Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
This book provides a first hand account of the life of an urban elementary school principal in the era of No Child Left Behind. On Monday and Wednesday, I post an installment of the current month’s chapter. The complete text for previous chapters can be found listed under Categories.
The names of all students and parents who are described in this story have been altered in order to protect their privacy.
Installment 1 of 9/ Well, We Sure Have a Lot of Feelings
Monday mornings aren’t as frantic now that spring is here. The fast and furious waves of transient children entering and exiting the school have begun to ebb. At last the tide has turned. Though problems still confound me, at least I don’t feel as overwhelmed by them.
Paul Vallas has endured his own storm of stressful events in the last week. A fourth grade child in one of our city’s schools attempted to hang himself on a hook in the coat closet. In a different neighborhood, some children were pricked by a syringe they found on the way to school. In yet another part of the city, a child was shot outside of his school.
It has been almost two weeks since the Saturday parent meeting took place with Vallas and his top aide. I wait for news from him or his staff regarding the status of our school.
The rumors are flying. Nearly every person who comes into the school claims to know for sure what is going to happen. They all start their stories in the same way. “I heard from a very reliable source at 21st Street that…”. In some of these tales, the Deputy Slide wants me out. In other accounts, I’m being promoted to Regional Superintendent. Some of the rumormongers are certain that we are in the CAR region. Other storytellers say that Temple will continue as our manager. I wonder, how many reliable sources can there be?
I talked to John DiPaolo on Wednesday. He said that the talks between Temple’s president and Mr. Vallas are going well. “There isn’t anything official yet but I’m confident that all four schools are going to stay in the Partnership.”
Yesterday I was notified that I must attend a meeting on Friday for the principals of the CAR schools. The waiting gets more nerve-racking with each passing day.
In the school, life has been calm. The Terra Nova testing has been proceeding well. There have been very few disciplinary referrals and only one bizarre incident has occurred this week. The fourth grade brother of Saundra Thompson had been involved in a verbal confrontation with several boys on Wednesday in art class. Afterwards he worked himself into an angry state. When he returned to his classroom, he attempted to hang himself by his shirt collar on a hook in the coat closet. The teacher took him off the hook immediately and called for the counselor.
The counselor tried to contact Mrs. Thompson. The person who answered said she was sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed. An aunt came up to school in her place. The counselor recommended that the boy be taken to the emergency psychiatric clinic for an evaluation. The boy said he was only joking. He claimed that he was imitating the boy he heard about in the news who hung himself on the coat hook last week.
Today I saw Mrs. Thompson at Saundra’s disciplinary hearing. She didn’t mention the incident concerning her son. The meeting was held at the district’s law office. Pat had come along with me. She had witnessed Saundra and her aunts’ attack on me. The girl who had pulled the knife was seated next to Mrs. Thompson. Her presences made me feel uncomfortable.
I presented my testimony. Mrs. Thompson and her daughter each made short statements. The aunt was the last person to speak. She stated that she was the one who had attacked me, not Saundra. It was true that she had assaulted me. But this didn’t mean her niece was innocent. Saundra had participated in the assault. After the aunt completed her confession, she offered me an apology. “Mr. Murphy, I am sorry for causing you harm.”
It was a bizarre scene.
I arrived at 8:15 a. m. for the meeting of the CAR principals. When the Regional Superintendent saw me, she invited me into her office. There she informed me that I was welcome to attend the CAR meetings but my presence wasn’t mandatory. “Temple will continue to manage your school as well as Ferguson. You will also be part of the CAR region.”
“Well what exactly does that mean?” I asked.
“I’m not quite sure what the whole answer to your question is, Frank. John DiPaolo will continue as your supervisor. Temple will still manage Meade and I will oversee how Temple manages your school. There are still things to be worked out regarding how this will operate.”
I could see that Meade’s new status as a Temple School and as a member of the CAR region is going to be complicated. We are going to be caught in the middle of a tug of war between two managers.
The principals’ meeting started at nine o’clock. We went without break until 1:30 p.m. For most of that time we sat in a circle and engaged in activities intended to help us to get in touch with our emotional selves. We were instructed to make nametags. On them, we were asked to draw symbols that represented our hopes and fears concerning the CAR region. When we were finished, the superintendent asked each of us to explain why we had chosen our respective symbols.
A large chunk of time was spent on this sharing of our emotional responses to learning that our schools had been included in the CAR region. The superintendent initiated this dialogue by saying, “I want you to share with everyone how you felt when you learned your school was selected for CAR. I’m going to list your responses on the board. We are all going to process our feelings together”. Several times during the course of the morning she reiterated to us, “Effective leaders are in touch with their emotions.”
