Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (8 of 9)
TV and news radio stations were reporting accounts of the high school shooting by the time I arrived back at the school. It had taken place outside of Strawberry Mansion High School, the same high school that I had suggested to Jordon as a possible high school choice. He had thought the school was dangerous. He was right. Briefly I watched the newscast. For a second I wondered what the shooter had been like when he was in kindergarten. I went back to my office and worked on some of my long neglected paper work.
Today I sent Mrs. Martin around to Ms. Nichol’s house to tell her that I wanted to see her. Ms Nichols was up to see me within fifteen minutes. When she came in to my office, I immediately put her off balance. “I thought you like this school?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You told me before that you really liked this school. You did say that, didn’t you? Do you still like our school?”
“Yes I do like this school. It’s a good school.”
“So what are you doing to help us keep it that way? Being in the middle of Gregory’s fight last week isn’t helping us. Encouraging him to fight isn’t helping us. And what was yesterday about?”
She looked away from me.
“I don’t know what was going on yesterday, that’s why I was going down the street. I was trying to find out what was up.”
She said Gregory has been staying with his dad for the last two weeks. “His father lives over at the Raymond Rosen project. I sent him to his father’s. I can’t control him. That temper of his is too much for me. He put his fist through the wall.”
“Who were the boys he had with him yesterday? They aren’t from this school.”
“They are from around his father’s way. I know the mom of one of the boys. Do you want her telephone number?”
I didn’t want her telephone number. I could imagine the disaster that would unfold if I attempted a conversation with the mother of a boy who doesn’t go to our school. As she talked it became clearer to me what was behind yesterday’s incident. Gregory got his behind whooped by the island twins. He wanted to save his pride, so he recruited his friends from his father’s neighborhood to help him to settle the score.
To his mother I said, “This needs to be settled today, now. So far, Gregory has been lucky. If his crew had caught up to the twins yesterday, there could have been serious trouble for you and your son. If the twins were stomped, were hurt, your son would have been locked up along with the rest of his boys. A boy was killed yesterday at The Mansion. Is that what you want for your son? Do you want to be locked up along with him? I’ll put you into it, too, if this mess gets out of hand. You were there last Thursday, encouraging this fight.”
She didn’t jump back at me. I was laying a heavy trip down on her.
“His father tells him to hit them back. He is always telling the boys to fight anyone who hits them or pushes or whatever.”
“Do you and the boy’s father talk? Do you have a good enough relationship with him where you can tell Gregory’s dad to lay off the violence talk? Or do you want me to talk to him?”
“Yeah, we talk. I’ll say something to his dad, but would you talk to him?”
I told her that I would. Gregory arrived in the office just then. I had sent for him. When he came into my office, his mom started to question him. He smothered her in mumbled “I don’t knows.” Then he acted like he didn’t understand what she was saying to him. He is a young adolescent boy trying to throw his mother off of his trail. He claimed that he didn’t know why his buddies were standing on the corner across from school at dismissal. They don’t live in the neighborhood. They don’t go to the school. He didn’t ask them to come over to Eighteenth and Oxford Street. They just happened to be there. He almost lost her in his smokescreen. I didn’t have much patience for his game.
“Cut me a break, Gregory. You don’t know why they were here?” I said.
Mr. Nottingham was in the room with us. I turned to him and said, “Do you believe that he is trying to pass this off on us?”
Mr. Nottingham said, “Cut us a break.”
Our conversation with Gregory didn’t last long.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know what your boys were doing here. You got your behind beat by a boy you were busting on. You were making fun of how the twins talk. You were trying to have a laugh on them. Well the laugh ended up on you when one of the twins punched you in the face. Your feelings were hurt. You told your friends from around your dad’s way about it. You wanted them to help you to get back at the twins. When I was fourteen, if I told my friends about something like this, they would help me out. You told them about getting beat up so that you could get them over here. You might not have asked them directly to come, but you knew they would once you told them you were jumped. You wanted revenge. Now you call them off and stop making a mess in this school. If you don’t end this now, if the twins get hurt, I will have you locked up and then transferred to a disciplinary school. Do you understand me?”
I didn’t wait for him to answer. I left my office. It was a dramatic performance – just the right touch. Mr. Nottingham ended the conversation with the mother and son. It was a routine that we have performed more than once.
The shooting of the high school boy at the mansion stayed a top story for several days. The papers in their accounts were playing up the fact that the Mansion had been on the “persistently dangerous” school list last year. The reporters of this story didn’t consider the broader neighborhood problems or the deep personal problems of the offenders that could have contributed to the making of this tragedy. Blaming the school over looks the fact that to many of our students school is the safest place in their life. It’s the world around their school that presents the real danger. This is a world in which angry mothers live out their own issues through their children’s problems. This is the world where fathers give misguided advice to their sons on how to protect their masculine pride. It’s the world where mobs run after fights for the sake of entertainment. This is the world of the streets where every hurt must be avenged