A Committee of Inquiry was investigating Angie’s attempted suicide at VA, and now the chair and vice chair of the Committee had been in Rich’s office for an hour and a half. They finally left, looking grim, and Rich had remained in his office alone for a long time. Then he summoned Meg and me in.
We entered Rich’s office, which still smelled like the perfume the Committee’s vice chair was wearing, and sat down on the uncomfortable chairs.
Rich looked terrible, he looked like he hadn’t slept for weeks. He took a deep breath and said, looking dismally down at his desk, “Juvy hall is out for blood. They’ve always resented us and now they claim the kids aren’t safe here. They want to use this incident with Angie to shut VA down.”
“Oh my God,” Meg said.
Rich gave a little half-shrug. “I think Doc Levin and I can hold that off,” he said. “The governor loves what we’re doing at VA and I don’t think the cowards at juvy will dare cross him.”
After a longish pause, Rich said, “But even if they can’t shut us down, they’re coming down hard on me. I’m getting fined a month’s pay and I’ll be on probation for a year. One more incident, one more broken rule, and I’m out.”
I realized that Rich had yet to look at us, but now he did. His eyes were damp and he was biting his bottom lip to keep it from trembling.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “you two are the sacrificial lambs. It’s terrible, it’s incredibly unfair, but …” Rich had to pause and swallow, “but you are both being terminated effective immediately. You’ll need … you’ll need to pack up your things and be gone before the kids come back for lunch.”
“You mean,” I said, leaping up from my chair in outrage, “we can’t even say goodbye to them?”
Looking down at his desk, Rich slowly shook his head.
Meg told Rich to give the Committee a message from her, but alas it’s unprintable.
And that was the way it ended. Meg went off to start her junior year at college and I went off to start my sophomore year.
For months back at college I was furiously angry. It was clear to me that the bureaucrats at the Department and, especially at juvy hall, didn’t care about the kids at VA. All they cared about was enforcing their petty rules and covering their butts. The results VA was getting were spectacularly better than the results juvy hall was getting, and they hated us for it.
Besides, none of the rules they claimed we’d broken had had any negative consequences. I’ve already mentioned the dumb rule about Rich having to get written permission to be away overnight. And as far as fraternization among staff members, so what? There was no anti-fraternization rule at the Department or at juvy hall, the rule only applied to VA.
The bit about Rich leaving children in charge of children was outrageous. Rich knew, and told the Committee repeatedly, that we were the best supervisors VA’d ever had. Most of the other supervisors had been, like Terry Petronius, adults-but-bumblers.
But what really stuck in my craw was the idiocy of the rule that we had to be in our rooms after eleven p.m. As far as I could remember, we hadn’t been in our rooms at eleven even one time all summer long.
And consider the night Angie decided to hurt herself. If we’d been up in our third floor rooms, what would have happened? As soon as the girls realized Angie’d hurt herself they would have rushed up to Meg’s room and told her about it.
Meg would have raced down to the bathroom and found Angie as I’d found her. But then what? There was no way Meg could have lifted Angie out of that tub – I could barely do it myself.
She would have had to send one of the girls to get me and that poor girl would have had to go down to the first floor, run all the way to the front of the house, climb the front stairs – where she wasn’t allowed to be and had never been – all the way up to my room on the third floor. I would then have had to descend to the first floor, run to the back of the house and climb up to the second floor.
Instead, since Meg and I were already on the first floor, I’d been able to get to Angie quickly and start putting pressure on her wounds. As I walked through that terrible night in my mind, I figured we’d shaved four or five minutes off our response time, possibly saving Angie’s life.
But the bureaucrats couldn’t care less about Angie or whether she lived or died – all they cared about was that we’d violated their boneheaded rules. Instead of pinning heroes badges on us, they fired us.
But it’s hard to stay angry forever. Eventually I found myself focusing not on August 20 but on the long and mostly happy weeks at VA before that, when I’d loved my job and felt like I was doing something important. We were making a difference in the lives of thirteen kids who’d never had a break before.
Unfortunately, the more I thought about VA and the important work going on there, the more college seemed trivial by comparison. I found myself having a kind of out-of-body experience, watching myself go through the inconsequential business of college life as though I were someone else. Real life, the things that mattered, weren’t happening on campus, they were happening up in the tiny village of Stilton, Vermont.
By the time I’d finished my sophomore year, though, I’d gone back to being an ordinary college kid, doing ordinary college things and not seeing anything wrong with it. Maybe that was survival instinct in action.
My summer job in Vermont happened decades ago, but as I look back through the years I often think that the most important work I’ve ever done was the job I had at VA – when I was, according to the bureaucrats, a mere child.
Next up: The New World Order
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