I found the responses of the principals to be amazingly candid. Shock, depression, and fear were the top three feelings identified. The board was quickly filled with comments. The superintendent concluded by stating, “Well, we sure have a lot of feelings. I’m glad we are able to get them in the open.”
When someone asked how the region would operate, the given answer was brief. “ We will be having many more meetings where your questions will be answered. The people from Johns Hopkins University will soon start to study your schools. Except for you, Frank. Temple will have to decide what they want to do about the Johns Hopkins study.”
The other principals looked puzzled. The superintendent explained to them how Meade and Ferguson would continue to be managed by Temple, but still be a part of the CAR region. They looked as confused by this pronouncement as I felt.
Installment 2 of 9/ My Reality Is Nonfiction
The final days of another school year have begun to play out. The last few weeks have been peaceful. Tense moments with disruptive students and angry papers have been few and far between. The flow of new admits has slowed to a trickle. Lately, I’ve been able to spend most of my time visiting classrooms. There I am consistently observing students who are engaged in interesting and instructionally appropriate activities. I am pleased.
In this calmer time, I have found many opportunities for extended conversations with children as well as teachers. I’ve been so busy with these interactions that there hasn’t been time to engage in idle thoughts about the murky future. It is good to enjoy the normal life of a principal.
John DiPaolo had his own meeting with the CAR regional superintendent. She informed him that a team from Johns Hopkins University will be visiting Meade. Afterward they will submit a report. We should receive a copy of it by the end of next November. It is the expectation that Temple will address the recommendations that this team suggests. John is confident that the management agreement between Temple and the school district will remain as it is for the next school year.
Today John updated all of the Temple Partnership principals on the status of negotiations between Temple and the District. He informed us that a verbal agreement had been reached with the District. All four schools will continue as Temple Partnership Schools. Meade and Ferguson will receive district support through the CAR Region. Duckery and Dunbar will stay connected to the District through the newly formed region that will support just EMO schools.
After the meeting ended, several of the principals became involved in a lively discussion concerning the future of Paul Vallas. The day before, The Inquirer had reported on numerous rumors circulating around the city concerning Vallas. In July he will be awarded a three hundred thousand dollar bonus for having remained as the CEO for three years. There is speculation that once he receives this money, Vallas will leave town. Many people believe that he will soon declare himself as a candidate in the Illinois gubernatorial race.
The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported that an Internet website has begun to advertise the services of consultants who will help districts to implement a “Vallas-like” reform effort. Vallas denied having any involvement with this endeavor and shortly after the publication of this report, the website was taken down. In today’s paper there was an account of Vallas’ brother and his efforts to organize a petition drive in order to change the Illinois residency requirement for those who seek the governor’s office in that state. Vallas says he has nothing to do with his brother’s activities. He claims he is not running for anything and that he is going to finish the job he started here in Philadelphia.
I wondered about the future of the CAR region should he choose to leave. How long would it last under another leader’s regimen? It is starting to look as though Vallas is in his final laps of Philadelphia school reform.
Last night I met with the members of the Home and School Association. I gave them an update on the progress we have made in maintaining our status as a Temple managed school. They were pleased.
This school year and thus this story are nearing an end. When I decided to write this book I had no idea of the challenges that would face me. My initial plan was simple. I would describe the day-to-day life of a principal. As this project evolved, I found myself in the center of events that were far from routine. Many of my experiences during this year have been disturbing in nature and have left me in a confused state of mind. I am not quite as sure of my purpose as a schoolman as I was when I started this year. For the first time in my career, I am questioning whether I want to continue with this work. I still do want to change the world. But in these current days of school reform, I am disheartened. I fear that I will not be as successful in making the kind of difference that I long to create.
If the accounts I have offered here were a fiction, then the characters, settings, and plot of my narrative would all be within my control. As the author, I would determine the outcome of the Meade story. All of the problems I introduced would be resolved to my satisfaction, and I could leave the reader with an inspirational and happy ending.
But I am not an all-knowing first-person narrator. I have no idea as to how this story will end. My reality is nonfiction. My school’s fate and ultimately my own fate will slowly unfold over the course of the next year or two. I am sure that there will be no neat ending to this tale.
Installment 3 of 9/ “Merchants of Hope”
On Thursday, I stopped in the auditorium in order to observe the eighth grade graduation rehearsal. The teachers were organizing the students’ processional march. In a little more than three weeks, our first group of eighth graders will take their final bow on the elementary stage of their lives. In September they will start high school. For many years I have watched over them. Now it’s time to write our goodbyes in the memory book of the Class of 2005. I am at the same time, excited, proud and sad.
