Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be OOPS!

Getting out of limbo was messier than I'd hoped.

To be fair, it's almost miraculous that this didn't turn into a colossal cluster cuss. Having a final interview in Reynolds the day before I was supposed to report for in-service in Banks, not even knowing the result until lunch time on that in-service day, then figuring out how to do justice to my first days in Reynolds without completely abandoning my Banks students was just the tip of this transitional iceberg. I knew it was creating a headache for the Banks administration, and if there's one thing I hate doing, it's making life harder for others.

I've never wanted to be a bother. I don't like leaving a mess for anyone. I police my campsites not just for my litter, but for those of previous campers. I put the lid down on the toilet. I put my dishes in the dishwasher rather than the sink. I would bus my own dishes at restaurants if it was allowed--and if it didn't mean taking someone else's livelihood.

That's the key to this dilemma I so often face: the self-perceived inconvenience I cause other people is frequently part of their job, something they are paid to take care of, or a service they gladly perform and even enjoying doing because they (gulp) care about me.

Here's a story to illustrate: twice when I was in high school, I needed to have a costume made for me. One of those costumes was a dashiki shirt that was the uniform for our jazz ensemble; the other was a king's robe and scepter for a children's play I was in. Both times, when the teacher told us what we needed to have done, I said I would need someone else to do the sewing.

I knew at the time that every one of my classmates would have this work done by his or her mother--or, in a few cases (all girls), would do it herself. (It was the 1970s, and few boys yet knew how to do these things.) Why didn't it occur to me to ask my mother to do it? Was she not a seamstress? Would she have refused the work? No on both counts, and I knew that to be the case. My mother has been making clothing since she was a child, and is exceptionally gifted at doing so. In fact, I frequently and proudly wore a red wool jacket she had made for my Scout patches, so it's not that she couldn't, or wouldn't.

It's that I didn't want to be a bother to her.

Philomath High School was a good place for me, the best situation I'd been in as a student and child. It nurtured me and was the incubator for all I became artistically and intellectually. It was different for my parents, though: Philomath, the church, was probably my father's most difficult appointment, the one that led him to question his calling, the one that, more than any, he would rather not have had--but that he held onto a year longer than he had to so that I could graduate from Philomath High School.

It was an argumentative church, a church that earned a reputation for chewing up its pastors, a former United Brethren church that had never reconciled itself to being United Methodist, a church that had a sort of parallel congregation meeting during Sunday School, then leaving before the worship service. There was a contingent in this church that opposed everything my father tried to do. The parsonage was next door to the church, something we hadn't had to deal with since I was 8, and which created a fishbowl effect for our family. And there were now seven of us--my youngest brother was born just three weeks into my freshman year at PHS--and just one bathroom.

If you're thinking this sounds like a recipe for stress, you're absolutely right. There was plenty of tension in our family, and at times it exploded. My father was struggling all week long to keep his head above water, trying to get this unappreciative congregation to accept him and us, to just give us a chance, and to do that, he was away from the house far more than he normally would have been. This left my mother to single-parent her brood, tending to boys who ran the gamut from diapers to hormones. She had her hands full. After two and a half years of this stress, waiting through dinner after dinner for my father to come home from his other church, up the side of Mary's Peak on a winding and icy road, wondering if he'd make it back or run into a tree, lying awake late into the night hearing my parents' whispered, intense conversations, shrinking from the rare but frightening explosions, doing everything I could to make things easier for my parents, to not be a bother to them in any way, I concluded I should take the initiative to have someone else make my dashiki and my robe. The last thing my mother needed, I decided, was sewing projects.

And I was wrong. Because the one thing, above all others, that my mother lived for was making things for her husband and her sons. It was never a bother to her. She still does it, to the extent that her arthritic hands permit, sewing, crocheting, embroidering for her husband, sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.

Lest you worry about my high school dilemma, my mother somehow found out about both those sewing projects, was hurt that I hadn't known she'd want to do them herself, let me know she was hurt, then took them over. Somewhere in the things I still store in my parents' attic is that dashiki shirt. The king's robe she converted, after the play, to a bathrobe, and I used it for ten years, wearing it to the showers in college, grad school, and seminary.

Back to the limbo incident: for the past two weeks, I've struggled to hold these two jobs in balance, not knowing when my replacement would be hired, not wanting to make the stress on either set of administrators any more difficult than it already is, trying as much as possible to do justice to both positions. This worked reasonably well during in-service, though I still missed some important meetings in Reynolds. And once school started up in Banks, I was able to be there both Tuesday and Wednesday, first for freshman orientation, then for the first day of school. Thursday was a B day, so I was able to be at Margaret Scott (my Reynolds assignment) for the first day there. My principal at Margaret Scott, and the district administrators I'm dealing with, have been clear with me that they accept responsibility for the lateness of the hiring, will be happy to have me in my classroom whenever they can, but accept Banks's claim on my time until I'm replaced. I just needed to tell them when they'd need a substitute.

That's where the problem set in. All day Thursday I was hoping I'd learn that Banks (which interviewed candidates on Wednesday) would have someone in place Friday, so that I could continue with my full time work at Margaret Scott uninterrupted. I finished my student contact time Thursday without hearing anything, and finally called over to Banks to find out where things stood. At 3:00, I learned I'd be needed for Friday. That just happens to be the time that every staff member in the building was madly hunting for a first grader who'd not been in line for parent pickup. At 3:15, she was found on a bus--the wrong bus--and it looped back to the school to hand her over to her parents.

That's when I finally had a window of opportunity to tell the Scott (I'm tired of typing "Margaret") secretary that I would need a sub for Friday, and had been unable to get myself into the system. She handed me off to the ESD subfinder people, with whom I left a phone message, and left for the day.

And now I faced a quandary: they weren't calling me back, and I had a piano lesson to get to. I'd heard their office closed at 4 p.m. I drove across town, getting off the highway just before 4, left a message about my situation, drove to that lesson, and then my phone finally rang. It was the sub desk telling me I couldn't request a sub for Reynolds because I was still on contract with Banks, and recommending I get a sub for Banks instead.

That's what I did, but I lost sleep over it. It didn't seem right: I'd promised to be in Banks for another day, the kids at Banks were counting on me, and now it felt like I was gaming the system. I was happy to drive back to Scott the next morning, but plagued all the way there with this ethical struggle. Knowing I had placed a burden on the Banks administrators, I wanted to please them as much as I could, fulfilling their requests, sticking to my every-other day schedule, until I was genuinely released from that contract. I got to Scott on time, opened the front door with my key card, and let in a sub who'd arrived at the same time I did: the one the secretary went ahead and requested at 6 a.m. They had it all taken care of. I could've gone to Banks, after all.

So there it is: in trying to do right by everyone, I made a mess. And meanwhile the situation I was trying to resolve took care of itself.

I stayed at Scott yesterday. They found that sub something else to do. I met more of my new students, had a wonderful time with most of them, and fretted only a little about letting down the Banks principal and students who'd been expecting to see me. Later in the day, I received an email from Banks, confirming that my replacement had been hired, and asking that I give them one day (Tuesday) to show her the ropes, after which I'd be free and clear. I shared this with my Scott principal and secretary, giving them plenty of advance notice that a sub will be needed for that day, and that with me still unable to request one, it's in their hands. So it's all working out.

And meanwhile, I'm again left in awe of the simple fact that people are willing, even eager, to do things for me, to clean up after me, to make my life easier, that I don't have to figure it all out by myself. It's a discovery that never ceases to amaze and surprise me.

And the word for that discovery is grace.


Popular posts from this blog

Contact Matters

The Children Sing

Checking Diversity Boxes