Slouching Toward Bedlam

Ask Not for Whom the Final Bell Tolls . . . ; or, This Is How It Ends—Not with a Bang but with a Principal’s Whimper

 

 

Bedlam’s principal, Bentley VanderHaar, should have been relaxed. It was springtime, his favorite season. Trees were budding, flowers sprouting, and he was making arrangements for Bedlam’s graduation ceremonies. Apart from the incident with the black-footed ferrets and the peanut butter, there had been little mischief from the students. VanderHaar, however, was not relaxed. Intention slips had gone out to faculty back in January, and over half of them still had not been returned. VanderHaar scheduled meetings with the holdouts for today. He lifted from his desk the crystal apple that he received back when he had been a humble history teacher and slowly turned it in his hand. Then a thought occurred to him. Perhaps this was all part of some prank the faculty was playing on him. That had to be it. The teachers he was meeting with today were some of Bedlam’s most faithful, the core of the faculty. Surely they weren’t all struggling with whether they should continue to teach.

Hearing a knock on the door, VanderHaar cheerfully called for the person to come in. Jane VanderAsh, Bedlam’s seasoned math teacher, came into the room with a gloomy look on her face. VanderHaar smiled, hoping that might cheer her. Jane had been a faithful teacher since before VanderHaar had taken the job of principal, and that was over thirty years ago. “Hello, Jane! Thank you for meeting with me.”

“I’m not coming back next year.” Jane said, matter-of-factly, setting an envelope on his desk.

VanderHaar drew in his breath. After a moment, he managed to form words. “Why not?”

She frowned. “I’m sorry, Mr. VanderHaar.” All these years, VanderHaar thought to himself, and she still doesn’t call any of her colleagues by their first names. 

She continued, “I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of years. Since we started focusing everything on standardized tests, I feel like I’m getting too old for this. My students do as well as they always have, but every time those test results come out, I panic. And when a student’s score dips, I blame myself. I know the school board sees those results, and that makes me feel worse. I know I’m still a good teacher, but I feel lately that I’m the kind of good teacher that nobody wants anymore. And I’ve stopped seeing my students as children of God. I’m starting to see them as test scores. That isn’t fair to them. They deserve better.”

She paused. VanderHaar drew in his breath to speak, but she held up a hand. “Don’t say a word. My mind is made up.”

She turned on her heel and left. VanderHaar smiled. If this was a prank, he was impressed. Jane VanderAsh had never been much of an actor. She must have really worked at this. 

Another knock. This time it was shop teacher Gord Winkle. VanderHaar greeted him warmly.

Gord looked sad. “Won’t be back next year. After we had the twins, money has been pretty tight. Back in January, I was offered a job, and I asked for more time to think about it. I love teaching at Bedlam.” Gord’s breath caught and VanderHaar thought he might cry. Instead, he sniffed and went on, his voice cracking. “But this is a good offer, and I’m going to take it.”

VanderHaar nodded, unable to imagine the school without Gord. “What will you be doing?”

Gord’s face lit up. “It isn’t teaching, but it’s the next best thing. I’ll be working for a company that maintains and builds out additions to bakeries and restaurants.” Gord’s eyes got that twinkle that VanderHaar had seen only when a student he was teaching had just caught on to an important concept—or when there were both donuts and cake in the teacher’s lounge. “Anyway, sorry it took me so long to decide. Thanks for everything.” Gord Winkle walked out the door, his expression one of a man anticipating working every day surrounded by pastries and sub sandwiches.

VanderHaar shook his head. Losing two dependable veteran teachers back to back? It had to be a prank. Then Bible teacher Cal Vandermeer appeared in the doorway. He put an envelope on the desk next to the two others that were there. Cal looked tired. VanderHaar knew what was wrong.

“Listen, Cal. I wanted to talk to you about the board meeting two nights ago.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. I care about teaching Bible, Bentley. I really do. And I do it well. But if there’s no room for questions, no room for human uncertainty, no room for my students to doubt and struggle and ask questions . . . then I can’t do this.”

“It’s not as bad as all that . . .”

“Yes, it is. The board has set parameters around what I’m allowed to address in class, and I feel hemmed in. I’ve dedicated my life to helping teenagers see how God’s Word helps us navigate life. Kids have questions about human sexuality, about creation and human origins, about politics and justice, and the school is supposed to be a safe place to ask those questions. The board has made it clear that I’m to address none of that. What the board wants is a Sunday school class for five-year-olds, with me telling Bible stories with a flannelgraph. Well, if I can’t help my students see why those stories matter and what God might be saying to us through them, then I’m done here.”

“What will you do?”

“I have no idea. I’ll find something.” There was a pause. “I know you tried, Bentley. Thanks.”

And then Cal was gone. And so was any notion that this was a prank. Cal seemed so disappointed that VanderHaar felt like crying. VanderHaar felt like he had let Cal down. He should have had better words for the board. When he heard another knock on the door, he cringed.

Christina Lopez stuck her head around the door and asked, “You have a minute, Bentley?” 

He nodded. Sliding her school bag off her shoulder, she sat down in the chair opposite him, smoothed her skirt, and took a deep breath before making eye contact. Then she plunged ahead.

“I think it’s time for me to move on,” she said. “You see, fifteen years ago, when I started, I loved teaching English, and I vowed that if the day ever came that I no longer felt that way, I would quit and find something else to do because the kids deserve better and I deserve better. Well, it pains me to say it, but I’ve reached that point: I don’t love my job anymore.”

VanderHaar wiped a hand across his face, sighed deeply, and then asked in a somber voice, “Why, Christina? What’s changed?”

