Saturday, February 10, 2018

No Words

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering or my musings. Although if you do, I’m happy to hear them-I could use all the help I can get. My purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. Thank you for reading.

A great principal is an instructional leader first, second and third. We need to ensure that teaching and learning is the best it can possibly be for our students. We need to inspire innovation and creativity in our teachers. We need to know how to help struggling learning, and how to engage accelerated learners. We’re measured by our state report card grades, our graduation rates, the numbers of students who get into college, proficiency rates on state exams, and the number of students who earn college credit on Advanced Placement tests. There’s more of course; but you get the idea. Maintaining and growing excellent student learning is the mark of a good principal, and a good school.

By any measure that matters in schools, I failed in my role as a principal this week. While I certainly intended to be an instructional leader, my wants and plans fell by the wayside early in the week. I can’t possibly tell the whole story-first it’s too painful, and I can’t tell this story chronologically-there’s just too much. I also don’t know what words to use to describe the emotion of the week. This is my sixth week in a row of writing about our school. To be honest, had I any idea this week would occur, I never would have started writing again. This is one of those times I’m scared I can’t convey what really happens, and what really matters in this story. But I’ll give it my best shot. Deep breath and here we go...

My student was murdered on Tuesday. That’s officially the worst sentence I’ve ever written. But it doesn’t come close to telling the full story.

A young man was murdered on Tuesday. That’s not right either.

A child was murdered on Tuesday. No.

My child, my school-son, my student was murdered on Tuesday. Getting there.

My child, my school-son, my student was shot in the head on Tuesday. He is brain dead, and essentially dead, but his body doesn’t know it yet. Almost.

My child, my school-son, my student was shot in the head on Tuesday. He is brain dead, and essentially dead, but his body doesn’t know it yet. And neither does his family. They have not yet come to grips with the reality that their child, grandson, nephew, cousin is gone, and all that is left are machines breathing for him. There it is. That’s what I meant to say. But there’s so much more.

Students starting seeing Instagram posts soon after school ended. I had left school because I was supposed to be going to Dayton, Ohio for a day of learning with School Retool. When I heard that A (I’m not using his full name out of respect for his family as they come to grips with their new reality) had been shot, I headed for the hospital. I made calls the whole way. I called my boss, the district crisis management team to set up grief counselors for my school on Wednesday, one staff member who loves A as much as me, my Campus Coordinator to arrange meeting at the hospital and my wife. I started crying as soon as I called my wife. “I’m not going to be able to handle this one.” I said through the tears. “This one is too much.”

I arrived at the Trauma Intensive Care Unit at the hospital, where I was met by my police officer friend. We’ve both spent an inordinate amount of time, in our own ways, trying to keep A alive. We waited together for my Campus Coordinator, the most caring person at our school. She doesn’t have any children of her own, which means all of our students are her children. And she cares for each one in her own unique way. We went up together.

When the elevators opened to the waiting room, the smell hit me first. You know that hospital smell-clean and sterile, with the smell of medicine underneath it? It was that, combined with the very distinct odor of weed. The waiting room was filled with people, and my eyes searched first for A’s mother. When I found her, I moved to hug her, tears in both our eyes. During the hug, I whispered in her ear, “I’m so sorry” before remembering she couldn’t hear me. A’s mom is deaf. I looked at her, and said clearly, “I’m so sorry.” She’s an excellent lip reader. The room was shocked that we were there. Word spread quickly that we were the school principal and Campus Coordinator. They ushered us back to the intensive care unit so we could see A. I stood there, beside his bed, looking at all the machines attached to him. His face. His face was virtually unrecognizable. There were bloody bandages wrapped around his head and so much swelling. The nurse asked me if we were from the school. Apparently someone had said we were coming and the family had given permission for the medical personnel to speak with us. “Is there any brain activity?” I asked. Only reflexes was the answer. The bullet had entered his cheek, and passed through his brain, leaving behind a path of destruction. “How long?” I asked. “It’s up to him.”, was the answer. I stood there, and looked at this young man for what felt like a long time. I held his hand and tried to deal with the competing emotions of anger, loss, sadness, and failure. I quietly said goodbye to A.

Back in the waiting room, I had the opportunity to look around. There were two main groups in the room, with competing and very visible emotions. Family was there. A seemed to have a very large family. Sadness emanated from his family in waves. And then there were large groups of young men, ages fourteen into their early twenties. This was A’s gang. And the rage they brought to the room, along with the now prominent smell of marijuana, physically backed us into a corner. Their conversations were really only about one topic; violent revenge. I’ve never been in a room like that. I had to put aside my own sadness to manage the situation. Several of my teachers came to see A, and one student came too. In a room this filled with emotion, and so much of that emotion was rage; I needed to keep my team safe. I moved us, nearer to the exit, for safety. And we stayed close to our police officer friend; knowing full well, that his gun was unlikely to be the only one in the room. We stayed for awhile, and just before we left, the doctor came out to talk to the family. But the family wanted everyone to hear the same message. “There is no chance of recovery. He has a traumatic brain injury.”The family began crying, and the the gang’s rage increased. Several gang members punched walls. And then they got quiet; resolute even. And they filed out towards the streets, and their quest for revenge on whoever has perpetrated this act of violence.

So much more happened while we were there. But I can’t do the awfulness justice. So, we left soon after.

To the key fact that you as the reader must be wondering about. A was in a gang. It was a street gang, a neighborhood gang, and a dangerous gang. And that might be the end of the story. You the reader are certainly entitled to think, that a young man who chooses to be in a gang, runs the risk of dying a violent death. You can think that. I can’t stop you, or ask you not to think that way. But it doesn’t tell the full story. Not even close.

