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The novel that's actually non-fiction.  Well, mostly.

A peek inside the messed up world of public education.

Finishing School

T.L. Zempel (c. 2016)

What happens when the stakes get so high people start climbing on top of each other to get ahead? 


Wendy Taylor is about to find out.
Here is an excerpt from the pre-climax of
Finishing School:

At the Bowling Alley:

It’s not hard to find Mary and Ian.   Ian and Jim are giving whoops of joy as Mary jumps up and down, celebrating a strike.  When she sees me, she grins even wider.

        “Hey, Wendy!”  she says.  “So glad you came.”  She and Martha approach me and to my surprise, Martha gives me a hug.

        “How are things going at school?” she asks, her voice kind with concern.  “Mary told us how bad it’s getting for you.”

        “About as you’d expect,” I tell her.  And then to Mary, “I think I know what’s going on.”

        Mary’s eyes widen and then she says, “Give us a chance to finish this game and then I’ll tell Ian and Jim to bowl the next one without us.”  I nod and walk away toward the bar to order a Chardonnay.  As I reach into my purse for my wallet, my hand protectively pats the envelope holding the precious photographs.

        After paying for my wine, I return to the table nearest where Mary and Ian and their friends are finishing their game.  As I sip my wine, I realize that it didn’t even occur to me to examine Mary’s row of information on Morris’ grid.  Taking out the photos, I look closely at the one containing the grid, straining to see where Mary Ehrlich might be.

        “What’s that?” Mary asks, taking a seat across from me.

        “Damning evidence,” I tell her, managing a slight smile as I sip from my glass again.

        Her eyes widen.  “Evidence of what?” she asks.

        Martha soon joins us and sits next to Mary.  “What’s going on?” she asks.

        I smile at both of them.  “I think I know why Morris is here,” I say, and Martha looks around.

        “Here?”  she repeats, confused.

        “She means, here at Bennie J. Goodman,” Mary clarifies for her friend.  Turning back to me, she says, “Why is he here?”

        “I think he’s on probation,” I say, enjoying for a moment the  look on her face. “It’s either that or extreme ambition, with me and a few others as the pawns in his quest.”

        “No!” she says.  “How do you know?”

        “Just a hunch,” I tell her, “based on these.”  I spread the photos out on the table and turn them around so Mary can read the infor­mation on them.  As she does, her eyes widen again.

        “Oh, my God!” she says.  “Where did you get these?”

        “I took them,”  I tell her, and she raises her eyebrows at me.  “This afternoon, in Morris’ office.”

        “You’re kidding.”  Mary is shaking her head.  “How on earth did you do that?”

        As briefly as I can, I share the story of the bus driver and the aborted meeting and my decision to snoop in Morris’ binder.

        “You actually had the balls to look through his evaluation notes?”  I grin involuntarily at Martha’s choice of words, nodding to both of them.

        “Yep,” I say.  “Look at his goals.”  Mary bends her head again, reading from the photo.  Measurable growth of selected faculty?” she says.  “That’s you!”

        Nodding, I say, “And Kelsey and Stacey.”   Point­ing to the grid of faculty information, I continue.  “Look how we were chosen.”

        After examining the photo I’ve indicated, Martha is the first to speak.  “Why, that’s outrageous,” she says.  “It’s none of his business who is married and who is not!”

        I am amused that that’s the item she finds the most objectiona­ble.

        “Ian was right,” Mary says softly.  “Part of me thought he was being ridiculous.  No one could possibly behave that way in a profes­sional situation.” 

        I remember her telling me not to be naive, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from saying Who’s being naive now?

        “I almost can’t believe it myself,” I say, “but part of me feels, well, vindicated, I guess.”  Mary looks at me with compassion and I think she understands.  “I knew there had to be something wacky going on. Either that or I was losing my mind.”

        “What are you going to do now?” Martha asks, and I shake my head.

        “I don’t know,” I tell her.  “But how can I take anything he says seriously from now on?  I feel like I have to tell him I know what he’s doing, but I also wonder if there’s some way I could…”

        “Could what?” Mary asks, and I see the slow smile playing around her lips.  “Use the information against him?”

        “Oh, no,” Martha says vehemently.  “You don’t know what you’re messing with if you try that.”  She’s shaking her head and the sane part of me knows she’s right.

        “But it’s just so….wrong!”  I tell her.

        “You have no idea the legal resources available in a district this size,” she says.  “They’d chew you up and spit you out just for fun.”

        Mary gives a humorless laugh.  “Come on, Martha, what’s Wendy supposed to do?  Lay down and let them walk all over her?”

        Martha appears to be considering just what my choices are.  “How likely is it that he knows you snooped in his binder?” she asks me.

