Guest Column

Marriage to a Superintendent:Not for the Faint-Hearted

by BETH BRUNO

Life with an outspoken public figure is not for the faint of heart. My children and I can attest to that.

When Gordon and I married, he was the high school principal in Darien, Conn. I taught part-time at a Darien elementary school and gave private flute lessons on weekends in the district's music program. Other than the occasional question from a colleague about the scuttlebutt at the high school, no one leaned on me very often for privileged information. But when Gordon became the superintendent in Wellesley, Mass., I began to feel the heat.

Everywhere I went—restaurants, supermarkets, the local bank, cocktail parties or the train station—townspeople buttonholed me. They sought my opinions about local issues in education and advice about how to handle problems with their children. I was flattered initially, until I realized they really wanted Gordon's ear.

"I'd be happy to give you my opinion," I learned to say. "If you would like to speak with Gordon about that, you can reach him during the school day at …." I then provided his office phone number.

When Gordon and I were out in public together, whether at public functions or running errands, people recognized him and continuously drew him into personal and political conversations (what Gordon refers to as "shoptalk"). We fully accepted this, at first, as part of his job. But it began to wear on us, to the point we began doing business out of town and socializing with neighbors and friends who promised not to talk shop. It felt as if the larger community owned us around the clock.

Fishbowl Effects
Our children were 1 and 4 years old when we moved to Wellesley, so they were spared these fishbowl effects until they entered school. On the first day of kindergarten, my son Geoff's teacher knelt down next to him and said, "I know you. Your daddy is my boss!"

For the next 12 years our children learned to anticipate a flurry of phone calls from both friends and complete strangers whenever snow began falling.

"Hi, Nikki" or "Hi, Geoff," they began. "Will you ask your dad if he is going to call off school?" One year Nikki got fed up with their badgering, so she started a false rumor to get back at them. Snow had begun falling in the morning and was intensifying by mid-morning. Nikki told each classmate who rushed up to her that she had just talked to her dad and he had promised to send everyone home at noon. Word spread fast so when noon came, all the kids were eagerly awaiting the announcement that never came. Guess who got the last laugh (and less harassment) after that?

When Geoff reached middle school, a teachers' union contract dispute was raging. Some of the kids taunted him, saying his dad was mean for not paying the teachers enough money. A few remarked that Geoff's good grades were "gifts" from the teachers, just to get on his dad's good side. Our son worked hard to achieve high marks in school, so the day a hockey teammate made a similar insult, Geoff said he felt as if he had been stabbed.

Breaking News
Media coverage of Gordon's opinions and recommendations were nearly a daily occurrence. Reporters usually wrote fair, balanced articles, but their editors couldn't resist glaring headlines about bad news. The third time Gordon's contract came up for renewal in Ithaca, N.Y., after six years in the district, a school board majority voted it down. The banner in the morning newspaper screamed, "Bruno Gets the Ax." Where was the executive editor's sensitivity? Geoff and Nikki had to go to school that day!

The following spring Gordon became a finalist for three different superintendencies in the Midwest, so we planned a whirlwind trip to visit all three towns in five days. While Gordon met with various community and school groups, I checked out school programs for Geoff and Nikki and toured each town with a local real estate agent. I also tried to get a feel for the quality of life in each community. Although not a requirement, board of education members like to meet the spouses of superintendent candidates, so I was invited to a small reception and dinner with the board at the end of each day. Little did I know what kind of contribution I would make to Gordon's candidacy in the city of Rockford, the second-largest school district in Illinois.

On my way to meet Gordon at the central administration office after a day of information gathering, I drove our rental car through a section of town where the traffic lights were on poles at the corners of the intersections rather than suspended overhead. Just as I got to the middle of one of these intersections (where I did not see the traffic light), I noticed a flash of yellow approaching rapidly from the left. I turned and saw a school bus bearing down on me. I accelerated, hoping to make it through quickly enough, while the bus driver slammed on her brakes to stop. Too late. The front bumper of the bus collided with the rear bumper and fender of my car.

Fortunately, neither I nor the driver (or bus passengers) was hurt. I was ticketed and fined $50 for "failure to yield." Shaken and embarrassed, but still able to drive the badly dented car, I joined my husband at the reception, where dozens of community officials were waiting to meet the candidate's "better half."

After I told Gordon about the accident, we immediately informed the board because we knew that a report might appear on the newspaper's police blotter the next morning or maybe even on TV later that night. Board members could not have been nicer. They told a few accident stories, too, and we laughed about the irony of the situation.

The next morning the story appeared predictably in the local newspaper, but not on the blotter. My run-in with that school bus made front-page headlines! Right beside the accident story was a small photograph of Gordon in his shorts, jogging merrily along the bike path that ran through the center of town while members of the media interviewed him about his educational philosophy. I was mortified. Never have I wished so hard for anonymity, and we still had two more towns to go.

"Honey, aren't you glad you brought me along to help you make a good impression?" I asked Gordon as we headed out of town. "If I play my cards right, maybe I can get myself thrown in jail in Wisconsin."

Beth Bruno is a school psychologist and author of Wild Tulips, a collection of stories about parenting and family life. She can be reached at 96 Fiesta Heights, Meriden, CT 06451 E-mail: bbruno@snet.net. Gordon Bruno left his last superintendency in 1994 to lead the Connecticut Center for School Change.