Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tapping on our Brows

Principal Don Reiter, right
I’ll start by saying I know absolutely nothing about Maine Principal Don Reiter, or what happened in his office when he met, privately, with a student at Waterville Senior High.

But isn’t that where we arbiters of sexual misconduct always begin? Peering through tightly shut windows where the shades are drawn, then drawing conclusions about what happened? We take dueling narratives, leaven them with our opinions about the narrators (he’s a predator/angel/victim; she’s a liar/heroine/victim, take your pick) drop them onto the roulette wheels of “justice” and watch … as lives are wrecked.

Here’s the only thing we do know: somebody’s lying. One of two people is an unreliable narrator. And in the absence of any evidence beyond he said/she said, which story do we choose to believe?

Principal Don Reiter’s tale: on the first day of classes this fall at Waterville Senior High he was meeting with a female student in his office. They were sitting on the couch. She propositioned him. The meeting ended, and he reported the incident to school authorities. And his wife. Who filed for divorce a few weeks later.

What little we know from the student: during a meeting alone with the principal, he told her that he had a secret: every year he chose a student with whom to have sex, and that this year he’d chosen her. He threatened her … she’d never graduate … if she revealed this secret. She was upset, and promptly reported the incident.

Because of legal issues surrounding privacy, further information is sketchy, but if news reports are credible, other details include:

·        Shortly before classes began this fall, the student and her mother had appeared in Reiter’s office to discuss the student’s credits because it didn’t look like she was on target to graduate. He said they needed to meet with her guidance counselor.
·        After conferring with guidance, the student reappeared at the principal’s office, where she was told she needed to make an appointment.
·        On the first day of school the student was called out of class, down to Reiter’s office. At this point the closed-door meeting in question took place.

Within days of this incident, the superintendent placed Mr. Reiter on paid leave, called the cops, and investigations began. Two months and many, many interviews with staff and students later, the superintendent has recommended that Mr. Reiter be dismissed, the police have filed a report upon which the District Attorney has yet to act (she says she’ll wait to see what the school board will do) and the school board is now grappling with whether to accept … or reject … the superintendent’s recommendation to fire Mr. Reiter. As the board met this past week, crowds of Mr. Reiter’s supporters gathered outside their doors. When, after many hours of deliberations they emerged undecided and scheduled a subsequent meeting, folks were upset.

You can’t make this stuff up. Well, you can … but it’s called drama. Approaching the level of Greek tragedy. Because everyone loses. Everyone. Either Mr. Reiter is a predator, a wolf who has been prowling, undetected for years, among our innocents … or he is a cruelly, unjustly accused victim whose career and personal life have just gotten trashed.  Either she’s a traumatized victim, a child whose doe-eyed view of life has just been shattered… or a psychopath along the lines of the borderline-personality-disordered character Amy in Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel (also a movie) Gone Girl.

If that weren’t bad enough: enter the Greek chorus. Lawyers, from both sides. The administrators who just want to make it all go away, crying for his job on a plate. The mobs of friends of the accused rallying in his support. The victims’ rights advocates claiming: see? See how difficult it is to speak out against sexual predation? This is why so many cases of rape and sexual misconduct go unreported.

My head spins. So does my imagination. Which is why I usually retreat to poetry at times like these, because what constitutes hard and fast, legal and the fair, eludes me here.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, a son of Gardiner, Maine, wrote, in his poem Eros Turannos: “We tell you, tapping on our brows, the story as it should be. As if the story of a house were told, or ever could be.”

If ever a line reaches out and grabs you by the throat, it’s that one. All of us, the readers of these disparate stories, tapping on our brows. As if we know. Could know. Perhaps the true tragedy is that we don’t have the slightest idea what went on behind that door, yet are required to judge. Life demands it. Continuing to rise and shine and work and go to school together demands it: a choice. A decision. Justice.

Someone is lying. And that lie is a Molotov cocktail thrown into the living heart of a community. Regardless of how this sad business concludes, everyone gets burned.


  1. With all the tragedy abroad I somehow missed this one so close to home. It is horrific, but at least this case is being discussed publicly and taken seriously unlike too many other cases of sexual harassment. Hopefully justice will be served. You are right, though, about there being no winners. I like your vision of a Greek chorus of lawyers and others. Nice to see you back to blogging!

  2. Follow up to this post: shortly after I wrote this, former students from a New Hampshire high school where Mr. Reiter worked came forward, with similar claims. The school board has voted to terminate his employment and law enforcement is continuing its investigation.

  3. Ms. Padian: I stopped by your blog after reading your terrific novel, Out of Nowhere, because you came to the school where I teach (Mt. Desert Island High School) to speak during Bar Harbor Book Festival and my co-teachers raved about you. This entry shows the same deep awareness of difficult issues and the same compassion that sets OoN apart. In this rapidly-moving, sound byte world, I value such deliberate, compassionate work.

    I grew up in Lewiston, my dad taught at Bates, my younger son now goes there, and I took my older son to the rally you mention in the novel. For those reasons aside, I'd find the book interesting, but it's an excellent book for more important reasons than those. Thank you for your work!