"Work is a four-letter work for a reason -- no one wants to do it. No matter what you, don't like your jobs," Sam stated.
"I liked the schools, for a while."
"You did not. You and Gina just had a good time."
* * *
Sam might have had a point about that. Since I was so desperate for work, I had taken the job with the General Counsel's office at the public schools. "How bad could it be? Surely it'll be OK for a while," I'd thought happily. Besides, they were in the newspaper all the time -- generally not for good things, but at least it was possible to get noticed. I might have one of those cases being mentioned in the Metro section -- any press was good press for me. I knew that the school system was sued all the time for not giving services to children with needs and that no matter how many times they were sued, the children never received what was promised. It was a revolving door of lawsuits. I figured that even if I couldn't do anything worthwhile, I could get noticed.
Once I was noticed for the fabulous legal work I was doing on the absolute worst client in the world, it would only be a matter of time before I was taking over Greta van Susteren's job on CNN. After all, I was younger, more attractive, and had made a name for myself with the most abysmal clients on the planet. Pretty soon, I'd be writing books and teaching at Harvard or Yale or Stanford. That was it! Stanford -- we could live in San Francisco in one of those darling Victorian houses. Sam and I had loved it when we'd visited. Taking the trolley, watching the sun set over the bay -- it had been magical. It would be so much better than living in DC. San Francisco, here we come! I would be a renowned professor. Maybe we could even spend our summers in Oxford.
Before I started, there were a few things that gave me pause about my new job. Everyone I told that I was going to work at the school system said the same thing, "Gosh, that is a really tough place to work. Have you read the articles in the Post about how terrible the conditions are?" That's bad. If random people on the street -- or at a sorority tea or church -- say to you, "Wow, good luck, you are going to need it." It is a sure sign that this is not the job for the long term.
On my first day, as I pushed open the doors to the General Counsel's office, I wished I could turn around and ride the elevator back down. You must do this! I told myself as sternly as I could. We need the money. This is the first job opportunity you've had, and another may be a long time in coming. I do not want to do this, I thought unhappily.
"Hi," I said to the receptionist, even though she hadn't even looked up when I'd walked in the door.
"What do you want?" She was so caustic, I thought I'd been burned with acid.
"My name is Jessica Clark-Romero. I'm an attorney. Today is my first day here, with the Office of General Counsel."
"Oh. Go see Bernice, the secretary." She pointed at an office off to the left from her desk. She hadn't even bothered to tell me her name. I hoped everyone wasn't going to be so unfriendly.
I walked over to Bernice's office and tapped on the open door.
"Come in." She hadn't looked up from her computer. "What do you need? Make it quick. I'm busy." She was pleasant, but all business. I was a little frightened. By the looks of her, this job was going to be extremely busy and pressured. Just what I needed, lots of stress.
"I'm Jessica Clark-Romero. I'm starting today, one of the new attorneys?" It was more of a question than I had intended. I felt like I was intruding. Maybe I had gotten it wrong, perhaps I was supposed to start next Monday.
Bernice stood up, "Nice to meet you." She crossed the room with her hand out. She had quite a handshake. I hoped I could type later in the day. "Sorry, we are always so busy. Let me show you to your new office."
Bernice led me into the largest office I had ever seen -- right next door to her. It was three times the size of any office I had in the past. Although it was huge, it was like a cave. Four blank white walls stared at me. Nothing broke up the starkness but the door. One wall had two large file cabinets in steel gray. There was a desk in the middle of the room with a computer and a chair that tilted to the right. It was horrible, but its worst feature was the fact that it was right off the main entryway. I would be the welcome wagon for anyone who walked into the General Counsel's office.
"Here you go," the secretary, Bernice, said impatiently, "it's the largest office."
"Thanks," I mumbled as I surveyed the bleak surroundings. I decided against telling her that I didn't think that was much of a selling point.
"Your cases are in the file cabinets."
"Great." I went over to look. I was thinking that the cases were all filed away, but no, they were in piles. The files themselves were stuffed with paper. No order, some of the paper did not match the name on the file. "What did I get myself into?" I wondered immediately
"Get yourself comfortable. I'll let M and Denise know you're here." And she disappeared.
I walked around wondering what to do with myself. Could I slip out and get a cappuccino and a muffin? I had been so worried about getting here on time, I hadn't stopped for one around the metro. No one seemed to be interested in me. I bet they wouldn't notice if I was gone for fifteen minutes or so.
Just as I had talked myself into a caramel macchiato, another of the lawyers, Mike, walked in. Terrific, now I couldn't escape. I didn't think I could make it without some caffeine. I was feeling all stressed and pressured.
