The NCLB (Nickleby) Murder
by Mary Garrett
(Putting homicidal thoughts into fiction rather than action . . . . This is a work of fiction; any resemblance to real persons is just the result of good writing).
“Damn, something stinks!”
“Tony, your language please,” responded Mrs. Sweet. She was the perfect special ed. teacher, caring, patient, and no-nonsense. She often reminded her students that with one letter changed, her name was “Sweat,” and she expected them to work hard.
“Sorry, Mrs. Sweet, but it really does stink bad, like something died in the dumpster.”
“What? That should just be clean paper; there shouldn’t be a smell. If someone dumped garbage in here, the recycling company won’t pay for the paper.” The funds from the paper recycling project paid for a number of projects for the students, things like field trips and job shadowing that had been cut from the budget. The department took paper recycling seriously, even beyond the feel-good help-the-planet aspects.
As she moved within range, Mrs. Sweet clapped her hand over her nose and mouth and backed away. “D. . ., oops, sorry. That is a terrible smell, Tony. Don’t empty any more bins. We’ll put them in the foyer and deal with them later. I’ll get someone to check this out.”
A call to the office brought Jan, the head custodian, to investigate. Her hair pulled back in a clip, her uniform spotless (how did she keep it that way?), a tall ladder in one hand and a shovel in the other, Jan smiled a greeting. “Let’s get this sorted, Sarah,” she said. “The kids need that money for their trips. After that last fieldtrip to the supermarket, my helpers talked about stocking shelves for weeks.”
“Thanks, Jan. I hate to bother you, but . ..”
“It’s no bother; I’m glad to help. Besides, the recycling program means we carry out a lot less trash every evening. It’s win/win.”
Climbing the ladder and using the shovel to move aside some of the paper, Jan looked in the dumpster. “It could be a stray garbage bag, or maybe another raccoon. There was one last week. We propped a tree branch inside and it climbed out. Maybe this one wasn’t as lucky.” Jan suddenly stopped speaking, gripped the edge of the dumpster, and fell from the ladder, hitting her head as she fell.
“Jan! What is it? Are you hurt?”
A trickle of blood marked her forehead, but Jan shook away her dizziness. “It’s nothing, I’m fine, but in the dumpster . . . would you take a look if you can stand to? I thought I saw . . a body . . . long, dark hair, white blouse. I hope I’m wrong. Could you check?”
“Yes, but you couldn’t have seen a body, and we need to get you to the nurse. That’s a nasty cut.” Sarah helped her friend up and then carefully climbed up the ladder. Peeking over the top, she saw a hand and a cascade of black hair. Her voice came out between a squeak and a whisper, “Damn, you’re right. This is terrible. The SRO office is right on the way to the nurse. Let’s take care of you and get help on the way.”
Sarah used the SRO designation to refer to the School Resource Officer. Ted seemed too informal for school, and Officer Sweet too formal for addressing her husband. Having a full-time police officer assigned to the school was justified by its size; with 2400 students, the high school was bigger than many towns in Missouri. Today it would be a real blessing to have a knowledgeable person on the scene.
Officer Sweet wasn’t in his office, which wasn’t unusual. He spent most of his time out around the campus, wherever his presence might help keep order or influence students. “The receptionist can page him and call 911,” Sarah decided, “as soon as we get you to the nurses’ office.”
The nurses sprang to action the second they saw Jan, cleaning her forehead, applying antiseptic, and covering the small cut with gauze. Ice pack on her forehead, Jan vaguely heard the office secretary page Officer Sweet to report at once. A few seconds later the bell rang and the hallways filled with shouting students. No power on earth can hold back a school full of students when the final bell rings, especially on a Friday afternoon.
Officer Sweet met Sarah at the back door of the school, and she showed him what they had found. “We didn’t touch anything, but Jan did move some papers with her shovel, to see what was in there,” she assured him.
“Well, it’s too late to keep the students at school, and it’s probably just as well to have them out of here, but we should have faculty stay,” he decided. “Could you have the office make an announcement for an emergency faculty meeting? I’m going to call for more officers. Oh, and could you ask them to cancel afterschool activities, too?”
The announcements set off a wave of rumors, and as teachers gathered in the commons, a a buzz of speculation filled the room. Everyone grew quiet as the principal took the microphone. “I am sorry to report,” began Dr. Wise, that we have suffered the loss of a member of our administrative team today. Police will be questioning each of you separately before you leave. I will appreciate your full cooperation with their investigation. Assistant Principal Martin worked hard for our students, and she will be missed.”
