Basement Access

It was the first day of school, and Principal Hyde was pissed.

“Principal Hyde? I just wanted to let you know that …”

“Not now, Margaret!” Hyde had been holding his head in his hands, his elbows leaning on his giant wooden administrator’s desk, but he let his palms fall to the surface as he told Margaret “not now.” The desk was really very old, maybe dating back to the mid-seventies, so old that whoever designed it couldn’t have had the foresight to imagine things like computers or Ethernet cables. No, this warping hulk of oak was built for papers, files, boxes and boxes of office supplies. Of course, no serious professional needed any of that garbage now that everything was digital, and so as his palms landed on the desk, the resulting thud, amplified like a drum on the hollow administrative relic, was a lot angrier sounding than he had intended. In fact, he wasn’t really going for angry at all, not to Margaret, even though he was pissed.

Thud! Margaret jumped back a little bit, surprised at Principal Hyde’s uncharacteristic display of aggressive emotion. Hyde was surprised too, but his expressed shock at the gravity of his desk’s acoustics only made him appear sterner, and so Margaret slinked out of the room, thinking about how she didn’t get paid enough to take this sort of abuse, that she wouldn’t, let Principal Hyde get his own cup of coffee if he wanted to be a jerk about it.

That’s what Margaret had come into the office for. She’d made a fresh pot and thought she’d ask Principal Hyde if he wanted a cup. And Hyde did really want a cup, he needed one, some caffeine, something, any sort of substance he could get into his system to distract him from how pissed off he was. Although he couldn’t leave the office, not now, not after scaring Margaret off like that. She was probably already talking to Greg and Wilson, complaining about the way she’d been scolded for no reason.

Hyde reread the email again:

Prinicpal Hyde: Due to a series of recent budget reallocations, your district has been targeted for systemic institutional deconstruction and reconsolidation. State and county assessors will be in touch regarding asset redistribution and systemic professional ease of transitioning. The Comptroller should be in touch sometime this week to discuss union reprioritization and to go over finalization of pre-terminization post-contract benefit reductions. Jeff, we tried, we really did, but the county is pretty insistent on riding this whole austerity wave to the end. Don’t hesitate to call my office if you have any questions.

            Best, Superintendent Halifax

Principal Hyde picked up his phone and dialed Halifax’s number. It went straight to voicemail. Without dropping the receiver from his ear, he hung up and tried the district office. That went to voicemail too. He dialed again, and on his fourth try, someone on the other end answered.

“Good morning, County Department of Education, this is Ryan, how may I help you today?”

“Hi, this is Principal Hyde over at South. I was wondering if I could speak to Superintendent Halifax.”

“Let me check for a second,” and Ryan put Principal Hyde on hold. The secretary got up from his desk and walked toward Halifax’s office, but the superintendent called out, “Not now, Ryan!” from behind his desk, before Ryan even had a chance to pop his head inside of the office. Ryan sat back down at his desk, considered the blinking light on line two for another minute or so, and decided to just let it go. He wasn’t getting paid enough either, and he definitely didn’t have the guts to hang up on a district principal, so he figured he’d just let Hyde hang up.

Hyde sat there with the phone to his ear for another three minutes or so, the whole time rereading that email, almost identical to last year’s. Sure, it had been a shock then, to think that South High was about to be shut down. But he couldn’t let himself wallow. No, he had finally been promoted to principal just the year before. He said it to himself then, facing closure, he told the school that there was no way they’d shut them down without a fight.

And what a fight they put up. Talk about rallying, Hyde wasn’t even sure that the school had what it took to take on the district like that. But he showed that he was a leader, leading the faculty, the student body. They protested outside of the monthly Board of Ed meetings, they had bake sales, carwashes. A highlight of their movement had been when a CNN anchor actually mentioned South by name amongst a list of twenty-five other high schools across the country that were battling forced austerity-driven budgets in a somewhat unrelated piece on the overall decline of national funding to high school jazz chorus programs. It was true that South’s jazz chorus was threatened, but only in the sense that the entire school was threatened. Regardless of how or why they got mentioned on TV, they did, and in a brilliant act of social media maneuvering, Principal Hyde had one of his students turn that three seconds of air-time into one of those looping video clips. It went viral, or, kind of viral, amongst high school students and parents anyway, they’d posted a link to the clip on Facebook, “South High School,” the reporter said, over and over again on repeat, enough people had shared the clip that, even if you didn’t have any kids in the school, you were more than likely to see it pop up on your news feed, “South High School, South High School.”

