the first fire and my engima

6.4.10


“I think they’re getting ready to fire you,” Mr. Angry said.

“What? Why do you say that?"

He shrugged, “Just the stuff you tell me. I’ve been working in HR for over 10 years. I think they’re setting you up for failure.”

“I can’t believe that. Why would they?” But even as I said that I thought about my meeting with Mr. Worm and Mrs. Rabbit. The words fire Lani? sat in my mind.

“I don’t know. I just know. Keep your eyes and ears open. They’re collecting evidence. They’re building their case.”

***

Mrs. Rabbit and I formed a friendship outside of school after my first year. We were both far from our homes, had no friends and children of our own. As we became closer she revealed something to me.

“You know, last year when all those parents pulled out of your class and there was all this talk about how you were too young to teach, I was part of a committee that was to decide if we should fire you or not.”

“I know, or at least I suspected as much.” But internally I was distraught to hear it out loud. I felt betrayed.

She looked surprised. Then I told her about Mr. Worm’s notepad.

“Who else was on this committee?” I casually asked.

“Mrs. Bear, Mrs. Turtle and Mrs. Raven.”

Mrs. Raven and Mrs. Bear I could understand. I refused Mrs. Raven’s mentorship and it was probably personal.

I kept a mental distance from Mrs. Bear. I didn’t trust her. Many things I told her in confidence ended up coming back to me through another faculty member.

But! “Mrs. Turtle! I hardly know her! She hasn’t even seen me teach!”

Then during Christmas break, I received a phone call, “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me,” It was Mrs. Rabbit.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“They fired me.”

“What?!”

“Mr. Worm and Mrs. Bluejay called and said they wanted to talk and I said fine where do you want to meet and they said they could stop by here, my house, and when they showed up they told me that the faculty decided to let me go.” She laughed, “So they fired me. Right here in my own living room. I even offered them tea.” More laughing.

At the time I was the faculty member that sat in on the Board of Directors meetings. I was to take notes and report back to my colleagues what transpired. It’s not something I sought out but the faculty recognized that I was not only available but good at it. So they nominated me. But after I told the Board that firing Mrs. Rabbit in her own home was the stupidest and most inconsiderate thing (I’m good at defending others, not myself I guess), the faculty decided that I wasn’t best suited for the position after all.

The Core Group made the hasty decision to fire Mrs. Rabbit due to the pressures from the parents. Mrs. Rabbit’s class parents issued an ultimatum, “Fire her or we’ll pull our children from the school”.

At the time I don’t think the faculty realized this but by abiding to the parents’ wishes, the faculty no longer had control of their own school. This wasn’t about power struggles so much as this was about teachers controlling and protecting their own environment, their livelihood. Mrs. Rabbit’s situation shifted the perspective of the faculty from trying to help one another to trying to desperately please the parents. A big part of this shift was due to Mr. Skunk who wanted to run the school like a business. Which I kind of understand but isn’t this what government is trying to do with our public schools? I don’t know if you’re aware of this but it isn’t working.

I never liked Mrs. Rabbit’s replacement. She was one of the parents from the third grade class. Teaching your own child? Now that’s a faculty faculty parent. I guess I didn’t like Erika (her real name) because she acted so damn smug as soon as she took over the class. I heard she quit after the next year, probably wasn’t able to engage the boys’ imagination, and please those pesky parents. . .

Mrs. Rabbit’s class parents worked as a group to fire her. Unfortunately she had been sinking into depression and her lackluster attitude towards her class was becoming apparent. In some ways, I think she was almost relieved to be let go. But she had been a teacher most of her life, having taught in public school and now was frantically trying to figure out what to do next.

A part of me thought firing her in the middle of the school year, without having a chance to say good-bye to her students was unnecessarily cruel and the other part understood why the Core Group did it. She was visibly unhappy, and threw temper tantrums in her frustration with the faculty and school, the biggest one being when she threw her keys across the foyer during an open house. She had unprofessional moments, but we all did, including the Core Group. The only problem being, no one could fire the Core Group.

***

The office manager, #1’s mom was an overzealous protector of her only child. Her daughter was overfed with love, attention and food, as if her baby as still in the womb, incapable of caring for herself.

The mom had the great misfortune of working part-time in the school office and much like #14’s mom was around to watch the minute by minute play action of the school's activities. When I was in the first grade classroom, the office was across the hall but when my class was in the second grade classroom we were behind the office, sharing the same wall. Mrs. Number One could hear everything that went on in my class.

When my class was with another teacher, I’d sometimes sit in the office with her and listen so I could hear with my own two ears how well sound traveled across the wall. But I’m sure she put her ear against the wall too. Who wouldn’t?

One time #1’s mom came running into my classroom when she heard her daughter scream. It was a yelp really – her daughter had burned herself with some soup from her thermos. I understand but then I don’t. If you can’t be around your child at school without interfering then you should find another job.

She immediately apologized, “I’m so sorry. I heard her scream.” By the time she arrived I was helping her daughter with the spilled soup.

