by Tristan Black Wolf
I looked at the poor bear cub, trembling in his chair before my desk, and I knew that everything we’ve been teaching our children has been nothing but wrong. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to risk my job, my reputation, possibly even my freedom for one cub, but I knew that everything was completely wrong and that I was quite possibly a major pivot point for this one child’s entire life. My own memories and horrors aside, I just couldn’t let this keep on happening.
I picked up the phone and dialed the extension for the school counselor. When she answered, I said, “Margie, this is Tom. I’ve got young Mr. Delanoe here, and I wonder if we could use your Interview Room for about half an hour.”
Sounds of rustling papers. “Come on down. I’ll have Room A ready for you.”
“Thank you, Margie.” I set the phone down. “Christopher,” I said softly, “would you walk with me down to another room? It’s a little more comfortable there. All these file cabinets around me really make me feel like some kind of governor or something, always having to fill out paperwork. We don’t need all that right now. Can you walk with me?”
The cub looked so nervous that I thought he was going to be sick. He was fighting hard not to cry. Big boys don’t cry; I’m sure someone had told him that old fairy tale by now. He was a big strapping ten years old and clearly ready to take on the whole world, although not the school principal. I could smell the fear on him – just the fear, fortunately, and not soiled pants, which would have made things horrible all the way round – and I did what I could to calm him.
“Would it help if I said that you’re not in trouble?” I smiled at him. “Come on,” I said, “let’s take a short walk, and we’ll have a talk. A good talk, I promise.”
He hesitated, standing slowly on wobbly legs, still unsure what was going on. I held my forepaws open wide. “See? No paddle!” I tried to chuckle. “C’mon, Christopher, let’s take a walk. It’s okay.”
The little brown bear managed to get to the door without falling, and I held it open for him, guiding him down to the south wing. We walked past several classroom doors and windows, which I regretted; no one can walk down the hall with the Principal without having a stigma, at least for a few days. The lad deserved better, and I hoped that I could give it to him.
I opened the door marked “Interview Room A” and let Christopher precede me. The room was arranged with a sofa, a couple of easy chairs at each end, and a few spare chairs stacked in a corner in case they were needed. Across from the sofa arrangement was a low bookcase, a small stereo unit, and a large pane of what’s usually called one-way glass, which at the moment appeared mirror-like and slightly gold in color. Christopher wasn’t sure where to sit, and I surprised him by sitting on the floor just in front of the sofa, leaning back on it a little.
“Sit down here, eh?” I said. “Sometimes, it’s just better to sit on the floor. Old tigers like me sometimes feel better this way.”
The little bear sat nervously nearby, still looking more than a little sick to his stomach. Ten years old, which in today’s terms is nearly an adult, according to the TV and other garbage they keep shoving down our cubs’ throats. Pre-teen girls told to dress like cheap tarts, how to behave alluringly, even though they’ve no idea what would happen if they actually did attract some older boy’s attentions. Boys Christopher’s age being shown how to be tough, or dominating, or sports-crazy… or how to look at the alluring little girls.
“Christopher, I’ll say it again: You’re not in trouble. Would you tell me what happened?”
“I… I don’t know.” The voice was so small that I wondered if it would ever yell out a happy cheer on the playground again.
“It was Miss Torrence who told you to come see me, right?”
“Yes. Sir,” he added quickly.
“Why did she do that, Christopher?”
He squirmed. “I don’t know. Sir.”
“She seemed quite upset when she called me. Did she yell at you, Christopher?”
The cub’s face screwed up, and I was sure that tears were coming – perhaps good, perhaps bad.
“Christopher, sometimes people yell for the wrong reasons. Maybe they’re frightened, or… well, has your mother or father ever yelled because you were doing something that they were afraid might hurt you? And they yelled because they were scared, not because they were mad. Have you had something like that happen?”
After a long moment, the little bear finally nodded.