Superintendent Halifax saw it. The video was looping on his laptop when his cell phone rang. The caller ID gave it away as someone from the County Courier/Community Coupon, even though the caller wasn’t interested in South High School, because, despite the merger, the County Courier and the Community Coupon had still been struggling to round up their monthly production costs. In an effort to stay in circulation, they’d resorted to pawning out their employees to various telemarketing survey firms, on top of putting the paper together, they had to fill a certain amount of time each day cold-calling subscribers, asking them if they’d like to participate in surveys to get a better idea of say, how satisfied on a scale of one to ten they might be with their cell phone provider, with ten being extremely satisfied and one being extremely dissatisfied.

Halifax didn’t know, he just saw the caller ID and got spooked at the idea of having to explain himself to a reporter. This was exactly the type of bad press that, if you let it snowball, could ruin a superintendent’s career. And so he pushed some numbers around and poof, South was magically solvent for another year, jazz chorus, handball team, crochet club and all.

Which made this morning’s email even harder for Principal Hyde to swallow. Could this have been a mistake? Were they really getting shut down again? How would he go about rallying the faculty two years in a row? He couldn’t imagine the student body willing to give up another semester of weekends to bake sales and carwashes. And how likely was it that the national press would jump on the story again? Hyde got tired of holding the phone in his hand, and so he transferred his call to line three, out to Margaret’s desk. He heard her phone make its chirping sound and he jumped out from behind his desk to pop his head though the door.

“Hey Margaret,” he tried to say it apologetically, but not like he was groveling. He was going for sorry yet still in command which, again, the two intended messages mixed in a way that produced a third unwanted nonverbal cue, one not readily apparent. Margaret was confused, was Principal Hyde hungry? “Listen,” his voice sounded strained, “I’m on hold with Superintendent Halifax on line three. Will you let me know when they pick up?”

And Margaret said, “Yeah, sure,” picking up the receiver, pressing the buttons that accepted the transferred call, but as soon as Hyde disappeared back into his office, she put it on hold. What did he expect her to do, sit there and listen to that synthesized hold music all day? Even if Hyde were a little nicer to her, even if he hadn’t slammed his hands down when she went to offer him a cup of coffee, she wasn’t about to sit there on hold. She went to college. And she was supposed to sit there with an old-fashioned corded phone to her ear? No way, she thought to herself while trying to ignore the blinking green hold light, waiting for the other end to eventually hang up. Only, Ryan was on the other end also waiting for Margaret to hang up, both calls in an administrative state of perpetual hold. This was actually a somewhat defined phenomena, unique to the complexities of intra-office transfers and holds, the rudimentary telephone operating systems made mostly irrelevant by the advances of the Internet, yet unfortunately still firmly and deeply embedded in the day-to-day operations of county administration. Double-holds like this have a way of accumulating, weighing down the whole system. Margaret’s line three and Ryan’s line two might be out of commission for hours now, neither one of them ever willing to take action on their respective blinking green lights. And it wasn’t entirely inconceivable for this process to be repeated two or even three times over the course of a single day. There hadn’t been any extensive studies done to monitor double-hold line usage, but when the third-party firm that takes care of the phones stopped by last month, lines six through eight appeared to have been in constant use for weeks, which not only drastically limited the availability of school administrators via phone, but also took its toll on monthly utility expenses as all of those minutes bogged down the phone bill, another red line on a list of red lines, an Excel spreadsheet opened on too many school computers at the same time, each copy of the budget just slightly out of synch with the next, all of them affecting the master list, the one that glowed its shades of Microsoft green and white and yellow, the colors reflecting onto Principal Hyde’s face as he stared at the boxy computer monitor at the end of that enormous desk, he wished it could be moved a little closer, but the IT crew had a lot of trouble drilling holes for the power cables through all of those hidden desk drawers, and so just to be able to make out the text on the screen inconveniently positioned a full three feet away from his face, he had to go to the display settings, to zoom in on all of the words, which worked, but it made everything too big to fit in those tiny Excel cells, and what did it matter? All of these numbers were awful. How did they balance everything last year? They’d never be able to pull it off two years in a row. Hyde stared at the screen for too long, as if he were waiting for the answer to pop out, like one of those graphics that you’re supposed to stare at until the hidden image reveals itself, his hands had made his way to his head again, the entire front of his body once more supported by his elbows on the edge of his desk, eventually there was black, the screensaver kicked in, scrolling photos of last year’s celebration assembly, “We did it!” that big hand-painted banner strung across the stage in the auditorium, “Thanks Principal Hyde!” two students held up a sign that appeared to have been made out of markers and construction paper just minutes before the assembly. “We did it!” he could still hear that speech in his head, “We saved the school!”