“Oh, let me Miss Cox,” she pleaded, “I can’t believe I put the soup in when it was boiling hot. I feel so stupid. She could have gotten really hurt.”

I was taken aback by her presence but recovered, “It’s okay. Don’t blame yourself.”

“Next time I won’t be in such a hurry and wait for the soup to cool.”

I simply stared. Her daughter was fine. She continued to ramble about the soup for a few more minutes until she finally left.

Then there was the time when we went outside to jump rope, #1’s mom yelled from the building, “Should you be wearing those shoes, dear? I thought those hurt your feet?”

Her daughter yelled back, “I’m fine Mom.”

After visibly fretting for a few seconds, her mother went back inside then reemerged with a different pair of shoes. I tried to ignore her as she crouched down and changed her daughter shoes. There was nothing I could do, she frequently came out of the office to help her daughter put on a sweater, change her shoes (the children wore indoor shoes inside the class) or she might come out to recess and give her a kiss – just because.

Sometimes she’d interrupt my morning lesson by sneaking in to give her daughter her lunch or a snack. After a while I began to suspect that this was her way of ‘checking in’ with her daughter and I dare say me - to make sure the class was not as out of control as everyone seem to speculate. I remember one time she open the door  and made a shocked face. “Oh,” she said when the room was silent and the children were working on their assignments. “It's so quiet, I thought the room was empty. I just wanted to add a little something to #1’s lunch. So sorry to interrupt.”

***

#1 had a peculiar habit of walking on her toes, all of the time. She must have had incredibly strong calf muscles and no she wasn’t an aspiring ballerina. I was a little concerned. My Eurythmy teacher from  teacher training days thought it was because she had not fully incarnated into her body. And if that is too ‘New Age’ for you, I think what she was trying to say was #1 was retaining or holding on to infantile behavior. Sure, she’s eight years old but walking on your toes is something you might see a child do from time to time or when they are acting silly. Like the equivalent of thumb sucking or bed wetting, there are some things that we expect children to grow out of but walking on her toes was her normal way of walking or running or skipping for that matter. This is why I refer to her as my enigma.

Her mother once confessed that she was constantly scared when her daughter was a baby. She was afraid that she would do something to hurt herself. When she saw that her daughter got too close to a rail or too far away, she would pick her up and place her somewhere else. Now all good parents do this, but #1’s mom said, “She never wandered very far it’s just she wandered too far for me. Isn’t that silly?”

During the first grade, #1 would ask permission to do everything. You have no idea. Everything.
“Can I throw this away?” was her favorite and most frequent question.

I used to say, yes but then I learned to simply smile and say, “What do you think?”

She smiled back, “Yes.” Then she started laughing.

By the end of the first year, she stopped asking.

***

There was a time when the children enjoyed jumping off the play structure onto the bark chip covered ground below. They would climb up a ladder that paralleled the fireman’s pole and then slide down or jump off.

The children got into this, to the point where they grabbed umbrellas and pretended they were Mary Poppins. It was delightful to watch. And like any good student of Waldorf training I tried to be diligent in my observations of the children. The playground was a good place because it’s unstructured. You don’t do this all the time because well, when else are you going to use the bathroom?

All of the children jumped off from the highest platform or rung in the ladder. It was amazing. It looked like a long way to go but up they climbed and down they fell laughing and squealing. They were fearless. #1 was the only child who would take a tentative step up the first rung then look at me, “I can’t do it Miss Cox. I can’t go any higher.”

“That’s okay, you go as high as you comfortably can.”

She would look around in her nervous way then jump. Then laugh. As time went on, she climbed higher and higher. I was extremely proud of her. I felt like she had made a personal breakthrough – unlearning fear and caution. Her mother had the best intentions but as a result her daughter was tentative about any physical activity, and awkward. She’d always look back at me or any adult, unsure, stepping hesitatingly forward and then scurrying back.

But #1 learned to climb higher and higher, it was wonderful and I was there to watch her success.

***

I began to worry that #1 might have some sort of learning disability when her writing did not improve like the other children. I hate to even use that term but I can explain it no other way.

Her letters looked disjointed and she was unable to make her letters sit still on lined paper. Sure, this is a difficult task for children until they get the hang of it but we all know when something looks - odd. I thought maybe she couldn’t read off the board so I moved her closer. I tried making an extra copy of the day’s work and placed it in front of her. I asked her parents to get her eyes checked, they were fine but her work was not.

It’s interesting to see how parents react to the news of how their child was doing. Obviously good news is taken well and makes for a smooth parent teacher conference. The parent sighs in relief. I am a competent parent. My child is wonderful. But when the news is bad or is perceived as such, parents can act in a variety of intriguing ways. It’s a study in psychology and human behavior. Although no matter how careful you are with your words, or how gently you say it, sometimes people are going to simply get mad at you. And that is exactly how #1’s parents got.

Their daughter needed us to work together but instead our relationship deteriorated. It was hard to be patient with parents who were impatient with me. And so I began to resent them as much as they resented me.

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