A Cruel World: A Superintendent’s Daughter’s Account

by Lisa Buie

I always was picked dead last for kickball.

Sure, I was a lousy athlete, but so were a lot of classmates who still got chosen before me. My liability was far worse than being slow or clumsy.

I was the school superintendent's daughter.

If ever a group needed a formal support network, this is it.

Growing up is hard enough. For a superintendent's offspring, life can bring a degree of cruelty that only members born into this club can truly understand.

When I was 10, my father's job took us to Spartanburg County School District 3, a rural area tucked among the red clay hills of South Carolina. Composed mainly of crumbling, defunct textile mills, its principal communities were towns named Pacolet and Cowpens.

My mother was underwhelmed.

"You're making us move here?' the former French teacher said during her first tour. But it was the era of the submissive wife. Where men went, women followed, even if grudgingly. She pledged to make the best of it and figured life would get better once she made friends.

It was a disaster .

Isolated Life

In an area awash in natives and their cousins, we were the outsiders from out of state. In a place where religion usually meant Southern Baptist, we were United Methodist.

White kids used the "n” word with impunity. In the North Carolina school district I came from, that was considered a swear word.

Making things worse was the fact that I liked to study. My father was one of the few people around with a doctorate. My mother, an accomplished dancer, reveled in the arts.

That background isolated us from many of my peers, most of whose parents stopped short of college and who had no plans to attend themselves.

It made us outcasts.

So much so that when my father had to make critical decisions, whether it was enacting a teachers' dress code or deciding that a few snow flurries weren't enough to cancel school, my sisters and brother and I learned just what being the superintendent's children really meant.

It meant learning not to mind sitting alone at a lunch table. It meant having classmates abruptly toss books onto the nearest empty bus seat while we stood up front for what seemed an eternity, humiliated and wondering whether we'd ever find a place to sit.

It meant never running for student government more than once because people vandalized our campaign posters.

It meant hearing people say that the things that we did achieve (which had to be outside the control of any student body vote) were due to our father's job. It meant never getting in the slightest bit of trouble—not because school staffers showed us favoritism, but because we knew that embarrassing Dad at work carried a high price.

Cruel Acts

Being the superintendent's child meant fighting tears when others flung profanities as we hurried to class or tried to eat at McDonald's.

For me, it meant having one high school classmate with the guts to ask me out suddenly start avoiding me when the ridicule became too much. It meant skipping senior prom and vowing to do the same someday for class reunions.

At home, it meant hearing the screaming voice on the other end of a phone threatening to "get' our father.

It meant waking up to exploded mailboxes and rutted front lawns. It meant having the huge plastic bull stolen from atop the Bi-Lo grocery store and placed in front of our house. It meant being too afraid to pray at the church altar; that would start rumors about what was "wrong' in our family. It meant feeling uncomfortable confiding in a teacher or counselor when we thought our parents didn't understand. After all, guess who their boss was?

It also meant getting to know the name of the state police officer who guarded us from the picketers outside our house when our father fired a popular band director and couldn't by law explain his reasons publicly. All the while, local television hacks circled like vultures, waiting to write his career obituary.

Relief At Last

As an oldest child, my pain multiplied as I helplessly watched the pattern of persecution repeated with my siblings. I wished I could do something, anything, to spare them.

No one in my family ever talked much about these things. My father, who spent 15 years in that superintendency, was away most of the time at school board meetings. It was the Deep South, still the era in which a man's success was measured by his breadwinning prowess. Any complaints would have been perceived as whiny and ungrateful.

I shed no tears as I took my high school diploma. I thought only of college and how I would no longer be forced to wear a label that all these years had felt like a giant "kick me' sign.

Today, I call college the high school I never had. Nearly everyone was from a different place. Classmates, at least most of them, wanted to learn. The dean's list was not the nerd's list. I edited the student newspaper. I knew what it was like to wear a sorority pin, to dress up for a formal. The man of my dreams was not ashamed to ask me out and, later, to be his wife.

For the first time in my life, I was not known and judged for being the superintendent's daughter.

I was just me.

And kickball didn't matter anymore.

Lisa Buie is a bureau editor for the St. Petersburg Times, 24038 State Road 54, Lutz, FL 33559. E-mail: loislane20012001@yahoo.com. Her father, James A. Buie, retired after 38 years in public education, including 20 years as a superintendent.