Confessions of an Urban Principal
By Frank Murphy
Installment (9 of 9)
When I was a kid, I had a lot of countdown holidays. These were the days that I would circle on my calendar. These occasions were highly anticipated events. It seems that much of my childhood was spent in a constant state of hardly being able to wait for something to come. I have always looked forward to tomorrow.
It is two days until Christmas. When I woke up this morning, I started to countdown the minutes of the day in my head. Six hours, fifteen minutes is the length of a school day, with an extra twenty minutes thrown in for the time it takes to empty the schoolyard at dismissal. I can hardly wait for the holiday vacation to begin.
The last two weeks have been frantic. I haven’t been able to relax, or work myself into a holiday mood. Sixteen new students have been admitted in this time. Eight of those students are boys who have entered our seventh and eighth grades. All of them have moved to our neighborhood in order to live with their fathers. These boys were having problems in the schools they left; their mothers couldn’t handle them. Six boys went into the eighth grade and two into seventh. That is a lot of new personalities to assimilate.
Ms. Thompson has also stayed active. She has been giving Saundra’s teacher a hard time. The teacher was afraid to meet alone with this woman during report card conferences, so I told her I would handle Ms. Thompson. Less than a half hour after I told her not to worry, Saundra’s mom was in my office, throwing a fit. She was screaming, cursing and threatening me. I told her to leave. She moved into the hallway where she continued to scream.
“I guess I’m just going to have to fucking swing on someone”.
Looking her square in the eyes, I asked, “What does that mean?”
“You fucking heard me, I’m gong to swing on someone.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“You’re fucking right I am, I’m going to swing on you.”
The hallway was filled with children who were waiting to be picked up by their parents. It was an early dismissal day. There were several other parents coming into the building for their children’s report card conferences. Her outburst was an embarrassing and unnecessary scene.
Ms Thomas wouldn’t leave the school. We called the police. A half hour later, two officers appeared. When Saundra’s mom saw them pull up, she took off through the back door. The officers watched her go. They took a report from me. I called the captain of the local police district and demanded action. The captain assured me that the report from the patrol officers would be sent to the detectives’ division. I was prepared to press charges. I called the regional office and the office of school safety. I wanted them to help me to follow through with the police. My calls to the regional office and the Office of School Safety went unanswered.
It seems that a parent can tell me that she’s going to swing on me and it’s no big deal. Christie Sims can call these same offices with a complaint and I spend hours of my time responding to unfounded accusations. Saundra’s mom could go home and call downtown and say that I was rude to her and she would get a response. Later in the day I wrote Ms Thompson a letter that instructed her not to enter the school without my permission.
The day after the incident with Ms. Thompson, Rashid threw a girl on the floor in the coat closet and then lay on top of her. According to the teacher, he was humping up and down on the girl. The teacher stopped him. The girl claimed that they were just playing. I suspended Rashid. He received his suspension notice near the end of the day. After he had this letter in hand, he went back to his classroom. When Rashid arrived in the room he threatened to “fuck up” the teacher and all of the kids in the room. Rashid called the main office on the intercom phone. When Ms Sample answered this call, Rashid told her, “Someone better come and get this bitch before I kill her.” Immediately after he hung up, the teacher called the office. She needed help. Rashid was trashing her room.
By the time the school police officer, Mr. Guvalla, arrived, the room was in shambles. A bookcase was turned over, desks were thrown about the room and Rashid had broken the window in the classroom door. This all happened in minutes.
Rashid needed a different school placement. We clearly couldn’t manage him. I suspended him for five days and plunged into writing the request for a disciplinary transfer. His mother was supportive of this action. She had no clue as to what to do with Rashid. A Department of Human Services (DHS) caseworker gave me a call when I was halfway through the process. She was indignant that she hadn’t been informed that Rashid had been suspended from school. “If I had known he was having trouble in school, I would never have closed his case.”
It was news to me that Rashid and his family had been referred to DHS.
“You had an open case on Rashid and his family. When did that happen?”
“We have been working with them for over two years.”
“Oh really! Why wasn’t anyone at the school notified that you were providing services? We would have gladly supported your effort.”
This woman who initially had come on strong seemed to reconsider her approach to this conversation. She became more cordial. The caseworker provided me with background information that shed a new light on Rashid’ recent, troubling behaviors. She told me more about how his older brother who is in prison has been mentoring him. The brother is a sixteen year old. He is currently incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility somewhere near Pittsburgh. The brother has been writing to Rashid. In his letters, he has been instructing the younger boy on how to act in order to survive in the street. The social worker suggested that these letters were probably where Rashid was getting a most of his aggressive ideas.
The caseworker gave me a lengthy description of the older brother:
“His older brother is quite a troubled boy. When he was arrested this last time, he had sixteen hundred dollars in cash on him. He was in possession of a sizable amount of crack cocaine and there were bullets in his socks. He has an extensive list of charges pending against him. He was charged with endangering the fetus of a pregnant woman and for abusing a corpse. There is more.”
But I didn’t want to hear any more. I didn’t want to think about anyone who abused corpses and endangered pregnant women. I brought the conversation back to Rashid and his problems. By the time we finished our conversation, she was in agreement with the idea of a disciplinary transfer.
I was looking for Christmas parties and carols. Instead I was receiving a ‘Dickens’ of a time. In the midst of this mess I did find a ‘Tiny Tim’ moment. Composing a letter of recommendation for Isaiah uplifted my spirit. I had been working on it for several days and after several drafts I was I was finally satisfied with my effort.
In reviewing his school records, I was impressed with his resilience and determination. His standardized test scores were decent, as were his grades. He does have academic gaps especially in his writing and math skills. These were problems that could be addressed through the intensive one-on-one tutoring that the prep school said it would provide. I was amazed by the fact that he has attended eleven different elementary schools since he started kindergarten. That he is still doing well in school is a testament to his intelligence and perseverance. Composing this recommendation letter brought me a bit of much needed holiday joy.
Many bits and pieces of information regarding Arthur has drifted to the surface in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Ms. Lube shared a conversation with me that she had with him. Arthur pointed out to her that no male in his family has lived past the age twenty-nine. It troubled her that Arthur was dwelling on this morbid piece of his family history. This information made even more sense when Ms Saegar finally found out what had been upsetting Arthur.
He had told her that there was shooting near his house. He had almost been shot. It sounded to me that there was a little more to this story than what Arthur offered. There is a speakeasy only a couple of doors away from his home. Perhaps there was trouble there and it had spilled out into the street. What seemed more likely to me was that there had been a shooting inside of his house. There was often a crowd hanging around Cindy’s place. She associated with a rowdy group of drinkers. For Arthur to be as scared and upset as he acted, I think whatever occurred happened was too close to home for him.
The pendulum of Meade swings back and forth between hope and despair. I mark off the time there by either looking for the good in people or warding off the bad vibes of angry and disturbed people. This is the nature of the time I serve. It can be hard time to do.
It is almost Christmas. I have gotten through this day – all six hours and forty-five minutes of it. Now I can get back to the Christmas countdown. Two, one… I’m out of here.