"Hey, great to see you again. I'm glad you decided to take the job. I'm going to do a little training for you," Mike announced cheerfully as he stepped into my cavern office.
"Thanks!" I was very grateful because I was so clueless. At least maybe he could tell me which cases needed to be worked on now and which ones could wait.
"Let me take you on a tour."
I followed him out the door.
"You've met Bernice. You come to her for anything you need like equipment, time off, general questions about how the office runs. Over there is M's office. Next to her is Jeanine." He walked into Jeanine's office before I had time to really take it all in.
"Jeanine, this is Jessica." Jeanine was a tall black woman with a mass of black curls. She had more hair than anyone I'd ever seen. Her office was decorated with photos of African men and women in ceremonial dress. She had a large picture of Martin Luther King Jr. next to a copy of his "I have a dream" speech.
"Nice to meet you. Stay out of M's way and you'll be fine. She's worthless, doesn't know anything about this place. If you need any help, just come by, my door is always open."
"Thank you. That is very kind."
"Honey, we've all got to stick together here. You know what I mean?"
I didn't but nodded my assent. Swallowing hard, I followed Mike out the door.
"This is Denise's office." He pointed to an enormous room with a view of the city. Her office was dark except for a lone lamp over her computer. Papers and boxes were everywhere; the desk wasn't even visible. There were large African statues on the tables and the floor. Prints of black children in Africa were on the walls next to large tribal masks.
"Here's the conference room where you had your interview, the copy machine and an empty office. One of the new attorneys starting next week will get this office."
"So you did hire other attorneys?"
"Three more will be starting next week. They probably won't stay all that long, but there will be more to handle the load now. I'm giving you all of my cases. Tomorrow is my last day."
"You're leaving?" I hated to have the only person I knew leaving already. Plus, I was starting to feel a little out of place, as Mike was the only other white person I had seen today. I was already reassessing my earlier statements about equality. It was hard to be and feel different from those around you.
"Come on, I'll introduce you to the others. The other offices are through this back door." He led the way down a corridor to a back door. "This is Shaneequa and Tamara. They have the best offices because they're away from the main entrance."
Tamara's office had pictures of black babies and large posters with statements reading, "It is the time of the Black Woman" and "We Shall Overcome." She had copper colored hair with shoes and purse to match. She was dressed in an electric blue suit and lots of gold jewelry.
Shaneequa was a large woman. She had a pin on her suit demanding payment for slavery. I hadn't seen her office yet, and I was a bit apprehensive about what might be on her walls.
"Hey, it's great to have you here!" Shaneequa declared, pumping my hand. "We could really use the help."
"I was going to fill Jessica in about the real deal with this place," Mike said. "Want to help?"
"The school system is always guilty," Tamara shook her head, "but you can't always settle the case because they won't let you. You have to argue crazy things. You'll see. Until about six months ago, the cases filed against the school were three years behind in even being heard. We've worked really hard to get it where at least we are seeing the cases filed this month rather than last year. But the services are just not being provided yet."
"You'll have to get all the information yourself. There isn't anyone to help you. The info is hard to get because the schools don't want to share it with you for fear of getting in trouble," Shaneequa added.
"I go down to the special education department myself to get it," Mike admonished. "I'll take you down there later -- three floors below us. It is important that you realize that you have to get any information you can on your own. No one will help you. No one here wants to help you because the system has no interest in complying. You have to have information on the children and services so that you can file the necessary papers with the administrative law judge. The special ed department is a pretty good source. It's a bizarre system around here. You'll do fine once you get your feet wet -- which is going to happen right away. I have a case coming up at the end of the week. I won't be here for it, so I'm going to give it to you to cut your teeth on."
"Great," I replied weakly. I wasn't so sure I was ready to jump right into the fray.
"Come on," Mike urged. "I'll get you the file. You can read it before we all go to lunch, then this afternoon we can talk about what you should do."
Oh, thank God! They do go to lunch. I checked my watch; it was ten fifteen. I hope they go early, like eleven. Mike handed me the file and walked me back to my office, which was good because I couldn't have found my way back, it was such a maze. I sat down at my desk.
"I'll come by when we're set for lunch." Mike was gone before I could answer.
That first case was a child by the name of Cafeteria Washington, who had hearing issues so she needed an aid in the classroom and speech therapy. No services had been provided for three years. The parents were asking for private school.
That seems reasonable, I thought. I'll ask Mike what to do, and where I need to go to get authority for things like private school.
Over lunch I told the group about the case. "I think private school is reasonable since it has been three years."
They all started choking on their lunch.
"You are trippin', girl," Shaneequa quipped as tears came to her eyes in her laughter. "They'll never grant you a private placement."
"Yeah," Tamara chorused. "They fight every private placement, no matter what!"
