My husband pulled up to Starbucks; I skipped out to pick up our mobile order. We were treating ourselves to hot chocolate. My kids were grumbling because they weren’t getting anything.
Two steps in the door, I there it was: “Oh, hellllloooooooo, Mrs. Schwanke!”
I live reallllllllly close to my school. By choice. And I mostly love it. I live in a great neighborhood, super-close to work, and my commute is virtually nonexistent. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
But there is a big fat downside: Anything can turn into a meeting— a meeting I’m not ready to have. A trip to the grocery store, a haircut, even just picking up the dry cleaning can turn into an unexpected meeting. Without exception, they are uncomfortable and awkward, in no small part because I’m simmering inside when I hear my name called out that way, sing-songed: “Mrs. Schwaaaaanke!” Every time I hear it, my mind twists with all the realizations. I’m going to have to stop and slip into principal mode—right now. There will be complaints. Requests. This person just has to tell me this thing right this very minute. It’s parent conference time, right here, with my family waiting in the car, and all I want is my hot chocolate.
So this one was all that and more. The mother of two students at my school, at the very first table, all spread out with her laptop and a mess of papers.
“Your timing is perrrrrfect, Mrs. Schwanke!” She grinned. “I’m sitting here catching people I know and asking if they want to buy some Girl Scout Cookies. Isha is selling them.”
I couldn’t believe she was allowed to do that, right there in Starbucks. But: Whatever. I have the Girl-Scout cookies answer ready. I’ve bought eight thousand boxes of those damned things in my career.
“I’m so sorry," I cooed. "I’ve just spent way too much money buying them from the little neighbor girl." And then, "Besides, I have learned I have to limit the purchases from students or I’ll go broke.” Deliberate one-beat pause. “It’s great to see you, though. Have a great Saturda—“
“Oh, I understand,” she smiled again. “But… Do you have a moment? You know. While I have you and all?”
You don’t have me, I thought fiercely.
But she was off and running—she wanted to know about attendance areas, if we were going to have another Movie Night this year, what the Valentine parties are going to look like, if there was any talk about next year and how many classes….
I answered her questions quickly, scooting backwards, removing myself slowly, and finally managed to slip myself out of the conversation web. I grabbed the drinks and hustled, criminal-style, to the van. My husband didn’t even have to ask what took so long.
I rolled my eyes. “Standard-issue,” I said. He slipped the van into reverse with a sympathetic nod, and we were off.
Being a principal (and, yes, a teacher) requires this of us. It just is. If we live where we work, we’re always on call. We can’t say, “No. Not now.” We can’t be rude or dismissive. We can’t go to the 7-Eleven in pajamas and nappy hair—not if we want to uphold a perception of ourselves for the families who trust us. We have to be stewards of our schools and districts.
We can wish other people didn’t put us in this position, but that’s like wishing for stars at noontime: It’s just not going to happen.
In the end, my hot chocolate still tasted delicious, and I was able to answer questions from a parent that, quite honestly, probably saved myself (or the teachers of her children) from a long email on Monday morning. And she felt heard and supported. It’s an investment, and I understand it as such. So I’m not resentful or grumpy about it, not longer than a few flashes of fury when I first hear my name. I get over it quickly, and move my way toward gratitude that I get to do this work in a place I call home.
Just for the record, though: I’m not buying any more Girl Scout cookies. Not doing it.