Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 8)
Providing our school district with more funds always seems to be the least desirable course of action for our state leaders. Raising taxes in order to help poor schools is not a politically attractive option. In Pennsylvania, our legislators, like many others across the nation, have become proficient in devising and pursuing school reform plans which have little if any cost attached to them.
We divert tax dollars intended for our local public schools to be used for the creation of charter schools. The federal government requires that a portion of Title One funds be spent on providing after school tutoring programs for students who score poorly on their state test. Providers other than the public school districts must deliver these programs. Many of these tutorial services are offered by for profit companies. School districts are forced to spend an increasing proportion of their limited funds and time on administering tests. This is what they have to do in order to prove that they are doing a good job. In Philadelphia, public school funds have also been used to hire for profit companies to run selected schools.
‘Blame and Shame”, has become a popular school reform strategy. Accusing teacher unions of impeding school reform by insisting on seniority rules is the “blame de jour” this year.
I don’t have much time to concern myself with the what-ifs of the contract negotiations between the SRC and the teachers’ union. My school days have been too busy for speculation of this nature. This week has passed in a blur of parent conferences, Temple principal meetings, and student discipline referrals.
Our children and staff are starting to settle in to the new school year. The main problem that we are experiencing is student misbehavior in the lunchroom. In order to fund more teacher positions and reduce class size, I have reduced the number of non teaching positions. As a result there are less aides who are responsible for supervising the lunchroom.
The classes in the periods before lunch are calm and focused. After lunch is a different story. With too few aides to supervise the lunchroom, it has become a more hectic place where the kids get really wound up in a short time. It is becoming a challenge for the teachers to calm their students after they leave the lunchroom.
I wish I could have it all: more aides, administrative support and reduced class size. But our school budget doesn’t allow me the “luxury” of funding all of our school needs. Having to choose one basic need over another is a dilemma that I regularly face.
We can have an art teacher or music teacher but not both, if we want to have a computer teacher.
I eliminated our school’s librarian position in order to purchase a teacher so that we could reduce class size. I haven’t funded an assistant principal position in order to purchase yet another teacher to reduce class size. I dropped a disciplinarian position to purchase a third teacher in order to reduce class size even further. These are all difficult choices but they are the choices I have to make in order to help my children to succeed. Ideally the School Reform Commission should provide us with all of the money that we need. If that were to happen then I wouldn’t have to make Solomonesque choices.
I didn’t go out to the yard at dismissal because I was on the phone with a central office administrator. An adult screaming in the hallway tipped me of to the fact that something was wrong. I could hear Yonnie, our Non Teaching Assistant (NTA), and Nottingham trying to calm the screamer. I decided to wait and see if they could settle this situation down before I had to jumped into it. After about ten minutes, the shouting only seemed to get louder. I had to get involved.
Different staff members came into my office to brief me on the situation. Two fifth-grade girls, Donisha and Saundra, had gotten into a fight. A clique of mean girls, led by Christie Sims’ daughters, had started it. During the fight, Saundra’s mother, Ms. Thompson, pushed through the crowd. She grabbed the other girl—Donisha—who was on top of her daughter, and pulled her to her feet. The mob kept swinging and kicking at Donisha. Donisha’s grandmother and aunt were also in the yard. They thought that Ms. Thompson was holding Donisha so that crowd could beat on her. So they got into a shouting match with Thompson. The staff broke up the kid fight but couldn’t calm the adults.
Nottingham brought Donisha’s grandmother into my office. Donisha is an honor student who has never been in trouble. Someone would have had to really provoke this girl in order for her to start fight.
The grandmom said, “That woman held my granddaughter while the other children beat her.” She wanted Ms. Thompson arrested. I shared the information I had received from the staff that had been in the yard. Quietly, she listened to what I had to say. Then I excused myself to meet with Ms. Thompson in an empty classroom.
She had recently enrolled her children in our school. I didn’t know her or her daughter. She admitted that she had grabbed Donisha.
“I grabbed her and pulled her off of my daughter. When I got her off the ground, the other kids started hitting on her. I wasn’t holding her so they could beat her. It just happened. I was wrong for grabbing the little girl, but I didn’t want my daughter to get hurt.”
I decided to bring Ms. Thompson into my office to meet with Donisha’s grandmother. At first it was dicey. But eventually we made some progress toward finding an agreeable solution. The grandmother said she could see how Saundra’s mom was trying to protect her daughter, and Ms. Thompson apologized for grabbing Donisha. It was agreed that Ms. Thompson would come back the next day so that she meet with Ms. Mills, Donisha’s mother.
