Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Trip to the Principal's Office

I was inches from quitting.  

The principal sat at the head of the table, Kathryn on my right, and our contact teacher and translator fidgeted across from us.

It would feel good, I told myself.

This time the room was cooler, air conditioning whirling faster than my mind.  My eyes were red, cheeks as well, and I was mortified that he might think I had been crying on his account.

Many at the school seem to fear the principal, but me?  Nope.  And I get the sense that he can feel this, and it doesn't float his boat, it revs his engine.  I think he expected dissidence, but that's not my thing.  I have spent a long time trying to be small, but not now.  Either way, in my humble (and diplomatic) opinion, he is all growl and no groin, if you catch my drift.

So we are sitting there, and I can't even listen to what he is saying, his words coming through our contact teacher.  I think about quitting.  Two things are circling my head like a caged bird, squawkingly frantic: 'Why would I stay here?  I am not happy.'  It is not my life anymore, it is a movie, and I have dreamed up a new ending for myself: the phone calls to my family, the blog entry, even -- how drastic it would be, to quit.  I am either deeply unhappy or craving some kind of rush.  My mouth waters, I can taste it, the words I could say.  I swallow them, and they push the inside of my throat like small fists.

And then I am pulled back to the smooth table, where my hands probably shouldn't be resting.

We are here, in the principal's office, because of a 'miscommunication.'

Kathryn and I scheduled a trip to Greece for June 17th, two days after school lets out.  The principal found out, and informed our contact teacher that because we extended our contract, we were obligated to stay in Szeged for the first two weeks in June to be on-call, as the other teachers do.  Teachers who are Hungarian and work on exams, I might add.

Was this work obligation mentioned when we signed the contract?  No.  In fact, the words 'There are no changes to the contract' were spoken.  He was apparently offended that we didn't ask him to take vacation time.  We had no idea we needed to ask, as we thought we were free after the 15th.

But there we were.  In a meeting.  Totally unprepared for what was about to come.

Basically, it went like this:

Principal: "How did the kids do this year?"

Me: "Uuuuhhh... it depends on the kid?"

Principal: "You need to substitute 40 hours unpaid throughout the next school year.  We gave you something, you need to give us something in return."

Me: "I don't understand what we would be doing for those 40 hours in June, as we don't work on exams.  What would we be doing?  When would we need to come in?"

Principal: "Nem tudom."  (I don't know)

Me: "Well, this puts us in a difficult situation, because if we had known we needed to stay, we would not have booked our tickets."

Principal: "You need to substitute 40 hours to make up for this time."

Notice there were no lines that went like, "I am sorry we didn't tell you," "We should have told you about this," or "We really should have translated the school's contract into English for you since you don't speak Hungarian."

It was just this: "You need to work the 40 hours."

It seemed pretty unreasonable since, in all likelihood, we would not be needed for those two weeks.  Our duties and capabilities do not go beyond the English classroom.  We are working in a Hungarian school system -- a language and a culture that we are not fluent in.

We went back-and-forth, trying to get information, and then I did something both the principal and I will always remember.

"The CETP [the organization we both work with] contract says that teachers only need to stay if there are exam obligations," I said, placing the contract on the table, "so I am confused about why we need to stay."

Apparently, you never, ever, ever pull out a contract during a meeting with a Hungarian.

What happens?

A phone call to the CETP Hungarian head lady, flailing arms, fire spewing from ears, and a meeting adjourned.  Essentially, we were kicked out of his office.

This is when the crying started.

Amidst many phone calls to our CETP contact person (who informed me that, had I not missed the orientation [due to my late placement], I would have known how better to handle the situation, because you 'can never debate with a Hungarian') and unsolicited advice from other teachers at the school, I stood in front of the window, tears sliding down my cheeks.

I saw one of my co-workers on the park bench, smoking.  The trees were sweet.  I imagined their long branches tenderly dabbing jasmine perfume on the trunks.  The birds sang, oblivious.

I didn't know if I wanted to stay.  I didn't know if I wanted to what was needed in order for me to stay and survive.  Appeasing to the principal?  Adjusting to never knowing what is happening at school, being forgotten, being informed of an extra class 5 minutes before it begins?  I felt pretty sure I was capable of making these changes (I knew I needed to be the one to change instead of expecting the situation to change, since I had tried that for the last few months, and it wasn't working), but here's the thing.  I didn't know if I wanted to make those changes.  How much of myself would I have to sacrifice in order to do this job successfully?

