“Will you please call me about this?”
I received this brief invitation in an e-mail this afternoon. It was signed by my son’s principal, and it referenced an earlier e-mail I had sent to his English teacher. It seems my son, a seventh grader who apparently has no ambitions for advancement, had failed to turn in a poetry packet which was due a couple of weeks ago. I will never understand a kid who completes all of the reading and class work for a two-week-long project and then simply forgets to hand it to the teacher. For most of us, the ‘putting it on the desk’ part of the transaction would be easy; it’s getting all that Haiku and iambic pentameter stuff sorted out that’s the real stumper.
However, as irksome as it is to have a child who spends most of the day wandering the quad asking himself, “What the heck am I doing here?”, I was particularly frosted that according to the school web site, my son was receiving a ‘B’ in English. It wasn’t the ‘B’ that annoyed me, it was the fact that he had been told that due to his having lost the poetry packet he was now failing the class.
It’s a fair leap from ‘B’ to ‘F’, and had Jake not shown the kind of guts and auditory data retention almost unheard of in a seventh grader and both remembered and told me about his change of fortune, we likely would not have heard about the failing grade until we received the engraved invitation to summer school. “RSVP. Hateful scowl optional.”
So I e-mailed the teacher, asking her why there was no mention of this discrepancy on her grade sheet. I was civil, and I didn’t insist she accept the late assignment. I merely questioned her failure to fulfill the minimum obligation owed to the parents of her students, namely, updating the grades on the web site.
She responded by not responding at all. Instead, she forwarded the message to her principal, with the request that the principal “advise as to how she might handle the situation.” I don’t know what she expected would happen were she to simply reply to my e-mail or, in lieu of that, sign on to the system and fill in the missing grades, but clearly she was treating the problem in much the same way an airport lackey deals with a suspicious, unclaimed suitcase menacing the terminal’s food court: She turned it over to someone with more zeros on their paycheck.
So now I’m faced with a dilemma: Do I call the principal and go over all of this nonsense with her, knowing as I do that this particular administrator has more faces than a “Where’s Waldo” poster and therefore can’t be expected to be straight with any of the parties involved? Or do I do what comes naturally when summoned to the seat of authority, namely, hide in my closet until it all blows over?
You see, that’s the real problem. Believe it or not, I’m kind of a chicken when it comes to certain authority figures. Anyone reading this who knows me is probably blowing diet Coke through their noses at the suggestion that I could be intimidated by a middle-aged woman sporting a string of Emitations pearls and sensible shoes, but it’s true. The slightest possibility that I’m going to be scolded by someone sitting on the drawer side of the desk triggers within me deep-seated fight or flight instincts. National Geographic could do an entire issue on folks like me. There I’d be on the front cover, sobbing into my checkbook while the bank manager (at his big desk, of course) lectures me on the importance of keeping my account balanced and demands I return the toaster.
I’m one of nature’s rule keepers, and there is nothing I dread more than the thought of getting caught doing something unlawful. The gravity of the crime is irrelevant; I would feel as ashamed eating a grape I hadn’t paid for as I would looting corporate retirement funds. I’ve got a one-size-fits-all guilt gland, and it covers pretty much every infraction from gossip to genocide.
There was a time when I might have pondered the reasons for such an overactive compulsion to be on the side of the angels, but not any more. I’m an oldest child, and I’ve read enough “I’ll Be Okay Once I Pay $12.95 For This Self-Help Book” self-help books to know that oldest children tend to define their worth by what they do, not necessarily by who they are, or something like that. So it’s not uncommon for ‘oldests’ to become teachers, ministers, and third world despots. Our work doesn't just speak for itself, it maps our DNA. Dobee Ergo Ibee, that’s our motto.
It doesn’t help that I have the most stuck-up, highly strung karma on the psychic plane. I’m telling you, I never get away with anything. I no sooner start bad-mouthing an older boy who’s been picking on my son than someone in the room reveals that the kid was found years earlier wandering in the desert outside Panacha, Nevada, with nothing but the shirt on his back and a sock monkey he called “mama.”
If everyone is making faces while the teacher is writing on the board, I’ll be the one with my eyes crossed and my thumbs in my ears when she turns around. It’s always been like that. I have to be careful not to wave down highway patrolmen and inform them that I was just doing 80 in a 60 mile zone, and if they know what’s good for society they’ll throw the book at me.
So it figures I would have a child who keeps getting me called down to the principal’s office. And it’s no different than when I was the student, the teacher reading the note she’s just been handed and announcing, “DeNae, Mr. Newton would like to see you. Take your books. You won’t be coming back.”
As I collect my binders for the long walk to the big house I imagine campers, years later, roasting marshmallows and telling the story of the girl who back-sassed the janitor, was sent to the office, and was never….heard from….again.
The moment I saw who the e-mail was from, that cold, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach returned. I didn’t even need to read it, I knew exactly what it was. It might as well have been pink and hand-delivered by an office aid. That big tattle-tale English teacher. What gets into some people? Here she was the one who didn’t keep the rule (“Teachers will update their grades on ParentLink every Friday afternoon so parents can get a jump on grounding their offspring for the weekend”), my kid was the one who required GPS to locate the teacher’s inbox, and I was the one being summoned to the woodshed! How the heck is that fair?
And yet, in my heart of hearts, it makes perfect sense. I sent one message calling someone on their inappropriate behavior, and in keeping with the natural order of the universe I am being taken to task for it. The Unabomber managed to get away with more mail-related sins than I do. It’s just the way it is.
Of course, it’s possible that the principal wishes to apologize in person for the obvious breakdown of discipline that has taken place at the middle school, and is only asking that I contact her to schedule a time for the ceremony. She’ll call the student body together in the school cafetorium, publicly beg my forgiveness, and ask that I continue to shine as a beacon of compliance and unwavering obedience to the policies and procedures of the Clark County School District. The English teacher will be summoned to the podium and forced to testify as to her incompetence, and I will be allowed to pull her hair. Medals will be distributed. Tears will be shed. I’ll be a hero and an icon to uptight rule-keepers everywhere.
But just in case my karma has anything to say about it, I’ll cut a switch on my way to the school. I’d hate to show up to the woodshed empty handed.