Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ode to the School Secretary

Walking by an office window recently, I caught sight of a little Halloween decoration on someone’s desk. Suddenly, my mind flooded with affection for the school secretaries who have made my teaching life easier.

My father, a thirty eight year teaching veteran, chaperoned my first school secretary love affair. I can’t remember the woman’s name, but the front office secretary in his high school took a shine to me. She always had a little treat for me when I traipsed after my dad, keeping him company during summer days when he went in to verify book counts or in afternoons before he worked as the announcer for the school’s wrestling matches. She gave me a little toy bank she made herself that I kept until I left for college. I knew her from the ages of possibly five to seven; sadly, I can’t even picture her face. I can see her hands, opening her drawers, giving me paper to draw, making me feel welcome “behind the counter,” which seemed to me a land like Oz.

When I first began teaching, I taught in an urban school district. A succinct version of perhaps the most formative years of my professional life would categorize the experience as challenging. After three years, I got a job in a more stabilized district, and the young woman who got my schedule quit the third day of school on the front office answering machine. I stayed through three years because of my father’s guidance, affection for my students, fellow teachers’ advice and understanding, my own abject poverty, and the love and support of several school secretaries, by then called administrative assistants.

I laugh as I realize my relationships with these women looks remarkably like the one I had with the school secretary when I was six years old. Unlike teacher friends, who might share my prep or lunch period one semester but not the next, administrative assistants are reliably available. These women found the heart to decorate their desks for the seasons even when the challenges we faced as an institution left many of us without the energy for such niceties. They lovingly compared me to their daughters, they assured me that my nascent efforts at strong teaching counted, they clucked their tongues at my travails, handing me Hershey kisses and promising things would get better with time and experience. One woman even fixed me up with her nephew, a lovely man who ultimately wasn’t my cup of tea but who treated me gloriously, a sweet reprieve from my work life.

These women made sure I never missed a health care open enrollment. They ensured that I knew ahead of time when a parent came in to see me. They gave me a little oasis at their desks, a place where someone liked me and refrained from judgment, putting aside the piles of work that needed their attention and meeting my needs instead.

The administrative assistant with whom I now work treats me with the same kind of caring affection. Since I’m no longer a new teacher, she grants me different support, the support of one working woman to another. She shared her pregnancy stories as I carried my son; she makes sure my schedule works with my duel role as teacher and parent; she always acts as if listening to me and my issues is just what she was planning to do in that moment anyway.

Amongst the many intangibles that make a school successful lies the school secretary. May all teachers find a little haven in the school office.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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