My wife Kathy and I arrived at the upscale hotel and conference center on a bright February day in sunny Monterey on the scenic California coast by the late afternoon. We left our young kids with trusted friends and were looking forward to two nights of freedom, intellectual stimulation, and fun all mixed in with the vaguely defined work of my role as textbook coordinator for my small northern California school district where I served as elementary school principal. We got our room, changed quickly and headed for the beach to see the beautiful sunset and look for migrating whales and other life on the seashore. When the sun dropped we made our way back to our room and flopped into bed.
This conference was slated as one of the best. It was a combination of the International Reading Association, the California Reading Association and the textbook adoption conference for all the publishers who were approved by the California State Board of Education. This was the Language Arts text adoption year and the school district was paying for the entire trip!
We had late breakfast together (this meant 7am for us) in a dining room and hurried off to the first big session. A renowned researcher-professor from USC, Stephen Krashen was scheduled to speak and share his work on teaching children to read. I remember the conference now as a prelude to the conflict then brewing between those who foresaw test-based accountability and those who advocated for the more natural approach of whole language. But that’s for another blog.
We broke for lunch and enjoyed one of those upscale conference buffets with everything you couldn’t afford at home. Kathy was reasonable but I ate like a pig. Olives, roast beef, crescent rolls and as much good ham, turkey and mustard as you could pile on. And since it was a buffet I could go back as many times as I could handle. The food for lunch was all provided buy the text book companies and the other vendors who sold things like book holders or book cases or bean bag chairs for classroom reading corners.
Early afternoon was taken up with more meetings and then we escaped for a lovely walk on the rocky beach before dinner. Back in our room we relaxed, read and walked over to the hot tub and pool. This was the kind of atmosphere that educators needed, I felt, in order to really relax and open our minds to the new or revised methods and material in the wonderful new textbooks.
I thought briefly about my day at school just before we left and the rash of sick kids who showed up at my small office. I was an experienced elementary school principal by then so I was used to managing those minor epidemics of vomity flu that crop up every year. And the day before I left was just such a day when I had instituted the emergency rule I called “puke on the grass.” When kids feel like throwing up, they usually are unable to manage it. After they told their teacher they were feeling sick, the teacher would send them to our nurseless office where the secretary or I could take their temperature and determine if a call would be made to parents to pick them up. Prior to my “puke on the grass” rule, the sick kid would wobble into the office, puke and then announce, “I don’t feel so good.” But with the rule in place, I could stand just outside the office and direct the sick looking kids to “puke in the grass.” And it really worked well. The kids must have respected their principal and school secretary because even in their fevered states they were mostly able to weave off the sidewalk and vomit all over the lawn.
This rule really improved our office smell and thus our office efficiency, (although I have never seen it at any of the expensive “Accountability” workshops paid for by state or federal funds I attended. Such workshops are mainly filled with exhortations or slogans that didn’t work such as ‘No Excuses.” How would that work with a sick kid who was about to puke? (Buck up kid while I work through the rule book. And remember “No Excuses” about puking in the office!) Anyway, I was proud the, “puke in the grass” actually did work and solved a real problem. However, every once in a while, a parent would decide to argue with us over the phone when we had called to say her kid was sick.
“How do you know he’s really sick?” She would say suspiciously, accusingly. “He looked just fine this morning.”
It was on just such an occasion that I learned to develop the “puke in the grass” rule because I was able to tell the parent, “I know he is sick because he just puked all over my shoes, socks and pants!” While I do not claim to be the sharpest tack in the box, it only took me one time to get puked on to figure out the “puke in the grass rule.” I felt more in control of my school when the kids puked on the grass or the walkway where ‘Old Zip’ the custodian could send another janitor, his underling, to hose it off.
Anyway, back to our nice conference in Monterey. That evening we went to an invitation only dinner for district textbook coordinators, which is what I was. The textbook companies didn’t ask if I were anything else, like a principal too. It just seemed reasonable to them that a textbook coordinator in a normal district would have a good deal of influence. But in my district, every principal held district wide duties as well as school leadership duties. This felt like a bit of a con, but I felt could handle the moral issue at stake here.
