Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 9)
Last Friday I spent most of the day in classrooms. The school was happily abuzz with Halloween activities. I had fun. Long after the children had dismissed and shortly before the close of the after school program, I sat with Mr. Nottingham in my office. We talked and listened to music. I told him about the recent accusations of Ms. Sims. We agreed that she was a pain. Ms. Sims always seemed to be playing dirty tricks. Her latest bit of mischief had come early for this holiday: Mischief night wasn’t until tomorrow, a Saturday.
We spent the rest of our conversation telling each other stories about our childhood trick or treating experiences. Mr. Nottingham told me about his boyhood adventures, trick or treating in the high-rise public housing projects where he grew up during the 1960’s. He and his friends would start on the eleventh floor and apartment-by-apartment work their way down to the main lobby. There were four buildings in the complex. By the time they were done, they had a supermarket bag full of candy. From his tone I could tell that these were warm memories.
His high-rise childhood was a happy one. He spoke softly and with a smile as he recounted these childhood tales, “We could do everything in our buildings. When it rained, we had a big dry lobby where we could play. There were elevators to ride, stairways to run up and down. You had to watch how you acted because there was always a grown up who knew you. They would correct you when you did wrong. I never really could get into the idea of going house to house on Halloween. I couldn’t see all of that walking around.”
I couldn’t imagine trick or treating in any way other than by going house to house. Back in the sixties, when I too, was carrying the supermarket bag and wearing the costume of my own design, my trail of trick or treating was up and down the long blocks of my row house neighborhood. In only three blocks of my horizontal world, my bag would become an overflowing candy cornucopia. I loved my childhood world as much as Nottingham loved his. There were alleys to run through and the local schoolyard with plenty of nooks and crannies where you could take shelter from the rain. You had to be careful to hide your mischief from the prying eyes of the adults. If they saw you doing wrong, they would tell your mother.
We are much alike, Nottingham and I. All of us are more alike than different. His childhood was vertical, mine horizontal. We are an x and y. Together we form an axis on the plane of existence where life is plotted. I can clearly see the lines that connect us. I wish I could see more clearly how to coordinate in the same way with everyone in our school community.
Today was almost as good of a day as Friday until I received a call from a staffer in Mr. Vallas’ office. It was 2:50 PM when she informed me that Mr. Vallas’ chief of staff had a meeting scheduled at 4:00 PM with Dr. Rider. The community activist had requested a meeting with him to discuss a serious allegation concerning the Meade school staff. The staffer wasn’t very specific about the complaints other than the fact that Dr. Rider wanted to address Ms. Sims allegations that I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
By 3:00 PM I had faxed to Mr. Vallas’ assistant forty pages of letters and reports that described Ms. Sims continuous patterns of false accusations, disruptive behavior and inappropriate actions on school grounds.
I was concerned that Mr. Vallas’ Chief of Staff would not have enough time to review the information before she met with Dr. Rider. It was a lot of information to absorb in such a short time. My reputation could be injured. I have a bad feeling about this matter.
After the school had settled down this morning, I checked in with the assistant from Vallas’ office. She had promised to get back to me last night in order to update me on the result of the meeting between Rider and the Chief of Staff. I waited in my office till well past 6. She didn’t call. When I got her on the phone today, she didn’t know whom I was. It took a little prodding on my part for her to remember. Once our reintroduction was complete, she said, “What really went well for you was that Ms. Sims showed up early for the meeting. She brought her entire family to the meeting. We were able to get a real sense of them. They were in our office for a half hour, screaming at each other. They were something else. I was impressed with how well you have documented everything related to Ms. Sims’ complaints. I will try to get you on the Chief of Staff’s schedule so that she can talk to you by phone later today.”
Her brief account of yesterday’s conference was off-putting to me. I was annoyed when she said it was in my favor that they were able to view the Sims’s family. It made me think that in their eyes I was guilty until proven innocent. My confidence in their ability to protect me was not bolstered by this conversation. I thought the meeting was just with Dr. Rider, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that Christie Sims was there. Why hadn’t the staffer mentioned that she would be participating in the meeting yesterday?
When I got off the phone, I started to contact my friends in the community. When you are the principal of an elementary school you spend much of your waking day living in your school community. You meet many people. I have been at this school for a long time. I have worked with many of our local ministers, business people, elected officials, and heads of local non-profits organizations. Together we have established a Safe corridor, after school programs, as well as tutoring and mentoring services. We respect one another’s commitment to helping other people.
The first person I called was Shirley Kitchen. She is a State Senator who has taken an enduring interest in the affairs of the schools in her Senatorial district. Meade is located in this district. About ten years ago, she formed an educational advisory committee to assist her in understanding the needs of these schools. The committee, of which I am a member, helped her to set educational advocacy objectives.
After I talked to Senator Kitchen she wanted to set up her own meeting with Mr. Vallas. She wasn’t happy with either the accusations being made or the person who was making them. On other occasions Ms. Sims had attempted to complain to the senator about the Meade school staff and me. The Senator knew me too well to seriously consider Ms. Sims’ accusations. I had conversations with several other people after the Senator. They too said they would contact Mr. Vallas on my behalf.