Chapter Three: November

15 Nov

Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (5 of 9)

Arthur, a sweet kid, mainly concerns himself with getting along with everyone. He has severe learning problems, and by seventh grade was reading at a first grade reading level though he desperately wanted to learn how to read.  For several years, we had been trying to convince his mom, Cindy, to give her permission to test him to determine his eligibility for special education services.  Cindy did not like the idea.  Each time we asked, she would respond with an angry outburst.  She would get quite loud and curse at everyone in sight.

If I didn’t get Arthur classified as a special education student, he would never get promoted to ninth grade.  Philadelphia’s tough new promotion requirements weren’t going to let him move on as a social promotion.  He was clearly learning disabled – if he were classified, the district couldn’t retain him.  In May of last year, I took the matter directly to Arthur.

“Arthur, you are a good kid.  You know how much I like you.  So what I’m going to tell you now, I tell you because I care about you.  Reading is really hard for you.  It always has been.  You’ve tried your hardest, but you still have problems with it.  You need more help than what we can give you in your regular classroom.  You need to go to Ms. Saegar’s classroom for extra help.”

Ms. Saegar is one of our special education teachers.  She is a master teacher.  What I was telling Arthur wasn’t anything new to him. In fact, for most of his seventh grade year, Arthur had been stopping by Ms. Sugar’s room at lunchtime on his own.

“What do I have to do to go to Ms. Saegar’s room?”

“Your mom has to sign a paper so that we can test you.  After you get tested, we can put you in her class if the test shows you need to be there.”

“Where do I get the paper?”

“Come and see me in the office tomorrow and I’ll give you the paper.”

Arthur is a determined young man. He picked up the paper first thing the next day.  He brought it back the day after that, signed by his mother.  In one day he got done what we couldn’t do for years.

This past Wednesday, knowing all of this, it was hard to believe that Arthur would act the hoodlum in the classroom. Arthur entered my office with his head down.  He has grown taller than I in his many years at Meade.  I could tell he was upset.  “Arthur, I’m scheduled to be at a meeting outside of school.  I stopped back here for a few minutes to take care of some urgent business.  Maybe it’s lucky for you that I’m here. They tell me that you hit your teacher in the back of the head.  I don’t understand that.  If a student hits a teacher, they can be arrested.”

Tears were in his eyes.

“It was an accident.”

“Accident?  How can hitting a teacher in the back of the head be an accident?  Arthur, I don’t want to hear that it was an accident.  I’m leaving again in a few minutes.  When I get back here at three o’clock, you will have this fixed.  Do you understand?”  Arthur nodded his head.  Mr. Nottingham was standing behind him.  I said to Mr. Nottingham, “Mr. Nottingham, take Arthur back upstairs so that he can do what he has to do.”

Mr. Nottingham returned to the office before I left.  I was in a rush to get back to the Instructional Team retreat.  Our conversation was brief.

“Is it taken care of?”

“All taken care of.”

“Is the teacher okay with it?”

“She is fine.”

I didn’t get back together with Mr. Nottingham until late in the afternoon.  He filled me in on the details of Arthur’s apology, but there wasn’t much to tell.  Arthur had been fooling around with Malik.  They were plunking each other on the head.  Arthur missed his shot and accidentally pinged the teacher.

“It wasn’t anything,” she said.  “It was just bad timing.  The Experience Corp volunteers were in the room.  I don’t know what happened. It just upset me.  I guess I was just having a bad day.”

I asked Mr. Nottingham about Arthur’s apology, “Was it real? Did he mumble?”

Nottingham said, “He was in the middle of the room.  I was in the hallway by the door.  I could hear him loud and clear.  He was really hurt.  He knew he had messed up.  He was hurting real bad.”

The fast and satisfactory resolution of this incident is a good indication of how far the school has come over the years.  This outcome was proof of how right it was to take the school to grade eight.  If he had been in a middle school, he would have been one of a couple hundred eighth graders who wouldn’t be well known to the adults in the school.   He most likely would have been arrested for assaulting a teacher, then transferred to a disciplinary school.   It would be doubtful that the principal would know him.  His inappropriate actions on this day would have been perceived as a criminal act in a large anonymous, urban middle school.  It wouldn’t be likely that he would be dealt with as a big, clunky, socially awkward but sweet kid who was acting stupid.


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