Confessions of an Urban Principal / Bottle of Gin
by Frank Murphy
Installment 3 of 8
While making arrangements to have Hope’s letter hand delivered to Vallas’ office, another crisis competed for my attention. Ms. Martin pointed to a pint bottle of gin which was perched on top of a filing cabinet in the main office.
“Mr. Murphy, look at the bottle sitting over there.”
I was taken aback to see a bottle of liquor so brazenly on display in the main office of an elementary school. Snatching the bottle from its resting place, I took it into my office to get it out of sight. Ms. Martin followed me. She explained. “One of the teachers took it away from Gordon.”
The contents of the bottle were amber colored. Is it really gin, I wondered? I unscrewed the cap and the undeniable scent of alcohol assaulted my nostrils. By the smell of it, either iced tea or soda had been the mixer for this gin. The bottle was three quarters empty. Instinctually, I felt that there was much more do this than mere misbehavior.
Gordon was placed in foster care in our neighborhood just about the same time Arthur was taken from Cindy’s house. I sent for Gordon. When he arrived, he didn’t appear to be intoxicated. The situation called for some skillful detective work. I needed to hastily find the right words to put him at ease, yet quiz him at the same time. Pushing him too hard, too quickly, would shut him down. I said. “You must be really hurting, Gordon.”
“I don’t care if I graduate!” he replied.
“Swigging on a gin bottle at your age tells me that you must have a lot hurt in you. I’m wondering how long have you been drinking?”
“I don’t have the money anyway. No one is going to give it to me.”
We seemed to be having two separate conversations. I replied to his graduation concern.
“You’re worried about not having the dues for graduation. That’s not a problem. I’m not going to stop you from graduating because you don’t have the money for your class dues. I’ll take care of the money for you.”
He in turn responded to my alcohol query.
“It’s ice tea.”
“Why are you drinking, Gordon?”
“It’s ice tea.”
“Why are you doing this? You’re worrying me.”
“There isn’t anything for me to look forward to… I don’t care.”
“Why do you say that, Gordon?”
“Because I’m either going to prison or I’m going to die.”
Tears were starting pool at the edges of his eyes. Gordon looked so lost. He radiated despair. I was almost overwhelmed by his sense of hopelessness.
“Why do you think you are either going to jail or going to die?”
“Everyone tells me it. Everyone who talks to me tells me that I’m either going to jail or going to die. I don’t care.”
“I know that you have been having a rough time of it. Going through different foster homes must not be easy. Your father being in prison stinks. You must miss him a lot. Do you?”
“There isn’t anything for me here, I don’t care.”
“Gordon, you are so young, there can be lots of things for you.”
In my own head, the words I offered sounded cheap and unconvincing to me. How was Gordon hearing what I was saying? His life seems to be such a mess. The boy’s mom has suffered a nervous break down. His father is in prison. He is bouncing from one foster home to another. Saying that it has been rough for him is an understatement.
After I had told him that I would pay his class dues, he seemed to relax just a smidge. His reaction made me wonder. Was he really a drinker, or had he staged this scene so that he could create an excuse for not participating in the closing ceremonies? Was he trying to save face with his peers? Could it be he didn’t want the other kids to know that his life was so bleak? By allowing himself to be caught drinking in school Gordon could provide them with the opportunity to say that he is crazy. When he didn’t graduate, it would be because he was drinking in school. No one would know how poor he is.
Mulling these thoughts over, I wasn’t sure if he was a drinker or a faker. But I was sure that I had seen a deep well of sadness in his teary eyes. I was sure that whatever his story was, Gordon is a troubled boy. For the next hour or two he was the center of my attention. First I called the foster caregiver who had registered him in the school. I was surprised to learn that he no longer resided in her home.
“He doesn’t live here anymore. He wouldn’t listen. Gordon ran away from my house twice. I told the DHS caseworker that she had to take him back. I think he is living with one of his father’s ex-girlfriends.”
The former caretaker gave me the name and address of the woman who Gordon was allegedly living with now. “DHS knows about it. They checked out the woman.”
There was a hint of the wicked stepmother about this woman. I had felt this vibe when I first met her at the intake conference. She seemed to dislike Gordon. He must have hated living with her.
After several attempts, I reached Gordon’s caseworker. She confirmed that he wasn’t with the original foster parent. He had indeed run away from the foster parent several times. Eventually, Gordon had found his own foster care home, that of his father’s ex-girlfriend. A caseworker from DHS had conducted a screening and approved this woman to be Gordon’s caretaker. The location of his new home is beyond our school boundaries. Hearing this, I asked Gordon if he wanted to remain at our school. He said, “yes”. Then I made it clear to the DHS representative that I wanted him to finish out the school year at Meade. I told her that I would arrange to get him bus tokens. He is old enough to travel on public transportation by himself. She was okay with this idea.
