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Feathery thing

btsparrow

“Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul…” Emily Dickinson

I am blessed that I consistently receive reminders of  why I work in schools. Motivating young people is what I love the most about my work. I love school(I always have.) I love literature(I always have.)  The best part of my job is giving young people hope.

During Lent, I realized one of my students is an aspiring author. I thought it was important to let the student  know that the principal is an author too. The student was in need of motivation. To see a face light up? Que bonito! It was wonderful. When I saw the student again later in the day, I encouraged continued self-expression and to consider creating a blog. I talked about my favorite bloggers turned bestsellers, Luvvie Ajayi and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The student didn’t know who they were and was impressed by their successes. It was important for me to stop being the stuffy principal and share something about myself. I also offered to be available to discuss writing.

I’m working closely with a group of students who are disengaged and disconnected from school. Their attendance is poor. They are not in good standing but they all want to work part-time. I know that the rules about good standing. I’m a rule follower and a rule enforcer. I’m a principal. Rules are important. A few of my staff members are much more black and white about this issue;a few have even voiced criticism of my willingness to be flexible.  But I want to get these kids back in school. Internal motivation is the ideal. I will promote extrinsic rewards if it’s going to motivate kids to come back to school. I cannot withhold encouragement and hope. I could have easily said,“ you guys cut too much school“ and sent them away. My non-negotiables are fighting, defiance, and drug abuse. If a student promises to return to school if I help him or her find a job, how can I say no? What kind of teacher and leader shuts the door on students?  

Part of what I do is give hope. That is at the core of the work that I do. I give these young people opportunities following the example of my own stellar teachers and administrators. I wasn’t born a principal or a teacher.  Shoot I wasn’t even born an English speaker. It’s my turn now to be not only an adult or authority figure but a human being who wants young people to be successful . In the words of the inspiring Harvey Milk, “you have to give them hope.”  

Not like a TV soap at all

Television, that great American medium, has made society unrealistic about relationships, sexuality, family life, work, practically every human sociological experience. Even the most ardent cultural critics(the great bell hooks comes to mind) have been influenced and inspired by the images portrayed on the magic box of dreams. I, like most people in the First World, have a mind full of meaningless TV trivia but also, more impactfully, images and motifs that have shaped and/or struck a chord with my real life. It didn’t take long for me to see that my new job is more real than any reality show and more dramatic than any soap opera.

Adolescents, like most subgroups of society, have been portrayed superficially on television. From All-American boy Wally Cleaver to cutesy girl from the block Moesha, teens are seen in that problematic angel/devil paradigm that plagues most media. The bad kids are drug-dealing gangsters from New York Undercover, lovestarved prostitutes on Boston Public, or promiscuous brats on The OC. Even the kids on Degrassi the Next Generation, which comes closest to reality, in my opinion, are still light years away from the youngsters I speak to in my office every day. Television has yet to truly capture the heartache of adolescence in the 21st century: absent parents, the long-term emotional and physical consequences of parental drug and alcohol use, harsh poverty, twisted sexuality, and the volatile allure of violence and crime. Television cannot adequately portray the many-layered difficulty of parenting this new generation which is technologically savvy but educationally underprivileged. As a rookie administrator, I have no fictional role models to follow. School leaders are powerful buffoons, like Degrassi’s Mr. Raditch, who did nothing to help bullying victim Rick from orchestrating a tragic school shooting, or sharp-suited meanies like Ms. Musso from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. On television, administrators are mostly irrelevant keepers of the law, often relegated to bit parts. This is why I actively seek out mentors and value the living leaders around me.

Ms. Hatzilakos from DNG: not quite a role model

In real life, high school has storylines that won’t wrap up in thirty minutes or an hour. There is no catchy theme music or sweeps season cliffhangers. Still, it is something worth watching and living.