Teaching five or six classes a day is a heavy enough load itself. Add a school club or competitive team to that weight, and the job can truly become one’s life. Young teachers quickly intuit this, and hope to avoid being assigned extracurricular duties. When I began my career, “assigned” was the operative concept; newbies were expected to accept happily such responsibilities as a part of dues-paying—not to mention because their energy level had not quite yet been sapped to brown-out levels. The trouble was, this acceptance usually wasn’t addressed in teacher training, so it had a tendency to take the average greenhorn by surprise.
Such was my introduction to club sponsorship. Before the start of my sophomore campaign, I was called down to my supervising assistant principal’s office. We’d hit it off fairly well during my insane first year, but he had consistently chided me for wearing jeans and staff sweatshirts too frequently, to which I’d responded that it was a strictly a matter of economics, not sartorial aesthetics. I barely made enough money to pay rent, eat, and medicate myself with beer, so assembling a slick wardrobe was out of the question. He wasn’t impressed that I’d countered with an excuse, but, back then, on final evaluations, the teacher was given a space for “rebuttals,” so I repeated the explanation in writing, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t admired that. So I was already wary as I responded to this particular summons to his office.
“Phil, we need you to sponsor a club that’s having a little trouble staying afloat.”
“I’m not interested, really. I’m enjoying the teaching, and I keep myself pretty busy after hours and on weekends.”
“Phil, I don’t think you understand. We need you to do this. Also, the kids have gotten wind that you enjoy what you’re doing here and think you’d be a good sponsor for them. Last year’s sponsor moved on.” Translation: “Phil, you don’t have a choice. You are going to do this. Also, the old sponsor ran away screaming.” Unfortunately, I was a BLL: “Bureaucratic Language Learner,” emerging division.
“No, seriously, I don’t think club sponsorship is my thing. I appreciate you and the kids thinking I would do a good job, though.”
A look someplace between severe constipation and bottled rage tightened and darkened his face. Clearly, he didn’t want to have to tell me I was going to do this; he wanted me to make it easy for him and just accept it. He did not know he was dealing with a guy who had always been a little slow on the uptake. I thought I had a choice—I’d inferred it from the language of his request.
“Look, this will look really good when you’re evaluated at the end of the year.” Now he was communicating in a tongue I understood. I wasn’t happy about the clothing issue from the year before, nor about his giving me an informal “B+” for my year’s performance (in retrospect, that was very charitable), but I also thought that, should I continue to refuse the offer I actually couldn’t refuse, I would end up bumping my hard head on a glass ceiling of sorts.
I folded. “Alright, I’m in. What’s the club?”
“Have you heard of Canterbury Society?”
My eye began to twitch.
“Well, that’s the problem. The club is way under the radar and hasn’t done anything of note to be on the radar for a long, long time.”
“So, uh, is this a club of…Chaucer admirers?”
“Actually, Phil, I am not sure what it is at this juncture. But I’ve taken the liberty of setting up a meeting for later on this week for you and the five or six remaining kids from last year, so you can find out then. I think you’re smart to accept this position.”
Walking out of his office, I thought to myself, “Well, the main problem is that the idea of a high school club apparently designed to celebrate Chaucer will never be a hot proposition. At least for long.”
When I met the kids, many of whom I wasn’t too surprised to find were or had been my students, I was slightly relieved to learn that Canterbury Society was a club for kids who generally liked literature, but, when I asked what they’d come up with for activities, they responded quizzically. Did they know what a club was? I suggested that we get together maybe once a month to share excerpts from what we’d been reading, but that was met with blank stares. They’d tried that, and it’d had the effect of chasing off members, with which the club wasn’t teeming to begin with. They felt they needed to really do something.
“We could do a fundraiser,” someone chimed in, apropos of nothing.
Curious, I asked, “What would we be raising money for? Usually, the need comes first, doesn’t it?”
