Vice Principal Killjoy
Thomas fiddled with his thumbs waiting for his grandfather to emerge from his meeting with Vice Principal “Killjoy” Khanna.
He hadn’t come up with that nickname; it was something he had heard since his first day at Oceanic High School, in Carlsbad, California. It was whispered along the corridors and classrooms with dread, like a monster under the bed. If you did something wrong, Killjoy would get you.
Even the adults knew about her infamy. Morning drop-offs at school were always a chaotic cutthroat race until Killjoy took command of the school’s entrance. Holding a metal notepad in one hand and a large coffee mug in the other, Killjoy gained control of the drop-off zone. As parents cautiously drove through the parking lot, a mere frown stopped those who wanted to cut in line. A wave of the metal notepad dissuaded those who wanted to drive into the teacher’s parking lot. Her system was very simple: students wouldn’t be admitted to school that day if their parents tried to cut in line. Simple as that.
Killjoy always wore a long overcoat over a buttoned knitted sweater, even in the summer. Her haters compared her to a barrel with legs, but many of the girls were jealous of the wavy black hair that reached her lower back and her thin manicured hands. Nobody had seen her eyes — she always wore huge sunglasses that covered half her face — but it was rumored that her eyes were the blackest black.
She was shorter than the average sophomore girl, so it was easy for her to walk among students undetected during recess, and she was silent too, like a tiger stalking prey. Someone had found out that her shoe size was around 12 or 13, but Killjoy wore rubber-soled shoes and walked in a short step gait.
In those first two weeks, Thomas had been startled three times by her sudden appearance. Only the first time had she acknowledged his presence by nodding her head at him, her chin embedding itself deeply into her large double chin.
That simple nod was enough for an introduction.
There was a story about how Killjoy stopped a speeding SUV by standing in front of it and putting her hand on the grill of the car. The incident happened before Thomas even entered school, and he knew it must have been an exaggeration, but the story went that two days later, the family who was driving the SUV moved from the county.
Or so it was rumored.
Parents avoided her, teachers respected her, and students were completely terrified of her. In a nutshell, the school was completely under Killjoy’s iron grip. The principal seemed happy to be just a figurehead, the school ran like clockwork, and there were no problems between him and Killjoy since Killjoy was always right.
Everyone told Thomas to avoid her, but he was now on her radar.
Thomas shifted in his seat, swinging his legs back and forth. He stared at Killjoy’s closed door. He shivered. This was his first visit to her office, and since he had just transferred from Ohio, the Killjoy legend hadn’t really sunk in. A boy from his class had called him a “farm boy” in front of a group of girls, and although he had let that one slip by, he couldn’t ignore “hick,” “redneck,” and all the other names that followed. He dropped his backpack and immediately a ring of onlookers gathered.
The other boy, Roger Hill, was large and strong, with blond hair and blue eyes. He was three inches taller than Thomas, and his shoulders were many inches wider. Roger was a linebacker on the school’s football team.
Thomas was the complete opposite – always on the skinny side, with black hair and brown eyes. But three years in Tae Kwon Do earned him a red belt and third place in Ohio’s junior open. Of course, nobody knew that, and Roger found out the hard way.
Thomas didn’t throw the first punch; he tried to talk first, but when the punches came he made sure to throw the last kick, and then the next one, and the next one, as Roger’s teammates jumped in to help their linebacker. Thomas was in a trance – fighting – and zooming in on one of Roger’s friends when the circle of onlookers opened and Killjoy entered the arena.
With a wave of her notepad, Killjoy dissolved the spectators and assessed the situation. Everyone was silent. Thomas tried to catch his breath.
“You three,” she said in a thick Hindu accent, “to the principal.” Then she turned to Thomas and pointed with her coffee mug. “You, follow me.”
Thomas picked up his backpack and followed the short, plump woman through the school hallways. All the kids looked at him with pity; some even waved goodbye.
With a little kick, Killjoy opened her office door and led Thomas inside. She pointed to a chair across from her desk and waited for him to sit down before plopping in her chair. She intertwined her fingers and leaned over her desk, staring at Thomas.
Thomas tried to keep his cool and held her gaze while he counted in silence. He’d never been prone to get into trouble. He was never singled out for anything other than for his prowess in Tae Kwon Do in Ohio.
In Fulton, a town of roughly eleven thousand people, and a high school with a total two hundred students, everyone was familiar with each other. They’d actually grown up together. His old principal, Mr. Blair, had been to barbecues at his home many times. When someone got into trouble, not only did the parents know about it, within hours, the whole town heard of the news. And, like it or not, your reputation grew up with you — screwing up as a kid, you’d be branded a “bad apple,” and your reputation would follow you forever.