Soon after everyone had left I went home. I went to bed as soon as I got there. I was exhausted and had a pounding headache
Installment (2 of 8)
In the morning every inch of my body ached. I couldn’t move my head without experiencing blazing pain. At eight o’clock, I called the office to let them know I wouldn’t be in for the day. At eight-thirty, Ms. Sample, the school secretary, called me back to let me know that Ms. Mills, Donisha’s mother, and Ms. Thompson were in the office.
“They’re screaming at each other.”
I could hear the shouting in the background. I asked Ms. Sample to bring Ms. Mills into my office and to put her on the phone so I could talk to her. When she took the phone I explained to her everything that I knew about the incident.. When she spoke, she told me that they had taken Donisha to the police special victims. unit yesterday afternoon. The police had photographed Donisha’s face and taken a statement from her.
I tried to convince her that the other parent was not intent on harming her daughter. “This mess is the making of a clique of girls who are only interested in stirring up trouble.” She knew about these girls. She said, “They’ve been making crank calls to my house. They’ve also been trying to start fights in the neighborhood. I told Donisha that I didn’t want her hanging around with those girls. They’re trouble. There are two sisters who seem to get everything started. One minute they want to be Donisha’s best friend, the next they are telling stories about her. I’ll take care of this.”
I spoke to Ms. Thompson next. She complained about how her kids were new to the school and that everyone was picking on them. I listened to her ventilate for a few minutes. When I thought she was ready to listen, I pointed out to her that she had problems:
“Donisha’s mom has made a complaint to the police. She’s filed a report stating that you assaulted her daughter. I’m willing to speak up for you, but you have to calm down and cooperate.”
“I don’t need the police. I was arrested once before for grabbing a kid who was attacking my kids.”
“Okay, that is not going to look good. Let me see what I can do. It would be best if I meet with you and the other mother and try to settle this.”
She agreed. I spent the next couple of hours on the phone sorting out the facts. I talked again to the staff members who had been in the yard during the fight. I had several conversations with Mrs. Sample and Mr. Nottingham. I talked to the classroom teacher of the two girls. Saundra was the new girl. She was being teased by a group of girls in her classroom, girls who were members of the clique led by Christie Sims’ daughters. The Sims girls kept telling Saundra that she was dirty and that she talked funny. The clique was trying to lure Donisha in. These were popular girls. Donisha who had always been quiet and respectful seemed to be flattered by their attention. So Donisha fought with Saundra in order to prove herself to her new friends.
I requested of Mr. Nottingham that he arrange for Donisha’s mother to come in to meet with the teacher. Mr. Nottingham and Ms. Martin are the school’s community liaisons and they also attended this meeting. The staff laid out for Ms. Mills everything that we had found out about the fight. Ms. Martin and Mr. Nottingham both knew the mother well. Ms. Mills wasn’t too pleased to hear that her daughter was picking on another child. Though this meeting went well, she still wanted to see me. I arranged to meet with her the next day at 3:30.
So much for my sick day! It’s hard for principals to take off, even for just one day. The work follows us. Around 11:30 AM, I finally was able to get some sleep. I was out cold until after 4 PM, when Mr. Nottingham called. He wanted me to know that there had been another fight at dismissal time. Two different girls were involved in this altercation, but the fight was a mirror image of the day before. The same mean girls egged two others into a battle. A crowd swarmed around them. The clique was up in the front kicking and punching the two girls on the ground.
The next morning, I didn’t feel any better. I called up to let the office know I wouldn’t be in until later in the day. I had an appointment with Ms. Mills at 3:30 PM that I didn’t want to put off. I also wanted to be in the yard at dismissal. Mr. Nottingham and I talked concerning the new fight. I asked him to get together with the staff to identify the kids who had joined yesterday’s fight and to find the kids who were kicking and punching the fighters. Many of the staff had been in the yard. Nottingham told me that this fight was worse than the first. At the end of our conversation, I also asked him to suspend the fighters for three days, and to suspend any of the other kids who’d joined for one day. When I checked back later, I learned that he had identified twelve kids who had swarmed the two fighters. A message needed to be sent right away to the whole school that this kind of behavior wasn’t going to be tolerated.
