Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Luis Says Yes to Counseling and No to Drugs
by Frank Murphy
Installment 5 of 8
Finding a way to avoid entering the main office, first thing in the morning has lately become somewhat of an obsession of mine. Instead I will go to the cafeteria or walk around and visit teachers in their empty classrooms. On some days when the weather cooperates, I will wait in the schoolyard and watch over the children who have arrived early. They like when I do this, since it means that they don’t have to wait in the cafeteria for the start of the school day. For them running and playing outside in the cold is preferable to having to sit at a lunchroom table.
This was the spot I choose for my hiding spot today. Shortly after eight almost a half hour before the start of classes a crowd of kids had already gathered in the yard. Most of the boys were playing football. At various points around the perimeter, girls were jumping rope. I moved about the yard stopping here and there in order to share small snatches of conversation with various children.
It was almost time to go inside when I was surrounded by a group of third grade girls. They peppered me with questions. Eventually one of the girls pointed to the “F” word, which was spray-painted on the wall of the school.
She said, “Do you know who did that, Mr. Murphy?”
The letters were huge, at least three or four feet tall. The building engineer had covered this tag with a fresh coat of paint yesterday but a torrential overnight rainfall had washed away his attempted cover up.
“I’m not sure. Do you know who did it?” I replied.
“It was those big boys down on Gratz Street. They don’t like you, Mr. Murphy.”
The other girls who were with her joined this conversation. They all agreed that the word was nasty.
“They shouldn’t be writing on our building. It’s wrong. They are making our school look ugly.”
Just then Mr. Ong blew the whistle and everyone started to enter the school. My chatty little friends gathered their bags and went inside.
I hate when people Graffiti the walls of our school. It is blight. For years I have had a standing order with my building engineer that he is to paint over it as soon as possible, when ever it appears. I didn’t want my children to be greeted with such hostile signs as they arrived at our schoolhouse door.
Most of the children had already entered the building when the oldest brother of the party of five, Philip, approached. He was with his sister, the girl who refuses to go to her classroom. As they passed, I said to her, “You are going to your classroom. I don’t want to see you sitting outside of the office.”
They started up the short flight of steps to the first landing. The school police officer had asked the brother to remove his hat. The boy ignored his request. The officer followed him up to the landing area. The next thing I knew the boy had thrown the man against the wall and he was punching him. I went to the officer’s assistance.
Philip was no small boy. He was tall, strong and fitter than either one of the two of us. The police officer and I tussled with him for several minutes. During this time, the muscle in the back of my calf tore and the boy punched me repeatedly in the chest and shoulder. It seemly took forever before we finally subdued him. The Philadelphia police were called and the boy was arrested.
I stumbled to my office. It took a while for the adrenaline that was coursing through me to subside. When it did, my whole body felt sore. I decided that I needed to go to the hospital. Before I could do so I had to deal with the new district Workman’s Compensation procedure. In doing so insult was added to injury.
In order to insure that my employer would cover my medical expenses, I needed to obtain a claim number from the district’s insurance company. This is required as part of a multi step workmen’s compensation procedure. Before I could call the insurance company, my school police officer needed to call the District’s Office of School Safety in order to obtain a serious incident control number. This didn’t happen right away since he was still pulling himself back together. When he finally attempted to make the call to the incident desk, he was greeted by an answering service, “Leave a message someone will call you back as soon as possible.” We waited a half hour.
After I had the incident number, I spent another half hour on the phone with a claims representative from the insurance company. I called the Regional Office in order to inform the regional superintendent that this incident had occurred. He was in a meeting. The secretary took a message.
Just before I left for the hospital, I called again in order to let the superintendent know that I was leaving the building. He had instructed the principal’s at a prior meeting, that we were expected to personally inform him whenever we left our school building. The superintendent was still in a meeting. The secretary took another message.
I had also called John DiPaolo in order to inform him of the situation. He came right over to the building to see how I was doing. I appreciated his concern. Ellen drove me to the hospital. On the way there we both marveled at how quickly life can spin out of control.
I didn’t intend to go into work today. Overnight I felt dizzy and the aches intensified. For a time I worried that I might have suffered from an undiagnosed concussion. But then I decided that it was more likely that another virus had taken up residence in my overly stressed body. Throughout the night, the progression of flu-like symptoms confirmed this suspicion. I decided to stay home and rest.
The discipline transfer request for the boy who assaulted me, had to be filed in the Central Office by the end of the day on Friday. I realized that I didn’t have much time to complete it. So I went to school after all. When I arrived there, I tried to get right into this task. I had barely started when Luis’ father came in to reinstate him.
He was two days late bringing Luis back. His son should have been reinstated on Wednesday. I had given him a one-day suspension as his consequence for fighting with Arthur.
Luis’ father and I talked for a long time. He had been trying to find a bigger apartment for him and his son. There was a good prospect but he didn’t have the necessary money for the security deposit. This dad was having a hard time financially. He operated his own custodial business. A client owed him four thousand dollars. This was the cash he had been counting on in order to make his move. As he waited for his client to pay what was owed to him the larger apartment was rented to some one else.
Luis and his father had been bickering for the last week. The son was mad because his father had been coming home really late. According to the dad, he was working long hours in order to take care of a job for an important customer. I suggested to him that Luis might be reacting so angrily because he was worried about being abandoned.
We talked about how emotional and intelligent Luis is. During the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that this dad didn’t have anyone other than me with whom he could confide his concerns.
Eventually, Luis joined us. The three of us became engaged in a lively discussion about whether or not Luis should see a counselor. Luis said that he was all for it as long as he didn’t have to take any drugs.
“They gave me drugs before and I think they only made me worse.”
We concluded by agreeing that Luis would come to see me when he felt as though he was losing control of his emotions. The three of us agreed that our main objective was to get Luis through the year to graduation.
Just before he left, Luis said, “I sure hope I get to graduate. I’ve never have done that. When I was promoted from fifth grade, I didn’t get to participate. Everything has always gotten messed up with me. You know what I wish?”
“I don’t know, Luis, what?”
“I wish I could go back to first grade and start all over again.”
“There isn’t any going back, Luis. There is just going ahead.” I said.
The pain in my leg subsided over the weekend. I am finally able to get up and down stairs with relative ease. But other pains still persist.
The threat to my job, and my ambivalent feelings concerning staying at Meade are still causing my head to ache. These are the hurts that occupy my thoughts and dominate my dreams. The aftermath from Phillip’s attack was of little consequence in comparison.