The children and many parents loved Joleen. She listened well and garnered the trust of everyone with her practical responses to various problems and warm understanding of parental concerns. Children would find excuses to go to the office during recess just to see Joleen. Early on in her secretarial career, I had to set limits on the number of children who could come.
As a result many kids feigned mild injury or the ever-present elementary school bellyache just to be able to get a hug from Joleen. She also had a refrigerator in the office and kept it stocked with ice cubes. Wrapped in a plastic bag, these ice cubes healed many scrapes, injuries and hurt feelings. She called parents if the scrapes were deserving of more attention and used language everyone appreciated such as, “Jerry done got stove up on the playground today so I gived him some ice. He’d like to talk to his momma.”
The mother on the other end of the phone knew just what to say and Jerry would no longer be ‘stove up’ and able to return to school activities. Joleen was part of the miracle cure.
And it was in response to this role, as ice cube dispenser that she made an improvement through a parent’s donation of left over athletic team ‘cold paks’. These plastic bags represented the miracle of modern sports medicine. They were filled with mysterious blue pellets that turned cold once you punched them. No more leaky plastic bags full of ice! Kids would just get a ‘cold pak’ and turn it back in when they went back to class or the playground, healed or restored.
With Joleen in the office and capable teacher aides on the playground, I was able to have lunch with the other teachers and learn more about them. I felt I was different from them in many ways but we were getting along well. It was on just such a day that my well-run school went to hell in a hand basket. Joleen rushed into the teachers’ room where were eating our brown bag sandwiches and cried out breathlessly, “Theydoneetitallup! Theydoneetitallup! “
“What are you saying?” I asked. “ I can’t understand a word.”
“Theydoneetitallup!!” Joleen yelled at me. Then more slowly she said, “They done et it all up!”
Another teacher translated for me. “She is saying, ‘They have eaten it all up.”
“Who has eaten what up?” I asked.
“They et up the blue bags,” Jolene screamed. I started to ask, “What blue bags?” when I realized it was the blue ‘cold paks’.
“What happened? I said thinking I was being calm as I stood up and headed out the door to the office. Joleen followed me and started to explain.
“I done give 6 bags to 6 kids. They done broke ‘em and then et the blue stuff!”
Now I was really starting to get scared. By the time I reached the office the 6 kids were standing outside looking scared too. Joleen had yelled at them and that never happened. Since it was a hot day, they broke open the bags and ate the blue liquid like an icy. I grabbed a phone book, looked up the number of the clinic that was about 10 miles away and dialed. When I told the nurse what happened she ordered me to get the kids there as soon as possible. They would give the kids ipecac so they would throw up all the blue stuff. She also told me to bring one with me so they could check it for the degree of poisoning the kids had experienced in case the ipecac wasn’t enough.
I ordered Joleen to call parents and tell them where I was with their child, and what happened. I asked her to get the emergency cards for each kid out of the red box, but then decided I’d just take the box with me instead of relying on Joleen’s alphabetizing and spelling skills at this point. She could use the attendance files to get parent information.
We didn’t have any kind of car handy that would take all six kids, so I grabbed the keys to the 1949 International Harvester Carry All while Joleen, now calmed down started to call parents. She was able to give them the upsetting story, let them know where to go to get their child and deliver a calm sense of confidence at the same time.
Meanwhile, I was out in front with the International and the six scared kids. The beast was great for hauling kids around in 1950 or so but had a real problem with the starter at this late juncture in its life. Luckily for me, I got the kids into the Carry All and with just a little grinding and panting, the thing started up. In no time at all we were sitting outside the clinic and I happily watched all six kids puke their guts out as the clinic nurse got off the phone with poison control and gave me the good news that we got there in time. Parents picked up their kids at the clinic after I made the phone calls there and they were actually happy that everything turned out ok. Instead of being the idiot who let the secretary pass out poison ‘cold paks’ to kids, I was the hero who saved them as evidenced by the fact that they were alive at the clinic.
The next day I met with Joleen to take steps that would get her to improve her secretarial skills, the kind we might need in an emergency again, such as getting out the student emergency cards without making an alphabetizing mistake. Joleen sadly confessed to me that she, “…done tuk all the courses they got at the college.”
At this point, I think I can see that it was more important for Joleen’s effectiveness as a rural small school secretary to relate well to parents than to be able to alphabetize (although that certainly would have helped). Parents trust school secretaries much more than they do principals and especially one who was as different from them as I was. While I believed I was warm and understanding, feedback from the school community continually revealed I was aloof and too distant in the eyes of many parents and teachers. However, the board and new superintendent didn’t really appreciate Joleen’s contribution, except one board member who was also challenged by reading. They discounted her due to her language and promoted me to a full principalship at an elementary school of 500 kids.