have gone on uneventfully had it not been for Joey Thompson
and his gang who brought tear gas to school and set it off.
They claimed it was an accident, but it was probably a practical
joke. These were the guys who'd sabotaged the junior high
school fire alarms two years earlier and claimed that was
accidental as well. They were suspended, and for a while it
looked as if they might get kicked out permanently, but when
they and their families agreed to counseling, they were allowed
to come back. That's how things were in town right then, though
my mom says it hadn't always been like that. Grandma Lore
Harnisch wanted the boys to be publicly humiliated. I think
she'd have approved of stocks or pillory. Or a public flogging
at the very least. However, since she couldn't get her way,
she complained a lot about how disrespectful young people
were and nagged me more than ever.
and his pals set off the tear gas, life at school went to
hell. Teachers started jumping at every loud noise and the
principal threatened at least twice a day to have the police
patrol the hallways. Since we only had three policemen in
the entire town and one of them was so old that he slept most
of the day away, no one took that threat too seriously. The
worst thing was that the principal drew up a whole bunch of
new rules about what students weren't allowed to bring to
school. On the surface, the rules made sense. Nothing that
could be used as a weapon or was designed to resemble a weapon
was allowed. The new regulations never specified who'd get
to decide if something resembled a weapon or what the criteria
were for determining if something was a weapon. He had support
from the local newspaper, which echoed his obsessions with
"the tear gas incident," warning that our high school
was on the brink of anarchy if strong measures weren't taken.
said everyone was overreacting to an isolated incident caused
by known troublemakers, but no one listened to her. I didn't
imagine that the new rules would have any effect on me personally.
I just didn't like the increased tension and paranoia in the
air. But I went to my classes, practiced running and ran my
races, talked pens with Mr. Harmon, and tried to ignore what
I couldn't change.
week after the tear gas incident, things were pretty quiet,
but that didn't make the teachers any less nervous. Then Eddie
Wall got caught and suspended for pulling a metal nail file
out of his pocket in woodshop and using it to dig a splinter
out of his thumb. And Martin Cavanaugh got busted for cutting
out a news clipping in the cafeteria with the scissors on
his ancient Swiss Army knife. The blades on the knife had
long since fallen out, but scissors counted as a weapon, I
guess. After that, I should have known anything could happen.
expect person of average intelligence to be able to tell the
difference between a fountain pen and small cylindrical device
designed to explode and propel a tear gas pellet. They really
don't have that much in common. The problem was that the tear
gas devices had come in packages bearing the label "tear
gas pen," and that's how everyone referred to them. Properly
speaking, of course, a tear gas pen isn't a pen at all. But
have to admit, now that I'm older and less upset about everything
that occurred, that the devices were vaguely pen-shaped. And
it so happened that the ones set off at school were also pale
green, not exactly the color of my Esterbrook but close. It
was and still is, as far as I know, illegal to own tear gas
pens without special permission from the police, but they
were available in catalogues. That's where Joey and his pals
Mr. Willard, the football coach who also happened to be my
health education teacher that year, was not a person of average
intelligence. In fact, there was some question in our minds
if he was a person of any intelligence. He seemed like a grown-up
version of the school bully, mocking everyone who didn't play
football, picking on kids who couldn't defend themselves,
and generally making life hell for everyone he could dominate.
Maybe questioning his intelligence wasn't fair. Maybe he'd
just never seen a fountain pen before. Granted there were
some very superficial similarities between Joey Thompson's
weapon and my Esterbrook, but there were also marked differences..
My Esterbrook was a light piece of plastic with a thin lever
on the side and a nib on the end. Joey's weapon was much bigger
and fatter, made of heavy metal, and it had a gaping hole
where a small tear gas cylinder could be screwed in, while
my pen had a nib. The tear gas pen had triggering knob instead
of a lever. But none of that made any difference to Thomas
I was sitting calmly in health education class copying this
notes from the board while he just sat at his desk picking
his teeth with an index card. The next minute he was lumbering
towards me, face red and eyes bulging. "Okay," he
yelled, grabbing my writing arm with a ham-sized paw, "hand
"What?" I mumbled, stunned.
"That pen," he said. "Give it to me!"
He yanked it out my hand. "Now get out of here! To the
principal's office!" He pointed at the door with my pen.
"At least let me put the cap on the pen," I said.
"Don't tell me what to do, punk," he barked. "Get
out of here! Now!"
He tossed the uncapped pen in the general direction of his
desk, but it missed, landed on the floor and bounced a couple
of times. I wanted to punch him out, but although I was taller,
he had at least a hundred pounds on me. So I just walked out
I was furious would have been an understatement. I trotted
over to the principal's office, barged into his private cubicle,
and tossed the pen's cap on his desk. He had obviously just
gotten off the phone with Mr. Willard because he just looked
at me and said calmly, "You broke the rule against bringing
weapons to school, Jason. You're suspended for three days."
He nodded at the cap. "Get that thing off my desk, please.
And sit down while I phone your mother."
up in about fifteen minutes and she was fit to be tied. "Since
when is a fountain pen that he has been using for a year a
lethal weapon?" she barked at the principal.
"Now, Amanda, calm down. Rules are rules, and I have
to apply them impartially. I know Jason is a good boy, but
I have to back my teachers."
She sniffed. "You call that oaf a teacher? Don't forget
that I know him."
The principal shook his head. "Your personal feelings
about Tom Willard have nothing to do with this."
My mother looked over at me. Whenever anyone used the phrase
"personal feelings" she usually raised her shoulders
and asked, "Tell me, have you ever had any impersonal
feelings?" Usually that got a laugh out of me, but I
was too upset to laugh.
"Mom!" I burst out, "He took Grandpa Edgar's
pen and threw it on the floor. Without the cap." As I
showed her the cap I could tell that more was going on than
I was conscious of, both in me and in my mom. I felt very
young, small, and helpless, the way I had when Grandpa had
died. She just looked at it, then at the principal. I could
tell she was very angry because her eyes turned from gray
to green, but he didn't really know her and mistook her soft
tone of voice for submissiveness.
"And your explanation for this wanton destruction of
personal property is
?" she demanded quietly.
"Weapons are confiscated, Amanda," he replied. "Now
please be so good as to take Jason home. I have work to do."
I followed her out the door and into her car. "I'm going
to call Ed," she said. Ed was our lawyer, Ed Conley.