Confessions of an Urban Principal / “Merchants of Hope”
by Frank Murphy
Installment 3 of 9
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.