Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (6 of 8)
From my first day on the job as principal of Meade, relating to my parents has been a regular an important part of my day. The majority of my parents are good, hard working people trying to make something from almost nothing for their children. A large percentage of our parents receive public assistance. There is also a significant group of Meade parents who live just above the edge of poverty. This group doesn’t receive any form of assistance. Almost all of our parents have jobs – this fact comes as a surprise to the middle-income volunteers who frequent our school. The work that many of our parents perform is the work that few people really want to do: low paying service jobs such as office cleaners, nurse’s aides, and maids in hotels, the kind of work that makes life comfortable for the rest of us. Our parents often work in the suburbs, far away from their homes. It takes them hours to travel to work by public transportation. Additionally, they often work either night or irregular shifts, work schedules that are not ideal for raising a family, especially in single parent homes.
In the language of the No Child Left Behind Act,” parent involvement” in schools is frequently mentioned. Active parent involvement in the affairs of their children’s schools has been demonstrated to be an important positive influence on children’s academic achievement. When parents are not actively involved in their children’s schools it is commonly assumed that the parents either don’t care about their children’s academic performance or the school is blocking them from participation.
Meade parents spend little time in the school. They don’t have much time to give to volunteer work. Their feedback is usually limited to brief comments. “I really like this school.” “Keep up the good work.” “Things have really changed here since you came.” They talk as they walk – our parents are always in a hurry to get to work or to pick up their children for doctor appointments. They might not spend much time in the school building but they do spend time with their children. They encourage their children to do well in school, and they are supportive of their children’s teachers. If they didn’t have to worry about taking time off from work or losing pay, they would spend more time in our school.
First thing this morning, I met with Ms. Miller. She is a parent who withdrew her son Armand from our school two years ago. Ms. Miller hadn’t been satisfied with her son’s experiences with one of our best first grade teachers. At the time her complaints were puzzling and nonspecific. Her son just wasn’t being treated right, she would say. Her complaints about the teacher were similar to her complaints about the doctors she said were attending to her three-year old daughter, a child she pushed around in a wire grocery cart. I had often listened to Ms. Miller during that school year describe numerous concerns about her children. She thought her daughter had stomach cancer and the doctors weren’t doing anything. She also thought that her son’s teacher hated him. She was a very soft-spoken, melancholy woman.
It was a day late in May a few years back when I had last seen her. Ms. Miller had come to see me about changing her son’s classroom. We had been talking quietly in the hallway, and I asked, “What good would that do him? He likes his teacher. She likes him. He is doing well. School is almost finished for the year.”
“Fuck you and this fucking school.” She exploded.
The vile anger gushing out of her caught me totally by surprise. She screamed so loudly that everyone on the floor could hear her. In all of our past conversations, I had struggled to hear her. There was no missing her voice now.
“I fucking want him now. I’m taking him out of this fucking school.”
Ms. Miller’s behavior wasn’t a behavior that was unfamiliar to me. I have heard many times before the screams of the frustrated and angry. I tried to talk to her.
“Please stop screaming. Our Kindergarten children are on this floor. You are scaring them. You can’t talk like that here.”
“You can’t tell me what the fuck can come out of my mouth”.
One of the aides had gone to Ms Miller’s son’s room and brought him back to the main office. His arrival calmed her and she stopped her rant. She took her son’s hand and led him out of the school.
She did not bring him back for the remainder of the school year. In September of the next school year Ms. Miller enrolled her son in a nearby Charter School. Armand remained there for two years. During that time I saw her almost everyday passing the schoolyard, pushing her daughter in the grocery cart on her way to the Charter School.
I was surprised to see her standing at the counter on this Monday morning. Ms. Miller requested to enroll her son in Meade School.
“It was a mistake taking him out of here,” she said. “Those people at the Charter School don’t know what they are doing.” She apologized for her past behavior. “Please, will you let my son come back?”
Meade School is her children’s neighborhood public school. They cannot be excluded. We reenrolled Armand in the fourth grade. His sister was registered in Kindergarten. I have a feeling I’m going to see a lot of Ms. Miller this year.