Readers — It is time to update the term “Kafka-esque,” which seems to suggest bureaucratic madness belonged to another time and continent. That madness is alive and well, even in Dallas, TX, as you’re about to read. This piece comes from a Facebook post by my speaking engagement agent, Judy Safern at Leading Thinkers. – L.
I was delighted when my son’s fifth grade teacher asked me if I would accompany their class downtown on a field trip to the art museum. My son was, too. The night before the trip he texted me: “Goodnight!! I love you!! I can’t wait to go to sleep so I can wake up and we can go to the museum!!”
That morning I got to the school, but first had to buzz for entry. Not that Lorena, the secretary couldn’t SEE me through the glass doors and doesn’t recognize me after a year of buzzing me in when I came to attend concerts, meet with teachers, volunteer in the library…
“Hi Ms. Lorena!” I smiled and waved after she buzzed to ask “Who is it?” “Judy Safern, here for the field trip!”
Bzzzzz. I’m IN!
Then, on to the office to a) sign their Visitor log with the date, time, name of the child I am visiting and reason for my visit, and b) log into the computer and register my presence online and print out a badge with my photo.
But, uh oh! ”This system does not recognize that name.”
Hmmm. Maybe I’m in there as “Judy” not “Judith” — though, of course I am in there as “Judith” because that’s how my driver’s license identifies me and the school has a copy of my driver’s license. And my water bill. And my lease. And my divorce agreement. They know everything about me.
“Judith Safern,” I typed again.
“Gosh, Lorena,” I said, more flustered than irritated. “What’s going on??”
Other parents were jostling to sign in. “You must not be in there,” she said. “Let me see your driver’s license.”
Daaaaaa’yum. (That’s “damn” with a North Texas dipthong.) Damn. Ms. Lorena is p.o.’d at me.
I handed it over.
She was PISSED. I mean really pissed. She did not have time for this nonsense, no way, no how.
She studied my government ID, looked at me. Yep. Still me. The me she’s known all year. Then she typed my name into HER computer. Looked up at me again. “You’re not in here. You must not have done your background check.”
“Yes, I have…” I said. “Of course I have…”
“Well,” she said with no smile, no irony, “You’re not in here.”
“Would you please check the paper files?” I asked. “I KNOW I’m in the system!”
“No, MA’AM,” she said.
Now, let me explain the use of “ma’am” here for a moment. You see, in Texas, “ma’am” is not an innocent term. It’s loaded. I mean LOADED with meaning and nuance. Loaded like your daddy’s Colt 45 loaded.
When and if one says “ma’am,” the place it appears in the sentence and the tone in which it is pronounced make ALL the difference in the world.
THIS use of “ma’am” was a dis.
“This is the DISTRICT system,” Lorena said slowly, hand on her screen. “You need to be in HERE to go on the field trip. You must not have submitted your background check or you’d be in here.”
“But I AM in there,” I said. “And I have completed the background check and I have volunteered at this campus. I was just here last week shelving library books. The system recognized me then, I had a printed badge. Look, we can check the log book and find that badge.”
“Oh, you can’t use that badge TODAY!!!,” she said with great alarm.
“No, no, of course not,” I assured her. ” I just mean, we can VERIFY that I’m in the system by locating that — or any of the dozens of other sticker badges — in the log book.”
Because, of course, one can’t simply leave this school after visiting the building, one must surrender one’s badge and sign out. As a rule follower, I have always pasted my badge in the log book at the conclusion of each visit.
Parents were jostling for the logbook. Others were in line to print their badges. I was gently pushed aside.
This poor secretary was overwhelmed. Too much going on at her desk. I spied the office manager a few feet away and sought eye contact. Fail.
“May I please speak to your supervisor?” I asked the secretary.
“Good MORNING, Ms. Safern!” the school counselor greeted me with a shoulder pat as she breezed past, arms loaded with files, en route to a meeting.
“She’s busy right now,” the secretary.
“I understand that,” said I, “but the bus will be here soon and I am supposed to help chaperone this field trip so we need to sort this out. Can I please speak to someone who is willing to help?”
She glared at me.
“I’m sure someone can just CALL the district and verify my background check…I was in the system last week,” I said as mildly as possible.
“Ma’am,” she said.
Oh, f***. REALLY? Really, Lorena? You’re gonna ”ma’am” me NOW? We don’t have TIME for Texas Woman Smackdown, the kids want to go see some ART!!!!!!
“Ma’am,” she said “I don’t know WHY you’re not in our system now but if you’re not in the District system on the DAY of the field trip you can’t go.”
The parents who had observed all of this were standing back now. Everyone else had badges.
Mind you, all the f-talk was in my head. I had been calm, cool and collected through the whole thing. But still I was suspect, so none of them spoke up.
They were prepared to send a busload of students with too few chaperones rather than risk the chance that a parent volunteer whose paperwork they could not find might be a pervert.
“How about if you just call?” I asked. “I will go home. And if you can reach someone to verify my clear background and y’all want me to come help today, just call me, I’ll either zip back over here to help chaperone on the bus or I can just meet them downtown.”
“What’s your number?” she asked.
“You HAVE my number,” I said. “It’s all over your filing cabinet and in several different computer screens.”
“Write it down for me, ” she said. “I don’t have time to look it up.”
(Something about this part of the exchange felt as if she was TESTING me to see if I, the evil shapeshifter who had somehow invaded the face and form of Judy Safern, in fact KNEW the number???)
Rule follower that I am, I wrote it down…
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said with a smile as I left. “I appreciate your help and I’ll be waiting to hear from you!”
Then I did what anyone with my national media contacts WOULD do.
The Today Show? The New York Times? The Huffington Post?
I speed dialed Lenore Skenazy as I walked to my car.
“Worst-first thinking,” she said. “That’s what just happened. Without official paperwork they immediately leapt to the worst case scenario, first: that you COULD be a pervert. What would happen if they let you go, even without being able to find you in the district system? Of course, with all those teachers, volunteers, museum guards and docents around, you might not actually have had an opportunity to RAPE any of the kids today but, who knows, you might still groom someone.”
We spoke for about ten minutes. Lenore let me vent. She did a great riff on how just-following-orders, Nazi-complicit the whole thing is: ”Well, sure, they’re good NEIGHBORS and they seem like fine people, but the law says that they must be marched out of town and shot, so what can I do?”
Lenore is not just a champion for giving kids more independence and Free-Range, she’s an advocate for more common sense in all dealings.
“The fear factor in public schools in some states is out of control,” she said. “It’s counter-productive.”
It was a fascinating, fun, reassuring conversation, but as we were speaking, my other line rang.
“Hang on, Lenore! It’s THEM!”
“Ma’am?” I heard Lorena say in a conciliatory voice. “I don’t know WHY but for some reason your name was just not associated with our school today, but you ARE in the system and we DID find your clearance so you can come on the field trip.”
Which I did.
But, um, I think we need to re-evaluate the policies and procedures here. Maybe not go with “worst-first thinking” — maybe go with common sense, or even the odds? Rules ARE important. I appreciate them. I follow them. But rules are RULES.
They are not REALITY. – Judy Safern
Welcome, kids, teachers and pre-screened, government-approved parents!