Someone else piped up. “The Developmental Center for the Ozarks always needs some funding, according to my parents. They train disabled adults to work and contribute to society. We could raise money for them.”
Always an annoying nit-picker when it came to relevance and practicality, I posed another question: “How would said fundraiser connect with, y’know, reading?”
I lurched into the void with an idea that, had it come from an experienced teacher, would have given one cause to question his mental well-being: “We could do a 24-hour read-a-thon, and collect pledges based on each individuals’ pages read. They could just lock us in the library on a Saturday morning and let us out on Sunday.” Someone clearly needed to object to such a proposal. And fast.
A month and a half later, we stood staring as a janitor locked the school library’s doors from the outside, a group now grown beyond 40 and hoping that our coolers of soda and piles of snacks would hold out—and that the Domino’s delivery guy wouldn’t set off the school alarm. What I’d already discovered (and should have remembered from my own high school experiences) was that, outside the classroom, students were even funnier, more interesting, and energetic than they were in it, which had the welcome effect of balancing the frustrations I was experiencing trying to make learning happen as an English teacher. The 24 hours passed surprisingly quickly, as we played cards and games every three hours or so to keep ourselves awake and fresh, traded stories from our respective trenches, shared what we were reading, and shifted over to mathematics to try and project how much money we might raise. Knowing the bare minimum about the ground rules for school activities and letting my enthusiasm drown my already sketchy common sense, I’d not arranged to have other teachers or a few parents help me supervise—I think the principal assumed I’d done so, because I can’t imagine she would have otherwise allowed me to go it alone—so I had to stay awake keeping them awake—and monitoring for clandestine romantic interludes within the stacks. As well as waiting for the pizza.
The night custodian let the Dominos delivery boy in with the pizzas mid-evening, and after chowing down we’d found we’d overordered—grossly. At least it wasn’t coming out of our fundraising; we’d chipped in together and gotten a boost from the office to pay for the pies. Still, it’s depressing to see a tall stack of full pizza boxes you’re too full to eat. Suddenly, one of the kids burst forth out of a burgeoning brainstorm.
“There’s a speech and debate activity in the Commons tomorrow morning. Let’s sell cold slices for breakfast for 50 cents apiece!”
The rest of the group exploded in laughter, and even I thought the idea was even more cuckoo than a 24-hour read-a-thon with no supervisory backup, but, well, I’m often wrong. Happily, I was also wrong about the idea being cuckoo—never underestimate the pull of pizza—as we spent our last hours, with the morning custodian’s assistance, rotating into the Commons to sell all the leftover pieces and adding cash to the charity coffers.
All told, we raised over $2,000 on nickel-a-page pledges and who-knows-how-many total pages read. I wish I still had the paperwork after 30 years. And it felt good to set out to do something and actually end up with cold, hard evidence that it got done, and got done well, all the while with all involved having a blast. That’s not quite so easy to replicate in the classroom. Also, I didn’t have to commandeer the activity with the intensity teaching required; I could relax a little bit, kid around, tell some stretchers, and be myself. We repeated the activity the next year, with almost twice as many students (as well as some backup chaperones), and raised almost $1,000 more than we had before. True: the read-a-thon was our only activity of the year, other than planning meetings for the read-a-thon, but, hey—we did something.
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. I was soon very comfortable in my role as the sponsor of Canterbury Society, and, after a rough second and third year, I was getting my pedagogical footing. Those are also the years when young teachers begin to feel deeply the mental, emotional, psychological and even physical cost of the job, and begin wondering how long they can keep it up. For the first of only three times I can remember, I had been considering another profession, but my involvement with kids outside the classroom had helped me come to my senses.