“I think that might have been what happened here,” I said, hoping I could make this fib into the truth. I glanced up at the featureless window, then back to Christopher. “Maybe Miss Torrence was frightened for you. Were you doing something that might have scared her somehow?”
“I don’t know.” He paused. “I don’t think so.”
“Where were you when she yelled at you?”
A very long pause. “Cloakroom,” he finally managed to croak out. He was reliving it — I could see it in his eyes, his body posture. He’d keep on reliving it until I could get him to put it into perspective, and that was going to take some doing.
“Why were you in the cloakroom?”
“To get somethin’ from my bag.”
“Like a backpack? What you carry your books in?”
“Yes” he said, eyes looking down and away from me, the word told a little too easily. A lie. Something he had already figured out to use if anyone asked him why he was in the cloakroom.
“What did you want to get from your backpack, Christopher?”
“A paper. Homework.”
“Oh, I see. You forgot to take it out when you got ready for class this morning?”
“Ah.” I nodded. “So you just went in, got the paper, and were going back to your seat?”
I paused carefully. “Christopher, Miss Torrence said that you were taking a while back there. Were you doing anything else in the cloakroom?”
“No.” Very quiet, looking away. The denial lie.
“I was just thinking. Sometimes, I go into a room, going to get something to bring back to my desk for example, and I find myself distracted by something. I remember going in to the living room of my house, looking for a letter that I’d left there, and I found a book that I thought I’d lost. I sat down and started to read, and before I knew it, twenty minutes had gone by. It’s easy to get distracted by things, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” He looked at me, a little more trusting.
“Did you get distracted by something?”
“Maybe.” He started to look away, then looked back at me. “I wasn’t stealing or anything, I promise I wasn’t.”
“Of course not!” I said, looking a little confused, showing with my face that I hadn’t thought any such thing. “You’ve always been a very good student here, Christopher, and very honest. Don’t I remember you turning in a ball that you’d found out on the playground? I know you weren’t stealing. You’re not the type to do something wrong.”
I glanced swiftly up at the glass and back again to the little bear. I dropped the card; we’d have to see if he’d pick it up.
“I wasn’t. I swear I wasn’t, Mr. Ryan, I wasn’t doing anything wrong!”
“That’s okay, Christopher. I don’t think—”
“Miss Torrence said…” His voice hitched, and the tears finally started. He fought them mightily for a few seconds, his small fist hitting himself in the leg twice trying to bring himself under control, but the emotions had built up far too much for him to be able to push back anymore. I leaned over and skooched him closer to me, holding him against my side as he let go of the pain that he’d been holding inside for the past twenty minutes. He gave my shirt a good wetting down in those few minutes, and to tell the truth, I couldn’t have been happier for it. This was what he needed.
With his eyes closed tightly against me, Christopher didn’t see the mirrored window change as the light went on in the adjacent room. I saw a young border collie – Margie Franks, our head counselor at the school — flash me a quick “okay” sign, then put her forepaw on the window toward me as if offering me reassurance. The look on her face was deeply concerned, but she managed a smile through it. Then the light went out, and the glass looked like a mirror again.
Christopher’s tears began to wind down. I reached for one of the tissue boxes that were conveniently located just about everywhere in this meeting room and brought it down for the lad. He grabbed a few and scrubbed at his face, as if he thought that his shame was visible and somehow could be cleaned away. I still had an arm around him, which was chancy; he wouldn’t want to feel “babied,” yet I knew he still needed some support. I’d have to make my best guess and hope it would work.
“Feeling okay, Christopher? I know that sounds dumb, doesn’t it.” I chuckled a little. “Sometimes, we just don’t know quite what to say to each other. So we ask if someone is okay. It looks to me like something is really hurting.”
It took a moment, but he finally nodded.
“Can I help you with that? Is there something I can do to help you stop hurting?”
He looked up at me through the remainder of his tears. “Can I go home, Mr. Ryan?”
“Do you want to go home?”
He nodded helplessly.