The switch to Carlsbad, a proper city between San Diego and L.A., and a school with about three thousand students, had been difficult. It was harsh and disorienting. It seemed that everyone was trying to be individuals, trying to do something that would set them apart from each other. Clothing, attitude, friends, sports. It was all about who was who. Who did what? And, who was with whom? Thomas had tried to keep a low profile, but once again, his prowess in Tae Kwon Do had singled him out.
And now he was sitting in front of Killjoy.
When he had counted to twenty Mississippi, Killjoy finally spoke.
“Did you throw the first punch?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Did you entice the fight in any way?”
“E-N-T-I-C-E. Entice,” she spelled. “To bait, to attract. Did you lure Roger to fight with you?”
“No. They started it.”
“Roger and his friends.”
“So you know him?”
“He’s in one of my classes.”
“And you don’t like him.”
“I don’t really know him.”
“You wanted to fight him?”
“You wanted to show off in front of the school? Build a little reputation? Show everyone who’s boss.”
“No to which question.”
“No to all of them.”
“Show me your hands.”
Thomas paused, and then extended his knuckles.
“Palms up,” Killjoy said leaning forward. He opened his hands and turned up his palms.
Killjoy leaned even closer and lifted her sunglasses. Her eyes weren’t black but light brown, so clear that they were almost yellowish and perfectly delineated with a dark line. If she wasn’t wearing the sunglasses all the time, the girls would surely have another thing to envy. As she stared at his palms, Thomas began to feel a tingling sensation. He pulled his hands away.
She leaned back in her chair drawing in a deep breath. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked as she reached for her coffee, her nails screeching as she ran them across the mug.
“Should I be?” Thomas asked the way he had answered all of her other questions, immediately, without thinking.
Yes, she was scary, and she ruled the school with an iron grip, but in all the stories he’d heard, she was portrayed like a righteous but level-headed person. He really wanted to believe that he would get a fair interview with her.
Killjoy smirked. “I ask the same question to every student that sits in that chair. Ninety-nine percent say ‘yes.’ The other one percent, the bold or stupid, depending on how you want to look at it, say ‘no.’ You are the first to ask if you should be afraid.”
She turned her computer screen toward him. “This is your student record. Because of your fight I can suspend you. I can also try to expel you. I can have all the teachers keep tabs on you and let me know when you do something that’ll bring you back to this chair. I could recommend counseling, maybe even a psych evaluation. I could go out of my way and write some college recommendation letters, the kind that hint that maybe you wouldn’t be the best candidate for that school. I could do all that, maybe even a little more. And you know what?”
She stood and filled her coffee mug with a fresh batch from a machine she kept behind her desk. “It wouldn’t matter. This…” she pointed at the screen, “is your record, but it isn’t you. It isn’t what you are or what you can become. No matter what I or anyone else does to help you or bring you down, only you can decide your future. Success or failure is in your hands. You understand all of this?”
“Good,” she said sitting down. “Because most people your age don’t. That said, the answer is no, you shouldn’t be afraid of me, but you will respect me while you’re in this school. Are we clear?”
“Now get out of my chair and I’ll call your grandfather. You’ll wait outside and study.” She took a sip of coffee and turned to the computer screen.
Thomas didn’t know if he needed to apologize, thank her, or ask her what was going to happen next. He stood up and walked toward the door.
He’d imagined a completely different outcome from the stories he’d heard. He had actually liked his little chat with Killjoy except, of course, that she was calling in his grandpa.
Now that was a conversation he began to dread.
“By the way,” Killjoy said, “for a red belt, you’re twisting your back leg too much on your Dwi sa gi.”
“Your back stance,” Killjoy said without looking at him. “If Roger had known a little Tae Kwon Do, or any other martial art, he would have blocked your side kick and you’d have ended up on the floor. You need to work on your side-raising kick too.”
It was almost word-for-word what his Master in Ohio had told him to work on before he left for California.
“Thanks,” he said. “I will.” And she waved him away with the mug.
Thomas sat down outside of her office to study, but all he could think about was his chat with Killjoy. How did she know that he practiced Tae Kwon Do, and how could she have guessed that he was a red belt?
It took Thomas’s grandfather four hours before he arrived. The school was almost empty when Morgan Byrne entered through the office doors. Thomas felt the full intensity of his grandfather’s glare, even behind his thick, coke-bottle glasses. As his grandfather walked toward him, Thomas felt his body shrink. He had seen that glare before. He closed his notepad and got ready for the lecture that was sure to come. His grandfather’s limp was more noticeable when he walked at a brisker pace, and the way he nodded was an even worse sign of things to come.