“Miss Martin?” exclaimed several teachers at once. “How? Why?”
“Details will be released later. Meanwhile, please give the police any help you can. Please remain in this room until called for questioning.”
Huddled groups of teachers, waiting to be called, discussed the news in whispers. “Miss Martin? The Martinet? I heard she was found in a dumpster.”
“No! That’s too gross, even for that pit bull.”
“Hush, you don’t want to be overheard talking like that.”
“Well, we’ve not made a secret of our problems with that Ass-Prin. It’s not going to help to start pretending now. We’re all on record, demanding an association representative at any meetings with Her Deviousness. Even so . . . a dumpster? No one deserves that.”
“No, no one does. Besides, I’ve really not had as many problems with her since we developed the ‘go limp for the bulldog’ strategy. Smile and nod and pretend to agree, and just like a bulldog when you go limp, she’d lose interest. Then we could go on to do what’s right for the students. I relabeled all my good tried-and-true materials with the titles from the ‘new and better’ workshop, and she complimented my ‘brilliant new lessons.’ It’s been working well for me.”
“That and the mantra you taught me, ‘May the deepest desires of her heart be satisfied,’ though I have to admit that sometimes it changes to Emilia’s line from Othello, ‘May (her) pernicious soul rot in hell half a grain a day.’”
“She is . . . was good at organizing schedules and test data,” said Marla.
“Not really. I’ve had to provide duplicate materials after she lost her copies. Also, she insisted on totally illogical room changes and wouldn’t listen to any requests to move classes to more suitable spaces. Besides, what is it they say? ‘The trains ran on time under Hitler.’ Efficiency doesn’t excuse anything.”
“And for all her emphasis on ‘data’ and other ‘administrivia,’ she never figured out that many of the students were just answering the tests with ‘ABACADABA’ repeated over and over.”
“Well, I heard that she’s good to her mother,” said Marla, who tried to see good in everyone, “and when she came back from Hawaii, she brought some lava rocks for me.”
“Did you know it’s considered very bad luck to take rocks or sand from Hawaii? People mail it back from all over the world to avoid the rage of Pele.”
“Maybe that’s it then, Pele. Otherwise, someone went beyond all our coping strategies and decided to ‘rid the house of her.’ I wonder who?”
Questioning went on for hours, but finally the exhausted teachers were allowed to leave, with the admonition to “stay available for further questions.” Much later, Officer Sweet returned to his own home and a fitful night’s sleep. In the morning, the smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls drew him from his bed.
“You do know how to pamper a guy,” he yawned, smiling at Sarah.
“I even set the crossword aside for you, Ted, but have some coffee first to wake up your ‘little gray cells.’ How’s it going?”
“Too many suspects. It would be easier to ask who didn’t have a problem with her. Also too many means of death.”
“I thought you said a blow the head was the cause. It’s not?”
“Not enough bleeding or swelling. It could have caused a headache, perhaps unconsciousness, but not death. The examiner also considered suffocation from that clay mask on her face, but it wasn’t tight enough to obstruct breathing. We’re waiting for labs on stomach contents and the clay. There’s also that odd message painted in red on the front of her blouse, ‘LB.’ What do you think that could mean?”
“I could hazard a guess . . . .,” began Sarah. “She did have a reputation for, uh, disregarding the truth . . .”
“Liar?? but the ‘B’? Oh Lying B . . . . Cold, really cold. Do you have any ideas about who might have done it? She’s had so many problems with so many people.”
“Too many,” Sarah agreed. Most of the teachers she supervised wouldn’t even meet with her unless accompanied by a representative from the teachers’ association. I can’t think of any teachers who would kill her, though. I’ve worked at this school for years, and the teachers work through channels to get things corrected. I just don’t see this.”
“Anyone can snap if pushed far enough,” said Ted. “Who has been pushed lately?”
“Teachers in nearly every department she covers: business, science, drama, art, FACS.”
“Family And Consumer Science — get with it, Ted. It hasn’t been Home Ec. for years. English is now Communication Arts. Everything changes.”
“And yet remains the same . . . . human rage is a powerful motive. Let’s see if anything connects. The clay mask? Art department?”
“Possibly, and what was she hit with? Have you figured that out?”
