Sue Sylvester: Sandy, how is it that you manage to sneak into this school without setting off all of the fire alarms?
—Glee, “A Night of Neglect” (4/19/11)
I’ve been working in a new school this year, and it’s been a ton of effort on my part.
The short version is, my predecessor either wasn’t very good at her job, or she mentally checked out sometime around April. Or, perhaps (and more likely) both. Consequently I walked in on both a literal and figurative mess. The office consists of four rooms: a larger anteroom with a conference table surrounded by file cabinets. This is where the students’ Special Ed meetings took place; the file cabinets were filled with records going back to at least 2006. Atop the cabinets were cases of files from before 2006, awaiting destruction. Then there is an office which was commandeered by the Assistant Principal; I don’t know what it was used for last year. The other two rooms were taken up by my predecessor and her assistant. They had separate rooms to work in. Spacious! Except for the fact that all three of the rooms given over to my department were a huge mess. I was clearly going to be working late for several weeks. This doesn’t really bother me; I’m more productive between 3:00 and 5:00 PM than I am the whole rest of the day. And the other upside is that Wee One is a cheerleader in her high school now, so her practices wrap up just a short time after I’m officially booted out of the building by the custodians.
Most schools have two custodial shifts. The first one comes in early, opens the building, makes some rounds, etc. and just ensures that the place is ready to go when everyone else arrives. Then there’s another shift that starts a couple of hours later and is usually responsible for some cleanup stuff that can only be done when nobody else is in the building. The two shifts have a lot of overlap but that’s usually how they go. There are variations of this, of course, but that’s the basic model.
In my school, the second shift usually ends around 6 PM. Sometimes it’s earlier, like around 5:30, and sometimes a little bit later but not usually by much. When the custodian is ready to go, he gets on the PA system and says, “Attention teachers: the building is now closed.” Click. End of announcement. That’s pretty much my five-minute warning to get my act together and get out. Usually I’m on a bit of a roll at that point but that’s the way the ball bounces. In this respect I’d be happier in a building that closes at 8:00. More often than not, I’m the only person left in the building, although a couple of times I’ve found myself leaving with another teacher.
So tonight I found myself on a bit of a hot streak. I was preparing mailings to go home to parents and I was printing notices on one printer, printing cover letters on another, loading the printer with envelopes and printing the addresses directly on those…I was on a roll, and it was going to be cut short, I just knew it. At some point that announcement was going to happen, and I was going to have to stop, dammit. I started prioritizing the pieces so that the most important ones would be done first.
And then…a little while later…I was done. Done! I’d done them all! I can go home and it’s only…
…oh, that can’t be right. Unless maybe the custodian is working late tonight. I looked through the anteroom out into the hallway and realized Hey, that hall’s pretty dark. This might be a problem. So I went downstairs to the first floor and located the school’s alarm panel.
Sure enough, the system was armed. I’d been locked into the building and I couldn’t leave without setting off the alarm.
Fortunately, I’m not the panicky type. I got on the phone and called the School Police. (Yes, Baltimore City Schools has its own police force.)
“School Police Dispatch, this is ______.”
“Good evening, _________, this is Claude at School #NNN. How are you this evening?”
“Oh, I’m fine, sir. How are you?”
(Yes, we really did exchange pleasantries first.)
“I’m well, but I have a problem. It appears that the custodian has locked me in the building and set the alarm. I can’t get out.”
“Oh, my!” she said. “What number are you calling from?” I gave her the number. She then said, “Someone will get to you.”
I asked, “OK, should I go to the lobby of the building then?”
She said, “If you want,” then thought better of her answer and said, “You should stay by the phone.” We hung up and I started packing my stuff.
A few minutes later, it occurred to me that, if the phone should ring, I won’t hear it. The phone in my office doesn’t ring unless a call is being transferred to me. I called the School Police again.
“Hi, it’s Claude, the guy in School #NNN? It just occurred to me that—” the officer who answered the phone immediately handed me off to someone else. For whatever reason I had to explain my predicament again. This time he said “OK, someone’s enroute, they should be there in a couple of minutes.”
“OK,” I said, “I’ll be in the building’s lobby.”
My school has a lobby that can be closed off from the rest of the building by a pair of double doors. This way, you can enter the building and turn right, into the Gym, or left, into the Auditorium, and not enter any other part of the school. The doors are typically open at all hours unless there’s an after-school event in one of those spaces. I went back to the first floor, with my stuff in my hands, and walked past the alarm panel and through the doorway for the double doors.
Uh-oh. I’d forgotten about the possibility of there being motion sensors in the entryway. I’d set off the alarm, and now the panel was waiting for me to enter the code to clear it, which I didn’t know, of course. Every ten seconds the panel would change, telling me how much time I had left to enter the code. You know, when you’re just staring at the panel and waiting for all hell to break loose, sixty seconds can be a long time.
At the end of the minute, I heard a warbling tone, but it wasn’t especially loud. Funny, I thought. I guess the alarm horns are only on the outside of the building. It took me a minute to realize that the sound was actually coming from the PA speakers overhead. For whatever reason, the alarm rang very softly through the PA system. Well, at least I’d called before I tripped the alarm.
Several minutes went by, and still no sign of the School Police. I called them a third time. “Look, I guess there’s a motion sensor down here because I don’t know if you’re aware of this—and judging by the response, you’re NOT—I’ve already tripped the alarm. Can I just leave the building anyway?”
The School Police officer is at the building, I was told. Just sit tight.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, I heard the sounds of a key in the front door. My hero! I told him what had happened and he cleared the alarm, then re-set it. Then we both had to beat it out of there. How this will play with my principal in the morning, I have no idea. Stay tuned.