“Principal Hyde,” Margaret was in the doorway again.

Hyde let his hands drop, but only an inch or two before he caught himself, this time very consciously placing his arms in front of him.

“Yes Margaret?”

“We’ve got a new student here. He needs a schedule and a homeroom and everything. I think Counselor Graham might have taken the day off.”

“Did he call in?”

“Well, I thought I saw him this morning, but he’s not answering his line, and I sent Peter down to his office like half an hour ago …”

“Peter?”

“He’s one of the seniors that volunteered to take Hassan around all day, show him where his classes are, you know, sit down with him at lunch.”

“Peter …” Principal Hyde trailed off. When he was promoted at the beginning of last year from social studies teacher to principal, he made a promise to himself to have some sort of a connection with each of the school’s students. The overwhelming responsibilities of his new role quickly made that promise a little unrealistic, and so he amended his promise to at least be able to put a face to a name. But with a student population of over five hundred, even that less committed promise proved tougher than he had imagined. Still, he prided himself on his ability to even want to make that connection with his students. Because come on, how many principals truly wanted even that?

“Ah yes, Peter,” Hyde nodded his head. After going through a mental list of faces and names, he thought he had a rough idea of who this Peter was, and so he said it confidently enough, “Yes,” which, though he said it as much for his own benefit as to Margaret’s, to really try to embody this image of his personal connection with everyone at South, it was an unnecessary gesture, because Margaret hadn’t sent anybody to check on Counselor Graham. The two of them had gone out for drinks after work yesterday, and whereas Margaret was fortunate enough on that particular evening to know when to call it quits, Graham was still going strong at the bar when she made her exit sometime around one or two.

“Well when you see Peter again,” Principal Hyde was still stuck on this Peter business, and Margaret had to refrain from laughing, because there had to have been at least twelve Peters currently enrolled, “tell him that Principal Hyde says he appreciates, that I appreciate … tell him I say thanks, for being such a good kid. A great role model.”

“Will do.”

Principal Hyde slowly turned back toward his computer, his left hand making its way back to his head, his right hand jostling the mouse to break the creeping flow of screensaver photos, casting his face back in that harsh late-1990s old monitor spreadsheet glow. But Margaret was still standing there.

“So what about Hassan?”

Thud, Hyde’s hand fell down to the desk, Margaret jumped back just like she did earlier.

“Wait, I’m sorry,” Hyde called out before she had a chance to run away again. “It’s this desk. It’s so loud, I’m not angry. I’m sorry. Send Hassan in.”

And that seemed to work, Margaret didn’t look any more upset than she already was. She turned around and called out, “Hassan, come here.”

This lanky kid walked in. He was wearing a patterned button-down, the fabric ballooning off of his wire-thin frame. Hyde tried to size him up without making it look like he was giving him the once over, but it’s hard to ignore those snap judgments. Hassan looked hungry, which could have just been his age, he could have been one of those kids who went from short to tall almost overnight, and it would take his body another three or four years to fill out. Or it could have been some sort of domestic situation. Hyde made a mental note to make a more formal note later to make sure Hassan had something to eat for lunch.

“Hassan!” Hyde greeted him as if he’d been waiting for this moment for months. “Please, sit down. Welcome to South! Margaret, can you pass me Hassan’s files?”

Hassan didn’t bother taking his backpack off, so when he sat down in one of the chairs opposite the big desk, it gave off the impression that he didn’t want to be there, or maybe that was another snap judgment, maybe he was just awkward. He looked like an awkward guy.

“I don’t have his files. They should be with Counselor Graham. But, I think he’s uh …” she let that end of that sentence float, stopping herself from saying anything contradictory.

“That’s fine, no problem!” Hyde still had his over-the-top smile on his face, trying to make eye contact with Hassan, who was sitting there staring into his lap. Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, he kept repeating Hassan’s name in his head. Hyde wouldn’t forget this name, no way. “I’m sure I can pull up your files here. Let’s see …”

And Hyde minimized that spreadsheet, clicking over to one of the shared servers accessible to anybody with district-wide administrative clearance. There were so many folders, all of them with misleading names. For example, he knew that you couldn’t access the secretary schedules by clicking on the staff folder, you had to first go through the district folder, and then into a support subfolder. Hyde thought it would have been easy enough to find something about new students, but the transfers folder only contained a series of outdated activities spreadsheets.

Outside, the bell rang signaling the start of first period classes. Hyde wasn’t getting any further to figuring out where Hassan was supposed to be going.

