By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Sean Kelley
By Ray Downs
By Ray Downs
When the teacher sent home a note saying Cheryl Burns' daughter was playing with her hair instead of learning, Burns sat down, spelling book in her lap, and set to work. After a few weeks of drilling the bright but bored little girl, she stopped short. "I didn't know how to help her connect those words to anything that would make sense to her," she recalls. "I could've drilled her till I was dead. There had to be a better way."
In that frustrated moment, Burns realized that she wanted to become a teacher. Her husband promised that as soon as his Navy duty ended and they returned to St. Louis, she could earn her education degree. She took a few courses in California, biding her time, and finally they came home -- and he left her.
She was 40, a single mom with three children and a burning desire to teach. "I told the kids, 'We can be really, really poor for three years, while I finish this degree, or I can go take a job at Kmart and we'll be less poor for longer. I need to know how much you guys can handle' -- and they said, 'Go for it,'" she says, smiling widely at the memory. "I went through school on food stamps, and they did the laundry while I studied."
In 1998 she walked across the University of Missouri-St. Louis commencement stage, cap tassel swinging, the world in the palm of her hand. She applied to her first choice, the challenged St. Louis Public Schools, and, glory of glories, was hired to teach English at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, a magnet school.
Burns showed up that first humid August day in dressy slacks and a light wool jacket. The other teachers were still in shorts, because the kids weren't back yet. "I'd gotten all gussied up for nothing," she chuckles, "but I didn't even care. I had this very serious dream of incorporating myself with the black kids and the white kids alike. When the kids came back, they called me 'white bread,' all the usual stuff, and I told them I was rather unsure of my ancestry, so they might refer to me as 'wheat.'" She also gave them her home phone number -- the only teacher in the building brave enough -- and set some expectations. "They knew I loved them a lot," she says, "but I also told them, 'I will flunk you with a smile on my face and love in my heart, because I will not set you out into the world stupid.'"
At the end of her first year, she had top marks on her teaching evaluations and the frank adoration of her students, who voted her best teacher in the school in an unofficial poll. The next August, she showed up eager to start the new year -- but couldn't find her name on the sign-in sheet. "We thought you weren't coming back," she was told. Disconcerted, she waited while administrators investigated what turned out to be a bureaucratic mixup.
A bald, middle-aged man was sitting in the main office, doling out keys, and he saw tears in her eyes. Burns took the man's solicitousness as pure kindness and thanked him warmly when he offered her a little white "worry ball" to squeeze when she felt stressed. But later that day, when he asked whether she still had the ball and she thanked him again, she says he told her not to worry: It would give him pleasure to think of her squeezing one of his balls.
She looked up sharply, shocked to her West Virginia roots. Who wasthis guy?
Gary Stevenson, media coordinator. A mechanical genius, brilliant with sound equipment, musical instruments, cars and computer databases, he did lots of favors for people, changing their tires or fixing their equipment, yet had a reputation for lording it over students and teachers alike. He'd been at the school for more than a decade and hadn't taught in years, but he'd alienated a succession of teachers in his department, reportedly yelling at them in front of students and subverting their projects. He now spent a lot of time monitoring the halls and often referred to "my hall" or "my cafeteria," stressing that he was "not there to be a friend to students."
Stevenson took to greeting Burns early each morning when she arrived, calling down the empty hall from his hall-supervisor's desk. Burns remembers him calling things like, "Why don't you come down here and talk to me?"; "You're always busy!"; "You still squeezin' that ball?"; and, plaintively, "You got something against me?" She smiled and waved but never approached. The last time he called to her, he caught her in the stairwell and asked why she was so snobby and always busy. "I ambusy," she replied. "I'm here to do a job, and that is what I'm going to do."
He stopped speaking to her. She had to ask him, repeatedly, for classroom keys (he controlled all building keys). The second time she asked, she says he snarled, "I can't do much unless I know your room numbers." When she returned with a list, he watched her approach, "waited until I was approximately 10 feet away, then slammed the door." When she tried the handle, it was locked.