They all found my naïveté hilarious, but they did tell me where to go to ask what the "client," i.e. the school system wanted me to do.
So, that afternoon, I asked for authority to grant the private placement. I explained the situation and gave my opinion that there was no winning a case where the school hadn't performed what it knew was its duty for three years. The powers that be said no, but worse, they asked me to go to the hearing and argue that the services would not have made a difference in the child's performance at school, so they should be granted the next year to get the services together and should not have to give any compensatory education.
The shock must have shown on my face. Not only was I appalled, but I was also exceedingly embarrassed to walk up to a judge, even an administrative one, and try to argue anything that off the wall. I do not want to do that, I thought. I couldn't think of a way out. This was my first week on the job! I couldn't very well do something other than what I was told. I whispered softly to myself, what am I doing here?
So, on Friday at Cafeteria's hearing, I did it. I actually sat in front of the judge and said that the services wouldn't have made a difference and so we should be given a year to get it together. I couldn't believe it was my first hearing, and I had actually said something as ridiculous as that the services would not have made any difference in this child's school performance. The administrative judge actually had to excuse himself to laugh. Through the glass in the door, I could see him almost choking. I would have laughed too, if I hadn't been experiencing overwhelming panic. I sat at the table and began peeling the nail polish off my little finger. Tiny red dots littered the table and floor.
It was going to be a long ride if I had to continually embarrass myself. When the judge came back from laughing, he gave Cafeteria a private school to attend. By the end of the hearing, all the nails on my left hand were bare leaving a sea of red around the chair where I'd been sitting. One thing was certain, I'd be painting them daily if I had to do something this awkward everyday.
"You'll never believe what I did today," I informed Sam as I flopped onto the couch.
"I actually sat in front of a judge and said that a kid with hearing issues wouldn't have benefited from therapy so the school system shouldn't be punished for not doing its job."
Sam stared at me. I could see that he was speechless.
"I'm not. The judge had to get up to laugh at me outside the room."
"That's what they want you to do?"
"It would seem so. Sam, I don't know how long I can do this job. Look at my nails! I pulled all the polish off in the hearing! I felt like an idiot."
"I'm sorry, Jess. I had no idea it would be like that. Surely all the cases won't be crazy."
"I guess you're right. It's only been one week. It has to get better."
"That's the spirit! Come on, we'll go to that sushi place you love. Then we can go see that new chick flick you wanted to see last weekend."
"Really?" I felt myself brighten. Minutes ago I had wanted to pull my hair in a ponytail and veg on the couch. Now, I hopped up and ran to my closet. I had those cute, sexy suede pants I'd been saving. I needed them tonight. I put them on with a low cut black sweater. Not bad, I thought, as I surveyed myself in the mirror.
Sam was waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
"You look great!" He kissed my hand. "Let's go have some fun!"
By the end of the second week, I realized that I would indeed be painting my nails almost every night. I had hearings everyday, and generally I was asked to argue something completely absurd. I didn't think I could take the embarrassment.
The only bright spot was that no one was angry when you lost. Management didn't expect you to win; they just didn't want to give in too easily. That was a relief. Low expectations are great, then if you give a little more, people are pleased. I wanted to do a little more to make certain they were pleased enough with my performance. I needed a strategy.
The new attorneys started, Gina and Ella. Gina was a fun black girl with a New Jersey accent. Since she'd spent the last six years defending drug dealers at the public defenders office, she had a completely different perspective on life. Fun for Gina was trying to get someone off because the police or prosecutor hadn't done their job correctly. To her, practicing law was a game.
Her skin looked like café au lait and everyday, I couldn't wait to see what color of hair she'd have. Sometimes it was magenta, other times coral. On her boyfriends birthday it was his favorite color of purple. Her hair was long one week and short the next. Then she'd switch to Bo Derek braids. The week she had blonde curls, I didn't even recognize her.
Ella was from an African country I'd never heard of. She had to bring in a map to show me where it was. Native African dress was her attire of choice, brightly colored with large turban-like hats. My favorite was this stunning gold with black almost-Egyptian graphics all over it. Her office decor included a couple of large spears and a shield the size of a Mini Cooper.
The people in the office loved her authentic African dress and soon started trying to order things from her. Ella would have her mother buy the outfits in Africa and ship them to the U.S. She was making more on the outfits than working for the school system. Soon, I couldn't find Ella just by her outfit. I had to run up to each person to check the face under the hat. The entire office looked like its own African tribe.
Ella was my first experience with someone trying to become an American citizen. I'd never thought of it as any big deal, but as she told me, "As an American, you have a different position in the world. When you are in another country, there is always someone to take care of problems for you." I'd never thought about that before. It did make me grateful to have been born in America.