In the schoolyard during dismissal, I had an impromptu meeting with Isaiah’s dad. Isaiah hasn’t been acting like his usual self. He has been in a few fights with other students and has been disrespecting his teachers. Isaiah’s father explained to me the cause of the boy’s misbehavior. He received a rejection letter from the New England prep school to which he had applied. The news has devastated him. I felt bad for Isaiah. We have had several conversations about this school. He was so looking forward to going there. His recent poor behavior made sense now. Shattered hopes can often lead to angry and rash behavior.
The next day I attended the monthly citywide principals’ meeting. This one was held at a hotel conference center located on City Line Avenue. The venue was well appointed, with all of the services available that would be expected at a business conference. The morning started off with coffee and pastries in the ballroom. Later there was a sit down lunch. I calculated that the cost of this event was most likely equal to the amount of money that I needed to complete the funding for an assistant principal’s position. The extravagance of this event mildly annoyed me. But this irritation was nothing compared to the aggravation I felt concerning the shallow, pep rally-like tone of this principal meeting.
Chief Academic Officer Greg Thornton delivered the opening address. He started by acknowledging the dozen or so principals who had decided to retire at the end of the year. He then informed us that a national search was being conducted to identify new principal candidates. The human resources department has thus far received only four responses, according to Thornton. “We aren’t sure we will have enough qualified people to fill the positions we have, he said. “Perhaps the retirees would reconsider their decisions.”
For most of his speech, Thornton elaborated on his analysis of the progress of the current administration’s reform efforts. I found his eventual conclusion to be ironic especially coming from an individual who is intent on changing every aspect of our district’s operations. “We are making great progress, he said. “In order to keep the momentum of reform going, the most important thing we need is consistency. Half-completed reforms have to stop.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by this statement. Was he referencing the Hornbeck agenda, which had been cut short by the Vallas model? Or was he referring to the continuous stream of initiatives that are announced by the current administration only to then falter or fade from sight? Either way consistence has been in short supply in this district.
After he spoke, we moved to our breakout rooms. I chose to attend a session on how to integrate arts activities into classroom instruction. The presenters were book company sales representatives. They explained how classroom teachers would now be expected to use the art and music textbooks that had already been purchased for all of our schools by the central administration. According to the presenters, these supplementary materials are aligned with the district’s core curriculum in that the format used to write their texts is the same one used in the district’s basal reading series.
The decision to purchase these materials for our arts and music programs didn’t make sense to me. Since many of our schools don’t have either an art or music teacher, it would seem to be more important to direct our resources towards hiring appropriate staff rather than purchasing expensive and glitzy textbooks. A highly qualified teacher will certainly be better able to help our children experience the arts than a pretty, packaged book from a publishing company. Is this an example of another initiative to add to Thornton’s “momentum of reform”? If so, it’s a disappointing choice.
Lunch was scheduled between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. It was billed as a working session. This meant that we were expected to listen to speeches while we eat.
A motivational speaker was the first person to address us. She started her speech as soon as everyone was seated. “Merchants of Hope” was the theme around which she shaped her talk. Over the front of the speaker’s podium, she had hung a tee shirt emblazoned with this phrase. Slowly and carefully she weaved this message into her personal life story, offering one example after another of the adults who had inspired her as a child.
Her talk focused on the potential within every person and the responsibility of all educators to help their students to tap into their own potential. According to her, academic success is all about attitude, vision and self-responsibility. At one point, she mockingly dismissed the cynics. “There are people who want to ignore a child’s potential because of a thing called socioeconomics! These are the people who think poor people cannot achieve. I grew up poor and I achieved! I wasn’t just poor, I was po’! Yes, my family was so poor we couldn’t even afford the ‘or!”
The speaker then went on to describe in detail her humble origins. She spoke of facing daunting obstacles through out her life but despite them, becoming a successful person. She concluded by describing the greatest personal tragedy of her life. A young boy had shot and killed her beloved husband during a botched hold-up attempt. Her account was a gripping tale, with a vivid and intimate description of her pain. The speaker recounted the devastation of her loss, the despair that consumed her, the hopelessness she felt. For several years after being parted from her husband, she lived in despair. She gave up on life, but friends and family kept after her during this time. Finally she found salvation in their embrace. She thanked these “merchants of hope” who helped her through her sorrow.
The speaker concluded her speech by quite movingly describing how the grandmother of the boy who had killed her husband later came to her and asked for her forgiveness. “This poor sad grandmother begged me to forgive her grandson”, she said. “The grandmother told me, ‘He is a good boy with a very troubled life. I tried to protect him from the street. Please forgive him’.”
Amazingly, the speaker revealed that she did forgive the boy. “I had only wished that a merchant of hope had succeeded in touching the life of that boy”, she said. “If only he could have seen hope before he met my husband in that parking lot.”
