Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (7 of 9)
During dismissal at a local neighborhood high school on Monday, a battle erupted. A blast of gunfire on a neighborhood street crowded with high school students left a male tenth grader dead on the sidewalk. The surrounding street was littered with empty shell casings. Three other students were wounded in the shoot out. Both of the local papers headlined this story the next day.
While this shooting was taking place not far from Meade, I was walking the streets of the neighborhood. Several other staff members were with me. We were following a group of fight-hungry kids who were chasing the Island Twins. Tyson and Tysen were identical twins. They are eighth graders who had transferred into our school two weeks ago. The brothers had lived most of their lives on the Island of Trinidad with their grandparents. The boys had recently moved back to the states to live with their mother after the death of their grandfather. Their transition into our school has not been going well. They have been teased and tormented by the bullyboys. The twins responded to the taunts and insults that were directed towards them with their fists. After a few blocks we lost sight of the mob.
According to different kids and adults we met along the way, the boys who were chasing Tyson and Tysen didn’t go to our school. This was troubling news. If they were our own kids, we could control them. Strangers are a different story. We retreated. When we were getting near the school, Gregory Nichol’s mother hurried pass us with her younger son. She said to me, “What’s going on?”
I told her, “I don’t know.” Her older son, Gregory, had been fighting with one of the twins the other day. That fight had taken place on Eighteenth Street about a block away from school. I had headed towards it but it had broken up when the kids saw me. I couldn’t miss spotting Gregory as one of the fighters. He is a tall skinny kid who stands out in a crowd. I didn’t immediately recognize the other fighter, a boy who quickly moved away from the scene. I caught a brief glimpse of his profile. In the center of the mob was Ms. Nichols. She was instigating her son to fight the other boy. When she saw me, she also left the scene. She put her head down as she and Gregory moved pass me. I didn’t say anything to her, thinking that I would send for her later. We needed to talk about her involvement in her son’s fight.
When I saw Ms Nichols hustling down Oxford Street today, suddenly it all clicked. I knew that Thursday’s fight wasn’t yet over. Gregory had organized an attack on his enemies. One of the twins, I realized was the boy whose profile I had seen on Eighteen Street. I was upset with Ms Nichols. She had egged her son to fight with the twin in the first place. Her irresponsible actions had started this fight.
This was the second time today that parents from our school had involved their children in acts of violence. In the yard this morning I had the misfortune of being caught in the middle of a feud between two parents. I was talking to both of the kindergarten teachers at the back of their lines when there was a loud scream and a child began to cry. The teachers and I looked to the side of the yard where the scream had originated. There, flat on the ground, was a kindergarten boy. He wasn’t exactly on the ground. He was on top of his oversized backpack. His arms and legs were flaying up and down. The boy looked like a turtle turned upside down on his shell. A woman who I assumed was his mother roughly picked him up off of the ground. She threw him at another kindergarten boy. He thumped into this bigger boy, and then fell back to the ground. The boy cried even louder as he lay once again flat on his backpack. His mother screamed, “Get the fuck up. Fucking hit him. Hit him. If someone hits you, you hit them back.”
I moved toward the two kindergarten boys. It looked like the angry mother was going to hit the other boy herself. I stepped in front of the boy and the mother who was making the threats. I said, “Stop it, this is no way to act in front of children.”
“I’m going to tell my child to fight, I don’t care what you say.”
I ignored this comment. I wrapped my arm around the bigger boy and started to steer him towards the teachers. I said, “Who is your teacher?” He didn’t answer me. The boy looked freaked out.
Barbara McGuire, one of the kindergarten teachers, lifted the smaller boy up from the ground. She took his hand and led him to her line. His mother was still cursing and screaming. She started to leave. She didn’t stop to say anything to her son. Just then, another woman called out, “That is my son,” referring to the boy standing with me. “Why isn’t anyone doing a fucking thing to protect my boy? That ain’t right.” Her response was delayed; this was several minutes after the incident started.
“Great”, I thought, “She is going to scream and curse too.” What a way to start a Monday. To the second mother I said, “Please stop screaming. Please stop cursing. You are in a schoolyard full of children.”
“I don’t fucking care, no one is helping my child.”
“That is not true, I stepped over here in front of your child as soon as I saw trouble. Let’s go into my office where we can talk in private.”
“I don’t have time to fucking talk to you. I’m going to be late for work.”
“Please stop cursing, you are acting scary in front of the children.”
She lowered her voice. We exchanged a few more words before she left the yard. I guided the boy who was with me over to an aide who took him to his room. I headed for the office.
Immediately I wrote a letter to both parents. I described the event that had occurred in the yard. I explain how their actions were inappropriate. Then I detailed how I expected them to act in the future when they are on school grounds.