by Rita King, Campus School Principal 1988-1995
It began as a typical day of organized chaos and became filled with events etched in memory. I was enjoying another perfect fall morning during my first year as principal of Homer Pittard Campus School, Middle Tennessee State University’s laboratory school for children in kindergarten through 6th grade.
The massive, three story, historical building was erected in 1929. The impressive exterior had broad steps that led up to four white Corinthian columns on the porch. The state of Tennessee designed the structure to nurture and prepare college students for the teaching profession. We were planning a spring celebration of the school’s 60- year legacy in teaching and learning.
On this day university students were observing in classrooms, learning to write lesson plans and teaching small groups of children in classrooms and hallways, on the front steps, and under the trees.
I enjoyed my role in developing the potential of children, college students and staff. My goal each day was to provide a safe, inviting environment for the children, the college students, and the staff.
Dr. Mary Tom Berry, chairman of the university’s elementary department, was in the building. As director of the school’s teacher-training program, I reported to her in the Department of Elementary Education. She was planning with two faculty members in the reading room on the third floor. During my routine “walk about”, I stepped inside the door to say hello.
As usual, Dr. Berry was dressed in a pantsuit with a coordinating silk blouse. Her silver hair looked as though she had walked out of a beauty shop. I often wondered where she found professional outfits for her tall, thin frame. I was fascinated by her shoes, which matched each outfit, including the pastels and mauve tones.
After a brief chat, I said, “I’ll drive you back to your office. I need some advice for dealing with a university student. Let me know when you’re ready to go.” She glanced at the clock and said, “I’ll be ready in about twenty minutes. I’ll meet you in the lobby at 10:30.”
I admired this southern lady throughout my college days when she taught courses for beginning teachers. I looked forward to our short drive to the education building and to receiving her practical, compassionate advice.
As I started down the steps, I saw Patsy, my secretary, running up the lower stairway. Her dress style, bouffant blond hair, and mannerisms reminded me of Dolly Partin. She leaned over the handrail, looked up at me, and whispered in an anxious voice, “I got a message saying that the basement is flooding. I called the maintenance department. The men are on their way”. I turned around and ran down the steps in my high heels, thinking about the old radiators and their occasional major leaks.
As I entered the basement level, an overwhelming stench reached me. It reminded me of the outhouse I had as a child on the mountain.
I stepped into the hallway and saw the filthy watering under the door to the boy’s bathroom. It was moving slowly into the hall. I glanced at my watch. Kindergarteners were scheduled for lunch at 10:30 in the cafeteria. The door they entered was directly across the hall from the problem. It was 10:15.
I stepped into the 6th grade classroom next door. No one was there. I rushed to the cafeteria and told the manager, Mrs. Sitz, to serve the trays to the children from the kitchen’s back door so they could eat outside or go to another area on the upper two floors. I continued down the hall and stopped by the two kindergarten classrooms and whispered directions to each teacher for taking the children to the kitchen door next to the front steps. I smiled and said, “Tell the boys and girls they are going to have a special lunch time outside.”
I took off my heels and made my way to the office. I told Patsy to make a note with the lunch service changes and send it to each teacher. I asked her to assign a college student to monitor the children at the kitchen door and have her send for the next class to create a continuous line of students.
I changed shoes, washed my hands, and entered the lobby. Dr. Berry was walking toward the front door ready for the ride to her office on the other side of the university campus. I had visions of the oozing sewage. I grabbed my purse and keys and escorted her down the steps. I opened the passenger door and watched as she folded herself into my sporty, red car.
During the short excursion, we chatted about her planning session. After listening to my concern for the college student, she poured out tidbits of advice as I smiled, nodded my head, and thought about sewage. I let her out near the back door of the education building.
When I returned to Campus School, I rushed to the basement. The plumbers were working frantically in the bathroom. I turned around. Sewage had entered the cafeteria door!
I hurried to a kindergarten classroom at the other end of the hall. The teacher, Mrs. Travis, had removed her shoes and was walking in the sewage wearing black hose! I said, “I can’t believe you are still here. You need to leave the room!” While stapling a picture to a bulletin board, she said, “I’m okay. I’m getting ready for our next lesson.”
I sloshed across the hall and entered a third grade room. I called Mrs. Jolly, the teacher, to the door and whispered, “You need to move the children out now. The water is almost to your door.” She said, “I want to finish this lesson. Can you place something under my door to slow the water down? The children are excited about our science experiment. I don’t want to interrupt it”. I said, “Okay, I’ll be back in a few minutes and we’ll help them climb out of the emergency window.”
An educational assistant was waiting when I exited the room. She said, “The sewage covered the cafeteria floor but all classes were served. ”I removed my shoes and walked toward my office. As I walked through the door, Patsy said, “A plumber wants to see you in the basement”.
When I entered the lower hall, I saw a maintenance man standing at the door of the boy’s restroom. He was smiling and held a large piece of black and white checked material in an extended hand. It was soaked in sewage! He took a step closer and said, “Mrs. King, we just have one question. Why did you try to flush your shirt?”
As the plumbers continued to laugh, I headed down the hall to Mrs. Jolly’s room. Sewage had moved under her door. We helped each child climb through the window.
The university sent an emergency crew to clean and sanitize the cafeteria and all basement areas during the weekend. Monday afternoon, in our faculty meeting, I commended everyone for maintaining a calm, orderly environment.
This incident was a conversation topic for a few days. I decided to avoid a time consuming investigation of the sixth graders. I thought the culprit had to be one of the boys and decided that he was experiencing enough remorse, fear, and guilt. Honestly, I simply had no desire to deal with the recovered evidence.
Written October 2014