Feathery thing


“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.”  

Valediction for a young man

“These streets are snatching our babies right out of our arms.”

Blues used to joke half-heartedly that I go to funerals once a month.  In the six years we have lived together, I have experienced my share of losses of family friends and acquaintances.   Though I haven’t attended every funeral, I have taken part in viewings, vigils, memorial services, and celebrations of life.  My November ancestor altar grows every year.  Still, some of those events are more difficult than others.  Perhaps I had a closer relationship with the deceased. Or maybe the loss is an unjust tragedy, in the case of my colleague’s son who was killed this past week. 

I remember the little boy with a bright smile, when he was my M’s age, ever present at this father’s side at school sporting events.  I remember him carrying a backpack that seemed to be twice as his size as his burly football coach dad walked him to the neighboring elementary school before classes began on our campus. Until last night’s funeral, I had no idea he was my colleague’s stepson. Their bond was beautiful to behold.

It had been a few years since I had seen my friend’s boy. He was a lanky pre-teen when I last saw him. I now see that he grew into a handsome young man. From the stories his friends and relatives shared, he continued to be an upbeat, fun-loving person. He became a father to his own son. Last night’s service paid tribute to his life and the love he shared with his beloved family. 

In the weeks, months, and years to come, the news media will tell the story of this young man’s death. There will be details and revelations.  The family will not only experience their terrible loss as a private family matter but also as a public one before the criminal justice system and the media. I pray for their strength, love, and integrity as a family to carry them through this tragedy.  I pray for our communities that we may be willing to do the hard work to truly nurture our youth. I pray for all young people to be touched by the spirit of hope and peace.

Live in glory, Kris. 


My job is hectic, emotionally draining, and just plain fun. Take this email for example:

R_______was assigned Saturday School 1/13/2008 for using the word “Fuck” and making crude gestures about a squirrel.

The Alma Mater Chronicles: The Lockdown

“What fray was here? O tell me not for I have heard it all…” from Romeo and Juliet

Sometimes, he is simply a heart. Muscle, blood, a drum-drum, pounding faster and faster. There is no personality, conscience, regrets, values, fears, memories. Only the blood.
You got me f****ed up, brah, gonna talk all that mess and then not do nothing. Let’s do this, n*****. I ain’t scary. What you gone do?
Oh shit, brah, that’s my principal.
Sometimes, she is simply a pair of eyes. Small. Brown. Like her. They are full, though, those eyes, full of all the hope, love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy any child could ever want to see in another human being. She knows her eyes show emotions she used to wish for in others—and never received. So her eyes must take action.
The day begins like any other. The sun rises as always. The sky is blue. Brown leaves fall from trees. Teenagers giggle and chatter over soft drinks and cinnamon rolls. Teachers open classroom doors and pass out assignments. The haunted hallway is ghostless.
And then, the crowds. A human chain. Handcuffs. Boys running through the campus. Locked doors. Heartbeats.
They call him the Scorpion because he is skinny and mean. He stings them daily with his glares and whistling. He wears his color proudly but not blatantly: shoelaces, piping on a shirt. They hate his good looks, his pretty girlfriend, the way adults like him, how the younger kids look up to him, his good grades. They are overweight and won’t graduate due to poor grades and low credits. They don’t have girlfriends. They are not popular, not even with their fellow gang members. They hate him because he is everything they wish they could be, everything they never will be. They are going to crush the Scorpion. He is the reason they are going to risk it all.
Ms. Galindo carries a secret in her heart. She carries several, some belonging to the children she supervises, most of them her own, with the heaviest being the secret of the summer. So many days and nights spent hoping her life might end. But this day, she carries this secret down the hallway. She runs on small feet down the hallway, outside where a large crowd follows one boy. She pleads with him. He shakes off her hand. They make their way down the hall. Another boy turns. There is an awful moment. The boys have seconds to decide whether they will put hands on one another, whether they will put hands on her. In those seconds, the secret unfolds within her heart and mind. She remembers her anguish but mostly she remembers her desperate desire to be whole, healed, free of pain, to be alive. She recognizes that she has endured pain so she could be standing here, at this moment, with these boys.
They choose not to fight.

The worst of days

Right glad I am he was not at this fray
Romeo and Juliet

Another crying session at therapy but one of gratitude. Grateful for myself, my innate strength in the face of violence and turmoil. I am serenity and mercy.

Gang melee. Lockdown. Boys in backs of squad cars. Me between two enemies.

I woke up to an earthquake. I had been dreaming of the devil.
Day is done.
I am not.

