It has always been my aim in life to live a safe distance from any meaningful measure of wealth and at the same time among the ample and voluble complaints of many different members of my community. So I found myself, when I reached an early middle age, drawn, perhaps unsurprisingly, first to the position of School Board Member, and finally, inevitably, it seems, considering the desires of my youth, ascending to the position of School Board President. During my tenure as such — both as member and as the more exalted yet also more pestered president (as an eagle, even amid its majestic bouts of flight, finds itself set upon by much smaller but, there is no other way to say it, downright nastier birds) — I had the occasion to encounter many a School Superintendent, becoming well and deeply acquainted, I believed, with this stripe of administrator in all of its (not very) varied forms. And yet I found myself proved discomfitingly, bewilderingly wrong by a School Superintendent we knew only — and knew only, to our great relief, briefly — as Bartleby. His tenure was a short one, but his influence on me was long, and one I feel I can convey to you best by sharing the transcript (copied, with great effort if not perhaps greatest accuracy, by School Board Secretaries Turkey and Nippers) of his appearance before the School Board and gathered (oh, always gathered) parents in the summer before the school year that was to — maybe? perhaps? mayhaps? — begin in the Fall of 2020. Herein you will find, no doubt, the nature of my fixation, my vexation, my abject and abiding consternation.


BOARD PRESIDENT: Mr. School Superintendent, it is now, you no doubt know, August before the opening of our school year, and we thank you for appearing before us today. You intend, I assume, to present to us the definitive plan for opening our schools in the fall?

BARTLEBY: I would prefer not to.

BOARD PRESIDENT: But surely your presence here tonight indicates that you have a plan in place. Could you share with us, if not a definitive plan, then a sense of the most likely options for opening our schools in the fall?

BARTLEBY: I would prefer not to.

PARENT #1: Mr. School Superintendent, a month ago your office sent out an email saying that the school was going to open in a hybrid remote format. Can you explain to us what that would look like?

BARTLEBY: I would prefer not to.

PARENT #2: I got an email from my kid’s school principal saying — hold on, let me find it on my phone — that students could choose to take Hyflex classes. Can you tell us if these are different from hybrid remote classes?

BARTLEBY: I would prefer not to.

PARENT #2: Or — hold on, where’s that email — OK, so you need to help me out here. Can you tell me what the difference is between Remote, Hybrid, Hybrid Remote, Hyflex, Synchronous Remote, Asynchronous Remote, Fully Embodied, Masked Embodied, Teacher-Free, Teacher-Plus, and Flex Remote classes?

BARTLEBY: I would really prefer not to.

PARENT #3: Can you tell us if Fall sports will be played this season?

BARTLEBY: I would… prefer not to.

PARENT #4: What about the marching band? We’re three weeks away from preseason band practice!

BARTLEBY: I would prefer not to.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: Can you tell us if the schools in the district have adopted and implemented the recommended advanced cleaning methods to protect our children when — if — schools open?

BARTLEBY: I would prefer not to.

TEACHER: And teachers! Don’t forget the teachers! Can you tell us how much of the budget will be spent on enhanced protective gear for our teachers? You can kiss my ass if you think I’m going to spend one penny of my sad salary on buying my own work masks. Never mind money in the budget for more sick days! Can you tell us that?

BARTLEBY: (pause) I — and I simply cannot stress this enough — would prefer not to.

It was then that the assembled parents, teachers, and board members began to lose their already strained patience; their heretofore grumbled displeasure broke into shouts, and I rose to the full height of my office. “Mr. School Superintendent” — my voice boomed through too-close contact with the microphone, and this silenced the room — “if you are unable to tell us what the plan is to reopen in the Fall, and if you are unable to tell us the difference between Hyflex and Teacher-Plus learning options, and if you are unable to tell us how often and with what vigor and with which astringent cleansers our schools will be disinfected, don’t you think that the only decent, humane thing for you to do — at this very moment — would be to resign, publicly and finally and immediately, from your position as Superintendent of our Schools?”

I thought I saw him color at this — maybe, just faintly, just barely perceptibly, right below his collar. But then he replied, without shame or hesitation, again and as always:

“I would prefer not to.”