My neighbour Orval got a surprise call from the high school last month. Seems his grandson Nathan got into a brawl in the hallway and they needed his guardian to get down there right away. Orval had been left in charge of the lad while his parents were enjoying a much-needed week in the sun in Florida.
Orval is one of the ancients, a cattle farmer who would never pass one of today’s babysitting courses. His nose has been broken more often than the four-minute mile and he walks with a limp, but at 75 he is still vigourous and speaks in a voice of command that can be heard from the other side of a ploughed field.
Nathan’s parents hadn’t been gone more than eight hours when the emergency call came in, relayed to Orval by Gramma McNabb who still operates a semaphore system with a red blanket she waves from the veranda when he is in the field. Orval climbed into his pickup and steamed off to town to see what all the fuss was about. He strode into the reception area of the office in his barn clothes, saw Nathan and another lad sitting sullenly on a bench and demanded of the secretaries, “Where are the others? Are they at the hospital?”
The principal came out to her door. “No,” she said. “The fight was just between these two.”
“A fight? Why there isn’t a mark on either one of them, for God’s sake! How can there have been a fight?”
“They had a shoving match in the hallway,” she said.
“And for that you called me all the way down here? I was busy . . . burning brush without a permit!” He shook his head in disbelief and turned to the boys.
“Well, the two of yous get out there on the grass and finish it. Then get back to your studies.”
“They will not finish anything here. We do not allow fighting on school property, Mr. McNabb,” said the principal firmly.
Orval jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “All right then. Both of yas get across the street and when you’re done, clean yourselves up and get back to your class. Do you need me for anything else, ma’am?”
The principal took a deep breath. “Mr. McNabb, I don’t think you understand. We have zero tolerance policy for violence in this school. Both boys are being suspended for three days. You will have to take Nathan home right now.”
“Home?” he barked. “Are you out of your mind? His parents are away. He’ll find a bottle of rye and a bunch of friends and maybe burn the house down.”
“That is not my problem,” she said quietly. “Please take Nathan home. Right now. The rules are the rules.”
“Zero tolerance!” scoffed Orval. “Sounds like zero interest to me. Zero thought . . . zero effort . . .” He reached a bony hand towards Nathan, who wriggled off the bench and out the door ahead of him. He looked at the other boy. “Isn’t this Alvin Plater’s lad?” The boy nodded.
The principal was trying to explain that privacy regulations prevented her from sharing any details of her students’ personal lives . . . but Orval said, “I’ll take him, too,” and picked Donnie off the bench like he was a lunch box. The principal dashed back to the phone to call the Platers and advise them that Mr. McNabb had taken their son out of the school in violation of eight different school board policies. “I don’t think he is of sound mind,” she added darkly.
“Orval?” said Mrs. Plater. “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with him. I imagine Donnie will be fine with Orval.” And she rang off.
Nathan and Donnie came back to school together the following Monday sporting a number of scrapes and contusions between the two of them. Donnie had a black eye and Nathan was limping. The principal intercepted them in the hallway, arms folded and demanded of them:
“So your grandfather made the two of you settle it with your fists out behind the barn, did he?” Her voice dripped disapproval.
“Naw,” said Nathan. “Actually he got us to help vaccinate, de-horn and castrate a bunch of 500-pound calves. He doesn’t own a cattle squeeze and it got a bit western at times.”
The boys grinned at each other and continued arm-in-arm down the hall to their first class.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.