Audrey J. Cheek answers quickly when asked what she'll miss most about Lansdowne High School when she retires as principal on June 28.
"The copy machine," she jokes.
But it takes just a second for Cheek to become serious, and speak fondly of the staff and school over which she has presided for the past seven years.
"There are interesting adults here," she says. "And I'll miss being around the kids because I think that keeps you young. They're up-to-date."
Cheek, 58, retires from Lansdowne after 31 years with Baltimore County public schools. She spent the last years her career at Lansdowne, where she became Baltimore County's first female high school principal in 1984.
"I have very fond memories," she says.
Cheek discovered her love of academia while working as a chemist at the Pemco Corp. She was asked to teach chemistry laboratory sessions at Catonsville Community College, and after just a year switched careers.
"I left Pemco, and decided to become a teacher," she says. She taught chemistry at Ridgely Junior and Dulaney Senior High schools, became a department chairman, and in 1972 got her first administrative position as Baltimore County's acting supervisor of secondary science.
It was a one-year position, she says, "and then I was ready to go back to being a department head."
But she accepted an offer to become assistant principal of Deer Park Junior High. After a year, she left Deer Park to become principal of Sudbrook Junior High, and after three years left for the same position at Arbutus Junior High. It was seven years later that she joined the administrative staff at Lansdowne.
And though sexism would seem an obvious reason for the absence of a female high school principal in the county before 1984, Cheek says she doubts that discrimination was an issue.
"Our superintendent says that other women were offered high school [principal] jobs [before I was,]" she says. "It's just a lot of work. It's many nights out . . . I just think I was the first one, that's all."
There are 20 high schools in Baltimore County, four of them with female principals. In addition to Lansdowne, Patapsco, Loch Raven and Parkville high schools are run by women. Altogether, there are 60 female principals in the county's 149 elementary and secondary schools.
Emanuel Montgomery, a social studies teacher at Lansdowne for 14 years, admits that some of the male teachers wondered briefly about having a female principal, but says it didn't take long for Cheek to gain their approval.
"You always knew where she stood," Montgomery says. "You can tell I'm part of her fan club."
Mario Carrion, a Spanish teacher and head of the school's foreign language department, says he wasn't even aware that Cheek was the county's first female high school principal.
"When I started teaching 27 years ago, my supervisor was a woman," he says. "I never have cared if it is a woman or a man . . . I never even gave it a thought."
Patsy J. Holmes, executive assistant in the office of the county school superintendent, will take Cheek's place July 1. Holmes previously worked at Lansdowne, both as a teacher and an assistant principal, and "is just the tops," Cheek says. "I think it's wonderful that she's coming back."
Cheek says she found little difference between her positions as principal of a high school and principal of a middle school. She made the change from middle school to high school, she says, because "it was a different job, that's all.
"If you look at all the things I've done [in my career], after six or seven years I've always changed jobs," she says.
"I've been here for seven years. It's time for a change. Plus, you get to a certain age, and it occurs to you that you're not going to be a millionaire, you're not going to live in a mansion, you're not going to have a Jaguar . . . and you want time to do things, to enjoy things."
Some of the things Cheek plans to enjoy include trips to the Grand Canyon and England, working with the Owings Mills Green Action to help clean up the Jones Falls, and attending performances at Center Stage, the Folger Theater and the Metropolitan Opera.
"I'm not sorry I'm leaving, I'm not happy," she says. "I just think it's time."