Features: Class Warfare

Did Michael and Sheryl Pouls use their muscle to get Baldwin School teacher Patsy Tollin fired? Or are Tollin’s old-school ways out of date?

ON A HOT AFTERNOON IN July, Patricia “Patsy” Tollin, a former teacher at the prestigious Baldwin School and the plaintiff in a lawsuit that has had the Main Line talking all summer, is sitting in her lawyer’s Bala Cynwyd office, describing an incident in which she says Sheryl Pouls, the parent of one of Tollin’s former second-grade students, showed off a pair of surgically altered breasts in a Baldwin School classroom as Tollin and another parent looked on. “She opened her shirt and said, ‘Look how small they are!’” says Tollin, pursing her lips in the manner of a schoolmarm, which is what she is. “I couldn’t tell.”

Sheryl Pouls emphatically denies the incident ever took place. “I would never have done that,” she says several weeks later. “I didn’t even have plastic surgery.” She adds that Tollin’s charge raises suspicion because it is one the teacher didn’t make in her original complaint.

The back-and-forth is just one of the many sensational tales in what is shaping up to be a particularly seamy battle between the teacher and the Poulses — Sheryl and her husband Michael, a wealthy real estate developer from Gladwyne-by-way-of-New-Jersey — who Tollin claims were responsible for the loss of her job. The luridly detailed lawsuit the teacher filed this past June against Baldwin and the Pouls family includes charges that Sheryl Pouls missed a parent-teacher conference because of the aforementioned cosmetic-surgery procedure, paints Michael Pouls as a control freak who described himself as his children’s “main caregiver,” and, most importantly, accuses the Poulses of leveraging a multimillion-dollar donation they made to the school in order to get her fired, since their seven-year-old daughter, Amanda, had complained that Tollin “yelled a lot” in class last year. Both Baldwin and the Poulses deny they had anything to do with the loss of Tollin’s job, and for their part, the Poulses deny all of the allegations. In fact, they claim it was Tollin who was abusive, and that their daughter was one of many children terrorized by the teacher during her 22-year career.

The drama has made the Baldwin Battle the most riveting Main Line scandal since, well, Susan Tabas Tepper chucked a bag of carrots at her nanny last year. In fact, according to Tollin, the Poulses made the Royal Bank heiress, who was convicted earlier this year of mistreating her staff, look like a regular Donna Reed.

“I had Susan Tabas Tepper’s daughter in the same class,” Tollin says. “Susan was warm, she read to the children, brought them treats.” She shrugs. “She was a delight.”

WORD OF THE TOLLIN/POULS CONFLICT STARTED TO spread at the end of the last school year, when parents of ­second-graders at the school began receiving letters from the Baldwin administration hinting at trouble. This morning there was an exchange in the hallway between a parent and a second-grade teacher that was inappropriate. … From time to time events occur that lead some, without knowing all the circumstances surrounding a particular event, to conclude that donors to our school might be treated differently than others. … And finally, a note from Tollin herself: I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for your continued support during what has turned out to be an “ugly” year for me.

By mid-June, with the school year over, the suburbs and Shore were a free-for-all of wagging tongues. Everyone had an ­opinion — about the Poulses’ behavior, about private vs. public schools, about the entitled attitudes of children, about the have-mores vs. the haves. As the anecdotes gathered momentum, each detail that spilled forth was more tantalizing than the last.

Of these stories, few were more salacious than the wild ones told by the players themselves. “I know a woman,” says Michael Pouls, 45, a mountain of a man with dark hair, preternaturally white, straight teeth, and a permanently furrowed brow, “who will tell you she witnessed Patsy Tollin throwing a blind child into a locker.”

“Arrgh, I can’t wait to nail this guy,” says Tollin’s lawyer, Mark Halpern, slamming his hand on the table of his firm’s tastefully decorated conference room. Halpern describes himself as a pit bull, although with his Woody Allen-ish frame and expansive, exasperated gesticulating, he’s more like a particularly fierce corgi.

Tollin’s smooth skin, red bob and perfect posture don’t exactly fit the picture of the frail, grandmotherly creature painted in newspaper accounts of her lawsuit, but then, 67 looks a lot different than it used to. And that’s not the only thing that’s changed since Tollin began teaching at Baldwin 22 years ago. The demographics of the monied Main Line have shifted, and along with them, so have the expectations of the parents who send their kids to the area’s vaunted private schools. There’s also been a shift in values, Mark Halpern will tell you, and not for the better.

