Then that damn little bastard Tyree Robinson pissed him off. It was particularly strange because Watkins had a reputation for a really long fuse. Tyree had tested the patience of many a teacher including yours truly. I’d visualized choking the little shit myself. But no one would have predicted that if anyone snapped it’d be Watkins.
Of course there were mitigating factors at play. It was a day in which nothing was going right for Watkins. He spilled coffee in the morning, splattering a few papers he’d been grading. Then there was a testy phone call with an irrational parent at lunchtime. I heard that Watkins handled it as well as one could. Plus there was the general shitty attitude of kids that day as they practically fell over one another to be obnoxious. It was a cool, slate gray and very windy day. Lunchtime sports had been cancelled and a fight had been stopped before it could get started depriving students of a highly anticipated spectacle.
Watkins had started that post lunch class with what he knew would be a real boffo lesson plan. But as often happens among middle schoolers, the damn kids got in the way. They were so boisterous and uncooperative that Watkins had no choice but to shut it down and make them work silently out of their textbooks. So by the time Tyree went into his act, Watkins’ nerves were frayed.
Maybe it was the accumulated frustrations from 19 years of dealing with adolescents. Here’s a man who was famed for his patience, understanding and tolerance. He would make himself available to students at lunchtime and after school, happy to go over the minutest detail over and over again until the student understood. And he didn’t care how much a student acted out in his classroom, Watkins gave the same measure of his devotion to the troublemaker as he did the apple polisher. Maybe the damn was bound to break. Maybe there was a limit to what one man can do. He’d endured the slings and arrows of the vilest student and carried on. Watkins never asked the administration to mete out harsh punishment to students in his charge. Indeed he often begged for leniency. He hated for students to get suspended. And he never uttered a bad word about a student, let alone to a student. Maybe no one can go on like that forever. Maybe everyone has a breaking point. Perhaps on that fateful day Watkins simply reached his.
I heard the ruckus that led to Watkins’ outburst. It was a bit rowdy in his classroom but nothing to be alarmed about. I was on my prep period grading papers and didn’t give it a second thought. Then I heard what turned out to have been the reaction to Watkins’ infamous comment. First a sudden dead silence, then there were howls. There was outrage. There was indignation. This was not an ordinary noise to emanate from a classroom. Middle school teachers learn to respond to the unusual. I got up and peaked in Watkins’ room. He stood there looking at the students with total defeat playing across his pallid face. As Watkins later said he knew instantly that his comment had crossed the line and there was no taking it back and no apology that would redeem him. He stood there stock still being bombarded by angry reposts. It was as if he had just stepped into an elevator shaft and was resigned to his fate.
Meanwhile stupid Tyree Robinson was a martyr. A true hero to classmates because he was the one to whom Watkins’ words had been directed. Tyree was eating up the attention just as he did any attention that came his way. Tyree was an attention whore and a loud mouth who did not have a selfless bone his body. To think that these young people were putting him on a pedestal while getting ready to tear down a great teacher like Watkins was unbearable.
“Could you get, Mr. Durango?” Watkins asked me feebly. Durango was a vice principal. He’d need to come in to calm the situation, sort things out and take statements.
While we waited I stood physically and emotionally at Watkins’ side as if he were a prisoner facing execution. Students, of both genders, all colors, and all abilities, stared at Watkins. Some in anger, some in shock, some seemed bewildered, curious, almost as if they were mystified by how a grown man could transform before their eyes. I made it a point to keep them quiet and was particularly keen on keeping Tyree from uttering a word. I knew he was reveling in the triumph of getting a teacher to crack.
When Mr. Durango came in half the students tried at once to tell the story of Watkin’s utterance. But no one could silence a room faster than our vice principal. Once he’d done so and subsequently gotten the gist of the story, he asked Watkins to go to his office and wait there. I returned to my own room as Durango heard the students out, noting the consistency of their stories. He then had them write statements and remained in the room until the dismissal bell.
Due to the nature of Watkins’ remark he was suspended — with pay — pending further investigation. Really there was nothing more to investigate. Watkins did not deny what he said and the remark he admitted to jibed with the student’s claims. A cursory look into Watkins’ background would be fruitless because he had maintained a spotless record. The parent outrage however was another matter and it quickly spread to become community outrage which of course got the attention of the school board which of course made the matter infinitely more serious. Watkins wouldn’t be able to get by on the technicality that, other than for one moment, he’d been an exemplary teacher. The odds also were, at least in my opinion, that he would continue to be an outstanding teacher for the next ten or 15 or however many years he plied his trade.
The matter was taken out of the hands of our principal and would be decided by the school board under the advisement of the district superintendent for human resources. Watkins’ suspension was extended indefinitely. Meanwhile his class was taken over by a sub who had no control over the students and whose lessons were straight out of the textbook and thus dull and uninspired.
Watkins was divorced and lived alone, seeing his children on weekends. I visited a week after the infamous “incident.” He’d aged ten years. He sat slumped in an easy chair in front of the TV which was blaring some stupid game show.
“I never got the chance to apologize, to say I was wrong and that those words don’t in any way shape or form represent who I am or what I believe. I just don’t know what happened, it came out….it all happened so fast and I’ve felt nothing but terrible ever since.”
It was hard listening to Watkins, just as it was difficult to look at him and see him crushed. All I could do was give him assurances about how we were all behind him and that it would blow over and everything would be all right.
But it didn’t blow over and everything wasn’t all right. The school board found cause to dismiss Watkins post haste, his salary and benefits honored until the end of the school year. The union mounted a defense of Watkins but it was too little too late and it was uninspired. The union could have acted sooner and with more vigor but were timid in face of the exact words Watkins said.
So that was that.
Faculty was mostly supportive of Watkins although a few of the African American teachers were not in great sympathy with him. Still no one reckoned that he deserved to be ousted. We invited him to the big party teachers have on the evening of the last day of the school year. It’s traditionally a big bash with a barbecue and lots of booze. Watkins didn’t show.
Two weeks later some joggers watched as a man drove his car into the bay. It was deep enough at that spot that the car was completely submerged. Watkins body was found in the driver’s seat of the car. Pinned to his shirt was an envelope in a ziplock baggy. Inside the envelope was a note that simply said: “all I did was call him fucking ni--er. NOT FAIR!”
The darn guy couldn’t even spell the word out.