Hearing from another teacher confirmed my suspicions that our positions are, in a way, resented.  She mentioned that the other teachers might feel uncomfortable if they knew we had the time off and they didn't, especially because our flat and the utilities are paid for, we work less than the other teachers, etc.  And I found out that when we have asked the vice principal for time off in the past, other teachers have covered for us, unpaid.  I had no idea this was happening, and it just added to the sour lurch in my stomach.

I felt a little bit wounded about the whole situation.

It seems to be a reoccurring theme: being left in the dark.  Not being aware of something until after the damage is done.

But I also felt a little bit spiky, resentful, self-righteous even.  The nature of our positions are different than other teachers.  We signed different contracts, we have different job descriptions.

We were also reminded (or told; it did seem vaguely threatening) how good we have it in so many ways.  The exceptions that have been made for us (which, in my mind, do not count if we do not know they are exceptions!), the improvements on the flat, the list went on . . .

And this is where it got tricky.

I understand how blessed we are in many ways with this job.  However, the situation we found ourselves in that day?  Not on my list of gratitudes.  For me, one positive thing does not cancel out a negative.

I also think that comparisons between us and other teachers is a bit too apples-and-oranges.

But, I understand the tenderness of these issues from a cultural sensitivity perspective.

So what was I supposed to do?

How much was I supposed to sacrifice for cultural sensitivity's sake?

After speaking with our CETP contact person, we were informed that we needed to work the 40 hours for beaurocratic reasons.  Because we are technically teachers like everyone else (although let me tell you that in reality, this is sooo not the case) we have to work those 40 hours so that the paperwork is on the up-and-up.

Why wasn't this mentioned in the meeting?

The meeting turned sour so quickly, and looking back, I can see many ways it could have been avoided.  Of course, many of them have to do with the principal changing his ways and not me, so already I am a bit suspicious of my own big ego.

This new information is a bit of game changer, and neutralizes the situation, but for me it's already too late.  At this point, I am still crying in the teacher's lounge.  My calendar is double-booked: work crisis and existential crisis.  I need to find a new secretary.

Our contact teacher keeps touches my shoulder gingerly and tells me, "Don't be stressed."  Her eyes are wide and flicking around my face, as if searching for something.

She also breaks the cardinal rule of Having Contact with Someone when They Cry, which is: "Thou shall not hug the crying person AND ask them to stop crying at the same time."  Everyone knows that if someone hugs you when you are upset, you will just cry more.  There are even studies.  Like, all of the times I have studied what happens when people hug me and I am upset.  The statistics are frightening.  I should really make a pie chart.

Trying not to cry in the finance office as we gather paperwork, I realize how ridiculous it is.  My contact teacher tells me not to cry, and I think, "Are you really going to do this your whole life, Jess?  Not have your feelings?"  Damn, I was asking myself good questions.

So this is what I told my contact teacher: "I know it is not a good time or place, but I just need to cry."

Because, as usual, my tears were not really about just one thing.  As usual, the situation found a tender spot in me and started poking at it until the hurt underneath it released.

I am not ready, but we are back inside his cool office.

I can't hear or process anything because the bird is still circling.

Salt is in my mouth, pebbles in my throat.  The idea of quitting coats my tongue.  My eyes sting and my insides buzz.

I told myself I would just come in and see what happened.  If I needed to quit, I would.  If I needed to cry or scream, I would, even though I was really hoping not to.

I think he says something like, "There was a misunderstanding, but you understand now."  It is not even a question.

"Now," Kathryn says in Hungarian, the word rolling its eyes in her mouth.

He keeps speaking, words coming through our contact teacher.  He takes no responsibility for the miscommunication, but he is glad we now understand.

"In Hungary, the verbal agreement is more important than the written agreement.  The problem is when someone gets out the paper."

It is quiet and awkward as a gulp.  You should have seen my face: the very picture of guilt and chagrin.  The principal has just made a dig at me for getting the contract out.

I start to ... explain myself? defend myself? but then I double back and go with "Semmi," it's nothing.  Which it isn't, but I can't think of anything to say that he is willing to hear.

The other thing that is totally hilarious?  There was no verbal agreement (or information, even) about us needing to work in June!

And for the grand finale, he asks us if we will agree to the 40 unpaid hours of substituting.  We say yes.  And then he says: "I do not want to write it on the contract so this will just be a spoken agreement."

Why did I say yes to this?

Who knows, but keep reading, and maybe you will find out.  Hopefully I will too.

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