That night, when I walked into the military police office hauling a GI who’d fallen victim to the demon rum, Sergeant Martin took one look and gasped, “My God, Janko, what have you done?”
“What have I done? You should see what this guy did. He’s had about a hundred too many, and he just about wrecked the Goldener Engel on Nürnberger Strasse.”
Sergeant Martin shook his head. “Don’t you guys from New York know nothin’? Can’t you see this guy’s from Payroll? You never mess with anybody from Payroll. Last year, Runyon brought one in and they sent his payroll record to Samoa. He didn’t get no dough for six months.”
So, with many apologies, Sergeant Martin dusted off the swaying GI and personally gave him a ride back to his barracks with the fervent hope that when his hangover wore off, he wouldn’t remember anything.
That’s how, as an MP in post-World War II Germany, I learned one of life’s great lessons: There are some people you just don’t mess with. It was OK to check the ID of a full-bird colonel in civilian clothes, but someone from Payroll—never!
All this came in handy when I started teaching. On my first day in school, I made sure I found out who the payroll secretary was. And from then on it was “Yes, ma’am; no, ma’am” and never speak before being spoken to. I didn’t think the Board of Ed had any outposts in Samoa, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
But I soon discovered that there were a lot more people not to mess with in school than there ever had been in the Army. For example, I learned that you should never mess with the teacher in charge of the English book room. Once I was foolish enough to complain that all the other teachers got the really exciting books to teach, like The Return of the Native, while I got nothing but the dreariest anthologies. She promptly delivered 35 copies of the book to my room—but four different editions!
Just try teaching in that situation. “Now class, let’s all look at the passage on page 31. But I don’t mean you. Yours is on page 45. You in the back, it’s on page 28. And if you have the green book, it’s on page 51.” I was doing Jackie Mason routines before I’d ever heard of such a person. So I quickly learned not to mess with the boss of the book room.
From then on, I scampered around my room picking up scraps to make sure the floor was clean enough to deserve being cleaned.
Just about the same time, I also learned that you don’t mess with the custodian. One morning when I came into my classroom, I noticed that my footprints in the dust on the floor were still there from the day before—and the day before that. And, sure enough, the words “Silas Marner wears pink undies” were still where a student had written them in the dust by the radiator. Later in the day, when I complained, the assistant principal explained. “The custodian is punishing you,” she said. “Your floor was dirty.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I wanted him to clean it.”
“You don’t understand,” she went on, clearly annoyed at my obtuseness. “One of your students tore up a test paper and threw the pieces on the floor. The custodian doesn’t like that. You should keep a better eye on your classes.”
So from then on, at the end of every day, I scampered around my room picking up scraps here and there—gum wrappers, shreds of teenage heartbreak, obsolete cheat sheets—to make sure my floor was clean enough to deserve being cleaned. You just don’t mess with the custodian.
My experiences as a GI and as a teacher taught me that real success is not measured by a high salary or a fancy title. You become a true success when you’re a person nobody dares mess with. Throughout my teaching career, I naturally wanted to be a success, and I think I finally managed to carve out my piece of turf.
You know all those mobs of people who go around claiming that it was really Francis Bacon who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Whenever one of them showed up in my class, I demolished him with a barrage of wit and scholarship. And I began to nurture the fantasy that the message finally got out. I’m sure that it’s just the sort of thing kids talk about, and they spread the word in the hallways and the cafeteria and the locker rooms that if you were a Baconian, as many kids naturally were in those days, you didn’t mess with me. What greater success could a teacher want?
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as The Untouchables