I’m Late, I’m Late, for a Very Important Date…

 

The White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland

 

No wonder you are late.  This watch is exactly two days slow.

Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland

                   One lovely summer day in 1981, I received a caustic note from Bob Manners, executive secretary for NEA/Alaska, the state teachers’ union. Manners was my boss.  He had replaced Bob Van Houte, the man who had hired me, after Van Houte retired.

            “Where the hell were you yesterday?” the note inquired. Manners had some right to ask the question since the teachers’ union was in the middle of its annual leadership training event and I was one of the trainers. I was not on the agenda for the day in question so my absence was not a capital offense. Nonetheless, I began to jot down a response to the inquiry, coming to the personal conclusion that my life was akin to that of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.       Not only had I become a union organizer with a heavy travel schedule, but since joining NEA/Alaska, I had divorced, spent five years as a single mother, re-married, and now was the mother of a thirteen-year-old son, a three-year-old daughter and a baby girl who had just turned one. Ah, and stepmother to three more: ages fifteen, thirteen, and twelve. 

            “Monday and Tuesday of last week,” I began calmly, “were the days I had set aside to prepare for Leadership Academy.”  The weeklong academy usually attracted about seventy-five teachers from fifty different local associations.  The educators came for training in union work, such as bargaining and grievance processing, as well as such areas of concern such as chaos control, or preparing for and executing a work stoppage. Leadership Academy was a popular annual event – almost as popular as flying to Juneau.

            One of the districts for which I was now responsible was Lake and Peninsula, named for the area around Lake Iliamna and down the Alaska Peninsula. The area was the size of West Virginia and required a small plane to fly to most of the district’s fifteen village schools located in places like Chignik Bay, Chignik Lake, Chignik Lagoon, Igiugig, and Egegik.

            The superintendent of Lake and Pen called me at noon one day to inform me that if I wanted to meet with his school board regarding the teacher who was being involuntarily transferred from Egegik to one of the Chigniks, I would have to meet with him that afternoon.  The board was in Anchorage for a meeting, so this was a prime opportunity.

            I arrived at the Lake and Pen Anchorage office on time, only to be confronted by an attorney.  He informed me that if I could not muster a full defense by the following evening, my teacher would be transferred in a week.  I warned him we would file a grievance. He countered that my teacher would be good and moved by then, and the next opportunity for a hearing would be a month away.  I had until five o’clock to give them my decision – a hearing tomorrow or a hearing next month, but in the meantime, the teacher and her husband would have to pack up and get out of Egegik.

            I called Egegik. The teacher and her husband – a hulking fellow in a Superman t-shirt two sizes too small – arrived in Anchorage that evening.

            My clients had brought color slides and a slide projector and a petition that was signed at the last minute by many of the villagers and given to the teacher and spouse as they headed for the Egegik airstrip.  We worked into the night, outlining arguments and putting together packets of documents.  We were soon loaded for bear.

            The hearing began as scheduled. The school district attorney began.  He accused the teacher of destroying or, at the very least, vandalizing school district property.  Her husband, he explained, had taken one room of the two-room teacher’s quarters and cleaned fish and dead animals there.  It was a terrible, bloody mess.  Everyone had seen the mess.  Terrible.

            I quietly pulled out the rickety, old slide projector and found an electrical outlet.

            “Won’t help,” scoffed the attorney for the school board.  Doesn’t matter if he cleaned it up.  He butchered fish and animals in teacher housing! Off with his head.  Off with his wife’s head, as well.  At the very least, send them to one of the Chigniks.

            The teacher’s spouse, still in his Superman t-shirt, glared.

            “He didn’t clean up a damned thing,” I retorted.  “The house is still in the same god-awful condition it was in when they moved in.”

            I began to show the slides.  Teacher housing in Egegik was something to behold.  And Superman, bless his soul, had taken many pictures upon his arrival.  Both rooms of the two-room dwelling were filthy and crammed with junk.  The second room had also been used as a slaughter house by the previous residents.  I quietly expressed my desire to give the same slide presentation to the press the next day, as well as to any teacher gathering I could find in the state.  Lake and Pen would have a very difficult time recruiting new teachers, if there was anything I could do about it.

            This did not end the discussion.  We talked about the individual villagers who had signed the petition asking that the teacher be allowed to stay.  We talked about teacher privacy and whether or not a teacher could be terminated or transferred based on the transgressions of her spouse.  We talked and talked.  And finally at three o’clock in the morning, they voted.

            My teacher could stay in Egegik.

            The spouse was to clean up the mess in the slaughter house and slaughter no more.

            I drove home and went to bed.

 

            The next morning, Chuck, my spouse, who was Superman in his own right even without the t-shirt, woke me to remind me that I had a staff meeting in two hours.  I said something unpleasant and went back to sleep. I arrived at the meeting three hours late.  We met all day and into the evening.

            Thursday, the board of directors met.  My happy warriors from Egegik stopped by to celebrate, but I was tied up with the board.  Too bad, because I felt like celebrating, too.

            Friday, the board was still in session, and my attendance was required.  It was also my birthday and my husband had made dinner reservations for the occasion.  Between preparing for a hearing scheduled for Monday, and working on another brief I had planned to write earlier in the week, I didn’t get home until after midnight.  I had forgotten about the dinner reservations.

