Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, "L.A. Unified board picks Richard Vladovic as new president. By replacing Monica Garcia with Vladovic, the LAUSD board signals the waning influence of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This begs the question: Are days numbered for embattled Superintendent John Deasy?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Harry Meets the New Boss, and She's Not the Same as the Old Boss--Any of Them

First Hour at New Campus Brings Gaffes, Sharp Reprimands

Part 9 in the fictional story of Harry Mills, a teacher displaced when his employer, the Big City School District, voted to hand over his formerly public school to a private charter operator. For earlier chapters click the archives to the right. DISCLAIMER: the following characters and situations are made up. They shouldn’t remind you of anyone you know, unless you know somebody like this. Good fiction mirrors real life. Hopefully, this is good fiction.

By Mark J. Blocker

The first morning at his new school deep within Big City’s impoverished urban core Harry Mills parked his car, pulled out his briefcase and clicked the “lock” button on his high-tech key. Then he clicked it again.
Harry tried to make eye contact with everyone--fellow adults striding purposely or shuffling regretfully into the day; several dormant students dropped off in the pre-dawn hours by overburdened parents obeying early work schedules.
At 6:50 a.m. the brightly lit front office was a conspicuous beacon within the fog-shrouded campus.
“Hello, I’m Harry Mills.”
“Mr. Mills! Glad to meet you,” enthused a lady who doubled as the textbook coordinator. Budget cuts are forcing schools to require support staff to work dual jobs. “Let me get you your room key, you can sign in here,” she pointed to a familiar looking folder that contained all personnel time cards on the counter top. “You’re in Room 5. Classrooms are numbered on the buildings. You shouldn’t have trouble finding it, “ she smiled. “But Ms. Sharperson will be here any minute. Perhaps you should wait. She can show you to your room”
“Oh, I’ll meet her over there. I want to get inside and see what I have.”
“Actually, I think it would be better if you waited. Ms. Sharperson appreciates that. Have a seat. Relax.” Her tone downshifted into a mumbled warning.
So Harry did as told and waited in a chairs backed up against the wall by the double door. Several teachers whom Harry recognized from his old school entered, signed in and quickly left.
Eventually a short woman with Medusa-like, lengthy coils of pitch-black oily corkscrew curls cascading out her head toward her shoulders barged in like she owned the place. Must be Ms. Sharperson, Harry surmised. Everyone ceased their conversations, sat up straighter and busied themselves straightening any stack of paper within arm’s reach or staring into a nearby computer screen. Out of the corners of their eye, they cast furtive glances at the short woman upon stiletto heels who, with her hands on her hips, surveyed them all. She had long nails, the kind painted and glued down by Asian artisans toiling behind masks under fluorescent lights in malls on the better side of town. She was boxy with a pillow ass bulging out polyester pants. It contrasted sharply with unremarkable breasts. Her skin was color of caramel; hair the texture of rich licorice. Harry momentarily chided himself for sexually assessing his new boss. But, a man is a man, and a woman is a woman. This woman seemed intense. Angry. Oddly, this middle-aged black woman reminded Harry of the late British heavy-metal rock star Ronnie James Dio. He wasn’t so attracted anymore.
She turned to Mills and announced, “I’m Wanda Sharperson, principal of Darwin Middle School.”
Harry stuck out his hand. She ignored it.
“Follow me and I will show you to your room.” The 7:30 bell had already rang so classes were in session. The lady at the front told Harry he had first period conference, which meant that he was free during first period--sort of. Teachers with first period conference often found themselves covering for colleagues who had either slept late or were stuck in traffic.
Without a word, Sharperson and Mills walked together down the hall, passing rooms 1, 2, 3, but stopping at 4. She stuck her key into the door and opened it while Harry looked over at darkened Room 5. She silently motioned for Mills to enter. Immediately the teacher, a tall, lanky fellow who reminded Harry of an elongated Morgan Freeman began stuffing items into his briefcase for a quick exit.  Ms. Sharperson frowned. There were numbers and equations all over the white board. Posters promoted the fun, and value, of learning algebra. Others offered a hard sell on the merits of being polite and demonstrating good citizenship.
“Hey,” Harry asked the kids in the front row, “is this an English class?”
They enthusiastically nodded yes turning to each other with raised eyebrows.
“Oh, yeah?” Harry countered, “then what are all these numbers doing all over the place?” He pointed at the numbers and problems on their papers. “These don’t look like paragraphs to me! This ain’t no English class,” Harry declared with mock indignation.
A bossy looking girl, quite a bit larger than the nearby boys, intoned, “Well, for your information, these aren’t math problems; they’re algebra,” She added while wagging her finger, “and you aren’t supposed to say ain’t when you an English teacher.”
