Saturday, September 26, 2009

An Alarming StorY~

Like most places of business and the majority of public and private schools, my new school has an alarm system. It wasn’t installed right away, which was a good thing considering how many people were in and out of the building during the last of our construction stage and the chaos that was euphemistically called “moving in.”

Setting up a school is a herculean feat on its own, but building a school from scratch is certainly not for the faint of heart, weak of spirit, or those lacking physical and emotional stamina. Our “moving in” phase was punctuated by ever-changing plans, diaphanous rules and regulations, and communication that resembled a six-pack of rubber bullets flying around a padded room.

To say that most of the school’s staff has worked 12-15 hour days, plus weekends, over the past 6 weeks would not be an exaggeration. Opening the school on time meant hitting the ground running – then sprinting to keep caught up and quickly changing courses in order to avoid the hurdles that suddenly materialized from a very dynamic sideline.

So maybe the alarm system was casually noticed. It made sense that we would have one and that it would actually work. Ours was installed about the same time as the fire alarm. Those of us working during the fire alarm’s “testing” phase have a permanent loss of hearing in both ears and lost the ability to smell anything sweet for two days.

The school’s excellent administrative assistant, who could run the school with both hands tied behind her back and duct tape around her ankles, hunted down almost everybody and passed out room keys, door keys, and signatures on alarm codes. She was so stealthy about it that many employees forgot they talked to her and can’t remember giving her a code, signing a paper, or collecting keys. Yet – they have keys, their signatures are on the dotted line, and codes were collected. Since it was during that hellishly busy “moving in” time, it is no wonder some people don’t remember the whole exchange. Caffeine, physical exhaustion, and drywall dust will do that to you, I suppose. (Anybody ever find that Allen wrench?)

Somehow, we got an alarm installed right under our noses. At an unclear point after the first week of school, it was activated. And, for kicks and giggles, they changed the classroom door locks at the same time. The reasoning behind the latter action is still rather nebulous but we dutifully exchanged our still-shiny “old” keys for “new” keys.

Teachers attempting to enter the school that first weekend immediately, with much fanfare and ear-splitting cacophony, set off the alarm. And since the “new” keys hadn’t been handed out yet, they couldn’t enter their classrooms anyway.

The next morning, two of the school’s finest teachers had the temerity to show up for work at 7am. Unaware of the alarm issue, they immediately jolted the entire adjacent community awake with the shriek of an ear-splitting alarm. Unable to access their classrooms, they stood there for 20 minutes attempting to make the noise stop. They took turns putting in their own codes and then, giving up, attempted to figure it out by punching in every numerical combination that anybody and their mother could have come up with on short notice during what we euphemistically called “moving in” time.

Nothing worked. Several more teachers arrived. Their codes didn’t work either. Two of them went for coffee, apologizing to any and all business people gathering on the sidewalk to observe a cluster of well-educated human beings attempt to look non-descript amid the shrieking of the world’s loudest alarm.

Now, remember that I mentioned that the security and fire alarms were installed around the same time? Well, (you’re going to laugh about this one, really….) the keypad for the FIRE ALARM was put right next to the door. So, the stunned and rather shell-shocked teachers were desperately trying to turn off the security system with the keypad for the FIRE ALARM. Who’d a-thunk it? It seems that the security keypad is in THE HALLWAY and the FIRE ALARM keypad is next to the door! Funny, huh?

All that frantic pounding of the fire alarm keypad got the attention of the local fire station. I didn’t actually see or hear any firefighter personnel, but word on the street was they weren’t too pleased. Morning coffee at the firehouse is so much calmer when local schools aren’t playing with their fire alarms.

I must point out that one of the teachers frantically called the school’s director, principal, head custodian, building manager, construction supervisor, a yoga instructor, and her mother. By the time the coffee-bearing teachers returned, the situation was under control, replacement keys were being issued, frowning sheriff’s deputies were being placated, and the teachers were sprinting for their classrooms. Full hearing in their ears didn't return for several hours.

Let’s fast-forward to the end of the same week. It is a Friday and the school’s first International Day Celebration is over. The building is looking more and more like a school now, with forgotten backpacks, snack wrappers, and bits of construction paper all over the floor. Somebody’s first graders went through the back hallway and rocked it like a hurricane. Reminder notices for an upcoming fundraiser are taped to the walls.

Teachers have worked late into the afternoon and, with the dinner hour soon approaching, the first grade teachers decide to wrap up their planning and quickly pick up the chunks of child detritus that might be deemed a safety concern. Around 5pm, these teachers hear what was described later as “a funny noise.” Is that the alarm, they ask each other. No, it couldn’t be. We are still here. We are making noise. Our lights are on. Our staff children are still roaming the halls, looking for food, drink, and anything remotely interesting to do while parents continue to work in hot classrooms and stuffy offices. “Just a little while longer,” the children are promised.

Several teachers are hunched over their desks and one is killing a sapling at the copier. Two office staffers are trying to reach bottom on their work surfaces. The remaining staff children have are now shoeless and have given up running the halls. They stretch horizontally on the floor, praying for dinner, green grass, the family pet, a soft couch, and a video game.

Around 6pm, the aforementioned first grade teachers load up their matching red bags, sling purses and backpacks over their hunched shoulders, and chat as they exit the building. What do you suppose happened?

YES! The blasting of the world’s loudest alarm could be heard at the local park when these teachers exited the building. Everybody within a 5 mile radius is now aware that two slacker-teachers left the building at 6pm while other school employees continued to work. The working employees, slightly hunched over with fatigue, are jolted upright as their world explodes into a range of decibels that would make Guns n’ Roses proud. The culprits, finding a burst of energy they didn’t know existed, race back into the building. One searches frantically for the correct keypad while the other one, who paid attention at some point and figured out where it was, attempted to enter her code. “Put in your code,” she says. “Mine doesn’t work.”

The second teacher enters the code and the shrieking stops. Both teachers stare at the keypad. It has a message. Something about an exit window. Despite being college-educated, they are unsure what this means. Thinking they disarmed the system they leave again. Guess what? YES! The alarm does its job and warns all diners at the local eateries that somebody is trying, once again, to escape the school.

The teachers run back to the keypad and the scenario is repeated.

The first teacher is beginning to suspect that something else needs to be done. After her partner enters the code, the teachers bolt from the building and into the parking lot. All is quiet.

Words about the reasoning capabilities of anybody who would set an alarm in a building still occupied by working people are exchanged. There is laughter about the whole ridiculousness of the episode and the jangled nerves of the remaining staff.

It may be reasonable to assume that the alarm sets itself automatically. Maybe that noise everybody pondered around 5pm was the alarm magically setting itself. After all, the classroom air conditioners shut themselves off around 4:00. Do they belong to the same union?

All those ricocheting rubber bullets have to stop at some point. The one labeled “alarm” has been snatched from the air and attached to a key ring. Using deductive reasoning and the power of “discovery learning,” the local community can rest assured that the comings and goings of their local charter school will no longer disturb the peace.

On Monday morning, we will deliver coffee to the local firehouse.