The New Principal vs. the Old Problem
It was July 1st, 2016. I had been handed a huge set of keys to a huge school. It was my first principalship and the school was St. Daniel’s on Chicago’s southwest side. Five years as an assistant principal and two years of graduate school had prepared me for this very day! Or had it? The outgoing principal was nice enough, but had no intention of meeting with me beyond one obligatory half day meeting in which he spent more time telling me why he was leaving the job. My office staff seemed distant and I chalked it up to a new sheriff in town. The teachers seemed friendly and the parents were welcoming. I thought I was off to a decent start. There were summer school classes going on, and I proudly stood behind the office counter greeting students and parents and bidding them to have a good day. When the first graders came out, followed by their teacher, one little girl came bubbling up to me and proclaimed, “Mrs. Jungles had a mouse running around her classroom today!” I put on my cheeriest face and widest smile as I looked at her and said, “I didn’t know Mrs. Jungles had a pet mouse in her classroom!” Mrs. Jungles came up to me with a smile wide enough to match my own and said, “Mrs. Jungles doesn’t have a pet mouse!” We continued smiling and chatting until the parents and students had all cleared out of the hallway. The smiles came off and I asked, incredulously, “Are there mice in this school?” Much to my dismay, the nodding of the heads of the teachers and staff in the area resembled a bobblehead convention.
I had been offered this job in April after two interviews and a tour of the school. I had been to the school a number of times to get a feel for it. But my first official day on the job was the first time anyone in that organization had told me about the mouse infestation. It was so bad that one teacher told of opening her school supplies cabinet and seeing mice running on the shelves. Another teacher told the story of “portrait mouse.” It seems that one of her students left an appetizing snack on the top shelf of his locker before leaving school for spring break. There was just enough room for a mouse to squeeze the top half of itself through the hole in the back of the locker to help itself to a feast. However, it gorged itself to the point of not being able to back out and was stuck in the hole for good. Unlike the mice in the Disney movies, this one had no rescue squad. A gruesome discovery awaited teacher and students alike when they returned after the break. Maintenance had to take the whole locker out in order to remove the remains of portrait mouse, so named because of the way its head and arms were framed by the hole in the back of the locker. Then there was the time over the summer when some of the teachers put leftover lollipops in a box on the office counter. The next morning, half eaten lollipops accompanied by mouse droppings met us as we entered. Shortly after that, one of the summer maintenance helpers came to me with a message from his grandmother. It seems that one of the ladies she was playing bingo with on the previous Friday night had a mouse run over her feet in the parish hall as she sat and played.
After some digging, I discovered that despite the very obvious mouse problem, my predecessor tried to save money by limiting the extermination company to visits every other month. I went the opposite way, and insisted that they come out and bait the school. The tech who was sent out told me they couldn’t bait the school because of the students. I pointed out to him that we were in July and that the students wouldn’t be back for three or four weeks and we were fine. Then I followed him around the school into every room to make sure he baited all of the areas that mice could inhabit. I am not afraid of mice. I grew up in Chicago with a rat infestation in our back yard and alley, so mice are no biggie for me. But they are not cute. They are rodents and they carry things that can spark asthma attacks and allergy problems in sensitive children. Our maintenance crew tended to blame the mouse problem on the bingo ladies because they left the doors propped open. My point was that Mickey and Minnie were not packing their bags and waiting for bingo night to make themselves at home in the walls of St. Daniel School. Luckily, my persistence with the extermination company paid off, especially when I reminded them that they were not the only game in town.
It was really disconcerting to start my first job in school administration as a new principal in a mouse infested school located in a part of Chicago inhabited by police, fire, and city workers. But it taught me that I was strong enough to solve the problem, that I could proactively flex my administrative muscles, and especially that running a school involved way more than the reading series and math tests!
“You can do this hard thing!”
I truly felt like I’d been sucker punched in the gut. The words “total knee replacement” from the mouth of the orthopedic surgeon fell on my ears like shards of glass hitting a metal table. I had gone into this appointment knowing that my knees had been an issue since I was in 4th grade. One doctor had even given me a name to go with my symptoms – “patellar femoral syndrome” – where the knee cap slides out of place stretching tendons and ligaments, unexpectedly sending its victim crashing to the ground when weight is put on the unstable knee cap. Memories of my ballet class in college, which I took for PE credit, came flashing back. I’d finally mastered the tour jete, had gained sufficient air, came down on my right leg, which buckled under me and left me in excruciating pain. My mom told me I was just a klutz and I needed to learn to live with it. She didn’t want to spend the money on a doctor, and she didn’t trust doctors anyway. She had bad knees, and saw it as a family legacy. Fast forward to my mid-50s when walking up and down stairs and getting in and out of cars caused excruciating pain. Fast forward again to my mom’s final weeks in hospice, where she twisted her knee on top of dealing with A-Fib and congestive heart failure. From her bed, she took my hand and said, “Get your knees fixed. Don’t wait.”