I had also weathered my first career controversy: during a first-hour class, with several female students surrounding me at the front of the classroom, I had taken out my wallet to buy some fundraiser cookies, and a 10-year-old condom, probably turned to powder in its weathered wrapper, flew out of my wallet and onto the middle of my meticulously clean desk. After the deafening laughter died down, I begged the young ladies to please keep a lid on the unfortunate occurrence. That was like asking a pyromaniac not to ignite a river of kerosene, and by lunch, I knew from my second, third, and fourth hours’ razzing that my mishap was already the talk of the halls. Then came the inevitable call to the office–the principal’s office, occupied by an administrator, Dolores Brooks, whom I very much liked, thoroughly respected, and feared not a little.
I shuffled sheepishly into the main office and reported to Mrs. Brooks’ secretary, who was sporting what I quickly interpreted as a Puritanical glower. She waved me in with disgusted officiousness, where Dolores, who’d been a basketball player at Purdue and towered over me, was standing glaring at me, arms crossed and lips pursed.
“Sit down,” she fairly ordered me.
I sit down and stared at my lap, unconscious of the meaning that might have conveyed.
“We have a problem, don’t we?” she asked, funereally.
“Yeah. I screwed up.” You know, I actually hadn’t. In fact, had I not been mortified and 25 years old, I would have alchemized it into a teachable moment. But this was Springfield—my friend Frank called it “Banks & Bibles, Missouri” with good reason—and I feared the very worst.
Mrs. Brooks went on. “I have a very serious question for you.”
“Yeah, I figured.” I knew she was going to ask me if I wanted to keep my job.
“Do you need a fresh supply of condoms?” she asked, poker-faced.
She proceeded to lapse into a convulsion of guffaws, tears glazing her eyes. They don’t make principals like that anymore.
She came out from around her desk, put her arm around me, and said, “C’mon, I’ll buy you lunch. Some of your peers would like to harass you in the teacher’s lounge.” And did they.
But it wasn’t this call to the office that is relevant. A few days later, Dolores called me into her office again, where she was visiting with my evaluating principal, who was also the administrator charged with overseeing school activities. He’d formerly been Parkview’s student council advisor, a position that’s frequently a rung on the ladder out of teaching and into administrating (wherein the big money lies). I still had a touch of the fan-tods from the condom incident, and since I hadn’t quite made an effort to dress more fashionably—this was the Miami Vice Eighties, so I had another reason to drag my heels—I was a little leery of Brooks’ underling. They wasted no time getting to the point.
“Judy Brunner will be taking an administrative position at another building next year, and we’ve been talking to our student government about whom they’d like as their sponsor next year.”
The AP chimed in. “They didn’t even take time to think about it. They would like you to do it.”
I’d like to interject at this point that these student desires had little to do with any quality teaching I might have been doing. I was young, full of energy, easily manipulated, and liked to have a good time whatever I happened to be doing. By and large, the bulk of the rest of the faculty at Parkview, as much as I had learned from them, was a bit worn out, cynical on a regular basis, and not totally invested; I would understand all of that later. As for the moment in question, as you will see, I had learned very little and understood even less.
I countered, confidently, “Well, I have a club, it’s doing pretty well, my classes are huge, and I am working very hard. Plus I’m a lit guy, not a government guy. I’m going to have to pass.” I looked at them for a response. They appeared lightly dumbstruck. They said nothing.
I continued. “I need to grab lunch because I have to set up an activity before my next class comes in. Good luck with the sponsor search.” I hurried out, with a creeping suspicion that the interaction had been too easy.
Later, on my way out of the building, Dolores saw me and waved me into her office again. I started to sit down, but she told me, “This won’t take long. We appreciate your reasons for not wanting to sponsor student council, but we figured that by now you got the concept that you don’t have a choice. We were a little stunned, or we would have corrected you last time you were in here.”
Parkview High School Student Council, 1988-19898: A great one. Author on far left.