“We are trying to match that, some kind of the blunt instrument with sharp edges. We do know that the papers that were covering her are the test papers from the PLAN and Terra-Nova testing that were reported missing from the Guidance files.”
“Then logically,” mused Sarah, if the alphabet soup of test papers was targeted, might there be a connection? What about the new ‘Big Brother is watching’ scantron grading machine?”
“I’ll have that checked. Thanks,” smiled Ted. “Let’s tackle that puzzle before I go in to work.”
Shoulder to shoulder crossword puzzle solving was a cozy ritual to start to their days. Not only did their respective areas of expertise cover nearly any topic, but also her left hand and his right hardly ever got in each other’s way while working. The world seemed logical as they filled in the little squares.
Students returned to school on Monday, full of questions and speculation. Dr. Wise took the P.A. microphone to inform the students of the loss and ended with, “We have brought in crisis counselors. Anyone in need of help dealing with this terrible event, please go to Guidance to speak with someone. Teachers, if you or your classes need assistance, please call the office, and a counselor will come to your room. Anyone with information that could help the police investigation, please speak with Officer Sweet or with one of the principals.”
To everyone’s great surprise, no one came to Guidance, and when the counselors took the initiative and went to classrooms, they were told that they weren’t needed. “We’re all just fine, really,” answered class after class of students who preferred to go on with their normal routine. Things did seem normal, except for posters with large letters, CLB, that appeared in nearly every hallway of the building. No one admitted to knowing how or why they were there.
Since the counselors weren’t needed to deal with grief, they agreed to substitute for teachers who were called for further questioning. Officer Sweet used the Guidance conference room, more roomy and less threatening than his small office. Coffee and cookies from the business department helped to open the conversations, and his familiarity with the campus helped him select and approach teachers most likely to hold a grudge against the deceased Miss Martin. Most teachers willingly admitted to having had problems with “The Martinet” but denied any possibility of physically acting on their hostility.
“It’s true that I disliked her,” said Miss Garnet, “and that she had the habit of targeting anyone who disagreed with her, but while I might have fantasized about ‘putting down the bulldog,’ and while I received numerous facetious offers to ‘help hide the body,’ it was just talk. No one I know would ever actually do anything like that; we are just too law-abiding.”
“What did you do about these problems?” asked Sweet.
“Several teachers have filed grievances through the teachers’ association, for unfair treatment, harassment, unprofessional conduct. She told one teacher approaching retirement that she wasn’t a ‘team player’ and assigned another to do written homework for being sick on the day of a professional development meeting. It’s as if she wants to ‘beat the lame ducks,’ to mix a metaphor.
“I filed a grievance myself when she refused to reschedule meetings away from the lower level of the building,. Mold levels are higher downstairs, so I don’t go there. If I had gone to that meeting, I would have been out sick the rest of the week. She didn’t care. She said I should retire on disability if I couldn’t meet where she wanted me to, and later she denied ever having said it. That’s why many teachers wouldn’t meet alone with her; we would always arrange to have a rep from the union attend the meetings with us.”
“Of course I was angry when she canceled our Shakespeare trip,” admitted Ms. York, the drama teacher. “Accountability and test scores seem to be all that matter now, as if the students are going to remember or be changed by any of these tests. ‘There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your’ tests! Shakespeare not academically relevant? What sort of mind can’t see the relevance of a live performance of Shakespeare? We are battling statisticians for the soul of education.
“I wouldn’t have killed her, though. What good would that do? Besides, she was on her way out after her latest escapade, refusing to send an escort for a teacher who was threatened by a former student. Once that went to a hearing, she wouldn’t have been in this building, or that position, any longer. She wasn’t that competent anyway, arbitrarily giving and taking away student privileges, even misspelling it ‘priviledge’ on the senior privilege cards.
“She seemed to have a unfailing ability to make any situation worse. I’m thinking of the student who lost her cell phone at lunch. The girl’s friends tried to help find her phone by phoning her and listening for the phone, and Miss Martin spent the rest of the afternoon recording the incoming numbers, since they were all breaking the rules by having their phones turned on. By the end of the day, the girl was nearly hysterical looking for that phone. It would have been so easy to just give the phone back in the first place.”
“The art department has been under siege,” complained Mr. Armstrong. “Our budgets have been cut and field trips are no longer approved. We used to take trips to the art museum and botanical gardens. My students could branch out and show creativity. Now everything I do comes straight from the final, the same final for all classes on all three campuses. It’s hard to force creative people into standardized formats, but I put my anger into my canvases, not into homicide. My mother, bless her, buys paper and markers at the Dollar Store for my students to use.”