I smiled at him. “I think we can arrange for that. I’d like to know what happened, though. It must really have hurt you, and I don’t want you having to carry that hurt around all by yourself.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” he moaned.
“Christopher… I don’t think you did anything wrong, either. I still don’t know what it was that you did, though, and I really think—”
“I didn’t do anything!” he said a little louder, his lower lip quivering and threatening to make more tears. This time, I said nothing, tried to keep my face neutral. We both knew that he was lying, and he was trying to make one last defiant stand. I wanted so much to plow ahead and force him to tell me, to get it out in the open. So many mines, so many traps… the mind is so inventive, so self-protective. And now I had to be the tender interrogator. I hated this role.
“Miss Torrence told me some things, Christopher.” I could almost see the color leave his face. “I have heard what she had to say. I need to know what you have to say.”
The poor cub had already been through so much — things that might have been avoided if we all started thinking in a different way. His armor was gone now; the fight was almost out of him. I had now to bring him to a place where he could be defenseless and trust me not to hurt him any further.
“Who put the bag into your backpack, Christopher?”
“I don’t know,” he said too quickly.
“Okay. You don’t have to tell me. Tell me instead… what was in the bag?”
He hesitated, realizing that I already knew too much for him to hide anything. After a moment, he gave up. “Gym clothes.”
“Your gym clothes?”
He shook his head.
“Another lad’s gym clothes?”
He shook his head again. “From…” He swallowed, shook his head hard. “Won’t tell her name. Get her in trouble, won’t tell you, won’t.”
I put a hand gently onto his shoulder. “Okay, Christopher. We’ll leave that alone. You don’t have to tell me. Did you know that she had put the bag there?”
He nodded again.
“How did she tell you?”
I had to smile. “Passed a note in class, huh? Well, Miss Torrence didn’t say anything about that, and I won’t tell her. Clever, for her to pass you that note so secretly. Do you still have the note?”
He shook his head.
“Good,” I said. “No evidence!”
He wasn’t sure if he should laugh at that or not, so he didn’t.
“So okay… what did the note say?”
“Said I should go look in my backpack. That she’d put it there.”
“The gym clothes?”
“Why did she do that, Christopher?”
A long moment passed. “A dare,” he said. “She said that she did it on a dare.”
“Someone dared her to put her gym clothes into your bag?”
He nodded again.
“And how did you get involved in this dare?”
“She dared me to…” He gulped some air. “She dared me to smell them.”
It was my turn to nod, just as if I knew exactly what I was talking about. “Mmm,” I offered my sage opinion in the sound. “That’s some dare. Did you do that?”
With great effort, he nodded his head.
I frowned in concentration, like I was really interested. Leaning over toward him a little conspiratorially, I asked, “What was it like?” He tensed up, looking at me with disbelief. I made a great show of looking around the room, then said in a soft voice, “I’ve never done that, Christopher. I never took up a dare like that. C’mon, tell me, I swear, I won’t tell anybody else!”
“Nice cubs don’t do things like that,” he said flatly. He was repeating the teacher’s vitriol word for word. He’d bought into it already.
“You were curious, though.” I let that word sink in for a moment. “I don’t blame you for being curious, Christopher. I mean… like I said, I’ve never done that, but I… well, I really want to know what that was like. I’m curious.”
The cub squirmed next to me, and I made the clever guess that, despite everything else that was going on in this terrible affair, his body was having the last word. “It made me feel funny.”
“You mean, you wanted to laugh?”
“No, not that kind of funny, like…” He squirmed some more. “I don’t know.”
“Was it like a feeling you’ve had before? Is there something you can compare it to?”
A long pause. “My big brother told me something once.” Praise the Gods, I thought, as the cub continued. “He told me… he told me something about… well, we used to bathe together, and we stopped a while ago, and he told me it was because…”
I waited, hoping the little bear would continue, but he stopped again. “Was it something like, he was too old for that?”
Christopher looked at me as if I’d read his mind. “Did he tell you?”
