I try to serve as Black Mountain’s principal for a day

I wish you could see Shirley in action

Lunch time, Black Mountain Middle School
  • Lunch time, Black Mountain Middle School
  • Image by Dave Allen

Middle school and I go way back. My mother taught eighth-grade English and social studies. I attended PTA meetings before entering kindergarten. On Friday nights, the principal would show up at our house and play bridge with my folks. I attended that school and vowed that nobody could accuse me of being pampered because my mom taught there. The vice principal and I became so well acquainted that after a few weeks, he declared that unless I changed my ways, I’d end up a bum in the gutter. Twenty years later, when my first novel got published, my mom sent him a copy with a note that said, “You blew at least one call, Sanders.”

Either middle school helped turn my kids from innocents into felons or they coincidentally transformed during sixth grade. My son was an A-student all the way through fifth. Sixth he dropped to Cs. Seventh, Ds. Eighth, he didn’t finish. First semester in high school, he made the honor roll. Middle school brings out the worst in some of us.

During college, I served a year as a noon supervisor at Spring Valley Junior High. The day I lost my big toenail playing water polo, I came to work in sandals. A fat kid, when he saw the bandage, climbed onto a bench and jumped off, purposely landing on my toe.

Later, I worked as a substitute teacher, and middle school jobs felt the most frightening, because each day would come a point when I could imagine myself a serial killer. My last day substituting, every time I turned around to write on the board, the kids would snicker. After a few times, I determined which kid had flipped me off and suggested that he step forward and perform the gesture once more. I would’ve flattened the runt. A year of wisecracks and derision had wakened the monster in me. So I quit subbing and found a job as teacher/principal of a small school at a camp for bad boys. They were 13 to 18, but it was a 13-year-old who torched a cabin and led the gang who ransacked a neighboring ranch house, stole an arsenal, and attempted a mutiny.

I theorized that seventh and eighth graders should be disarmed, gathered into large padded rooms, and isolated for a couple of years. Ironic that someone who views middle schools as a wasteland is going to act as Black Mountain’s Principal for a Day.

A cordial secretary named Dot shows me into the principal’s office. Candace, the official principal, has red hair and slightly bashful ways. We talk for about a minute before the head custodian arrives to discuss a confidential labor issue that remains unresolved. The head custodian leaves and Peggy the seventh-grade counselor, enters. She needs to talk about a kid whose parents had been complaining about the burden of homework a certain teacher had given. For my sake, Peggy recounts a meeting last week between the teachers, counselor, and principal. The parents contended the teacher was too demanding. The staff felt that the boy needed to prioritize and gain more effective study habits. Finally, Candace agreed to move the student to a different class.

“So that’s how it ended,” Peggy continues, “and then a couple days later, the student came to me. He’s a nice kid, quiet, yet he said, ‘I’m upset that you changed my class without my consent.’ I was proud of him, for being able to do that. He said he didn’t like changes, and he thought his teacher was a good teacher, and he really wanted to stay in the class rather than change to a whole other environment. So I had to say that the decision was made by the principal after consulting with the parents and the teachers. Then he made an appointment to see Candace.”

Candace asks what I would do.

Wondering if this were a test, I mumble, “He didn’t have any say in this meeting, so you guys did something you wouldn’t normally have done by making the change without consulting him, right?”

“We always invite the student to guidance meetings,” Candace explains. “The parents, the student, and the teachers. He was invited to that meeting, but the parents chose not to bring him. I probably made a tactical error in not insisting that the student be there.”

“Then how about telling the parents that you’ve made a mistake in not consulting the kid, and he pointed it out to you, which he was correct in doing, and now you need to rethink your decision in terms of his wishes, along with everybody else’s?”

The principal and counselor each give me a nod of approval. A B-plus, I think, and wipe my brow while Peggy rushes out and a psychologist dashes in with some confidential stuff; then she hustles out, and Dennis, the sixth-grade counselor, enters. He’s come to talk over a problem that arose at a dance they held the previous Friday night. “It was a Royal Court dance, and each student voted for one of their peers for the court, and then they narrowed it down to a king and a queen for each grade level. Well...” Some kids had rigged the election so that innocent people got their feelings hurt. “My concern is, I wonder if we need to be having this kind of popularity contest at this grade level.”