Christina shook her head sadly and said, “I’m just so sick of fighting people about books. It didn’t used to be like this, but I’m going on four years in a row where I’ve been summoned to appear before the Education Committee because someone doesn’t approve of what we’re reading. Can’t teach Brave New World because it promotes sex and drugs. Can’t teach The Underground Railroad because it has three sentences that are too graphic sexually. Can’t teach To Kill a Mockingbird because it uses offensive, racially insensitive language. Can’t teach Macbeth or The Crucible or Harry Potter because they contain witchcraft.”

“But Christina,” VanderHaar interjected, “you won all those battles. You got permission to continue teaching all those books.”

Christina smiled sadly. “I don’t feel like I won. I feel like no one—not parents, not the school board, not the administration—trusts my judgment. Plus, now the board is demanding that we write trigger warnings for each book we teach, and I’m pretty certain that doing so will only increase the number of parents complaining. I’m tired, Bentley, and I’m done. Sorry.”

She reached into the bag at her feet and produced an envelope that joined the others on VanderHaar’s desk, and she left. 

Unfortunately for VanderHaar, hers was not the last letter of resignation he received that day. Art teacher Gregg Mortiss said that the school’s focus on STEM had turned the Fine Arts department into a red-headed stepchild at the school, so he was quitting and taking a position at a local charter school. School counselor Maxwell Prentiss Hall apologized profusely to VanderHaar as he turned in his letter of resignation. Max said he loved Bedlam, but his new podcast—Tapping Your Inner Anger to Become a Better You—was really taking off, and he wanted to give it his full attention. As Max left the office, Bedlam’s librarian and conspiracy theorist Jon Kleinhut entered, informing VanderHaar in hushed whispers that a unique opportunity had arisen, something involving exposing the deep state’s involvement in Ukraine, Iran, and Area 51. If VanderHaar wanted to know more, they’d have to talk in a more secure location. Then to top it off, during sixth hour Vice Principal Hillard stopped by to let VanderHaar know that he, too, was leaving. Declining enrollment for the last decade had him worried about job security, so he had applied for an administrative position with a security firm in California. His service in the Marines and his administrative work at Bedlam made him a perfect fit, and he’d be leaving Bedlam one week after graduation.

By the sound of the final bell that day, VanderHaar felt exhausted. He collected the pile of letters from his desk and put them into a file so one of the office assistants could make copies for the Education Committee. They were going to have to make a lot of new hires. It would feel like an entirely new place next year. As he finished tidying his desk, he realized that only one person on his list had failed to show up for his appointment. Almost on cue, there was a knock on the door.

At the invitation to enter, gym teacher and erstwhile absurdist philosopher Rex Kane entered, resplendent in a neon green sweatsuit and neon orange running shoes. VanderHaar couldn’t help noticing that he held an envelope in his hand. Unlike the day’s earlier visitors, however, Rex was all smiles, and VanderHaar found that annoying. Couldn’t Rex at least pretend to be sad about leaving?

“Hey, hey, hey, Bentley old boy, how you doin’?” he asked in a chipper voice.

“I’ve been better,” VanderHaar replied curtly. He nodded at the envelope in Rex’s hand. 

“You’ve got something there for me, I assume.”

“Indeedy-do!” Rex said, extending his hand.

VanderHaar snatched the envelope and inserted it into the file with the others. Then he asked, “So what are your plans for next year, Rex?”

“Christian education is too important an enterprise to leave for dead. Besides, even if it is dead right now, our God is in the resurrection business.”

Rex looked confused as he said, “Well, I guess that’s up to you, isn’t it?”

Now VanderHaar looked confused. “Up to me?”

“Well, my application is in your hands now.”

Rex nodded toward the manila folder on VanderHaar’s desk. VanderHaar retrieved Rex’s envelope and opened it. Inside were Rex’s resume and an old application for a janitor’s position at Bedlam, but Rex had neatly crossed out the word janitor and printed Vice Principal above it. 

“Sorry about that,” Rex said, pointing at the rewrite, “but when I found out that Hillard wasn’t coming back, I was too impatient to wait for the official application. When that comes out, I’ll fill in a new one if you’d like.”

VanderHaar’s jaw moved, but for a moment no words found their way out. Finally, he said, “Rex, you do realize that about a third of the staff resigned today.”

“I do,” he said. “I’ve talked with all of them over the last couple months, so I knew this was coming. I understand their reasons for quitting, and those reasons make sense, but they’ve also inspired me to work harder. Christian education is too important an enterprise to leave for dead. Besides, even if it is dead right now, our God is in the resurrection business.”

VanderHaar felt something rising up in him that he couldn’t put a name to. It didn’t feel like sadness. It didn’t feel like despair or anger. He was fairly certain he had felt it before, but he couldn’t remember when. He paused. He stared. “Rex, do you realize that what you just said makes more sense than anything you have ever said in the last twenty years?” 

Rex smiled. “I know you guys all think I am just a nutball goofus of a phys. ed. teacher, but I haven’t had my head stuck inside an ostrich this whole time. I’ve been listening. And I think it’s time for me to step up. Now cheer up, Bentley, my boy. We’ve got important work to do.”

Bedlam Principal Bentley VanderHaar smiled back, and suddenly he recognized the feeling he had been having. It was hope. 

 


Twenty years ago, exactly, in the April 2000 issue of CEJ, a new column called Slouching toward Bedlam debuted. Jan Karsvlaam wrote in every issue about flawed and imperfect Christian schoolteachers who care deeply about their students and through whom God does amazing things, much like the teachers in your school. With this issue, Bedlam comes to a close, and Jan will miss the faculty of Bedlam Christian. Jan would like to thank Burt, Gary, Mark, and Steve and Abby—all the editors he has worked with. He is thinking of putting together a book of all the columns (or at least the funny ones), if it seems like there is interest in that sort of thing. He also wants you to know that he writes under a pseudonym, but he hopes the spring weather will clear up his allergies in due time.