It all started because Emily forgot her homework.
Not at home; she had left her math workbook at school, on one of the very first days homework had been assigned. We live precisely 1/2 mile from one corner of the school property: walking distance, according to the administration, though the idea of my baby girl toddling down the busiest street in Salem leaves something to be desired. She’s been handling it pretty well, but I still try to play chauffeur at least a few days a week, especially when the weather is bad.
On this particular Wednesday, the weather was fine, but there had been some confusion about whether and where to pick her up, and Willem had called the school, so I drove down to get her. She made it about halfway home – all of two minutes – before suddenly remembering, with that special blend of angst that only a pre-teen can garner, “Oh, no! I left my math workbook at school! I need it! If I don’t have it, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll get in trouble!” Poor little girl: schools have become so sanitized and politically correct these days that she doesn’t really know what it means to get in trouble, but apparently someone has put the fear of God into her about the middle school.
Or maybe it’s the fear of Principal.
So I heaved a sigh and turned around, and we returned to the school. Students aren’t allowed in the building after that final bell rings unless they’re involved in some club or sport, so I had to sign in and walk her up to her locker. So far, so good, right? I even knew my way around, a little, because just a few days before I had finally, after six full months of trying, gotten in touch with her school counselor. I had wanted to meet with her prior to the school year, to touch base about Emily’s adventures in ADHD and what we’ve found helpful, and not, over the years, plus I’ve found it helpful to talk to both Em and Jacob’s teachers about some of what they went through with my hospitalization and recovery last year, blah blah. I’d called in the spring a few times, then several times over the summer, leaving messages with both the counselor and the principal. I was hoping to, if not have a full conversation, at least get someone to collect a secondary set of textbooks to keep at home, which is part of her 504 plan (think IEP, only the child “only” has a diagnosed disability, without it having impacted their grades…yet…). Finally, the second Friday of the school year, I’d gotten an actual phone call from the actual counselor at her actual school, and we set up an actual meeting for the following Monday. Which I had attended, and we spent an hour and a half talking about all manner of things, and I thought it went quite well, and if I was a bit disappointed in the timeliness of the communication, I was at least relieved that it was happening.
Two days later, Emily and I were crouching next to her locker, which already looked as though federal agents have tossed it for evidence, and the math workbook is nowhere to be found. Her math teacher came over to see what we were doing – not by introducing himself or anything ridiculous like that, but by actually taking me by the arm to stand me up and asking, “What are you doing here?” I believe he thought I was a student, because as soon as I stood up, a few inches taller than him, and presented him with a less-than-youthful face, he became instantly apologetic and just a tad obsequious. I explained what we were looking for, he wished us good luck, and instantly disappeared.
After five or ten minutes, it became clear that we were not going to find the math workbook in the locker. It also became clear that we were going to be bringing home almost the entire contents of said locker, so as to smooth out papers, put them in binders and folders, and generally impose order upon them.
The next step was to try to get into the math classroom, to see if the workbook was there. We weren’t able to use the main classroom door, which had been locked by the now-deserted math teacher, but there was a connecting door to the next classroom over, which was still inhabited by its teacher. I knocked on her door and asked if she could let us look for Emily’s workbook – never saying that Mr. Math Teacher had OK’ed it (if he had, then we’d have just gone in with him, no?). She scampered over and opened the door, no questions asked, so we looked around: no workbook for Emily. There were a few other workbooks with students’ names inscribed on the inside cover, and a few blank workbooks all in Spanish, but neither of those felt quite appropriate for us, somehow. Then, in a corner, I found a blank workbook, no name inside, in English, just sitting on a table, not grouped with other papers or anything. I decided, enough: we would take this blank workbook home and copy the pages so that Emily could do the homework, and she could bring it back to school with her the next day and they could work on the Mystery of the Missing Math Workbook.
Which is what happened.
So, the next afternoon, when my phone rang, I hadn’t the slightest feeling of apprehension or concern when I was asked to make an appointment to meet with the school principal. I hoped the meeting was going to cover some of the administrative aspects of Emily’s 504 plan, though I wasn’t able to get any information out of the secretary administrative assistant woman on the phone. So I walked in without any paperwork, and it turns out I probably should have brought along a tape recorder, if not a lawyer.
Friday morning, I walked in to the main office, and was greeted by an enormous, mannish woman whom I’d noticed when I was waiting to meet with the counselor on Monday. She was loud and just slightly inappropriate with her words, and I remember thinking that she might be working there under some sort of grant from the Department of Mental Retardation – which I know occurs, because once upon a time I worked at DMR and had to bring clients to jobs at various places. Well, this may still be the case here, but in my experience, we never placed clients in administrative positions like school principal… which is, it turns out, who this woman was.
