. . . One area in which I’ve always been a poor employee sits in my ability to get to work early. I don’t. At this time, my children were one and three, my husband was in New Jersey during the work week, and the day care I could find started at 7 a.m. In Pennsylvania, the roads are often snowy or icy, so reaching the school before 7:30 could be a challenge, although the drive took less than 15 minutes on dry roads. Anyone who has small children knows what it’s like to get them out the door, especially when cold weather gear is involved, and that transition at the babysitter’s can be a killer–especially early on for my one-year-old who’d been with me 24-7 for a year. So I’d run a momma marathon by the time I pulled into my parking space each morning. Many of those mornings, my school principal was standing smack-dab in the middle of my parking space. Dramatically staring at his watch. As if I didn’t know what time it was.
In my defense, even though I actually lost my first daycare provider in October, and even though I was never, never, early, I was on my a.m. hall duty the minute I was supposed to be every morning, even though I pulled into that parking spot with seconds to spare on many of them. I took no days off, and had a class-load of 172 students that year, with five different preparations–and no curriculum or textbook provided by the school system. I had a really good teaching year–no discipline issues, solid student development, especially in writing, and a positive rapport with students, parents and colleagues. And absolutely the worst teaching evaluations I received in my entire 33-year career. To the English curriculum coordinator–who provided no materials beyond a list of novels students were to read–everything I did was wrong. And although my evaluations were improving as the year progressed, when I finally did take sick days, the principal weighed in for the final time.
Snow sweeps across Pennsylvania in a west to east swath that nailed Downingtown, the little suburb 30 minutes west of Philly where I lived, with incredible regularity, especially that winter. So by the time spring thawed the snow and after-school playtime with my toddlers chasing bubbles and clambering the swingset finally began, the school year had settled into a comfortable routine. I was managing the working mom juggle. The evening bath routine, stowing the kids in their beds before eight, powering through those last sets of papers before midnight: I was back. Until the night I noticed the little red sore my son kept scratching on his tummy, which turned into ten, then twenty. Of course when they first appeared, I didn’t think much of it, and shuffled him off to daycare and did my day. As they spread, concerned, I called the doctor. A brief description led to a telephone diagnosis: chicken pox. “When can I bring him in?” brought the quickest NONONO I’d ever heard.
Oatmeal baths and calamine lotion. But no one wants to see you. No daycare: He’s contagious until the last sore disappears. No doctor: He’s contagious until the last sore disappears! And no babysitter: He’s contagious. Until the last sore disappears. I had to stay home with him, and called in my plans. I went back to work, knowing the other poxed shoe–my daughter–would drop with all likelihood within three weeks.
Sure enough, about 20 days later, a little red sore showed up on her tummy at bedtime. This time, at least, I knew what it was, and didn’t bring her to daycare. But this meant calling in for longer even than I’d been out with my son. Of the ten sick days allotted, I took six total for their chicken pox. When I returned, an appointment slip to see the principal sat in my mailbox.
“Why were you out again this week?”
“My daughter had chicken pox.”
“That’s no reason to be out!”
“There was no one else to care for her: she was contagious, and she’s one year old.”
The conversation continued, him more adamant, me more strident, until he concluded with, “That’s unacceptable. I’ll have to dock your pay for the days you were out.”
So, the truth about sick days, and here I speak only for myself: I averaged two sick days a year, max, that meant I myself was too sick to get to work. Most years I was not sick once. At least two days each year I’d use to catch up on my paperwork. Compositions I had to read before the end of the marking period. Papers that piled up because two toddlers at home and 150+ students at work just inhibited my ability to physically read that many pages and also sleep enough to function. But that year, those six days were all I took, not because I was sick, but because my kids were, and there was no one else to care for them. In New Jersey, we were allotted family illness days, an absolute godsend, but in Maryland and Pennsylvania, parents take their own sick days, often, to care for sick children. Does the private sector differ in that regard? I can’t know, although I do know my husband took family days from his pharmaceutical company once we lived in New Jersey. Even when you might find a sitter for the workday, if you’ve been up all night with a sick child, the energy to face five classrooms-full of teenagers just won’t be there. So I never saw it as the cheating you might. And I never lied about my reason for being out, then or later. He had me in that office because he knew I was out for my kids’ chicken pox. I had been asked by the school nurse if there was any chance I was infected when my son was sick, and assured her that I’d had them as a child. No risk to the student population.
For me, the shock came not at his restrictive sick day policy, which I completely understood even though I saw it privately as insensitive. I never liked being out, but this stint at home with two successively sick tots who couldn’t go out but for the most part continued full of energy had stretched my stamina and emotional calm. Being the only parent strained particularly that month. Then I stared at a paycheck calculated per diem, so that those three days cost me $600!!! My gross pay was $600. I was astounded: even calculating on only the 180-day calendar (and of course teachers work 190 in that district) I earned $72, not $200 per day! Clearly he had gone back and taken my pay for the other absence, plus some. A chunk so large that for the following two weeks we were on a spaghetti and Cheerios and peanut butter diet, and I had to pull my son out of his Montessori program because I couldn’t pay his fee–and beg my daycare provider to keep them on until my next paycheck, gratis. Yes, she suffered a pay hiccup herself. Of course, if I didn’t work, I couldn’t pay her at all, so she agreed.
But I felt horrible. Never in my life had I been unable to pay my bills. Never had I been unable to offer proper balanced meals to my children. Never had I felt so low about my career choice than at that moment. If I was so smart, why was I doing this, I had to ask myself. When I hear statistics about how many teachers leave the profession in their first five years, I remember that month, and know exactly why. . .