It was only a 20’ x 20’ earthen plot, but it was the closest thing to “nature” many of the South Bronx children had ever seen. The school garden featured rows of assorted vegetable plants awaiting harvest and a make-shift chicken wire fence. Looming in the center of the plot was a scarecrow, adorned with hand-me-down clothes brought in by the children and their teachers, and lovingly stuffed with pages from used textbooks. While no one could remember the last time they saw a crow in the South Bronx, you could assume the scarecrow was to ward off the legions of pigeons that circled and marched along the garden periphery. Arms spread wide in a Jesus Christ pose, the scarecrow made an imposing figure… especially at 5am.
She wasn’t accustomed to such an early start, frequently joking to her friends about her passion for power sleep. She had a mission: it was six straight weeks since the Executive Director past away suddenly from a heart attack in his office — most likely caused by the stress of being accused by the Board of Directors, without proof, of embezzling money from the school’s failed capital campaign. She thought about quitting after the grim news and sordid details had settled, but she wanted to impress the Board. She was focused on the old-money Chairperson who barely uttered two words to her during her admittedly short-lived tenure. She reasoned that if she could clean up the mess that was left behind, and get the school back on track, she might be fast-tracked for the Executive Director position. Her efforts were working and nearly all of the campaign donors expressed a verbal commitment to maintain their support of the school. However, not a single Board member reaffirmed their pledge, let alone acknowledge the work she was doing or extend their gratitude for her efforts. It was as if they expected her to do it all by herself, and in the process, absolve them of their own responsibilities for a failed capital campaign they were charged with leading and for a school that was, quite literally, falling apart.
She didn’t mind the work… she just hadn’t factored in the extent of the mess, or the lack of assistance she would get from the Board in the aftermath.
She parked in the back lot, behind the dilapidated cinderblock school building with several layers of peeling paint, just to the side of the garden plot. The Administrative building, what was once an old storehouse for who knows what in the 20’s and 30’s, lay just beyond. She was not looking forward to her walk. It wasn’t the neighborhood, although the occasional gunshot would echo through the streets at random hours of the day. Nor was it the finger she saw in the gutter the first day she decided to walk to the Bodega for lunch — it was brown bags ever since. No, she felt safe behind the 10’ high chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
The school and the neighborhood wasn’t the problem. It was the juxtaposition of a scarecrow in the middle of a concrete jungle at 5am that left her uneasy.
She knew it was irrational. Scarecrows weren’t uncommon to her, after all, having grown up in Newton, Iowa. They were utilitarian, as were most of the things in her life. And their usage in countless horror motifs didn’t implant a subconscious fear in her mind. No. She was far too level-headed to be afraid of a scarecrow. Snakes, however, were a different matter.
Yet, she was still uneasy because yesterday morning, the scarecrow moved.
It was imperceptible at first. After all, a cell-phone lamp doesn’t portend to be a jail house spotlight. And at 5am, in a dark parking lot, and in a hyper state of vigilance, one only perceives flashes of things. A Coke can glistening by a curb. A plastic bag caught in a slight updraft. A very long tail scurrying under a dumpster. She thought she saw the fleeting movement of an arm. She stopped and stared for what felt like an hour before she mustered up the courage and self-denial to convince herself it was a shadow and continue to her office.
Today that unease made her more focused. In lieu of a cell-phone lamp, she carried the Tactical Flashlight her father gave her when she went away to college. It was part of a kit of “things a girl should keep in her car.” In the other hand, instead of her customary double espresso, she carried a small ball peen hammer primarily designed for breaking windshields should a car become submerged — another item from the car survival kit.
Each step through the parking lot was measured. Each turn of her head was methodical. Each breath was slow. Her focus was always on the Scarecrow.
When she got within 10’ of the oversized rag-a-muffin doll, she stopped and stared with the countenance of someone unafraid, or someone determined to convince themselves they were unafraid. “I see you,” she said, partly to the Scarecrow, and partly to her subconscious. “I’m going to keep walking to my office now. You know I’m not afraid of you, right? You know I can do this on my own, right?”
Of course, there was no reply from the Scarecrow, just a muted inner voice echoing affirmation.
She adjusted her oversized leather tote brimming with the trappings of a professional life, steadied the hammer, and turned the flashlight away from the Scarecrow and towards her intended quarry — the administrative building and her office. In just a handful of steps, which were more like leaps, she made her way to the entry, entered the security code, and used her key to enter the building. In less than a minute she lit up the building like the Vegas strip, grabbed a reasonable facsimile of an espresso from the Keurig in the kitchen, and settled into her office to start her day. A dozen emails and a second expresso later, the sun began to rise and with it, a clearer vantage point from her window of the garden plot and her morning nemesis.
She took a moment to look at him and think about her fear. Of course, in the cold light of day, she knew the scarecrow hadn’t moved, just as she knew she really wasn’t afraid of him. She admitted her real fear. She was afraid of the loneliness of her professional course at the school, the weight of what lay ahead, the lack of appreciation for her efforts, and of course, her own biting realization that she would never make a difference — not in this job, not at the school, and not in the lives of the children she quickly grew to love. Because, one person, alone, at 5am, can’t save the world.
She shook her head in quiet acceptance, finished off the second espresso, and started an email to the Board Chair:
“This is to inform you that I am officially giving my two-weeks notice. I strongly encourage you and the Board of Directors to take a long, hard strategic look at your investment in this school and the children it serves. No one can save the world on their own… not one Executive Director, not one Development Director. The school needs you, its foremost leaders, to invest the time and due diligence afforded with your position. The children need you to take ownership of fixing this school and reenergizing the capital campaign because they deserve better than falling down cinder blocks and peeling paint.
P.S. You may also want to consider turning the scarecrow to face north, away from the Administrative building.”