Sunday, June 03, 2012

The unprincipled principal

When I started my career in a large county school district in 1976 a female principal was a rarity. Out of sixty-nine principals there was one woman. Today more than half the principals of what is now a district with over one hundred schools are women. But when the district started promoting women to the position they came under a lot more scrutiny than men, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse.

Scarlett (not her real name) was a female principal who was very sexy. When she got her job in the early eighties the talk was that she'd slept her way to the top. It's the kind of sexist stuff you expect to hear when an attractive woman gets promoted. But in Scarlett's case, after knowing her for a couple of years, it wasn't hard to believe. Scarlett had been a teacher when my wife got her job in the district and they worked in the same school. “Scarlett,” she said, “had hair down to here,” (indicating her waist) “and her skirts up to here,” (indicating her butt). Scarlett was also a rich girl with a rich husband. They lived in a big house, and Scarlett had a governess for her child.

Not Scarlett but a good facsimile. Long hair and short skirt picture is for illustration purposes only.

The school they gave Scarlett was one of the oldest schools still in use in the county, built before World War I. This is a picture of the actual school in 1916. Sixty years later when I first saw the school it hadn't changed much. Modern schools have gone from three-story to one-story for safety purposes. At this  school in its last years a child fell down a stairwell and was killed. It precipitated the decision in 1995 to close it down. A few years later an arsonist destroyed the empty building.

If the first mistake the district made was promoting Scarlett to principal, the second mistake was assigning her, a rich woman wearing expensive clothes and jewelry, spike-heeled designer shoes, tight skirts and frilly tops to a school in the lowest socio-economic area of the county. Over 90% of the children attending the school lived under the poverty line, qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

In that area a car ten years old was considered new, fashion was what you got at Kmart if not the local thrift shop, and bling…well, forget that. It’d take an electron microscope to see the diamond in a wedding ring. Not like Scarlett’s large diamond rings, which caused temporary blindness from reflected sunlight. Scarlett was nothing if not condescending to the citizens who populated her school. There was no doubt it wasn’t her first choice of assignments.

Scarlett’s secretaries, Julianne and Cindy, had plenty to tell me about her. Among the many stories (too many to tell here) was the one where she called fellow principals to her school for a special luncheon. Scarlett had invited only male principals. Just before the luncheon Scarlett slipped into her office and changed her clothes. Her secretaries’ jaws dropped when she walked out in a white pants suit, through which they could see her colorful bikini underwear. As Julianne told me, “She put on quite a show for the guys!”

My own story of Scarlett’s exhibitionism came when I walked up to the front doors of the school. There was a school maintenance vehicle parked on the sidewalk. When I got to the entrance I looked through the glass doors and saw a maintenance man, a hunky guy in his twenties, standing just inside the doorway. He was at the bottom of a stairway to the second floor. Scarlett was at the top of the stairs, squatting. She was wearing a skirt, high heels, with her legs open, exposing her crotch. She was giving the guy a beaver shot! I walked through the door and she stood up. Show was over. The young guy gave me a look, as if to say, “Whoa, did you see that?!” I acted as if I’d seen nothing.

Britney Spears demonstrates what I saw that day.

Unbeknownst to anyone, during her second year as principal Scarlett had met another rich man and left her husband. The day after school was out for summer she put her letter of resignation on her supervisor’s desk, then left town. I heard she had moved with her lover to Texas. When they got the news at the school there was jubilation, a “ding dong, the witch is dead” style celebration.

The district immediately appointed another principal, a much more levelheaded and serious woman, who had to undo the damage done by Scarlett. For one thing, Scarlett had spent all the school’s money. I never heard the word embezzlement, but there was an implication that she had spent a lot of it off the books. The new principal had to be given special funds to set up school for the upcoming school year.

I was surprised to see Scarlett coming out of the district office the very next March. It was a cold day and she was wearing a mink coat that came down to her ankles. Through the grapevine I found out she had been asking to come back to work. The love affair hadn’t worked out and she had returned from Texas. This time the door was shut to Scarlett. She never worked for our school district again, and whether she got another job in education I don’t know. Over the years until my retirement I worked with many women in administrative positions. Most of them were serious educators, with the school their priority.

We’ve come a long way since the schoolmarm of old!

Even so, some were sexy, and attracted attention. For the next twenty-five years I heard the occasional story about female principals (and several stories about male principals, too, who got themselves in trouble in greater numbers than the women). None of the stories ever approached tales of the legendary Scarlett.

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