Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Luis Doesn’t Get Along Well With Women.
by Frank Murphy
Installment (5 of 9)
Luis came into the main office today. Mr. Nottingham had sent for him. Luis had been giving his classroom teacher a hard time. It was the fourth time this week that he had acted in a disrespectful manner towards one of his teachers.
To Mr. Nottingham I said, “I want to see him myself. His behavior is getting out of hand.”
Luis came in to my office. I asked him to explain to me why he was acting so rudely in the classroom.
He responded, “I didn’t do anything. The teacher is always picking on me. She always says that I’m calling out and stuff and I’m not. She gets on my nerves.”
“Well your other teachers also must be getting on your nerves. They are writing the same kind of things on pink slips about your behavior.”
“Yeah I know they all say that I’m talking all of the time. I’m just asking questions. They won’t answer me.”
“Luis, constantly calling out isn’t the best way to get a teacher’s attention. It can be annoying, if you do it often.”
Suddenly his teacher appeared in the doorway to my office. She was on her lunch break. She asked, “Can I be part of this conversation?”
When Luis saw her, his demeanor completely changed. It was amazing. Just before her arrival he was engaging with me in a mature conversation: we had eye contact; he was articulate; we were listening to each other; our dialogue was respectful.
Now he turned his head from both of us. Luis started to pout as though he were a five year old. The more she tried to talk to him, the deeper his pout became. I could see that he was going to have a tantrum if she remained. I said to the teacher, “How about we get together later and talk. Luis isn’t hearing either of us now.”
She agreed. When she left, the boy immediately snapped out of his fit. I told him to sit down. We talked for the next hour. Never before had I had a conversation with a kid like the one I had with him.
Luis had transferred into our eighth grade class in early October of this school year. I didn’t know much know about him but by the end of our conversation I knew plenty. First off I discovered that he is an incredibly perceptive person.
Luis easily identified what his problem was with his teachers. “I don’t get along well with women.”
His tone was neither angry nor sarcastic. It was like he was stating a simple and obvious truth.
He continued on by sharing with me a considerable amount of intimate information concerning his life. He had been in two psychiatric in-patient programs prior to arriving at Meade. His first commitment had taken place when he was eight years old.
At that time Luis had attacked his female therapist. “I told them that I didn’t like women, but they didn’t listen.”
I imagined him as an eight year old trying to get his little hands around the throat of a young, well-meaning but inexperienced therapist.
The second trip to the psych ward had occurred when he was twelve.
“My mother said I was suicidal but I wasn’t. I think she just wanted to get rid of me.”
In addition to his psychiatric commitments, Luis had been in four different group homes since he was in fifth grade.
“Mr. Murphy you don’t know what it is like to live in a group home! At first everyone beats you up. I was the smallest kid there. I had to fight everyday. It was the only way to keep them off of me. I made them think I was crazy. You just don’t know what goes on in places like that.”
His mother had also had him admitted to these programs. The description Luis provided of life in protective custody was a scary and sad account. The boy’s frequent trips to group homes were occasionally punctuated by periods when his mother would take him back.
For most of our conversation he recounted his negative feelings towards women. He was clear. He didn’t like them. This distaste explained why he frequently acted in an inappropriate fashion towards his two female teachers.
I said to him, “Luis, you are going to have to get a grip on your feelings regarding women. Can you think of any reasons for why you will need to get along with them?”
“I can think of two reasons. I like girls. You know what I mean. I really do like girls, but they grow up to become women. If I’m going to get married some day, I will have to figure out how to get along with women. Besides when I grow up, I will have to get a job. Half of the people out there will be women. We will be on the job together. I’ll have to get along with them.”
Luis was harboring a great deal of anger. I just sat and listened as he described various episodes regarding his mom’s inappropriate behavior toward him and others. His insights were an education for me. Often, when a parent was acting poorly towards me in front of their child, I had wondered what the child was thinking. Luis helped me to see what these unpleasant encounters looked like from a child’ point of view.