Tears welled up in the eyes of people throughout the ballroom as she finished her story. Then to the assembled principals she said, “Children need merchants of hope in order to guide them through perilous times and situations. You are merchants of hope. You are the ones who can make a great difference in helping a child find a positive direction. In your work, you can help stop other boys who are on the low path before they bring suffering to another wife.”
I was personally touched by her story. Yet professionally a part of me felt as though I were being manipulated. I sensed that the intent of the planners of this event was to convince us that we could increase the test scores of the children who are educated in our under-resourced schools if only we displayed the right attitude. If we just believe in the children, all will be made right. The problem with this worldview is that it frees our society from claiming any responsibility for dealing fairly with the needs of the poor.
I talk to my students everyday. I cajole them. I encourage them. I know that I am a merchant of hope. I also know that good merchants deliver more than a fancy sales pitch. The children I serve need more resources than what is available to them in order to succeed. For these children to thrive, they must be given the same opportunities that more advantaged children enjoy.
The leaders of more affluent school districts readily acknowledge that money does make a difference in the quality of education for their children. It is evident in the money that they purposefully allocate in their budgets for the arts, for counselors and for keeping their class sizes small.
In Philadelphia, our leaders tell us to stop talking about poverty and the need for additional funds. We are told money doesn’t make a difference. Instead of larger budgets, we are given motivational speakers whose apparent objective is to convince us that a proper “attitude” is all that anyone needs in order to succeed. These well-compensated messengers highlight the successes of a few exceptionally resilient children in order to prove their point.
I don’t buy the arguments they make. In my opinion, true “merchants of hope” work to secure the resources that every child requires, regardless of cost. Perhaps if Isaiah had come from a more wealthy family, he would have won acceptance to the exclusive New England prep school he so desperately wanted to attend.
Installment 4 of 9/ The Foot Soldiers of Homeland Defense
Midway through our citywide principals’ meeting, with lunch nearly finished, we were instructed to stand up and take a stretch at our tables. Our first luncheon speaker had just concluded her lengthy Merchant of Hope speech. Now we were to be addressed by CEO Vallas, who followed with his own long monologue.
Vallas began by describing the businesses of his day so far. In the morning he had worked on negotiating a bond deal in New York. “I have four bond deals on the table right now. Convincing people to invest in me has been difficult”, he informed us. “When I first came here, no one wanted to have anything to do with us. We were a money hole. Now people can see the district we are becoming. As I put reform into place, this district is no longer viewed negatively. I was one of two districts in the nation who dared to quickly move on a comprehensive package of reforms. At the end of the day, we will get the job done.”
Vallas continued with a call to action for principals in the district. He informed us that we, the principals of Philadelphia, are the new civil rights activists of our times. We are the also the foot soldiers of homeland defense. “Reforming public education will be the defining moment of our generation”, he declared. “Schools and school districts must be the transformational agents for our society. Through the opportunities we provide children in our public schools, we will protect their civil rights. We will protect our nation. Making better schools is the work of homeland defense.” According to Mr. Vallas, terrorists will not be able to find a foothold in a well-educated nation.
By the time he was finished, I had more than my share of inspirational speeches for one day. Imbibing in too much of the happy spirits can leave you tired and nursing a nasty headache. I didn’t need to soak in any more inspiration.
After the meeting, I found myself in the hotel lobby with several principals of CAR designated schools. One of them was relating to us how she had heard from a reliable source that all of the principals of the CAR schools were going to be replaced. Her comment created quite a stir within the group. After a lively discussion, we concluded that in the current climate of the school district anything is possible. I left the hotel thinking that I need a “merchant of hope” who will encourage me to keep on with my work.
Installment 5 of 9/ The Victim’s Waiting Room
The neoclassical façade of the courthouse in which Family Court is located is quite an impressive sight. The first floor courtrooms and waiting areas, which are designed in a symmetrical Beaux Arts style, are equally grand. Stained glass windows depicting the virtues of family life, adorn the lobby. Bronze chandeliers and majestic torches convey a sense of elegance and wealth that contrasts starkly with the humble origins of the multitude of citizens who face judgment in this chamber of justice.
As I entered the lobby, I was struck by the gravity of this place. It was a few minutes before nine, the designated time on my subpoena. Airport-style metal detectors, monitored by armed police officers, were positioned on both sides of the lobby. In order to gain entry to the building, visitors had to pass through these security checkpoints. I did not clear security until well after my appointed arrival time. Once I was free to move around the courthouse, it didn’t take long for me to find the victim’s waiting room. I was there to testify at Phillip’s hearing.
Arm to arm hardback chairs lined the walls of this cramped room. In the middle of the space, two more rows of chairs were arranged back to back. Throughout the room victims like myself sat facing one another. Separate in our thoughts yet thrown together in this intimate place, we waited to give testimony. Elbow to elbow and knee to knee we the injured parties of a crime sat ready to testify against our offenders. We waited for the call of justice.
