Of Sewing Shears and Budget Cuts

The final straw for Ms. Elizabeth Ledbetter, teacher of Home Economics at West Bulgewater Middle School, was of course her sewing shears. In fact, the school district’s sewing shears—all equipment belonged to the district, she knew that—but she held fond feelings that approached guardianship toward the most valuable tools of her trade. And the fizz brained art teacher, Ms. Birdie McCaw had dulled them.

Frowning, Elizabeth placed the Fiskars Softgrip sewing shears back into the metal sewing box, locked it, and reaffixed the box to the supply cart that she and Birdie shared to run their classes. Her face was calm, but she outgassed unseen anger like a Yellowstone fumarole as she pushed the Mobile Classroom 5000 (it was a plastic cart on casters) down the hallway of lockers toward the teacher’s lounge. Inside, no doubt, the kooky art teacher would be taking her coffee.

So much of the shared Mobile Classroom 5000 situation irritated Elizabeth. Paint would drip from Birdie’s side of the cart into Elizabeth’s measuring spoons. Clay dust often caked the sides of her electric frying pan (no ovens for a mobile-only subject like Home Ec.), and Elizabeth just knew raided the batting for her pillow-sewing lesson to furnish the cloudscape project. These offenses she had borne with professional stoicism. After all, Birdie was stuck sharing a cart with her too. But the shears…

She pushed the teacher’s lounge door open. “Birdie, we’ve got to talk.”

The young art teacher looked up with large brown eyes from her cup and a copy of some obscure experimental art and literature journal called “SpipS.” She looked wholly the opposite of Elizabeth. Her wiry figure was dressed in an ill-fitting rainbow of flowy clothing that had paint spatters. Her makeup was overdone, and caked into acne scars, and always the same gaudy plastic parrot earrings, each sitting upon a perch that dangled from each earlobe. Elizabeth? Solid frame, graying pixie cut, sensible cardigans and slacks in gray, black or taupe. Sometimes she wore lip gloss with a faint shimmer.

“Oh hello Elizabeth! Is it about the pillow batting? Because I’ve meant to fill out a supply re-order form. There’s just never enough to go around, is there?”

“You haven’t even submitted the form?” Elizabeth was like a caldera. She didn’t often explode, but when she did, it could change global climates. She tried not to explode right now. It usually took two months from form submission to supply acquisition if the supply request was approved, pending budget availability. Birdie must have sensed Elizabeth’s building tension because she quickly started explaining.

“Well, I’ve submitted so many this month. I’ve been feeling like I’m being a bother,” she said, looking unhappy. Elizabeth switched from explosive to suspicious. It took Birdie a lot of ‘being a bother’ before she became self-aware enough to sense she was a nuisance.

“How many forms have you submitted?”

“Fifteen this week.”

“Fifteen! How? For what?” That was an outrageous number of re-order forms.

“Well, I ran out of paint the first of the month, then the watercolors got used up the next week. Kiln fees at the Arts Center went up by $1.50 a piece, and I’d never gotten the glazes I ordered last year despite the district’s insistence that I had. Actually, there were several unfilled supply orders included in my ‘form storm.’

“How are you going through supplies so fast?” Elizabeth was keen with a budget and making supplies last. It was part of the valuable lessons she taught her students each year.

“Well, you see,” said Birdie, “Principal Larsen cut the arts budget again this semester, so I’ve been working on ¼ of my usual funds.”

“Wait, she made another cut at semester? And you’re working on ¼ of the funds?”

Rachel Larsen, the new principal who was running for superintendent this year, had a campaign platform based on working within a sensible budget to alleviate tax burden. Fine with Elizabeth. But ¼ of her former funds? To teach an entire middle school?

“Then last week,” Birdie continued, “she had all my scissors reassigned to the library and athletic department.”

“Rachael…reassigned…scissors?” This was ridiculous. Elizabeth was a fan tracking equipment and dispersing it in the most economical ways. But surely the district could afford scissors for the library, the sports teams, and the art teacher. Elizabeth knew Principal Larsen was a micromanager—she was forever doling out performance evaluations and demanding bi-quarterly faculty reports. These took so much time to complete that Elizabeth had to lesson-plan far into the night just to keep up. But scissor-apportioning was micromanagement beyond the pale.

“Yes,” said Birdie. “Reassigned. But I found a pair in your locked box! Hope you don’t mind!”

The winds of righteous indignation didn’t leave Elizabeth’s sails. They switched direction. This wasn’t Birdie’s fault. The blame for the shears’ destruction lay solidly at the administration’s feet. And for that matter, the clay-encrusted cookware and missing pillow batting too!

The fumes boiled up in Elizabeth once more. A cart instead of a classroom with stoves! Bah! And a shared cart heaped insult upon the injustice. Moving from home room to home room, squeezing her ‘nonessential elective’ instructions on how to cook, budget, clean, and repair clothing into the students’ busy days.