“Well,” Harry winked, “you got me there, sweetheart.”
She immediately smiled revealing a row of gleaming braces. Harry was making a mental note of the child’s leadership ability when Sharperson barked, “Excuse me, young lady, but what kind of way is that to talk to an adult? You keep yourself quiet in a classroom unless your teacher calls on you to speak!”
The girl’s victorious smile collapsed, and she cast her eyes down on her paper. Harry regretted setting up the gregarious child for a fall. It was his fault.
Then Sharperson turned on the teacher who was now clutching his briefcase while standing halfway out the door. “Leaving so soon?” she asked.
He quietly replied, “No m’am, but I’m a sub. I thought y’all were the regular teachers.”
“How long have you been here?” Sharperson demanded.
“Since Monday.”
“Well, by now you ought to know I’m not a ‘regular teacher.’ I’m Wanda Sharperson, the principal of Darwin Middle School.”
Sharperson turned to Harry, “Exactly what room are you supposed to be in Mr. Mills?”
“Five, I guess.”
She repeated slowly, “Five. You guess.” Then she tilted her head back and cocked an eyebrow. It was threaded—tapered, too. Her credit card bills must be astronomical Harry thought. The more money you make; the more you spend, Mills remembered hearing his grandfather complain years and years ago.
He had been here at Darwin MS for less than an hour, and knew his new principal for only a matter of minutes; nonetheless, Harry longed for the fast lane of the southbound Long Beach Freeway.
Sharperson stiffly apologized for intruding, she grabbed Harry’s arm, and together they backed out the door. Oddly the physical contact comforted Mills indicating she didn’t find him repulsive. Without a word, she unlocked Room 5 and motioned for him to step inside. The lights went on, and he heard the door shut behind. He turned expecting to see Sharperson, but she was gone.
Harry sighed and surveyed his new classroom. The color a nondescript beige favored by the Big City School District for all its thousands of classrooms from the mountains to the sea. A white board graced the south wall, while an antiquated, heavily marred chalkboard stared back from west. All bulletin boards were adorned with a single strip of colored paper that failed to reach the top or bottom, exposing pocked corkboard. Scalloped borders stapled along the edge emphasized the gap. There was nothing else on the walls.
During the previous week while temporarily parked at high-performing Gibson MS, Harry, hoping to the last the year, spent several days and nearly $100 of his own money decorating his classroom only to be transferred out Friday. He couldn’t justify tearing down all the new décor he dutifully hung to create a print-rich academic atmosphere for the students. Now, pone week later in a bare classroom, he wished he did because he would have to repeat the entire process and expense. Harry knew he wouldn’t be transferred away from this dreary, low-performing school--unless a charter operator put in a bid to run the place. And that wasn't going to happen until the end of this academic year.
At least the room was relatively clean. The exterior campus was coated in the grime of relentless urban traffic. Countless cars, delivery trucks and busses rolled forever to individual destinations. Overhead, an endless parade of behemoth, lumbering passenger jets arriving from around the world loudly descended into the international airport a few miles west.
Harry shut the door and in the welcomed ensuing quiet considered the clock on the wall. It was wrong. He checked his watch. The school’s block schedule meant there was less than a half hour left before his first students arrived. He walked over to the Title 1 room, where he would find government-funded supplies for teaching in a school serving poor people. Harry was one. He got some white butcher paper and marking pens, plus some chalk.
It was the first day for Mills, so he needed to set the kids straight on procedures, rules, and consequences. Rather than stand in front dictating, he figured he would let them vote on what rules they preferred. Of course, he would discreetly steer the discussion to his five favorites: bring your own paper and pens, get there on time, immediately write down the agenda, raise your hand to leave your seat, and complete all assignments
Once that was clear and the students thought it was all their ideas, Harry would break them into groups where they would create poster-sized cause-and effect charts describing each rule’s contribution to a pleasant academic environment. Then he would hang the kids’ posters on the wall. Viola: instant student-produced décor, which would also serve as reminders of proper conduct! Harry had learned a few tricks in the previous decade teaching middle school. It was now minutes before his first students arrived. He took comfort in knowing that soon they would all be one big happy family.
Or so he thought. Principal Wanda Sharperson’s abrasive, in-your-face management style was unbearable—even if it was gussied up in stylish clothes and multi-hundred-dollar spa treatments performed by stoic Korean women who stood over the supine, naked Sharperson slathering her with expensive mud while wishing they were back working in seedy massage parlors/whorehouses of Gardena and North Hollywood--because the tips are more generous.

Look for Part 10 in a few days!

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