Thus began my tenure as a student council sponsor, an experience that would lead me directly out of Springfield to Columbia, where I now live. My first year was exhilarating and absolutely draining. Parkview’s student government model put the group in charge of assembly scripting and execution, the school blood drive, elections, decorations and events for homecoming, and interviewing and selecting top leadership for the following year. In addition, members were expected to read, obey, and augment file folders documenting past years’ responsibilities for their positions—a nifty idea, especially when you’re a new sponsor working with a 12-member council of strangers. Unlike many student council sponsors today, I was fortunate to have my final class of the day dedicated to meeting the group for planning and working (one less class of essays to grade!), but that was just enough time to get settled, crack wise at each other, and brainstorm—by the time we were ready to work on a script, compose memos to faculty, or paint a sign, the school day was long over.
The kids were bright, hard-working, creative, and witty, and thus a true pleasure to work with, but, after working at the school for 85 hours during my first five-day week of homecoming, then awakening at 4:30 a.m. the following Saturday morning to load the gang onto a bus for an all-day state student council conference, I was able to accurately measure the cost. I have always been a high-energy person who’s never needed much over six hours of sleep a night to run at full capacity, but two moments from that week communicate just how draining my responsibilities were.
I happened to be showing my fifth-hour class the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird on the climactic Friday of homecoming–the fourth consecutive hour I had shown it, and, since my fifth hour took lunch in the middle of the period, I had to dismiss them, since no bell was sounded. At 12:05, five minutes after lunch dismissal, I awakened from a deep sleep, head on my desk in the back of classroom and drooling, to the whole class laughing and pointing at me—I’d passed straight out.
The next evening, after returning from the student council conference, my housemates and I were hosting a Halloween party and, though I had the energy to don a costume (I was a dancer from Madonna’s MTV voting commercial), I made the mistake of kicking back in a recliner to chill a second and have a beer, and within seconds was dozing soundly for the entirety of the crowded soiree. I awakened at 7 the next morning still in the recliner.
However, I was just the overseer. Imagine the drain to the students’ system! They even had to stay after the homecoming dance Friday night—with their parents—and clean up, a long-time student council tradition from which I was mercifully excused. Fortunately, I was still in my 20s; I’d never survived it at 50!
The second year was not so nice. For one, Dolores Brooks, who’d visited our class after every major event to express her admiration and written notes to specific commissioners when an assembly or election had gone swimmingly, had retired, and her successor was the AP who’d been my evaluator for my first five years, who’d “asked” me to sponsor Canterbury Society and balked at my daily ensembles. He’d been the student government sponsor before the sponsor I’d replaced, and I’d heard he’d controlled it with a mandarin grip. I soon realized that grip extended to his strong emotions about student council. It’s not that I ran a loose ship; I operated on a principal of trust and made a point to always know what each member was supposed to be working on, plus I had gotten good results from a peer’s advice. Bob Bilyeu, the legendary Parkview speech and debate coach, upon learning I had ascended to a challenging supervisory role, had pulled my coat about his concept of “benign negligence”: you work closely with them early to make sure they have a grip on the basics, then you hang back—at times, disappear—and let them do it and, very important, figure out their own solutions to problems which arise in the process. Again: trust. It’s an element that’s taken a back seat (if it’s even in the car) in many 21st century public schools, between student and teacher and between teacher and admin, but I speak the truth when I say it worked for me. Did I ever get burned? Once. To that in a moment. Suffice it to say that the new principal did not approve of “benign negligence,” but he chose “passive aggression” to communicate his disapproval.
Exhibit A: we’d set a city record by collecting 180 pints of blood the previous year during our spring blood drive. Plus, we’d run the drive efficiently, and even had fun—though I’d fainted while being asked questions about yellow jaundice and never made it to the stretcher. Our president asked, “Hey, why don’t we do one each semester—we have a great organizational scheme, our kids like to give, and we had a record number of faculty show up as well.” I think that’s the first time (of many times to come) as an extracurricular advisor that I’d invoked the Wild Bunch credo: “Let’s go. Why not?” We received a slightly grudging approval from the new boss, spaced the first drive a reasonable set of weeks away from homecoming, and broke our own city record with 189 pints. However, as we began planning for the spring drive, the principal showed up to the classroom to tell us two drives was too many.
