Chapter 3: The Front Office
The Front Office
Principals think they run the school but they don’t.
In fact if you wanted to know who really is in charge, it’s not hard. When you walk in the door, any door, there are signs telling you where to go.
Would all visitors please report to the front office.
There you go, the answer to the question who is in charge: The office manager.
Everything passes through the hands of the office manager. If a teacher needs a personal day, the request passes through the hands of the office manager. If the cheerleaders do a car wash, the profits pass through the hands of the office manager. If the French department needs new textbooks (and they have since the 90’s) the purchase order passes through the hands of the office manager. Piss her off and your request goes to the bottom off the pile. Get on her good side and things will be done before you even ask.
At Lord Byron Secondary School it was always easier to piss Mrs O’Grady off than it was to get on her good side. It would take a few pages to list all the various ways of pissing off Mrs O’Grady. But here are a few highlights.
Give her a bank deposit consisting of unrolled coins
Phone her at home to say you’re sick at 7:14 (the cut off time is 7:15) giving her barely an hour to find a supply teacher
Ask her to type an exam when your handwriting is illegible.
Ask her to type an exam when it’s in a foreign language
Buy doughnuts for your class and don’t get her a coffee at the same time
Tell her she’s just a secretary
Don’t notice her legs
But near the top of the list of ways to piss off Mrs O’ is ask her to make coffee. The first time Principal Bunny did that he got nothing back but the silent treatment. No coffee, no explanation just silence. That day Principal Bunny was receiving Superintendent White who was coming to do a formal inspection of the school. Bunny wanted everything just right. LBSS was his first Principalship. He was only a few months into the job. He still had enthusiasm for the job. He still had the belief that he could go on to become Superintendent himself and maybe even someday Director. He wanted a pot of coffee ready for White’s arrival.
Mrs O’ didn’t do coffee.
Bunny didn’t seem to understand what he was asking. He repeated “Mrs O’ can you put a pot of coffee on?” His tone was pleasant enough.
“I’m sorry Mr. Bunny. No can do.”
“Just a minute and I’ll show you.” She said as she disappeared from his office. A few minutes later she reappeared and gently threw a document from GDSB’s Human Resources Department on his desk. “Turn to page 17.” She said “And read what it says under Office Manager.”
It was the job description. Nowhere in the three rather wordy paragraphs did it say anything about making coffee. After that Bunny made his own coffee. And he made coffee for all the secretaries. Apart from the duties of a Principal as defined in the Education Act of the Province of Ontario, he didn’t have a job description.
Coffee was just one of several battles.
Answering the phone was another. You would think answering the phone as was clearly a responsibility of a secretary. But a lot of parents phone the school before they leave for work and often that’s before 8 am. The secretaries start work at 8 but are often in the office drinking coffee and gossiping. And ignoring the ringing phone. If you want to phone the school before 8 am and talk to a live person, good luck.
What radio station was playing in the office was another. Mrs O’ listened exclusively to Radio 95, Easy Country, where boots are leather and hearts are true. Since the secretaries were all from the South Missachewopa area, they were all used to country, whether they liked it or not. But Bernie Lewindowsky, the night janitor was a throw back to the sixties. His clothing had changed little in forty years. He wore flowered bell bottoms and tie dye t-shirts. His hair and his beard were testing the limits. If Mr Cohen were going to do a high school production of Hair, he didn’t have to look any further for costume ideas than Bernie’s wardrobe.
His taste in music hadn’t changed either. Every night when he vacuumed and dusted the front office, he cranked the volume up to the max and moved the dial to Rock 107, whose slogan was Give me rock or give me death. Some would say it should be Give me rock and give me death . Others might say If you are going to put that radio station on, just shoot me now. The result for Mrs. O’ was that every morning she would turn on the radio, half asleep and expecting to hear the soft sounds of a slide guitar only to be greeted by the screaming cries of a dieing animal or how ever else you would describe an electric guitar playing acid rock. Mrs. O’Grady left at 4:00 each day. Bernie’s shift started at 5:00. She tried remembering to stay after work to tell Bernie to stop. But she would always forget and go home. She left Bernie notes but he was really good at ignoring them. She threatened to go to Bunny, but that didn’t scare him-Bunny didn’t scare anybody.
