The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Old age?  You don't leave fingerprints anymore!"...  ...Dorothy from "The Golden Girls" (1985)

Commentary of the Day - June 9, 2003:  My Personal Dactyloscopy*.   Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

I received the following note from a magazine publisher a few months ago: "Due to a reneging of a commitment by our financial backers, we are no longer able to publish our magazine.  We wish we could send payment to you for your articles, but we can't."  This particular publisher had committed to three of my essays with payment upon publication.  Their pay scale was higher than most, and had the magazine not gone belly-up, it would have been a nice chunk of change.

I suppose, in a way, it's better than finding out three months after payment is due that a publisher has folded up his laptop and left town in the middle of the night without paying me.  That has happened lately, too.

With this in mind, I knew that it was time for me to regroup, use my skills and training, and forge ahead.  I decided it might be time to go back to the classroom.  I had been away from teaching long enough that the battle wounds were healed and my memories of day-to-day classroom combat were practically forgotten.  I was almost excited about getting back into the trenches.

Okay, so that's a lie.  I typed that sentence to sound politically correct, but all of my fingers and toes were crossed when I typed it.  It's not so much that I don't want to teach anymore, but it's that I'd rather be writing.  When I started my extended 19-year maternity leave, I had no real intentions of ever going back to being in the classroom.  I threw out my lesson plans and my pointer, I donated my collection of literature textbooks to the local public library, and I gave my teaching wardrobe, including some very uncomfortable but stylish shoes, to the Salvation Army.  There are pictures in our photograph albums of a very pregnant Me doing the Dance of Joy coming out of the middle school where I worked on the day my maternity leave began in 1984.  My goal was to stay pregnant and barefoot for as long as possible with the self-serving goal of being able to sit at my Smith Corona all day.  That was before the first kid was born and I learned the truth about self-serving goals.

When we moved from New Jersey to Arizona, I never bothered to officially check whether my teaching certificate had any value in my new state.  It didn't matter much to me at the time because I couldn't see beyond my two young children with whom I was sharing my days.  Their priorities tended to block my view and my vision.  I had overheard others mention that all a certified teacher from another state needed to transfer certification would be to take one course in Arizona History and Government which could be taken after employment was secured in an in-service course.  That was in 1988, and in 1988 the thought of returning to the world of gerunds and verbals weren't in the forefront of my mind.

Now it was 2002.  The process had changed, but I didn't know that yet.

I called my local school district and proudly stated to the clerk who answered the phone my qualifications in detail using my best grammar and a lot of big words.  I was informed that the first step, even if I were only to apply to be a substitute, no matter how much experience I had and what my credentials were would be to get fingerprinted so the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the FBI could confirm that it would be safe for me to be around children.  (I actually didn't mind this part of the process because, having children of my own in the public schools, it was reassuring to know that the school district had gotten clearance on its employees.)

While waiting for my Official Fingerprint Packet to arrive in the mail, which in Arizona sometimes takes quite a long time because some people don't know there's no such thing as the Pony Express anymore, I had lots of time to research the process.  It seems many states require fingerprints for employees who work with children.  Many don't. California, Georgia, New York, and Arizona require them. North Carolina seems to have a policy AGAINST requiring them.  The National Education Association has a policy asserting "the right to be free from fingerprinting as a condition of employment."  I thought that was interesting.

On the day my Official Fingerprint Packet arrived in the mail, I went directly to the local police station to have my fingerprints done.  I was motivated to get the process moving.  Once there, I was told that they only did fingerprinting on Saturdays from 10 AM until noon.  It was a Tuesday.

Fortunately, on the way home, I passed a We'll Mail it For Ya store.  On the glass storefront, there was a large sign: "We do Fingerprints!"  Was this a sign that I was headed in the right direction?  I wasn't sure.

The girl behind the counter, Melody Ann, pulled out her little kit while I cleaned my fingertips with one of those cloths normally used to clean a baby's bottom that she provided.  Melody Ann then proceeded to roll each of my fingers from nail to nail on a black stamp pad and then she rolled each finger on the official card.  While doing this, she also took care of other customers and talked on the phone all at the same time.  There was an open bottle of nail polish on the counter near the register, and in between each task, Melody Ann, QUEEN of the Multi-Taskers, polished another one of her fingernails.  While waving her one wet nail, she also took the time to say, "Ma'am, ya know you have weird prints!"

I looked at the smudges she was creating on the Official Fingerprint Card and saw no lines.  They definitely weren't the type I'd seen on TV and in magazines.

"Are you doing something wrong?" I asked politely.

"Nopers," replied Melody Ann.  "I'm good at this.  I do it all the time the same way."  Then she added, "Do you keyboard a lot?"

I nodded.  "I'm a writer.  I work all day on a computer."

"That's it, then," she said.  I heard somewhere that keyboarding erases fingerprints."

"Will they accept these smudges?" I asked.

