Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 9)
Today was a pleasant start to a new month.
In the afternoon I spent a couple of hours changing the hallway decorations. I put up the winter banners and windsocks. As I labored with this chore, I amused myself by conversing with the students who passed by on the way to the bathrooms or on an errand for their teacher. The younger children were excited to witness the hanging of the holiday decorations. One very perky second grader said, “It is the night before Christmas?” I enjoyed the reactions of the kids.
Five new students enrolled in the school today. The coming and goings of students never ceases. I meet with all the parents and caretakers of the children who come into the school. On some days and weeks, these interviews can take up a good chunk of my time. I had just finished with the last parent of the day when I heard the sound of chaos at the front counter. Mr. Powel, the boyfriend of Wayne Histon’s mother, was standing at the counter. Wayne is a student in our fifth grade special education class. Mr. Powel was shouting at Lorraine, the mother of a fourth grader named Rashid. I focused on what Mr. Powel was saying to Rashid.
“I wish I was your uncle, then I would grab you around your scrawny little neck and choke some sense into you. Who do you think you were talking to last night?”
Rashid’ mom jumped into the squabble. “Don’t you try and choke my boy.”
I was trying to make sense of this argument. Apparently last night, Mr. Powel had gone to Rashid’s house to talk to his mother because Rashid had been bullying Wayne. Rashid had gone nose to nose with the man. He had repeatedly told Mr. Powel to “get the fuck away from his house” and to “suck his dick.” This was a nine year old talking to a grown man. What really set Mr. Powel off was when Rashid put his hand into his pants, like he was pulling out a gun. From the conversation in the office I learned that Mr. Powel had grabbed Rashid after the boy did his gun pantomime.
Mr. Powel screamed, “You cried like a fucking little baby when I grabbed you. You weren’t a bad ass then. Who do you think you are? Acting like you are pulling a gun on a man. You’re a punk, a punk. You cried like a fucking little baby.”
After he made these remarks I stepped into the fray. “That’s enough! Stop screaming at the boy. Stop making these remarks.” Lorraine began to yell at Mr. Powel. “Get away from my son.”
Nottingham got in front of Rashid. I came up alongside of Lorraine and started to move her away from the man. I told Rashid to go into my office. He went through the door and I guided Lorraine by the arm in the same direction. I almost had her into my office when Mr. Powel’s next remarks struck a new nerve with Lorraine.
“I don’t have to put up with that boy talking like that to me. I don’t care who he says he will get. His mother doesn’t do anything. I’m not afraid of his father.”
Lorraine turned and screamed, “Watch what you say, his father is dead.” She went back to the man at the counter. Their screaming was thunderous. I looked at Rashid. I told him to sit down. I shut the door to my office, cutting Rashid off from this conflict. I walked back to the counter and leaned right into the ear of Mr. Powel.
“Stop screaming. You are disrespecting my house.”
I have known Mr. Powel for several years. We weren’t strangers. Abruptly he stopped screaming. He looked right at me and said, “You’re right Mr. Murphy, I’m disrespecting you. I’m sorry I don’t mean you any harm.”
I put my arm around his shoulder and started to guide him out of the office. “Come on, brother, let’s go outside and talk.”
He didn’t move. He had a few more barbs he wanted to throw in Lorraine’s direction. I insisted that he leave. Finally I managed to move him outside. I stood on the front steps of the school talking to him for several minutes. I understood why he was upset. I have known Rashid long enough to know too well how much he can get under your skin. Lorraine had even gotten tired of coming up to school to deal with his trouble. Towards the end of third grade last year, she sent him to live with his father and grandfather. He went to another school.
Rashid wasn’t at this other school for long before his father was shot and killed on the street in front of the school last spring. Rashid was a witness to his father’s death. The children of the murderer went to the same school. Lorraine didn’t want Rashid in the same school with these children. She brought her son back to live with her. Lorraine did not reenroll him in our school until the end of September.
The courts had offered Rashid emergency counseling, but his mom didn’t follow through with getting him this help. Rashid came back to us even more angry and aggressive than he was before he left. He has been very busy in the last two months, starting fights. Rashid is well on his way to getting a serious butt whooping on the street. He seems to be following his father’s path to destruction.
I said to Mr. Powel, “I feel you, he is a boy who can pluck on your last nerve. But think how it will look when the police show up. You’re a grown man, threatening a young boy. His mother is crying.”
“I know, I know Mr. Murphy, but you don’t understand. When you don’t have anything but your pride, you can’t let someone take it away from you. It’s not right to have some young boy disrespect me. He acted like he was going to shoot me, Mr. Murphy. I’m forty-two years old. I don’t got nothing but my pride.”
“I know. He really got to you. No man should have to listen to the way he talks.”
“You do understand.”
I put an arm around his shoulder. “Come on, my brother, don’t jam yourself up over this boy. Go home. Chill out. Don’t let him take any more from you.”
He got on his bike. “I’m sorry, Mr. Murphy. I didn’t mean you any disrespect. I shouldn’t have been talking like that in the school.”
He rode off. I went back inside to talk to Lorraine. It was the same conversation we have had a dozen times before in the last month. “Rashid needs help. What are we going to do?”