"I need to change my attitude," I decided not long after I shared my strategy with Gina. "If I'm going to work here, I need to be doing everything I can for the kids in the system. Might as well start changing the world with a school system -- children are the future, right?"
So, I walked into M's office and suggested that the Special Education attorneys, i.e. Gina, Ella, Shaneequa, Tamara and myself, "try and facilitate the implementation of settlements."
"What does that mean exactly?" M asked me, looking quite skeptical.
"We can get the people in the Special Ed department and at the schools to actually do what we were agreeing to in our settlements." I said enthusiastically. "We'll make certain things get started, then we won't have the same children coming back month after month with the same things not having been done."
"Why don't you try it -- we'll get the other attorneys involved if it does any good." She turned back to the work on her desk.
"Hmmm, she's not nearly as excited about my new idea as I'd anticipated." But I'll show her! "This system's going to be revamped whether it wants to be or not."
Thus, I became involved in busing, education plans for students, and service providers, like speech therapists, occupational therapists and after school programs for compensatory education. Now, I dropped off my settlements directly with the woman in charge of busing or the directors of speech therapy or physical therapy or whatever so that they could put the services into effect. Once I let them know what was supposed to happen, I was certain that it would be easier for them. No longer did one settlement go through ten people to get to the person actually in charge of making it happen -- within hours of the settlement. No more excuses about things being lost, misplaced or time running out before it arrived on the desk of the appropriate person. There was no way this wouldn't work.
After a month, not one thing had changed. Nothing happened. Three months later, I got the same case back because nothing had been done at the school level. I couldn't understand it. The old excuses weren't viable, yet the work remained undone -- with "there are just too many things to do for kids with special needs" as the standard justification for inaction.
When I told Sam that my idea wasn't working, he just shook his head, "I hope you are spending some of your time looking for another job. You need it," he admonished. I was surprised, it was so uncharacteristic of him to suggest a new job that I thought such a change deserved my full consideration.
When the "T.J. case" landed on my desk yet again the next month, my first thought was Sam's suggestion of getting a new job. "I must get on that!"
T.J. had not been to school in two years. He was physically handicapped, ADHD and dyslexic. Because there was no program to fill his needs, the school system was providing him with a tutor in his home. I got to know his lawyer very well; after all we spoke ten times a month. Initially, when she called, I would have to go out for a large cappuccino the minute I got off the phone with her. But after a few times, I memorized how she came up on our caller ID -- that way, I'd let her leave a message. Then, I would go out and pick up my cappuccino before I ever called her back.
One day, she caught me off-guard. Engrossed in a settlement letter I was writing, I'd picked up the phone without looking at the caller ID.
"Jessica, the tutor has not been to T.J's this week," Leslie Lynch stated as soon as I picked up the phone. She no longer bothered with the pleasantries like "Hello." I groaned inwardly.
"Hello, Leslie," I retorted, trying to make a point.
"Are you going to do anything about it?"
"Don't I always?" I asked. In truth, I did, but my fix usually only lasted a couple of weeks, then Leslie was back on the phone to me.
"When are you going to get T.J. a permanent placement?"
"We're working on it," I sighed. Every week, I had a meeting on T.J.'s permanent placement -- another woman with whom I had to prepare for any conversation with a double espresso. It always went the same way. J'onqua, the woman in charge of placement, and I would sit down.
"J'onqua, have you worked out a placement for T.J?"
"Jessica, this child has difficult problems. You cannot rush this kind of thing. We want to find him a place that will fit all his needs so that he can stay until he has finished his education."
"It has been two years, J'onqua. I think that we need to speed this up. Perhaps we could find something temporary, so that he can at least have some socialization."
"We don't have a thing that would be appropriate. I'll work on it and get back to you."
I always left after that statement knowing that she wouldn't work on it, and I'd have Leslie on the phone the next week wanting to know what I had done on T.J.'s behalf. After meeting with J'onqua, I had to get out and walk, get a treat -- biscotti or a muffin. "This will never do," I thought each time I met with her. "I have to get out of here." I knew I wanted to make a difference, but it just seemed so hopeless there.
All of my work led me to one conclusion -- the system was understaffed and poorly managed. I went to M right away with my observations. Perhaps, I hoped, I could make some difference. If the powers that be know what the problem is, wouldn't that make it easier to fix?
"M, I know there are ways that we could make the system more efficient. I want to be part of the solution to the problem," I was going to continue with my various observations, but she cut me off.
"Fantastic, the General Counsel has been looking to put someone on a team to try and put together a system to track children so that we could see who needs what services. You can be our representative."
"Thanks! That sounds great."
At my first meeting, we brought in a computer company to show us the software we were considering.
The software salesman gave us a great demonstration. "This system would track every child with needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It would show what services the child is to receive. Here, it has a date to show when the services were performed. All you need to do is input the information."
