Little Sally Harrington reeked of cigarette smoke. The second grader stood behind the office counter, a frown on her face. Must be the puffy jacket, Carol thought, getting up from her desk to find out what the girl wanted. She pictured Sally’s mom smoking in the beat up car she’d seen at drop off time. School had just begun; “What’s up, Sally?” she asked.
The girl stuffed her hands in the pockets of the too-big jacket and looked at her feet. Carol noticed stains on the kid’s coat. Needs a wash, she thought. The girl was dragging a skinny backpack covered with smiling Disney princesses; it also needed a wash. “I forgot my lunch,” said Sally; “Mrs. Dillon said I should tell you.”
“Okay, Sally. Try to remember tomorrow.” And she handed the girl a ticket for free lunch. Sally pocketed the ticket and skipped down the hall back to class.
Carol’s two children had attended Parker School years ago. She’d been an active parent then, along with a slew of other stay-at-home moms in the neighborhood. She remembered the good old days of helping in classrooms, chaperoning field trips into the city, and coffee klatches where she and her friends dreamed up fundraisers for the school.
Parker’s demographics had changed over the years. Now most of the moms had jobs outside the home and volunteers were scarce. Many of the students came from broken homes, immigrant families, and the low income side of town.
Temp work kept Carol from watching too much daytime TV and it was fun to spend a few days back at Parker filling in for sick office staff. The principal, Ms. Martinez, was new; but a few of the teachers were long-timers and they always smiled and greeted her, sharing memories of past events.
Carol answered the phone, entered the daily attendance on the computer, handed out medications, dispensed ice for skinned knees, and settled kids sent in for misbehaving to wait for Ms. Martinez. It was a busy day, but predictable. The time flew by.
Just before dismissal, Ms. Harrington, Sally’s mother, walked in. She emanated the same smell that her daughter had brought into the office at the start of the day. Carol stood to greet the parent and wished she had the nerve to bring the stench to the mom’s attention.
“I’m here to meet with the principal and Sally’s teacher,” said Ms. Harrington. Her breathing sounded labored and raspy. Had she run from the parking lot? Afraid to be late? Or maybe she wasn’t well?
“Let me check,” said Carol. Ms. Martinez wasn’t in her office, so she called down to Sally’s classroom.
“Yes, we’re meeting here,” said the teacher.
“Go on down to the room—number 9,” Carol told the parent.
Ms. Harrington bit her lip and started to turn the wrong way, so Carol came out from behind the counter and pointed her in the right direction. The final bell rang and kids streamed out. Carol went back to her station.
A half hour later, Carol heard heels clicking down the empty hall and Ms. Martinez trotted into the office. She leaned over the counter and whispered to Carol, “Please call the police and tell them I need them to come right now. Ms. Harrington is high on something and I don’t think she should drive Sally home.”
Carol nodded her understanding and picked up the phone. The principal disappeared back down the hall. Not sure which number to call, Carol opted for 9-1-1. If they didn’t think this was an emergency, they could direct her elsewhere. The operator listened and said, “An officer will be there shortly.”
Carol tried to remember if she’d ever handled police calls in her jobs as an office substitute. She turned her attention to the inter-office mail, which needed sorting, but couldn’t focus. She sat on the edge of her seat, waiting.
When the uniformed officer opened the front door, Carol called the classroom on the intercom. Ms. Martinez picked up. “He’s here,” Carol said.
“Thanks, Carol. Have him wait there.”
The next ten minutes could have been more entertaining than one of Carol’s TV shows, if she weren’t in the middle of it. Ms. Martinez returned to the office and talked to the policeman. He used his hand-held radio to call for support, his voice echoing through the office and down the hall, then walked down to the classroom with the principal. Soon he returned with Ms. Harrington, his hand firmly attached to her arm. She was muttering something unintelligible and trying to pull away from the officer’s grip.
As they went out the front door, Carol could hear Sally sobbing. Carol went to the window and saw Ms. Harrington pushed into the back seat of the cruiser. A second vehicle arrived and a female officer entered the office.
“I’m here for the child,” she said.
Carol called the classroom again and, in a few minutes, the principal and teacher walked down the hall with Sally. The child was sniffling and red in the face, clutching her backpack for dear life. The Disney princesses were still smiling. The officer squatted down to Sally’s height and spoke to her in a whisper. They all walked out together and Carol watched as the officer put Sally into the passenger seat of her vehicle and drove off. Carol continued to observe the two women talking on the sidewalk, and when they turned to come back into the building, she went back to her desk.
Lenore Hirsch is a retired educator living in Napa, CA. She writes poetry, essays, and short stories. Her books include her dog’s memoir, My Leash on Life; a poetry collection, Leavings; Laugh and Live, Advice for Aging Boomers, and a novel, Schooled: Confessions of a Rookie Vice Principal. See lenorehirsch.com.