At nine thirty-five, an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) addressed the assembly. She gave a concise explanation of how the day would unfold. “You might be here all day or you might be out by noon. It is hard to predict how quickly any judge will act on a case. You might even find that you will have to come back at a later date. The attorneys of defendants will often ask for a continuance. If the defendant has a private lawyer, this will most likely happen. It is a strategy that they use. By making you come back repeatedly, they hope to wear you down until you drop the case.”
A woman seated across the room from me nodded her head vigorously up and down as the ADA talked. She called out. “That’s what they are trying to do to me and my daughter. This is the fifth time that we have come here.” Until I heard this speech, I had been thinking that I would be quickly finished with this business. It appeared that I would not be making it back to my car before the two hours allotted on my parking meter expired. It would have been a wiser move on my part to have parked in the ten-dollar all-day parking lot across from the courthouse.
As the morning progressed, various ADAs entered the room and called out names of people. At ten o’clock it was my turn. “Frank Murphy, is there a Frank Murphy here?” I stood up. “There you are. Follow me, Mr. Murphy.” I felt as though I were in a busy doctor’s office. The ADA led me down a short hallway. We entered a small room. The only furniture there consisted of two beat up metal folding chairs. We sat down while the ADA quizzed me about the details of Phillip’s assault. Then she told me that the public defender had contacted her earlier in order to share details of Philip’s difficult life.
She inquired as to the kind of action I wanted to see taken. I said, “I am only interested in getting help for Phillip. From past experience in dealing with other children, I have learned that the court has access to a variety of social and counseling services that are unavailable to schools. I want Philip and his family to get this assistance. What do you suggest?” I asked.
“I’m thinking we should ask the Judge for a Consent Decree.” She replied. “What is a Consent Decree?” “We set up requirements that Philip and his family must agree to perform.” “Would this include social services?” “ Yes. The family would be monitored by a caseworker for a year. Counseling for Philip and his mother would be a mandatory part of the deal. At the end of the year, he will come back before the judge. If the agreement has been adhered to, the charges against Philip will be dismissed and he will have no juvenile record. If Phillip and his parents don’t follow through on the court’s orders, his case will be adjudicated. The irony is that he will be held more accountable by a Consent Decree then by being convicted of a crime. If he is found guilty today, he might be sentenced to thirty to sixty day of community service. After he serves the time, he will be dismissed without receiving any further services.”
I asked a few more questions, before I agreed to her suggestion to request a Consent Decree. She told me it would be a little longer before I was called into the court. I was sent back to the waiting room.
Upon my return I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. He told me that he was a teacher in a disciplinary school. When he mentioned the name of the school. I realized it was the same one to which Philip had been assigned by the school district hearing officer. This information I kept to myself. This teacher had been assaulted by one of the students in his unit. We talked for some time about his work in a discipline school before he was called to the courtroom. After he left, I was obsessed with thoughts of the parking ticket that I was sure would be waiting for me on the windshield of my car. Eventually I resigned myself to the inevitability of receiving a thirty-dollar parking fine. My daydreams were interrupted by someone calling my name. This time it was a victim’s advocate who escorted me into the tiny conference room.
As soon as we were entered the room, she offered me an apology. “There has been some kind of mix-up Mr. Murphy. Philip has not been transported to court from the orphanage. This hearing will have to be rescheduled. Most likely the new date will be sometime near the end of June.”
At the moment I thought this was good news. Now I would be able to get back to my car before the ticket writer arrived. The advocate offered me one final apology before she told me that I was free to leave. I didn’t waste anytime getting out of there. There was one minute left on the meter when I arrived at my car.
Installment 6 of 9/ A Guardian Without Immortal Powers
Isaiah’s teacher had sent him to the office on an errand. When I saw him at the counter, I invited him into my office. I’ve been meaning to talk to him. As he meandered through my doorway, I was reminded of the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. This past year I have seen him grow quite a bit. He has become a tall and lanky boy. In this clumsy stage of his teenage years, Isaiah is struggling to control his emerging adult self.
Isaiah plopped down into my desk chair and pretended to be the boss. I could see both the shyness of a boy and the social confidence of a young man in his smiling face. I pretended to be stern as I directed him to give up my seat. Isaiah laughed as he moved over to the sofa. He practically fell into it.
“Your father told me that you didn’t get accepted to the prep school. That stinks. How are you feeling?”
His smile faded. His head bowed and his eyes searched the floor. I have seen children do this so many times before when they are asked a question that makes them feel uncomfortable.
“I don’t know”, he reluctantly responded.
“I would guess that you are feeling awfully disappointed.”
He didn’t immediately reply. I continued to talk.
“You’ve gotten into quite a few messes these last few days. Do you think you’re making trouble because you’re a little angry?”
“Maybe.” This time his response was barely audible.
“ Sure, it’s a disappointment. I know how much you were looking forward to going there.”
Lifting up his head, Isaiah looked directly at me. “I guess I’m mad. But I try to talk to myself in my head. I try to be like my own counselor.”
“Have you talked to anyone else beside yourself about your feelings, like maybe your father?”
“No.” “Talking to another person can help you sort your feelings out. It is a way of dealing with your anger that won’t get you into trouble.”
Isaiah started let his guard down. He told me about how much he had been looking forward to the prep school, how much he has worked to control his temper and to do better in school. He was so disappointed.
I tried to console him. “Sometimes what we want to happen doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. I feel bad for you. This will hurt for a while but it will get better. I know it will get better from my own experiences with disappointments. You are a special person. You are smart and funny. You have a lot of heart. You’re going to have a great life. It will get better, I promise you. But while you are waiting don’t make your life worse. Control your temper. Stay out of trouble. Keep talking to yourself. I’m looking forward to seeing you walk down the aisle at graduation. Don’t mess it up.”
For a few seconds Isaiah just stared at me. Then the smile returned to his face. He assured me that he was going to behave. We talked for a little while longer. He was laughing and clowning when I finally put him out of my office.
Giving guidance to my children underlies most of what I do as an educator. I spend much of my time pointing them in the direction of the high road of life. I warn them, “Stay away from the edges. Be careful. Don’t fall off the cliff. Slow down! Don’t be so quick to follow behind someone else’s bad idea. Hurry up! There is much for you yet to learn”. My students mainly listen. But despite all of my best efforts, some children do fall. Each one of these lost children is a painful reminder of how fragile life is. I so much don’t want Isaiah to be one of the fallen. It is exhausting being a guardian without immortal powers.
Soon after his departure, I received a call from the Assistant District Attorney who is handling Philip’s case. She had talked to the Public Defender. Philip was going to agree to accept a consent decree. I won’t have to go back to the victim’s waiting room after all.
I was happy for Philip. Juvenile court is the best institution in this city that can offer a good array of services to children in desperate need of help. Philip has been brutalized by the circumstance in which he lives. His alcoholic father often beat him with an electric cord. His mother suffers from mental health issues of her own. The children of these parents are now in the care of the state. I don’t know why Philip’s mother and father are the way they are. What I do know is that they have five children who have serious problems of their own. Hopefully someone will catch them before they fall. I wish Philip well and I hope he gets the help he needs.
Installment 7 of 9/ Domestic Battlefields
Whenever teachers and principals take a personal interest in the lives of their students and families, they face the possibility of being suddenly drawn onto a domestic battlefield created by warring parents. Mothers and fathers who are no longer compatible with each other, can inadvertently reek havoc on their children’s lives. Their sons and daughters are pulled in different directions as they find themselves caught in the middle of a nasty tug of war between parents vying for their loyalty and love.
The children of these shattered unions often vent their frustrations in a variety of inappropriate manners. They might fight or be disrespectful to other children and adults. Frequently they are argumentative. Some children just completely shut down. Whatever the form their anger takes, it often ends up in a disciplinary referral to the principal.
I was reminded of this family minefield the other day when I talked to Gregory. He is an eighth grader who was referred to me by his teacher. He had been acting disrespectfully as of late. Gregory was refusing to do his class work and was constantly arguing with the teacher. The last straw in his recent string of misbehavers was when he cursed at her. This is the first real trouble he has been into since his fight with the twins in the fall.
I met with Gregory in my office. At first it was an awkward encounter. He isn’t much of a conversationalist. Getting him to say something, anything, is like pulling teeth.
“Your teacher tells me that you have been talking back to her for the last week, I began. “She also says that your mother told her that you are being disrespectful at home. You sound like you are angry about something. I am concerned about you. Who is making you angry, your teacher or your mom?”
He stood silently in front of me. His eyes seemed to search my face for signs that I was being truthful in the concerns I expressed. His gaze was unnerving but I didn’t let on to my discomfort. I think he is a decent person who is trying to find his place in the world.
His eyes continued to scan me. Quietly he said, “My mom.”
“So your teacher is like an innocent victim here. You are letting your feelings leak out in a negative way. What’s up with you and your mom?”
Again the gaze of his eyes passed over me. I must have passed his lie detector test, because he said, “she says things about my father that aren’t true. When I tell her that they’re not true, she says I’m being disrespectful.”
“Do you talk to your father about those things?”
“We talk, but not about that.”
“You are angry because your mom says untrue things about your dad. Her words hurt you. You feel bad”, I said.
“She won’t stop when I tell her to stop.”
