Saturday, August 31, 2013

I Don’t Know How She Did It: Memories from the Principal’s Daughter

I wrote this piece for a publication that came out this week celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of my school. The project ran into problems with printing costs and my piece had to be slashed in half. I decided to publish the full version here, along with the picture that was intended to accompany it. After all, what's a blog for otherwise?

I have a job at a database company, and my mother is always marveling at it. “I could never do all that,” she says. “Keeping up with all those different kinds of technology, learning new systems and new business terminology all the time. I don’t know how you do it!” And I just laugh. Keeping down my little desk job is nothing - nothing - in comparison with what my mother did.

By 1973, my mother had already lived in Copenhagen where my father had served as the founding principal of Copenhagen International School. They had turned their lives upside-down to move to a completely different country and help start up a completely new school, and then they had returned to the States in 1968 to allow my father to pursue a doctorate. Both of these moves required bravery, of course, on both their parts, but they shared a pioneer spirit. Then, in 1973, my father died suddenly. My mother was newly widowed and was suddenly raising a three-year-old daughter by herself. She needed to be brave for me and for herself, and she was.

Then the call came from Charles Gellar: would she come back to Copenhagen? A brand new school was in the works - Copenhagen International Junior School - and it needed a founding principal. Think about this. This still-grieving young woman would need to arrange for a move overseas, find a new home in Copenhagen, acclimate her small daughter to new surroundings, and serve as the principal of an elementary and middle school that didn’t yet exist. Many might balk. She didn’t hesitate. “That call changed my life,” she told Charles just recently, when we were all gathered for the fiftieth CIS anniversary event in April. She packed up her belongings and her child, moved to Copenhagen, and plunged in headfirst.

Initially, we stayed with a teacher named Manfred, whose house was roomy enough to serve as a way station for newly arrived teachers. It was loud and colorful and full of people, shaking my mother and me out of our quiet two-ness. Manfred was always instructing people to hide their money away now that they lived in Denmark because the Big Bad Government would take it all otherwise. There was an abstract painting in the hallway that reminded me of a monster emerging from the darkness, and I imagined that the Big Bad Government, whatever that was, resembled this monster. So, when I had coins, I hid them under the living room carpet. One day, Manfred tripped over them and pulled back the carpet, finding my stash. “How the hell did this get here?” he bellowed. I came forward and falteringly explained about hiding my money from the Big Bad Government, and he roared with laughter: “Good girl! Well done! Did you all hear that? This is a wise little girl!” Living with several people was a new thing for both my mother and me, and I remember her laughing at the candlelit dinner table with the others, and I liked that.

Then came our move to Amager. Again, my mother had to manage all that herself, and such a move is not easy. In the middle of our Amager living room stood my rocking horse, a noisy, plastic thing with springs that my mother paid dearly to move with us to Copenhagen. “I wanted you to have something familiar,” she later explained. She bought me a series of short-lived gerbils - Cindy, Cindy II, Molly Malone, and Mopsa. I don’t think she much liked them, but she was eager for me to be happy.

Most of my memories, however, have nothing to do with that apartment, because there was a place that was even more of a home. That place was on Stenosgade, and it was called Copenhagen International Junior School. In a way, that school was my sibling. My mother helped to bring it into existence and then gave it everything she had to ensure its success and survival. I remember that in those early days she had a recurring dream in which she was standing naked in front of an audience. “I wonder why I keep having that dream,” she would say, laughing it off. Later, of course, I learned that this is the most common and quintessential anxiety dream. But she didn’t have time to be consciously anxious. She was busy clicking up and down the echoing stairwell, keys jingling, making a school happen. And I knew every inch of that building. My friend and fellow staff kid Stephanie Gellar and I explored attic rooms, swung on the ropes in the gym, played with my gerbil in the downstairs hallway, acted out scenes on the music-room stage. My mother fostered in me a deep love of the school, this exciting new entity that was coming into being. We were also fiercely proud of it.

She had never been a principal before. Now she interviewed, hired, and evaluated teachers. She met with parents and resolved conflicts. She facilitated a multitude of meetings. She attended every school event. She wagged her finger at children sent to her office for bad behavior. Once I left my Danish kindergarten and started at CIJS, I was astonished to see that she never stopped, that her energy never flagged, whatever the time of day one might see her in action. I remember her at her desk, typing, focused, hurrying to complete a document before clicking off to her next meeting. But always a hug for me when I stopped in during break time, and questions about my day, and encouragement. Always the message “Well, you can do it!” - whatever it was. And when we got home, still in principal mode, she would sort through her mail and make any necessary phone calls before, finally, the sensible shoes and hose came off, and: “Time to coll-al-apse!” she would say, collapsing theatrically onto the sofa as she did so. After the “coll-al-apse” came a happy sigh - a sound that meant, that was a good day, I am happy with it, and I accomplished something. This pause was short-lived, since she had to scramble dinner together or even go back out into the world for some school-related event. But she seized downtime without regretting its brevity, appreciating every available minute.

As I moved up through the grades, I endured a fair amount of hassling from my classmates, probably 50% due to my own ultra-nerdiness and the other half because I was the principal’s daughter. “Ignore them,” my mother said crisply. “You don’t need anyone’s approval if you know who you are.” Well, frankly, I didn’t - not yet. But I saw what self-awareness and self-confidence looked like, and I wanted it. In the meantime, I faked it by imitating her, which served me reasonably well. Every now and then, I heard my mother referred to as the Dragon Lady, and one evening I asked her if she knew that she was called that, immediately regretting the question because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I needn’t have worried. “Oh, that,” she said. “That sort of thing comes with the job. It’s understandable. Remember, they only see one side of me.” I remember thinking, they should see the coll-al-apse!

I was particularly impressed with my mother’s ability to settle a whole gym full of children down when we gathered for assembly. She would step up and speak quietly and firmly, with a tone that suggested that this was no longer the time to mess around. At the fiftieth anniversary event a few weeks ago, I saw her do the same thing again with a gym full of alumni. That voice starts up and it’s all eyes to the stage. And I was approached by many that night who told me how familiar that voice was and how vividly she stands out in their memories.

The school flourished. The roster of students expanded, as did the school, physically, as we moved into the back building and built a bridge from the CIJS playground to the senior school building. My school sibling grew up as I grew up, and my mother loved and supported us both. Now the school is every bit a success story, as anyone reading these words knows. And me - well, sure, I’m fine, too. And my mother is admiring of my work at my database company. Every time she says, “I don’t know how you do it,” I see her whistling up and down the stairs at CIJS, balancing a work load five times as complex as mine with apparent effortlessness, and I shake my head. I will never know how she did it. But I’m glad she did. I had a childhood rich in excitement, rooted in support and love, and guided by a brave pioneer sensibility.

As both her daughter and as a CIJS pupil, I thank my mother for all of that, and for so very much more.