I arrived at school about fifteen minutes before the end of the day. Dismissal went well. My message had been heard loud and clear when the suspension notices were given out in classrooms.
Installment (3 of 8)
Ms. Mills arrived right on schedule. Our meeting was productive. I talked to her about dropping the charges against Ms. Thompson. She agreed to do so. She explained that the only reason she’d been involved in the police idea was to calm her own family. “My sisters wanted to go around to the Thompson’s house and confront the mother. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I had to do something. So I went along with the police idea. I’ll take care of it,” she said.
After Donisha’s mother left, I gave a call to Saundra’s mother. I informed her that I had convinced Ms. Mills not to press charges. I also let her know that I wasn’t pleased that Saundra’s dad had been up to school earlier in the day complaining that nothing was being done. She protested that this problem had been going on for three weeks and no one did anything to help her. I cut her short. “No one at the school knew about your concerns before the fight. You didn’t contact anyone. I just dug you out of a hole. I don’t want to hear you complaining that no one is doing anything.” She backed down and thanked me for my help. I told her, “If any other problems develop, that she should immediately let me know.”
On Thursday morning, the Temple Partnership staff and principals came to Meade for a meeting. They were going to do a walk-through of our classrooms. I wanted to be there. I was still feeling a bit sick, but I got myself going in the morning.
We were just getting the meeting started when I was called to the main office. Christie Sims was demanding to see me. She was irate that her daughters had been suspended.
Malika had created a disruption in the classroom. She wouldn’t follow the teacher’s directions. She kept walking around the room, talking and giggling with the other kids. She had opened a bag of chips and a one-portion serving of dip and was snacking while snapping at the teacher. The teacher took the chips and dips. Malika got up and went to the teacher’s desk and to took them back.
Ms. Sims’ response to the teacher’s discipline referral was, “I’m tired of the teachers picking on her.”
I told her that the suspension would be enforced. Christie didn’t press her protest of Malika’s suspension. She was more insistent on having her other daughter’s suspension rescinded. Tia was one of the girls who had been kicking and punching the girls on the ground during the fight on Tuesday.
“Mr. Nottingham has no right to suspend my daughter.”
“Mr. Nottingham didn’t suspend your daughter, I did.”
“Well you had no right to suspend her.”
“Your daughter was observed by Mr. Nottingham, a school staff member, punching and kicking two girls who were fighting.”
“That’s not what Tia’s friends told me happened. They said she wasn’t doing anything.”
“She was observed hitting and kicking the other students. In fact, she almost kicked Mr. Nottingham as he tried to break up the fight.”
“That’s why he’s telling a lie about her—he’s mad that she almost kicked him.”
“I suspended your daughter based on the facts which were reported to me.”
“Well, you’re wrong. That’s not what her friends said happened. I want the suspension removed from her file.”
“The suspension stands. Your daughter is not permitted in school today. You will take her with you when you leave.”
Christie stormed out of my office, shouting as she went, “He isn’t going to put a suspension on her.” She left the building with her daughters.
I went back to the principal’s meeting. I was only there for a short while before I was once again pulled out of the meeting. A representative from the Office of School Management was on the phone. Christie had gone directly to the School Reform Commission with her complaint that I was picking on her children.
Sherry, the administrator who had been assigned to deal with Christie’s concerns, was pleasant. She wanted background information. I provided her with a verbal synopsis of Ms. Sims’ long disruptive history at Meade. I also faxed fifteen pages of various letters I have sent to Christie over the last few years. Throughout the day on Thursday I talked to Sherry several times. She wanted to find a way to permanently remove Christie and her children from our school. I wasn’t opposed to this option. I missed almost the entire principal’s meeting while I was dealing with this problem.
The next day, I met with the parents of the other children who had been suspended for joining the fight in the schoolyard. It took more than two hours to meet with all of them.
Every one of them was very supportive. They were upset with their children’s behavior. And they made it clear to me and to their children that they didn’t approve of the meanness their children had displayed. Several of the parents mentioned that the Sims sisters were leading their daughters in the wrong direction. They assured me that they would put a stop to their children’s misbehavior. It was a very productive morning.
Shortly after I saw the last parent, I received a call from Dr. Rider, a community activist. She was investigating complaints filed by Christie Sims. “From what Ms. Sims tells me, there are serious things wrong at that school. She has given me power of attorney in order to handle this matter for her. I hope I can get these complaints resolved before I have to meet with Mr. Vallas. I meet with him every month.”
