Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Notes from the front office,

Schools have strict routines, procedures, protocols.  The one  for handling conversations with angry parents is a list of do's:  Keep calm, stay focused, slow down the conversation, ask what they  need, repeat  what the person is saying, and assure them someone will handle the situation.

My days were predictable only because somethings were under your control, bells, breaks, lists of people, lists of days. Most things, though, were never shelved clearly on a bookshelf. They showed up piled on top of each other, like kids going for a ball, and you had to stop the game and unravel the players.

The phone calls, for instance, would begin an hour or two before the office opened up.  When I walked in, most  mornings, I hardly ever had the opportunity to use the restroom and hang my coat  before rushing to answer the phone. I was the school secretary and  usually alone in the office most of the time.  I missed two, three calls on the average that went to the answering machine before I could get to them. The unfortunate people, then, had to call again if they wanted to talk to a live person or wait until things had slowed down enough for me to pick up and listen to the recorded calls and decide how to respond to them. 

Sometimes, if people got nasty, I put them on hold with the excuse to transfer the caller to someone in charge.  I could tell from the tone of the caller, whether she or he was fit to talk to. Most days, these nasty calls ruined my attitude from the get go.

One such morning,  the phone was ringing off the hook as I opened the front door and rushed to turn off the alarm, in the dark, hoping the alarm would be shut off by the day custodian. I  walked in without realizing that a woman and her child had followed me in.

I was annoyed at myself for not noticing them earlier.

 I gestured for them to take a seat and rushed to the phone. I remember that the child had been suspended the day before.  The alarm had already been disarmed, and I made a mental note to thank the custodian for this small act she had finally got around doing for me.

“Marilyn, I’m running late….” Mr. Tully, my boss and school principal, on his cell phone, was letting me know that he was dropping documents at the District Office, and needed someone to meet the buses.  Mr. Tully, I wanted to shout back, the boy you suspended yesterday and his mother are here to see you. 

I didn’t have a chance to tell him anything at all.    
“That was the Principal…” I began addressing the woman.
“I’m not leaving until I talk to him…” She interrupted me and asserted herself before she heard the next thing.
“He’s been called to the District Office.” I continued, remaining calm and smiling consciously, letting her know that I was just reporting, adding, “I can make an appointment for later this afternoon.”  
She rustled herself a bit without answering me, and then turned to whisper something to her boy.  Great, I thought, she wants to make this tough for herself. I moved on to my next task.

 Showing up like this, without an appointment, without realizing how difficult she was making it for me to help her, at this time of the day when the office is most busy, she was not going to make things easy for her.

Her next statement came out of nowhere. “He suspends my boy and doesn’t bother to talk to me? What lies did he listen to? I know Ray has his bad moments, but he always tells me the truth, and he didn’t do what you guys say he did.”
 I was working at getting keys for a substitute, and I didn’t answer her.
“I’ve asked this school for Ray’s grades and I have not seen anything yet.” She had moved up from her seat into my face, taking a resting breath.

 I looked up from my computer work and told her she’ll have to talk to the principal or the homeroom teacher about report cards.

She was  venting in front of a big audience, and I was alone, greeting teachers and volunteers as they walked in, getting people supplies, answering the phone and meeting the buses.  I had hopped in and out of the office and in and out of her sight. 

 The custodian was in the office at one point and I told her about the alarm.
“Oh No! We don’t not need another incident.”  Peggy started, “No. I didn’t disarm this building, nor was the alarm on in the other buildings either.  I’m not covering for him anymore! He has as many hours as me, and what does he do? I always have to finish something or other in the morning that he was too careless or lazy to get done. He’s a real goof-off, and I bet he was drinking for part of that shift. And not the first time, either!” I gestured that visitors were sitting up, just out of her sight.  Peggy nodded and walked off.

When the first bell rang, the office cleared quickly.  Then, Betty came in and I was finally able to use the restroom before the rush of attendance sheets got me busy again at the computer.

 In my usual post from behind a wall of plants and file cabinets I still had a good perspective on everything. After the first ten minutes,  I got up  to check if the woman and child had moved to the nurse’s station in a corner area, or were standing outside the office waiting for a ride maybe. They were nowhere in sight.I walked to the cafeteria and peeked in to see if   Mr. Tully might have returned on campus and be sitting there with an aide or a bus driver, having coffee.

A half hour later, I heard her coming in through the back door and then  something or other was said to Betty who was in her line of vision, and soon after, the sound of the front door slammed shut.
 “Was that the woman who was waiting for M.Tully?” I asked. 
Betty pointed at the door.  “She came in from the back  and went out the front.”
“Was her child with her?”
“She was alone.”
“Did she have permission to visit the classroom?”
“NO! I would have told her, but she sneaked out without my noticing. ”
“Nobody is allowed on campus without a pass, a proper pass, and permissions from the principal and the teacher.  Her boy was suspended yesterday. Ray Rambo, remember? They were here at seven!”

