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Mom Vs. McKinney 

Pop was an atheist and Mom a lapsed Catholic, but McKinney offered an early start and a late pickup for a price my parents could afford. We lived in a low-income neighborhood and our homeschool was terrible. Pop had an infuriating encounter during a parent-teacher conference for my half-sister, Katy. She was falling behind and he was looking for help. The teacher told him that some kids just aren’t very smart and that there was only so much one could expect from such children. So, fuck public school it was. 

And yes, the situation at McKinney was infinitely better. My years in a learning environment not based on grades helped to shape my identity and interests in ways that my homeschool never could have, nurturing a sense of curiosity and wonder that permeates me today. McKinney helped me to flourish, even if some of what happened there was super fucked up.  

I was a verb, always in motion and often talking. I can appreciate that this made me harder to handle. But Miss Magee saw the devil in me, and told me so constantly. The woman was my personal Miss Trunchbull. 

Though Magee was never physically abusive — we didn’t get our knuckles slapped with rulers like Mom got from the nuns when she was at school — she was abusive nonetheless. Most of her ire was directed at my parents. My father had longish hair and wore Hawaiian shirts. My mom dressed like a carnival on legs. They both loved rock and roll, enough to attend concerts where marijuana was surely being smoked. This was all the evidence Magee needed: my parents were going to the Lake of Fire when they died, and she felt the need to single me out and remind me of their inevitable fate on a regular basis. 

She would clip out newspaper articles for me to read about the sins of negligent parents. The only one I specifically remember was about a little girl who drowned in a swimming pool because no one was paying attention at her parents’ coke-fueled party. 

I couldn’t see how any of that was relevant to me, and the Lake of Fire sounded like something He-Man might have to deal with, as opposed to something that existed in reality, so I pretty much thought Magee was batshit. When I told Mom about what my teacher had been saying, she rolled her eyes and laughed. She said Miss Magee would really lose it if she knew my mom was pro-choice (that was the morning I learned about abortion) and that she liked the smell of marijuana, even though she had never smoked it (another new revelation). 

My parents had a good thing going with McKinney, and for the most part, they didn’t want to rock the boat. But they were also both as feisty as the Hell they were bound for, and there were a few times when Mom went out of her way to stick up for me. 

Like the time I made my infamous collage. 

It was a simple kindergarten style assignment: crafting a collage from pictures cut out of the magazines and newspapers piled in front of us. Mom was juggling multiple responsibilities and running late for all of them when the principal, Mr. Butcher, gave her a call. They needed her at McKinney immediately; there was a serious problem. She asked for more information, but Butcher simply restated the need for her presence. 

Yanked out of her day and now worried, Mom raced across town to McKinney and rushed into the front office. Though I was not there, I heard that the conversation with Butcher went something like this. 

“Where is Sean?” Mom stopped short in front of his desk, the cluster of keys hanging from the oversized safety pin attached to her big leather purse still jangling. “Is he okay?”

“We have a problem.” Butcher wrinkled his nose like he smelled something rotting. 

“You said that on the phone. Could you be more specific?” 

“The children were asked to make a collage.” He made another face. “And Sean made … this.” 

Butcher unveiled the damning evidence on his desk like Perry Mason proving his case. 

But Mom looked down at my collage and started laughing. 

“Do you think this is funny?” Butcher was aghast. 

“I don’t see the problem.” Mom gave him a full body shrug. 

He looked down at the collage, baffled as he tried to figure out whether my mom was crazy, or as immoral as Miss Magee had always said. 

“You really don’t see the problem here?” 

They both looked down at the collage — nothing but women in lingerie — then back up at each other.

“What was the assignment?” Mom asked. 

“Like I said, the children were asked to make a collage.” 

“What was the exact assignment? Were the kids told to use their imaginations, or were they given a specific prompt?” 

“We expect our students to use good judgment when—” 

“Did the lingerie advertisements he used come from magazines and newspapers that you provided?” 

“Well, yes, but again—“ 

“Then it seems to me like Sean did an outstanding job on his assignment.” She pointed to the collage. “He clearly stuck to the theme. So the only problems I see are that you provided him with pictures that he wasn’t allowed to use, then punished him when he used them, and you interrupted my work day by making me come down here when—”

“Mrs. Platt—“ 

“I’m hanging this on my fridge.” She snatched the collage from his desk. “Tell Sean I’ll be here to pick him up at six.” 

She meant six-thirty. 

I was five that first time my mom went toe-to-toe with Butcher. The final showdown would come three years later, when it was almost time for me to leave McKinney behind for public school, transforming the place into an incessant location in my dreams for more than a decade. 

Most of Mom’s conflict with Butcher centered around Magee and the shit she would say, until I finally stopped giving reports. I still told her about the broader strokes, like our special assembly about the evils of that music video, Thriller, and how we should never ever watch it, no matter what. I’d seen the video more than twenty times, and even watched a documentary on the making of it. 

I didn’t think Thriller was evil at all, but it was fun to hear my mother refute what they were telling me at school, and by keeping Magee out of the conversation, I never had to suffer the embarrassment of her sticking up for me. 

I may have cringed every time my mother marched into McKinney to defend me, but looking back, I couldn’t be more proud or grateful of the incredible gift she gave me. Her refusal to let Magee’s judgment and Butcher’s condescension go unchallenged taught me the power of speaking truth to authority, even when it’s uncomfortable or unpopular. And that sometimes, the most important battles are fought on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves.