A little neighborhood in the Mojave desert called Lake L.A. had no lake and was a two hour drive north from Los Angeles. It, nevertheless, saw an explosion in population mid 80’s as people were priced out of the Greater L.A. market, and that drew an interesting mix of people recruited to serve the rapidly growing school district. One school, grades K-8, had sufficed for decades. In 1986, the schools in the Antelope Valley could hardly keep up with hiring.
In my little district, several recent graduates of my university in Washington State relocated to Southern California to begin their careers when I did. A surprising, to me, number of teachers came from back East. Our eclectic mix of personalities blended with the Lake L.A. community. The teachers who been with the school district for many years welcomed us outsiders. The fall I joined the faculty, a middle school was opened, and three years on, a second elementary school was added.
We were fortunate to have a middle-school science teacher from South Carolina land way out in nowhere. Marlene was an award winning educator, including State Teacher of the Year. By this time, Challenger Middle School was separate from K-5 on their own campus, so I only superficially knew the folks who joined that staff. A month or so post Christmas break, trouble started for Marlene. I didn’t hear about the harassment until just before spring break.
Beginning sometime in February, Marlene shared with her colleagues notes she’d found notes once in a while in her classroom that said things like, ‘bitch’ or ‘go away.’ Occasionally, she’d find a desk item where it didn’t belong or missing even, but it always reappeared. in a spot Marlene knew she’d searched. She wondered if anyone else had that kind of experience or maybe saw anything. They agreed it was just middle school pranks, simultaneously acknowledging the number of incidents was odd.
Everyone understood Marlene’s concern when just a day or two after speaking with her teaching team, her classroom lights were on when she returned from lunch. It was common for lights off and door locked when they ate midday. Perhaps, the lock hadn’t engaged? F0r whoever was messing with her, this fell in their lap after noticing her door ajar. Next day, Marlene turned off the lights and locked the door, pulling it shut. Again, when the teachers returned from lunch, the door was locked, shut tight, but the the flourescents were bright. With a locked door.
News about this finally got through the grapevine. My good friend who taught math to 7th graders mentioned it to me. Weird. That’s all the attention I gave it for a couple of weeks. Marlene’s classroom thermostat would be turned up or down, happening after she’d gone home or before she arrived. Lights on/lights off continued intermittently. Classroom items, science equipment, now went missing but stayed gone. At this point, the grapevine was heavy wih fruit. Everyone heard about the creepy events. Who could it be? It must be someone with a key. Why would someone do this?
Could it be done owing to Marlene being gay? That was hard to believe. Our superintendent was gay, one of the principals was gay, and other faculty members were gay. For the late 80’s, this was quite an accepting environment.
Are other teachers jealous of Marlene? She’d written for science education grants and received a couple. Her classroom was outfitted for a menagerie of rodents, bugs, a bird, a snake and a couple fish tanks. Her personality was outgoing and she fit in immediately. Could it be a custodian? Gotta be careful there, not too many from whom to choose. Might the motive simply be someone doesn’t like her, really doesn’t like her?
One day, a couple cages were left open and I think a hamster and some crickets were loose in the classroom. A small reptile disappeared. This was so bizarre. Some unknown powder was poured into plant soil. No one understood who or why. The crescendo occurred upon return from spring break. Thermostats on the fish tanks had been hiked up far past appropriate for a fish environ. They were floating. And falling apart some. All the fish were muerto. Seemed the deadly act happened before the week-long break. Marlene was distraught. All of the other animals were removed for their safety.
Everyone, and I mean student, staff, and the community, was talking about the stalking behavior. The death of the fish raised it to a higher level of concern. What if students had walked in with her? Luckily, it was an adult who shared Marlene’s shock, another science instructor standing in the hall when the door was first opened. People offered their support for her, so bothered were they by the stealth badgering.
Apparently, a bit of investigating had begun quietly before this event. It stepped up in response to the horrible killing of those poor fish. Cellphones and other small cameras were still being developed in Silicon Valley, no nanny cams; surveillance was indeed transpiring, old school.
The result was shocking! Shocking! Almost no one saw it coming. The person cruelly antagonizing Marlene was….Marlene! She was behind the whole thing. Who would do this? She wrote the notes. She switched lights. The cages left open, vandalism and damage, were all orchestrated by Marlene. And the fish, the innocent fish!!! She cooked them sous vide.
Without alerting her, a few individuals had been watching Marlene’s classroom before and after school, during short breaks and lunch. During surveillance, only she was coming and going. No one else entered the room without Marlene unlocking the door. The few in the know had no way to anticipate that she’d turned tank thermostats as high as they would go before leaving for spring break. When the sick denoument had been revealed, school authorities knew they had to insist on other animals being removed for their own safety. They double-checked the accounts written of Marlene entering and departing from her classroom. It could only be her, and it was announced.
It seems a few of the colleagues in her wing had been uncomfortable, and then suspicious, at the outset of the aggravations. Support staff familiar with her had gone to the principal to express doubts. The whispering and watching had begun with Marlene oblivious to either. When the pestering elevated to involvement of the animals, the district administration agreed that it was time to expose the true culprit. The discovery wasn’t publicized but it didn’t need to be. Staff and faculty were sharing the news through the branches of the grapevine faster than powdery mildew, and Marlene was put on leave, which proclaimed the truth for any left still wondering, and she no longer was a part of our little district in the desert.
I, for one, was shocked. My math friend told me as soon as she found out for sure. “She did all that herself?” I asked incredulously. “Yep, the notes, the missing shit (we were off duty), the animals let free, and the fucking fish!”
Everyone expressed sadness for the fish lives cut short.
Disclaimer: I added some of the little details that I’ve pictured in my mind from the very strange days of Marlene. The exact animals she had, the ones that were let out, etc. but I certainly remember those fish.
p.s. Perhaps another time I’ll share more about my California school district with the former nun and the Aussie motorcyclist, both principals, who had an affair on out of town recruiting trips, were spotted entering a hotel together during school hours, left their respective spouses, and held a wedding where nearly the whole school district showed up, plus one, to celebrate. Great times in So Cal.