“It’s not how it used to be,” he says disgustedly. “It used to be that you’re not bravado. You weren’t driving around in your Hummers. It used to be huge estates with incredible money, but those people would never — it was embarrassing to show your money. It was beneath you. You never tried to use your money for anything other than philanthropic things. You would send your kids to school, and if the teacher was strict, you would say, ‘That’s the way it is.’” He shakes his head, glances at his client. “Patsy understood that one of the difficulties she was going to have with me is that I want to try this case because I want to strike back.”

Patsy doesn’t seem to mind. When asked what she hopes will happen to Baldwin and the Poulses as a result of her lawsuit, she doesn’t hesitate. “I want it to hurt,” she says.

EARLY IN THE SCHOOL YEAR, WHEN THEIR DAUGHTER Amanda first started complaining that her second-grade teacher was “mean,” the Poulses thought she was just having a difficult time adjusting. As far as they knew, their 12-year-old, Samantha, had had a great experience with Tollin. But Amanda was different from her lanky, thoughtful older sister — at age seven, she was louder, goofier, and more sensitive.

And Mrs. Tollin was tough. “She’s really not mean,” Samantha would say, when her younger sister complained about the teacher. “Sometimes she just has a way of saying something.”

Amanda also carried a little more baby weight than some of her friends, so Sheryl Pouls had come into the classroom and asked Tollin to monitor her diet. Some of the other kids had been making fun of Amanda for being “fat,” Sheryl said.

In her complaint, Tollin says she responded that rather than single Amanda out, she would present a healthy eating lesson to the whole class. Several weeks later, at a parent-teacher conference, Tollin brought up the issues she had discussed with Amanda’s mother with Michael Pouls.

Throughout the fall, Amanda’s complaints at home escalated: She would say that Tollin had yelled at her for not doing in-class assignments fast enough or not finishing her homework. In the mornings before school, she would cry, complain of stomachaches, and beg not to go to school. Gradually, it began to occur to her parents that something other than their daughter’s sensitive constitution might be to blame.

“There was one crystallizing moment for me,” says Michael Pouls. One morning when he went to drop Amanda off at school, she wouldn’t get out of the car. “I had forgotten the night before — they gave these kids this impossible task where they had 10 words, and for those 10 words you had to find two rhyming words, like ‘root,’ ‘moot’ and ‘suit,’” he recalls. “We had spent a lot of time on it. I had looked at the dictionary, even. So we were in the car, and we had hit a brick wall and we couldn’t figure out this one rhyming word. And she would not get out of the car. I sat in the parking lot with her for 20 minutes trying to think of this word.”

“Just tell the teacher you couldn’t think of it,” he says he told his daughter.

“I can’t,” Amanda replied. “She’ll yell at me and embarrass me in front of the whole class.”

Amanda had complained about being embarrassed by the teacher another time, Pouls recalls. She had described to her parents a seemingly harrowing cafeteria incident in which Mrs. Tollin had forced her to replace the white bread on her sandwich with wheat. “Amanda said, ‘I can’t eat whole wheat because I’ll vomit. I don’t like it,’” recalls Sheryl Pouls, tears welling in her eyes as she remembers the incident. “And Mrs. Tollin made her go throw it out and get a whole-wheat sandwich. And Amanda blamed me. She said it was my fault that Mrs. Tollin was making her do that. She was so embarrassed that she had to eat it.” (Tollin denies that the Wheat Bread Incident ever occurred, saying, “I’ve never made a student eat anything.”)

That’s the kind of activity that was happening,” interjects Michael Pouls. “We wanted to know if the teacher could look out for our daughter and make sure she only had one sweet snack. That’s what we asked her to do. Instead, what the teacher did was humiliate Amanda in front of all the kids in the lunchroom about how she was eating all the wrong stuff. She singled out Amanda because she felt the right.”

Back in the school parking lot, stymied by the rhyming exercise, Michael Pouls decided that enough was enough. He scrawled a made-up word on his daughter’s homework assignment and drove off, knowing something needed to be done.

ON A FRIDAY afternoon in January, Tollin was called in for a meeting with Baiba Vasys, the head of Baldwin’s lower school, and Sally Powell, the school’s new headmistress. Michael Pouls had phoned and was extremely upset over how his daughter was being treated.

Tollin herself was in a fragile state. Only a few weeks before school started, her husband of 38 years had drowned accidentally in a health club hot tub, and Tollin had been the one to find him. She had hoped coming back to school would normalize her, but it was difficult. When she heard about the Poulses’ phone call, she started to cry.