The three of them look to me. I deliberate and find that anything which sets anybody above anybody else shouldn’t be encouraged, at least on a social level. Call me Solomon.

The next person to gain an audience Candace intro- duces as Donna, “who began as an instructional aide and through sheer dedication, hard work, and intelligence has become one of the most important people at Black Mountain Middle School.” She also had a problem with the dance. Apparently many kids who had been suspended, and thereby excluded, had gotten in. The three of us spend a few minutes brainstorming before the counselors and vice principal return for a scheduled “coordination team” meeting.

They pass around the weekly calendars; talk over the intricacies of bus scheduling for field trips if it rains on Friday and if it doesn’t; address the dance last Fri- day and the decision-making power that should be allowed the leadership class and the ASB; and whether there should be a dance after the staff-student basketball game. The vice principal reports that the Black Mountain Foundation just met and came up with goals and objectives about fundraising, primarily for technology and the arts, which are most underbudgeted. They discuss how to reorganize the rooms for next year to contend with the district’s plans to snatch away several temporary classrooms and give them to a more overcrowded school. And so on.

As the meeting adjourns, Dot announces a father and mother and their son, who got kicked out of a school in another district for possession of marijuana. He’s petitioning to enter Black Mountain.

After some preliminaries, Candace asks the boy to tell what happened. He says, “Well, I was having problems at home and everything, and I couldn’t cope. Because I have three younger brothers, and they needed more help with school and everything than I did, and so they were getting more attention from my parents than I did. So I needed a way to get attention. I had been in plays and stuff. My parents would go and tell me I did a good job and stuff, but...I don’t know. So I felt that if I did something like this, the drugs, I would get attention from them. I mean, there were a lot of people at my other school that were doing drugs, and I didn’t even want to hang out with them. I mean, none of my friends did any drugs. They’re against the whole thing. So am I. But this was the only way that I could go past reality, and I could be in my own place where I didn’t have to listen to my dad and my little brothers just ignoring me. When I smoked marijuana, it felt better. When I went to school, I was kind of hoping to get caught, so that I’d be able to tell my parents the way I was feeling, because I’d tried to sit down with them before and explain, and they said okay, but things didn’t change much.”

This kid’s so conscious about his motives and all, he sounds more like 40 than 13. Candace remarks, “This is the first time I’ve ever heard a student say, ‘I did this because I hoped my parents would catch me.’ Did you actually think, ‘I’m going to smoke marijuana so my dad will pay attention to me?’”

“Yes.”

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to ask him? ‘Dad, pay attention to me.’”

“I know, that’s what I thought, but none of it was working. I tried a bunch of stuff. This is the only way I knew that they’d have to go and do something for me.”

“Okay — but if this was between you and your parents, why did you bring it to school?”

“At school it was a lot easier to get caught, because if you told a few people then it got around. And it worked too, because after I got caught I was able to say why I did it and everything, and now we get along fine. We’re getting along super.”

Candace allows herself a moment of silence. “Tell me, if this way of getting attention worked the first time, what’s going to keep you from doing it again?”

“Well, because my parents say, now, next time you feel like that, just come up and tell us, because we don’t want you to do anything like this again. And now I know I’d get kicked out of school. I didn’t really think they would do that to me.”

Mom and Dad say their piece. Candace promises to consider all they’ve said. As they leave, before I get to play Solomon again, Sue the vice principal enters with comic relief. She closes the door behind her and flops into a chair. “I just had the saddest boy in my office. He asked to see me and then just sat there for a minute or two. I expected him to say that somebody died. But what happened — he was ‘going with’ a girl, and he’d been thinking of breaking up with her, and today he finally got up the nerve and told her he wanted to break up. She said, no, he couldn’t. And he wanted me to tell him what to do.”

