DURING MY 22 years of growing up and teaching in Cleveland, Ohio, my entire being underwent a strange metamorphosis early each September. Innocuous but continuous blasts from the airwaves by the now-bankrupt Robert Hall Company signaled the change: "School bells ringing . . . children singing . . . it's back to Robert Hall again . . . Mother knows for better clothes . . . it's back to Robert Hall again . . . "
Now, two days before the children arrive at school, for reasons $100 sessions on a Freudian coach couldn't pry out, the jingle reappears to haunt me. The beginning of another school year has arrived.
My early morning routine begins. I drop Maya, our 3-year-old, at nursery school. At my desk, I glance at my Week-at-a-Glance, only one-third of which is filled in.
I've found over the last three years of being a principal that only part of my day can possibly be planned. If this first week of school is anything like the last three years, I will vary my time from observing (as one of my third graders used to say about me, with eyes in the back of my head) to juggling -- keeping things above ground without colliding -- to exploring -- gently and cautiously tracking new ground. I will manage, listen, counsel, console, supervise, teach, mediate, organize, joke and escape from the mundane to the philosophical to the absurd.
My Week-at-a-Glance shows three committee meetings. The phone rings. "We are still short three bus chaperons. Do you have any ideas?" My shuttle diplomacy begins. The assembly committee decides to have a "getting to know you" assembly on Friday. I agree to share a few words of wisdom on the coming year. The religious life committee (an integral part of all Quaker schools) agrees to have an all-school meeting for worship when the children arrive on Wednesday.
Back at my office, there is a note from a woman that her son has broken his arm and dislocated his shoulder. I inform his teachers. I assign parking spaces, order white sand (I have learned the hard way that brown sand stains clothes), revise teacher duties, obtain purchase order numbers, fill in Title IV-B forms and wander through the school informally talking with teachers.
I eat lunch with the faculty retreat committee to plan our overnight at Prince William Forest. Tuesday
As I enter May's nursery school, her teachers ask why I look so dressed up. I explain that new children and their parents will visit my school for an hour this morning. But Maya's teachers know me too well and I confess that I have a change of clothes in the car.
On the way out I observe a sign posted on the gate for a parents night on Sept. 25. I check my calendar: the same night as my third-fourth grade back-to-school pot-luck dinner and the back-to-school picnic at Travillah Elementary School, where my wife, Erica, is the media specialist. The conflicts of a three-school working family -- Maya believes everyone has a school.
Arriving at Sidwell, I do last-minute cleaning of hall clutter and shuffle an old table out of sight from new parents. New children arrive. I rush to get my class placement list. After 20 minutes all settle down and I join parents for coffee. I jot down the commitments I make to parents: "Yes, Mrs. Arnold, I will call you tonight if there is a noon shuttle bus. Sure, Mrs. Tanner, I will keep an eye on Justin."
Panic hits. Mr. Parkins, our custodian for 30 years -- the one person who holds the school together -- informs me that he has jury duty for the next two weeks, starting tomorrow. I forget about new children, parents, note pads, clean hallways and committees and spend one hour on the phone tracking down the jury selection process of Washington, D.C. I finally reach Nancy Mayor at U.S. District Court. She assures me that Mr. Perkins' duty has been postponed and will be only for one week. I thank her and breathe freely again.
After two more meetings with our work-service and resource committees, I finally change clothes and help two teachers to organize their rooms. Home again. I jog, raid the refrigerator, put my meeting suit back on and attend a night meeting for parents new to Sidwell Friends School.
I stay much too late, conversing with parents. Meeting over, I arrive home at 11 and collapse. No time to worry about the opening of school tomorrow. Wednesday
At 8:15, Mr. Reynolds is in my office upset that the bus did not pick up his daughter. I say to myself -- as I have for the past three years -- that bus scheduling is not my responsibility. I say to Mr. Reynolds I will do what I can. By 9 all children have arrived and a quick walk-through shows that, on the first day of school, children are already involved in learning. At 9:15 all 280 kindergartens through fourth graders and their teachers form a large circle outside for meeting for worship.
I spend two hours visiting classrooms and greeting children. I am pleased, but not surprised, that the children and teachers appear so eager, cooperative and involved.
Our school nurse is tending to splinters and a bee sting. Back to my office and a call from Sister Ann Francis from Catholic University asking if three "neophyte" teachers might intern two afternoons a week, and if the class she teaches may visit the school. I enthusiastically agree.
Lunch time. Having recently lost 15 pounds, I worry that I will resume the habit of eating during both lunch shifts. Mr. Billings, lunch supervisor, comments that he can tell the new children by those with peas on their plates. My serious hat is back on as I review lunch rules with children. I refrain from eating first shift, but indulge during the second, as I have been assigned my own lunch table with 12 children this year in order to distribute duties more equitably.
Afternoon entails a review of bus and car-pool regulations with children. The buses depart 20 minutes late as two children saunter in.
At home, I suddenly remember I was invited to a class picnic. Erica and Maya throw together some tuna fish and cheese, apples and apple juice, a diet soda and off we go. With only moderate success I try to avoid school-related questions -- after all, it's supposed to be a picnic. Thursday
Early morning room parent meeting lasts two hours. Twenty mothers and one father attend. I review major and minor issues of the coming year. We discuss options for after-school care and two parents agree to send out a questionnaire. On to a principals' meeting at the other campus. Back to school to visit more classrooms.
A first grade teacher calls me over and asks for advice about a child who cried most of the morning. Finally back in my office at 4. I spend a quiet hour shuffling through memos and bits of stray paper already piled high in receptacles and filing bins strewn about my office. At home I write what I think is a humorous message for the Thursday Letter, a weekly communication to parents, and plan the syllabus for the upper school child development course I will teach. Friday
Office is crowded with parents compiling the Thursday Letter -- one day late. Office reeks of ditto fluid. At the assembly I introduce teachers and ask children to hold applause until the end, to no avail. I give my beginning-of-the-year pep talk on how school is more than just the three Rs and how important it is for each of us to respect the other. Children appear to listen. My mind wanders: If only my mother, a third grade teacher for the past 30 years, could see me now.
Tracy's mother stops me in the hall. Tracy's stomach hurts and she thinks her daughter is worried about something. I talk to Tracy in private. I wink. All is settled for now.
At lunch our three custodians, with a little coaxing, have "volunteered" to eat with children every Friday. I warmly observe Mr. Lewis braiding Ashley's hair as they leave the lunch room.
I visit Mrs. McAuliffe's second-third grade where children are acting out drama cards. I finally guess that Hannelore is opening an umbrella in a heavy wind. I leave, then come back (I can't resist center stage). I act out a naughty child coming into the office and calling his parents. Amy guesses I'm acting out an old man falling down in the street. So much for center stage.
All set to leave at 5. A storm erupts, lights to out, a buzzer sounds and the "supervisory power trouble" light which I had never noticed before flashes on and off on the office wall. I haven't the slightest idea what the flashing light signals, or what to do.
I call PEPCO and with trepidation and guilt leave the premises. I have a long-standing reservation to see the Marine Corps Marching Band. Erica and I can't stop Maya from running around when everyone else stands at attention.
Home at 11 with a conked-out daughter in my arms. We put Maya to bed with her clothes on and watch her for a few quiet moments.