“But wait, you already approved us for two, and we’ve set city records two drives in a row,” our president replied, hurt.
“I’ve changed my mind. You guys have been doing too many things.”
I dove in. “What’s too many things? We’ve had exactly zero failures, I can’t staunch these guys’ creativity, and I’ve heard no faculty complaints.”
Irritated, the new boss stiffened and made a pronouncement: “One event per month. That’s the rule.”
The kids looked at me. I looked at him. “Since when? We didn’t observe that last year and nobody said a peep.”
“That was last year. One event per month.”
Not a little outraged, I blurted, “We’ve already made our contacts and set up a date with the Red Cross, and they’re thrilled, and we’ve got no major events anywhere near the drive. We’ll look extremely weird cancelling it.”
“Have the drive at your own risk,” he warned us, and he turned on his heel and was gone.
We had the drive at our own risk. 191 pints: another city record. But that marked the end of congratulatory notes from the principal after events, and of his classroom visits to praise us and participate in our regular debriefings and post-event critiques. It was the beginning of a kind of harassment, typified by the loose-leash situation to which I previously alluded. In order to hold on to some energy, I seldom attended athletic events at Parkview, but the student council kids were almost expected to be there, and likely would have gone even had they not been. I had no reason to think that any one of them would have needed to be on any kind of leash in public, nor that it was also my responsibility attend every big game. At a contest shortly after the principal’s huffy visit to the classroom, one of our commissioners unwisely hollered at the opposing team, “You guys are asses.” The principal fell upon on him like a Fury, kicked him out of the gym, and called me at home.
“Get rid of him. He’s not student council material.”
“I agree that his behavior was inappropriate, but I don’t think it’s cause to kick him off. How about we suspend him from events for a month. Even that’s a little harsh.”
“I want him gone.”
“I don’t think I can do that. But you are welcome to kick him off yourself, since you are in charge.”
That did not go over well.
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said, his words sounding like air being slowly forced out of a balloon.
The next day he stormed into our classroom again while we were meeting, upbraided the wayward commissioner in front of the class, and announced that the student was being suspended from activities for two months. He reminded us of our hallowed obligation to be perfect due to our position within the school, glared at me, and left. The students and I looked at each other without words, in clear, foreboding telepathic communication: “We still have three and a half months left.”
The conflict came to a very intense head during our process of selecting commissioners for the next school year. In Parkview’s model, the president, vice-president, and secretary were to be elected by the student body; those three members and the sponsor were then to interview candidates for the remaining nine positions during the three weeks leading in to spring break, select the best possible candidates for each position and obtain the administration’s approval (usually of rubber stamp variety—remember that), post the results on the bulletin board in the student commons three minutes before the bell rang to excuse the student body to spring break—and disappear. It’s a pretty good model, if you ask me, other than the time expended on interviews, which, in a large high school like ours was a chunk.
The applications had come rolling in, and, the afternoon after the deadline had expired, the three new officers and I sat at a table and gave them a cursory look. One applicant stood out like Custer in a sweat lodge: the principal’s tenth-grade daughter. Since all three of the elected officers had come from that year’s commissioners, they understood exactly what that meant.
“Mr. O, what are we gonna do?”
“Easy. We will interview her, and if she’s tops at either of the two positions she applied for, we put her on. If she’s not, we don’t. Plus, she’s a sophomore, and the unwritten rule that we only put a sophomore on if she’s a genius was one that our lovely current principal invoked back in the day. I’m not saying we won’t get any kickback, but it is that simple.”
They looked at me dubiously.
In what seemed a flashing moment but most certainly was not, we’d interviewed everyone. During a different year, the selections would have been a breeze—a clear frontrunner materialized for each position. The trouble was—though it shouldn’t have been—that the principal’s daughter, though a very sweet kid with solid potential, had submitted a drastically subpar portfolio for each of the positions she was vying for.
Again, the question: “Mr. O, what are we gonna do?”