Later in the afternoon, I contacted Sherry. We discussed what I should say in my written response to Ms. Sims’ recent accusations.
Installment (4 of 8)
The teacher’s contract dispute has been resolved, but the details of the settlement are sketchy. The newspaper reports offer little in the way of information. Last Sunday, a third contract extension had expired.
On Monday, there wasn’t any news in either of the daily papers concerning the status of negotiations. During other contract negotiations, the newspapers have been filled with regular reports. This is the first contract negotiation between the District and the teacher’s union since the state takeover. I had expected front-page coverage for this historic event.
There is a report that a compromise has been reached regarding the principals’ right to select their own staffs. It is hard to tell what the real deal is from the paper. I’d have to wait patiently for an explanation of the settlement to be presented at a future principals meeting.
On this day of an alleged historic breakthrough regarding staffing procedures, I am sending out the NCLB mandatory letter to my parents regarding my seventh grade teachers. These two apprentice teachers are not considered to be highly qualified. They each have a B.A. degree and are in a graduate program to complete their certification requirements, but in accordance with a provision of the NCLB Act, our parents must be notified every four weeks that these teachers are not highly qualified. I feel like I’m branding them with a scarlet letter.
Of course it is important for a teacher to be certified. However, even though we have site-based selection for several years, we often cannot find individuals to fill our middle grade positions who meet the rigorous requirements of NCLB. The original intent of the law would have allowed our students to receive vouchers for private schools where many teachers are not certified at all. How could anyone justify allowing students to transfer to a private school staffed with non-certified teachers using a voucher as a legitimate school choice? Are non-certified private school teachers better than my two intern teachers?
It would be nice to take a three-day weekend by skipping school this Friday. I am sick of the bullies in my life. I resent how much energy I’ve wasted composing written responses to Christie’s attempt to defame me. Pushing these thoughts away, I dragged myself out of bed and went to work. I am feeling empathy for every one of my children who has ever been the victim of a bully. Belly aches and tears in the morning are the telltale signs of the child who is overwhelmed by the thought of another day of facing the schoolhouse bully, feelings I know well.
Right after the yard emptied in the morning, I made a dash for the third floor. I was avoiding the office. If I don’t go there my bullies won’t be able to find me, I told myself. During the next three hours, I visited almost every classroom in the school. It was a great pleasure. In the midst of the black clouds which surround the main office, the school sometimes looks and feels like a disaster. In the classrooms though, the sun shines brightly.
Everywhere, from kindergarten through eighth grade, the school was humming with the sounds of happy people engaged in productive learning activities.
As I worked my way through the classrooms I saw good instruction taking place almost everywhere. The quality of instruction and classroom management throughout the building is light years away from what it was when I started at Meade. Back in the beginning, if I had two or three bright classrooms I was happy. Now the lights are on in the whole house.
It was near noontime when I returned to the main office. Before I was able to get into my office, an aide approached me.
“Did you hear the news? Kia’s mom has transferred her to Washington School.”
Kia was Ms. Yates’ daughter, who had not been in school for the last seven school days. I guess she decided to take her personal issues and demons somewhere else. I think her unexpected departure might be a lucky break for us.
In the afternoon, I met with the members of the Meade Leadership Team. They were working on finishing several projects. Robert Ong, our technology leader, and Pat Costello, the Reading First coach, were working on the last section of the School Improvement Plan. Several grids needed to be filled in with data from many different sources. It was a tedious chore.
Ellen Lube was putting the finishing touches on the job description for the extended school day program. Alison, our Temple Partnership literacy coach, and I went through the prep schedule for both Meade and Dunbar School, which is another of the Temple Partnership schools. We were creating a coaching schedule for the two schools. The afternoon passed smoothly and we managed to complete much of our work. The time I spend together with my leadership team reminds me to appreciate having people around me whom I can trust. Having friends you can count on makes the bullies seem to be less of a problem. Dismissal went smoothly. The mean girls didn’t stir up any fights.
Installment (5 of 8)
In the past few weeks, Ms. Miller has been nipping at my heels. She engages me in bits and pieces of conversation here and there. She whispers in my ear whenever she sees me. Today, in the late afternoon, I was standing behind the school counter in the main office. Ms. Miller was picking up her children from the after school program. As soon as she saw me, she said, “I need to speak to you, Armand is having a problem with some boys.” Her face was intense. Her eyes drilled me with a stare. “These boys touched Armand on his butt. I don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they were just playing. I don’t know. Maybe they were doing something else that I don’t go for. Do you know what I mean? Me and my family don’t like that kind of stuff.”
I tried asking her some questions: “Where did this touching happen? Was it in the classroom? Did it happen when the class was going to the bathroom at recess?” She didn’t answer. “Let me talk to the teacher, I’ll see what is going on between Armand and these other boys. Ms. Myers is a really good teacher. She will get right with the boys.” She still didn’t reply. She seemed far off in thought. When she started to talk, it seemed more like she was thinking aloud than responding to me.
“Some boy touched Armand on the chest with his hand like this,” she demonstrated on herself how the boy had slapped Armand. “I don’t like him being touched like that by another boy. It bothers me.” She paused. Her eyes seemed to be looking at some distant place. In a moment she continued: “Some boys kicked Armand in the butt when he was going to the bathroom. Some boy has been picking on my son. He has been hitting him. I don’t know why he’s hitting him. I hear from the other children in the class that this boy has mental problems. He has some man who walks around with him and sits in the room. I think this boy takes some kind of drugs. It sounds like he has problems. It’s not right that he is picking with Armand. I want to meet with his mother. I want something done.”
I thought she might be referring to Devon, a boy in Armand’s class. He does have a therapeutic support aide. He does take medication. He is a special education student who receives service from an outside agency. Devon had been classified as “in need of emotional support services.” These services are to be delivered on an itinerant basis. According to his Individual Education Plan (IEP), he remains in a regular education class. A designated staff member, the counselor, psychologist or principal provides him with a weekly counseling session. His IEP was created at his previous school, and although our team thinks this plan barely addresses his needs, we have to abide by it. It was written just prior to Devon’s admission to a private intensive psychiatric program, from which he was released just a few weeks ago.
At the start of this school year Devon and his mother moved into a nearby apartment unit managed by a social service agency that provides a wide range of supports to drug dependent recovering females with children.
A large number of students transfer into our school each year. At least a hundred new admits will be registered between the end of September and early May in a typical school year. Of these students whose families frequently move from one neighborhood to another, a half dozen will be very difficult children to manage. Their parents can also be difficult. Life has not been easy for them. They are the most disempowered in a disempowered community. I want to help them but help is not something they take easily. They are defensive. They push people away from them. The problems they create within the school community frequently distract me from my responsibilities as the instructional leader of our school.
Saundra Thompson and her mother belong to this group as well as Devon and his mother. I spoke to Devon’s teacher, Sue Myers. She informed me of several problems that Devon had created in her classroom. And Devon had been hitting Armand. I assured Ms. Miller that we would handle this problem.
I saw his teacher, early the next day before the start of classes. I asked her why she thought Devon was picking on Armand.
“Armand is quiet. He sits by himself. He doesn’t bother with anyone. He is a good student. The bully kids kind of bump against him and say things to him. The other kids in the room know how to brush off these silly boys. But Armand just doesn’t know how to ignore or repel them. Devon has become his main tormentor. When Armand goes home, he tells his mom everything that happened to him during the day. The next day she comes to school to deal with his problems. She needs to back off a bit and stop getting involved in every detail of Armand’s day. I’ve tried to tell her, but she doesn’t listen. I just don’t know how to get her to hear me.”
“I don’t know how to get her to listen either,” I said.
“It’s unfortunate that Devon is in the same class as Armand. If we don’t fix this, I envision a hard time ahead for Armand.”
I want Ms. Miller’s boy to feel safe in school.
Installment (6 of 8)
We had our morning line up indoors because it was a wet and miserable day. The cafeteria was noisy and smelled of damp clothes. At 8:30 AM, I saw the kids off to their classrooms. I headed for the main office after everyone exited the cafeteria. I caught a glimpse of Ms. Miller sitting on the on the bench in the hallway as I entered the office.
I was on the phone trying to get somewhere with the Personnel Department concerning a teacher vacancy, when Mr. Nottingham came in to my office to let me know that Ms. Miller wanted to see me.
“I’m tied up now, tell Ms. Miller that I’ll give her this afternoon.” A few minutes later, I could hear her shouting in the hallway. Later I learned that Devon had attacked Armand as their class went up the stairs from the cafeteria to their room. He punched Armand five times in the face and then he kicked him in the butt. The teacher had sent Armand to the office with another boy in order to get some ice for his face. When he arrived, his mom was there. As soon as she saw him she started to scream.
Mr. Nottingham sent for Devon’s mom. He had also sent for Devon. When the boy came down to the office, Ms. Miller went right for him. She repeatedly tried to question him. After several warnings from Mr. Nottingham, she still didn’t back off and it was necessary to remove Devon from the office area and send him to a nearby room. This was the only way to get Ms. Miller away from him.
When Devon’s mother arrived, Mr. Nottingham brought her into my office. I greeted her warmly,
“How are you doing? Thanks for coming in today. I sent for you because Devon was beating another boy in line. He was very violent. We are trying to figure out how to stop him from hitting other children. I was hoping to hear your thoughts on why Devon is acting this way.”
“I don’t know why he is acting any way,” she replied. “You should talk to him if you want to know why he’s doing something.”
“Talking to a nine year old about why he is attacking another kid doesn’t often work. Usually they say, ‘I don’t know.’ I find it more helpful to talk to a young child’s parent when the child is acting very aggressive.”
She replied. “I don’t know what the big deal is.”
“The big deal is that your child just punched another boy in the face five times. He kicked the boy in the butt. He almost knocked the boy down the steps. When the teacher went to stop him, he told her, “Fuck you.”
“That’s what you say but I didn’t see it. I don’t have trouble with him at home.”
“You didn’t have to see it. We are telling you what happened.”
“I don’t know if you’re telling the truth,” she said.
“ Your child assaulted another child. I need your help in figuring out what’s happening with Devon. Is there something that might have upset him?”
“I don’t like the way you’re talking down to me.”
“No one is talking down to you. I’m trying to figure out how to help your son in school.”
“That is your job. I can’t deal with what he does in school. I’m not here,” she responded.
“You are his parent, you are responsible for him.”
“I don’t like the way you are talking to me. You want to dictate what I do.”
“We aren’t getting anywhere. Let’s deal with Devon’s behavior.”
“You can’t dictate to me. I’m going to go down to the School Board, I’ll take care of you.”
“Do what you have to do,” I said. “I’ll give you the names of the people you need to contact if you are not satisfied. We have a serious problem. I am suspending Devon for two days and I am referring him to Saturday School.”
“I’m taking him home. You can’t talk down to me or dictate to me.” She rose from her seat to leave. When Devon’s mom opened the door that led back into the main office, she started to curse.
“Fuck you! You can’t tell me what to do.”
I asked her to leave. After a few more curses, she relented and with her son in tow, she left the building. The therapeutic support service aide, who stays with Devon during part of the school day, asked me if he could call his boss. We stepped into my office. He shared with me his observations regarding Devon’s bullying. It was taking place when the aide wasn’t with him. The amount of service he was authorized to provide was limited.
I asked if Devon was also receiving counseling and mobile behavior services from his mental health agency provider. The aide said he was, but it had not been very effective. The agency was having a difficult time with the mother. How she had acted with me was similar to her interaction with the agency staff.
I realized then that I needed to soothe Ms. Miller, whom I had left sitting in the hallway. I asked Ms. Sample to send her in to see me. Unfortunately, she had left in a huff shortly after I took Devon’s mother in to my office. Ms. Miller had taken both of her children with her. She was probably already home, making a call to the District office. I decided I would call her later in the afternoon and set up a meeting. I spent the remainder of the morning visiting classrooms.
Installment (7 of 8)
After the last lunch period was over, I sent for Jordon. Earlier in the day I had visited Ms. Odum’s classroom. While I was there she told me about the teasing that Jordan has been enduring for weeks. Other kids were calling him a faggot. He was upset and she felt that he needed to talk to someone.
When he came to my office, I didn’t waste any time before getting to the point with him.
“Your teacher tells me you have been having a difficult time with some of the other kids. She said you needed someone to talk to you. So what’s up Jordon?”
“The other kids keep calling me names.”
“What names are they calling you?”
“I don’t know, names.”
“Are they calling you a faggot and gay?”
“How did you know?”
Jokingly I said, “I guess I’m a mind reader.”
He was tense. I tried to get to get him to relax.
“How long has this been going on?”
“Since last year.”
“It must be getting on your nerves.”
Jordon started to cry. I got him some tissues. He cried on and off for the rest of our meeting. He identified the boys who were teasing him. The main tormentor is Kendal. This boy a skinny stick of a kid. Jordon could easily snap him in two if he so chose to do so.
“Why do you think he keeps calling you a faggot?”