“No. I had an older brother too. It was what he told me, and you know, when I got to be his age, I finally figured out what he meant. You see, when cubs get older – males and females both – their bodies change. You know how older bears look different from younger bears. And you know how older cats like me are different from kits and young cats. You can see a lot of the changes. And I’ll bet your big brother’s voice changed too, didn’t it?”
“It got deep.” The cub almost grinned. “He can really roar when he wants to. Scared me once.”
I grinned at him. “Is he mean like that?”
“Naw, he doesn’t mean it like that. He’s a good brother.” Christopher paused. “He told me something I didn’t understand. Something about… he said that I should tell him if I ever… if something started happening with my…” He mumbled something, and I’d have made a wager that it was a family-born euphemism. Something that wasn’t even supposed to be mentioned euphemistically, but if you absolutely had to say something, use that word.
“Did something ever happen with your…?” I let the unheard word float in the air.
“Not supposed to… touch.”
Finally, the crux of the matter. “Christopher… when you smelled the gym clothes…”
“Didn’t want to.”
“I know… but you were curious… not your fault that she left them there for you. She dared you, right? I know what it’s like when someone dares you. And a girl, well…”
He squirmed, not quite crying. “It made me want to… want to touch…”
“…and you did?”
The tears crept closer again. I snugged him a little closer. “Christopher… what if I told you that it’s very normal to feel like that?” He looked at me, aghast, trying to see if I was making fun of him. I shook my head. “I’m not lying. As males change, and even as females change… well, that’s one part of their bodies that changes a lot. I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you this, but you’re still a little young to really understand it all. That must sound like I’m putting you down, and I’m really not. I can promise you — when I was your age, I didn’t get it, until I got just a little older. Almost every adult will tell you that. We all go through it.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a change that has to do with how we think about ourselves, and about others, and it’s just the way our bodies work.” I smiled lopsidedly. “Some explanation, huh? And I’m supposed to be a teacher, and teachers are supposed to know everything!”
“It’s okay, Mr. Ryan. I know you’re a principal. You don’t have to know everything.”
Fighting down the urge to laugh was probably the most difficult thing I’d ever done. “Well, thank you, Christopher. I’m glad you can cut me a little slack there.”
He paused, screwing up his courage. “Mr. Ryan… why was Miss Torrence yelling at me?”
“Ah,” I said. “I think I can explain that. You see, Christopher, what you did really is a normal thing to do. Your brain told you a whole bunch of strange things all at once, and your…” I let the word fade away. “…wanted to be touched. That really is normal. It’s just that… well, the cloakroom isn’t the place to do that sort of thing. I know it seems really private there, but anyone could walk in.”
“But if it’s normal, why… why did she scream at me, tell me that nice boys don’t—”
“And that,” I cut him off, “is why I’m going to talk to Miss Torrence too. I think maybe she may not have correct information after all. We all need to learn sometime, even adults. Especially adults.” I looked him in the eye. “You’re a perfectly normal bear, Christopher Delanoe, and you got tricked by a naughty young female into doing something perfectly normal… at the wrong place and time. I’d like to have a talk with her too, if you’ll tell me who it is…”
“I’m not a snitch.”
Well, there’s one word that hasn’t changed over the years. “I have a pretty good idea who it is anyway. You know, a lot of mothers write their cubs’ names in indelible ink on their gym clothes so that they don’t lose them.”
He hadn’t thought of that, and he looked a little ashamed. “You know?”
“You didn’t tell me; you’re not a snitch.” I winked at him. “And if anybody says you are, you tell them to talk to me. They won’t call me a snitch.”
That made him giggle a little. I didn’t know why, but I was grateful for it.
“Okay,” said. “We talked about letting you go home for the day. Do you still want to? Give yourself some time to get away from all this?”
“Is it okay?”
“Well, we have to make sure someone is at home who can look after you. Do both of your parents work?”
“Mom is probably home. She could come get me.” He looked doubtful. “Does she have to know what happened?”