        “Totally unlikely,” I say, “unless he just happened to look inside his office from the school bus where he was having fisticuffs with a bus driver.”  I smile for a moment at that thought.

        “Which he could have done,” Martha says.   “Anything’s possi­ble.”

        I supposed it was.  “Then what do you suggest?”  I ask her.

        Mary jumps in with, “I say we run a sting on him!”

        I stare at her with my mouth open, a slow smile beginning to overtake my features.  When Mary’s been drinking, she comes up with the best ideas.

        “Play his game back at him,” Mary says, and Martha snorts.

        “I think you’ve been watching too many James Bond movies,” she says dryly, but smiles in my direction. 

        “I think it’s the wine talking,” I say to Martha, my eyes on Mary’s nearly-empty wine glass.  “Tell me more.”

        “Okay,” says Mary.  “Here’s what we do.”

        I lean forward so I can hear this top-secret, super-sneaky plan.

        “We align strategies in the classroom,” she says.  “You and I.  Everything the same.”  She waits for me to realize what she is getting at, and I hope I don’t disappoint her when I just continue staring.

        “He’s been giving me kudos all year,” she prods helpfully, still waiting for the light to dawn.

        “Ah!”  I finally say.   “So when we collect the evidence of his dif­ferent evaluations of the very same teaching styles,” I pause, taking a rather generous gulp of my wine, “we’ll have him!”

        Martha sits as if in disbelief of what she is hearing.  “Have him how?” she finally asks.

        Mary and I stare at each other and then burst into laughter.  “I don’t know yet,” I admit, “but we will have him.”

        “First of all,” Martha says as if talking to small children, “what if he knows you snooped and he begins his own sting?  Gives you just enough rope to hang yourself…”

        Hmmm.  Maybe Martha has a point.  Although the wine-drink­ing part of me doesn’t want to concede it.

        “You could be playing a very dangerous game, with people who are more like politicians than educators,” Martha says. 

        “I think it could work,” Mary says.  “Without all the James Bond theatrics,” she adds quickly for Martha’s benefit.  “We should do something to ‘out’ Morris as a hypocrite.”

        “Okay,” Martha says, “but let’s talk about this first.  Make sure you have all your ducks in a row before you hang a man without a trial.”

        I smile at her mixed metaphors. 

        “Number one,” Martha continues, “we examine the evidence carefully.”  I glance at the photos as she says this.  “What do these documents actually tell us?”

        “That Morris has to make goals, like we do,” I say.  “And that his goals were probably given to him by his boss, like mine were to me.”

        “You don’t know that, Wendy,” Martha says.  “Stick to the actual evidence.”

        “Okay, he made goals for the year,” I amend.

        “What else?” Martha asks.

        “He kept track of who is a member of the union,” Mary points out.  

        “And who has strong spousal support,” I add.

        “He has documented every time he was in Wendy’s room,” Mary observes.  “But I wouldn’t call that evidence.”  She picks up a photo and reads an observation note from it. ‘Student sent out of room for no reason.’  How is that evidence?  Wendy had a very good reason for sending a kid out of the room.”

        “Yes, I’m sure she did,” Martha says, “but did she document it at the time?”

        I shake my head.  “It didn’t occur to me that I would need to do that,” I say sadly, twirling the wine in my glass.

        “Documentation is everything in our world, unfortunately,” Martha says.  “Even notes written on a calendar are admissible evi­dence in court.”

        I’m shaking my head, thinking of the ramifications of this.  So we all spend our lives recording what we’re doing….when, then, do we have time to actually do anything?

        “If that’s the case,” Mary says, “Wendy’s going to document it.  After the fact,” she tells us.  Martha’s eyebrows raise at that, but Mary continues.  “You can do it,” she tells me.  “Use Morris’ notes as a springboard to spark your memory of everything that happened dur­ing your observations.  Make it as honest as you remember so that if you’re ever questioned about it, your responses will be genuine.”

        “This isn’t exactly what I meant about ‘documentation’,” Martha begins.

        “It’s close enough,” Mary says.  “We’re not on an even playing field, here, so Wendy is justified in making up for it after the fact.”

        Martha nods, probably reluctantly.  “If push comes to shove,though,” she says, “don’t involve me, because I won’t be able to help.”  Mary looks at her quizzically, and then nods in realization. 

        “You’re an officer of the court,” she says and Martha nods. 

        “You’ll have to leave me out of it,” she says, “and if we’re lucky, no one except the three of us will ever know of my liaison to you.”  This last part is directed at me.

        “Now who’s getting all James Bond-y,” Mary teases her friend, and I grin at that.  Even Martha gives a wry smile.


from Finishing School, pp. 324-330.

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