Confessions of an Urban Principal/Student Stories
by Frank Murphy
Installment 3 of 8
The first of these plays told a story of young love set in a rough world populated by criminal thugs. It explored the conflicting feelings of a girl who must choose between testifying against her murderous boyfriend or remaining silent. How could she snitch on her man she wondered? How could she love someone who is a murderer? By the final curtain she makes her decision and turns her boyfriend in to the police. The audience roared their approval.
In the next play a ninth grade girl is pregnant and afraid. She doesn’t know how to tell her mother about her condition. It was followed by another woeful tale of a father who is attempting to reunite with the son he abandoned as an infant. Both of these stories ended well. The mother of the pregnant girl embraces her daughter in the final scene. She tells her that she will love her forever. The teenage boy in the other play decides after much inner turmoil to accept his wayward father back into his life.
Though the writing wasn’t of the quality of Shakespeare and the acting was rather amateurish, I was fully engaged and entertained. Their stories were simple yet true. The glimpses they provided into their thinking I found to be quite insightful. I wondered, how much for the better or worst will the rough and tumble world they describe shape them? Who will they be as adults?
During the course of this past year, The Young Playwrights Organization has arranged for our eighth graders to see several compelling stage performances presented by local theater companies. These professional performances have provided windows through which our children have been able catch a glimpse of life beyond the eggshell existence of their neighborhood. Their plays in turn offer a view into their thoughts and wishes. They write about the ideas and desires which inspire them or with which they struggle. Their writings reveal them as being funny, sensitive, and deeply interesting people.
The children of Meade and for that matter all the children who live in the neglected and under served communities of our nation are like any other child in our society. They dream. They hope. They desire to achieve great things in life.
But the poverty that engulfs them creates many obstacles that thwart their efforts to live well. They often stumble on the less than level playing field to which they have been consigned. When they fall blame rather than empathy is showered upon them. They didn’t try hard enough or their parents didn’t care, or worse of all they are in some manner less moral than their more well to do peers. The humanity of poor children in general and disadvantaged African American males in particular is often objectified and diminished by the perceptions which the more well to do have of them. Viewing their plays provides an opportunity to push beyond the stereotypes that often serve to define them. The scripts they have written place their hearts clearly on their sleeves for all to see.
In creating their plays, many of our children have come to love the art of writing stories. They have gone from being reluctant writers to mighty warriors of the pen. We have encouraged them to write so that they could develop proficiency with an important communication skill. But we also wanted to introduce them to the use of a powerful tool for reflection and self-assessment. In these important developmental years of young adolescences it is important for them to learn how to seek their own direction rather than always being given directions on how to act. When they are able to resolve conflicts by using the power of their words rather than the might of their fist, we their teachers know we are doing our job well.
Several times during the performance, I choked up. I’ve been doing this teary-eyed thing on and off for the last few days. I am proud of my soon to depart eighth graders. They have grown so much. Watching your students become accomplished and confident young adults is one of the rewards of this profession. I hope they all do well in the years ahead.
As I watched these plays, I found myself reflecting on my own hopes and dreams for the future of Meade. Helping to make this humble little school a strong and decent place in which my children can safely live has long been my ambition. Helping to make this school a community where powerful thinkers can thrive is my passion. Though I am sadden by the impending departure of these students I’m simultaneously looking forward to next year. Our seventh graders are yet another interesting group of people. My head is starting to race with schemes and plans for their final year.
For too many months this year responding to the need to survive from day to day has dominated my thoughts. Now I am starting to look beyond the immediacy of the day in which I live. I am anticipating better times ahead. The stories, which my students tell me, inspire me to be a better person. For them I continue on with this work.
I sat through another graduation rehearsal today. The program has been worked out and everyone seems to have mastered his or her part. The excitement level of the kids has risen since the last rehearsal. They are so looking forward to walking down that aisle at the closing ceremony. After the practice was over, one of the teachers gave me a copy of the memory book the class had prepared. In it I was surprised to find two pages of thank you notes addressed to me from the children. I was deeply touched by their sentiments.
Next Monday is the big day. At ten a.m. the final bell will ring on the class of 2005. Preparing for the ceremony has kept the team busy. Flowers have been purchased, banners prepared, certificates signed and a multitude of other details have been resolved. At the same time we are readying the school for the close of another year. Much of the reorganization for next year has been done in the last few days. New class lists have been created, records have been completed and sorted, and new books and supplies have been ordered. The teachers are almost most done placing their materials in storage as they prepare their classrooms for a summer cleaning.
It has been extremely hot during the last week. The third floor is an oven. The high temperatures and humidity has sapped everyone’s strength. Getting our final work done has been a challenge. Student attendance has fallen off steeply during this first heat wave of the summer. June is on track to rank as the lowest monthly attendance average for the entire year. This last minute downturn has created the possibility that our yearly average may dip below ninety percent. If it does, we will fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress for the year. The thought of missing AYP due to the attendance criteria is causing me to suffer a panic attack.
As I tried to relax another problem hit me. Arthur and Tyson were horse playing in the hallway outside of the computer room. The two of them crashed into the window of the door. It shattered. Fortunately no one was injured. After I received the news of their misbehavior, I sent for these two boys.
My conversation with them was annoying. Each of them blamed the other for causing the problem. Neither of them took responsibility for their actions. I didn’t sense any remorse or regret from either of them. I have invested much energy and time in helping these boys to make it through eighth grade. If for no ones else’s benefit other than my own, I wanted to see them graduate. And they were going to graduate. I was going to make sure that they did.
I offered them a choice. They could either be excluded from graduation, or they could come back after school on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week and work off the cost of the window. Both of these days were half days for students. Reluctantly, they chose to come back and work. The graduation was on Monday and there wasn’t any guarantee that they would hold up their end of the deal.