Sue updates us on a parent who has been pestering the school, at every level from the teacher up, to force the teacher to change her son’s grade from B to A, as if this sixth-grader were already applying to Harvard Law School. While Candace and Sue look over the kid’s grades in different classes, a science teacher appears. Sue runs off, and the science teacher reports that he’d recently attended a meeting in which the district’s science people dis- cussed adding a semester of science, and whether to offer it districtwide or at select schools, and whether it should be an elective elective or a mandatory elec- tive, and whether parents would object to this and that, and...I need lunch.

Candace and I sneak out, into the rain, and drive to a taco shop. Over chips and guacamole, we gab about last year’s voucher initiative, which proposed that private schools be granted $200 per month per student from the state. I confess having sworn that any other child I might raise would get spared the ordeal of a public middle school. I pose the question: Since it was not clear that the public schools would be in a worse financial position because of the voucher initiative, why did public educators get so crazy against it?

Candace speculates, “I think it’s just the idea that private schools have so many advantages that public schools don’t. They get to pick their students. If a kid doesn’t behave herself, she’s out of there. And the voucher wouldn’t pay full tuition, so they’re still going to get an elite whose parents have money and are willing to pay it.”

“But if they did, and they got better education, and if meanwhile the public schools had more money per student, who loses?”

“Well, the voucher system would take away lots of the better students and make the public school harder to manage, because you do need a balance of kids. At Black Mountain we have a wonderful balance of high- achieving kids along with those who have more problems with school. The balance — I think it’s good for everybody.”

I give her a skeptical look and she says, “Let’s go see.”

On our way to visit classes, Candace boasts, “Our whole math department is wonderful. They’re very forward-thinking, and one of the teachers trains all over the state for the UC Davis algebra project. But some parents say, ‘They’re not doing it the way we did it. Why aren’t our kids doing math on paper with a pencil?’ Parents have come to me or gone to board meetings and said, ‘We know more than you do about this.’ We want to listen. We do listen, but sometimes it’s very frustrating for us Everybody thinks they’re an expert on education because they went to school. That’s all it takes. ‘I went to school, so I know what this is all about.’”

“Sure,” I say. “I know all about being a principal because I got bawled out and punished by lots of them.”

The first math class we visit, the kids are in groups or shifting from one station to another, working on graphs, calculators, and computers. The teacher, Carol, explains the UC Davis algebra project. A group of math professors, in collaboration with public schoolteachers, observed how algebra was being taught and developed three guiding principles. Students should be actively involved, so most classroom learning should take place in small groups. Materials should emphasize the most important ideas and allow other ideas to be acquired along the way. And, since major ideas take a long time to learn, they need to be used continuously, mastered over time.

“The kids work in groups of three and four, and they do investigation, all kinds of unusual problems, a lot of graphing. It’s been pretty successful; the test scores have proven that it’s worked really well.”

Another math teacher, Linda Groeling, says her class has bought stock with paper money. “We use the financial section from the Union-Tribune. We have a spreadsheet so they can see how their stock has done, how much they either made or lost over the weeks. And they keep graphs, charts for themselves. We’ve also been working on a thing called Polyhedraville — a colony of the future made out of geometric shapes. They’ll end up building this colony. They have to compute the cost, and they have a certain amount of money they can spend. The costs are based on the different shapes.”

Down the hall we visit a basic education class, three periods of literature, language arts, history, and social science. The teacher, Gary Kroesch, says, “We’re doing historical investigation. The topic is slavery. We have nine different areas that they can explore. We have a lot of primary resources. Diaries, documents. As we go through the investigations, we start with ancient kinds of slavery, and we go all the way to past the Civil War. In the investigations, we’ll go to the highest level, evaluations — where they can actually write poetry — and they’ll do analysis and application. It’s an interesting process, historical investigation. We’re going to start today with the reader’s workshop. We’ll read together from To Be a Slave, and the class will discuss that. Then we’ll do journal writing and then fact organizing.”

A student gets up and talks about investigating the feelings that a slave had while on a slave ship, then writing about those feelings from the slave’s point of view, in a journal and a poem, all focusing on the theme of survival.