I really liked all of the people I was working with, but I felt like I was a stranger in a foreign country. My idea about being a minority began to change radically. I'd never been a minority before, and my respect increased daily for people who were different than others in whatever way. No one made me feel bad or anything, I just knew that I was different.
The school system had a culture unlike anything I'd experienced before. For one thing, almost everyone was polite, except the receptionist for the Office of General Counsel. When I got on the elevator in the morning, each person said hello. When I got off on your floor, I exited to a chorus of "Have a blessed day!" It was bad form not to speak to each person, quite a change from the outside where speaking to anyone brought at best a strange look and at worst a curse.
Everything moved more slowly. No one was in a hurry. When I went to speak to someone about an issue, I had to begin by checking on their health, their children, life in general, before I could bring up a work subject. I soon knew lots about my colleagues' personal lives, and they knew about mine. I was surprised by the intimacy of the environment. Each person seemed to genuinely care how I was and what was happening in my life.
Gina, Ella and I became great friends. We were all having trouble arguing the crazy things we were required to say. I mean, how do you really say that it is OK that a kid hasn't been to school in the two months since school started because we haven't put the program together yet?
The more cases I received, the more Mark's words came back to me that I would get no help. He was right. I didn't realize that the schools were unwilling to talk to us or to send us the files they kept on the children in their schools. Information was at a high premium. Generally, I did not know a thing about the case even when I walked in to see the judge.
We lost pretty much everyday, but I began to see a strategy. As long as the parents were not asking for private school, the General Counsel's office was fairly willing to settle. Since I had over forty cases a month moving across my desk, I was only one person, and I could rarely get any information on what was happening with the student, I began sending out a settlement letter when I got the file. Parents were thrilled to not have to go through a hearing, and nine times out of ten, I settled the case. (Never mind that within two to three months the same case was back on my desk again.) My hopes of hosting my CNN show and teaching at Stanford would have to come a bit later, I decided.
I became "The Settler." It was a strategy like no other, and it worked wonders! I had achieved doing just enough more than what was expected that I made the higher-ups quite happy. Was I was making a difference or doing a good job? I couldn't say, but I was turning over cases as fast as I could go. It also gave me a little time to look for another job.
One afternoon, I went into Gina's office to see if she was ready to leave. Behind the mound of paper on the desk, I could barely see her. She was typing furiously on the computer and desperately trying to get a school official on the phone.
"What are you doing?" I asked with horror. My work was finished two hours earlier. All ten of my hearings for the week were settled. I'd been to visit Shaneequa, and we'd gone to get a coke. I couldn't imagine what Gina was doing.
"Jess," she sputtered desperately, "can you get some of these kids' files out of my file cabinet? I've got three hearings to prepare for tomorrow and four more this week!"
Her file cabinets were in perfect order, and I found the kids she was asking for. As I began thumbing through the files I'd pulled out, I knew I needed to share my strategy with her. All of these cases could be settled. She only had information on one of them. That meant, in my limited experience, that nothing had been done on any of the others, which was why the school was ignoring her request for files and dodging her phone calls.
"Gina, honey, what are you trying to do, kill yourself? These are cases that should be settled. You don't need to take these cases before an Administrative Law Judge. The only cases that have to go to a hearing are those where a private placement is requested.
This is what you do. You figure out what you can do that the powers will agree to. You call up the opposing counsel or send them a letter with your settlement proposal. You should have it settled a couple of days before the hearings. You're doing way too much work here."
Gina looked at me. I don't think she thought I was serious, but suddenly, she broke into a grin. "Boo, you are saving my life! You mean that's what you've been doing? That's why you seem so relaxed even though you have the same mountains of work I do?"
I smiled. She called me "Boo!" I was so proud! This meant I was black -- well, OK, not physically, but I was being accepted into a culture other than my own.
I nodded solemnly. "Indeed, that is my strategy. It's working quite well, far exceeding my expectations. Everyone thinks I do a tremendous job because I finish so many, but I don't set foot in a hearing unless the opposing counsel won't settle for anything less than private school. Now you know my secret."
Gina started laughing. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was just stupid. I should have asked you sooner how you were doing all of this."
"I would have told you, but I really thought you knew."
"Well I'm starting on your system now. Let me call the counsel for tomorrow and get these things settled." Gina and I were out the door five minutes later.
After that talk, Gina relaxed considerably. About eleven thirty the next morning, she came around to my office. "I have a quick errand to do at lunch, do you want to come?"
"Of course!" I never skipped an opportunity to do something fun during the workday. We went to Target to fill a prescription after lunch. It was only about ten minutes away, so we took an hour and a half for lunch instead of an hour. It was the highlight of my day. What fun to really get away from the office.
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