Bernie pissed her off by moving the desk chairs around. Mrs. O’s chair was clearly more comfortable than the other secretaries’ chairs. But every morning it was at some other desk. Some days it would already be occupied and the occupant would not give it up. It didn’t do much for office esprit de corps.
So if you wanted to pick a fight with Mrs. O’Grady, change her radio station, switch her chair and don’t forget to call her by her first name. Few people knew her first name and she liked it that way. The more people used her first name, the more people knew her first name. Mrs. O’ would do just fine.
Over the weeks ahead she and Mr. Bunny locked heads over a number of things. Her skirts were often too short. Mrs. O’Grady was a woman in her forties who kept herself in good shape and liked to let everyone know. Her preferred method was to wear skirts which left no doubt about the shape of her legs. If a student asked for a late slip, she would get up from her desk and slowly walk across the office to the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet where the slips were kept. In full view of the student, she would bend over and slowly open the drawer and would often linger as she went looking for the slips. A significantly higher percentage of boys were late to class. It might have been a coincidence.
This did not go without Principal Bunny noticing. For a long while he enjoyed the show as much as any male in the school. However the day that Trustee Fiona Lindenhauser came for a ‘visit’ changed his point of view. Ms. Lindenhauser was a veteran of the gender wars of the sixties. There are some historians who claim that no bras were actually burnt in the sixties. But if there had been, hers would have been the first to fry. She was dead against anything or anyone that treated women as sexual objects, as ornaments, as pleasure things…well you get the picture. No one would mistake her for a pleasure thing. On the other hand, she could have easily been mistaken for a member of a religious sect. Her hair was always in a bun. She always wore long skirts that almost went to her ankles. Her shoes were always sensible.
Now, it’s hard to explain what education Administration thinks about Trustees. By the power given them in law, it’s the Trustees who are ultimately in charge and therefore responsible for what goes on. Trustees are elected. They have a mandate from the public. Administration, especially Senior Admin is contemptuous of Trustees. Because Trustees are education amateurs, the professionals think they know nothing. They also think they can pull the wool over their eyes any time they want.
Ms. Lindenhauser was an unusual case. Her mandate from the people was somewhat in question. All Trustees have a somewhat questionable mandate as they are usually elected with a voter turn out of very less than 50 percent. Many trustees are acclaimed because no one runs against them. In Ms Lindenhauser case the public had turned out in full force with a voter turn out of well over 53 percent. And 89 percent of those voters had clearly made their choice in favour of Ms. Lindenhauser’s opponent, Clarence Underwood. Clarence had captured 4326 votes against 496 votes for Fiona. 56 ballots were spoiled. South Missachewopa was sure that Clarence was going to make a fine trustee. Unfortunately Clarence didn’t understand that Trustees were required to attend Board meetings, which was hard for Clarence to do. Clarence had moved to Fort Lauderdale twenty years ago. Sure, he kept a residence in South Missachewopa; he would have had to if he wanted to run in a local election. You could find him in the Township in the summer time out on a lake fishing, never in the Board room. But after a couple of years of not showing up to Board meetings, he was voted off the Board. That is pretty much automatic. At that point the Board can appoint someone or hold another election. As elections cost money and the Board was in a cost cutting mood (when are they not?), the easiest thing to do was appoint whoever was in second place. That’s how Fiona Lindenhauser, with about 10 percent of the vote, became the people’s representative from South Missachewopa.
Some people might have been hesitant about speaking up with such a weak mandate. Do Prime Ministers with a minority government shrink from leading? Do Presidents who have won the electoral college vote but not the popular vote lead from behind? Was Fiona not going to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity? You know she was.
