Ashley Bare sat alone outside of the principal’s office, the hard bench reminding her of the numerous times she had sat, patiently and uncomfortably, waiting to meet with an authority figure. Bare didn’t welcome conflict and she did not like confrontation, but sometimes doing what was right required a person to confront their own discomfort.
Bare had done her share of confronting. While she had gone to a state college, she still faced all the systems of oppression that were being resisted at the nation’s higher profile universities. In fact, in some ways she had a greater struggle, since certainly a lower percentage of her classmates were allies, and a higher percentage supportive of oppression, than there would naturally be at an elite institution. It was no matter; change was needed everywhere. She would do her part where she was.
For the time being, she was a teacher’s aide at Pineview Middle School. She did all the work of a tenured teacher for half the pay, correcting papers, planning lessons, and working one-on-one with the most challenging students. Everything, really, except teaching in a classroom. This was not how she planned to start her career, but the regional job market for new teachers was thin and she needed the experience.
She also needed the money. Bare’s journey of self-actualization resulted in it taking her six years to get a four-year teaching degree. That meant six years’ worth of debt. She attended state school because her family didn’t have the money for an elite university, but Wellington College was the institution of choice for the leadership at Pineview Middle School. Ashley felt like she was drowning in student loan payments for a degree that was less respected than her peers’. There was a full-time position opening next school year and she was doing everything she could to be one who got it.
That was partially why she sat there on the hard bench, waiting to be ushered into the principal’s office. Bare had volunteered to supervise the Gay-Straight Alliance, an after-school club that aimed to create a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all youth, regardless of their sexual or gender identity. While not an officially affiliated club, they had a dozen students that regularly attended. The little group was building a more tolerant school environment, and Ashley was very proud of them and their commitment to the work. She also hoped her leadership on this urgent and long-overlooked matter would help her overcome the deficiencies of her resume.
The office door opened and Nancy Hjerne stuck her head out. Not who Bare was expecting to see.
“Hey Ashley,” Hjerne said. “Why don’t you come on in?”
Bare got up and walked through the doorway. Seated behind her desk was Carol Elitar, principal of Pineview Middle School. Facing her desk were two chairs at a slight angle toward each other. Hjerne sat in one, which Bare took to mean she should sit in the other.
“Thank you for being here, Ashley. It is so nice to see you,” Elitar said, with an emphasis on “so” that made Ashley uncomfortable.
Pleasantries were not her forte, but she managed to get through the social ritual by saying, “Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.”
“I’ve asked Nancy to join us.” Elitar nodded at Hjerne. “I thought she could help us figure out what our next steps should be.”
This signaled to Bare that achieving justice was going to be difficult. Elitar said all the right things, but she was reluctant to act, to do anything that might upset parents or the school board. Hjerne would support her; Bare had seen it before. Social protocol suggested that Bare make some statement showing acceptance of Hjerne’s presence, but she instead stayed quiet.
“So, Ashley, you have recommended that two of our students receive 30-day suspensions for violating the school’s policy on bullying,” Elitar continued. “I appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention. I agree with you that this is a very serious matter.” (Another inflection that Ashley didn’t like.) “What exactly happened?”
“It’s straightforward, actually,” Bare began. “Hunter Klein called Cole Freehet a sexuality-based slur. He did this on school grounds during regular school hours. It was overheard by multiple students, including two Alliance members. This kind of bullying creates a threatening and intolerant school environment, especially for our non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual students, which is why I began the suspension process when it came to my attention.”
“What was the slur?” Hjerne asked.
“I’d rather not repeat it.”
“I think we need to know,” Hjerne insisted. “Especially if we are going to suspend these boys.”
Bare paused, genuinely reluctant. “Hunter called Cole a queer.”
Elitar and Hjerne wore looks of deep concern, though both were relieved that it wasn’t worse. Nothing had made it into the adult social media world yet, and if they handled this correctly, it never would.
“So, just for clarification, Cole is not part of the Gay-Straight Alliance and, as far as we know, is not actually…gay,” Elitar asked in a measured tone. She knew that it was far more likely that Cole would father multiple babies while still in middle school than he would discover an affinity for same-sex relationships.
“I don’t have firsthand knowledge of Cole’s orientation, but he is not part of the Alliance,” Ashley answered.
“So, Hunter was not attacking Cole, per se, or trying to bully him—is that right?” Elitar probed. Everyone knew that Hunter Klein and Cole Freehet were best friends and had been since before preschool.
“Again, I don’t know, but the tone of the exchange, and the context, does not suggest a culture of tolerance. Alliance members are very concerned—” Bare was cut off by Hjerne.
“Ashley, did you actually hear Hunter call Cole a ‘queer’?”
There were many things that bothered Bare about this question. The use of the word “queer” in that way. The accusatory undertone. The fact that it was Hjerne asking it. But, mostly, the fact that she knew her answer would let Hunter off the hook.
“No, I did not. It was reported to me by two members of the Alliance.”
“Which ones,” Hjerne asked.
Bare turned to Elitar with her answer. “I’d prefer not to say. These students trust me not to betray their confidence. If word got out, these vulnerable students would fear retaliation.”
“Okay, Ashley, I appreciate all of your work with the Alliance. It is important and it helps our students here at Pineview. It is important we recognize our differences and make our student body more tolerant and compassionate,” Elitar stated. Bare knew the “but” part was coming, as it always did.
“But,” Elitar continued, “I don’t see how I can suspend two students—for a month, no less—without any first-hand testimony and without any suggestion that bullying was even the intent. How would I explain that to the school board? How would they explain it to the public?”
Bare didn’t care how they would explain it to the small-minded people of their town. Intolerance was unacceptable, no matter who was involved, and tolerating intolerance was an even greater betrayal. Wellington College may have been an elite university with a history of progressive activism, but it attracted spineless people like Jill Elitar and Nancy Hjerne. In Bare’s opinion, they were far too comfortable with systems of oppression, systems that always seemed to benefit them more than anyone else.
She gritted her teeth, wishing she could scream at Hjerne in particular. Hjerne didn’t have to get involved in this, but as usual, she insisted on interfering anyway—probably just to demonstrate her superiority. Bare hated that and wasn’t going to forget it.