Reviving the Lost Art of Self-Immolation

“I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.”
Brendan Frye

The soggy three-pound cage sitting on my shoulders is not prone to epic fits of vengeful retribution, but it is quite capable of holding minor grudges for surprisingly long periods of time. I re-discovered this disturbing fact over the past week—while trying to avoid the usual lesser spasms of paranoia so prevalent in this skittish new age of hope and change—but a sudden attack of hopeless boredom blunted any revelatory impact. I felt broken—to the point where I’d sunk comfortably into my nostalgia-padded rec room and resigned myself to the long, slow decline of decadent empires—but ironically, revenge put me back together again.

Vengeful impulses usually backfire of course, and always trade a heavy psychic toll for the momentary thrill of payback—but let’s face it, melodramatic karma makes the world go round, man, and self-righteous tantrums are, literally, all the rage any day of the week. So imagine my explosive glee when I belatedly succumbed to the sweet siren song of a truly ugly tale that had long been splattered across the pixellated pages of that Grand Bastion of Liberalism, the Orange County Register: that of the slowly-imploding Capistrano Unified School District, my educational alma mater.

Oh yes, regime change had finally come back to Capistrano—just like those pestilential swallows—in the form of an overblown auto de fe by ex-Superintendent James Fleming and his faithful right hand, Associate Superintendent Susan McGill. Theirs was a sordid story of supposed sin that I’d managed to remain completely ignorant of, despite repeated hints dropped by various well-meaning friends and relatives who have worked or currently work for CUSD. It had everything, though—arrogance, intimidation, entitlement, corruption, decadence—including a certain secret ingredient that made it irresistible to me.

But more about that later. First, the charges: both Fleming and McGill had been indicted by a local grand jury for “conspiracy to commit an act injurious to the public”—apparently creating and then covering up a Nixonian “enemies list” in defense against a 2005 election recall of the entire CUSD school board. Both administrators also allegedly combined their suburban COINTELPRO tactics with a massive misappropriation of funds, spent on a palatial new CUSD administration building mercilessly derided by outraged locals as “the Taj Mahal.”

This being Orange County, the recall effort was spurred in no small part by a phalanx of right-wing Sheila Broflovskis—outraged parents and do-goody “small business owners” who just hated taxes and secularity and corrupt public education ever so much—but as always in these cases, ugliness boiled beneath their glorious fury. See, reporter Scott Martindale’s coverage of CUSD’s collapse includes a handy-dandy timeline compiled in June of last year, when the Fleming/McGill corruption-perjury trial was about to get delayed for the first of not one, or two, or three, or even four, but five times. My favorite entry is this one:

November 2006: Running on a “reform” slate and backed by recall leaders, candidates Ellen Addonizio, Anna Bryson and Larry Christensen are elected to the school board by landslide margins. Questions arise later about their connections to the Tustin-based Education Alliance, a political action committee that gives $22,000 to the recall and its candidates. The self-described “back-to-basics” group opposes health clinics and bilingual education in schools, advocates for school voucher programs, and thinks teachers unions wield too much power and influence.

Beaners and teachers and vouchers, oh my! However, many recall supporters seemed just as likely to stumble over themselves denying adherence to any political philosophy, and indeed the recall-supported candidates fervently declared their own independence from evil outside influence, all the while lambasting the imperial Fleming/McGill axis of mendacity. Now, under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have batted an eye at this faraway, overblown and fermenting hysteria, but it was intrinsically intertwined with my own shameful past.

Yes, yes…and now we come to it—The Vengeance. This is where things Get Personal, ladies and gentlemen. You see, a long time ago in an elementary school far far away, a certain happy young boy was playing tetherball, enjoying an extended recess approved by his second-grade teacher (may God rest her soul). That joy was soon cut short, however, when a different teacher passing by coldly imposed her cruel will upon him.”The bell rang five minutes ago, young man,” she boomed, and despite all manner of truthful protests on his part, the hapless kid was Issued A Citation.

Pity, really—he’d always been such a nice boy, but his sense of righteous indignation was not yet mature enough to seek justice. Fortunately, the teacher’s hyperbolic discipline rampage was soon nullified via timely intervention by the boy’s mother. That wasn’t the end of it, though—three years later, that same boy and his best friend were lured off the school bus by a pretty girl they knew, and then dragged against their will into an after-school “Gifted and Talented” program administered by this same iron-fisted teacher. Even that wasn’t the end—years later, the boy’s mother was working as a CUSD tutor when the teacher, now an administrator, exacted her revenge using the time-honored thousand-cut method of bureaucratic passive-aggressive attrition—and there were many more victims after that.

Yeah, yeah—boo frickety hoo, small potatoes, blah blah blah—but in truth, this is actually Susan McGill we’re talking about here, folks. That’s right, the very same Susan McGill who later allegedly assisted her superindendent in his efforts to thwart the right-wing nutjobs’ recall campaign. The same Susan McGill who, upon her promotion to the district office a decade prior, supposedly ran roughshod over the various educational serfs and students of Capistrano Unified for years before her hubristic instincts inadvertently began reviving the lost art of self-immolation.

Ah, Mrs. McGill, it’s been a long time. True, some very smart and respectable people claim you were railroaded—but the recall has now come and gone like the Iran-Iraq war, and the fundies now hold power at Capo Unified, baby. But we all live for the small victories, don’t we? Indeed, Mrs. McGill—the lawyers you and Jimbo hired can’t put off the trial forever, and when it finally happens, I’ll be watching from the front row—not to see the nutcases fed, but to see you eaten. Hell yes. They say the inexorable grinding of Justice’s rusty wheels is nearly unbearable to witness…but I’ll do my best.