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Goodbye, Mr. Norm

Plays were the best and worst thing that ever happened to me while I was a student at McKinney Day School.

Rewinding the clock to the five year old me who was always in trouble for talking too much, I’ll introduce you to Mr. Norm, the one teacher at McKinney who seemed to really get me. McKinney was a small school, so the teachers all had multiple jobs, but I only remember Mr. Norm as being in charge of all the drama productions, and that those productions were magical. I’m sure the actual plays were laughably bad. But Mr. Norm didn’t care how old a kid was, so long as they could do a good job. 

The first play I ever saw at McKinney was on a VHS tape, because it had been recorded at Veteran’s Park, just one block away from the school. I was in gobsmacked awe, watching a “movie” starring people that I knew in real life. This version of Robin Hood used a five-story metal rocket ship for a set, painted in bright colors with a shining chrome finish, standing proudly in the center of a sandy island, surrounded by swings. 

I had played on that rocket ship before, climbed the ladder all the way to the top and taken its slide to the bottom. But Mr. Norm had transformed that rocket into a castle tower where Maid Marian was being held. 

Plays were open to everyone, so I signed up for the next one. I was a side character with a few lines, but because I had memorized the entire play, and kept whispering lines to all the kids who forgot them during our final performance, Mr. Norm cast me as the lead in our very next play. And every play after that. 

Acting in those stupid little plays for the next couple of years was one of my favorite things in the world. I loved getting the new script and memorizing the entire thing. I enjoyed our rehearsals, and standing on the stage (there was never really a stage, so much as a front of the room) to laughter and applause. Landing the lead role on repeat despite being so young made me feel like I was best in the school at something. That made me want to try even harder. 

And I did, however I could, including checking out scripts from the Main Library downtown when we went there with McKinney on our quarterly field trips. I would read the plays and imagine the performances. 

Most teachers tolerated more than encouraged me, but Mr. Norm was my champion. 

My life as an actor lasted for two years before crashing into an inexplicable wall. My grandfather, Papí, came to see that last play, leaving his shop in the care of one of his employees so he could see my performance. Always bearing gifts, that day he brought me a royal blue watch from Hollywood Park, one of the two tracks where he loved to bet on the horsies. All I remember about that play is that Papí came to see it, and that my life at McKinney changed for the worse shortly after the curtain fell (there was no curtain). 

Mr. Norm stopped coming to school and I had no idea why. I’m not sure how long he had been MIA when Miss Katherine stopped me on the playground and said, “I really liked your mom’s article in the paper.” 

“Thank you,” I said, beaming because even though I clearly heard the words article and paper, the image that came to my mind was an ad for Rainbows with me and Megan in it, which had been published recently in The Marketplace’s Annual Holiday Guide. 

But then I heard about the article a few more times that day, and some older kids talking about Mr. Norm in a way that made me feel like the article and his disappearance from school were somehow connected. 

So that night before bed I asked Mom about the article, and about Mr. Norm. 

The year before Mr. Norm disappeared, a teacher at a Southern California preschool was accused of sexually abusing a two-year-old boy. The teacher was released due to lack of evidence, and police wrote letters to notify parents of the children who attended the school of the allegation. Upon questioning (from parents and therapists), multiple children accused the teacher and his sister of abuse that included bizarre satanic rituals with mutilated animals in hidden underground tunnels beneath the school. The eventual trial would be the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history (at the time) and would end with no convictions. That case triggered the Satanic Panic, wherein many innocent teachers were accused of violations they did not commit. 

I have no idea if Mr. Norm was guilty or not. I do know that Megan and I were often alone with him. He even drove us to Rainbows (clear across town) several times when my parents couldn’t pick us up. Megan thought he was creepy, but I saw him as the only leader in my life who really believed in me and proved it with the opportunities he kept trying to give me. Mom saw the accusations as preposterous, same as all of the other teachers at McKinney and most of the parents. But once the accusation had been made, Ms. McKinney had no choice but to let him go. 

The plays were history, and most of the joy I felt at going to school died.

I was supposed to recite The Night Before Christmas for our holiday pageant that year. But with Mr. Norm gone, the part was taken away from me and given to an older kid. I was moved to the back row, all the way in the corner, where I could hear (but not see) that older kid stutter and stumble his way through the recitation, his voice a jumble of nerves as the wrong words got tangled up with misplaced phrases. It felt righteously unfair. 

When Mr. Norm had been there, I always got time in the computer lab. After he left, I went from drawing pictures on graph paper and typing in the coordinates to make images on the computer to watching the older kids play video games that I never even got a turn with. He was also the grownup who seemed to understand me the most, gone for good overnight. 

And I was suddenly getting into more trouble than ever before.