Confessions of an Urban Principal/Vampires
by Frank Murphy
Installment 4 of 8
Where is everyone? This first heat wave of early summer still holds us in its sweaty grip. There were barely any students in the schoolyard when it was time to enter the building this morning. We have many children who spend the summer in the South with their extended family. I figured these children had already begun to depart. Many more most likely have stayed home rather than bake in the oven which our school has become.
I could feel the apprehension gnawing at my stomach as I continued to worry about making our NCLB attendance goal for the year. Today the high rate of student absenteeism worked to our advantage for once. More than half of our teachers were able to attend the closing exercises. This included everyone who had been a teacher of the graduating students. With so few children present in the school, it was much easier to split them up among the teachers who remained behind.
The staff members who were attending the ceremony had gone directly to Mitten Hall at Temple. I had stopped at the school first in order to determine that all was well. When I arrived in the schoolyard, the usual morning activities were occupying the attention of the children. The girls were jumping rope. Some boys were tossing around a football. Others were engaged in an energetic wall ball game. Several sleepy eyed children were leaning against the fence under the shade of some trees. This was the group that I joined.
I struck up a conversation with Karl, who is one of our fifth graders.
“What’s up Karl? You look pretty tired.” He didn’t look at me when he responded. Sounding slightly defensive he said, “I didn’t go to bed till late.”
I caught myself before I took a verbal jab. I wrongfully assumed that he had been up late in order to watch television programs.
“What were you doing?” I said rather simply.
“I was reading. I read for most of the night. I got this vampire book. It is really good. Frankenstein is in the part I’m reading now.”
The look of excitement that transformed this sleepy boy’s face as he took on the role of an enthusiastic storyteller made me smile. I in turn shared with him my own love of a good vampire story. My response excited him even more.
“Do you want me to tell you what has happened so far?”
He didn’t wait for me to reply.
“Okay this is what happened. A female vampire bites this guy and he gets sick. The guy starts to change into someone else. Do you know who? Dracula!”
I enjoyed listening to him as he recounted the story he had read. In his voice I could hear how much he loved to read. Barely pausing for air, he went on for several minutes with the retelling of the story. It wasn’t until he finished his synopsis that he finally caught his breath.
“Karl, I love to stay up late too and read books. It is fun.”
“It’s what I’m going to do all summer, Mr. Murphy. I’m going to the library and get lots of books. Every night I’m going to read until I fall asleep.”
While we were talking, several seventh graders gathered around us. They told vampire stories of their own. It was a fun conversation.
Lately I have noticed that the seventh grade boys and girls have taken to striking up conversations with me. The end of the seventh grade “haze” seems to be at hand. I can see that next year will be another fun experience, watching these awakening eighth graders begin to emerge as confident young adults. I can hardly wait to see who Karl becomes during the next three years. Without a doubt he will be quite an interesting eighth grader.
The graduation ceremony started at ten o’clock. The ceremony took place in the Grand Court at Mitten Hall, one of Temple’s original buildings. It is an old and beautiful space. The unique antique features of the structure have been well maintained. However, the careful attention that had been paid to preserving this historical building has prevented the addition of air conditioning ductwork. On this scorcher of a day, the hall was stifling hot. Fans had been placed around the perimeter of the seating area, but they were just pushing the hot air from one side of the room to the other. I felt as though I was a soggy sponge. All of the windows in the hall had been opened in a vain attempt to create some cross ventilation. The noise of traffic coming the busy street outside filled the room. At regular intervals, the rumble of the Broad Street subway outside could be heard.
The acoustics in Mitten Hall were poor. During the ceremony, the music playing over the audio system sounded great, but the voices of the speakers sounded muffled and distorted. Unfortunately, the audience wasn’t able to understand much of what was said. Our carefully conceived and well-practiced closing exercise did not play out exactly as we had planned.
Not hearing so well didn’t matter that much to me. My memories of the day were mostly of the things I felt. The heat, the noise from outside and the excitement of the crowd blended together with the music and speeches into a sensuous brew that I will not easily forget. There were tears of joy and of the sadness of the final parting. The room was filled with the collective pride of the graduates, their families and their teachers.
I shook the hand of every one of my students as they reached the foot of the stage. Putting my arm around their shoulders, I turned them to face the audience. Ellen announced each student’s name to the applause and cheers of their family and friends.
In my farewell speech, I told my students how much they have taught me. I thanked them for helping me to make myself a better person. I wished them happiness, fame and good fortune. I have waited for this moment for a long time. The students performed the dance for their parents beautifully. For their finale act, they gave flowers to their parents. Then they marched back down the aisle and into the history of Meade. Our journey was finished.
The reception that followed the ceremony was brief. I had the opportunity to meet several mothers of my students for the first time. Luis, Gordon and Isaiah’s mom had come to see their sons’ graduation. The three boys each stood silently beside their mothers. When I approached, they introduced me to their moms. I offered my congratulations to each of these parents and complimented them on having such fine sons. All three of the mothers were curt in their responses to my praise. It was an awkward encounter. Across the room I caught a glimpse of Cindy. She was keeping a distance from Arthur.
The crowd rapidly dispersed. The heat didn’t encourage people to linger. The quickness of the whole affair reminded me of a Thanksgiving Day dinner. Many hours had been spent in preparation for this festive event. Then in what seemed like only a few minutes, it was done.
Afterwards, I took the Leadership Team out to lunch. I wanted to thank them for all of the help they have given me. I wouldn’t have made it through this year without their support.