Another student speaks about proving that there was exciting art and culture in Africa, and another speaks about learning that slavery was not just an American institution. The teacher clarifies that they’re not looking at slavery only from the victimization angle, that some of the kids had written poetry from the point of view of the slave, but others had tried to go inside the heads of the slave traders and owners. Other students have explored the economics of slavery, and the problems of transporting slaves, and about shipping and ocean travel, and the conditions that historically produced slavery and those that helped its downfall.

Outside, in the rain, a tall blonde woman is leading a rust-colored, long-haired dog across the lunch area. “Oh,” Candace says, “there goes the dope-sniffer.” As the woman and the dog disappear behind a building, we reach the door to Judi Hawkins’s English class.

Judi says, “Basically what we’re trying to do is get the different science themes in a cross-context unit, by articulating with the math and science teacher. We constantly spring off of one another. Last summer we developed a unit that revolved around the Revolutionary War era, and we picked a real easy theme, patterns of change, and we developed a unit that interconnected across our areas. Who knows where it may go from here? We’re now in the process of reviewing what we’ve done and seeing what improvements we can make. We found that the kids were getting a little sick of the one theme. So what we want to try is take four themes, because kids can manage that, and it won’t beat the one theme to death.”

Shirley Day teaches English as a Second Language. While her kids introduce themselves, I note the countries and how long since they had immigrated. Four years ago, from the Ukraine. Vietnam, three years. Russia. Philippines. Vietnam, five months. Mexico, one year. Vietnam. Philippines. A boy has just arrived from Korea. Another from Korea has been here five months. Two years, from Mexico. Philippines, two years. Philippines, four months. Korea, one month.

They’re working in groups, writing commercials. We talk to a few kids, then go outside, and Candace whispers, “I wish you could see Shirley in action. She was voted Black Mountain’s Teacher of the Year a few years back. She’s a magician. Everything in her class is charades. She has to act every word out, for the kids that don’t know it. She uses other students to keep the new kids up in the subject matters by translating for them, while they’re all here learning English at the same time. It’s amazing what she can do.

Shirley Day’s ESL class

Shirley Day’s ESL class

“We used to have more ESL students, until last year the authorities closed a migrant camp in a canyon near here. There was a lot of controversy over closing the camp. It was really a community of its own. It had been there for years and years. But the powers that be decided to close it, and we lost all those kids, and we really hated to lose them. They were great kids. They would climb up out of the mud on rainy days when you couldn’t get a bus down there. It would take an hour and a half for them to get to school, but they’d be on time, and they’d still be clean and ready to work.”

In Candace’s office, she sifts through a pile and hands me a page of a story she’d written: “...It looked like all our bilingual students were sitting together in the quad, along with a few whose grandparents were born just down the block. Seeing kids from the Georgia section of the former Soviet Union, Mexican children from the migrant camp, and seven other nationalities laughing together was one reason I stayed in this business. I recalled the visit I’d had from a ‘concerned’ parent the week before regarding health problems attributed to kids from the migrant camp. Forgetting for a moment that I should be diplomatic at all times, my reply was anything but. I invited him to come to class to meet our students and notice how spotlessly clean they were every day. I told him that no student on campus was happier to be there or worked harder than our Mexican students. Then I said, ‘You might wish to examine your motives in trying to cause trouble for these children.’ Of course, the district office heard from the ‘concerned’ parent within minutes. I thought he might even have used a campus telephone.”

Sue, the vice principal, invites me to her office for a visit with Officer Dog. She explains, “The handler plants two or three sy thetic forms of medication or whatever in every class- room and in one of the banks of lockers. Then she’ll bring the dog in, and it will start sniffing someplace else, and when they get to that spot the dog just sits down and looks at it. So if the dog finds something else that isn’t supposed to be there, he sits and looks at that. She has a praise rag in her pocket. She hands the rag to the dog and really goes overboard with love and attention, in a high-pitched voice. That’s the only form of reward.

“It takes five or ten minutes per classroom. The students have to go outside. They can’t take jackets with them or caps. The dog doesn’t search the kids, only the room. Today we went to three sixth-grade classes, three seventh, and three eighth. The only things that the dog responded to were backpacks belonging to two eighth-grade students.”

