There’s a lion in a school in Shreveport.
When I get the call, I assume this is a cleverly coded metaphor for a dangerous book or a misgendered toilet — some socially progressive butterfly flapping its wings in Louisiana, causing a tropical shit-storm on Capitol Hill.
But now that I’m here, coffeed-up and buttoned-down, face-to-face with the issue at hand, I can see that this is no ‘lion of the heart and mind’. This is a literal lion, staring at me from his makeshift throne on a perforated metal lunch table.
I snap a photo on my phone and head to reception, leafing through the briefing notes as I go. There are some useful opinion polls and pull quotes from focus groups — I commit those to memory — as well as aggregated statistics of lion attacks throughout the tristate area. They’re a little higher than the national standard, but that’s to be expected. This state has a couple of prominent open-plan zoos, and that means a greater number of lion-loving registered voters.
On the other side of the glass, the lion keeps pace, snuffing at the doors, looking for a way in. At one point he reaches up to stick a paw through a transom window, like a cheapskate at a vending machine, but he won’t catch me. My efficiency measures are superb.
I’m just about to announce myself when something in the briefing portfolio catches my eye. It’s a printout of an old email, asking for an ‘Instructional Leadership Team Dialogue’ with Principal Davis.
Not a real dialogue, of course. A carefully coded metaphor.
* * *
Trishe Davis stands watching the courtyard as I enter, hands behind her back, braided hair half up and half down. It’s a power move, but a sophisticated one. By assessing the lion out there, she’s declawing the one in her office.
A sun-hat flutters past the window, a gory tumbleweed.
Davis thanks the secretary for showing me in, then softly, “I’m going to need a number for the parents of Kaitlyn McIntyre.” Another power move.
I tell her I’m sorry for her loss. “It’s a tragedy. All American students deserve to be safe.” But I don’t call it “unavoidable” or “unexpected” because I can’t give her the ammunition.
We get to talking. Davis is a practical, details-focused woman. It takes a heartbeat for her to realize I’m not here to take her job, although I do have that power, and even less to work out that I won’t be taking the lion. I wasn’t imposed on her by the school board or the superintendent, nor even the P&C.
“Why exactly are you here, Mr. Morris?”
Because lions. Because 2020. Because Louisiana swings like a rusty gate, and my client base stretches all the way to Washington.
“I’m here to give a fresh perspective, Ms. Davis. To help you and the school board devise a mutually beneficial solution to …” and I gesture politely to the monster in the courtyard, toying with the sun-hat like a deadly, overgrown kitten.
“A mutually beneficial solution?” She cries. “Try getting rid of the damn lion!”
We can’t, of course. Lions are a protected species. And a photo of the lion being dragged back to the zoo by state police, or even Parks & Wildlife, could cost my client the county. And with that, the whole state of Louisiana.
“There ought to be a law,” she huffs.
“What would be the point of that, Ms. Davis? Lions won’t comply. They can’t even vote.”
And she drifts into sullen silence.
I could make things very difficult for Principal Trishe Davis. It’s my job to make recommendations to the school board and the governor. Plus there’s the details of the Instructional Leadership Team Dialogue, which would go in my report. But why squash a butterfly when you can harness its critical wingbeats, send that tornado spinning in the right direction?
So instead I say, “have you had coffee?”
* * *
We drive around the corner to a coffee bar. Davis isn’t keen to leave the school, especially with morning classes in session. But I remind her that lions are most active at the start and the end of the day, and that her students are safer in their classrooms than they were in before-school care.
She bristles at that last part.
I get us a couple of coffees and some pastries to share, cutting them into equal pieces. You catch more flies with danish.
“People love lions,” I say. “They’re cuddly but strong. They deter bears. Plus, knowing the lion is on the other side of a glass barrier makes people feel safe.”
“Kaitlyn wasn’t safe,” she interjects. “Neither was Bobby Riker or Ellen Wu. Or any the kids at Parkvale Elementary.”
I give a sympathetic, open-palmed nod.
“These are all sad and terrible occurrences. But they are still anomalies.”
It’s true, though. Lions account for less than 1% of animal-related deaths. You’re statistically more likely to die of anaphylaxis after a bee-sting or contract sepsis from an infected monkey bite. But this isn’t about facts and figures. It’s about feelings.
“I realize that your primary concern is for the children,” I say. “That’s mine, too. When kids are in danger, parents feel unsafe. And when parents feel unsafe, the needle swings against the incumbent.”
