Back when I started there, in seventh grade, my mother and I attended the St Michael’s football games together. Standing in as Dad’s wholesome family unit, we perched on a bleacher, our smiles chiseled and stuck. Principal Dad came out on the podium in his purple and white jersey and the crowd went wild. His cheeks matched his fire-red hair as he pontificated about the glory and history of our school. He raised his fist in the air at the end and asked us all to stand to sing the school anthem. People were crying. I’m serious. Tears of pride, joy, nostalgia, maybe all three. He had that effect on people. He got the crowd chanting Warr-i-ors! Warr-i-ors! Over and over again. But somewhere in there the crowd switched and started chanting Mc-Ardle. Mc-Ardle! Dad beamed from his place before us, his mouth closed in a tightening of pride, his eyes full of water. We were with him, totally, and he could have no greater joy.
I didn’t feel loved by Dad. I wasn’t loved by him. I embarrassed him. I had pimples. I tended to overeat and gain weight. And, even though he got me on the team, I wasn’t good at football.
“Do you want to have a catch, Dad?” I’d ask on the rare occasions he was home, hidden behind his newspaper or busy at his study’s desk.
“I would if you would actually catch the ball, Pizza Face,” he’d say, looking up, laughing a bit, trying to make the insult better with a chuckle, like I got the joke, like I didn’t mind because he was being funny.
I met Tony at Sage Park when I kicked my football to no one and it came sailing back to me with force. Eight year old Tony had a wide smile, a lopsided face, bright blonde hair and eyelashes, a skeleton body, and a pronounced lisp. With my dark hair and stocky frame, we totally clashed, but that ball kept passing between us. We hung out constantly, haunting the public library and giggling over Captain Underpants books. We quoted it: Separate classes lead to separate lives, which inevitably leads to robots. We knew even then that that quote applied to us, since we had a tight friendship with several big differences lurking between us: Tony’s parents were divorced–mine weren’t. Tony struggled in school–I didn’t. Tony was poor– I wasn’t. Finally, I went to Catholic school–Tony didn’t.
That last difference changed, because when we were in eighth grade, Tony got a scholarship to the co-ed St. Francis High. Principal Sister Janet did a lot of fundraising for her scholarship program for at-risk kids and had developed resources for struggling students, a very unusual thing in a Catholic school. So, in eighth grade, Tony went to St. Francis and I continued at St. Michael’s.
Before his first day at the new school, Tony nagged me about what tie to wear, what socks, what shoes. He asked how he should act, what he should do about not knowing anyone.
“I’m just hoping I can meet someone like you, someone cool,” he said, not realizing how uncool I really was at school.
“Just act like you don’t care. Get out there on the playground with that football and throw it to someone, just like you did with me.”
We threw the football back and forth for the rest of that afternoon, until the mosquitos got annoying. I warmed with deep satisfaction. I didn’t have to feel guilty anymore. Tony would be okay. He was getting what he deserved.
One School-One Purpose
In our ninth grade year, something big happened: St. Michael’s fused with St. Francis. Sr. Janet became an English teacher in the new setup, no longer a principal. The archdiocese chose Dad as the principal over the combined school. Those in charge said they wanted this new school to be truly great. Dad jumped at the challenge.
He created a slogan and made banners, put it at the top of the school stationary. It became the last thing said every morning during announcements over the PA: We are St. Michael’s: We are GREAT! At assemblies, pep rallies, games, and even at monthly Mass, Dad had all of us repeat his mantra. Some kids had it on a bumper sticker on their car. We did too, of course. I have to admit it was fun at first, the school spirit, the combined desire for greatness. Who doesn’t want to be great? Dad wore a St. Michael’s is Great tie to work every single day. He high-fived students every morning as we all filed in from the busses. A lot of people got a bounce from his energy and his sense of purpose.
Division lurked in the corners of the school, like a vine climbing a pole. At lunch, I was the only St. Michael’s kid who sat with St. Francis kids. Most St. Michael’s kids called St. Francis kids Francis Freaks. I tried to ignore that.
At lunch, Tony swished his soft pretzel around in a blob of mustard. The din of the cafeteria caused him to yell a little, “Ok, so I heard that the families who give money to the football team don’t pay as much to go here, and, like, get help with studying.”
“Huh,” I said, “Well that doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Yeah,” Tony grabbed his stuff and left lunch early.
In my room, trying to do my homework, I read my father’s constant St. Michael’s Twitter feed.
We are St. Michaels! Everything is for the greatness of this school! Keep the faith! We are St. Michaels! We are GREAT!!!!
The Have Nots
Tony banged on our door at
“Have you heard?”
I stood and looked at him.
