Chapter Four: December

22 Dec

Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (7 of 9)

Rashid was tearing up Amy’s classroom. She needed help.  I sent Samuel back to his classroom and headed upstairs to room 216.  When I arrived it was in shambles.  Bookcases were turned over, desks were flipped, and bulletin board displays were ripped down.  The teacher and her students were clustered together in the back of the room.  They looked like they had just witnessed a tornado in the classroom.

“Where is he?” I asked the teacher.

“He ran out of the room.”

I spent the next five minutes searching  for him.  Finally I found him in the hallway outside of the Kindergarten rooms.  He was standing next to the water fountain.  Rashid was holding the water fountain button down for the kindergarten kids who were getting drinks after coming from the bathroom.

Slowly I approached him.  I didn’t want him to run.  I put my hand gently on his shoulder.  I whispered into his ear, “Let’s go to the office.”

He started to move with me.  As we passed the kindergartners who were lining up near their teacher, he started to yell, “Let go of me, you are choking me.”  I hustled him up the steps towards the main floor.

When we reached the main hallway, he started to wrestle with me.  He was tugging and pulling on my arm.  All the time he was screaming,  “Get off of me bitch”.

He repeatally  punched me.  Moving him down the hallway was a feat.  Just as he was starting to get the better of me his mother arrived.  She settled him down.

I was  breathing heavily and my chest was pounding.  For a moment or two I couldn’t speak; I went back to my office and sat down.  It took me a long while to catch my breath. I was feeling pain in my chest.  Mr. Nottingham came in to check on me.  I joked with him that I might be having a heart attack, but I wasn’t so sure that I wasn’t.  The right side of my chest  was sore, so I figured that I had just strained some muscles.  It was obvious to me that I wasn’t capable of the same level of physical exertion that I was able to perform in my younger days.  I asked Mr. Nottingham, “Where is Rashid now?”

“His mother took him home.”

Mr. Nottingham sat down in in a seat across from me.   I suspected he was was keeping an eye on me.  I welcomed his company.  We joked a bit  more about my having a heart attack.  He said, “You better get yourself together. If I  have to give you mouth to mouth, what would Christie Sims have to say?  She would spread such a story about the two of us.”

We laughed.  The laughter relaxed me.  I decided that the pain was muscular.  We sat and talked for a while longer until we  were sure that this wasn’t the “big one”.  I decided to go home.  When I got there I took some Motrin and then stretched out on the sofa.  I read the newspaper.  Even though I was sore I  still enjoyed this  peaceful solitude. Contently I flipped through the paper until I came across an article concerning President Bush’s newest appointment to head the National Civil Rights Commission.  The headline read, in part, “Bush appoints a conservative African American who has differed with other civil rights leaders.”

The article sited a quote from the proposed candidate, Gerald Thompson.  He said, “The obstacles facing African Americans today are not problems of discrimination but of not seizing the opportunities that are available.”

I thought what are the opportunities that the people who live in the Meade neighborhood are  failing to seize?  What access to opportunity do they have?  The world available to them is one of low paying jobs, substandard housing, unsafe communities, under-funded schools, poor access to health care and more of the same every day.   Where are the opportunities my Meade children are failing to seize?

Reading this article was the final nail in the coffin of a deadly day.  I felt overwhelmed and trapped in an absurd world.  These days of school reform are grinding me down.  This new civil rights orthodoxy that Mr. Thompson is promoting is more than I can endure.  I am not sure if I am strong enough for this battle.


When I came in this morning, another Arthur discipline referral was in my mailbox.  He had refused to follow the teacher’s directions and had given her some back talk.  For the last few weeks his behavior has concerned me.  I am starting to wonder if he is causing trouble just so that I will send for him.  If it were any other kid who was acting out as much as he was, I would have contacted his parents.  In Arthur’s case, I didn’t see much point in involving Cindy.  He is more reasonable than his mother.

I decided that the best approach was to deal with him directly. It was time to sit down and have a talk with with Arthur.  Hopefully I could encourage him to behave out of respect for me.  This was a potentially  messy plan.  But then the world the two of us share is a messy place.

When we talked I said just enough to make my point.  I told him that he wasn’t acting right and that I expected better of him.  He was apologetic.   I didn’t draw out this correction.  After he promised  that he would show his teacher more respect, I sent him back to his room.

John DiPaolo gave me a call, later in the day.  He wanted to tell me about his meeting with the CAO.    John said that all of the EMOs were under the gun to show better test results.  He used business metaphors to describe the expectations communicated by the CAO:  the chief wanted better outcomes and increased production.  If the schools can’t deliver, then the staff can be replaced.

I didn’t want to what the downtown managers had to say.  What I was hearing everyday at Meade was already more than my head could handle.

John continued to talk.

“What they are saying  is that we need to take a hard look at you.  Your school hasn’t made AYP yet and you have been there a long time.”

“John what you need to tell them is that I have only been the principal of this K-8 school for less than a year.  It doesn’t seem as if anyone can remember that we have taken this school from a K-4 to a K-8 in the last four years.  We didn’t get any help with this conversion.  What we did get was more problems and fewer resources.  We have a seventy percent student mobility rate.  Only four of out of thirty-four of our teachers have been in the same grade assignment for more than three years.  I’m not doing enough?  My team isn’t doing enough?

John conceded my point. “I have to admit there is a certain element of silliness in their expectations, but this is what we have to deal with as we move forward.”

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