Senior math at Lord Byron was an old boys club. If you thought that Barovsky was conservative, you were right. But old man Simpson, the math Head, who pretty much been here when the school was built was as old school as they come. He kept all the senior math to himself and he believed he was the gate keeper who decided who went to university and who didn’t. And by university, he meant Engineering. Anything else wasn’t really university. Engineering was for boys and only boys. Why bother teaching girls math if they weren’t going to be engineers? Girls who walked into his senior algebra or calculus class, were greeted with a firm and some what friendly “What are you doing here?” or a “You don’t want to be here.” . He then handed them a drop sheet to take to Student Services.
This went on for years, much to the shame of many in LBSS and for that matter the community of South Missachewopa. It was the first thing on the long to do list that Fiona Lindenhauser had written up as soon as she knew she was going to be a Trustee.
Bunny wanted to be liked. He really hated to say no to anyone. Saying yes to Ms. Lindenhauser meant that he would have to tell old man Simpson to stop being such a sexist. Old man Simpson scared Bunny. Ms Lindenhauser scared Bunny. Either way he was in trouble. The scared little creature that Bunny was, he wasn’t so stupid as to know that old man Simpson was a relic from the past. Bunny called him into his office and informed Simpson that from now on he would have the grade nine applied level math course. With all his expertise he would be the go-to guy in the Board. It would be a great career move, as his contributions to math education would finally be recognized.
A guy who has passed his retirement date by almost ten years doesn’t think about ‘career moves’ In fact with the image of three classes of somewhat less than motivated students, students who would rather be anywhere else than in math class, the only career move that Simpson could imagine was retirement . Retirement as quickly as possible. So Bunny’s little gambit had worked. He had placated Fiona Lindenhauser and pleased a lot of other folks at the same time. That should have put him firmly in Ms Lindenhauser’s good graces. But it could be argued that she didn’t have any.
Today’s problem was going to be the lack of strong female characters in the literature currently being studied in the English department. However as Ms. Lindenhauser walked into the front office, a boy had just asked for a late slip. The IT guy, the UPS delivery guy and a couple of other male students who just happened to be in the main office all stopped what they were doing and took in the show. Given an audience that large, Mrs. O’ lingered an especially long time. The male audience drifted off deep into their imaginations and then came back to reality. And that would have been the end of it. But Ms. Lindenhauser saw everything and the more Mrs. O’ dragged things out, the tighter Ms. Lindenhauser’s hair bun got till you would have sworn it was pulling the skin on her face. Tighter and tighter till you were sure her eyes were oriental. Oriental or not, her stare was deadly. It wasn’t so much aimed at Mrs. O’-she didn’t know she was a victim of male objectification of women-it was aimed at Bunny.
With all his attention diverted toward Mrs. O’s angled body it took a good while before Mr. Bunny was fully aware of the pain burning through his temple. But when he did he knew. He knew what it was. He knew what it meant. Still he didn’t divert his gaze away from Mrs. O’s protruding butt. He was no longer enjoying the show. But he dared not look Ms. Lindenhauser in the eye.
Ms. Lindenhauser had arrived in South Missachewopa in the early seventies. She had come with her boyfriend who was avoiding the Vietnam draft. He hadn’t stayed long. He went back to Ohio when President Gerald Ford offered draft dodgers immunity, though he left Byronville thinking the deal was a lot sweeter than it really was. It seems Ford had offered immunity to ex-President Nixon at about the same time. Larry wasn’t one to follow the news very closely. He didn’t realize that he had to do two years of community service and he certainly didn’t see why Richard Nixon didn’t have to do community service to get his pardon.
Up north of Byronville, near where an asteroid had hit millions of years ago, a bunch of similar minded people had started a commune. For the most part it was populated by pretty serious hippies. In the beginning, the commune had no running water and no electricity. On purpose.
