He hadn’t just idly enjoyed it, and he didn’t care if that made him a geek. He had loved it. Except for lunchtime, because there really was no end to the teasing when the teacher read paper after paper of his aloud. And recess. Because it was awkward sitting alone, and it was difficult to avoid the bullies on the playground.
But as far as subject matter was concerned, from elementary to graduate school, he’d loved it.
“Have you seen Leo?”
“Hmm?” Sam looked up, startled out of memory. Toby stood in the doorway, looking characteristically perturbed.
“Has Leo stopped by?”
“Are you finished?”
“Five minutes, Sam.”
Sam made a face. “The event doesn’t start for –“ he looked at his wristwatch – “Two days. Why are you in such a panic to get this done?”
“I’m in a panic for you to get this done so that I’ll have time to correct it.”
“You’re going to correct it?”
“You’re going to … Does this involve a red pen? ‘Cause I’ve got one here, if you –“
“It has to be perfect, Sam,” Toby said. “This is a serious discussion, and these remarks have to be on target.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Toby. I can write a paper on school violence.”
“Sam, you think school violence means a kid pushing another kid down and stealing his milk money.”
Sam laughed. “Toby.”
“Get it done,” Toby said.
“Five minutes,” Sam agreed, rolling his eyes again.
Five minutes later Sam was still staring at his blank sheet of paper. Just a five-minute speech. That was all. Just remarks at the beginning of an education summit. Something to indicate that the President understood what a problem school violence was; something to make it clear that he understood something needed to be done.
“CJ.” Sam looked up. “What should the President say at the education meeting?”
“Say it’s bad.”
“Say it’s abominable and it needs to change.”
“You think top educators need to be told this?”
“I think they need to be told that the President knows this.”
Sam nodded. “What else?”
“Tell them how the President is going to change it.”
Sam raised his eyebrows, and CJ waved a hand. “Discuss the warning signs, or something,” she elaborated.
“CJ, the warning signs include …” Sam flipped through the papers on his desk. “Feeling lonely, having been a victim of bullying, and feeling constantly disrespected. You want to tell me how no one ever thought I was going to commit a crime in school?”
“See, it’s these times – the ones when we don’t know the answers while we’re giving them to people – that I’m glad I’m not you,” CJ said.
“You’re going to be talking about this in your briefings for like a week and a half, CJ. You want to –“
“Do you need anything else?” CJ interrupted.
“You heading out?”
“Soon. I’m going to find Toby first and talk about the energy package.”
Sam snorted. “Enjoy yourself,” he said sourly.
“You don’t think Toby’s going to be receptive to changing the energy package?”
“The mood he’s in, I doubt Toby would be receptive to a bill that would ensure world peace, cure cancer, and eliminate the Republican party."
“Excellent.” CJ sighed. “Have you seen Leo?”
“Okay.” She turned to leave.
“Tell them it’s bad, agree it needs to change, don’t get specific?” Sam called after her.
“There it is,” she answered, and was gone.
Sam sighed and put his head down on his desk. Eight minutes past Toby’s deadline, and all he had written was “Good morning.” Which was inaccurate, he realized after a moment, since the summit would begin at 12:15 p.m.
Tell them it’s bad. Schools ought to be havens of learning, not pockets of fear. Which was how he remembered them – both descriptions were how he remembered them, but he supposed the latter was getting worse with time.
Agree it needs to change. Well, yes. Obviously it needs to change, if it’s gotten to the point where we’re having meetings about it at the White House. And the President can’t ignore that the problem exists. Okay, good. Because Jed Bartlet has no intention of ignoring such a problem.
Don’t get specific. Then he was done, except that didn’t take five minutes. And surely it wouldn’t satisfy the group.
“Milk money,” Sam wrote, and scribbled it out.
Sam didn’t look up. “Unless you can both define school violence for me and outline a reasonable solution, go away,” he groaned.
“School violence is violence in schools, and, take drastic security measures,” Josh said, strolling unconcerned into the office. “What’s so difficult?”
Sam looked up. “We’re already taking drastic security measures,” he said.
“Not drastic enough,” Josh countered.
Sam shrugged. “Security’s tight at the inner-city schools. Isn’t that where this stuff happens?”
Josh perched on the edge of Sam’s sofa. “Inner-city schools have tight security. Suburban schools are besieged by violence.”
“They see a lot of it.”
"Inner-city schools don't see a lot of it?"
Josh studied the floor. "Inner-city kids think guns belong on streets instead of in schools."
Sam sighed. “Okay.” He made a note, and then turned to the computer to dig up a few more statistics. “What do you need?” he asked over his shoulder.
“You came in …”
“Oh. I was just looking for Leo,” Josh said. “Have you seen him?”
“No,” Sam said absently.
“Okay.” Josh stood again to leave. “Just promise them we’re working on it,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”
“So I’ve heard,” Sam sighed.
Josh left, and Sam wrote and scribbled out a few more words. Nothing worked for this type of remark. There hadn’t been a major act of school violence in a while. More than a year. Why did the summit have to be happening this week? He had other things to work on. Things he knew how to fix.
“School violence is bad. We know it needs to change. We’re working on it.” Honest. But not Presidential.
He was so engrossed in working that it took him a moment to realize someone was standing in his doorway once again.
Sam looked up, and made eye contact with Mallory O’Brian.
“Hey, Mal,” he said, trying to sound casual.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“It appears my father is no longer in the building.”
“At least that’s one of us,” Sam muttered.
“What are you working on?”
“Not important,” he groaned.
“Why are you working on it if it isn’t important?”
“Because your father will fire me if I don’t.”
Mallory grinned again. “He’s not in the building,” she repeated.
She sat down on the chair opposite his desk and watched him pretend to work. After a moment he looked up again.
“Am I that interesting, or are you just –“
But her face had changed. And he waited.
“We had a violence drill today,” she said, in a voice less self-assured than any he’d ever heard her use.
“What’s that?” he asked after a moment.
“Do you remember fire drills?”
“These are the same thing, except they aren’t to teach the children what to do in the case of a fire.”
“They teach them what to do in the case of …”
“School violence,” she said. “A fight. A riot. Somebody in the school with a gun. We have to have drills now.”
It was difficult to know what to say.
“What are the kids supposed to do?” Sam finally asked.
“They get under their desks and put their textbooks over their heads,” she said. “I count them all and wait for my cell phone to ring. The cell phone I am now required to carry.”
“Math books," she added. "They're the biggest."
He waited longer, because she wasn't done.
"I teach nine-year-olds, Sam,” she finished, and there were tears in her eyes.
“I know,” he said, and they were silent for a very long time.
Mallory wiped her eyes quickly, and turned to face her father in the doorway.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, and her voice was calm and confident again.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“Where are we going?” She stood, and gave Sam half a smile. He didn’t smile back.
“Dinner,” Leo said to his daughter. “Maybe a movie.”
“Leo, everyone’s looking for you,” Sam said absently.
“Then, by all means, I’m going to get out of the building right now,” Leo said, and he offered Mallory his arm. They left Sam’s office together.
Sam stared at the scratches on his desk. His computer went to screen saver. He was twenty-two minutes past deadline.
“I have a colleague who has a daughter,” he wrote suddenly, “who teaches fourth grade at a public elementary school. And while this school, in its history, has enjoyed a scarcity of crime aside from the occasional milk money pilferage, it has not remained untouched by a tragedy that has besieged our nation's schools …”
Mallory, returning for her jacket, didn’t know what he was writing. But she knew better than to interrupt him.