She escorted me into her office – an enormous, cluttered, loud sort of place – and said, “I don’t think we’ve met.” Which struck me as odd, because (a) it was only the third week of school and Emily doesn’t tend to rise to the level of troublemaker until mid-winter, at least, (b) I’d been calling for half a year now and had been trying to meet her, without success. She said, “You’re Emily’s mother?”
“Yes, I’m –”
I quite literally gaped at her, and stood motionless for a solid 30 seconds. I can’t remember the last time an adult had spoken to me so rudely, before I’d even gotten the chance to introduce myself. And I couldn’t sit, as commanded, because there wasn’t a single flat surface in the room uncovered by various papers and books. She realized that, stalked around the table – which is easily 20 feet long and four feet wide – scooped up the papers and glared at me as though I’d left them there myself.
She then launched into a tirade about how I had broken into Mr. Math Teacher’s classroom – how I had lied to the teacher next door and said we had permission to go in – how we had no right to ever have expected a spare workbook at home because it’s not a part of Emily’s 504 – how I “just ridiculously panicked” about a simple homework assignment – how I had stolen the workbook and then returned it without acknowledgment – how Emily had apologized to the teacher on my behalf and thus proven just how wrongly I had behaved – how my actions had put my child in a bad position and thus set a bad example for her.
And so on. After the first three or four minutes, I unfroze enough to take out a notebook and start jotting down what she was saying, which only served to infuriate her more; I’ve found that this exasperates and intimidates a lot of people, when they’re angry and want to go on a rant at or around me, and that’s never my intention. I just literally cannot retain more than about three bits of information, since the coma and all, and so as a compensation technique I take notes. This made her damn near apoplectic, and then when I managed to get a word in edgewise to explain and correct a few points of error – like, for instance, the fact that Emily’s existing 504 plan does, indeed, include an extra set of books at home, and that I had made several attempts at contacting various staff members at the school without luck, and that I had spoken with the counselor (who, by the way, was in the room for much of this, but was a completely different being from the intelligent, capable creature I’d met with on Monday; this woman was timid and apparently mute) only once, earlier that week – each time I had the gall to be right about something, she just got angrier and angrier, and finally she shouted, “Don’t you ever do that in my building again!” and stalked out.
I had managed to keep it together so far, but when she left, I turned to the counselor and asked, “Does this happen a lot?” She kind of shrugged and said, “Well, she seems to like to come across as hard-core at the start of the year, but she usually calms down after a while.” Usually?? And the enormity of it all finally hit me, and I burst into tears. Once I pulled myself back together, I asked for some tissues and some writing paper – since the notebook I carry is about 1″x3″, and I wanted to capture some of the words and chronology of it all immediately, because I knew how fast it would fade away. She provided me with both, and then announced that she had another meeting to be in, thus leaving me alone in the principal’s office.
Let me tell you: I made it to 34 years old before ever being yelled at by a school principal. Turns out? It’s less fun than you might imagine.
While I was writing, Ms. Mannish (which is close enough to her real name to be a little bit hilarious) stalked back in the room. She stood directly behind me and read over my shoulder for two or three minutes, and then ordered me to leave her office. I stood up, and was grateful for my height – I’m 5’8″ – because it allowed me to stand eye to eye with her, though she has at least 150 pounds on me. I stared her down and said, very quietly and politely, “This was not a meeting. It was an attack. You will not be allowed to be alone with me, or my child, again.” She started barking about how it was her school and she could see any student she wanted, at any time, to which I replied, “That may be so, and you’re welcome to meet with her… but not alone. She is small and easily intimidated, and you are large and have just spent 45 minutes bullying her mother. If you’re willing to treat me with this level of disrespect, I have no doubt that you would happily retaliate my perceived transgressions on her.” She started to yell at me again – and when I say yell, I do not exaggerate: her face was red, the veins in her neck stood out, and her words came out at full volume, loud enough to hush all the people in the outer office area – but I gathered up my purse and my notes and left.
I spent much of the rest of that Friday on the phone with various school administrators, higher up in the chain, until I found the correct Assistant Superintendent, who could listen to the whole story, apologize on her behalf, and promise to sort it all out. It turns out that Ms. Mannish should never have gotten involved in the first place: her job is to deal with whole-school and staff sorts of issues, and the assistant principals deal with individual students and parents. It turns out that I am well within my rights to insist that she not be alone with me or with my child at any point in time. It turns out he’s very, very sorry this ever happened, and he’ll talk to Ms. Mannish, and he’ll try to get it all straightened out… and that if there’s anything else he needs from me, or perhaps if it turns out that I’ve gotten some detail wrong and I actually owe an apology, myself, then he’ll be in touch.
So far, my phone has not rung. And very, very quietly, the following Tuesday, a spare math workbook found its way home with Emily.