"Would you help us with that?" The Assistant Superintendent in charge of Special Education queried.
"We could, I suppose. But there is really no need. We would charge four times as much as a data entry person. That would be the best choice for you and your budget."
"There is a slight problem with that. We don't have all the records, so we aren't entirely certain what children should be in the database."
"Well, that explained a lot," I thought. "It's got to be difficult to fulfill the agreements the attorneys are making if you can't find the kids or don't know who is supposed to be getting special education." As soon as the meeting was over, I bounced over to the Au Bon Pain across the street. The meeting had given me a migraine and left me in desperate need of a coffee fix. Thank God it was after 3 p.m. That meant the cookies were half price. I bought two -- an English Toffee and a chocolate chip, just for good measure.
There had to be a way to fix this place. I'm smart, have good ideas -- I just needed to try harder.
It was one disaster after another. One of my assignments was working on the busing system lawsuit. We had eighty buses picking up one or two children and taking them to schools all over the Metroplex. It was no wonder that we were having problems. We bused children as far as an hour and a half away, but there was a rule that said no child could be on a bus for more than forty-five minutes. How was that supposed to work? My questions about putting more than two children on a bus were met with scowls and explanations that were incomprehensible.
Each unsolved problem, every pitiful case, left me more and more troubled. I wanted to make a difference, but I was beginning to believe it was impossible. I hadn't been serious about finding another job since Sam had mentioned it, but suddenly, I decided to get serious. "The first hour of everyday I'll dedicate to a job hunt. That ought to do it."
Every morning, Jeanine came by and complained about the bare walls in my office. I didn't really have anything to bring. No one put up their degrees here, which is what I'd had on the walls of my last office at the firm. Finally, Jeanine walked in with some posters.
"Here, put these up," she commanded handing me two rolls, "I got them at the library showcase we did last year."
I unrolled them. The first one was an elderly black lady with a patch quilt on her lap showing her grandchild the way the stars were used in the Underground Railroad. The second one was of a father and son marching in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I laughed. "Does this mean I've been assimilated into Black culture or not?" I hoped it wouldn't cause a riot for a white girl like me to have slavery posters on the wall in her office. I took a deep breath and stapled them to the wall, hoping no one would think I was being flip, but I knew it would hurt Jeanine's feelings if I didn't put them up.
Everyone loved them. People came by to see them and congratulated me on my good taste. "Assimilation complete," I decided.
Gina came into admire my new office art, I told her how much I loved Jeanine's hair.
"You know that's a wig."
"Oh," I hesitated, how could I say that one Afro looked much like another to me?
"I can't believe you didn't know it is a wig. Can't you tell how big it is?"
"Well," I was hedging, "yes, but I thought she must have a lot of hair."
Gina rolled her eyes at me. I laughed.
For a couple of weeks in a row, we had suits where children were not dropped off at home by the school bus. The bus driver had forgotten about them and left them on the bus. One little girl was deaf and mute; she sat in the bus alone until after midnight when someone finally found her. I was astonished that we weren't sued more often for enormous amounts of money.
The next day, all we could wonder was how something like that could happen. I felt ill. Gina and Ella were outraged. "Please tell me they are going to fire that bus driver and put some decent guidelines into place so that nothing like that can happen again," Ella fumed to anyone who would listen.
After that, Ella decided to quit. Exasperated with the work, she'd reached her limit. "I cannot continue to go in and try to obtain time for the school when they are not going to do anything with it," she confessed in her lovely French-African accent. "It is wrong to try to help them. I want to do what is right by these children rather than what is expedient for a broken system."
That night, I told Sam Ella had quit, he sighed. "I'm glad for her. The whole thing makes me a little sick and I'm not there every day. I can't believe a child was left alone on the bus! That is the saddest thing ever."
I agreed with him. But the more I saw, the worse it was. Maybe I needed to commit more time to looking for a job. What was I thinking? I was going to have to work more quickly when I was in the office. If I used my time more judiciously, I would have more time to job-hunt. That was the answer. Besides, I was beginning to realize that I couldn't simply wait and hope that my dreams would come true.
We all knew Ella was right. Although I know each person there had the child's best interests at heart, we represented the system. Thus, we tried to give as little to the child as possible in the interest of the cost. There had to be a better way -- I just needed a new idea to make this a better system.
When a teacher took a group of kids to the local jail and had them strip-searched in front of the inmates, I was sure that was the end of the job. The school system would surely be closed down after that and taken over by the federal government. But the school quietly paid off those parents rather than endure the public scandal. OK, they weren't totally stupid, but I knew that if I'd been an attorney on the outside, I'd never have taken the deal because as soon as you went to the media, it became a multi-million dollar case -- that was the only hope that someone would fix this broken-down establishment.
