"Did you take the pants?" The school administrator as unsung hero

Ken Szymanski

JENNI C/CREATIVE COMMONS
JENNI C/CREATIVE COMMONS

There’s no escaping the stench in this room.

I sit in the boys locker room at Delong Junior High. It’s 1983. The assistant principal has arrived to investigate a crime. Out of the 50 boys in the room, one is guilty. Someone stole a boy’s pants, and none of us are leaving the locker room until he gets them back. Everyone is nervous and already late for the next class.

One reason to be afraid: Pick-a-Brick. For years, rumors circulated of teachers and administrators at this school ordering misbehaving kids to “pick a brick.” When the guilty party picks a brick on the wall, the authority slams the delinquent’s head into it. Urban legend? Maybe. As frightened junior high kids, it looks like one of us is about to find out.

“The suit-and-tie administrator paces the locker room like a state trooper. We sit on benches, and for once there is no arm wrestling, towel snapping, or head-locking. We wait in silence. The administrator does not yell, scream, or threaten. He squints and methodically states, ‘Alright, everybody take out a piece of paper and number it one and two.’”

The suit-and-tie administrator paces the locker room like a state trooper. We sit on benches, and for once there is no arm wrestling, towel snapping, or head-locking. We wait in silence. The administrator does not yell, scream, or threaten. He squints and methodically states, “Alright, everybody take out a piece of paper and number it one and two.”

Puzzled and anxious, we rip sheets of paper in half and thirds and fourths until everyone has a sheet.

He instructs us to write down two things:  “Number one. Did you take the pants? Number two. Do you know who took the pants?”

He collects the slips, then takes them behind the glass of the phy ed teachers’ office to unfold and read all 50.

After a few minutes, he returns. “Alright, let’s try this again,” he says, his demeanor unchanged, signaling we would break before he did. “Take out a piece of paper and number it one and two. Number one. Did you take the pants? Number two. Do you know who took the pants?”

On my paper, like everyone else, I write:

1. No
2. No

(I am telling the truth.)

He collects the slips, goes to the phy ed office, opens them all, and comes back out. We do this about four times.

I start to question his method. He never told us to put our names on the paper. What if, without putting his name on his slip, someone answers with this:

1. Yes!
2. What do you think?

What would he do? Quarantine everyone who had a blue pen?

Each time we repeat the process, our sighing gets louder. Annoyance. Exasperation. Give back the pants already! We want to leave! Why do we all have to be in trouble for this? But the administrator acts like he’s got all damn day, punks. Meanwhile, the locker room smell permeates us all.

Eventually, someone anonymously cracks and we get to leave. The administrator deserves credit – it was a well-executed plan. He didn’t make a spectacle of himself, he maintained the dignity of the innocent, and he got the pants back. I don’t know what happened to the pants thief (Pick-a-Brick?) but if, at this moment, someone would’ve told me that I’d work in a middle school someday – in any capacity – I would’ve gone into a deep depression. Why would I want to be in the position of this grown man who is making his living asking kids if they took the pants or if they knew who took the pants?

• • • • •

Well, I’ve spent the past 17 years teaching in the middle school across town – where my class rosters have included that administrator’s daughter and the pants victim’s nephew. And in all of that time, there’s always been an effort to acknowledge our teachers, support staff, and custodial crews. Yet, we’ve never had Administration Appreciation Day. Instead, they’re easy scapegoats, convenient dumping grounds for the problems of a school.

But when someone steals a pair of pants, who do we call?

Put hundreds of kids together in a building, and there will be situations that need administering. The scenarios are unpredictable and unlimited. They are never ending. And far too often, unlike the pants incident, they aren’t even remotely funny.

Think of it this way. Imagine yourself in a room with 50 other adults. Take out a piece of paper and number it one and two. Number one. Are you qualified and capable of sorting through the thorny, tangled problems of our youth while maintaining their dignity and fostering their educational and personal growth … while also overseeing and organizing a potentially chaotic miniature city? Number two. Are you willing to make that your life’s work?

Excuse me while I go check your answers. You may want to get comfortable. It could be awhile before someone steps forward.

This was made by

Ken Szymanski  author

Ken Szymanski lives in Eau Claire’s Third Ward neighborhood, with his wife and two sons. He attempts to live in the present, but the 1980s have always exerted a strong gravitational pull on his writing. He tries to fight it, but it’s no use sometimes.

View more of Ken Szymanski's work »