virgil ,school pens , syria and the absurd

We were talking absurdities , the museum curator and I , when I went over there a few days ago . I guess that I was the one who started it by bringing up the topic of Syria .

Would the USA strike ? What would be the point of pretending to be protecting the world’s morality by killing more people ? Hey , didn’t Saddam Hussein use poison gas on his own people back when he was our ally ? Did we get on our high moral horse then ? We both agreed , the museum curator and I , that there is a lot that we are not being told by Obama as he pushes  the country , seemingly  George   Bush-like ,  toward another  easy-to-get-into-but-hard-to-get-out-of  Mid-East  military adventure .

I’m not sure how we got on the subject of school . I suppose that the absurdity of current international relations leads  smoothly , somehow  ,  to how the schools are run . Virgil Middle School memories began to swamp my little mental boat , I think , and I needed quickly to bail them out . I usually don’t mouthe off as much as I did that day in the museum .cropped-woman-big-hat.jpg

I told the curator  the story of the sign out pens . Let’s call this story : The Sign-Out Pens .


The Contract said teachers could  not sign out before ten minutes after the last bell at the end of the school day .  We had to sign in at least ten minutes before the first bell and then sign out at the end of the day to be paid .

There were ninety or so of us teaching at Virgil and , I think , we all considered ourselves professionals . Most of us spent endless extra hours , non-paid , on the job . Most teachers do .  You know : correcting papers , preparing lessons , buying our own supplies , talking with parents , etc.

At Virgil , we had an administrator , who — I want to be fair —  perhaps under-valued the teaching profession . Let’s call him Wally .  Principal Wally .  He thought that a school was akin to a military organization , I think . He would have loved to have had us snap to attention and salute in his presence , to  ” yes, sir ” him ,  and to ” no sir ” him , and to ” right away sir ” him , and then to  carry out his orders .kaiser wilhelm 11908

Ah , but life would have been so simple if it had worked like that . But , of course , it didn’t .  Wally was not , as  a clerk in an education store told me once after he had asked what school I work at ( I know , I know ! Grammar . Get over it. It was the clerk’s grammatical clumsiness  ; not mine . )     ” Oh , you’ve got Wally over there ,” he said . ” He’s not exactly God’s gift to education . ”    No .  Wally  wasn’t .

There were sign-out books on the counter in the main office . Teachers   initialed in and initialed out . Cheap Bic pens were put out for the purpose .

Then one day the pens were chained to the sign-out books .  Okay , so some of them had been  carried off over time ,  inadvertently or otherwise .

Then one day all of the pens were gone . The office manager explained that ” Teachers were stealing them “. So , from then on , we used our own pens . No more sign out pens would be provided .

But you kind of have to comprehend the entire context of the pen situation . Principal  Wally was obsessed with rules when it suited his purpose . His purpose , in order not to belabor the point , was , let’s say ,   to command . He enforced the ten minute rule obsessively . He never , of course , credited teachers for their extra unpaid hours of effort , but he damn sure wasn’t going to let anyone ever sign out early .

Some  of us would head for the office about ( emphasis : about )   ten minutes after the final bell .  The office clerks would hold the sign out books in their hands , away from teachers , watching the second hand of the big office clock slowly turn. Click. Click. Click .  Remember : a watched pot never boils . Not ten minutes yet . The waiting crowd grew . Click. Click. Click.

And then , exactly ten minutes after the final school bell had rung , the secretaries would put the sacred tomes down on the counter . Deliverance !  Meanwhile , a large crowd of teachers had congregated . They had  waited for the second hand to turn . The passage of time was temporarily suspended , or , at least ,  slowed down almost to a stop . Click . Click .

Wally then  issued an order that no teachers were allowed in the office until the sign out books were put down . After that we congregated just outside the door , in the main hallway , and waited there .  And at some point , when we finally were allowed in , to sign out , guess what ? No sign out pens .

I happened , by chance , to be a member of the school council that year , the so-called ” School-Based Management Council ” .  During the Council meeting I asked Wally , the chairperson , about the pens . What happened to the pens ? The Council waited . There were a few members of the community present . Everyone waited .

” It was a secretarial decision ,”  Wally  answered , ” because the pens were disappearing . ”

” So , Mr. Wally , ” I said , politely ,  ” the school secretaries are now making school policy ? ”

That was enough .  His authority had been questioned . His pointy little ears turned red . Then his face . He sneered . He glared at me in a vain attempt at intimidation . His almighty-ness   had been challenged  . I knew that would be enough .  The pens were back on the counter the next morning .

The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth  ———- Albert Camus 

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One response to “virgil ,school pens , syria and the absurd

  1. Ah, I see. The pen is mightier than the sword! Good for you! I remember those days. I taught middle school art. I very rarely left more than an hour after the last bell.

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