“Where did this go wrong?” asked Vasys, according to Tollin.

Tollin responded that she didn’t know. “I said Amanda was struggling and having a hard time academically,” she explains. “And I said, ‘She is young, immature, spoiled, indulged, and Daddy makes everything nice for her.’”

“You know we need this family,” Sally Powell said then, according to Tollin — the implication being that the school couldn’t afford to lose the Poulses’ donation. (Powell denies saying this.)

It was decided that the lower-school head and Tollin would have a conference call with Michael Pouls, and following that, as per his request, Tollin would call him daily to report on Amanda’s progress. Tollin was taken aback — no teacher she knew had ever been asked to call a parent daily — but said she’d do it. As she saw it, she had little choice. Unlike teachers at public schools, private-school teachers generally don’t have tenure, only year-by-year contracts.

At the conclusion of the meeting, according to Tollin’s complaint, Powell said that if Tollin didn’t “fully satisfy the Poulses,” she would have to “rethink” Tollin’s contract.

“She didn’t even offer me a Kleenex,” Tollin says.

But by all accounts, the conference call went well. On the phone, Tollin agreed with Michael Pouls that if Amanda was unhappy, she needed to do something about it. So one day before class, she took Amanda aside.

“Amanda, you know I love you,” she said. “I am sorry if you feel that I yell at you or I don’t like you. That’s not the case. You know, I’ve had a hard time. Sometimes I just don’t feel good.”

She followed up with a class-wide Caring Circle, where she shared with her students her feelings of sadness about her husband, in order to “rebuild trust.” She kept up her daily phone calls to Michael Pouls. For a short while, there was peace.

But two weeks later, Tollin stopped calling. Amanda seemed to be faring well in class, and Baiba Vasys, Tollin claims, told her the calls were no longer necessary. But only a few days passed before Michael Pouls says things started to unravel at home. “My daughter has begun expressing concerns about Patsy’s teaching methods again, and yelling has returned to the classroom,” he wrote in an e-mail to Sally Powell and Baiba Vasys, copied to Patricia Tollin.

“This letter is a formal notice that you must either correct the situation as promised or I will withdraw my child from Baldwin,” it continued. “The rules set up four weeks ago were set in place by me, and only I have the right to change them. No one consulted me before the daily status calls were discontinued, and certainly, no one gave the teacher the right to begin negative teaching practices again. … I am done being Mr. Nice Guy and politically correct.”

The Poulses were called in to meet with the heads of school, and after much discussion, it was decided it would be best to move Amanda to another classroom — a highly unusual step for Baldwin. “It should have ended there,” says one board member who wishes to remain anonymous.

It didn’t.

“How is school?” Michael Pouls asked Amanda one night about a week after she had been moved to her new classroom.

“Oh, I love my new teacher,” Amanda said, according to her father. “She gives us candy. But I think Mrs. Tollin is mad.”

“Why is that?” Pouls asked.

“I think it’s because I’m not in her class anymore. She misses me.”

Her father asked why she thought that. “Because when I saw her in the hallway,” Amanda told him, “I waved at her and she didn’t wave back.”

“And I knew,” says Michael Pouls. “That the teacher was staring my daughter down.”

It was then, Sheryl Pouls says, that she grew tired of being politically correct. Deciding she needed to confront the teacher in person, she arrived early at the school one morning, intending to speak quietly to Tollin. When the teacher, who was meeting with another teacher and a parent, declined to speak to her right then, “I lost my composure,” Sheryl says.

“My daughter waved at you and you didn’t wave back!” she screamed, as Tollin turned back to her classroom. “It has to stop!”

“You’re either drunk or you’re on drugs,” Tollin told her, shutting the door. Meanwhile, children arrived at the school.

You fucking bitch! I want you fired or I’m taking my money and my girls out of this school!

Sheryl Pouls’s screaming drew Baiba Vasys and several parents, who pulled her away from the classroom. One child, Tollin’s complaint says, was so traumatized by the screaming that she hid in her coat locker.

One week later, Tollin was called to Powell’s office for a meeting with Powell, Vasys and a school counselor. It was the first meeting of the year that Tollin was looking forward to. After Sheryl Pouls’s outburst, she was sure the administration would see what she had been dealing with, and she expected administrators to apologize for not taking a stand against the family earlier.

Instead, she was told in the meeting that her contract would not be extended for the following year.

Tollin stood up. “I can’t listen to this bullshit anymore,” she said, and walked out, beginning to cry. The school’s counselor followed her.

