May 15, 2015: G is for gossip
When I conceived of doing this ABC tribute to teaching, I had vowed to keep it generally light and positive. However, there is a nastier side to this profession that cannot be overlooked and it is one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave. Many people are basically competitive, in spite of being encouraged and mandated to be collaborative to do what’s best for the students. And the pressures of teaching lead to more than just food binges. I have learned that the principal and assistant principal (if there is one) usually set the tone in their school. If cliquishness is encouraged, there will be cliques. If a principal is a dictator, she can destroy the unity of a formerly cohesive staff. On the other hand, if cooperation and team spirit are encouraged and the principal is open minded, that will be the prevailing atmosphere at the school. You are lucky if you get to work under one of these latter administrators for any length of time.
Administrators are under pressure also, especially in today’s culture of standardized testing for accountability and staff evaluation. Perhaps I will go into this more in a future post.
However, today is G day. To illustrate the nastiness of cliques and gossip, I am posting here a short story I wrote a few years ago, called “The School Office.” This story is almost non-fiction. I added and combined a few things and changed all the names in order to write a fictional narrative that is, however, an accurate, searing portrait of what some school offices are like today.
The school office is a busy place. People are coming and going all day long: parents, students, substitute teachers, staff members and more. There is one full-time secretary to handle the entire workload of the office, but another office clerk has been hired to work part-time. Even after the doors are locked once school has started, the buzzer rings frequently, and the secretary checks the camera to see who’s out there before she buzzes them in. At least sometimes she does; other times she lets in whoever presses the buzzer.
Lately, the office has become a hangout for certain teachers during their lunch periods, teachers who are favorites of the principal, whose office is right next door to the main office. It started out innocently enough: one of the teachers went to use an office computer to enter ELL* student information, and noticed that the office secretary was overworked. She decided to pitch in and help by answering phones whenever she was in there. That generosity, of course, put her in favor with the secretary, so she was welcome anytime.
The conversations in the office can get rather loud. In fact, the faculty lounge is usually comparatively quiet because so few people use it; the ones who did use it most now have their lunch in the office.
The bell has rung and Shannon has accompanied her students to the door which opens onto the playground, where she turns them over to the recess monitors. She then heads to the office, where teachers’ lunch orders from the school cafeteria have arrived.
“Here, Shannon, this one’s yours,” says the secretary, Bobbie, who has taken a few minutes to compare the orders with what was actually delivered and to set aside change for anyone who paid more than the actual cost.
“Hey, thanks,” says Shannon, as she plops down on the empty office chair, box of salad in hand.
“Is Kristen coming too? asks Bobbie. “Her order’s here.”
“Yeah, she’s on her way.”
The phone rings. Shannon grabs it before Bobbie can even get to it.
“Good morning, Roosevelt School,” Shannon says in her best receptionist voice. After a pause, she continues, “Yes, I think so – hold on…” Cupping her hand over the receiver, she asks Bobbie, “Is Sharon here?”
“Yup, she’s in her office.”
“OK…yes…yes, I’ll transfer you.” Shannon presses the transfer call button and dials the principal’s extension number before hanging up.
Lowering her voice, Shannon says, “Hey, you know who that was?”
“Jason’s mom!” This triggers an outburst of laughter from both women.
The door opens. “Hi, girls!”
“Hi, Kristen!” the two answer in unison.
Kristen picks out the Styrofoam container with her name on it and perches on the empty desk. “So, what’s the gossip today?”
“Jason’s mom’s on the phone – she just called for Sharon.”
“So, what’s Jason been up to now?”
“Oh, you know that mom – she’s always complaining about something. Jason hasn’t done anything much – this week at least.”
“Say, guess what I heard,” Bobbie says with an enticing voice that indicates this bit of gossip is especially juicy.
Shannon and Kristen lean toward Bobbie. “What? What is it?”
“The list of the teachers being cut just came in the interoffice mail.”
“It was in a sealed envelope so I couldn’t see.”
“Awwww,” say both teachers with disappointment.
“BUT,” Bobbie continues, “after I gave her the envelope, I heard Sharon on the phone with
the superintendent. It sounded like she was complaining about something.”
Raised eyebrows and gasps. “Could it be one of – ?” Kristen couldn’t bear to finish her question.
“No, of course not! They can’t get rid of bilingual teachers!”
“Well, they could…what about you-know-who?”
“Yeah, that one, well – hopefully she’s on the list.”
“Oh, she’s gotta be,” says Shannon. “Sharon’s been hearing complaints about her all year.”
“Yeah, I know, she’s had her spies in that classroom,” Bobbie replies. “Shannon, you’ve been in there, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, I was supposedly there to help with math – Sharon wanted me in there every week during my plan time – but Ms. Superior Attitude made it clear that she didn’t need me at that time.”
“She seemed surprised that I came in at all – I think she knew.”
“What, that you were there to spy on her?”
“Probably.” Shannon pushes the remaining pieces of her salad around the tray with her plastic fork.
Nothing more to be said on that topic, Bobbie changes the subject. “So, how’re things going with you, Kristen?”
“What’s he up to now?”
“He’s just so hyper all the time. Today he was making everyone laugh by tossing his head and then making faces when I was writing on the board.”