The caseworker also agreed that I should call the mobile mental health crisis team. The suicidal thoughts that Gordon had articulated needed to be taken seriously. A mental health professional should perform an immediate evaluation. I sent Gordon to the counselor’s office to wait while I made the necessary contacts.
Making arrangements for the mobile crisis team to come to the school required me to make several calls. First I contacted our special education liaison. She directed me to a regional contact person. This individual put me in touch with an intake representative from the mobile crises team. This person asked me several question concerning Gordon’s mental state. After quizzing me she stated that a mobile team would be immediately dispatched. They arrived within the hour. I went to the counselor’s office with them and participated in Gordon’s evaluation.
Teenage African American boys are often perceived as being threatening in the eyes of our society. The bigotry from which this stereotype springs is unfortunately far too common. I wish that the rest of world could see this boy as I saw him that day in the counselor’s office. If they did, people would quickly realize how unfounded their fears are of boys like Gordon. He was seated at a table in a corner of the room. He was tossing a green ball up in the air and then catching it. It had a big smiley face painted on its side. One of the therapists invited him to come sit at a table with the team. Gordon quickly joined us. He was hugging the ball when he did so. It was almost like he was hiding behind it. As the therapists introduced themselves, Gordon gazed suspiciously at the faces around the table. The way this sad eyed teenager partially hid his face behind the ball made him look like a scared and vulnerable five year old. Cautiously he responded to their questions. Though hesitant, he still obviously wanted to talk about his feelings.
After the evaluation was completed, one of the therapists talked by phone to the DHS caseworker. It was decided that Gordon should be taken to the psychological emergency intake center at a local hospital. He would receive a full psychiatric examination there.
When the therapist finished his phone conversation, he turned his attention back to Gordon. He explained to him what was going to happen next. The hospital visit was recommended because the mobile health team had diagnosed him as being moderately depressed. Gordon said, “What does that mean?”
In response the therapist listed for him the symptoms of depression. Gordon listened carefully to his explanation. When the therapist mentioned the symptom of having trouble sleeping, it was like a light had been turned on in Gordon’s head. His face was a wonder to see. It was almost as if he had just seen a huge beautiful Christmas tree for the first time in his life. Someone could explain what was happening to him. Finally another person understood what he was feeling. In that moment I saw hope in his face. I left the counselor’s office shortly after this conversation took place. Gordon was going to get the assistance that he needed. His gin bottle was a call for help.
At the end of the day, I retreated to the safety that a quiet read often provides me. The two educational journal articles I consumed, however, didn’t soothe my aching head. They each offered different takes on the issue of racial achievement gaps. The first article examined the extent of the achievement gaps that exist between children of different socioeconomic and racial groups as indicated on standardized test scores. The second discussed a detected gap between middle class children of color and white middle class children. The gap in achievement discussed in the second article is one that might be explained as being attributable to the low expectations of some teachers regarding the academic abilities of children of color. In the first article, the achievement gaps examined primarily had to do with the socio-economic status of the test takers.
Gordon is the poster child of the low-income student of color who occupies the lowest stanine of standardized achievement. His struggles to master even the most rudimentary of math and reading skills are monumental. The gruesome circumstances of Gordon’s life are not considered by the accountability standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. He has been barely raised by any adult who has the resources, monetarily or emotionally, to address his needs. His adult role models have been a mentally ill mother, an incarcerated father, various foster parents and now a former girlfriend of his father. He has attended multiple schools during the last eight years. The economic chasm is enormous that separates Gordon and many of the inhabitants of my school community from the world of the well-to-do. The prospect of bridging this gap with the resources we have available at our school is highly unlikely. Yet we persist in trying to do so.
Gordon’s life is filled with obstacles just like many of the other children we work with in our school. My staff and I do the best that we can to assist them. Daily is our struggle to pull every child ahead. I believe that Gordon is a good person who can do well. I believe all my students are great people. This is a view that I share with my staff. Together we guide our students towards success by teaching them and helping to deal with their problems.
When I look Gordon in the eye and say, “you don’t have to die”, I know I’m not leaving him behind. Gordon doesn’t have to go to jail. He can be someone. I won’t give up on him or any of my children. They all can succeed if given a decent chance.