He described an incident that had taken place in one of his former schools.
“Mr. Fenwick was the principal of a middle school I used to go to when I lived in West Philly. My mom would curse him out every time she met with him. She over talked him, screamed at him and just acted wild.”
“What did the principal do?”
“He tried to talk to her. I was really acting bad back then. My mom wouldn’t let him say anything. After a while he would just leave his office. Then he would send the counselor in to talk to my mom.”
As Luis continued to speak of his mother, his facial expressions conveyed an interesting mixture of affection and anger. “ She was always yelling at me. I couldn’t do anything right. My older sisters and brother did everything right. She was always good with them. I don’t understand why she treated me so bad. She is a mess. My father finally came and got me.”
“I can imagine how much that must have hurt you. I’ve talked to a lot of kids who have been hurt by their parents. I’ve also talked to a lot of parents who have left their children. I learned alot from people. Here is what I can tell you. Parents don’t mess up because they don’t love their kids. They mess up because they have problems. They let their problems distract them from doing the right thing. I’m sure your mom loves you. How is she doing now? Is she in a program?”
“Mr. Murphy, my mom isn’t a street person. She doesn’t do drugs or anything. She is just crazy.”
I just sat staring at him for a moment. I didn’t know what to say.
The time had flown by since we had started to talk. There were only a few minutes remaining until dismissal time. I directed Luis to go back to his room in order to get his things. After he left, I put on my coat and headed out to the yard.
Another twenty-two minute rectangle was ahead. This is what I have started to call the time that it takes to clear the school property of kids at the end of the day. The schoolyard is a large rectangular space. It is a city block long and a half block wide. Within this area is where most of our fights occur. On Fridays, the danger of a disturbance is particularly great.
We were almost clear of the twenty-two minute rectangle when a major fight erupted near the kindergarten exit door. News of the brawl spread quickly across the playground. Children started to stampede in the direction of the altercation.
By the time I arrived in the back of the yard, the fighters and the surrounding mob had spilled out onto 18th Street. Traffic was blocked. The gapers and the chanters were running every which way around the fighters. When some of the onlookers saw me, they scattered.
I saw that Saundra, the daughter of Mrs. Thompson was engaged in a vicious fight with a fourth grade boy. The siblings of both the fighters had also jumped into the brawl. There were so many kids in the surrounding mob that I was unable to get to the fighters. The crowd rumbled across the street and away from the school.
I concentrated on moving the remainder of the spectators out of the schoolyard. I had almost accomplished this mission when the fourth grade son of Mrs. Thompson ran up to where I was standing. An older girl was chasing after him. Later I learned that she was his cousin.
The boy was furious. He had a broomstick in his hand and he was screaming, “I’m going to kill him… I’m going to kill him.”
I grabbed the stick from him. His cousin grabbed him and put him into a headlock. She started to drag him in the direction of their home. I could see many scars and bumps on his face. I guessed that they were the result of prior battles. He and his family are a combative group. I threw his broomstick into our trash dumpster.
An hour after this altercation I was sitting at my desk. Nottingham announced that the Thomson boy was in the main office and he wanted to see me. For a moment I thought that he wanted to apologize for his poor behavior. The boy entered my office humble and contrite, his anger was gone. At first he didn’t say anything. He just stood in front of me, his head bowed, looking at his sneakers.
“What did you come to tell me?”
Softly, very softly he said, “My mom sent me to get her broomstick back.”
“I threw it into the trash bin in the back of the school. It wouldn’t be a good idea for you to go looking for it there. Are you calm now?”
“I don’t want to see you again, trying to hit someone with a stick.”
“I’ll see you on Monday.”
Dealing with the emotional needs of my students takes up much of my time. I want to be there for them. They need support. But finding a balance between helping an individual child with big problems while tending to the needs of the whole school community is difficult.
So it is I finish up another week. I am exhausted.