“Nowadays, you should be grateful a home economics teacher has a job at all…” That gem of a quote bubbled back up to Elizabeth’s forebrain. Principal Larsen told her this during her last performance review.

Elizabeth looked at Birdie. Another ‘nonessential elective’ teacher fortunate to have a job nowadays. All Birdie could teach was how to express feelings and ideas. What use was that to the district? Instead of irritating adversary, Birdie looked more like a beleaguered colleague.

“I hope the shears were as helpful to you as they have been to me,” said Elizabeth. “To me, Birdie, the Shears are martyrs to stoke the flames of revolution.”

Birdie nodded. “They worked a treat for the paper snowflake project.”

Elizabeth turned to haze out the window at the green where students walked between the temporary classroom trailers and the main building.

“I’m sure they did,” Elizabeth muttered, still brooding. Fiskars shears used to cut snowflakes! She was planning how she could petition the principal and the district alone to get her own Mobile Classroom 5000 when Birdie said something remarkable.

“I’m tired of not having my own art cart.”

Elizabeth gasped. It was the first time Birdie had voiced thoughts similar to her own. The first time she’d expressed self-interest or frustration. It was momentous, really. Elizabeth wheeled.

“Is that so?” She asked.

“Oh please don’t take offense Elizabeth! I don’t mind sharing with you specifically. You’re so nice.” Elizabeth smiled. She was not nice. She was merely outwardly calm always. “It’s just…I need more room! I can barely teach the students anything with the supplies I have.  Paper snowflakes! In middle school! We should have a real kiln and throwing wheels, and, and, and, easels! And we shouldn’t have to use Crayola watercolor ovals for paints!”

“No offense taken,” said Elizabeth.

“When you said the last bit…about the flames of revolution?” Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. Birdie had been listening? “I want in.” Birdie tilted her chin defiantly up.

Elizabeth smiled. She extended her firm, square hand, and the willowy woman shook it.

***

Not a pair who rocked boats, Elizabeth and Birdie made their first appeal only one link up the chain of command. Directly to Principal Larsen. They had a scheduled appointment during the lunch/teacher planning hour. One of the principal’s first acts had been to combine lunch and planning so that teachers could pick up more administrative tasks in their newfound ‘free time.’

Elizabeth and Birdie arrived at the principal’s office on time to find a post-it on the door that read: Away on Urgent Business. Back in a Bit. So they waited side by side on the hallway bench usually occupied by students awaiting detention. Two adjacent hallway clocks ticked offbeat of each other so the hallway sounded like a cartoon bomb.

At half-past the hour, the principal returned. They heard her before they saw her; her heels click-clicked on the linoleum in time with the tick-tick, tick-tick of the clocks. She rounded the corner carrying a latte and a Starbucks muffin sack. Starbucks emergency, Elizabeth snarked in her head. The principal wore a beautiful navy skirt suit that complimented her silver blonde bob and slender figure. Elizabeth started to speak, but Larsen cut her off.”

“I’ll be with you in a minute. My apologies.” She opened her office door, stepped through, and slammed it in one graceful motion.

Elizabeth deflated and she and Birdie exchanged a look. Fifteen more minutes tick-ticked by and Elizabeth’s stomach growled. Lunch hour was almost over and she needed to use the bathroom and eat. Making interview subjects wait, Elizabeth remembered, was an interrogation technique. The principal would meet them refreshed, fed, and caffeinated. She and Birdie would be hungry, tired, and distracted by nature’s call. Well played, Larsen, Elizabeth thought.

Finally the door opened.

“Ready for you now!” came the principal’s oily soprano. Elizabeth and Birdie stood and walked into her Glade Vanilla Cupcake-scented office. The walls were covered with mostly-empty bookshelves with the occasional framed photo or bowl full of glass ornaments. Like a Better Homes Magazine photo. The principal strode back to her desk and minimized the Pinterest window on her laptop before sitting and swiveling her chair to greet her underlings.

“What can I help you with?”

“Oh! I use Pinterest to plan so many of my lessons too!” Birdie gushed. Elizabeth watched Principal Larsen blush and look annoyed. The principal had no lessons to plan.

“I find it helpful for…organizational techniques,” Principal Larsen said primly. Elizabeth smirked. The hastily closed window held a board of cheerfully ornate mixed drinks. She’d purposefully drained 15 minutes of their valuable lunch break down her social media black hole. Elizabeth felt the deep fires under her caldera begin to bubble.

“And it’s so helpful,” Birdie continued happily, “especially after the arts didn’t get renewed curricula materials two years ago. Pinterest is the only place I can find up-to-date lessons!”

“Which is why we’re here, actually,” said Elizabeth quickly. She could almost hear the dual ticking clocks eating through their precious remaining time. She quickly, and politely made all her points, mindful of her stomach and bladder. Finally, she requested the second Mobile Classroom 5000 as well as use of the shelves in one of the temporary classroom trailers for supply storage.

Principal Larsen blinked and shrugged. “My hands are tied. The budget is what the budget is.”