“Your mother is angry. She and your father are mad at each other. This doesn’t mean that they don’t love you and your brother and sister. They do. Sometimes people end up not being able to get along together. This is what is happening with your parents. Your mom probably feels hurt and angry. She wants to talk to someone about her feelings. You are the person she chose to speak to.”
His eyes remained glued on me. He seemed to suck my words right into his head. There were tears in his eyes but none fell.
“You need to tell your mom that you don’t want to be caught in the middle between her and your dad. Let her know that you love her and that you love your father. You know that they have problems, but that’s between them. Here’s what you can say: “Mom, I don’t mean any disrespect to you, I just don’t want you to say bad things about my dad. And I don’t want to hear bad things about you from Dad. I love you both.”
Gregory didn’t dismiss my suggestion. He just stood quietly, weighing my advice.
“Anyway, you need to knock off giving backtalk to your teacher. She isn’t doing you any harm and the way you’re talking to her isn’t right.”
Gregory assured me that he would be more respectful towards his teacher.
Installment 8 of 9/ Zany Brainy Moments
Within the twenty-two minute rectangle of dismissal, all has been peaceful for the last few weeks. My dread had been unfounded that tougher times would accelerate as the warmer spring climate took hold. The biggest trouble I’ve had to confront at the end of day has been the rush of students crossing in the middle of Gratz Street to get to a neighbor’s water ice stand. The owner is the grandmother of several of our students. She set up a freezer and umbrella in front of her row house. For several years she has busily dispensed twenty-five cent cups of flavored ice to thirsty students in the warmer months of the school year.
Today there weren’t as many customers as usual. Many of her regulars had run off down the street. Somewhere further away from the yard there was a fight.
Later I learned that it had been Samuel and Isaiah who were the fighters. Mr. Nottingham was dealing with the aftermath of their conflict when I returned to the office. I decided to stay to steer clear of this problem for the time being. I was disappointed when I heard Isaiah was involved. I wondered what had happened to our agreement earlier in the day. I was not happy with the boy. I resign myself to the fact that I will have to deal with him tomorrow.
When we did met the following day, I was still angry. It had only been a few hours before this fight that I had talked to him about controlling his temper. Now it appeared as though he had been stringing me along with his line, “I talk to myself in my head. I tell myself not to be mad.”
Through habit more than patience, I sat back quietly and listened to his latest explanation for his poor behavior.
“He was messing with my sister at lunch time. He hit her. My sister came to my classroom crying just before we let out of school.”
“Your sister gets hit at lunchtime and she comes to your classroom over an hour later crying to you. What was she doing out of her class? This sounds like a silly drama to me.” I responded. Isaiah didn’t disagree.
“Isaiah, you don’t know what happened in the lunchroom. You don’t have lunch during that period. Jumping to conclusions and losing your temper is how you get yourself into these jams. Didn’t we talk about you not getting into trouble just an hour or so before this fight?”
“It wasn’t like that Mr. Murphy. I didn’t jump him or anything like that. I tried to talk to him. He was standing on the corner with his boys. I went up to him and asked him if we could talk in private. He didn’t answer me. Like I wasn’t there.”
I thought over this comment for a moment before I responded. “Isaiah, you let Samuel get into your head. You were trying to be sincere and straight up with him. You wanted to peacefully set things straight concerning your sister. He didn’t want to talk. He acted like he didn’t understand what you were trying to say. His responses made you feel stupid and embarrassed.”
I could see the light going on in Isaiah’s head. He was nodding his head up and down in agreement.
“Samuel was playing with your head. He was showing off for his boys. Isaiah, he was trying to make you look like a fool. You tried to talk to him. That was good. But you did it on his turf when his crew surrounded him. You were by yourself. There wasn’t anyone there who could back you up. People play games. You have to watch out for yourself.”
From his explanation I understood why he had gotten himself into this mess. He wasn’t acting out. It was a matter of protecting the honor of his family. I gave Isaiah a lunchtime detention. A suspension would have excluded him from the eighth grade trip.
I squeezed my meeting with Isaiah into the time just before I had to leave for the Zany Brainy excursion. The students who get to go on this trip are either the top readers in their classrooms, are on the principal’s honor roll, or are their teachers’ choices for best citizens. In the year we inaugurated this event, fifty children were on this list to participate. Now in the third year of our Zany Brainy outing, the number has increased to one hundred and seventy students.
When we arrived at the toy store, each child picked out twenty dollars worth of merchandise. I have recruited a variety of donors who provide the funds for this much anticipated event. This year it took us two days to move so many children through the store. I find that with smaller groups, the adults are better able to manage the children. The older children help out with the kindergarteners and first graders but there is still a lot for the adults to handle. Watching the children shop is a treat. Every one of them demonstrated that they were thrifty shoppers who could get the most for their money. Many of them bought toys for their younger siblings in addition to their own treat. I was moved by the generosity they showed for their brothers and sisters. It was a fun and exhausting excursion.
