Meet the Most Bizarre Woman on the Planet

I don’t normally publish my newspaper columns here, and when I do, certainly not before they’re published in The Salem Leader. However, I’m making an exception this time. I just sent this off to the editor for publication sometime in April:

The Salem Leader
Generation Why
April 2011
Justin Harter

Meet the Most Bizarre Woman on the Planet

One of the most bizarre people I ever met during my time at Salem High wasn’t a student or a teacher or an administrator. It was Joan Barrett. I say that out of admiration, of course. Mrs. Barrett, for those of you not fortunate enough to have met her, is the administrative assistant at Salem High. Or rather, she was the assistant. She’s retiring now after 41 years behind the desk of the main office.

In my time at SHS I spoke to Mrs. Barrett regularly, although not as much as most. When I did speak to her I usually walked away thinking, “How bizarre.”

The first such time was when I wandered by the office for some reason, probably to deliver some papers, and I looked down at the counter in front of her desk to see a typed post-it note stuck to a stack of papers. “Did you type a message on that note?” I asked, trying to squelch any tones of rudeness. I was just surprised that someone would type, with a typewriter no less, on a post-it note. “Yes, it’s typed.” She said, smiling up from her desk. How bizarre.

I came into school early during my junior and senior years. I fancied myself a morning person, often arriving before 7 a.m. and sure enough, she was always already there. I once asked out of curiosity what time she arrived each morning. She replied, “Oh, I usually wake up around 4 or 5 and get in here around 6.” How bizarre.

On one rare occasion I happened to see Mrs. Barrett outside of school. I had a hair appointment scheduled with Sheila Hawes at the House of Fashion. I walked in and took a seat to wait for Sheila to finish another customer and Vivian Wilson, the owner, was meticulously curling and spraying Mrs. Barrett’s hair in the next chair. It felt bizarre seeing her away from her desk.

Unlike most human beings that occasionally suffer a bad hair day, Mrs. Barrett does not. I do not believe she has ever had a misplaced hair. I’m sure Ms. Wilson would like to be credited for a head that is a walking testimony to her hair styling, but I’m pretty sure it’s just Mrs. Barrett’s exacting personality, embedded as deep as the follicles on her head.

During my senior year Mrs. Barrett underwent hip surgery. She was gone for about a week. While the building didn’t form a crater in the ground during her absence like we expected, she made sure to report back to work in very short order to see that it didn’t. One morning as I walked past the large glass windows of the main office, I saw her sitting at Mission Control, no doubt committing everyone’s GPAs to memory, when she tried to get up. She reached for her crutches just to go put some papers on the counter behind her. I wondered, “Why did she come back to work so soon? How bizarre.” The next time I saw her attempt to get up and reach for her crutches I made sure to ask if she needed any help. She relented only as I walked in and stood there to see that she was moving some folders to another counter.

Her duties, to the best of my knowledge, included handling substitute teacher requests when teachers called in ill, creating and printing the programs for the Honor Day and other receptions at the school, messing with report cards, mailings, drafting and maintaining reports and records for the State, dealing with visitors, handling the mail and a multitude of other stuff I’m sure I know nothing about. I once saw she had a binder that was her to-do list. She had compiled a binder full of tasks she does and instructions on how to do them. It’s precise to each day of the year. Want to know what she needs to do on May 14th and in what order? She does. She literally wrote the book. How bizarre.

Among all of the students she’s met in her four-decade long career, I haven’t heard a story of any student being rude to her. I’ve seen former classmates yell at the top of their lungs to the staff and administrators at SHS, but not to her. How could they? It would be like yelling at your own grandma. How bizarre that Jim Ralston, or any of the other 4 principals she worked for, didn’t just start telling students, “Go talk to Mrs. Barrett!” instead of issuing a detention. It probably would have fixed the problem faster.

I admired her bizarre ability to get up, get going and get things done so efficiently. I’m sure the school is preparing to hire at least three or four people to replace her. What will truly be bizarre is a Salem High without Mrs. Barrett at that desk keeping things running smoothly and efficiently. I wish her well in her future endeavors and suggest we put her typewriter in the trophy case near the front door. It’d be bizarre not to.


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Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

3 thoughts on “Meet the Most Bizarre Woman on the Planet”

  1. In addition, she typed every certificate for the Honor Banquets and Academic Awards programs—often 500-600 each year, for 25 + years. She made lists of the certificates, lists of diplomas, and lists, lists, lists. She is/was incredibly organized. She sent email and winpop messages to teachers all day long. Plus, she always answered the phone politely and pleasantly–and she was pleasant and courteous to everyone. She cannot be replaced……and everyone who worked with her will miss her and her cheerful smile.

  2. Mrs. Barrett cheerfully greets me every single day as I come in to check my mailbox, whether I am smiling or not. She runs SHS and will be a tough act to follow. She always does the right thing, as Mr. Ralston said today in tribute to her during our Lion Legacy assembly.

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