Enter Dusty, a golden retriever, followed by his handler, a young woman who explains to me that she works for a Modesto company that contracts with schools all over the West. Sue calls in a girl who looks and acts plenty innocent. The handler politely asks the girl for permission, then picks every scrap and gadget out of the girl’s backpack. Amongst the makeup, camera, notes, and all, she discovers the offending drug. Sudafed.

The other suspect had spent the night at a friend’s. Her pack is stuffed with clothes and accessories, but no contraband, though her notebook features sketches of marijuana plants and mushrooms. She guesses that the dog sat and stared at her backpack because yesterday she had gone to a wedding, where a little wine got spilled on her backpack. Back in our office, Candace is on the phone talking in strange jargon. She pushes a story across the desk.

THE WEIRD ONE

by Carlitos Steinmetz

“He walks through the halls unnoticed, untouched, his clothes out of style. The in- crowd passes by him without a glance. His hair, unmanaged, hangs monotonously, swaying in the breeze. He walks with a certain defiance.

“He is a tall, lanky person. He dislikes reading or any schoolwork but enjoys imagining that he is an astronaut, and he is in an astronaut academy. He pretends that his teacher is an astronaut briefing him on his flight plan, but he does terrible on tests and homework. One day he thought he was a wizard. He stood in front of my desk and ripped up my homework and said, ‘Now watch the paper come back together again,’ so he pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket with some greasy stuff on it and shoved it toward my face and said, ‘See, I told ya!’ I was furious and turned as red as a beet with my heart pounding. The teacher told him to get into his seat with her air of authority and told me I could re-do the assignment. That was all he ever did to me, beside annoy the class. I can clearly remember the day that he upset the class terribly. On this day he walked into class with his usual defiance, took off his threadbare jacket and sat in the back row, where his seat was. He pulled from his patched up backpack a bag full of some kind of toy car and began to bang it against the desk. He was annoying the heck out of everyone in the class, even the teacher. I have no clue what that was all about, but all I knew was that he was weird. He would make whooshing sounds and walk in slow motion saying that he was walking on the moon! He was not quiet. In fact he would make such a clamor that the teacher would send him out of the class, and everyone would laugh as he left, including me, I am sad to say.

“One spring afternoon, the teacher explained to us an assignment: write an adventure you would like to have. Everyone sat ready to see who the teacher would call to tell their story first. She chose him, the weird one. He walked up in front of the class, with his dirty jeans and unkempt hair swaying, sniffing as he went. Then he stood before the class, with his untied shoes, and gave the best story about an adventure to the moon anyone had ever heard. I had no clue he was so knowledgeable about space travel. Instead of laughing, people applauded him, and he sat at his seat with his defiant smile as he looked at his greasy old dirty paper with such a fascinating story. “He left our school the next day for good, he was transferred to another school. It seemed as though he was a foster child and he was being moved to new foster parents. I learned not to judge a person because on the outside he was unpleasant but on the inside he was brilliant, but he was still weird.”


The bell rang long ago. Candace and I decide to go somewhere and talk. She wants to hear my impressions and recommendations. On the way, I think about Gary Kroesch’s class and the slavery issue, approached from all directions so that kids may learn that we humans are part devil, part angel. The beginning of wisdom. To see kids glimpsing truth chokes me up a little.

I consider the math classes where problems get applied to the real world and the ESL class that welcomes kids from every nation. I’m hardly a flag-waver. Still, I feel proud.

When I studied tae kwon do, the master suggested, “You want to be good teacher, love your students.” Remembering that comment, I think of people I met today, and of Miss Dedmen, a heavyweight eighth-grade math teacher who single-handedly kept me from getting expelled and thereby showering my mom and dad with a ton of unnecessary grief.

I remember Donald, a 13-year-old at the camp where I taught and administered. An orphan with frizzy hair and a croaking voice. He liked the camp, didn’t want to return to L.A., where his brother had used him as a lookout for robberies. In L.A. or Compton, he always worried about getting killed, while at the camp he was learning to read because a teacher had given him a box full of Charlie Brown books.

I’m going to tell Candace about Donald, and how I wish that he and my kids had gotten to attend Black Mountain.

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