It was 4:26.
The sweep hand clock in the Band room at Red Cedar Middle school clicked and jerked to 4:27.
Thirty-five teachers looked up at the clock in unison. The meeting was almost over.
“Any more information items?” said chair Ian Altrune earnestly, a second time.
Children’s appointments, marking, Monday night football, the rainy drive to home and hearth, soccer practices, shopping, a beer at the local pub—all were fleeting individual thoughts that forged a collective pact of silence among the gathered.
The clock clicked and jerked to 4:28.
Nobody say anything. Almost there. Thirty-five colleagues strained in anticipation, like sprinters in the starting blocks.
Chair Ian Altrune glanced from face to face to face one last time. There was no more controversy or surprise with which he might have to deal as chair, and he was enjoying his last moment of being in charge of the meeting.
No one said anything. They willed their colleagues to silence.
Just as “meeting adjourned” formed on chair Altrune’s lips, Principal Angie Leung rose, smiling benevolently.
“Thank you, Ian,” she said. “Good job chairing today…”
Ian Altrune sat down, his duties as chair clearly over.
Another postponement. Deflated, teachers squirmed in their blue plastic chairs, trying to conceal their impatience.
Principal Leung consulted her agenda and squinted.
“Anything we missed…? Any more announcements? Um… don’t forget your marks are due by the 18th, 8:30.”
The clock clicked and jerked to 4:29.
Surely this time it would go by. Once. Twice. Sold.
Principal Leung smiled collegially at her flock.
“O.K. It’s almost 4:30. Thanks again for your participation today. Your efforts on behalf of kids are what make Red Cedar Middle a special place for students, parents and teachers. See you tomorrow. It’s muffin Tuesday!”
Before freedom had completely washed over the gathered colleagues, from the back of the room, close to the tympani and the Chinese gong, came a small voice.
“Oh Angie… can I just bring up one more thing?”
It was Netty Witwicki, journey person Home Ec. Teacher, her skinny, wrinkled arm raised.
Several teachers groaned, eyes thrown ceilingward, as they slouched heavily back into their chairs. Several remained standing, to see if their readiness to stack the chairs might postpone Netty’s question. Stan Bretton sidled over to the snack table and dipped one more tortilla chip into the remnants of the seven layer dip, hoping that people would think this his mission, rather than just sidling closer to the door and freedom.
“Oh yes, Netty. Just a minute everyone,” said Principal Leung, moving her hands up and down as if waving a double goodbye.
The clock ticked and jerked to 4:30.
“Before we stack the chairs, Netty has an announcement. Please, give her a minute… colleagues?”
Trapped, everyone slouched back into the plastic chairs. Their body language no longer attempted to hide their lack of enthusiasm. John Siemens leaned forward, head down on his arms, on the chair back in front of him.
“Yes Netty, what is it? It is 4:30 and contractually, we should be adjourning the meeting—unless we agree to go a minute more. Colleagues?”
There were a few murmurs of agreement, no one wanting to seem to be clock watching.
“Well, it’s nothing really,” said Netty Witwicki. “It’s not really an announcement. It’s just something I was wondering about,” she said sweetly.
Principal Leung nodded to Netty Witwicki to continue. Teachers sat lifeless, resigned to captivity.
“Well,” said Witwicki. “I was just wondering about the coffee fund. Now, Marnie’s been organizing it for us so far this year and I think she’s doing a great job. We’re all very grateful to her so I don’t want to seem critical. I do wonder however, if we could have decaffeinated coffee as well as regular coffee. I find that, as I get older, caffeine has more effect on me than it used to. Also, because of this, I only drink one cup of coffee per day, so I was wondering if, instead of paying twenty dollars per month, I could pay five or ten dollars. And you know Angie, for those of us like me who drink their coffee black, I was just wondering if it is fair that we should have to contribute to the buying of cream and sugar and stir sticks?”
Netty Witwicki paused, to let the inescapable logic of her plea sink in.
Several black coffee drinking teachers, nodded in agreement, one murmuring, “It really isn’t fair. Some people use three or four sugar cubes.”
“We’re out of cream—again. There’s never any cream for me on Thursdays after lunch.”
“Well, I use 1% milk instead of cream. Might we supply 1% milk for those of us who are concerned about dietary fat?”
John Buchanan, English guru and noon hour meditator, looked thoughtful as he added, “Some days just aren’t coffee days for me—and some are. I would like, instead of paying twenty dollars per month, to pay by the cup for the small amount of coffee that I drink. I would also like the option to drink herbal tea some days and I would gladly pay for this on a bag-by-bag basis.”
