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The Paper Chase

Publication Date: 2009-11-01

from Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 69, no. 2 (October 1987): 153-155.

Yes, this is an old piece, which was named the award "best education article" of the year in its day, beating out a submission from Newsweek. Since PDK has relegated it to the dustbin, making it no longer available, I have decided to revive it here. In revealing how schools do--or don't--work, the piece seems relevant to teacher plight today.


Many of my colleagues thought that my zeal for the paper chase was, if not misinformed, then certainly misdirected. I can understand their concern. Especially in these days of media hype, with committees on excellence proliferating like ragweed, a teacher doesn't want to be caught with her dignity down. If teachers around the country were polled on their professional priorities, no doubt securing toilet paper that fits the dispensers in the faculty rest rooms would not rate very high.

Even in the heat of the moment, I knew that marching in the school hallways brandishing my roll of toilet paper looked slightly nutty. But, as I kept insisting to my more reserved colleagues, it wasn't merely a tissue issue: I was fighting bureaucracy; I was fighting for the rights of employees--yes, even teachers--to decent working conditions. And before I finished my paper chase, I learned a lot about how bureaucracies function and about where teachers fit into the scheme of things.

People unfamiliar with the way schools are run might think a toilet paper dispenser is something you can take for granted, but we hadn't been in our new multimillion-dollar school for half an hour before we found out that we'd better not take anything for granted. An outside door couldn't be opened; the gizmo that's supposed to bring in fresh air to windowless interior rooms didn't work; the fire alarm bell sounded for no apparent reason; and that same fire alarm bell was audible in only half the building. Later, we found out that the roof leaked badly every time it rained and that the heating/cooling system required one to wear parkas in some parts of the building and sleeveless T-shirts in others.

And the toilet paper didn't fit the dispensers. After a single piece was pulled out, the rest jammed up inside the dispenser, unreachable by even the longest fingers.

The janitor told me that the district had gotten "a deal" on the paper. Some deal. The bargain paper was a different size from the dispensers. This size discrepancy was also a problem with the paper towels. Custodians bypassed the towel dispensers and stacked towels on the counter. Picking up one towel with wet fingers would inevitably soak six more. I hoped that the bargain, cut-rate price was no more than one-sixth the price of regular towels.

At first people muttered about the toilet paper. We brought it up at a faculty meeting, and the principal promised to "look into the matter." Finally, he got the idea of bypassing toilet paper dispensers, too. We came to school one day to find the toilet paper stacked behind the toilet seats--next to the handle that people kick to flush. That system didn't last long. Even teachers who never complained about anything going to put up with kicking the toilet paper all over the floor and then having to retrieve it.

So another plan was devised. The toilet paper was stacked in shoe boxes on the floor; each cubicle had its own shoe box. But people didn't want to use paper that someone else had touched, so pretty soon the shoe box was a nest of paper that had been ruffled through. The boxes were kicked around and knocked over. Paper was scattered all over the floor, and even the paper that remained in the boxes was in a sorry state. One again, even the noncomplainers began grousing about this new system because it wasn't sanitary.

One should not suppose that all of this happened overnight or even in the course of a single year. While the wheels of all bureaucracies turn slowly, in school bureaucracies many of those wheels have flat tires.

When there was no response other than annoyed shrugs from administrators who didn't want to be bothered with such trivial details as toilet paper dispensers, a few teachers tried to lodge an official complaint with the union representative. But the union rep wasn't at all certain that toilet paper was a grievable item--or that he wanted to find out. Finally he agreed to put the tissue issue on the agenda of a meeting of the Teachers and Administrators Liaison Committee (TALC), a group formed to iron out annoyances, disputes, and common concerns, so that teachers would not resort to formal grievance procedures.

And the TALC solved the tissue problem. Or so it said. That's when the tissue appeared on the backs of the toilets. After we complained about that solution for six months or so, the TALC solved the problem again: this time with the shoe boxes.

After fielding complaints about the shoe boxes for a year or so, the principal solved the problem himself. He went into each cubicle and "personally adjusted" each dispenser. Since I was one of the most persistent complainers, he interrupted my class with the good news that the toilet paper was back in the dispenser and that it worked. You can imagine the stir this caused in a class of seventh graders.

And in a way, the principal had fixed the problem. Certainly the paper no longer got stuck. But when you pulled out one sheet, thirty-two more came with it. By 10:08 A.M. there was lots of paper on the floor but none left in the dispenser. I can be precise about that time because by then I was really getting into the spirit of documenting bureaucratic ineptitude. My malcontent colleagues and I began keeping notes on the precise time by which paper was no longer available in the dispensers. When I complained to the principal about this new wrinkle in the tissue problem, he announced that the problem was not in the dispenser but in the way "you ladies pull the paper."

The TALC refused to put toilet paper on its agenda again. The TALC members wanted to concern themselves with real issues. Our contract specified a twenty-seven-minute lunch break for teachers, and the union was fighting against taking "walking time" to report to hall duty out of the brief lunch period. The union representative showed me the minutes of the TALC meeting announcing that the dispensers had been adjusted and the problem solved. "The paper is out of the dispenser and all over the floor before noon," I protested. He suggested that I find a different lavatory.

The custodian followed orders and filled the dispensers every night, but the shoe boxes reappeared so that paper would be available after 10 A>M> That's when "the ladies" decided to march, each carrying her own personal roll. All we did was gather at one end of the hall and walk down to the other end, each of us brandishing a roll of toilet paper on the end of a broom handle. When kids asked us what we were doing, we told them that since the school wouldn't provide us with paper we had to bring our own.

