Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Pensive Mood
by Frank Murphy
Installment 9 of 9
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.