Just then, Janice, the art teacher, enters to pick up her lunch order. “Hey, gang! What’s up?”
“Hey, you! Why don’t you stay and talk to us?”
“Can’t – gotta get Who’s the Best Valentine contest ready.”
“I told you – I have the most awesome costume,” Shannon tells her. “You gotta let me win.”
“Well, we’ll see – you never know what some of these other ‘spoilers’ might come up with. But probably.”
“Yay!!” Shannon cheers as Janice leaves. “You’re my best friend, Janice!” she calls after her.
The three women turn back to their previous conversation.
“What about Atziri?” Bobbie asks Shannon.
“That Atziri is a mean girl,” Shannon says. “Seriously mean. No wonder she doesn’t have any friends.”
“But she’s so good at chasing boys around the playground and they’re all screaming,” Kristen adds. “Yesterday, I saw her in the halls with a couple of other girls. She –” Kristen gestures for the others to come closer. Shannon and Bobbie roll their chairs forward until their heads are nearly touching.
Just then, the door opens, and the women separate, bursting into loud, raucous laughter.
“God, can you believe it?” Shannon says loudly and deliberately. They laugh again.
The teacher who has just come in hesitates, holding the hand of one of her students, one of the new kids this year.
“What do you need?” Bobbie asks her, forcing a polite smile onto her face. Kristen and Shannon sit in silence, eating the last bites of their lunch.
“Vanessa needs to call home. She forgot to ask her mom who’s picking her up after school,” replies the teacher.
Bobbie waves her hand toward the phone on the empty desk. Shannon rolls her chair back to get out of the way, but bumps into Kristen. Laughter erupts. Vanessa, meanwhile, presses her body against the desk next to the phone and dials her mother’s cell phone number.
“Mommy?” Vanessa presses the phone closer to her ear as the conversation in the office continues.
“I saw her last night,” Shannon is saying. “You should’ve seen her clothes! Tight, tight jeans, high boots, tunic with sequins plastered all over it.”
“A woman her age shouldn’t wear stuff like that,” Kristen says.
“My niece is 35 and you should see her wardrobe,” Bobbie says. “She dresses like a slut, and her husband doesn’t even care.”
“…are you picking me up, Mommy, or is Lia?”
“Everyone dresses like that, nowadays,” Shannon says in mock admonition. “You shouldn’t be so old-fashioned, Bobbie.”
“…Okay. Bye, Mommy. I love you.” Vanessa hangs up the phone. Her teacher moves quickly to grab her hand and leave the office.
As the door shuts, Shannon, Bobbie and Kristen are all laughing loudly again.
Shannon turns toward the computer on the empty desk. “Bobbie, I gotta look for something.”
“Okay, no problem.”
“Don’t let Juanito get to you,” Bobbie tells Kristen.
“I know, but…” Kristen trails off as she sorts her thoughts in her mind, and rubs the outside corners of her eyes. “No, I know,” she continues. “He’s a nice kid, but he just gets SO silly.”
“How about that other kid in your class, Horacio? Is he doing okay?”
“He caused SO much trouble last year,” Shannon interjects without turning away from the computer.
“Yeah, he’s doing a whole lot better.”
“Sh—! I can’t believe it!” Shannon shouts suddenly. “That bitch sent me an email…”
“What bitch?” asks Kristen.
“Which one?” asks Bobbie.
Just then, the principal’s door opens. Her bronze nameplate printed MRS. NOWAK reflects the light from her desk lamp.
Sharon smiles broadly. “Hello, ladies! How’s your lunch?”
Kristen shrugs. “It’s okay, nothing special.”
“That’s what you get for ordering from the cafeteria,” replies Sharon. “I’m going out for lunch.”
Before she can leave, Shannon swivels around in her chair. “Sharon, Mrs. Navarro sent me an email. She wants a conference.”
“Oh? Did she ever show up for the fall conference?”
“No,” Shannon says pointedly. “But now that her little angel is bringing home behavior notices every day, she wants to see me as soon as possible – today, if possible.”
“So? See her.”
“But – !” Shannon puts her head down between her arms on the desk. “I know what she’s gonna say,” continues her muffled voice.
“Shannon,” Sharon says. “Don’t worry about it. You are a professional, and an awesome teacher. You can handle her.”
“Can you be there, or at least drop in?”
“Depends on when it is.” Sharon glances at her watch, then says, “I gotta go. I’m late for my lunch date!”
“Oooooooo!” tease the others.
Sharon throws a coquettish look back at them as she heads out the door. “Bye-bye!”
The three women are jolted by the sudden sound of the bell.
“God, Bobbie,” remarks Shannon, “That bell rings really loud in here.”
“You already knew that,” says Kristen, as she tosses her lunch garbage into the wastebasket next to Bobbie’s desk.
“Yeah, but it’s always so jarring,” Shannon says. “It jolts me awake!” she adds with a laugh.
“You need it. Did you sleep well last night?” Kristen asks as both teachers leave the office.
“No, as usual, I woke up after three hours, and then …” Shannon’s voice fades from Bobbie’s hearing as the two teachers walk down the hall.
*ELL – English Language Learners
Al images downloaded from Google Images.