The clock clicked and jumped to 4:32. Principal Leung attempted conciliation and closure.
“Thank you colleagues,” she began, “these are all excellent points and we should consider them fully before our next staff meeting. However, it is now 4:32, and…”
“Over at Yellow Willow Middle School they have a machine which serves coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, by the cup. Each cup is freshly brewed and you pay by the cup. I have a friend who teaches there and she says it’s great coffee.”
Murmurs of approval.
“Angie, when the superintendent or parents visit the school, do we give them free coffee? Do we pay for visitors’ coffee out of our twenty dollars a month? Is that fair?’’
By now, teachers who mere minutes earlier would have sacrificed a child in exchange for being released from the staff meeting, were re-invigorated.
The clock ticked and jerked to 4:34.
“Well,” said Principal Leung. “We really can’t ask visitors to pay for coffee—would that be appropriate? Would you like to pay for coffee if you visited another school?”
“I would be willing to pay for coffee if I visited another school,” said Netty Witwicki, feigning concern for fairness.
“I have a friend who works at Costco and she says that the big cans of Folgers are on sale every two weeks. Maybe you could look into that Marnie?”
“At Ridge Runner High School, they supply flavoured creamers, creamo, milk, and coffee mate. The school pays for it out of their pop machine profits. Even though I usually bring my own skim milk from home, I would love to have a special flavoured coffee on those cold winter mornings…”
The clock ticked and jerked to 4:36.
Sensing crisis and seeing no way out, Principal Leung was forced to play her trump card.
“Well colleagues, we all know how much we look forward to our morning coffee. It makes the day go better somehow, not to mention how much of a collegial gathering place the coffee machine is. The concerns you express are real ones. Even though we voted unanimously in September for our current coffee plan, and we all agree that Marnie is doing a great job in this regard for us so far, there is no reason we can’t re-look at our coffee delivery system whenever we choose to. I’m sure there is always room for improvement.”
She paused for a moment.
“We need a committee to get input and formulate recommendations for us. This committee could visit other schools to find out what they’re doing and bring ideas back to us. They could explore coffee prices and come up with a system with which we can all live.” Principal Leung smiled collaboratively. “Any volunteers? Marnie, I know you’ll want to participate, being our star coffee person… ”
Marnie smiled weakly, implying agreement.
“Any other volunteers? Netty?”
Principal Leung knew the answer before she asked the question.
Netty Witwicki looked tortured, as if measuring her desire to help against the myriad commitments she faced.
“Well, although I’d love to be able to help, and I’ll do anything I possibly can, unfortunately I can’t be on the committee. My son is coming for a visit and I’ll be busy entertaining him. Also, as most of you know, I’m thinking of beginning my masters degree next semester and it wouldn’t be fair to my colleagues or the students for me to try to take on more responsibility at this time. I’m sure there are others who would do a better job than I would anyway…”
After an uncomfortable moment or two, there were still no volunteers to sit on the coffee fund committee.
Principal Leung said that it had been a long meeting and that people probably needed some time to think about being on the committee. She would speak to “Team Leaders” individually to find a coffee fund committee volunteer from each team so that it would be representative.
The clock ticked and jumped to 4:38.
The staff trudged to their cars, complaining about the lateness of the hour.
The coffee committee at Red Cedar Middle School met once. Three of the five draftees couldn’t make it due to last minute emergencies.
Soon after, Marnie quit as coffee fund organizer, citing a lack of after-school time with her children as the reason she needed to regretfully step aside. The school secretary was given the job, with compensatory time given for Costco runs for coffee and supplies.
One coffee fund committee “volunteer” visited Yellow Cedar Middle School. She was actually picking up her son from a volleyball game and took the opportunity to slip into the staff room and talk to a teacher about the coffee machine.
Unfortunately, Yellow Cedar Middle’s lauded coffee machine, after numerous breakdowns had been, at their November staff meeting, judged too expensive and unreliable and had been replaced with a coffee delivery system similar to the one in place at Red Cedar Middle.
The secretary at Red Cedar Middle, continued organizing the coffee for the school, leaving school each Friday at 1 P.M. in order to shop for coffee supplies.
At Red Cedar Middle School, the coffee delivery system was on the staff meeting agenda in May and again the following year in November, right after a spirited discussion about staff parking procedures.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Nelson is a retired teacher and principal in BC’s Tri-Cities area (Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody). Jim is also a regular columnist for The Tri-City News, writing on educational issues.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Mar/Apr 2011 issue.