“Make sure you eat dinner tonight,” Tollin remembers hearing.

“Useless,” Tollin says back in Mark Halpern’s office. “Make sure you eat dinner? What did that have to do with anything?”

THE BALDWIN SCHOOL denies that problems with the Poulses were the reason they chose not to renew Patsy Tollin’s contract.

If that’s the case, their timing was pretty lousy. In 2003, the year Samantha was in Tollin’s class, the Poulses gave a multi-million-dollar donation to the school. It was heralded in the alumni magazine, the Baldwin Echoes, as “the largest donation the school has received in its 115-year history.” With it, the school planned to kick off the construction of a long-planned athletic center. Excitement was high. The center would be the first new building on the school premises in 32 years and would give it a competitive edge on a street lined with excellent, similarly prestigious private schools.

Now, as news of Tollin’s dismissal spread throughout the community, letters began arriving at the school. “There are many grumblings of discontent,” one parent wrote to Sally Powell in March. “The incident of the outburst and the nonrenewal of Patsy Tollin’s contract are timed too closely to be unrelated. … We all perceive Mrs. Pouls as being rewarded for her outburst. Her threats to Mrs. Tollin were publicly overheard and have been fulfilled … There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this decision was made based on endowment.”

In reality, Baldwin had had concerns about Tollin long before her interactions with the Poulses. A letter from Baldwin’s counsel to Mark Halpern listed several previous complaints about the teacher:

— March 16, 1989: Head of school Blair Stambaugh writes Miss Tollin, “I am holding your contract until June to allow you time to work on two substantive issues … shouting at the children which gives people the impression you aren’t as nurturing as they would like.”

— March 3, 2003: Employment letter to Ms. Tollin counsels, do watch out for absences and occasional appearances of “yelling.”

— March 5, 2004: “You still need to watch how you are perceived by some, who feel you ‘yell’ at them.”

ALMOST HALF THE complaints listed in the letter, it should be said, were from the 2006-’07 school year — the year Amanda Pouls was in Tollin’s class. Philadelphia also obtained a letter, dated June 2007 but referring to an incident 13 years ago, from a pair of parents who say their daughter experienced “mean-spirited and very negative” behavior from Tollin, including the teacher “shaking her fingers directly in front of her face … and screaming at her about learning math facts.” All of this is, according to Michael Pouls, “proof positive” that theirs was a struggle against an abusive teacher who singled out their child because she felt the right.

Samantha Feld, one of the Baldwin alumni around the country who’ve been posting about the conflict on Facebook, says the complaints are merely the kind a teacher like Tollin gets. “She was strict,” says Feld. “Baldwin is tough. It’s not some rich-kid school where kids are coddled. The reason Baldwin has such a good reputation is that it forces kids to perform at their best.”

But since the time when Feld was in second grade — in 1992 — the expectations of private-school parents have changed. They’re not spending $23,000 a year for “tough love,” it seems, but for love, period.

“You want them in this loving, caring place,” says one Baldwin mother who called on the Poulses’ behalf. “They are babies, and they need to be babiefied.”

Tollin’s teaching style, it seems, wasn’t gelling well in this new environment. “I do not feel that Patsy belongs in second grade anymore,” wrote Baiba Vasys, in a statement obtained by Philadelphia that Baldwin’s lawyers intend to file in court. “She just does not seem to be able to give the children the kind, nurturing support that they need. … it’s like ‘second grade boot camp.’”

It’s apparent that Tollin has developed contempt for this new, coddling culture of parenting. “We have been told that this is a consumerism era, and that we have to cater to the parents more,” she sighs, in Halpern’s office. “I also have observed that many families, in order to send their girls to private school, need two incomes. So a lot of the raising is left to nannies. So we have become the ones who teach manners. We are the ones who — you would be appalled if you sat in the lunchroom with these kids — they don’t even know how to use silverware! It’s because parents don’t spend the time to teach them, and when the parents are with the girls, they don’t want to reprimand them. They want to be their friends. Children today,” she says, “don’t do for themselves.”

It’s certainly possible that these feelings affected how Tollin treated parents and children, including Amanda Pouls, for whom she seems to have an outsized contempt, considering Amanda is eight. “One day, Amanda said to me, ‘I have seven cell phones,’” Tollin tells me. “I said, ‘Why do you need a cell phone?’ She said” — Tollin assumes a bratty kid voice — “‘I don’t know. I wanted it. My daddy bought it for me.’” (Amanda actually has only one cell phone, a Sidekick.)