“I don’t know.” Jordon replied.
“Come on Jordon, I’m sure you have some idea as to why he is messing with you. I think you just don’t want to say out loud what you really do think.”
“He makes fun of the way I talk and walk. He says I act like a girl.”
“We’ve known each other for a long time, Jordon. I like you. You’re a great person. I think the way you act is just right for you.”
We talked for a while about Kendal. I tried to help Jordon to see that Kendal was treating him badly because Kendal felt badly about himself. “Bullies are always trying to make themselves feel better by trying to make other people feel lousy.” I continued to try to reassure Jordon.
“I’m afraid my whole life is going to be like this. People will always be calling me names.”
I felt a surge of anger as I considered how much power the Kendal’s of the world can exert over the Jordons. I tried to comfort him by repeating to him a line I had read in a book about bullies.
“It won’t be like this when you are an adult. Adults don’t bully one another like this. You will find plenty of people who will respect you and love you for who you are. I think you are a wonderful person. Together we can figure out some strategies for you to use when you deal with Kendal.”
“I don’t want you to say anything to him,” Jordon said.
“I agree, Jordon. I don’t think my confronting Kendal would be helpful. I do think it is helpful that we are talking now. You are showing that you are a courageous by talking to me. These are really hard feelings to share. Keeping all of this hurt caged inside of you wouldn’t be good. How about you I continuing to talk? I think it will help you to feel better to have some one with whom you can share your feelings.”
We talked for a while longer until Jordon managed to stop crying. When he was feeling more in control, I sent him back to his room.
After he left, I found myself thinking that I didn’t really agree with the line from the book that I had quoted. I’m not sure if anyone can ever escape from the reach of a bully. I sure have had my hands full with warding off the bullies. The threats and punishments of No Child Left Behind is a form of bullying. The attacks of Christie Sims and Ms. Yates are the attacks of a bully. I could relate to Jordon’s pain. I could also feel Armand’s pain and his mother Ms. Miller’s pain. When I think of all of the bullies that we all brush up against in our lives, I am overwhelmed with anger and frustration. I didn’t dwell for long on this thought. There were other matters, which need to be handled. I gave Ms. Miller a call and set up a meeting for the next morning.
I visited the eighth graders in the morning. I had a story that I wanted to read to them, a short piece by Paul Logan, called Rowing the Bus. It described a time from the author’s youth when he was bullied and how he stood up to the bully. It touchingly describes the regret he felt for turning his back on another boy who was being bullied. It is a powerful piece. I wanted to leave them with something to think about over the weekend.
I created a ruse when I introduced the story to the eighth graders. I explained to them that I wanted to read this story to the fifth graders. I said that they were having a problem with bullies and bullying.
“ When I’m finished reading this story, I want you to hear what you think. Is it a good story to read to the fifth graders. Will it help them to think about how they act towards each other? I want to hear your opinion.”
I was hoping that hearing this story would provoke the eighth graders to think about the bullying that was going on within their own group. I was trying to assist Jordon in an indirect manner. Perhaps after the leaders of the class heard the story, they would put some pressure on Kendal to get off of Jordon’s back.
The group was mesmerized by the story. There wasn’t a snicker or wise remark from anyone during the read-aloud. I could see through their reaction that they recognized themselves in the story. In the real bully story of life, we have all at some time played the part of the bully as well as that of the victim. The reactions of the students and their comments during the discussion that followed the read aloud confirmed my belief in their goodness. Everyone in the room was anti-bully.
Installment (8 of 8)
I met again with Ms. Miller today. I started off our conference by apologizing for her son having to suffer such an assault. I assured her that the other boy would be moved to another classroom. Her response wasn’t what I expected.
“Thank you for taking care of it. I was really mad yesterday. I didn’t think anyone was listening to me. I had to leave. When that other boy came down, I couldn’t help myself. Mr. Nottingham told me not to talk to him. I understood that I shouldn’t have. I wouldn’t want some other parent talking to my children when I’m not here. But I had to ask him why he kicked my son. I asked him three times. He wouldn’t answer me. If I didn’t leave when I did, I would have choked him.”
“I appreciate that you controlled yourself. It must have been hard. I’ve seen you when you’ve been really mad.”
“It was hard, but I promised myself that I wasn’t going to act like I did that last time, when I took Armand out of school in first grade. I was wrong then.”