“Kids, we’ve done it. We are submitting our list as is to the activities AP, she’ll pass it on to the principal, and he’ll have to accept it. Otherwise, he’ll be exposing himself to charges of nepotism, which he does not need, being a rookie boss. He gets his marching orders, too.”
They bought it, and I did, too—pretty much. But doubt lurked as I slipped the list into the AP’s mailbox.
She called me at home about an hour after school was out, her voice panicked. Despite our difficulties with the head cheese, this assistant principal had been extremely supportive of us throughout the year, which had to have brought some black rain down on her head.
“Phil! HE. IS. LIVID. He cannot believe his daughter’s not on the list. He was literally screaming at me to do something and stomping around my office. If you’re going to go with this list, you better come in with full ammo.” That metaphor spooked me.
“OK, I’m going to get the kids back together tonight or tomorrow night, since that’s all the time we have left, put the situation to them, and go with whatever they decide—though I am going to advise them that, while sticking to our guns will not necessarily help us sleep better, it will make our faces more attractive the next morning when we look at them in the mirror.” That metaphor didn’t make me feel much better.
The kids and I met for pizza the Thursday before we were due to post the results. We laid out the situation as accurately as we could: if we stuck to our decision, we very likely would be harassed even further than we already had been, and lose approval for new projects, not to mention simple support for our existence—but we’d know we’d acted with pure integrity. On the other hand, if we changed the list and put his daughter on the council, the rest of the selected group was versatile enough to easily compensate for her deficiencies—and help her hone her talents—and this would cheer the boss up, possibly—but only possibly, we recognized—regaining his full support. The cost? We’d always know we’d folded. These were high school kids who just wanted to have fun and not be at war, so I didn’t blink when they unanimously opted to fold. At home, I typed up a new list to post, drank several beers in anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, and anticipation, and slept a few minutes. At 7:30 the next morning, sobered and recharged by two pots of coffee and emboldened by an hour’s meditation with a Johnny Cash best-of, I walked into his office, dressed cornily in black and visibly unshaven.
“Here’s our list.” I remember unwisely tossing it on his desk. I was tenured at this point, though because I didn’t quite understand the timing of the process, I didn’t even know it yet.
He crumpled it up and tossed it back at me. “I want the real list.”
“You saw the real list, and I heard very vividly from Pam what your opinion of it was. Let’s not play games. You have what you said you wanted.”
He slumped, and seemed to deflate. He began to cry. I am not making this up.
“I know she’s not good enough,” he blubbered.
“No! She’s is a good kid! She has excellent potential—she just is not ready yet. She has two more years—good grief, man!”
“I haven’t been a good father…I have to get to a meeting at the central office and I’ve got to get myself together. I want the original list, Phil.” I could believe neither my eyes nor my ears.
“Look, this has nothing to do with your abilities as a father. But if you accept the original list, you can’t ride us next year. It’s not fair. We’ve done a very good job this year, but it’s been in spite of your lack of support rather than because of it. They need you behind them, and—”
“Fine, fine, I know what you’re saying. I have to go. Please just put up the real list.”
I rolled my eyes, picked up the wadded-up revised list from the carpet, and got the hell out of there, thinking of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny: “Where’s my strawrberries?” Could I survive another year under this man’s authority? I gathered the three new officers and discreetly told them he’d changed his mind and accepted the original list. They high-fived, and began to prepare for their spring breaks, decompressing mentally and emotionally before my eyes. I posted the original list in the commons at 2:44.45 and hit the fucking road.
Alas, this was not the end of it.
The next evening, visiting with my parents on the first day of my low-income vacation, something happened that I would assign to fate if I actually believed in that. My dad’s fishing buddy and best friend had come by. He was the local principal—and also the head of the state principals’ association. I’d known him long enough to trust him, he was one wise and funny son of a gun, so I told the tale of our rocky year, which still had two months left.
He shook his head in amusement and disgust. Then he brightened and asked, “You ever heard of Hickman High School in Columbia?”