He rolled his eyes. “Nothin’ ever happens to you. They’re taking away the scholarship program and special ed and music!”
I stood in silence, hands limp by my sides.
“Aren’t you gonna say somethin’? Or do somethin’?” He turned from the door into the encroaching night.
Dad’s Tweet after Sister Janet led her first protest against the loss of the scholarship program:
Sr. Janet is an old, bitter, want-to-be principal! I am not sure whose side she’s on, but it’s certainly not St. Michael’s, or God’s!
Dad received 300 likes for this.
My new girlfriend, Connie, also a St. Francis kid, sporting her pixie cut and a nose ring, waltzed up to my lunch table, slammed down her books and said, “Well, have you heard the latest?
“Yes. I heard it all.”
She ignored me.
“So we’re losing a ton of kids next year. But guess what we’re getting?”
My stomach began to turn.
“Rich kids? Better football players?” I asked.
Dad was even trying to get us into a different football league, so we could play against the big public schools. He no longer wanted to play against the schools he said in his feed were “Losers! Less than US!” Some teachers quit, those that complained just disappeared. I wished I could disappear, switch schools, switch families.
Connie wrote for the school newspaper, so I kind of knew what was coming next.
Who is Mr. McCardle anyway?
This week The St. Michael’s Gazette has information about several anonymous communications detailing a secret past life of our principal.
Marilyn, whose name is changed here to protect her privacy, the first woman to write to us, confirmed a past sexual relationship with married Principal McCardle.
We now have emails from six women who have had sexual relations with Mr. McCardle, one woman even said she had an abortion after a relationship with our principal.
Dad denied it all. The Board met, but he had chosen the three new members, all his buddies, so they supported him.
Connie got suspended after the article went viral.
The same year of all the cutbacks, our junior year, the St. Michael’s Warriors were on fire. Everyone forgot Dad’s indiscretions because we were beating everyone. Tony and I lived on the bench. Tony wouldn’t be coming back for senior year, but even he had trouble not getting swept up into the roar of the crowds and the band playing “We Will Rock You” again and again. We had made it all the way to the championship against the big public school, Liberty High.
During the cheerleaders’ halftime show, Sr. Janet and a band of students holding “Save St. Michael’s from McCardle” and “Save our Scholarships” and “St. Michael’s is More than Football” signs marched onto the field, beating drums and clashing cymbals and blowing whistles and shouting, disrupting the show. Frigid air, shock, and maybe some minor PTSD kept us all transfixed, unable to move or react, but into the void swear words erupted and people started throwing cups and whatever they had in their hands. Fans charged the field, attacking the protesters. The father of the quarterback punched Sr. Janet in the face, a sight that made all the sound in my ears get sucked into some frozen space, my breath stop cold in my chest. I could see Connie and Tony down on the field, holding their phones high in the air, recording. I stayed alone-my mother stayed at home-on my bench, sick with fear, embarrassment, worry for my friends, for my mom. My eyes scanned the bleachers looking for Dad. I found him, standing in his elegant dark wool coat, watching the chaos. Later, we would all see my father’s Twitter messages, typed out during the chaos.
Fight St. Michael’s! Fight! We are GREAT! We are GREAT!
Some of the Board denounced the violence. Patrick Maloney, my father’s favorite golfing buddy, wrote, This is not behavior suitable for a Catholic school. This is an abomination.
A few days later, he resigned from the Board. Dad tweeted,
Good riddance to traitors!
Dad said his Tweets were solely about the football game and had no malicious intent.
Most of those on his side believed him.
The first day of my senior year, I entered a school foyer draped with state championship banners. My father, decked out in school colors, high-fived everyone while the band cranked out “We Are the Champions” ad nauseum. Kids greeted me and even hugged my limp body, but they weren’t my friends. A fake smile hung on my face as I moved down the hallway to homeroom while those still passionate about St. Michael’s, my father, the principal, chanted the syllables of his and my name Mc-Car-dle! Mc-Car-dle! Mc-Car-dle!
Most of the St. Francis kids and teachers were gone. Everyone seemed so happy with it this way, like the fusion of the two schools never happened, like change is a bad thing that should be stomped out, avoided at all cost. Like only certain people were allowed to come here, excel here. I pictured a snow globe with St. Michael’s inside, all of us holding our breath under water. All of us the same, locked in, staying the same, forever.
That last first day of school my classes blurred in succession. A crucifix hung on every classroom wall above the front whiteboards. In each, I stared above my classmates’ heads and pondered Jesus, the son of God. I looked at him, his hands and feet punctured by nails. Being the son of God didn’t do him any good.
I got that. █
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 52, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.
[Editor note: Maggie’s story was our Short Story Contest third-place winner.]
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