I have many fond memories of the opening day of school, as a teacher, principal, superintendent and exec. Of a regional education service agency. There are also a few years when I probably should have stayed in bed. I know that many of you have had the same experiences.
On my first day as a junior high school principal, I watched, with anticipation, the buses arriving, the youngsters dashing into school. It was an exhilarating experience. These 600 students were in my charge. I was responsible for their well-being from the time they got on the buses till they got home.
Classes began at 8:15. I walked around the building trying to see how things were going. By 8:30, I thought that everything looked normal and I returned to the front of the building to look outside. As I was standing there, a lone figure approached the front of the building. It was one of the 7th graders dripping with water.
I asked him what happened. He told me that Mr. Darion, the science teacher had taken the class down to the stream with test tubes to get samples of the water to put under the microscope. Somehow, Marc, the student, had fallen in. This was not the beginning of the school day that I wanted.
The building that housed the junior high was terribly old. In a few years, it would be condemned by the Department of Labor and Industry (sound familiar to some of you). There was an old bathroom, formerly used by faculty members. I directed Marc to the bathroom and told him to take off his wet clothes, give them to me through the door and I would them into the dryer in the home ec. room next door.
The day went smoothly after that. I saw some things during that day that I knew had to be changed. It was 3:15 and I stood on the stairs at the front of the building and watched the buses leave and the walkers going into town. As they left, I realized that I had left Marc in the old bathroom for the entire day.
I tried not to panic. I got his clothes from the dryer, opened the bathroom door and gave the clothes to Marc. I told him to get dressed and to come to the office. I called his dad, whom I had met sometime earlier in the community. I told him what had happened. He laughed and asked if this time in the bathroom had improved his behavior?
My reputation in this rural town was elevated immediately. I was seen as someone who should not be trifled with, or you would be put in the bathroom jail.
The western part of Pennsylvania is entirely rural. In the 1990 census, the state had more rural people than any other state in the union. I was in charge of a 3,000 square mile 17 school district regional education service agency. Our biggest job was to run almost all of the special education classes in the schools. Eventually, we had 125 classes spread out over the area.
On my first day there, I was a complete novice about how things worked. I had been briefed by bunches of people, including 17 superin- tendents, 17 board members and the central office staff. This was going to be really hard.
If you can imagine what the bussing must have been like. I still, to this day, do not understand how it worked. There were no children anywhere near my office. They were all “out there.” I was very lucky to have wonderful teachers and supervisors. For the ten years that I was there, I could never thank them enough.
At about 8:30, my secretary buzzed me and told me that there was a really peculiar phone call. She sounded hesitant. That was not her normal voice. She was born and bred in the area so she had a handle on most things. This was not one of them.
I picked up the phone and said hello. The voice at the other end said, “Is this Hillman?” I said “yes.” He then said that there was a white van traveling around in Brookville and slowing down at every bus stop where there were children. I asked if he had called the police. He told me that there was no need to do that.
I was puzzled. Maybe I had heard him incorrectly. I asked him, “Is this person still driving the van around?” He said that he wasn’t. I was really confused. Why would this person, who would not give me his name, call to tell me about this, but not call the police? Did the van driver just go away to do the same thing elsewhere.
I believe that the man heard my questioning tone. He said, “We took care of him.” This is one of those signal moments in one’s life that engender horrible thoughts. I was about to ask him what that meant, when he hung up the phone.
I really had no idea what the next step was. I called the superintendent of the school district. He said that he had not heard about a white van. He was curious. I am not sure what he did. We never did discuss it. I called the supervisor in that area. She told me that there had been reports of such a van, but that nothing untoward happened and that the van and driver were gone.
I asked her about calling the police, she was noncommittal. Somehow, I was not understanding any of this. I finally called the local police barracks to see if they knew anything about it. They said that they would check. They never got back to me.
My thoughts at the end of the day were, “What have I gotten myself into?” I will remember that first day for the rest of my life.