“As a science teacher, I felt I was under extra scrutiny,” said Ms. Pasteur. “It made me feel nervous and inadequate, until someone told me that Ms. Martin had once said during an administrative reorganization that she hoped she wouldn’t have to go back into the classroom; she hated the idea of setting up all those labs. I figured that if she couldn’t or wouldn’t do the job herself, she didn’t have all that much room to criticize me, so I’ll just continue to do what I know is best for my students.”
“I never was bothered by her,” asserted Star Phillips, business teacher. “When principals get the mistaken notion that they are my bosses, I remind myself that they are actually supply clerks. They are here to handle schedules, budgets, and discipline, to get me what I need to do the real work of teaching, and that’s what I expect them to do. She had no grasp of the things needed to run a schedule or budget well. She’d focus on silly details like having all the window shades at the same level.”
Mr. Roberts, the P.E. teacher, had no comment regarding the murder, other than, “You have mistaken me for someone who cares.”
Sweet’s final meeting was with the former head custodian, Curtis Larson, who said, “Yes, there was some resentment over the suspension and firing of most of the old staff. It was punitive and no way to treat people who work so hard for so little. None of us trusted her. We figured she’d do the same to anyone got on her bad side. Mostly, we tried to avoid her as much as we could. She may have deserved what she got, but I can’t see any of my people actually committing murder. Most of us just waited for a chance at another position. I’m much better off now in my new job; in a way she did me a favor.”
The ME’s report that afternoon shed more confusion over the matter. “Stomach contents revealed sodium sulfate, easily available in the science lab, mixed in with something sweet and creamy, possibly the sauce on the bread pudding the FACS students shared with several staff members that day,” Dr. Warner reported to Officer Sweet, “but in too small a quantity to kill, and digestion hadn’t progressed far enough to have caused more than a little stomach upset. The head wound, not serious enough to have caused death, perfectly matches the new Grade Manager scantron machine, which also has traces of her blood.”
“That machine has been a controversial part of the new data system,” explained Sweet. “It correlates data on all the students, supposedly to show what teaching methods are most effective. Speculation is that it will be used to compare teachers for evaluations. It’s also slower and harder to use than the old scantrons, so it’s taking longer to finish grades for finals, and there’s already enough tension at the end of a semester. One of the teachers said they are spending so much time on testing, there’s no time for teaching. It’s like a pig farmer weighing the pigs but never feeding them, and then wondering why they don’t gain weight.” “That’s a motive for destroying the machine perhaps, but the principal? Isn’t that a bit like ‘killing the messenger’? By the way, the clay from the mask nearly matched the clay in the art department, but had a higher level of aspergillus fumagatus, a type of mold.”
“Mold!” exclaimed Sweet. “Several of the teachers have complained of allergies to mold, and the lower level has had visible mold scraped off and sent for testing. I’ll get those records for comparison.”
“Martin’s medical records showed an allergy to mold,” added Dr. Warner. “If it was a severe allergy, the mold on that mask could have been the final cause of death. Was her allergy common knowledge?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then it looks as if our inept murderer accidentally stumbled on an effective method.”
The CLB mystery notes continued to be found throughout the school, with additions. “Nickleby slew education, Nickleby must not live.”
“Who’s Nickleby?” asked one of the young detectives.
Officer Sweet explained, “Nickleby is the educator’s pronunciation of the No Child Left Behind law, NCLB, the ‘high-stakes testing’ that is now running, some say ruining, the educational process. If a school district doesn’t improve scores, it can lose funding or be taken over by outside management. Pressure to do well on the tests is high, and the tests are so long that one teacher asked me to arrest the makers of the test for child abuse.”
“Aha,” said Sweet. “I didn’t pick up on that. Without the N for No, it would be ‘Child or Children Left Behind’– students — and we’ve only been looking at teachers. Why didn’t I see it? The teachers may be angry, but they have the maturity and means to go through channels. Students would be more impulsive. In a way, they also have more at stake. Teachers can ride out the swing of the educational pendulum, knowing that these fads have a way of correcting themselves as good sense takes over. Students only have their few years of high school and might feel they will never recover the opportunities they’ve lost. They are also more emotional and protective of their school and their teachers. A couple of years ago, a group of students were planning to beat up a fireman who yelled at my wife during a fire drill. We talked them out of the notion. She told them that with her mother so sick, she just didn’t have time to visit them in jail.”
