When Jack Lemaire's wife calls to ask when he'll be home, he tells her he is obligated to attend the game, and he'll be home as soon as he can, but the truth is that he avoids football games whenever possible.

Besides, there's always paperwork. His last meeting with teachers ended two hours ago, and while he does need to send a few emails about test prep, he first needs to find some suitable music to play and catch up on the news and watch the latest teacher parody video bouncing from inbox to inbox. He hears the janitor rolling his cart down the hallway, the mechanical and soothing harumph of smaller trash cans being tossed into one big one, a sure sign that Lemaire is once again the last administrator on the floor, surely one of the last adults in the building. If he's completely honest with himself, this is his favorite part of the day.

Being vice principal of a high school is one of those jobs some people venerate as terribly difficult (“How do you deal with teenagers and discipline problems all day long?”) but Lemaire is not one of those people. If anything, he finds his job to be alarmingly easy. He spends most of his time in the office where he feels most comfortable or striding down hallways he could describe in his sleep. Unlike the principal, he doesn't have to speak for great lengths in front of other adults or schmooze with local politicians. He cancels as many meetings as he can and keeps them short and succinct, and he has the autotomy to do this, so no complaints there. And the discipline issues might be more challenging if nearly every single kid didn't make the same mistakes as so many kids before them, over and over again. Every year it's cutting class and talking back to teachers and cheating on tests. No originality. When a kid does something truly heinous yet truly original, it becomes the highlight of his week.

Take the cartoon passed around by those junior girls. That was seminal. The creation of it, using an insecure girl to post it online, the way they covered their tracks. Of course, a more sinister smear campaign followed, with the same cast of characters, but there was no way he could have prevented that. After his wife sent him a link to the video in an emoticon-filled email, the only kid rounded up was a football player named Jayden because he was the only one in school that day. Poor Jayden suffered (suffers) from a trendy name, a nascent pot belly, and a severely underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. He started sniffling two sentences into their conversation, and was full-fledged sobbing by the end. Dealing with a weeping, three-hundred-pound guy on a Monday morning—sure, that can be filed under difficult. They talked about how the world has changed, and how we need to conduct ourselves as if we're being filmed at all times, because we very well may be.

It's not just the introduction of cell phones, of course. Plenty has changed since Lemaire graduated from this same institution. Everyone is expected to go to college now. Half the books have been replaced by tablets. An armed security guard patrols the front door. But the phones are the most visible difference, because every kid seems to have one, and the devices are extensions of themselves, a part of their identities. Through the office's single cracked window, a dull cheer drifts inside. A goal scored.

Perhaps the incident would never have happened had Lemaire succeeded in his efforts, three years ago, to banish all phones from Pearville High.

Ah, such a futile project. After an exhausting week of professional development, he returned ready for a nap and the principal returned fired up. The official decree went out via email blast: all cell phones banned from school grounds. No doubt then read on hundreds of phones, because calls to the principal's office poured in—mainly parents and a few students pretending to be parents. Lemaire stopped paying attention to dress code violations and petty arguments and litter in the hallways; all his energy went into searching for and confiscating phones. That rule lasted one torturous year. Things are better now. Now phones are only banned in class.

Still, the shoebox on his desk is rarely empty. Tonight, four phones lie inside. Lemaire tries to swipe open one covered in rhinestones, only to find it password protected. Smart. Maybe they're all protected. No, a white one opens easily. Lemaire blinks at the screen full of tiny icons, wondering what all these apps do. He turns the slip of metal and glass around in his hand and rows of pictures appear. He chooses one at random. A group of kids smile into the camera. Swipe. Same group of kids, making funny faces, hands pulling down skin under eyes, fingers in ears with cheeks blown up. Swipe. The group laughing, having cracked themselves up. A familiar sequence.

Some might assume that working at a high school would make anybody perpetually nostalgic, but this is not the case. Normally Lemaire keeps a healthy distance from the students he is charged to keep in line. But teenaged faces smiling at him, aided by a ballad-heavy playlist schmaltzing from computer speakers, provoke a pang of deep sadness. Lemaire remembers being young and piling into photo booths at the mall, and at prom, and at the bowling alley where the cute girl from Biology class finally paid him attention.

A sharp ring. The landline on his desk.

It's his wife. Yes, Lemaire says, he's still working on paperwork before making an appearance at the game. He'll be home just as soon as he can, he assures her, putting the student's phone back into the shoe box. Definitely by ten.  


chapter thirty-four