~~

            Saturday was set aside for Togiak.  But first I must tell you about Togiak. One young teacher, we’ll call him Brian Smith, had gotten himself into a peck of trouble there.  Nice, earnest young man, just occasionally a little impetuous.  Like the time the school principal left the village and forgot to give Smith his paycheck.  Smith broke into the man’s office and his desk, removed just his paycheck, and closed everything back up.  The principal was offended. Said my teacher was a thief and a vandal.

            About a month earlier, I’d flown out to Togiak in the Southwest School District to meet Smith in his natural habitat. The village was unique.  The airstrip, for instance, ran right through the middle of town with homes built on both sides, a cannery on one end and the ocean on the other. There was no missing the major economic engine of this community. Fish.

            After visiting teachers in Togiak, I was all buckled up in a small plane headed for another village when two local women climbed in to join me.  In the air for just a few moments, the pilot landed on the tundra.  The women climbed out and the pilot explained that they were going berry-picking. He would pick them up later.  Sure enough, when I finished with my business in the second village, the pilot and I started back – with a quick landing at Nowhere to collect the women and their buckets of berries.

            The outcome of the Togiak trip was that a hearing was scheduled on the Smith issues for Monday, the first full day of Leadership Academy.

            Smith was scheduled to arrive in Anchorage early Saturday morning so that we could review and prepare his case. When I arrived at the office, Smith was not there.  I kept in touch with Wein Airlines throughout the day and finally went home to catch some sleep.  I was asleep for about two hours when I received a call from Smith. He and his girlfriend were in town now and would I come down to their hotel and meet with them since it was inconvenient for them to come to the office.

            I simply said, “no,” and turned over.

            Sunday morning, I arrived at my office to find Smith, pacing and angry that I had not arrived earlier.  We sat down to work on his case. Smith was going to be a lousy witness and his girlfriend had a stomach ache.  We pushed on for a couple of hours and reached a stopping point.

            Smith’s hearing began Monday morning.  My witnesses were terrible, but fortunately, the other side was a disaster.  I will not bore you with the details, but we won. I returned to the Academy by late afternoon, smiling.

            I had been paired up with an “expert from out-of-state” for a presentation on internal and external public relations.  Our part of the program was scheduled for the next day, so I thought it prudent to find the man, introduce myself and do a little planning.   

            With some effort, I tracked the guy to his hotel room and demanded entry. Unfortunately, the expert was in possession of a massive hangover and could not sit up, let alone speak. “It’s okay,” he whispered.  I had my doubts, but left him to Mother Nature’s healing powers.  The next morning, sure enough he had recovered nicely and our presentation came off like we’d been the featured act for years.

            Tuesday evening I was prepared to hold forth on the subject of advanced negotiations, i.e. crisis management.  I arrived to an empty room. Eventually, participants drifted in.  All of them were from the same two local associations: Lower Yukon, well into negotiations and part of a coordinated bargaining effort, and the North Slope, where nothing at all was happening at the moment.

            The teachers and I began to talk about membership involvement in the bargaining process.  The Lower Yukon people seemed to want to help the North Slope people, and all went well. After a while, we called it a day.

            My dear Mr. Manners perhaps you are getting the picture that I have not been neglecting my duties this past week.  I have just been making some choices.

            Wednesday was the day of the Association house party scheduled for, of all places, my house, which could have passed for Egegik teacher housing.  Fortunately, I was not on the agenda Wednesday. I stayed home. The window washers arrived mid-afternoon.  The guests began to arrive at five o’clock.  The window washers sampled the hors d’oeuvres and left around six. The party went well.

            During the party, I did take a telephone call from Smith. He had wanted me to fly back to Togiak with him to meet with the teachers who were going to vote to accept or reject a lousy contract offer.  Smith was in charge of the affair, and both he and I were skeptical concerning his persuasion skills.  I couldn’t miss any more of the Academy and I had the house party to contend with.  “You gotta do it yourself,” I told him.    

            Smith was quite excited when he called. As it turned out, he had greatly exceeded our combined opinion of his talents.  The members overwhelmingly rejected that nasty contract.  That’s my boy Smith, I thought happily, he’s developing into a real teacher leader.

            “That was all yesterday, Mr. Manners. Today is Thursday.  You did not see me at the Academy because I was cleaning house before the Academy came to see me.  I hope I didn’t miss anything important.”  

~~

            I’d been working for the teachers for eleven years at this point. I stayed for another three.  As I look back, I have the warm memories of an old woman reflecting on her youth. I was caught up in a blizzard of competing personal needs and professional responsibilities, and got bumped around a bit in the turbulence, but I also gained a unique perspective on my incredible state, mentored a teacher here and there, and, along the way, learned something about both human nature and my own. 

            I could thank the Lord or NEA/Alaska’s Bob Van Houte for offering me that ticket to ride – or I could thank them both, which I do frequently.  But the White Rabbit inside me knew that it was time to close the lid on the stop-watch and take another look at my time.  I was almost forty years old.  My son was in high school and my youngest was about to start kindergarten. I woke up one morning and, like Alice, thought:

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night?  Let me think.  Was I the same when I got up this morning?  I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.  But if I’m not the same, the next question is “Who in the world am I?”  Ah, that’s the great puzzle!                                                       Alice, Alice in Wonderland

            I resigned my position with NEA/Alaska and, in the fall of 1984, enrolled in San Francisco Theological Seminary, later to become an ordained Presbyterian minister and certified hospital chaplain.

 

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