Davis changes tack, trying to meet me halfway with “mutually beneficial solutions”. Between mouthfuls of blueberry danish, she asks, “so, how do we stop this happening?”
We can’t, of course. Not completely. Incidents like this are regrettable, but a wild lion in a high school quadrangle is the price we pay for freedom.
“Let’s assume the lion is here to stay,” I say. “What would be the optimal outcome for you within those parameters?”
“I guess,” she taps out a tattoo with her middle finger, “I guess if the lion has to stay, we need to work out how to protect the staff and children”.
“We’re committed to a safe and productive educational environment. We would need to integrate the lion into that.
“Great!” I say. “So, now we know what the question is.”
I write “protect the children” on a paper napkin and underline it twice.
“And what assets do you have that can help you protect the children?”
Davis reels off the basics of her operational budget. I make notes.
She tabulates in the equipment stores, the school buildings, infrastructure and material resources. As do I.
She adds in the human resources, community organisations and student councils, including band, sport, and other extracurricular activities and clubs.
“And that’s it,” She says. “That’s everything we have.”
I call up the photo on my phone and place it in front of her.
“Everything but a 400 pound adult male lion”.
* * *
It’s a ridiculous idea, of course, but often the best ones are. Trishe and I meet in her office after school and work late into the night, turning a killer into a protector, brainstorming mind-maps and design blueprints. We sketch out a child-proof enclosure, a meat delivery system, and a series of lion safety programs to ensure no child will be harmed.
I make my recommendations to the governor, putting in a good word for Principal Davis. I get a smile and get paid. These will be talking points, nothing more.
But there’s something about this idea that I can’t let go. The boldness of it. The idealistic stupidity of it. I can feel a butterfly in my brain, flexing its wings.
I shoot off a press release.
I find myself working less on my consultancy, and spending more time developing this project. And it feels good, bringing my skills to bear on something positive and productive. There is a momentum to it, a rising gust of wind slowly building to a tornado.
* * *
My press release sticks, and the next day a local news crew arrives at the school. Apparently free-roaming lions aren’t unusual enough to draw the Associated Press.
I’ve crafted the release to highlight both the ongoing dangers to the students as well as the charisma of the lion itself. Anyone can dogwhistle, but it takes a special kind of strategic mind to dogwhistle two ways at once.
The reporter demands a name. I suggest ‘Louie’. Louie the Lion, and his royal consorts Vicki and Nala.
The three of them are instant celebrities, and an unexpected source of revenue for the school. People pay to feed Louie, to get a photo with Louie. Louie’s faeces are on-sold as fertiliser (‘Lou Poo’). The popular response is incredible, with only a few families like the McIntyres still opposed. But those people are statistical anomalies.
While Trishe goes about the day-to-day of running the school, including implementing the new programs, I sell infrastructure blueprints and educational kits to the school board. And then to the one in Texas, and then to Georgia. And then Buzzfeed does a piece on us and Louie the Lion goes viral.
Before long, the USDE is recommending a lion as a standard feature in any state school. And not long after that, a lion becomes compulsory.
There are incidents, of course: roughly one a month. A kid gets mauled in Delaware. The fence comes down in Indiana, leading to a hungry lioness loose in a kindergarten class (the teachers manage to tackle the lion before it can do any damage). Inevitably, an inquiry finds that it’s due to poor implementation of the plan, or human error, rather than the lion itself.
The governor not only keeps his seat, but his approval rating goes up significantly. Louisiana becomes a safe state, which should give him a proper shot at the White House by 2024. He assures me that if I ever want to go back to consulting, he would have no hesitation recommending me for some very lucrative contracts.
I say yes.
* * *
And then one evening, some months later, I’m back at the school, standing in the corridor and watching the lion through the window, gnawing on the femur of a plucky sixth grader who was stupid enough to jump the gate. There are three of them now, the original lion plus two lionesses. One is pregnant.
Trishe is locking up.
She looks tired.
“The programs don’t work,” she says. “They should work, but they don’t.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “It’s out of the news cycle. They’re more worried about monkey bites now. Besides …”
I give her the Instructional Leadership Team Dialogue, along with the original citation for carrying a hunting rifle on school grounds.
“I took it out of your file,” I tell her. “To say thanks”.
She looks at me, sadly.
“You keep it,” she says.
And walks into the courtyard, locking the glass door behind her.