“But it’s not the budget. It’s your budget. You’ve artificially limited it!” Elizabeth couldn’t seem to stop the words from tumbling out, knowing each one undercut her measured, rational petition for space. “Part of your election campaign, I’m sure!” It was out now. No going back.

“Oh?” The word sounded dangerous as it resonated in the Principal’s mouth.

“Yes, there’s money there. I’ve identified it in your spreadsheets.

“And how are you so expert at administrative-level accounting, Liz? You teach seam repairs and macaroni casserole.”

Elizabeth went cold quiet. She did not go by ‘Liz.’ And macaroni casserole kept you fed and alive. And it wasn’t hard to make.

“Well,” said Birdie brightly, “Elizabeth also teaches checkbook balancing, and income tax preparation, and home budget creation. I should know. I’ve caught the tail end of many of her lessons while picking up our shared cart. Which is why we’re here.”

God bless Birdie, Elizabeth thought.

“But we’re out of time,” said Principal Larsen. “As I’ve said before, my hands are tied. Keep up your work. The students sure like those easy classes. Keeps them coming to school.” Instead of showing them out—and Elizabeth wasn’t sure she’d have left voluntarily—Principal Larsen stood and click-clicked out into the hallway, neatly severing their meeting. Snip. Like sharp, new shears.

***

The pair’s attempts at going over Principal Larsen’s head failed too. Elizabeth’s petition to the school board had been tabbled for discussion at a later date. Her appeal to the City Commission was referred back to the discretion of the school board.

Birdie’s letter to the editor of the Bulgewater City newspaper received only one online comment: “Does the 1997 Ford come with new tires?” Birdie suspected it was an avant-garde or Fluxus-style response from a covert and supportive community artist. Elizabeth thought it was misplaced and meant for the classifieds.

After months of ineffective attempts through official channels, it was Birdie who had the breakthrough. The pair was sitting in the Teacher’s lounge and Birdie was attempting to clean her paint-spattered side of the cart.

“You know,” she said, “I wish we could just use all those empty bookshelves in Principal Larsen’s room. For storage, I mean. So much unused space.”

“She’d never agree, Birdie.”

“Maybe she would if it could help her campaign.”

Elizabeth smiled. It was as though the last few seasonings had been sprinkled into a simmering stew. The fragrance of a plan wafted through her brain.

“You’re a genius, Birdie.”

***

Two weeks later Elizabeth knocked on the door of Principal Larsen’s cupcake-scented office, barely able to contain her glee. The noise of her students milling behind her, excited about a change in routine, drowned out the twin off-ticking hallway clocks. She had all the time in the world today. Larsen opened the door and Elizabeth gently pushed her way in followed by a stream of twenty-two shuffling young adults.

“Please take your seats!” Elizabeth called.

“Liz, what are you doing?” Principal Larsen’s looked confused and angry.

“There aren’t seats,” one youth in an overlarge, orange sweatshirt pointed out.

“Circle up on the floor,” said Elizabeth, and the students made a half formed bulgy horseshoe on Larsen’s pink raspberry colored carpet.

“I’m afraid you’ll need to leave my office,” Larsen said. “This is my planning period.”

Just then Birdie came through the door. “This way ladies and gentlemen!” she called over her shoulder, rainbow broomstick skirt swirling as she turned. A reporter and two camera techs with local news Channel 8 printed on their equipment followed her in.

“As you see, Principal Larsen is serious about saving the district money. There’s no corner she won’t cut. She even offers her own office as a substitute classroom!”

“Principal Larsen,” said the reporter, “What prompted you to donate your office as more classroom space?”

“Well…” Larsen started. She was trapped. The cameras were rolling. Such generosity and dedication broadcast to the whole city could only help her campaign. Elizabeth’s smile glinted like undulled sewing shears. “I saw the need. And I had to do what I could do…without increasing the budget, of course.”

Elizabeth launched into her lesson as the cameras rolled. The crew filmed the students sitting on the floor. They filmed the Mobile Classroom 5000. Elizabeth felt light as pillow batting.

“Thank you, Principal Larsen,” Elizabeth heard a reporter say as she wrapped up the lesson and the students shuffled off to their next classes. “Few administrators would make the sacrifice you have.”

“Well, it’s because I deeply care…” The reporters stayed to talk with Principal/Superintendent Candidate Larsen and Elizabeth left. Birdie met her outside.

“I think that went well,” she said.

***

Election season came and went and “Generous Larsen,” as she’d come to be known on the campaign trail, won by a landslide. But not before the footage of students cross-legged on an office floor getting lessons from one teacher and half a cart circulated online and generated huge amounts of bad press for the district. Funding increased. And parents, voters, and city commissioners paid attention to see how it was spent. And Larsen’s election meant she was out of the school for good.

Birdie and Elizabeth now shared not a cart, but a whole temporary classroom trailer. Half filled with ovens, sinks, and real sewing machines, half filled with easels, oil pastels, and a real kiln. The materials for living life and expressing humanity and other nonessentials.

 

 

 

 

 

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