On the first day of school, I received a note in my mail box that Mrs. Evelyn Spencer was volunteering to be the room mom in my sixth grade class at Liberty Elementary.
“Oh good!” I said, as a greeting to her and her boy Ryan when they showed up the first day of school. I wastoo busy to pay attention to her, or to give her any specific instruction about the duties of a Room Mom. I saw her in the back throughout the morning, moving about and keeping busy, sorting and labeling the new textbooks piled high on the back shelves. At lunch time, she informed me that the lunch count to the cafeteria and the student count to the main office were taken care of. Then, before I could even thank her for saving my morning, she offered to walk the class to and from the cafeteria, saving me ten minutes additional minutes on a very busy morning.
“Oh, good!” I said, catching my breath, anticipating the minute I could kick my heels off, shut the door, and close my eyes for twenty uninterrupted minutes. I had a good feeling about her as I closed the shutters and collapsed with my now cold coffee.
She was unlike all the other Homeroom Mothers who came and left, who tried to convince teachers that their little angels were specials. She lasted an entire day and not once interrupted me. She smiled approvingly when I sent home the big packet of homework for the week. Yes! I finally had won the Lottery.
I finished the first day gloating, anticipating how Room 26 could become the class recognized regularly at monthly school assemblies, and win top prizes in contests and yearly magazine subscriptions and Christmas cookie-dough pre-sales. I could tell she was artistic and hard working. Most of all, she was inconspicuous.
The next day she wanted to talk about putting together a weekly newsletter to inform parents and community of the important work we were doing in Rm 26. She spoke about it as though it was already taken care of.
“Newsletters take too much time, and nobody reads them!” I stated, beginning to feel a bit of irritation. She assured me that it was going to take no effort on my part, adding, “Just wear your pretty theme sweater on Friday, for a real surprise!”
Someone from the local paper came to take our picture that Friday. Evelyn had written the copy, all about a canned food drive to help local churches that our class was starting. I didn’t even know about that campaign! I wanted to sit down and explain to her that she had to clear these things with me, but I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm.
She seemed to know just what pictures and stories the paper would print, and kept suggesting contests to keep people reading and responding, a special feature each month she had invented with everyone’s favorite activity. Parts of our local newsletter inevitably showed up in the local paper, the only school newsletter to get so much publicity.
Evelyn kept coming up with contests to stimulate our circulation. At the local supermarket, people would stop and congratulate me on all the things we were doing. I was becoming a minor celebrity thanks to her.
As the front desk person informed me, Evelyn was making herself useful everywhere. On a morning when Evelyn was waiting for the Xerox to finish and Marian, the front desk person was organizing the mail, Evelyn came right out and offered to help.
“You must have better things to do. I can do that for you when I come in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before I go help Jean.” Evelyn had volunteered to help Marian, just like that.
She did a whole lot of other tasks here and there with different people. I stopped counting, after a while.
The woman was ubiquitous.
She had begun to call me Jean in front of the children, instead of my Mrs. Reed.
I was quite taken back, actually.
Offended, in fact.
Then, I thought, what’s the big deal, everyone already calls everyone else by their first name. I was the only one holding back, being old fashioned, in my own world.
Her words, in jest, as in, “Mrs, Reed, Jean, may I call you Jean? Everyone thinks you’re in your own world. I told them you are as modern as anyone. You really understand these pre-pubescent!”
That’s what she said, pre-pubescent.
She arrived at school before any of us, before seven thirty every day, sorting boxes of mail that had been delivered the day before. She knew what everyone was doing; what messages were being received by whom; how field trips went for that mousy teacher in first grade and how was it that nobody had complained about her yet? Simple remarks like that told me what everyone else was doing in their classrooms.
One afternoon, at the bus stop, as I supervised children board their different buses, she started to talk about the work her boy Ryan was completing in my class.
“Was his work o.k? Did he miss instructions? If he didn’t get it 100% right it was my fault! I told Ryan not to rush through that homework!” She went on as we walked back to my room, all the while listing this and that activity the two of them were obliged to follow through.
“Well,” I said, “maybe I need to give Ryan more time to finish things.” I had not realized how busy with community projects they both were.
“No special treatment needed,” she said. “Absolutely not! It wouldn’t be fair!”
I insisted. “But he can do it again over the weekend, if he wants, take all the time that’s needed,” adding, “really, with all you do for this school, we can bend the rules a little bit.”
“Absolutely not! Won’t think of it. He needs to learn to work within the rules. Why, the last homework wasn’t even worth the C you gave him.”
I was impressed with her integrity.
She was solid, and I liked her a lot.
I decided then and there that the lowest mark each student had, would be eliminated at midterm. I offered that as a compromise, realizing that was the first time I had changed my grading scale.
“You’re the best teacher I know!” She declared, with a big smile, and a big hug, and trotted out to her car in a very happy mood.
I didn’t mind when she showed up unexpectedly, on days she wasn’t scheduled in my room. I got used to seeing her around. She’d drop something off from the office, and stay in the background if a particular lesson was of interest to her.
One day, I asked if she had any suggestions. She appeared uncomfortable, “Ryan is going to ask me to explain the lesson at home. I was trying to understand it myself!”
In many little ways, and casually, reviewing my lessons carefully, I wrote down in advance every thing I was going to say, word for word. Something she had said, about something I said, as though she didn’t want to cause trouble for me.
“You have so much to share, still! I can’t believe people think you’re too set in your ways!”
I didn’t know how to ask for details. Did she mean to share that information she might have picked up in the main office? She must be gossiping with everyone, I thought. Besides, I had won all those contests, had received good reports from the principal on her yearly visits. I began to resent her hovering, but I couldn’t tell her to stay away from my class. How would that look? When I casually asked the other teacher how was it with Evelyn around, they had nothing but praise for her.
Everyone wished they had room moms like her.
After the holiday performance I received a bill from a vendor for materials that Evelyn had used to construct the sets and make costumes. The bill was for eight hundred dollars, and already overdue. My name at the top of the invoice.
“But, we didn’t mean for you to go buy stuff! We thought you had collected these materials. We don’t have this kind of budget for holiday performances!” I confronted her without hesitation.
I was surprised at her response.
“If I hadn’t jumped in and helped, you would have had nothing. I saved your neck! ” was her reply.
At the performance, I had been harried and exhausted getting each group on stage and on cue, and when the principal closed the assembly, praising the costumes and set, praising the children for their efforts, she asked the parents and community to publicly thank Mrs. Spencer for saving the holiday program:
“We are so lucky to have Mrs. Spencer! Thank you, thank you.”
My name was not mentioned once.
At the end of the week, when the principal visited my room, I expected then to be thanked for the performance, the work I had put to organize the assembly, and the wonderful reception by the parents.
She was brusque and to the point: parents were unhappy with how I explained things; students had a tough time understanding my explanations; I changed the rules with some children, and I was bad-mouthing Mrs. Spencer with the other teachers.
I was speechless.
I didn’t have the courage to talk about the eight hundred dollar expense.
Part one of four
2/18/2011 5:42:41 PM