On the drive back to school, my head was filled with pleasant images of excited and happy kids. With these thoughts still in mind I reconsidered my conversation with Isaiah. I had a revelation. I realized that I needed to heed my own advice. I shouldn’t allow people to get into my head. People like Christie Sims and Judith Wilson have pulled me seriously off my game for most of this year. I’ve allowed their personal problems and bizarre agendas to become far too much of a distraction for me. In doing so, I’ve lost sight of all of the good things and people in my life. Instead of letting them play with my mind, I need to focus more on the Zany Brainy moments.
Installment 9 of 9/Pensive Mood
Today the eighth graders attended their graduation luncheon. On this last day of another month, finding the time to join them in this celebration was an accomplishment. Shortly before I planned on making my departure from the building, two different crises erupted. I had just come back in to my office from the yard when Mr. Nottingham asked me to come with him to the nurse’s office. He was insistent. Reluctantly I followed him.
“Mr. Murphy, I sent Corey over here to go to use the bathroom. He locked himself in and won’t come out or even answer me when I call to him.”
Corey is the first grader who was placed in a psychiatric program after hearing voices in his head. He has been back in school for the last two weeks. It hasn’t been going well. His behavior is worse now than before he was admitted for treatment. The last few days he has been sitting with us in the main office. He has repeatedly punched his teacher, trashed his classroom and run out of the school. Last week the personal aide assigned to monitor his behavior, quit.
The bathroom inside the nurse’s office had transom windows around the top of the wall. I climbed up on a chair in order to get a view inside the room. Corey was sitting on the floor next to the toilet. His knees were tucked up under his chin and he was hugging his legs. I called out to him, “Corey, open the door.”
He didn’t respond. Mr. Nottingham and I decided to ram the door until the lock broke. After three shoves, it gave way. Once we got Corey out of the bathroom, figuring out what to do with him became our next puzzle to solve. His mother had not been helpful to date. She wasn’t following through on any of the recommendations from the therapist. When we called for her assistance, she frequently refused to help. Regardless, I still asked Nottingham to call her. We can’t give up on her if we are to have any chance of helping her child.
While we were attempting to contact Corey’s mother, the school police officer brought a knife to me. The kindergarten teacher had taken it from one of her students. I thought that by the time I dealt with the kindergartner and found Corey’s mother, I would miss the launch of the riverboat where the eighth-grade luncheon and dance is to take place.
“Who did you get this knife from, Mr. G?”
It was a switchblade about five inches long and serrated. This knife was made to do only one thing, to seriously hurt someone. When he told me it had been taken from a kindergarten child, I just shook my head. At first I thought it would be a situation that I could easily manage. I would call the mother and have her come in and take her child home. We would discuss the seriousness of the matter and that would be the end of it.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out that simply. The boy who had brought this weapon to school was by now an old acquaintance. He has been involved in several physical confrontations during the year, beginning with bullying another little boy in the schoolyard back in October. This later led to his victim’s mother coming into the cafeteria to beat up the bully’s mom.
I instructed the school police officer to call the serious incident desk and make a report. I didn’t call the Philadelphia police nor did I suspend him. This was a case where I exercised my discretion. His mother was called. She came right up to the school. I instructed her take her son and told her that we would meet the next day.
Soon after her departure, Corey’s mom was located by Nottingham. She readily agreed to take him home. To have resolved both of these matters so quickly was a lucky break. I made it to the launch on time.
The eighth grade luncheon was held on the Spirit of Philadelphia, a local Delaware River cruise ship and entertainment attraction. Many other school groups were also booked for this day. A lunch buffet, dancing and entertainment were all included in the package. The boat was filled to capacity. The eighth graders were dressed in their best clothes. They were excited and looking forward to a fun day.
The food was unimpressive. The view from the deck was of rusting commercial piers. The entertainment was corny. The music wasn’t the kind of sound to which my feet dance. But despite it all, the kids loved it. The weather was beautiful. I was glad to be on board. It was a joy watching my children having great fun. Besides it was a pleasant reprieve to be away from the problems of the school.
Following so quickly on the heels of the two serious incidents earlier in the day, this celebration created an interesting day of contrasts. Experiencing such great highs and lows so close together put me in a pensive mood. I enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that our team has pulled through so many of our eighth graders to a successful conclusion of their middle school years. These students stand now on the threshold of their high school years. My hope is that every single one will graduate from high school. I feel good, but I know this is not the end for my team or me. There is much work yet to do. There are kindergarteners and first graders already in serious need of our attention and care. Supporting and guiding these little brothers and sisters of our graduates will continue to be our greatest challenge.