Guest Column

Whoops! Who Unplugged What?

by RAYMOND D. WAIER


"Stuff Happens" says the ubiquitous bumper sticker. Actually it reads a little different than that, but you get the idea. When I was a school superintendent I learned that stuff happens and a whole lot about how people think.

Foremost, I learned when stuff happens it was always my fault. If your son got into a fight it was my fault. If your daughter got head lice, my fault, and if any sports team lost an athletic contest, that was my fault too. On the other hand, when good things happened I discovered it was the result of children whose genetic history caused them to succeed despite the best efforts of the educational institution to interfere.

When something went wrong, parents always believed I was the magnificent fixer-upper who could make things right. That was called my chance at job satisfaction. When I mended something, parents believed it happened because the board of education had leaned on me, which is why they usually called the board first. Generally though, I was careful to create the illusion that I was in charge, though I always found it important for the board to get the credit for hiring me.

Mistaken Belief
This system works because a superintendent is an insider, born with a contrite countenance and automatic membership in the they gang. They is a plural pronoun for whomever was at fault. As a superintendent, I was always mistaken by angry people for they, but deep inside I knew it was someone else who was really responsible for misdeeds. I would, of course, get after these people--known as them--right away. I knew that when I got them straightened out everyone would be glad that they had been straightened out as well.

When students would ask me what I did on my job, I always told them about the they, them and someone else theory of management, with an obligatory mention of how stuff happens too. I told them I fixed problems using this theory.

You have to be able to communicate with students if you’re a superintendent.

Rampant Truancy
Once a "stuff happens" problem that couldn’t be fixed arose when our school district changed from junior high schools to middle schools. That meant we had to send the 9th graders somewhere. Because of their age-peculiar developmental traits, someone suggested we drive them around on school buses for a year rather than have them attend any school. We did not pursue that idea because we already had a great deal of difficulty attracting bus drivers.

We settled for sending our 9th graders to the high school, which is the way a lot of people went to school before someone thought up the idea of junior high schools.

Being who they are, 9th graders have a difficult time coping with the need for order in any school environment. Our plan resulted in rampant 9th-grade absenteeism from one or more classes each day right from the beginning. We could not keep up with the volume of class cuts, which caused near-chaos in our record-keeping system.

Follow my math if you will: About 350 9th graders attended this school. If each one skipped one class every day, that is 350 truancies a day, and if each skipped two classes, that meant 700. Add to that some unruly 10th, 11th and 12th graders doing the same thing, and you begin to see the problem. The question that begged an answer was how do you handle a problem of this magnitude?

A Technological Solution
Technology appeared to hold the solution. By entering an absent student’s name into the computer we could access a home phone number and direct a recorded-message phone call to parents, alerting them to the problem. Surely once notified, they would help us solve it. To me, this was a reasonable start at tackling this thorny issue. We ordered the equipment to engage the enemy (our students) to win the war against truancy.

For several days the computer merrily chugged along delivering its recorded message to anyone who answered the phone at the household of the truant student. Calls were made between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., holding to the probability that the phone would be answered by the parents, and not the student in question. The only major complaint was that the recorded message was too impersonal and that it placed responsibility wholly on parents to follow up.

We were pleased that we were efficiently dealing with the problem. We surreptitiously thought it was time parents took responsibility for their children’s behavior. Plus, it is hard to argue with a recorded message that hangs up on you when it’s finished.

And then it happened. One evening a custodian came to clean the room that housed all of the equipment used for these calls. He unplugged the console controlling the message sender because he needed an outlet to plug in his vacuum cleaner. Our new technology, carefully calibrated to do our bidding, stopped dead in its tracks.

When the custodian plugged the machine back in some time later, those computer chips worked hard to find the right instructions to begin serving their human masters once again. Unfortunately, there was no human to turn to for proper guidance. Thus it chose the first available programmed alternative and dutifully put itself back on line. At 2:30 a.m. the machine began to make calls to parents regarding truant children. The machine made over 180 calls over the next three hours.

My Funny Bone
At 7 a.m. our switchboard opened, and as usual, I was cheerfully stationed at my desk, unaware I was about to become forever they, them and someone else. The calls came so fast I had little time to understand what had happened, except that a lot of people got a telephone call at an obscene hour about their child from our school system. I was certain a great hoax was being played out by some trickster, mocking our truancy notification system.

When I found out what really happened I realized telling the truth to an angry parent was not the answer. I know because I tried.

Parents didn’t seem interested in chatting about how stuff just happens sometimes. Laughing into the phone also seemed a poor choice, although I could barely contain the humor tickling my funny bone. I learned that people don’t all laugh at the same things. I also kept seeing that darn bumper sticker passing before my eyes.

I finally settled for giving parents the assurance that I would find them (the perpetrators) no matter what it took. They would never be able to repeat such a despicable act again after I got through with them. I also made myself a promise: In my next job, night custodians will receive specialized training in technology before we plug them into the work schedule.

Raymond Waier, who retired in 1996 after 31 years as a superintendent in three states, lives at 9 Verwood Drive, Bella Vista, Ark. 72714. E-mail: rwaier@ipa.net