By Del Hansen
The settlement of a heated land dispute among the British colonies of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania in 1767 resulted in a compromise called the Mason-Dixon Line, named for the surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. It later formed the demarcation between the north and the south leading up to the Civil War and the separation of slave and non-slave states before the Missouri Compromise. What does that have to do with a book about schools? Well, interestingly, everything.
However, before the relationship between this imaginary line and stories wrapped around the educational journey of teachers can be explained, another schoolhouse phenomenon must be examined, that being the much maligned teacher lounge. “Lounge” is really a misnomer, since teachers rarely have time during the school day to “lounge.” Better names would be “Escape Zones” or “Food Preparation Areas” or even “Gossip Vortices.” They can be palatial and separated from even a scent of a student or they can look like a homeless camp in the warehouse district and immersed in the middle of the din and bustle of student activity. They can be the bane of administration, bubbling with insurrection and hostility kindled by rabid professionals high on union newsletters, or they can be as innocuous and inert as a special morning start-your-day address by the superintendent. They can be a destination of restful solitude and reflection or they can be a Grand Central Station at rush hour. More than likely, most were like mine, tucked away at the end of a long hallway lined with classrooms and too odd-shaped to be a useful learning space.
I have always thought our teacher’s lounge was an afterthought. Perhaps when the blueprints were being readied for implementation, the architect’s wife looked it over and said, “So where is the lounge, brainchild?” The architect then hurriedly added a misshapen gerrymander to the plan and so birthed our teacher room. I always suspected it had been designed and decorated by a subordinate who was either being punished for some unknown structural infraction or by someone who was coming down after a series of bad drug trips.
For instance, in our little piece of heaven there weren’t enough electrical outlets supporting enough wattage to run a bank of microwaves in full use by frenzied teachers trying to warm up near-frozen lunches. So one by one, the beloved appliances would sputter dead at the most inopportune time. An intrepid soul would then be selected by draw of straws to brave the teeming hallways to find the circuit-breaker and trip it. Some never returned. The location of the refrigerator was inconvenient no matter where it was located, which was restricted anyway due to the paucity of outlets. The room wrapped around a janitor’s closet that housed a series of electrical boxes that hissed and popped and sizzled during the day and night depending on its mood. I felt we were a bad circuit away from an explosion that would make the six-o’clock news. And we presumed the color scheme came from left-over paint from recent renovations at Mel’s Morgue and Crematorium down the street—not a real upbeat and zippy combination.
The worst indignity was to combine the teacher’s escape room with the teacher work room. Not only would it often be a scene from the floor of the stock exchange during a 400-point plunge, but one had to hear the string of expletives from a meek teacher of English when the copy machine jammed and the other was running 1,000 copies of a one-sided 25-page office memo about the need to conserve paper. Just put me in a stalled car next to jack hammers and a cop car with its siren stuck. It couldn’t be any worse.
Then there was the table. The budget that year, or any year for that matter, usually couldn’t support the purchase of separate four-chair restaurant tables so that lunch could be enjoyed in a civilized manner. Instead, the room design lent itself to two extra-long auxiliary tables positioned end-to-end, ones like the counselors could sit behind to hand out schedules in the foyer at the start of school. They were those same tables that, if you sat toward either end and momentarily forgot your location, beckoned you to jam your knee into the unrelenting metal leg, causing you to tear up like a first time watcher of Old Yeller. Well-meaning home-ec teachers often contributed a few paper table cloths left over from open house, adorning our place of repast with bulbous yellow smiley faces or grey and blue bunnies, depending on what was on sale at Sam’s Club that month. Truth be told, we really didn’t care.
At this time in my teaching career, teachers actually ate in the teacher’s lounge. Not so much now. Of course, there were those missing in action, the TSOLD—Teachers Stuck on Lunch Duty, and we missed and appreciated them, if only because they were the ones on duty that week and we weren’t. There were those who didn’t deign to mingle with the underclass and, instead, withdraw to their own rooms, perched on their lecture chairs gnawing on “lunchable crackers” reading a book. I must admit that I did that a few times myself. The more health-minded might take a brisk walk out past the auxiliary gym and circle the track, swinging their arms to and fro while exhaling warm carbon dioxide through pursed lips. I always figured I piled up enough walking miles just going from my room to the distant faculty restroom during the day so I didn’t need to ruin a perfectly good lunch with a hike.
This is where the Mason-Dixon line comes in. In a moment rivalling the discussions in Philadelphia prior to the Declaration of Independence, it was decided in a perfectly democratic and egalitarian manner, which was remarkable since most of us were authoritarian Stalinistic dictators in our own classrooms, that school issues, problem students, or general gripes shall not rear their ugly heads north of the Mason-Dixon line. South of the line, one could talk about central office, Satan-spawned kids driving them crazy, or whatever else that was causing their unhappy grief du jour.
North of the line? Well, that sacred territory was reserved for light conversation, Jeopardy-esque questions and answers, and good jokes and stories, those prompting raucous belly laughs, the kind that might cause you to guffaw some diet coke out your nose. It was one’s deep tissue massage, power nap, and walk through Disneyland jammed into thirty-five minutes of lunchtime at school. It made you like the people you worked with. I suspect the folks at the other end solved not one problem festering at the central office (called the central orifice by one colleague), Washington D.C., or the merry Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Their diet coke stayed safely in their mouths.
Over the course of a semester, the Mason-Dixon line would creep inexorably southward, eventually banishing the complainers to distant classrooms where student desks were circled like Conestoga wagons to allow for more effective venting. And who was to say that lunchtime griping was not a constructive outlet? Maybe the Mason-Dixon line will eventually move northward, but I hope it doesn’t. The world desperately needs more smiles, especially in faculty lounges–even weirdly shaped ones with bad decor.