Morgan Byrne had big hands, and at seventy-two he was an imposing man. He still had a full head of hair, although it had gone completely white. The diabetes and mild arthritis had only begun to dent his stamina, but he still exercised every morning and tried to get Thomas to exercise with him as much as he could.
“Tom.” His grandfather lifted a finger from his clenched fist, but before he could say another word, Killjoy opened the door to her office.
“Mr. Byrne,” she said extending a hand. “I’m Vice Principal Khanna. Before you take Thomas home I need to speak with you.”
Morgan shook Killjoy’s hand, flashed Thomas a final glare, and disappeared into the office.
Thomas’s guts twisted into a knot, and he locked his hands in between his knees. He involuntarily began to rock back and forth. A chat session between Killjoy and Grandpa could very well mean a whole new level of grounding. He tried to listen to the conversation through the door, but he only heard muffled voices.
Grandpa raised his voice, then Killjoy, then Grandpa again, followed by a long stream of words from Killjoy. Then a long silence, then… laughter?
Were they really laughing in there?
The door flung open. His grandfather walked out of Killjoy’s office with a smile. He turned and waved at Killjoy.
Thomas stopped rocking and drew in a long breath. His grandfather didn’t seem as angry as he thought.
But, Thomas’s relief was short-lived as Grandpa’s smile slowly turned into a grimace.
“To the car, Tom,” his grandfather snapped. Not another word was spoken until they reached the parking lot.
“I tried to talk it out first,” Thomas began when they reached the car.
“Inside.” Morgan opened the door and closed it very gently. The car was his most prized possession: a black 1959 Chevrolet Impala that had been in and out of his garage only a couple of times since he’d bought it.
Thomas had heard all the car stories more than once. It was his grandfather’s pride and joy, his first car, bought with the labor of his teenage years and his first check from the Marines. The car that wooed his grandmother; the car his dad first learned to drive; the car Thomas’s parents used on their first date.
The car had been as special for his parents as it was for Grandpa and, had they not disappeared, it would already be theirs.
“I was furious with you, Tom.” Morgan buckled his seatbelt. “You got into a fight two weeks after I finally became your legal guardian. Really? Don’t you remember how difficult it was? All the hurdles and hoops? What would those people at the board say if they knew about this fight?”
“I tried to talk first, Gramps, I’m sorry.”
“Well,” his grandfather pursed his lips and turned on the ignition. “You should be. Let’s go.”
As they drove away, Thomas saw Killjoy leaving the school and, for a second, he thought she smiled at him.
“So,” Thomas asked once they pulled out from the school driveway. “We’re good? You’re not mad?”
“Oh no, I said I was furious.” Grandpa turned on the radio to one of his sixties stations. Bob Dylan was asking once again how it felt to be a rolling stone. Grandpa immediately joined in with the rhythm, tapping on the wheel with his hand.
“Until Miss Khanna told me that you beat up three kids today and…” he slapped the wheel and mouthed the words of the last chorus.
“And?” Thomas asked. He swallowed a lump in his throat.
“And I told her that three against one wasn’t my idea of a fair fight, especially since they are older than you. Aren’t they?”
“Well, yeah. But just by a year. They’re juniors.”
“Do you go beating up freshmen?”
“Well, there you go. You didn’t start the fight, did you?”
Thomas lifted up his hands. “No, I swear I didn’t.”
“But you did finish it and I can’t get mad at you because you defended yourself. I told Miss Khanna that only cowards gang up on someone and that I expected the parents of those kids to give us a call to apologize.”
“Really?” Thomas was sure that if Killjoy called the parents of Roger and company, his social life at school was over before it even got started. “And what did she say?”
“That you’re suspended for a week without it going on your permanent record. To keep appearances.” Grandpa turned the radio dial; The Rolling Stones were playing Sympathy for the devil. “Those boys belong to the school’s football team, one is the running back. He had a big game this weekend that he’s not going to play, and if they lose and she doesn’t punish you somehow, well, I’m sure you know just how popular you would have become. Nice going champ. Good way to make friends.”
“But is she calling their parents or not?” It was great that Killjoy wouldn’t put the fight on his record, but she could still destroy his social life with that call.
“Of course she will.” Grandpa parked inside of their garage. “But, to tell their parents that they beat you up, and that they have extra duties at the school for a month.” He looked at Thomas and winked. “She also has her Killjoy reputation to keep, you know?”