Gina and I developed a routine. I arrived an hour early in the morning for my job hunt, then when Gina came in, we went to the special education department trying to ferret out any morsel of information we could about the children whose cases we were working on that week. We scoured the place for records or anyone who knew what might be happening at a particular school and was willing to talk to us. Although we always called the schools first thing when we received a case, we were lucky to get a call back in one in ten cases, and it was miraculous to get actual information in one case out of twenty. Then, Gina and I would go to lunch -- it was our time for solace and a brief respite from insanity.
"My philosophy is that as long as we are doing our jobs, we can do whatever we need to do. We all have lives. The schools cannot possibly expect us to be there every minute. Other things have got to be done." Gina believed that very strongly and admonished me about it each day when we left.
I loved the thought, in theory, but I knew that I had to be able to say I had done everything I could to make the system better. So far, my luck was not good, but surely something would go right. Trying was essential -- at least until I could get out.
Lunch was our break from the bleak work we did. It was terrible to learn what had befallen these children because of the dreadfully broken system. I could see my dreams of making a difference here swirling down like the water in a toilet bowl. Talk about depressing. Day after day, it became clear that no amount of effort would do a single thing in this abysmally screwed-up place. I kept my promise to myself and spent time every day looking for a new job.
When Gina announced that she and her boyfriend had gotten engaged, I was thrilled! Working on Gina's wedding was almost as much fun as planning my own. They had chosen to get married on New Year's Eve. That gave us a theme -- fireworks, glitzy parties, top hats and canes. It made a great springboard for picking out her dress. At the first boutique, we saw it -- pure white with spaghetti straps and the beading looking like fireworks bursting all over. It was spectacular. We decided that night she would go with raven black hair.
When we were looking over invitations one day at lunch, Gina told me about a case that she couldn't seem to settle.
"I have a case where a child is having trouble hearing in class. She's never complained about her ears before. She complains about one particular ear, that she hears an odd noise."
"Why don't you agree to have her hearing tested?"
"This is a case where the attorney was appointed by the court, but the parents don't want to have the child sent to any doctor."
"What about one of the therapists? Can't they have a look in her ear? Or maybe the school nurse?"
"Those are good ideas. I'll see if the attorney and parents will agree to one of those."
A week later, Gina and I had run down to Fell's Point for lunch and to have our nails done.
"Remember that kid with the ear problem?" She asked me as she tried to decide between orange and purple for her nails.
"Yeah, did you get them to agree?" I was searching for a nice fire engine red for myself.
"Yes, the parents were OK with the therapist looking in their daughter's ear. You are not going to believe what they found."
I looked at her. She was looking a little green around the gills. "It still makes me sick to think about," she professed wrinkling her nose.
I couldn't take the suspense. "What was it?"
"There was a cockroach."
"Yuck! It had crawled in there and died?" That was too disgusting.
"No, it was happily munching on earwax. What the child heard was the cockroach moving around and eating."
I was sick at the thought. "Do I dare ask how she got a cockroach in her ear?"
"The house in so infested with them that when they crawl over them at night, they don't even notice. That's how it was able to make it into her ear without the child screaming and brushing it away."
"Did it hurt her hearing?"
"No, thank goodness. Her little ears were so dirty that it was simply eating the excess wax. It was nowhere near her actual eardrum."
"I believe that is the most disgusting thing I've ever heard."
"The funny part is, we actually won it. We don't owe the kid anything."
I didn't know if that was good or bad. All I knew was that I had to get out of this situation. I would really miss Gina, but I couldn't take this anymore.
It was obvious the feelings were mutual the next day. Gina's first words when we went to lunch were "There is absolutely no excuse for this!" We'd gone down to Washington that day because Gina had to check on the church she wanted to use for her wedding.
"We HAVE to get out of here!"
"I know, but I have no clue what to do or where to go."
"Does it matter? It has to be better than this."
"I suppose you are right about that."
She was right, but I dreaded everything about it. I was sick and tired of looking for a job. No more! I wanted to say, but that wasn't possible. I had to find something else -- fast. Otherwise, the deep penetrating sadness and depression might really overwhelm me. Nothing can be as bad as this, I told myself. Just find a new job, then you can figure out how to become a model or maybe a soap opera star! "Jess, you are a lawyer after all. You can find something."
Gina was fed up. The Cinnamon Adams case had come across her desk for the fifth time since we started the job five months earlier.
"I know, but what is the answer to getting the system to do its job?"
She and I both knew the answer: there wasn't one. Over our few months there, we had tried several solutions, but so far we had not been able to make a dent. Initially, we tried meeting with officials. They were too busy to be bothered. Then, we implemented lunchtime seminars with the service providers to give them an understanding of the legal ramifications of what they were doing and the necessity of keeping records. In a desperate attempt to be able to prove something should we need to go before an administrative law judge, we were trying to force them to actually keep a record of which children were to receive special education, then give those children special education. So far, nada.