A lot of draft dodgers were attracted to Heaven on Earth, including Larry and Fiona. Fiona took to the back-to-nature life style. Apart from growing its own organic vegetables, the community supported itself by making ceramic pottery. Fiona really enjoyed working there. Larry was another case. While following Larry was Fiona’s chief motivation for coming to Canada, not being killed in a wet jungle in south-east Asia was Larry’s. It didn’t take long before Larry started missing his toilet and electric light bulbs. So when Ford’s offer came along, he jumped at the chance and left.
If Fiona had followed Larry’s life after Heaven on Earth , she would have learned that he had completed his community service requirements on Wall Street. He was a gopher at Lehman Brothers. A gopher being a person told to go for this thing or that thing. Now a days they call them interns and in the 19th century they called them slaves. After his community service was over, he stayed at Lehman Brothers where he eventually made a name for himself-and a lot of money-in derivatives. And she would have learned about the FBI investigation after the big economic mess of 2008 and that no charges were ever laid.
Fiona didn’t really miss Larry. She was busy with her pottery and selling vegetables at the local farmer’s market. Over the years most of the hippies drifted away from the commune and the few ladies who were left got themselves hooked up to the electrical grid and had a well and septic tank put in so Heaven on Earth ended up being just another of the many hobby farms in South Missachewopa Township. But despite the addition of these comforts, Fiona never lost the idealism that brought her to Heaven on Earth in the first place.
One of those ideals was that women were not objects. Men like Larry, might only see them as objects. These men were uneducated and needed to be taught otherwise. It’s hard from the northern part of South Missachewopa Township to educate men and the many women who mistakenly thought this way. Change, if change were going to come, would have to start with the youth. We had to get to them while they were young and still in school. Running for School Board Trustee was clearly the way for Fiona to affect change. A change which was long over due.
Now local elections in South Missachewopa aren’t too complicated. For the most part the important thing is who among the candidates is the real deal. Real deal meaning for the most part who is most like me. The criteria for most inhabitants of South Missachewopa weren’t complicated either:
do they drink beer?
do they come from here
did their parents come from here?
do they fish?
did their grand parents come from here?
do they hunt?
Given those criteria did Fiona stand a chance? She didn’t come from South Missachewopa. She didn’t drink beer and she didn’t hunt or fish. Clarence Underwood drank beer. He hunted and fished and there were Underwoods in South Missachewopa Township since the beginning. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Fiona. She just wasn’t one of them.
If Fiona had believed in God, she would have said that it was Her will that she should be Trustee. And perhaps it was. But whether it was God’s hand or Florida’s sunshine that made her Trustee, it didn’t matter. She was Trustee and she was going to fix things.
As Mrs. O’ stood bent over at the filing cabinet the contained the late slips, she had no idea that she represented all that was wrong with our misogynous education system. If a pop psychologist had been available to comment at the time, he (or she) would have said that Mrs O’ was a woman fearing the on-coming years and wishing to stay young, to still be admired like she had been in the past. In short a classic example of the Candide syndrome. Fortunately, there was no pop psychologist available to comment.
Bunny, on the other hand should have known better. He had met Fiona when she was first “elected” and it was pretty apparent how she felt about things. Mrs. O’s regular show was hard not to look at. It was a lot like the TV in the restaurant that keeps pulling your attention away from your date. Your ever increasingly pissed off date. And your only defence is that the motion on the screen is involuntarily drawing your eyes to it. Or should that be “ the motion on the screen is drawing your eyes involuntarily to it”? Either way, your date is not happy and you would have been better springing for a classier restaurant without TV’s.
Poor Bunny. It was the old man Simpson affair all over again. He was afraid of Ms. Lindenhauser. He was afraid of Mrs O’. Only this time he just couldn’t get rid of one or the other. How to please the one without offending the other? The one a Trustee. Sure, in the real world Trustees had no power. But this one didn’t know. That made her dangerous, very dangerous. She’d go off shooting in all directions until some one got hurt and Bunny knew who that some one was going to be. He had to keep her happy.