“Yeah, kids could have done it, but do you think we’ll have any luck finding the perpetrators now? We let them all go home the first day, and the evidence is pretty cold now.”
“True, and everything they used was easily available to dozens of people,” agreed Sweet.
“The final outcome of this investigation may be, ‘Assassinated by the spirit of education.’”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * my original ending — then a friend insisted on “justice” * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“We’ll keep looking, though, and wait for somebody to talk,” said Sweet. “Almost always somebody will say something. We’ve solved several cases, thanks to ‘loose lips.’”
It was a long and patient twelve years, with no action on the case except monthly phone calls from Mrs. Martin, whose daughter really had been good to her. Officer Sweet was still on duty, befriending students, trying to “keep a lid on” the activities of impulsive youth, having talks with those who thought they might enjoy a career in law enforcement. He kept in touch with graduates as well, even attending reunions to catch up with the lives of his “kids.” Troubled students who had straightened out their lives took special pride in reporting their success to him. It made all his hard work worthwhile.
One warm summer evening, during a Ten-Year Reunion celebration, a group of former students gathered around a table in the Senior Courtyard, reminiscing on the years when this area was off-limits to them as underclassmen and the final, glorious senior year when they ate lunch at this very table nearly every nice day. “This was such a cool place for lunch our senior year,” sighed Melissa, flashing her beautiful smile. “I was in all the plays, headed for New York. Our drama program was the BEST! Things really took off once . . . . .” and she ended with a frown.
“Art, too,” remarked the short-haired girl beside her. “It was wonderful to be able to experiment with new techniques, visit the art galleries, enter regional shows. Things really opened up for us. Without all those experiences, I doubt I would have made it to the Sorbonne. Only . . .” She bowed her head and looked down.
“Oh, stop,” growled an athletic young man. “I don’t regret C.L.B. at all! If things had gone on the way they were, we’d all have been “left behind.” Athletics would have been cut next. I needed my scholarship to get to college, and now I’m being offered coaching positions all over. We did a lot of good for this school, for all the students. Chuck wouldn’t be at M.I.T. if we hadn’t saved the science department. . . so many others wouldn’t have had the chance they deserved.” His muscular build was enhanced by the custom-tailored suit, but his face betrayed the regret his words denied.
“It’s just that, you know, it’s a human life!” said Melissa. “You can’t just throw away a life because of disagreements. I keep thinking of that year and wishing we’d found some other way, an end run around the restrictions, like when we ‘liberated’ the Shakespeare tickets and signed out for ‘doctors’ appointments’ so we could go. Mandy could still have done her art; you could still have competed; I could still act, but because of us Miss Martin lost everything, and the people in her life lost her forever. I wish I’d never been involved.”
“What’s done is done, and regrets don’t accomplish anything,” said Mandy. “The real villain was the stupid policies, but we could only see Miss Martin. We need to go forward and try to do as much good as we can with our lives. Maybe we can help others see past the masks and fight the real evil in the world instead of the figureheads.”
“Yes, said Chuck, “and protect our schools and education through school boards and elections, so future students won’t be frustrated pawns like we were. We need to be more involved than our parents were and not let education be taken hostage by politics.”
“Fine words,” said a voice behind them, and they exchanged guilty looks.
“Oh, hi, Officer Sweet. Join us?” Chuck hoped he’d managed to sound normal.
“Yes, I will. You’ve all done so well since you left here. I hope you don’t mind a bit of instruction from an old friend . . . you know, one of my most important rules of crime-solving is that someone always talks. Sometimes I have to wait a very long time, but I haven’t been disappointed yet. Someone,” he repeated, looking around the table, “always talks.”
He reached under the table and pulled out a small “bug.”
“Another basic fact is that there is no statute of limitations on murder. A murder case is never closed, especially when the victim’s mother calls faithfully every month to keep the memory of her good daughter alive. A final bit of philosophy you might want to consider is that the ends seldom justify the means. I’m afraid your successful lives are about to take a drastic u-turn. Don’t go anywhere. We’re arranging special accommodations for all of you until your arraignment.”
Their eyes focused on the “quote wall” ahead of them. Perhaps it was just a trick of light, but the most prominent seemed to be the Ben Franklin quote, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”