I flicked a glance toward the window, hoping I’d get the back-up for this next lie. “I think we can tell her that you’ve had a mild fever, nothing serious, we just thought you’d feel better if you could go home and rest. You realize, she’s going to make you go take a nap, right? It’s not like you’re going to go home and play games all afternoon.”
“Oh.” A slightly less-interested cub weighed the options. “I really don’t want to go back to class, Mr. Ryan. Not today.”
I nodded. “I’ll make the call to your Mom. And later, she and I can have a conversation too.” I leaned in toward the cub. “Can you talk to your brother tonight? I think he’ll be able to help a little. Of course, he might laugh at you for getting into trouble. Brothers are like that.”
“They sure are,” he said solemnly. I suppressed another laugh.
“He might be able to help. And Christopher, now that I know what it’s about, you can talk to me too. If you want to, we can come back here and talk. Believe it or not, I’m good at more things than giving out swats.” I looked around as if to make sure we weren’t being overheard. “Wanna know a secret? I really hate giving swats. I’d rather talk, you know? But there’s just some folks that you got to get their attention first!”
I got another giggle for that one. “Not me! I promise, not me!”
“I know that, cub.” I tousled his hair, a proper “male bonding” sort of thing to do. “You know, I think you’d be fine sitting here by yourself, but you know how schools have rules. Even I have to follow some of those rules, do you believe it? I’m going to have someone come in and sit with you for a bit while I make arrangements. Is that okay?”
I used the phone to make a call that wasn’t necessary; Margie knew that I’d call her to come in. She sat with the cub while I chatted with the school nurse, who called Mrs. Delanoe. Then I poked my head into Miss Torrence’s class to tell her that Christopher was going home this afternoon with a slight fever, and to ask her if she’d come see me after school. After what she’d put Christopher through, I thought a little “appropriate response” was indicated.
After the cub was packed off home with his mom, I sat with Margie in her office and got myself officially debriefed. “You did well, Tom,” she said. “It’s still an iffy situation; we’ve got to talk to the parents, and their reaction could determine whether or not you have a job.”
“Tell me what I don’t know,” I said, heaving a heavy sigh. “We’re going about it all wrong, Margie. We’re yelling and screaming and trying to protect kids from something that is going to happen whether we want it to or not, and if young Mr. Delanoe is any example, it’s happening a lot sooner than it did back in our day, or our parents’ day.”
“Lots of things to blame that upon, I’m afraid. The list is too long for us to do much about it.”
“We can’t fight it. We can only prepare the soldiers that are being called up every day.”
“Not a pretty analogy, Tom.”
“It’s not a pretty situation. Oh,” I added, “I hate to ask, but are you available for a short time after school hours? I’m to have a talk with Miss Torrence, and I’d like someone present who will back up my choices with proper psychology credentials… or failing that, a witness present to keep me from throttling her.”
Margie chuckled, her whole muzzle taking part in the exercise. “Sheathe those claws, boy!” she laughed. “Yes, I can be there. And Tom, there’s more we can do. You know there are books out there explaining to kids as young as eight how our bodies work. When they first came out, some over-conservative idiots called the drawings child pornography. The books have more positive influence these days, and this the perfect situation to introduce such a book, if…!” She emphasized the word with a finger in the air. “If the parents agree to use it.”
“And if they don’t?”
Margie thought for a moment, and a grin spread across her muzzle. “Get me the name of Christopher’s brother at the middle school. The librarian there just might call him in to provide a special reserve volume.”
“That’s cheating,” I grinned, my whiskers curving up to the ceiling.
“That’s life,” she said. “Besides… sometimes it’s good to be on this side of the glass.”
“And sometimes, big brothers can be useful.”
“Did your brother really—”
“Now, now, Miss Franks! There are just certain things that are inappropriate to talk about in a public school!”
There’s also probably some regulation against giving one’s principal the raspberry, but I wasn’t going to bother looking it up.