“Come with me, Hassan,” Hyde startled himself as he half-consciously stood up behind his desk and walked toward the door. Hassan, Hassan, Hassan.

The principal walked out of his office with Hassan right behind, through the administrative bullpen, past the small waiting room with the wooden bench against the wall, and out into the hallway. With no particular direction in mind, Hyde started passing classrooms, one after the other, classes all clearly in session. Although he didn’t have a plan, Hyde had hoped that something would have come to him by now, maybe one of the classroom doors would have been open, he could have made eye contact with a teacher who would have then come to the door to see what was going on.

But there was nothing, no plan, not for Hassan, not for the school, and what did it even matter anyway? They passed the last classroom but kept walking toward the end of the hallway. There was a big window at the end and a small door to the right. Hyde tried his best to carry himself with the dignified authority that every principal should embody, but there was very little hiding the fact he didn’t know where he was taking Hassan. Still, he couldn’t admit defeat quite yet, and so he turned toward that small door, the one labeled, “Basement Access: Authorized Personal Only,” and pushed it open.

“It’s a shortcut,” he told Hassan with an over-the-top grin, one meant to reassure the new student, but he couldn’t help but restricting his feelings of panic, that he didn’t know what he was doing, and so the smile looked downright sinister. And sure, by this point Hassan had suspected that something was up. But what was he going to do? This was the principal.

The two descended downstairs, the cinderblock walls steadily overtaken by rows and rows of pipes and thick cables. Principal Hyde hadn’t been down here since ex-Principal Pilkensen handed over his keys last year and gave him a tour of the grounds. Hyde remembered the basement looking a lot less basement-like back then. Everything just seemed cleaner or neater. Not like this, there were cobwebs everywhere, puddles of stagnant water. He started thinking whether or not there might be any vermin living down here, and for a minute he became so fixated on the idea of a rat running right in front of him that when a rat actually did cut across their path, he immediately chalked it up as figment of his hyperactive imagination.

“Do you have an iPhone Hassan?” Principal Hyde said.

“Uh … yeah.”

“Can … can I see it for a second? I left mine in my office.”

Hassan handed over his phone and Hyde turned on the flashlight. The progression of light bulbs covered in their wire cages was getting less frequent, and Hyde was getting overwhelmed by the sudden irrational thought that eventually they’d get to a point where there wouldn’t be any lights at all. He thought the flashlight would help him maintain his bearings, but the beam of light was shaking in his hand, mocking his inability to keep his shit together. And now that there was a little more light, he could see the dark corners in between light bulbs, there were beer cans strewn about the floor, even more cobwebs, and someone had written “Halfstrung sucks” in black marker behind some sort of fuse box-looking metal encasement. Why was it so gross down here? Wasn’t the custodial team supposed to keep an eye on things? Was Hyde supposed to come down here regularly?

Hyde’s hands were shaking pretty steadily, but as they reached the end of the basement corridor, he could feel his limbs overcome by an all-out set of tremors.

“Just keep it together,” he clenched his fists and whispered to himself, but Hassan was right behind him. He heard the principal muttering, the lack of self-control was obvious. Hassan reached into his pocket and grabbed onto a cube he always he carried around with him. It was ice cold to the touch, and he focused all of his awareness on the sensations of his hand, ignoring this man holding his cell phone, his grip on reality clearly slipping away.

Hyde was deteriorating, totally out of options, the quivering of his arms spreading to his chest, to his lungs, he couldn’t breathe anymore, not really, not all the way, and as he struggled to get some air in this dank basement, his knees gave way, not toally, but he was definitely bending down now, his back sliding against the wall, his arms wrapping around his knees in a sort of semi-standing fetal position.

This was it, he thought, I’m going to die down here. But like most panic attacks, as soon as Hyde got to the point where he thought his life was over, his breathing started to increase. Just a little bit, almost imperceptibly his lungs started incrementally taking in more air. After that some semblance of control began to return to his limbs, and finally a cool sweat broke across his skin all at once.

He stood up and pointed the flashlight to his left. It looked like there was a hallway, but there were too many pipes in the way for an adult to fit through. On the other side there was a giant piece of circular machinery, like a boiler or an industrial hot water tank. It was so big that it barely fit into the crevice carved out of the cinderblock. Hyde wondered how they ever got it down here in the first place. Was it installed first, before they laid the foundation? Hyde reached his flashlight to get a better look at the other side, and there was definitely another door.

“Come along Hassan,” Hyde had regained most of his pre-freak-out composure. “Sorry for the detour, but it’s not too much further ahead.