“Oh yeah.” Having subbed for Bob Bilyeu as a speech and debate coach, I’d learned of the school’s reputation, which was considerable. At the time, I was impressed that Sam Walton had attended Hickman.
“You think you might want to teach there? Their current principal, who’s retiring, had an English opening which he may have already filled, but if you’re interested, I think I can convince him to interview one more candidate.”
“That sounds like a long shot, but sure! Thanks!”
I didn’t think even a remote possibility existed for my being hired, but I was definitely game to go. 36 hours after witnessing Parkview’s principal’s meltdown, I was having trouble imagining that I wouldn’t pay for having witnessed it. It occurred to me that I’d be abandoning the kids on the council to bear the brunt of his emotional instability, though they’d have a new sponsor to run interference for them whom I could prepare, and in no time they’d be graduated and on to bigger and better things. If I stayed, who knows how long I’d have to stay?
I got an interview.
I was offered the job.
But, in Springfield, on the other end of the phone call from Columbia extending the offer, I was informed that the teacher I was replacing was on sabbatical, and when she returned, she had a right to her original job. I’d still be teaching in Columbia, but they couldn’t guarantee where I’d land. This aggravated me to no end, as they’d known this and could have informed me when I’d come to Columbia to interview. Clearly, their strategy was to get me on a long-distance phone call mulling a sudden job offer and bet I wouldn’t care about being uprooted. They bet wrong. I turned it down, because it felt shady. I accepted my lot and began to prepare mentally for a long year—or possibly a long decade—at Parkview. My anxiety increased when the student body president’s band began opening for mine at a couple of local clubs—perhaps a first in the annals high school president-sponsor relations—for, even though his wealthy, well-connected, supportive, and influential parents were on board, I couldn’t help thinking that if the boss caught wind of the arrangement, I’d be further over a barrel. But you don’t fade on rock and roll because you’re worried about your straight job, man.
Alas, this still was not the end of it.
In the middle of the summer, as I was heading down the main hallway of Kickapoo High School, where I was teaching a summer school class of lovable sweathogs, I passed the office of the school’s principal, who’d been an AP at Parkview and the first face I’d seen when I’d reported to the building as a rookie. She was packing up. She’d just accepted a new principal position—at Hickman in Columbia.
I congratulated her, and told her we’d almost ended up working together.
“Yes, they were very disappointed when you turned down the job. They still haven’t filled it, can you believe that?”
I explained my reasoning for walking away, and with her characteristic spunk—she was another of the good ones—she said, “What if I could guarantee you’d stay at Hickman?”
“Hell, you just got hired! Do you have that much clout yet?”
“Let me see what I can do.”
24 hours later, I was offered the job at Hickman a second time—with a specific promise I’d be staying safely put. I took it without hesitation, even though the promise wasn’t in writing. Folks, I usually think in musical references: as Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X once plangently harmonized, “It’s who you know,” and as Steve Earle once wrote, “You know the rest.”
Except you don’t. That still wasn’t the end of it.
Turns out the girl we selected instead of the principal’s daughter for one of the positions she’d applied for was caught making the beast with two backs with a math teacher after hours in a classroom—she was probably supposed to be there working on a student council project. So I am kind of glad I missed that, and chose not to follow the story further. I still don’t know the ending—so, for me, I guess that is the end of it.
Except to say, to the untenured teachers who may be reading this, that you should step up and ask for an extracurricular duty, rather than duck it. For me, the excitement, improvisation and creativity involved, and the chance to work with kids in a different context as a different kind of teacher, helped balance the uncertainties and fears and energy drain of those early years. And, needless to say (but I will say it), you will learn much more fully how the worlds of a school building and a school system operate and, while it may feel like, even be, a baptism of fire, you will likely be much better battle-tested for the challenge of a multi-decade career. You might want to watch The Caine Mutiny, though—it has a rather surprising ending, given my own tale.