Principle McAlvey finished scanning Joseph "Jo-Jo" Meyer's permanent record, and then he slowly closed and laid the folder atop his desk. His ice blue eyes, weathered and salted by twenty years as a public school educator, beamed authority and integrity into Jo-Jo's expectant gaze. "Joseph Meyer," he intoned officially, running a grizzled right hand through the brush-like bristles of his graying, regulation crew cut, "this is the third time I've seen you in this office since we returned from winter break."
"It's the fourth time, sir," responded Jo-Jo, a slight, gangly sixteen year old with dark eyes, jet hair and the lithe build of a welterweight prize fighter. "Remember? The first time, you let me off with a warning. 'Nothing in your permanent record', you said."
"Yes, sir." Jo-Jo smiled genuinely.
"But you didn't take that chance, I guess."
"I didn't do anything wrong that day, sir. I didn't do anything wrong today, either."
"So what's with the white face makeup and the black fingernail polish?"
Jo-Jo lifted his hands and admired the gleaming nails. "It's fashion, that's all."
"Fashion, huh? What sort of fashion is it?"
Jo-Jo shrugged and returned his hands to his lap. "The kind that I like, I guess."
McAlvey grunted and leaned forward in his leather executive chair to interlace his fingers and fold his elbows atop the desk. "What about the all-black attire?" Again, Jo-Jo shrugged. The principal sighed leadenly, and pondered the moment, wondering how to broach the subject. "I talked to your mother on the phone before I called you into my office, you know."
"I didn't know."
"She doesn't sound well. She said she doesn't like to hear from me. She says you shouldn't be misbehaving in school, since she taught you better."
Jo-Jo hung his head and watched his fingers fidget, their shiny black nails glinting in the cold, sterile fluorescent light of the office. "I wish you would leave my mother alone, sir."
Again, the principal sighed heavily. Since he couldn't think of a better way to do it, he decided a direct approach might serve best. "Joseph, I know it's a-."
"Nobody calls me Joseph, sir. Everybody calls me Jo-Jo, even my mother."
"Okay, Jo-Jo," returned the educator respectfully, "I know it's never easy, a situation like yours, but I have to ask. Does the white face and black dress have anything to do with your father?"
For a moment, Jo-Jo tensed. His shoulders seized, hard as stone works, and his breathing caught.
"Because, if it does, we can all understand something like that. Everybody deals with grief differently. Is it because of your father, Jo-Jo?"
"No, sir," responded the youth softly. "Not really." The boy knew it wasn't a total lie, since his mother was a big part of it, too. Further, he saw nothing wrong with dressing a certain way, even if his teachers didn't like it.
After a brief, respectful pause, McAlvey asked, "Are you sure?" Jo-Jo nodded somberly. "It's a violation of school dress code, you know, and even though we're willing to overlook certain… quirks of adaptation to your… trauma… we have to maintain order in the classroom."
"I never disrupted class, sir." Now the boy raised his head defiantly, "And it's not against school dress code. I looked it up."
McAlvey's face bunched in consternation. "Of course it is."
"No, it isn't," returned Jo-Jo, maintaining a calm, polite demeanor. "Can I show you?"
Pursing his lips, the principal relented, and opened a small drawer near his left hand. From it, he extracted the school's code of conduct, a small, pamphlet printed on the school's high-speed photocopier. This, he extended across the flat, cluttered expanse of his desk, saying, "Be my guest."
Leaning forward without fully rising from his seat, Jo-Jo accepted the booklet and flipped it open to a particular page. Then he returned it.
McAlvey read the page, and his face changed unhappily. "This isn't the dress code, son."
Again, Jo-Jo stiffened and bristled, though he relaxed again almost at once. "No, sir, it isn't."
Principal McAlvey flipped through the pages to the proper section and returned the booklet to the boy. "You can see for yourself here in the section that addresses acceptable attire within the school. All black clothing and white face makeup are strictly prohibited."
"I know that, sir."
"So? What about your dress adheres to these rules?"
"It doesn't adhere to those rules, Mr. McAlvey."
The educator thumbed to the page the boy had indicated earlier. "Your defense is this section here, then? That's it?"
"Yes, sir. Read it."
Opening his mouth to declare that he had already read it a hundred times, that he had, in fact, authored it himself with the approval of the board, the principal instead moved to comply. "After the death of an immediate member of the family, black attire will be acceptable for a reasonable period of mourning, only." Jo-Jo nodded, and returned his gaze to the squirm and writhe of fidgeting fingers. Gently as he could manage, he added, "It's been three months, Jos-, Jo-Jo."