Permission: Impossible

After handing out slips in the attendance office of a giant public high school, I just might need an unexcused absence myself.

BLACKSMITHING? ARE OUR CHILDREN STUDYING BLACKSMITHING? Are they lugging around their own personal anvils in those spine-crippling backpacks? Who knows? Do any of us really know what goes on during those seven, eight, nine hours a day when we surrender our young to the tender mercies of a public high school?

And is there any way for us to find out? Long gone are the days when little faces lit up at the sight of Mom dropping by school for a surprise lunch. Like the Jesus of my Catholic girlhood, all teens prefer to be known as the products of an Immaculate Conception. The Heavenly Father motif works for them. Mother on Pluto is also good. So even if the parent of a teenager could penetrate a high school’s armed security, that little face would light up with nuclear embarrassment.

How then does the mother of a teen boy gather intel when his answer to all questions—“Teachers?” “Classes?” “Friends?” “Existence of life on other planets?”—is “Fine”?

How else? Go undercover. Which is why I volunteer in the attendance office in Teen Boy’s two-thousand-student, middle-class, suburban high school. I go every other week for a few hours as an anthropologist, to collect data about the culture of a fascinating, alien land. Let’s call it Bureaucracia, because of the extent to which it is wrapped in red tape. Even though no one likes it—not students, not teachers, not even the administrators who must enforce legislative fiats and district directives—there that red tape is, tangled around your child.

To give you a tiny hint of the Department of Motor Vehicles—flavor of the place, I offer the following notes—but no real names—from one stint in early spring at Giant Public High School.

It is pouring rain as I splash through puddles in the parking lot, hurrying to make my eleven-thirty shift. Girls as skinny as gazelles in bumster jeans and tiny pink terry hoodies run in ahead of me. The smell—poster paint, floor wax, disinfectant, overripe bananas, teen anxiety—takes me instantly back to my own unlamented adolescence.

There’s already a crowd at the counter. Miss Bettina and Miss Blanca, the conscientious, overburdened ladies who run the attendance office, are ensconced behind their computers. Miss Blanca is sending messages from the principal to parents, alerting them that their spawn missed class. Miss Bettina is recording the phone-book-thick stack of permits and notes that the office generates every single day.

I need a permit to enter class,” the first student in line tells me. Permits … right! My job is to issue the passes that allow students to come and go. From her carefully guarded supply, Miss Bettina hands over one pink pad, Permits to Leave School, and one white pad, Permits to Enter Class.

Be careful,”  she tells me. “It happened again.”

What?”

Some kid swiped a pad and was getting his friends out of class.”

Students shove notes at me. I place a three-by-four scrap of carbon paper (yes, Bob Cratchit, carbon paper!) into the pad and start scribbling permits in duplicate. A window opens into the young lives before me as I decipher parents’ handwriting, reading the reasons for absences: “Migraine.” “Orthodontist appt.” “Funeral.” “Car brooken donw.” “College visit to Dartmouth.” “Bad cramps.” The student gets the original. I staple the carbon to the note, then divide pinks and whites into two baskets.

A cute, pudgy girl with corpuscle-colored hair wearing a T-shirt that reads “I Think Therefore I Have a Headache” grabs the last pass, and then I scramble to record pinks and whites on separate lists that Miss Bettina will scrutinize for times logged in and out, nabbing those who would game the system. With a few moments free, I join a student aide in a bit of Sisyphean filing. Every scrap of paper is sorted, first by last name, then by second letter of last name, until all those notes and passes are entombed in the student’s individual file and sent to an eternal rest in the district graveyard (state law requires such documentation).

It reminds me of a friend’s account of buying a candy bar in India during the seventies. Several mysterious steps, including filling out an order form, were required for the purchase of a Snickers bar. Each one involved a different clerk who stamped, initialed, and filed. The purpose seemed to be to see how many times one slip of paper could be handled before the transaction was complete.

My filing of slips of paper worn soft with handling is interrupted by static from a school cop’s radio. It is still a shock to see an armed police officer in a school. I assume the boy giving him a dramatic rendition of being beaten up has been caught fighting.

There was, like, blood everywhere,” I overhear one of the gaggle of Tardies (late lunchers needing Permits to Enter) remark about the fight. I fill in names and student ID numbers. I lean in close to whisper, “Cause?” It’s really none of my business, but the form demands it. When one student doesn’t answer, I glance up, meet his bloodshot eyes, and ask again why he is late. He shrugs, his puka shell necklace rising and falling, then laughs, vastly amused by my question.

We’ll just call it ‘unexcused,’ okay?”

Whatever,” Puka Shell chuckles to himself as he leaves.

I haf losted a whiyet swettashairt.” A sweet-faced girl with a head scarf speaks so softly, in an accent so thick, that it takes me a second to realize that she has “lost a white sweatshirt.” Miss Bettina tells me that Mr. G. handles lost and found, and I point the girl toward his office.

The shriek of a very sick infant cuts through the radio static, fight reenactment, and kibitzing amongst the Tardies. I spot a skinny girl in capris holding a baby and, alarmed, ask what’s wrong. The girl holds the baby out and lets it dangle by its arm. This gets a big laugh, since I’m trying to leap across the counter and it’s

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