But although Tollin might have been fed up, she never, it turns out, threw a blind child into a locker. “There’s not even a blind child at Baldwin!” says Michael Pouls’s source when I get her on the phone. She doesn’t want to be named, and is disturbed that her story has been exaggerated. “There aren’t even lockers in that hallway! All I said was, Patsy Tollin seemed a little bit tougher than maybe she needed to be.”

And there’s no doubt about the fact that Mrs. Tollin was loved by many parents and students. In the months after her firing, she worked a successful public relations campaign in the community, and letters extolling her virtues arrived at Baldwin by the ton. One parent’s strangely odic letter read:

Patsy is structured but flexible.
Patsy is disciplined but fair.
Patsy knows each child’s strengths, both academically and socially.
Patsy has a sense of humor and truly enjoys children.
Patsy is a Master Teacher and one of Baldwin’s treasures. …

Meanwhile, Mark Halpern was discussing a tentative settlement with Baldwin and the Poulses’ lawyers. But when Halpern heard a rumor that Michael Pouls was saying, of the money his lawyer was offering, “That’s less than I paid for my pool furniture,” his blood boiled. He upped the ante: $1 million from the school and the Poulses.

Baldwin and the Poulses declined the settlement offer. “I told Mark Halpern his client was being piggish,” their lawyer, Stephen Hankin, says. “And you know what happens to pigs? Pigs get slaughtered.”

The following Monday, Patsy Tollin filed her lawsuit.

LIKE THE BALDWIN administrators, the Poulses claim they weren’t the reason Patsy Tollin’s contract wasn’t renewed.

“God can trace me down, I have never said to the school, ‘Fire the teacher or I am pulling my money out,’” says Michael Pouls, pointing a finger at the vaulted ceiling of his office, as if God himself is lingering directly outside the Poulses’ house, waiting to hear the true story.

“When I was angry, I might have said something that could have inflicted that,” explains Sheryl Pouls nervously. “But never had I said that to anyone.”

After the Inquirer coverage of the lawsuit and the subsequent dissemination of the story on the Internet, the Poulses hired a PR man to sell their side of the story, and one weekday in June, Michael, Sheryl and I talked in the cool comfort of their ginormous gated Gladwyne mansion. “I don’t want this story to be about the house,” the PR man had warned in the circular driveway, in the middle of which sits a burbling fountain.

Michael and Sheryl Pouls grew up in Cherry Hill — “where all of the eggs of nouveau riche are hatched,” one Main Line mom sniffs — and their house is of the Opulent School, with dark wood and marble and large flower arrangements on a Tuesday.

Michael Pouls made his money turning a part-time college job collecting credit-card applications from fellow students into a business that grossed millions, then flipped that into a successful real estate development business. He and Sheryl bought their Gladwyne property in 1995. The community found them “strange,” one neighbor says, because despite their loud possessions, the family was pretty quiet.

Their reputation for being low-key was borne out by the fact that of the many people who called Philadelphia on the Poulses’ behalf, some don’t seem to really know them that well. One business associate of Michael Pouls in Delaware, where he is building an “active adult” community, was eager enough to talk that he called seven times and sent a text message. But he had so little to say that it begged the question of why he was asked to call in the first place. “He seemed to think that my position as the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Delaware is noteworthy,” the associate explained.

Michael Pouls is smart and organized. Whether he pressured the administration to have Tollin removed or not, he is taking to the role of education reformer with relish. When asked how he thinks he and Sheryl are seen by other Baldwin parents, he thinks for a moment and says: “Heroic is a word that’s been used. They’re grateful someone has had the courage to speak up.”

“I don’t want to be like a hero, changing how teachers teach,” he offers later, so apropos of nothing that it can only mean that such a grandiose plan is what he has in mind. In answer to Tollin’s complaint, Pouls compiled a list of academic studies from places like the U.S. Department of Education that lauded parental involvement in a child’s education, and articles such as “Bad Teachers Have Devastating Effects on Student Performance,” which offers insights like: “If an ineffective teacher isn’t dealt with, children can be permanently harmed.”

“Controlling” is also a word that was used to describe Michael Pouls, by several parents who know the family but didn’t want to be named. “He dictates every move that his children make, and every move that his wife makes, and now he’s dictating the moves that Baldwin is making,” says one mother.

But some people say that in their experience, he’s just an enthusiastic father.

