There was a time when many people wanted to be teachers. It was a safe, respected, and respectable profession to be part of. There was a ladder that could be climbed if and when a teacher decided, like the Jeffersons to “move on up.” One could be come a department head, an assistant principal, or a principal. The pay wasn’t great but there were benefits including a pension. What could be bad? Let me count the ways.
Parents come to school board meetings decked out for combat. Competition for a seat on a school board is fierce and suddenly hyper political. States are meddling in the work of local districts for instance in virtually every school district in America a child can not enter without proof of multiple vacinations. But now, Covid? Nosireebob! A candidate for governor runs on an anti critical race theory platform. Critical race theory is not taught in his state. We’re beyond weird, we’re into dysfunctional. Our lofty platform of the nation that educated the best and brightest of other nations has sunken to new lows. Let’s take a hyperlocal look at all of this.
We’ll start in Brooklyn, NY.
Congratulations to the Brooklyn principal, Elisa Brown (PS 249) who received national honors. Being married to someone who spent part of her career as an educator in school administration, I can tell you, with great appreciation, that running a school is as complicated as running a medium sized business or a military division. And the problems in a school don’t come with the authority that leaders in corporate or military America have.
In my day it was different. My elementary school principal was the Johnny Cash of principals. She dressed in black. There were days when she looked like a Sicilian mourner, or the mother of a recently deceased Mafia don. She was prone to wearing shoes that looked like they were made for stomping grapes, or the occasional roach, even though grapes are stomped with feet, not shoes. Thank you, health department.
I had a social studies teacher whose eyes when locked on you turned your body into ice. An English teacher had the frame of an undersized half back, and then there was the math teacher. We called her bones because she was a tall skeleton with a skin overlay. Her fingers were as long as pencils and when pointed at you out shot laser beam. Along with the European respect for educators that was bred into us, most of the teachers scared us to death.
Here are two Florida incidents that epitomize what a principal’s day can be like. In central Florida a teacher won teacher of the year. She was feted appropriately and made her principal so proud that I’m sure orations of praise were lifted up to her. Two days later she commanded a young female student to come into her classroom. She then hauled off a smacked her in the face with a Rocky Marciano right cross. Go figure. Now what is her principal supposed to do?
Then also within a week’s time though hundreds of miles away, a 15-year-old girl attacked a teacher. She put the teacher in such a vicious choke hold that it took a pack of students and adults to pull her off. She was arrested and taken to jail in ‘cuffs. What was that principal to do?
Let me not mislead you. Principals had their problems even way back when. Some schools were, and still are, better, easier than others. There were schools in Brooklyn, and certainly in the other boroughs what were not even close to plum assignments. There were frequent fights, there were gangs, there was vandalism, there was truancy, there was bullying. Three kids in my elementary school skipped class, went adventuring on the tracks of the LI Railroad freight tracks, stumbled, hit a high-tension wire, and were shocked so badly that their shoes flew off and their clothing burned on their bodies. As I recall, one died and two lost a collection of limbs. How does a principal handle that—with the parents, with the teachers, with the students?
In my elementary school (PS 217) and high school (Midwood), there were several teachers with severe PTSD from the war. It caused them to do bizarre things at bizarre times. At the blowing of a car horn out on the street under the classroom window, this teacher would suddenly shout, “Woo-woo! Woo-woo!” and then go on teaching as if nothing had happened. A revered and respected teacher left class one day and said, “I won’t be in tomorrow.” He committed suicide that night. Same question.
The coup de gras was the student who cut out of class, said to me as he passed me in the hall that he was going home to kill his mother, and he did.
So, thank goodness for Ms. Elisa Brown, and others like her. We need our heroes, now more than ever. That’s why I’m dedicating this column to one, who is part of a group that is mostly unsung. Along with my once a upon a time friends at TV’s Hee Haw, I say to her, and all like her, “Saaa-lute!!”
Bill is enjoying what passes for Fall weather in south FLorida. And he’s enjoying be able to remind you the “George Washington Never Slept Here is a great read and greater gift.