I totally understood her frustration. I had been working on the case of Tyrell Jefferson since I first arrived at the school system. First thing, he was tested to determine what his special needs were. That had taken nearly six months. Now, a meeting with the parents and the educators was needed to put together an educational plan for Tyrell. The parents and educators were having, um, a difficult time agreeing on a time and a place for the meeting.
After four failed attempts, the parents' attorney called me. I had set up the meeting, insisting that all of the necessary educators be there. I was actually going this time, in hopes of not seeing Tyrell's name again on my desk for at least two months.
The meeting took place the next morning at the largest elementary school. I took the train down to an area of town that most white people in the city have never seen. The elementary school was home to over two thousand students. Ironically situated across from the largest mental institution, a barbed wire fence surrounded the graffiti-covered concrete playground, which was littered with Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers and paper bags. The picture of abandoned dreams.
Although the school was clean inside with bulletin boards about fire safety and such, I was stunned to find out that each floor housed one grade -- with no walls between the classrooms. Some crazy Seventies' idea that being "together" in open space was great. That meant that about three hundred students and their desks were on floors in an open room like a warehouse. The noise was deafening. Stunner that the kids were not learning anything, and this school had the highest rate of ADD in the nation.
When I entered the building, I went in search of the principal to introduce myself. We had spoken several times about the importance of the meeting.
"Principal Thomas, I'm Jessica Clark-Romero. It is nice to finally meet you in person."
"Ms. Clark-Romero. It is a pleasure. I have set aside our in-service training room for the meeting. Can I get you a cup of coffee before we start?"
"That would be great. Have the parents arrived yet?"
"Yes. They are out in the waiting room."
I went out to introduce myself and offer them coffee. No reason not to try and get this off on the right foot, although that was probably impossible on attempt number five to have this meeting. Bad blood was boiling in this case.
"Hi," I said extending my hand, "I'm Jessica Clark-Romero. I am the attorney representing the school system."
"I'm Shantell, Tyrell's mother. This is Mr. Katz."
"Mr. Katz. You are the educational advocate, are you not?" I asserted, shaking his hand.
"That's correct. It is nice to meet you, Ms. Clark-Romero."
"Can I get you some coffee before we start?"
They both nodded assent. I returned with two steaming cups. The meeting was five minutes away from starting.
I went back to check with Mr. Thomas. "None of the educators have arrived. They are coming, correct?"
Mr. Thomas nodded. "I spoke to each of them and made it clear how important this was."
I nodded, sipping my coffee. The time for the meeting came and went. No educators. We waited five minutes, then ten. I went out to apologize to Shantell and Mr. Katz.
"They are coming. Mr. Thomas assures me of that." They both nodded, but I could see the anger and frustration rising to the surface.
We waited another ten minutes. Now the educators were twenty minutes late. I asked Mr. Thomas to try and call them. Not a single one picked up their cell phone. After thirty-five minutes, it was clear they weren't coming. The educators had staged a protest about being forced to come to the meeting. I wished I had the power to fire them right there on the spot. All I could do was make a complaint to their supervisors, which I knew to be a waste of time. How could they not understand the disappointment of Tyrell and his mother? I wanted to force them to face Tyrell and his mom, and see their sorrow, their pain, and their frustration. You would think that people who call themselves educators would have Tyrell and his needs as their first priority. Instead they were lazy, trying to make certain the job stayed as it was -- where they got paid to do nothing.
I went out to face Shantell and Mr. Katz. "I am so sorry. I know that you made special arrangements to be here. I will go and speak to their bosses about this."
"I know you will," Mr. Katz responded, "But we are finished. We're filing suit, and we're getting a private placement for Tyrell."
I nodded. "I am sorry." They both turned and left.
That was the day I gave up. After that, I tried to get my cases settled and have fun with Gina. I didn't want to know anything about the kids. I tried to avoid any discussions about helping the school system. It was a lost cause.
I started working extra hard to find a new job. Within a couple of weeks, I heard about a relatively unknown federal court that was taking resumes for law clerks. I had always wanted to be a law clerk. So, my application went out in the next mail.
I was stunned when a judge called me for an interview. Judge Von and I had a terrific interview. We chatted for two hours about books we'd read. He was getting ready to go to France. I told him all about the places I had been when I was an exchange student in France during college. Chatting with the Judge and hearing all of his stories was such fun, I crossed my fingers that he would call and offer me a job.
I couldn't wait to tell Sam.
"Jess, I am so excited for you! This is a terrific opportunity."
I was glowing. Everyone was proud of me. This was so great. I only had one regret -- I loved the people I worked with, and I was going to miss them terribly, especially Gina.