Flashback: Memory of a mind imploding

Heart pounding. Fight or flight or play dead. Beg for mercy with my eyes but do those other eyes see mine? What do they see? I am reminded of my own madness, of the madness of my mother, of the madness of the two men who have put hands on me and harmed me, of the madness I have not seen or heard but suspect and sense in another. And now this child, his mind gone elsewhere. Where is the boy who would laugh at my silly comments? Where is the boy who apologized for fighting in front of me? The boy who was ashamed at running from the nuns who got injured when he crashed into their car? Where is he now? Not in this office. Not in that chair. Not in that person who makes no sense, whose anger is directed towards me.

Labels percolate in my head. Bipolar. Meds. Hospitalized. Just a week before, I told the boy that his new label(bipolar is a loaded term to me, loaded like a gun, loaded with my pain and someone else’s)would not change our relationship, that I would not judge but protect(isn’t that my way? to reach out to the gnashing teeth and razor-sharp claws, accepting the real possibility that I will be harmed) him. And now he is here, rage seething, and I am afraid. I am afraid he will strike me. I am afraid he will lose his mind but it’s too late. It is gone.

Later, I weep. I curl on an old couch in a dusty office, in a rundown building in downtown Hayward, before a woman who helped me out of the darkness so many years ago, who is once again a guide. I weep for this boy, for myself, for a man, and for all the pain of madness.

The worthwhile fight

The day my friend passed away, twenty-two of the school’s best students filled the room, watched by me, one of the school’s graduates. It was one of many days of national exams. The young people took part in an academic assessment along with thousands of others in different schools across the country and even the world.

My students were similar to me: people of color from diverse working class and poor neighborhoods, nurtured by a community of caring faculty and staff, shaped by our lives in this urban suburb of the East Bay. I watched them work that morning. Their eyes were fixed on the test booklet pages as pencils scratched answers. They would occasionally smile as the day got disrupted by announcements, phone calls, and finally, a loud violent fight in the hallway outside the testing room.

So many times I have stated that I stated my school. As an angry, depressed teenager, I vowed to never set foot here again, this place where young sharks attacked one another with bloodthirsty glee. But I looked at these young people and I remembered. I found the fortitude to step out into the turmoil outdoors, shouted for the crowds to part, and returned to my nest of safety and hope. It is a journey I take everyday.

Today is cold and gray. My anxiety has returned, prompted by a bizarre nightmare of insanity and death. I am helping to organize my late friend’s memorial service. But I have other work. Two boys, allied with opposing gangs, stand off after an accidental bumping. I could pretend I don’t know what happened, like my colleague does(a routine for him), but instead I meet with both of them. We talk. We make agreements. In those moments, I feel safe, hopeful. I help bring peace.

Half an hour with the Devil

I do believe in the Devil. I’ve seen him. Live. Twice. Maybe a third time but it’s one I can’t remember at all and no one in the family will confirm my fear that something scary happened to me in Peru when I was ten. In any case, I have been afraid of the Devil for a long time. It started with a forbidden screening of The Exorcist when I was six years old. I had to sleep with a nightlight until I was eleven. Even now, nothing soothes me quite like light, be it a bright bulb in my bedroom painted like the sky or my favorite light, the sun. Being a good Catholic, I acknowledge the presence of evil in the world and I accept the existence of the Devil. Call it superstition or my trademark hysteria. But I know him. This week, I spent thirty minutes talking to him in my office.

The last time I encountered the Devil, I was ready to send a heavy glass ashtray into my monstrous ex-boyfriend’s skull. When his eyes burned into me with hatred, they were his cocaine-fueled glare but also the stare of someone else. Possession isn’t always about spinning heads and pea-soup vomit. We take evil into our bodies by choice. I know because to this day, I believe God kept me from giving in to that same awful presence. Had I surrendered, I might have assaulted Monster. I might have been taken away in handcuffs or on a stretcher and my life would have been different.

This week’s meeting with the Devil was different in many respects. I was not poised to attack anyone. The eyes that looked into my soul were filled with a mixture of fear, anger, pain, and sadness. There might have even been tears or perhaps those were mine. This time, I was talking to a child, one who was terribly defiant and loathsome, violently aggressive to everyone but me. I made every effort to convince him that his life of violence would end badly. I became a woman of great compassion. I truly felt love for this child who had threatened other lives. But I also felt the fear of something even more malevolent. In my heart, I begged for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In my mind, I thought of Mary. Through my voice, I tried to be human to this boy–and to the evil. Because no matter how scared I was, I know that my tiny, weak humanity is my greatest strength.

I’m sicker than I have been in years. I can’t keep food down. It could be a virus, bad food, stress, all of these factors. Or it could be the aftermath of surviving yet another harrowing encounter with darkness.

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.