“Sheryl and Michael enjoy hosting lavish parties for their daughters’ birthdays and for the end of the school year as well,” Hope Bernstein, a Baldwin parent, wrote in an e-mail, noting that the Poulses often hired rides and clowns and provided transportation for all of the children. “They do this not to draw attention to themselves,” she is careful to note, “but to enable all of their daughter’s classmates to attend the party.”

In a way, the PR man is missing his own best angle. Maybe this story is about the Poulses’ house. And their tennis courts. And their pool, and the guard who roams the property at night. It’s about the $27 million mansion the Poulses bought last year in Longport, and the fact that to a lot of people in this community, the Poulses have a little too much money and got it a little too quickly for their own good.

“What they’re really being judged for,” says Meredith Seigle, a honey-voiced lawyer and Baldwin parent who lists her credentials (Union League, Historical Society) when calling on the Poulses’ behalf, “is living behind that brick wall and that gate.”

Certainly to Mark Halpern, Patsy Tollin’s lawyer, the Poulses are representative of everything that’s wrong with the culture of the Main Line — the showy wealth, the entitlement, the whole My Super Sweet 16 way of life. “Out here is the new money,” he says. “And Michael Pouls is not a guy who got his money from his parents. It’s a completely different attitude. They have the 500x Mercedes, and these are guys who, two years ago, had nothing. They turn around and go, ‘If you’re not driving this car, you’re nobody.’ That’s the mind-set here.”

To Halpern, the case is a golden opportunity to wring some shame out of people who have found themselves drawn into that particular mind-set. “And this is why I want Philadelphia magazine to tell this story,” he says. “Because it’s the Main Line Jews who read Philadelphia magazine, and it’s the Main Line Jews who need to hear this. And I can say that because I am a Main Line Jew.”

Patsy Tollin says she just wants her job back, but even she admits that at this point, that’s unlikely to happen. So she plans to use the same means as Halpern to achieve what is basically the same end, although her target is more precise. “When Mrs. Tollin’s contract was not renewed I tried to avoid contact with her,” Holly Stoviak, the assistant head of the lower school, wrote in a statement obtained by Philadelphia that Baldwin’s lawyers intend to file in court. “She cornered me one morning as I was copying papers and proceeded to tell me she was going to file a big lawsuit. She stated that her son knew one of the editors of Philadelphia magazine and that she would make sure she got publicity. She said that she was going to see that Sally Powell didn’t last three years here and that she was a cold and a heartless woman.”

It’s hard to imagine Tollin will benefit from her lawsuit. Schools may have changed over the years, but those maxims about schoolyard fights remain the same: Name-calling rarely gets one anywhere, and there’s never a victor.

“Nobody wins in a situation like this,” says Steve Piltch, the headmaster of Shipley, the private school down the road.

BACK AT THE Pouls house, while both Amanda and Samantha are away at camp, Sheryl walks up the stairs to Amanda’s room. A uniformed employee who has been folding the girl’s tiny pants excuses herself. The room is big but not over-the-top, and it’s decorated like any kid’s, with paraphernalia from High School Musical and a small collection of wigs and dress-up clothes. Next to Amanda’s desk, a sheet of newsprint is tacked to the wall — some kind of writing exercise done in a child’s hand. “Mrs. Daley is nice,” it says. “Mrs. Tollin is cool.”

If the case goes to trial, which Halpern is pushing for, Tollin’s side will likely subpoena Baldwin students past and present, including both the Pouls children. “Everything hinges on Amanda’s statement,” Tollin says. “It was Amanda who said, ‘Mrs. Tollin is mean and she yells, she didn’t wave to me.’”

In the meantime, the Poulses are preparing their defense. “This woman is trying to ruin my life,” Michael Pouls says in a desperate, anguished message on my voicemail. “I love my kids and I love my family, and someone’s just trying to ruin that.”

The lawsuit could take, Mark Halpern estimates, up to seven years to be resolved. “This is where the school made a mistake,” he says. “I don’t think anybody realized what it would cost to placate this family.”

With all of the agendas in play — Tollin’s, Halpern’s, Baldwin’s, Michael Pouls’s — it’s hard to remember what the original argument was even about. From the smile on her little heart-shaped face as she wriggles over her French toast at Ozzie’s luncheonette in Longport a few weeks later, it seems Amanda has totally forgotten her problems with Mrs. Tollin. But it’s a safe bet it won’t last. A small school is like a small town: Word gets around fast. “The people this is going to be hardest on is the children,” one Baldwin parent said, whispering over the phone, as if worried that someone on the Main Line would hear. “But nobody’s thinking about the children.”