The principal confiscated my roll of toilet paper, saying that the sight of "you women carrying rolls of toilet paper in the hallway--in full view of the students--is one of the most disgusting sights imaginable." I could easily have pointed out two dozen more disgusting sights in our school, but I kept silent. He said that if I didn't like the toilet paper supplied by the district I certainly should bring my own, but he insisted that I keep it out of the sight of innocent children.

It soon became clear that the Toilet Paper March was an unsuccessful tactic. We teachers who had hoped to draw attention to the unsanitary conditions in the lavatories succeeded only in earning administrative letters of reprimand. What's more, such hooliganism scared many of our colleagues into insisting that the tissue was fine, that there never had been and never would be a tissue problem.

But I couldn't let it rest. I decided to carry the tissue issue beyond our school. The first phone call was the hardest. I was shifted through four different offices at the County Health Department in search of someone willing to discuss public school lavatory requirements. Each time my call was transferred, I heart the incredulous question, "You say your tissue is in a shoe box? on the floor?"

Finally, I was transferred to someone in the Environmental Protection Unit. He told me that there is no question that "rolls are more sanitary than single sheets and are recommended for toilets in public buildings."

"Would you write a letter to that effect to my principal?" I asked. There was a long silence. "Actually," I offered, "it would be fine if you wrote the letter to me. I could pass it on.

Suddenly, the fellow who had been so forthright about the preferred installation of tissue in public buildings became cautious in the extreme. It is one thing to make statements over the phone; recommendations in writing are apparently an entirely different kettle of fish. He told me that he did not have the authority to write letters. I asked to be transferred to someone who did have letter-writing authority, and then the bureaucratic waffling began in earnest. I talked to three more people. But, after agreeing that roll dispensers are preferable to single-tissue dispensers, each one clammed up when I asked for a letter to that effect.

A public-health nurse was sympathetic. Drawing on her experience in field work in Appalachia, she gave me directions for making a toilet paper roll out of a coathanger. But she wouldn't write a letter either, pointing out that that was not her area of responsibility.

The Senior Public Health Sanitation Officer informed me that "all standards for the maintenance of health in public schools are the responsibility of the New York State Education Department." He further informed me that the County Department of Health cannot enter a school unless invited by school officials. He agreed that, if we had an outbreak of bubonic plague, the health department would not wait for an official invitation to investigate. But he suggested that the dispensing of toilet paper fell short of such an emergency. He would not write a letter either, because he did not want to infringe on someone else's responsibilities. Everybody at the Department of Health asserted that someone there did have the authority to write letters, but I finally gave up trying to find that someone.

My next call was to the setter of school health standards and codes: the New York State Education Department. It took just three transfers for the functionaries at the state department to decide that they did not have any lavatory regulations. I was advised that, if I felt my lavatory facilities were substandard, I should contact my local school board or the parent-teacher organization. In making this suggestions, the official at the state department revealed just how far out of touch with public school reality they are.

Next came a call to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This agency of the U. S. Department of Labor is the guardian of the health and safety of workers, right? All workers, it turns out, except teachers. The OSHA officers with whom I spoke informed me that "the federal government may go through the motions of looking out for mine workers, steelworkers, and cotton pickers." Teachers are referred back to their local boards of education--or to the parent-teacher association.

Next I called the New York State Department of Labor, Division of Safety and Health. I spoke to administrators both in New York City and in Albany. Their line was pretty much the same: "There are no restroom standards for schools." At my insistence, two official searched the codes and came up with "an adequate supply of toilet paper should be provided." One man said that he didn't care if said paper were in working dispensers, on the backs of the toilets, or scattered around on the floor. The other said that if I sent in a complaint that an adequate supply did not exist he doubted that he'd send out an investigator. He told me that if I had complaints about toilet paper dispensers I could write my congressional representative about getting provisions added to the Public Employee Health and Safety codes.

By this time I had gone far beyond the tissue issue. I had discovered something far more depressing: despite myriad government agencies and a web of rules to protect workers, teachers live on a plantation ruled by the whom of a few people whose best talent seems to be passing the buck. Teachers have no inherent right to decent working conditions, and no government agency will investigate improper conditions. Everything depends on schools being run by administrators of good will and common sense, and there are no safeguards to protect teachers from nincompoops. Every step of the way I was referred back to the manager of my school, and since he insisted that the dispensers worked,then, by golly, they must work.

I gave up. I conceded that there was no way that I was going to get working toilet paper dispensers in the lavatories. Then a new school year brought a contract dispute with the board of education, and I was officially reprimanded by the principal for wearing a (lace-trimmed) T-shirt that said "Support Troy Teachers." I was informed that my "dress attire" was not up to professional standards. The principal and I were standing in the hallway outside the lavatories when he issued this reprimand, stating that an official document from the superintendent would follow. I responded by asking, "Is the toilet paper in there of professional standards?"

He smirked and said, "I don't know. I don't use the ladies' room." Whereupon I went a bit berserk. For four years I'd been trying to effect a reasonable change through regular channels: the custodian, the principal, the union, the county heath department, the state department of education, OSHA, and so on. And this guy could win every battle; he could smile and tell me that the ladies didn't know how to pull the paper, that he didn't have to care because he didn't use the ladies' room. I threw a minor fit and told him I was going to phone the local TV station and tell them that he said he didn't know whether we had toilet paper in the ladies' room because he didn't use the ladies room.

Toilet paper rolls were installed in all faculty lavatories the following day.

In Edmund Burke's words, "There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue." What he meant--it is obvious to me now--is that teachers should not try to go through channels. Most definitely, they should not wait for years to throw a fit.

When my paper chase was over, and our toilet paper rolls were installed, I discovered that the paper in the students' lavatories had never worked either. Their paper was piled on the backs of the toilets, right next to the handle that they kick to flush. . . .




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