“Thank you for coming in today, Mrs. Sampson,” the principal said, smiling thinly and motioning for the anxious mother to sit in the chair directly across from the principal’s desk. The bookcases behind Mrs. Sampson’s seat were filled to capacity, mostly with well-thumbed history textbooks and supplemental Advanced Placement materials that the principal had kept from her many years of teaching social studies.
Holding her large designer handbag in front of her like a shield, Mrs. Sampson’s salon-perfect nails made indents on the leather. She sat on the edge of the chair, crossed her legs, and settled in. “I don’t really understand what any of this is about.”
The principal closed the door, circled around to her chair behind the desk, and took out a small stack of papers and notebooks. She took her time finding her reading glasses and let the pregnant pause deflate Mrs. Sampson’s posturing.
“My husband couldn’t make it today because he is very busy, but he wants to be involved if things escalate,” she tapped on her cell phone to emphasize her ace in the hole. “And why am I here again? Do you really think I have nothing better to do with my time? Every time I come down here, I find out there’s a problem with my son that’s not really a problem —” Mrs. Sampson stopped short when she saw the principal raise her right hand upward with the palm facing out. It seemed an ancient gesture, powerful, symbolic of things Mrs. Sampson couldn’t quite articulate. She went silent.
“Yesterday, your son was sent to administration for some concerning things he had drawn on the cover and various pages in his language arts journal. He has met with the assistant principal and could not or would not explain himself. His math book and Spanish binders have many of these symbols inscribed as well.” The principal spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, while turning over the notebooks and flipping to assorted pages. Her son’s scrawls in black and blue ink left his mother unmoved. Instead, it enraged Mrs. Sampson against the school as a whole.
“Those are just doodles! Why is he in trouble? For not paying attention? You’d think with the money we pay this school that the teachers could keep his attention,” Mrs. Sampson spat. She took one of her son’s notebooks in her hands to examine it more closely. “It’s not like he’s drawing machine guns or penises. This is scribble scrabble. What does it matter?” She dismissively tossed the notebook back on the principal’s desk.
“It matters a great deal. This school has a zero tolerance policy for racial discrimination. These particular doodles, frankly, are unacceptable.”
“They are just drawings!” Mrs. Sampson explained, shrilly raising her voice while poking a lacquered nail at a heavily inked image.
“We take pride in our diverse student body, and we want our students to see the world from all perspectives, not just one.”
“Are you calling my son a racist?”
“I’m not calling your son anything,” came the principal’s crisp reply.
“You act as if my son drew swastikas all over the place,” she pulled out her cell phone again, ready to dial her husband and tell him what bullshit the school was shoveling today.
“He might as well have drawn swastikas,” the principal replied evenly, “but your son is too smart to do that.”
Mrs. Sampson slipped her cellphone back into the voluminous handbag. She didn’t know what to do with the principal’s backhanded compliment. Of course her son was smart. She stared back at the principal and firmly demanded: “What exactly are you accusing my son of?”
“I think your son is dabbling in right-wing extremism.”
A jaw dropped. “Not a chance. We’re not like that.”
“Look at these symbols more closely, Mrs. Sampson. Yes, these look like harmless sketches. But there’s a historical context,” the principal sat back in her chair and sighed. Ipsa historia repetit, she thought and looked at her bookshelves.
“A historical context,” Mrs. Sampson rolled her eyes. “I get a history lecture today?”
“I’ll fast forward to the 1940’s: Heinrich Himmler, second in power only to Hitler, wanted to imbue the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany with the strength and power of ancient Germanic tribes . . .”
“Uh huh,” Mrs. Sampson patronizingly nodded. She looked at her watch.
“Himmler was fascinated with the occult,” continued the principal.
“My son does not worship the devil. We go to church on Christmas and Easter,” Mrs. Sampson interjected.
“Himmler absolutely believed in the superiority of the Germanic race and created an entire mythology around it.”
“Like Zeus and Hercules?” Mrs. Sampson offered helpfully.
“Something like that. Are you familiar with the futhark alphabet?”
“Suffice it to say that your son’s drawings are actually letters from an ancient Germanic alphabet. The letters are called runes,” the principal carefully explained.
“Runes. Rhymes with moons,” the principal paused and drank her tepid coffee. “Himmler felt using these runes would help Germans return to their rightful place as the master race. See this rune?”
“It looks like a fish,” Mrs. Sampson said skeptically. “Maybe it’s the Christian fish.”
“This is not the ichthys. It’s the odal rune meaning heritage, very popular with white supremacist groups. It symbolizes the Nazi doctrine of ‘blood and soil,’ how the motherland only belongs to those with pure bloodlines.”
“I’ve heard that before. On the news . . .” Mrs. Sampson said softly.
“2017. Charlottesville. ‘Blood and soil’ was one of the more popular chants used by radicalized young men, young men not much older than your son.”
“You’re saying that my son drawing an O in his notebook means all of that,” she said perfunctorily. These people. “My son is not a Nazi.”
The principal took out another one of her son’s notebooks and flipped to a page.
“This is the sun-rune. You’ve probably seen it on the German uniforms in every World War II movie. The SS, the Schutzstaffel, wore this on collar patches and cuff bands to empower them. You can see your son has drawn these throughout his Spanish notebook.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to offend anyone. It’s probably just for shock value,” she added lamely.
“It might be,” the principal looked through her.
“Maybe he was just drawing lightning bolts?”
“Or maybe your son drew the symbol for a paramilitary organization that systematically murdered six million people,” the principal countered. “Either way, I think you and your husband should talk with him. I could go on with several other examples of your son’s work if you wish, but Mrs. Sampson,” the principal paused, pleadingly: “this is a time to be vigilant. Racists are recruiting.”
Another half hour passed before Mrs. Sampson could extricate herself and flee from the school’s administrative offices. She quickly shook off the feeling of parental failure. Her son was a good boy. The principal even said how smart he was. Regardless, once again, she’d been dragged down to the principal’s office for another non-emergency.
Sure, these teachers and administrators knew things about teenagers and their secret lives that she would never know. They might even know why her son changed so suddenly from being her sweet “nutty buddy” who liked frozen yogurt after practice to being the sullen ghoul who scarcely grunted at her and slammed doors.
It used to be so easy to make her son happy. If he liked doodling in class to pass the time, who was she to put a stop to it?