The day the school secretary saw inside my soul

by Paige Parker

This is my favorite Eugene street sign. Hey, at least it's a town with a sense of humor.

This is my favorite Eugene street sign. Hey, at least it’s a town with a sense of humor


School secretaries give me the heebie-jeebies.

To be clear, any omniscient deity or quasi-deity holding sway over many vulnerable people frightens me. The pope. SEC football coaches. Labor and delivery charge nurses. The former office manager of the newspaper where I once worked — a benevolent woman of great and terrible powers.

But no one wigs me out quite like the middle-aged woman manning the desk of every elementary school I’ve ever walked inside. Every scrap of paperwork in the school passes through her hands. She knows every dirty secret, and she knows it first. Every budget cut. Every divorce. Every nasty bully-in-the-making. She sees it — and she remembers it.

So I kept my eyes down and my voice meek this week when I dropped off my son’s kindergarten enrollment forms. I’d planned to simply slide them onto the secretary’s desk and bolt before she could see inside my soul and ask about all the empty wine bottles in our glass recycling bin. (We only take it to the curb once a month, I swear! Oh, Pearl Street neighbors, your judgment, it burns, it burns!)

“Just a minute,” the secretary said as I skittered away. “I need to look over these forms and make sure they’re complete.”

“Of course,” I said, resisting the urge to glance at my phone, lest she snatch it and lock it in a drawer for the rest of the day. She can do that. This is her house.

“Are you new in town?” she asked.

“No, we’ve lived here two years,” I said.

“Well, there’s only one person listed in the emergency contact section,” she said. “Generally, we like to see several contacts, just in case. Don’t you have any more friends you can add?”

And there it was. Just like that — like a Nordstrom bra-fitter or a Jungian psychotherapist, she’d bared my great truth:

I might live in this town, but it ain’t home.

We’d only lived in Eugene about four months when I stopped trolling the real estate listings and told my husband not to bother hanging up anything more on the walls of our rental.

“You’re taking me back to Portland,” I said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

I could list the reasons why I prefer Portland to Eugene, but it’d bore you. Suffice it to say that living here has felt like I’ve been wearing the tightest jeans in my dresser drawer every day for two years, only the jeans are tie-dyed, and bell-bottomed, and were sewn in 1974.

A few weeks ago I gave my students a lesson about asking open-ended interview questions. They paired up to practice, with one student left to interview me.

“What do you like about Eugene?” she began.

“I don’t,” I said.

“Really?” she said.

“Really,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t have many friends here,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Probably because when I meet someone new, and they ask if I like Eugene, I say I don’t,” I said.

“I can see why that might make it difficult to make friends,” she said. “It’s a bit of a conversation killer.”

I had to let myself live with that for awhile, that moment of enlightenment, brought to me by the young woman who sits in the back of the class and asks the best questions.

Perhaps I need to actually get out there and embrace what makes Eugene, Eugene. Spend a morning at the Saturday market. Buy a bongo drum. Use it. Go to a football game. Pretend to follow along. Catch a show at the Hult Center without complaining loudly about how it looks like the inside of an Easter basket. Stop being such a grumpy old bitch, you know?

I relented. I asked my husband to hang a new picture on our wall. It’s a picture of the Portland map grid. I didn’t relent much.

And then, just to make sure I was paying attention, the universe introduced me to the Edgewood School secretary.

“Maybe you could try to get to know one of your neighbors?” she suggested. “It’s never too late to make friends!”

What’s next? Life coaching from the lunch lady? But I let myself live with that awhile, too. This life post may turn out to be temporary, but shouldn’t I allow myself to get something out of it, instead of stomping like a petulant child through the streets of Eugene?

Or, if I can’t manage to become civically entwined, can I at least let myself find home at home, with my husband and my kids?

“What are you doing?” my husband asked me one evening, seeing me guiltily slam shut the laptop.

“Definitely not looking at Portland house listings!” I said, and he sighed, defeated, and I felt like a jerk. Time to remove the needle from the marital toolkit.

When a Portland friend asked how I was doing, I reheated the old Eugene grumble-hash. (No, not that kind of hash. Jesus. Is everyone in this town high on something?) Anyway, she listened patiently for a while before cutting in:

“But you know what? You will always remember this period in your life as the time when you took a chance and moved away from everyone and everything you knew and had only each other to count on. This time becomes a part of you,” she said.

It’s not wasted time, in other words.

Not unless I waste it.