The dinner was held in a lovely dining room with a view of the ocean. Kathy and I were dressed up, she in a beautiful yet conservative dress and I in my standard blue blazer and grey slacks with regimental necktie. We were seated in the middle of all the tables so we had a good view of the speakers’ podium and projector screen for the inevitable power points that would accompany the sales presentation.
We had a couple of choices for dinner and each was fantastic. One was a delicious prawn dish with rice and grilled vegies. The other was prime rib with all the fixins’. I took the beef and Kathy chose the prawns.
But most noticeable were the two bottles of wine at the table, one red and one white. When the waiter arrived he pointed out that the wine, all the wine, was complimentary. We tried not to act stunned, nor too excited.
“Open them both,” I said in a not very sophisticated manner.
“Yes sir,” the waiter responded as he popped the corks and aired the bottles.
For us, this was fairly extravagant, even decadent excess. We categorized wine by the dichotomous variable of screw-cap vs. cork, and this cork wine was far above our normal level of parent-style, non-gourmet drinking. I checked the wine list on the table and the bottles these publishers were giving us listed for $32 and $34 respectively.
The waiter poured our first glasses so we could taste and discard the bottles if they didn’t meet our standards. After a millisecond, I decided my wine was just right. Kathy took a bit longer but also felt she could drink the wine the textbook companies were buying for us.
We enjoyed our meal tremendously. After a reasonable time when the tables had been served, the textbook sales people made a brief presentation about the value of teaching kids to read and the marvels of their reading series. Our salesperson came to our table and sat with us for about 10 minutes. He brought a bottle of wine with him and shared a bit about the ideas in the textbooks. Mainly, he asked questions about us, our schools, kids and lives. He was building a relationship of trust and collegiality, probably based on the possibility that I might become more influential in a bigger district at some future point in time.
The poor guy seemed a bit disappointed because he spent much more time at the tables representing much larger districts who naturally bought more text books. But he was gracious and continued to make his rounds at the tables where his clients ate and drank happily. Towards the end of the dinner and presentations, three of the sales people who were coordinating the dinner stood up to make a speech. They thanked us all for our dedication to children, for our wisdom as educators, for our insight and for our great intelligence at selecting their textbook series. (I didn’t know they thought I had already selected their series, which I hadn’t). The funny part was that after they had made rounds to many tables they were fairly tipsy. This made the speeches mildly incomprehensible. The three guys stood arms around each other’s shoulders, holding each other up as they gushed with thanks and appreciation.
“I shust know weee’re gonna tich all this kids to read (hic) like crazy…” said the first.
“You guys, provessssals, (hic) professionals, are shjust great…”said the second.
The third just smiled happily and waved at us.
At that we rose from our wonderful dinner and went back to our room. The next morning we drove home and were happy to see our kids and find out what had happened in their world while we were gone.
Back at school, the vomity flu was over and Monday morning was as normal and well run as could be. I was thrilled the next week to receive another invitation for Kathy and me to attend another important textbook adoption seminar over a three- day conference at an upscale spa in Napa. The pictures of the spa looked fantastic.
I brought this home to Kathy and we talked about what a great gig this textbook adoption coordinator was. I remembered some of my friends from college who undertook careers in banking and real estate, and also remembered how jealous I felt when they told stories of the extravagant luxuries they enjoyed during conferences. Now with the accountability movement gaining steam, we in Education were also going to become more business-like and also get to enjoy marvelous conference locations with our wives and friends.
Then it all fell apart. I read in the newspaper that the legislature had passed a law forbidding any kind of influence from textbook companies within the textbook selection process. This meant no more fancy dinners, no more wine, no more weekends on the rocky shores of Monterey looking at sunsets on the district’s dime.
I guess we didn’t qualify for the luxurious, rent-seeking part of the business world. It was the end of a great deal. Back to the real moral quandaries of life as a school principal like improving efficiency by training kids to “puke on the grass” instead of in the office.