Hyde had to suck in his stomach as he shimmied his body sideways past the round piece of metal equipment. It was a little tight, but not tight enough that there was any risk of him getting stuck. He made it to the other side and held out his hand to Hassan.

“Here, give me your backpack and follow me in, just like I did.”

Hassan took his hand out of his pocket and did as he was told, taking a deep breath in and sidling up against the wall, although, he was so thin that it wasn’t really necessary to try and flatten himself out any more.

Both of them safely across, Hyde aimed Hassan’s cell phone flashlight toward the door. Unlike the heavy metal doors throughout the rest of the school, with push bars and vertical strips of window, this door was wooden and clearly rotted, no locks, not even a doorknob, just a nail attached to the wall attached to another nail bent into a hook fastening it somewhat shut. A piece of masking tape stuck up at the top said, “sewer access conduit Y” handwritten in black marker.

Hyde tried to undo the latch, but the piece attached to the nail splintered off and the door swung open wide. Right away they were met with the sound of rushing water. Hyde felt his panic starting to bubble up again just below the surface, and in an effort to maintain some appearance of control, he forged ahead, walking the three or four concrete steps down what he assumed had to have been the sewer that the piece of masking tape told him it was.

“So Hassan, you play any sports?” Hyde tried to make small talk as he grabbed a piece of rebar jutting from the ceiling, swinging his body across a stream of running sewage, landing his left leg on a thin cement platform. He took a good look at where they were. It was a tunnel. The walls were made of brick, rising about seven or eight feet on either side ending in a dome up above. The passage was only wide enough for them to travel single file, and they could only position their feet on the concrete steps at either side. Underneath their feet ran the sewage in a thin canal. Intermittent pieces of rebar jut out from the ceiling, like handles to help them shimmy their way through the darkness. “Because we have a great basketball program here,” he continued. “You play any basketball?”

“Yeah, I like basketball,” Hassan replied, shifting his backpack around so the bag was now on his front instead of weighing him down from behind. He grabbed a piece of rebar and followed Hyde, now a good ten or fifteen feet in front of him.

“Did you play on the team back at … where are you transferring from again?” Hyde called back, but he was moving fast now, more interested in getting out before being overwhelmed by another bout of anxiety.

“I’m from out of state. My dad just died a few months ago, and so my mom and me, we moved here to be closer to one of her aunts.”

Hyde was in his own world now. “Well then I think you’ll fit in pretty well here. We have varsity, junior varsity squads, or if you’re not interested in playing too competitively, we do intramurals, I think they’re on Tuesdays, Tuesdays or Thursdays, I don’t know if you have to sign up or if you just show up at the gym.”

Hyde went on about basketball for another ten minutes or so, Hassan struggling to keep up, until they came to another brick wall with a metal ladder sort of built in. Hyde let out a relieved laugh when he saw that they’d actually found what looked like a way out, and much quicker than he was fearing, too. In his head he had been fantasizing about the two of them lost underground for days.

“Right this way, this is us!” Hyde called down from the top of the ladder. He had dropped Hassan’s phone at the bottom and was pushing with all of his strength at the iron sewer cover at the top. Hassan picked up his phone and put it away as a sliver of light broke the darkness.

Hyde’s head emerged in the middle of West Street, just as a car was passing overhead. He ducked down and waited a minute, and when he tried again, he raised his hand up first, as if to stop anymore moving vehicles that might have been on the road. But it was all clear. Hyde pushed himself to the top and, once safely aboveground, reached down to pull Hassan up with him.

Exhausted, covered in gross sewer dirt and drenched in sweat, Hyde limped to the side of West Street and sat down. Hassan kind of just stood by his side, putting his hand back in his pocket, waiting for the principal to make a move.

“Hassan,” Hyde said, shifting suddenly from hollow victory to overwhelming defeat, “it doesn’t matter. You picked a wrong time to transfer to South. We’re getting shut down. Probably by the end of the month, but maybe sooner, maybe in a week or two. I’m sorry about making you walk through the sewer.”

Hyde got to his feet expecting something out of Hassan, a reaction, maybe some anger or at least visible frustration. But Hassan didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything. He just stood there with his backpack.

“Hassan,” Hyde said, “you’ve got to do me a favor. You can’t tell anybody about this, OK? Not the teachers, none of the students. I’m going to figure this out, all right? Hassan, we’re going to figure this out, you and me!”

“OK,” Hassan said. And then Hyde started walking back toward the school, only like two blocks from where they were, they just had to make a left over at Hamilton … or no, they had to stay on West street for three more blocks, and then a left at Sioux, and then the school was right there, just ahead, just right around the next corner.

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