No Principal with a functioning brain gets on the bad side of his office manager. He would have to have a death wish to do that. And if your office manager is like Mrs O’, that is even more true. Maybe he could give the job to Doyle. In his mind he could see how that conversation would go:
“Randy, you need to tell Mrs O’ to stop wearing such short skirts.”
“That’s funny, Tony. But seriously what did you call me in for?”
“I am serious.’
“Oh look, there’s a fight outside! I gotta go.” and off he would disappear.
Bunny didn’t have to imagine the conversation between Lindenhauser and himself. It was very real.
“Ms Lindenhauser.” they greeted each other formally.
“Enough is enough, Mr. Bunny. It really has to stop.”’
The voice inside Bunny’s head kept saying “play dumb, play dumb. Say ‘What has to stop.”But Bunny couldn’t do it She wouldn’t fall for that. She was a very smart woman and would see through his act. Instead he tried a different tact. “Fiona? May I call you that?”
“I totally agree with your line of thinking (not saying what that line was). We have got to put an end to this. But things are so complicated. And frankly I am lost when it comes to communicating with women. I have to find the right words to say to Mrs O. Fiona, could you help me with that? Say over dinner at the Chien qui fume?”
“Perhaps I could help you. Could you make it some where a little more vegetarian than the Chien?”
“You should pick then. I don’t know anything about vegetarian restaurants in Granite City.”
“All right. Green Eye Dancing Saturday night at 7. Should I pick you up?”
Not wanting to have her know where he lived, Bunny answered: “I’ll meet you there.”
“That went well.” thought Fiona.
“Whew” thought Bunny. “That bought me a few days to sort this thing out.” After Fiona Lindenhauser left, he called to Doyle, using his outside voice to get Doyle’s attention. Bunny wished they had an intercom.
Doyle had heard everything from the desk in his office. He was in Bunny’s office immediately.
“Randy, we need a strategy to handle Lindenhauser with.”
“You mean a strategy with which we might be able to handle Lindenhauser?” Randy Doyle had trained as an phys ed teacher, but he liked correcting people’s English.”
“Whatever.” Bunny had also been a phys ed teacher, but took no interest in grammar.
“What if …” Doyle thought out loud.
“What if we had the secretaries wear a uniform.? You know, one with dress pants or a more sensible skirt.”
“That’s a stupid idea. Where does the money come from? Isn’t their union just going to grieve it.”
“What if we kept Mrs O’ under wraps whenever Lindenhauser was here?”
“I dunno. Move her to the library. Put her in the book room? Give her a class to teach?”
“How do we know when Lindenhauser is coming? We need some sort of early warning system.”
“Like if she had a GPS device on her that we tracked?”
“Yeah, that would do the trick. How do we get her to carry a GPS device?”
Meanwhile, if there had been an intercom system in place Mrs O’ would have called in to say that Doyle was needed up on the second floor. There was a fight going on. A real one she said. She also said that she could hear everything that they were talking about and that she had a few ideas. Since there wasn’t an intercom system, she just raised her voice.
Doyle passed Mrs O’ . He on his way to reluctantly deal with the real fight on the second floor and she on her way into Bunny’s office with her solution to what she called the Lindenhauser problem.
“You don’t need to lock me up in the book room. She doesn’t need to wear a wire. Move the late slips to the top drawer. I’ll wear longer skirts for a while, until Ms. Lindenhauser finds something else to be upset about., like, for example, the lack of strong female characters in any of the literature the English department makes them read. You buy one of her pots for your office and have the cafe use her organic fruits and vegetables. She should be good for the foreseeable future. Oh and enjoy your date with her. Should I order you flowers?” She paused then continued, “And some for your wife?”
Principals think they run the school, but they don’t.