Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (4 of 9)
My morning “wake up and go” is a regular routine. Shower, press the clothes, dress, and drink coffee in the car. These are the “one foot after another steps” I take into the workday. The ride to school is a very predictable eighteen-minute trip. As I pass Fortieth and Market, heading east, I stop to pick up my two papers, The Daily News and The Inquirer.
There is a man in the middle of the street who sells the papers. For the longest time it was Nick. Then one day, he disappeared. The hustler who replaced him said, “Oh Nick, yeah I heard he took off. He owed money to a dealer. So he’s hiding out somewhere.”
I have learned from my experiences on the job not to rush to judgment. Nick had been my regular man in the street for over a year. That is a long time for a paper man. He knew what I wanted. When I pulled over he had my dailies ready. The Daily News and the Inquirer would be laid down on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. In my hand was the dollar ten and my daily tip; Nick had been so regular that I had even given him a twenty-dollar bill as a present at the holiday last year. I was grateful for his skill at recognizing me and knowing what news I needed.
I suspect Nick is a man, who has little to call his own other than his pride. He is a fifty-something-year-old man selling papers in the middle of the street. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the dream job he imagined as a boy. At least he still has enough pride to earn the money for his drugs. Was he once a boy like Rashid? Did he have teachers who were young and inexperienced? Were they teachers who couldn’t even imagine what a boy like Nick might already have seen and experienced?
Nick is gone, and I’m back to trying to break in a new guy. The guy who has taken his place thrust a Daily in my face as I pulled over to the middle turn lane. I said, “I’ll have an Inquirer too.”
The headline on the front page of the Daily News declared that some school principals were failures. These were principals who were remiss in making reports of violence in their schools. In the body of the story reference is made to Paul Vallas’s threat to fire principals who fail to report violence or weapon’s possession in their school. Principals have become the prime targets of the school reform witch-hunt. It feels like it is becoming increasingly likely that one day I will find myself tied to a pole at the center of a bonfire, waiting to be lit on fire.
I can hear mob shouting.
“Let’s fire this wicked principal.”
I wanted to read the article when I arrived in the office, but that read didn’t happen until much later in the day. A busy Monday morning lay before me. There were several parents waiting to see me.
Isaiah’s dad was fourth in line. He had decided to let me handle the aftermath from Friday’s incident. He didn’t want to press charges against the high school boys who had jumped his son. We didn’t have a long conversation; Isaiah’s father is a man of few words.
The rest of the school day was filled with the normal business of a school principal. I was constantly on the move. A few minutes before school let out, I took up my position on Gratz Street. I stood on the corner across from the one where the high school age drug boys were stationed. They watched me as I was watched them. If they had any plans of returning for a round two in the schoolyard, they would have to just roll over me. Making a school safe takes more than just talking tough. In order for me to protect my kids’ I have to stand in the way of trouble.
The dismissal went well. The kids flowed out of the schoolyard and into the neighborhood. I was thankful for an incident-free closing. I headed back down Gratz Street towards the main yard. When I reached the gate I saw that there was a girl fight-taking place by the main exit door. The two girls involved were swinging hard on each other. Their mothers were looking on as their daughters fought. The adults were trading insults.
Mr. G, the school police officer along with Mr. Ong and Mr. Berkly were trying to diffuse the situation. By the time I arrived at the doorstep, the girls had stopped throwing punches and the mothers had taken over as the main actors in this drama. They were throwing accusations at the staff members.
“You grabbed my daughter. Who do you think you are throwing my daughter against the wall? You punched her in the nose.”
No one tried to pull me into the fray. I just stood there and watched. One of the woman lived across the street from the school. A few times a year, she erupts. Her daughter picks on everyone, but according to her mother, she is never wrong. When the daughter receives a penalty for her poor behavior, the mother has a fit. In the seven years I have known her, I have heard this women say at least forty times, “I’m reporting you to the board.” The other mother was Mrs. Thompson (Saundra’s mother).
The mother who lives across the street from the school walked into the building. I followed her. She went to the nurse’s office. While I was watching her, Ms.Thompson came up behind me. Her sisters soon joined her. They all started to shout at once. The sister of the other mom entered the hallway through the front door. She too started to scream. Suddenly the hallway was a swarm of angry people. My role as a quiet observer was over; I moved in to end this confrontation.
One of Ms. Thompson’ sisters was screaming at the school police officer. She was in his face. I put myself between her and the officer. We were nose to nose. She was screaming and I was softly repeating to her, in a measured voice, “Leave the building.” Ms.Thompson pushed her sister out of the way and she started her own verbal confrontation with the officer. I put my arm around her shoulder and started to guide her towards the front door. She didn’t resist. Her sisters followed along in our wake. I was walking them down the foyer steps when the parents of Samuel an eighth grade student entered the front door. Ms. Thompson’s sister was still screaming so it was hard for me to hear what Samuel’s mother, Mrs. Mitchell was saying as she walked up the steps.
I did hear her say.
“Do you know why my son was arrested?”
“He was arrested?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. I asked her to please wait for me in the office. It took a few more minutes before I was able to push the Hatfields and McCoys out of the door.
Once back in my office, I was able to focus on Samuel’s parents. According to the story they told, two boys had come to their house. Mrs., Mitchell thought that they were Donte and Derrick. They informed her that Samuel had been in a fight with Tyson (one of the island twins). The boys said that Samuel had been bitten in the face. The police came and stopped the fight. They had taken Samuel and Tyson away in a police car.
I wondered, should I report this incident? It wouldn’t do for me to be a bad principal who didn’t report violence. Then again, I thought what would be the point? The boys had already been arrested.
I decided to ignore this incident. I didn’t have to add to these boys’ problems by suspending them. I should have, according to Vallas. He claims that the school district discipline policy is in effect twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In the Daily News article, “Mr. Vallas is quoted as saying that any principal who fails to report weapons or violence in his school would be fired.”
I guess I was looking for trouble.