The focus of attention at noon Thursday at Coastal Bend College was business instructors Jeanene Jones — she was head of the division — and Christine Gonzalez — whose contracts were among 13 CBC employees that were not renewed April 18 with little fanfare and less explanation by a stoic board of directors.
Around 30 students and fellow teachers gathered at noon in Room E-116 that was decorated by 60 pastel balloons, 11 hanging stars and one snowflake.
“I only have so much room in my kitchen to cook,” said Amanda Govella, an accounting student who helped organize the party. “Otherwise, I would have involved the entire school.”
It was a potluck affair, a metaphor that did not go unnoticed by many who sat down to sausage, cheese roll, fruit salad, lasagna, chicken Alfredo and half-a-table full of desserts.
Contributing to the decorations was accounting instructor Elden Price, wearing a necktie featuring the cartoon character Tasmanian Devil. “This is my ‘attitude’ tie,” he said.
At the head table, Jones and Gonzalez. No ceremony, no speeches — just friends wondering what they were going to do next.
Jones tended to dominate the conversation. She was older and been there longer and she is a natural extrovert.
Two seats down, Gonzalez: normally quieter, whose introvert penchant is easily countered by an almost continuous smile.
The proverbial elephant in the room was the stark reality that the CBC board’s decision had disrupted careers, wishes and graduation plans of numerous students.
“I was going to graduate next year,” a voice exclaims over the crowd. “Now, I don’t know when I will graduate.”
“Have you decided anything?” accounting major Tiele Dockens asked her colleague, Amanda Montez.
“I don’t know. I’ve talked to my parents and they support my leaving here.”
Between entrees and dessert, many signed messages on two posters on the wall, one for Jones and one for Gonzalez.
“You’re the best! You will always be the best teacher I’ve ever had,” Erica Rodriguez wrote to Jones.
“Things won’t be the same without you,” predicted Crystal Varnon on the same poster.
“You will be missed by your No. 1 fan,” Govella wrote on Gonzalez’s poster.
No one avoided the feast.
Turning to Govella, Jones said, “Pasta is my favorite food.”
“So if I decided to open an Italian restaurant, you will come?” Govella asked.
Gonzalez left the room for a conversation in quieter surroundings.
“I’ve been here 10 years,” she said, shaking her head. “I went to school here. I was a secretary here. I was a student in the very program I was teaching. I gave my heart and soul to this place. I always thought this was home.”
She hesitates to use the world “betrayal” but admits what she feels about the board’s action is close. “I’m not bitter, I’m not angry, but to do this with no explanation…”
“And not to know the process. If student evaluations, student success rates, student contentment and the needs of the students were not taken into account, then all of those are negated, they account for nothing.”
As she talked, student Misty Boyd was writing on Gonzalez’s poster “Thank you for helping me appreciate the business world. With all the respect in the world…”
Slowly, the crowd finished their meals and went away. There was a student awards ceremony that demanded their presence, but the domineering presence of Jones and Gonzalez took precedence.
Finally, the pair posed for photos, their arms full of balloons and their poster.
Gonzalez was about to leave when she looked around and found Erica Rodriguez across the room, fighting to hold back tears.
Later, as she turned to go, Govella stopped her.
“Wait,” she demanded. “I want a hug.”
As the instructors re-gathered posters and balloons, gifts and flowers, a few of the students could not sustain their sense of sadness. To the music of Carrie Underwood singing “American Girl” emanating from a jambox attached to an iPhone, they ran around the room popping what balloons remained intact and shredding crepe ribbons hanging from the door.
“We’re making a mess,” one of them said to Jones.
For someone who has been at the college for 27 years, it’s hard to break the habit of command.
“Tell them to clean it up,” Jones ordered.
Even on their last days at CBC, facing unknown futures, Jones and Gonzalez were the life of the party.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.