The August after she passed, I started my journey. My new doctor listened sympathetically as I entailed my symptoms over the years, which ended with, “And no one has ever ordered an x-ray to see what is going on with my knees!” She ordered an x-ray, and when she got the results, she ordered an MRI. And then she sent me to see Dr. Hallman. I went in thinking that maybe a little arthroscopy and some shots would be the fix that I needed. Dr. Hallman showed me the x-rays, with the bone spurs, the lack of cartilage behind my knee cap, and the general mess that was causing me so much pain. He told me that he could do a partial knee replacement, but I’d be back in two years so he may as well do the full knee replacements now. I told him I needed some time to process this. I was in my mid-50s. I knew a lot of people in my age group who’d done well with arthroscopy. What was happening?
When I got home, I reluctantly shared the news with my family. Daughter #1 went into high alert. She was in her clinical year of working towards her doctorate in physical therapy. Now while for most people this would be a moment of intense bonding, the oldest of my brood of 4 girls was anything but warm and fuzzy, especially towards me, her mother, for whom she blamed pretty much everything that went wrong in her life. We had our share of battles, and when she showed interest in anything I was doing, it was usually so she could tell me how I was doing it wrong. She told me that she was going to ask around at the care facility in LaGrange where she was assigned at that point. She came back the next day to say that Dr. Hallman got good reviews and that she was going with me to my next appointment. I was grateful and a little scared. But we went together. By the end of the appointment they were smiling and laughing like two old friends, and fist bumping each other over his protocols for recovery, which were totally on point with everything she’d been learning. I was relieved and also amazed that this child, who’d declared more than once that she didn’t like me, was now taking charge of my health care as I was facing down a major surgery.
“You can do this, mom,” were words that she shared more than once, as if honing her patient skills on me. Grateful and still amazed that she would walk alongside me, as well as the rest of the crew, was the encouragement I needed to get over this hurdle.
Fast forward 10 years to Daughter #1 as mom of two and someone who relies heavily on her mom to tell her that she can do hard things – the circle of Karma continues to turn.
Monarchs in the Milkweed
I called over the fence to Nancy, who was attempting to tidy up her garden, “Don’t pull out the milkweed! It’s the host plant for Monarchs!” She looked up at me, maybe a bit startled at the boldness of her new neighbor. But she smiled and said, “Oh really? I did not know that!” I found that hard to believe because George and Nancy had the most amazing cottage garden on the block. Their neighbors across the alley, Chet and Mabel, had a yard that boasted formal garden beds. Chet’s spring flower display was even featured in Better Homes and Gardens! But my next-door neighbors preferred a more natural look vs. the curated look of specific beds. Asparagus tumbled into tomato plants. Sage kept company with peonies. Their beloved strawberry patch was flanked by roses and rhubarb. The Milkweed with its pale purple flowers popped up in a few places. Nancy needed to strategically remove a few plants, and I took the pods to start some in my own garden, but they never thrived as well as the ones in Nancy’s side yard.
I can’t recall when I first encountered milkweed, or who told me what it was. I remember, though, that I was my younger self, living at home. I remember tearing off a leaf and marveling at the creamy sap oozing from the veins where I’d split the leaf in half. I walked away from that life into marriage, and after living in a condo for six years, I had plenty of pent-up gardening desire surging through my own veins. I wanted an organic garden, patterned after that of my gardening guru, my beloved late grandmother. In learning the people in my neighborhood, I realized that I had two sets of neighbors to whom I could pose my gardening questions. I took it as a gift from the universe. I wanted to create something halfway between a formal garden and a cottage garden. The children needed places to play, and we needed to figure out what would grow best where. Over the years, I grew vegetables and flowers. I tried asparagus and strawberries, but the microclimate of one house north was apparently much better suited than mine. When George and Nancy went on vacation, they encouraged us to come next door and pick from the garden so nothing went to waste.
And through it all, I finally got some milkweed to grow. My husband learned to ask before he pulled it out. And we only pulled it out if it was going to grow in a place that would negatively impact other worthy plants. Our efforts paid off. We were rewarded with monarchs in both yards. The plant I wanted most refused to bend to my efforts to control it. By letting go of that attempt, we had enough milkweed to assist the monarchs in the area. I guess that’s one of the great lessons of gardening. Gardens plants are created by a higher power, and we here on earth are simply stewards of a creation that is ours to accept and appreciate. If we are lucky enough to get it right, there will be Monarchs in the Milkweed!
Mary Frances Porod, mother of 4 and grandmother of 5, is a retired educational administrator, gardener, crafter, reader, writer, musician, and animal lover. She actively volunteers in her church and in her community.