I was impressed by her effort to control herself. I was also touched by her admission that she had been wrong when she blew up on me when Armand had been in first grade.
She continued, “It doesn’t matter anyway that you are moving that child. I’m going to home-school my children. I think that’s best. I’ve got hold of some people who are going to help me. They’ll give me a computer and stuff. All of the work will be on the computer. They’ll give me everything I need. I can’t remember their name.”
“It sounds like an on-line Charter School. Is that what you mean? That is different than home schooling.”
“Yes that’s it, a Charter School but I can’t remember the name. They’ll give me everything. They will send a letter to the School Board.”
“Is it the Pennsylvania On-Line Virtual Charter School?”
“Yes, that is it.”
There wasn’t any anger or bitterness in her voice. She sounded happy. I was concerned by her desire to take her children to a whole new level of isolation. I believe in being honest and direct with people. True to myself, I told her what was on my mind.
“I know you really deeply love your children. I also know how afraid you are that something will happen to them. I greatly admire your devotion. But do you think it’s a good idea to keep them home like this? Don’t you think they need to learn how to live more on their own?”
“I know what you mean. I wanted to give them more room this year. I was going to let Armand walk his sister to school on his own. I was going to go out and get a job. But on the first day, some man tried to get Armand into his car. I decided then and there that I needed to stay with them.”
“That was a great idea trying to let them be on their own. It must have been very difficult for you to decide to let them walk to school on their own. Maybe you started with too big of a goal. Starting smaller might have been easier. You could walk them to the corner of the school where the crossing guard is stationed. They could then walk into the schoolyard on their own.”
“Nope, I’m not going to do that.”
“No disrespect intended, but I think you need to give your children a little space. My children are grown now, but I understand about loving them and holding them close. I’ve been afraid at times that bad things might happen to them. It’s hard to let them go off on their own. But if you don’t give them space, they will feel smothered. They will go away from you when they are older.”
“I hear you, but I’m not listening to you. I don’t mean you any disrespect either. You are saying the same thing my mother and sisters tell me. I don’t listen to them either. My kids will never leave me. We are a three pack. We will always stick together. I won’t let them stay over my mother’s house unless I stay with them. We stick together. They want to be with me. Where our apartment is, there is a nice courtyard where the children play. I tell them to go outside and play. After a minute or so, they are back knocking on the door. They want to be with me. They have their toys and games to play with in our apartment. Armand has a miniature basketball backboard which he likes.”
I could see that there would be no convincing her. I apologized to her once more. “Well I’m really sorry that Armand had to suffer like that. I can see that you have made up your mind concerning what you have to do. If you need any help, call me”.
She didn’t get up to go.
“Do you know what really pissed me off? It was that the boy kicked Armand in the butt. That really made me mad. It reminded me of when Armand’s father kicked me in the butt. It really hurt. I was pregnant then with Armand’s sister. He almost made me fall down the steps. I had him arrested. He went to jail for three years. I’m not holding any grudge now. He paid for what he did to me, after he was arrested. He hurt me again before he went to trial. He came over to my sister’s house and beat me. That’s what that boy reminded me of. It made me really mad.”
I was taken back by the intimacy and honesty of her remarks. For a moment I was gripped with sadness. She had been deeply hurt by the abuse she had suffered from the father of her children. I felt that I needed to say something.
“He really touched your hurt place.”
“That’s right, my hurt place…He really reminded me…”
Her voice trailed off into silence. There was a distant look in her eyes. I waited for her to speak. She remained silent. I sensed that our conversation was done.
“Well, if you need any help just call. We’re here for you.”
She stood up. I walked her to the door. We departed peacefully. I was wondering how long it would be before she returned her children for another brief stay in our school. I drifted back into my own thoughts after she left. What a wall she has built around herself and her children. The father of Ms. Miller’s children was a bully. The time she has lived with him has left her emotionally raw. She has been betrayed and abused. Her anger still engulfs her at times in a blinding rage. The only two people in the world who she can relate to are her children. They are her life. What ever she needs to do to protect them from hurt she will do. I don’t think Ms. Miller means any harm to other people. They just need to stay out of her way. Ms. Miller has been my teacher this day. I am looking at my world a little bit differently after her lesson.
The disruptions to our instructional program posed by the hurts of emotionally injured and disempowered people are not considered in the calculations of school reformers. There are no points to be gained towards adequate yearly progress by helping parents to deal with their hurts and frustrations. We help them because it is the right thing to do.