I had a philosophy for life -- "keep it on cruise control." Why put out a lot of effort when things came easy? That lasted until the end of the first semester of my junior year of high school, when I brought home my first ever report card with a C. I'm not bragging... school came easy for me, at least up to that point and it wasn't until a couple of years later that I really had a rude awakening. Still I had to explain that C to my parents and of course my explanation was that the teacher didn't really teach anything.
The subject happened to be Biology and the teacher was Miss Wagner. I guessed she was at least 50 years old, with a full head of silver-gray hair, making her look older than she probably was, although I found out later that she was just 48 years old. She was a short, dumpy woman who was very soft spoken and all the kids took advantage of her, talking and cutting-up in class so that even those who wanted to learn had a hard time of it... but I wasn't one of those. I thought I knew it all anyway.
My dad didn't buy my explanation. The next day he met me after school and we went to have a conference with Miss Wagner, the first time in my life that had ever happened. (This happened a number of years ago and in an area where regular parent-teacher conferences had not been instigated.) After an introduction, I had to wait outside.
When Dad came out, he was ticked! For the first time that year, I took my Biology text home and actually did some reading at night and that happened every night for the rest of the school year, when I achieved an overall grade of A-minus... just acceptable in Dad's eyes.
Toward the end of the semester when I was thinking about the summer break, Miss Wagner called me aside and said she was going to need a new assistant for the next school year and asked if I would like to do that. It would take one period of my schedule the following year and since I had made the National Honor Society that spring and would have plenty of credits to graduate by the end of my senior year, I could afford a non-credit class.
Other than teaching Biology, Miss Wagner was the custodian of the school's text books... I think they gave her some 'official' title but I don't remember it. She would need help in August getting the classrooms set up with texts for their registered students and then through the school year. The assistant would be available for getting text books for new and transfer students, a chore that was basically a breeze after the first week.
I figured it wouldn't hurt to have some brownie points with Miss Wagner, even if it cost me part of the summer and besides, the assignment fit right in with my philosophy, right? So I said, "Sure, I would like to do that."
She said, "I will arrange your class schedule for the autumn classes and you should plan to begin work with me the first full week of August." At that time, school would start on the first Tuesday after Labor Day.
It seemed strange walking into the deserted school building at 7:45 A.M. on August 3rd, the first Monday of the month. Having celebrated my eighteenth birthday just a few days earlier, I was feeling like I was in control of the world. The halls were mostly dark with only light from the skylights giving a little illumination, making it feel a little eerie. The front offices and classrooms were also dark except for outside natural light. But when I got down to Miss Wagner's office, near the end of the east hall, I found the first lights on.
I knocked lightly, stepped inside and was greeted by Miss Wagner with her usual soft, "Hello, Mr. Marshall," and a nice smile. Miss Wagner never called anyone by their first name; she was brought up to use Mr. or Miss or Mrs. and the person's last name and she never deviated from it, at least not while within my hearing.
Miss Wagner took me next door to the room that was used as the book depository. It was originally a lab room but without the equipment, it was just a big L-shaped space with shelves lining all the walls except where the windows and doors were. But it was anything but an open space! It looked like an impenetrable maze, with books stacked everywhere. There were stacks anywhere from 30 inches high to over six feet tall... I knew because they were over my head. It looked like a sea of those stalagmites that you'd see on the floor of a cave. I didn't see how anyone could make anything out of this mess.
Of course, leave it to Miss Wagner to have a system worked out. She began to explain how the books were arranged. Everything was sectioned off by grade where feasible, otherwise by class subject so that various history texts were stacked close by and science books were in one area and so on. The aisles between the stacks were so narrow, I had to follow her and be careful not to brush against the books and bring them tumbling down.
After showing me the entire room, she led me back to her office where she showed me how she prepared for distribution of the books. I spent the rest of that day helping her prepare the book counts based on room assignments.
Starting the following morning, my job was to take the beginning counts by room report that she was working on, locate the books and load the required number of texts for each class onto a flatbed four-wheeled cart that I had to park in the only aisle in the room that was wide enough for the cart. That meant first locating the books, maneuvering the cart as close as possible, then toting the books to the cart and stacking them by class so they could be delivered.
I would wind up with as many as six stacks of the same book destined for the same class and by the time the cart was loaded, it contained enough texts for 30 to 40 classes. Sounds like a lot, right? It's not when you are stacking on textbooks for six classes for over 3,300 students! Maybe I was slow but I didn't get the first cart loaded until almost noon. Each stack had to be labeled with a post-it note showing the teacher's name, room number, course name, period number, and book count.
Miss Wagner kept track of my progress and seemed to think I was doing reasonably well. Just as I finished loading the cart, Miss Wagner appeared in the doorway and said, "Well done, Mr. Marshall. It is lunch time so let us take a break."
Being an air-headed know-it-all, I had not planned for lunch. I guess I thought I'd raid the fridge, huh? But she had thought about it and apparently assumed I would not make any plans.
Miss Wagner produced a submarine sandwich that she'd had delivered and said, "I planned for you to eat half of it, Mr. Marshall." We sat at her desk and I gratefully downed the sandwich and for the first time, we actually talked about ourselves.
"What do you want to do with your life, Mr. Marshall?" Miss Wagner asked.
"Well, I don't really know," I replied.
"What about schooling after high school? Do you plan to attend a university?"
"Yes, I guess so. I've gotten a collection of application forms from different schools," I said. "How did you know what you wanted to do?"
"Oh, I had always wanted to teach," she stated. "I liked the idea of helping young minds grow and learn."
"How do you balance that with family?'
She hesitated a bit and I was afraid I had pried a little too much. But then she said, "I was engaged during college and we had planned our family but then he was killed in a hunting accident. That was 27 years ago and I have just never wanted to get married to anyone since then." By then I noticed a few tears rolling down her cheeks.
After taking a few moments to compose herself, she wiped away the tears and said, "I was just 21 then and looked a lot different. Can you imagine me with long brown hair? That's the way I looked back in college but in the next five years it lost all its color."
I mumbled something about, "I think you're still attractive." With that, I cleaned up my trash and headed next door.
Back at work, I took my first loaded cart to the west wing and was grateful for the service elevator I had never realized existed. It was after 4:30 when I dragged my drooping ass back downstairs with an empty cart, having moved over 1100 heavy text books.
Miss Wagner spotted me when I returned and complimented me on a job well done. With a faint smile, she said we probably had about 18 or 19 more loads to complete before classes started. I just smiled, shook my head and headed for home.
The next three days went pretty well, with one cartload going out each day until Friday when I hit a snag. I had just gotten started when I determined I couldn't find any texts for an advanced Spanish class. I double and triple checked the languages area and knew they weren't there. Then I began a systematic search of the room. Even now, that was not as easy as it sounded because I had barely made a dent in the stacks of books in the huge room. I finally loaded the rest of the cart, took another quick look around the room and then informed Miss Wagner about my problem.
She said, "I don't remember where they are located but I'm sure they are in the room. Let me go help you find them."
.... There is more of this story ...