"Sure they will," Melody Ann said, "I do this all the time and no one ever comes back to complain.  That'll be $20."

In spite of feelings of a severe anxiety attack approaching, I put the Official Fingerprint Card with my fingerprint smudges into the envelope.  I mailed it with the official signed and notarized forms and a bank check for $44 to the correct address and waited.  I was told it would take ten to twelve weeks to process the prints.

Unfortunately, within two weeks my original fingerprint smudges were returned to me. The form that accompanied them said they had to be redone correctly because the prints were "too dark, too smudged, and the fingers weren't rolled properly from nail to nail."  Whoever processed them also circled the drop of nail polish Melody Ann had dripped on the card and put a question mark next to it.

I was upset.  If the process took ten to twelve weeks, this glitch was already adding two more weeks to that.  Time was money.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking that someone was trying to tell me something, but they were speaking in a language I didn't understand and playing it backwards at a different speed.

This time, I went to the local police department before noon on the following Saturday, and within a few minutes, a polite and rather handsome hunk of a police officer had my fingerprints taken, complete with very distinct lines.  When I asked the handsome officer with the biceps exploding from his form-fitting uniform about fingerprints being worn off by excessive use of a keyboard, he replied, "Oh, you must have had your original prints done by Melody Ann at the We'll Mail it For Ya store.  Isn't she a hoot?"  Then he flashed a brilliant whiter-than-white smile and handed me my new Official Fingerprint Card.

I mailed the package once again, making sure to keep all receipts because they were job search expenses.  I marked my calendar, again, for twelve weeks, and I waited.

Unfortunately, there must have been a touch of truth in what Melody Ann had said because twelve weeks later, having not received a clearance card in the mail, I called the Department of Public Safety and found out my prints were still being held up because of my "indistinct ridges."  Since clearance was based solely on criminal record, but since my ridges were "fuzzy and smudgy," they couldn't compare my prints against criminals on file at the state level.  The fingerprints hadn't even gone to the FBI for federal clearance yet.  It seemed the person with clearance to override this step was on vacation.

From a distance, my husband, who was listening to the conversation and watching me kick my office trash can with the map of the world on it, said I was behaving remarkably calm.  I was kicking the part of the trash can where the Middle East is located and managed to destroy Kabul and Qandahar with the tip of my Reeboks.

In reality, I was sure, at this point, that the Education gods had my name, social security number, and blood type, and they wanted me pointed in another direction.

Instead, I left a detailed message on the voice mail of the vacationing expert and waited.  Two weeks and four messages later, I got a return call from The Expert.  The Expert, because this is standard policy, decided to override the fingerprints and issued a clearance card based on my social security number, which they had for more than four months.  Since I was not a threat to children, my Fingerprint Clearance Card was in the mail, even though I had no fingerprints left.

After I received my Fingerprint Clearance card in the mail, I learned something I didn't know at the beginning of the certification process.  In order to receive an actual TEACHING certificate in Arizona, I would also have to pass the Arizona Educator Proficiency Assessments (AEPA) for Professional Knowledge and Subject Knowledge which were created by National Evaluation Systems, Inc. of Amherst, Massachusetts.  The basic fees for this battery of tests are about $175.  This does not include the fees for study materials which I have been warned are necessary to pass the test since much of it is about state law and how it relates to teachers.  It also doesn't include the cost to send reports of my scores to the various districts where I might want to apply.  On the Arizona Department of Education's web site, the following disclaimer is presented: "Neither the Arizona Department of Education nor the State Board of Education receive any form of financial gain through the AEPA program.  All matters related to payment and refund of funds incurred through the AEPA program are handled by National Evaluation Systems, Inc."  Things had changed quite a bit since we first moved to Arizona. I looked at the calendar and the reality sunk in --- if I wanted to go back to school as a teacher, I'd have to study for and take the tests.  And this would take more time.

In the meantime, I mailed the Class One Fingerprint Clearance Card to the State Board of Education along with an extended application, a check for $30, my official teaching certificate from New Jersey with its raised seal, my official college transcripts, and a letter from the school district that employed me for a decade.  Within a few weeks, I received my official Arizona Department of Education Certificate for SUBSTITUTE TEACHING in Arizona's public schools.

At the same time, knowing all there is to know about signs and Education gods, I also applied for a job at a local learning clinic.  They hired me and I've been working there ever since.  The hours are good, the pay is very acceptable, the facilities are great, my colleagues are extremely professional, and the children, knowing they are at-risk and we're all working together to help them achieve, work hard and don't harass teachers.

Similar to many school districts throughout the United States, the district where I would apply is laying off teachers in order to make its budget work.  Of my son's six teachers this semester, two will not be there in the fall.  One is his English teacher.

Maybe it's a sign.

*dactyloscopy - n. comparison of fingerprints for identification

©2003 Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a former English teacher and freelance writer from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.