Getting to school after Halloween was not easy for some of the adults who worked the carnival and celebrated with adult friends afterwards. And this is what happened to Athena, one of the tough, older teachers who loved kids yet gave no quarter to administrators. This included her attitude towards me, a principal who was experienced and had served in two prior schools both as vice principal and principal.
Athena herself enjoyed a storied career as the president of AFT (American Federation of Teachers) when they tried to take over teacher representation in the district from CTA (California Teachers Association). California is a collective bargaining state for public schools. This means that teachers vote to decide which union will represent them about pay and working conditions with the school board. The election was bitter and AFT lost by only one vote. Likewise, Athena lost yet maintained respect from all sides. The superintendent at the time made one school available for the AFT diehards and this became the school where I was appointed as principal to overcome the union divide, bring parents back who disdained the politics and inspire a new generation of teachers.
Athena seemed to be aging and losing energy when I first met her. She wore thick pancake makeup yet perspired profusely whether it was hot or cold out. This might have terrified children or become a cause for disrespectful mocking from older kids. But her Kindergarteners seemed to overlook the beads of sweat dripping from her nose and chin. Oddly from my perspective she focused on her fingernails as way to enhance her beauty. She regularly had them done with sparkles and little pictures drawn in colorful enamel and shared her thoughts with everyone about the way this made her more attractive.
Another claim to fame was her establishment of the right of Kindergarten teachers to be finished with duties at noon when their children went home while at the same time, getting paid as a full time teacher. The contract contained a clause about “professional day” which meant that teachers could determine how long to stay after school based on their needs or the needs of their students. Teachers were not required to be at school until some arbitrary time such as 4:00pm. Naturally, most teachers stayed later to finish up but many young mothers took off just after the kids left campus in order to pick up their own children and save money on daycare. They would then complete paperwork at home in the evening when their kids went to bed. The rub came when parents wanted to meet after school but most teachers were able to work this out by flexing their schedules.
The issue of leaving for the day at noon for Kindergarten teachers crystallized when Athena was spotted at 10minutes past twelve at a local Pizza parlor drinking a pitcher of beer and waiting for her lunch order to be served. She lost a good deal of personal authority with many teachers. None of her colleagues thought the “professional day” included the right to start drinking at noon. But Athena’s actions stood up when the Superintendent challenged the contract and tried to discipline her. She won her case and thereby firmly established the “professional day” in contract with this situation. She wouldn’t be shamed by anyone into admitting any kind of political blunder by drinking in public at noon when every other teacher in the district was at school working. It was her contractual right.
Her loss of authority showed months later when I asked teachers at a faculty meeting if they were opposed to me making a few changes in the yard duty schedule. Athena stood up in what seemed to me to be mock outrage and demanded the group oppose the administration and walk out with her. I suggested it was me, Bill, not some distant and evil administration who was talking to them. The teachers ignored her and she walked out by herself. It must have been a hard moment when she checked for the parade behind her and found that no one was there.
Back to the Monday following Halloween; it had rained and the air was clear and cool. I felt a special pride in my school after such successful community events, and decided to walk the classrooms to start my day. This was part of a “supervision” task but also just fun for me. The first room I came to was Athena’s Kindergarten class. I walked in quietly and saw her sitting on a stool instructing at the blackboard to a group of sleepy but attentive Kindergarteners sitting nicely in a semi circle. Athena saw me and I waved to her. She seemed to energize her instruction as she faced the sitting class and then turned quickly to write on the board again. As she did this, I noticed something that appeared to swing around from the center of her back. I moved closer and she upped her game even more, now standing and facing her little ones, then turning with a kind of spritely elan to elegantly write something on the board. It was then that I saw the thing hanging from her back. It was a brassier that was hooked to the long angora sweater Athena wore.
“Now what?” I thought as Athena continued to teach and turn in even more excited fashion. This, of course, made the bra swing out even farther. Finally, her lesson was finished and the kids were dismissed to play with various blocks and games at centers she had developed throughout the room. I took advantage of this transition to wave her over to me. When she approached I opened the classroom door and beckoned her to step outside with me. I left the door open so our joint supervision responsibilities were met and moved towards her so that I could tell her quietly about the bra that I could now see was hooked on the back of her sweater just below the neck. Unfortunately, Athena stepped back as if I was going to invade her personal space.
I said, “You have something on your back and if you turn around, I’ll take it off.”
She stepped back further and said, “What are you talking about?” And after a moment asked, “What are you up to?”
I tried to explain, “Well you have an article of clothing that seems to be stuck on your back and I think you would like it off of there.”
She twisted around and the bra swung out so she was able to grab it without turning her head far enough to see it, although it was a pretty big bra. Then she kind of shrieked, “Oh God,” and pulled hard to get it to come off. This panicked yanking of the bra only attached the hook more deeply into the angora strands and made the front of the sweater pull up closer to her chin. Sweat started flowing from her brow and in a matter of seconds drew rivulets through the thick pancake makeup and dripped from her nose and chin.
“Please let me get it,” I asked.
She turned and allowed me to unhook the bra and hand it to her quickly. She darted back into the classroom and stuffed the now crumpled up bra into her desk drawer. I turned and left as fast as I could to continue my school tour, wondering how this would all come out.
Unfortunately for Athena, another teacher, some parents and an aide had seen us in the hallway doing our angora-bra-tango. These were people who disliked Athena for her drinking and harsh if winning ways as a union leader. By the time lunch break came for teachers, the word was all over the school. Poor Athena never recovered her standing as a strong leader after this last nail in the coffin incident. It was a tough Monday after Halloween for her.