 I dialed the extension for Mrs. Proctor, Ray’s teacher, to ask if Ray was with her. 
“What did the mother say?” 
Mrs. Proctor just said she was sending Ray to the office. She sounded upset.
“Mr. Tully isn’t in the office now.” 
“Well, he’s not my problem anymore!”  That’s the last thing she said.
I hated when I had to be the disciplinarian.  
I told Betty: “She’s sending him to us. We do nothing. He sits here and does his work, back there in the nurse’s office.  He’ll be out of the way but we can still keep an eye on him. When the nurse comes in she may find a different place for him. Lunch, breaks, the whole day, he stays here until Mr. Tully decides what to do next. And since we don’t know when he’ll be back, we keep an eye on the sweet angel.  Go get him some breakfast from the cafeteria. These kids are sent to school without any food.”

Ray showed up a few minutes later, his head down,  contrite looking, went off to sit by himself without a word of complain, and thanked Betty profusely when she brought him his breakfast.
“What happens if Mr. Tully doesn’t return?” Betty was new to this job, just a week in, and had to be told all the procedures, all the rules. She was hired to translate for us, for me, as the result of a complaint we received from some parent about ignoring them too long, something about them needing a translator.

Betty was bilingual.

Before  noon, Mr. Tully called to tell us that he was joining the superintendent for lunch. Betty answered the phone and forgot to tell him about Ray sitting in the office.

The next morning as I counted heads and entered absences in the computer. Ray Rambo was present in Mrs. Proctor’s class and  I poked into Mr. Tully's office.
“Is Ray Rambo back in class?”
“Well, he served  yesterday!”
“How did it go with his mother?” I assumed he had called her and talked about what to do with the boy.
“O.k ”
“Do I need to amend the paperwork for the District Office?”
“Well, you suspended him for three days. He was here yesterday, so he was present and accounted for. He’s here today. If we don’t amend the paperwork, our attendance audit will catch the incongruity.”
“Can’t you just?”
“The original paperwork went already.”
“O.k. do what needs to be done.”
“O.K.” I said. What I really wanted to tell him was that the kid is playing everyone. But, this was not my job. If the woman stayed away, I’d be pleased.

Later, Betty told me of a conversation she overheard between Mr. Tully and Mrs. Proctor when I was at lunch. It was typical, I thought. Teachers trying to hold their fort, and getting little support. I told Betty that whatever happened in the office, whatever she heard; she needs to keep it confidential, and not to repeat it anywhere else.
“Even my hairdresser knows about this kid. Last night, I went over for a cut, and he asked me what had happened, why he was suspended. He’s his nephew, he said. “
“What did you say?” I must have scared Betty with my tone, because she wriggled there for a minute, eh and ah and no real sentence coming out as an answer.
“I told him I didn’t know much.”
“Good. We say nothing at all. We don’t enter any conversation about teachers, or students, or anything. Not even with your family, especially with your family. Say nothing!”
“Oh yes.”
“We can get in major trouble.” I said, leaving Betty to ponder these warnings.

This incident should not have bothered me in the least. The Principal was in charge and knew a whole lot more than I did. But I was livid none the less. The boy got away only because his mother was a bully and intimidated everyone.


  1. This is the beginning of a novella, about schools, about those who work there, about a service industry we all participate in, we all think we know, we all have opinions about.

    I intend to capture the inner workings, the conflicts, the needs of each group represented here.
    I'm especially interested to hear your opinions on this piece. Please tell me what you think.

  2. The school office is like a microcosm of our society. It reminds me of the day-to-day chaos of our present world. It seems no one is happy because of lack of an ability to communicate on someone or everyone's part. I tended to identify most with Betty, the ordinary worker trying to do a good job without being put down. The narrator is our everyday worker who doesn't want to take any real responsibility, is frustrated when she has to, and puts it all back on the "boss".
    Very interesting Rosaria.

  3. Angry people are difficult to respond to in a helpful way. This story has all the elements of good drama and I'd like to hear more. We all have been students, had teachers, principals and parents. Many have been parents trying to hear our child's report of what happened at school and then deal with teachers and principals with perhaps less than accurate facts. When you throw in the staff in the school having to deal with feelings stirred up by someone else but dumped on them, well you have it all and I already have feelings just reading it!

  4. Having spent 17 years as a high school teacher, I see a lot this is familiar in this tale!

  5. We all know that the person who is really in charge of the school is the secretary...

  6. To add to ds'

    "do not - in any way- tick off the head secretary!"

    and "she is worth every penny the principal is paid"

    Great start to a novella

    After 25 years of teaching- you have hit the nail on the head!

  7. The narrator is not too likable at this point. Does that bother anyone?
    Would the story improve with an omniscient narrator?

  8. The narrator could tell this from a different angle. That would be interesting too, but I felt not like able is too strong. Straight forward, yes.

  9. From my husband (a 4th grade teacher) I know how important the school secretary is, and truly, their influence in the community is powerful. People have no idea how much they have to juggle!

  10. This felt incredibly real. I feel no need to "like" the narrator. Real people are made up of flaws and virtues. Making a character that we all like, does not make him or her real.

    ~ terri