A was more than his gang affiliation. It was certainly a piece of who he was. He was in a gang as everyone in his neighborhood has to be in a gang. There isn’t really a choice. But he was also a son to a deaf mother, and a deaf and blind father. A was fluent in American Sign Language. He lived in a silent home, and he loved coming to school to be social and to engage out loud and engage he did; often extremely loudly. He was smart. He had huge gaps in his knowledge, as many of my students do, and he was way behind in his learning. But he was so intelligent. He had an amazing sense of humor. He made his friends and teachers both laugh out loud when they least expected it. He cared about people. He could have been an ambassador for our school. He greeted everyone, with a story, or a comment that always sucked them into conversation. He never lied. Ever. No matter what stupid thing he’d done, and there were plenty, he always told the truth. He was a peacemaker. He could resolve almost any conflict that occurred at school. He pulled people aside and mediated on his own, all the time. He was my early warning system. He came to me regularly to tell me what I needed to know to address a volatile or soon to be volatile situation. He was my biggest advocate at school. He single handedly built and cultivated my badass reputation over the last two years. Whenever students broke the rules, A pulled them aside. I could always count on him to tell new students, some version of, “Do not mess with Mr. Juli.” “You cannot out argue him.” “You cannot out wait him.” “If you are doing the wrong thing, you will not win.” I can think of at least a dozen times that a student was nose to nose with me, cursing at me, and ready to hit me. And A would inevitably appear, and say, “Bro, I know you think you right, but do not fuck with this man. Step back. You will not hit him. Not only will he lay you out in front of everyone here, but when you do try and hit him, you’ll have to deal with me bro, and then you’ll be in real trouble.” And the other student always backed down.

He drove my teachers crazy. He didn’t do any work. And he disrupted every class with his questions, his wondering, his flirting with girls, his goofiness, and his laughter. I’m sure he would have driven me crazy had I been his classroom teacher. But I had the opportunity to teach him when it was just the two of us. I helped him to learn to dream-a little. We talked about a life beyond the streets where he lived. We talked about using his skills with American Sign Language to build a career. We talked about having a job he wanted, instead of a job he had to have. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to imagine what it might be like to have a different life. But he still went home to his gang life, and to the dangerous streets where he lived. Every Friday, I said the same thing to him, “Stay alive this weekend A. I expect you to be back here at school on Monday.” And every Monday he came to me, and said, “I’m here Mr. Juli.”

One day last spring, some guys showed up after school to kill him. My police officer friend and I saved him that day. It was a Friday. On Monday, when I saw that he was alive, I sat him down, and told him that I dreaded the day I would have to speak at his funeral. I told him if he didn’t make significant changes in his life, I would be attending his funeral in the not so distant future. He cried, and said “You right Mr. Juli, you right.” He knew I was speaking the truth. And he had learned to dream of another life, but he didn’t know how to turn that dream into a reality.

And here we are. I can’t speak at his funeral yet, because even though he’s dead, machines are keeping his heart beating as his mother considers whether or not to donate his organs. I can’t speak at his funeral yet because there’s no money for a funeral. It turns out burying your child is a middle class activity. That’s not something I’ve ever considered before.

I can’t write too much about the rest of the week at school. I live tweeted grief at our school on Wednesday. You can read it if you want. But here’s a few parts. I had a wonderful group of grief counselors to support our students. Two of my principal colleagues sent over their guidance counselors to help also. My students needed to talk; and we had the people for them to talk privately and in groups and that saved us. My teachers were amazing. They were compassionate and caring, and they managed to strike the right balance between teaching, learning, caring, and listening. And that’s just not easy to do.

No one taught me in principal school how to deal with this level of grief. It’s particularly hard because so many of my students have experienced violent deaths of friends and loved ones over and over again. What words could I say?

I went to each of my at-risk boys and told them I had held A’s hand at the hospital and said goodbye. And that I’d thought of each of them in that moment. “I can’t do this again.” I said. “I can’t do this again and have it be you.” All but one of them cried at my words and that gave me a little bit of hope.

Fairly early in the day on Wednesday, I found a group of students in a back corner discussing revenge and payback. I told them we could all be sad today. We could all be angry today. But we will not answer yesterday’s violence with violence today. And I made everyone agree out loud that we could not and would not perpetuate this violence today or any other day at school. At school. I can draw that promise out of my students in our space. I can’t pretend their promise extends to their neighborhoods and the dangerous streets therein.

That line about sadness, and anger and non-violence became my go to line. I used it all day, and all week. It helped. I think. The rest of the time I told students the raw truth. A is brain dead. He’s dead, and his body just doesn’t know it yet. So many students cried. I held sobbing young men, and sobbing young women in my arms for the last three days. On Wednesday, I walked around with a wet patch on my shoulder from all the tears.

Wednesday morning was awful at school. But by Wednesday afternoon, students were craving normalcy. We had regular school on Thursday and Friday, with counselors on hand. I stayed on the move, making sure I had face-time with every student. I did my best to take their emotions from them, so each student could have the ability to do school. I described myself to my wife, as PacMan. I went from student to student taking their anger, sadness, rage, and hurt from them as best I could. I ate it. Or I took it inside myself somehow. I filled myself up with every emotion, from every student who would let me. And now I’m so full. I took so much in, and now I don’t know how to find my own emotions. I cried on the way to the hospital. And I cried a little on the way home on Wednesday. But not enough. This week also happened to be the 11th anniversary of my own father’s death, and I lost the ability to mourn him this week. I would really like to cry this weekend. Writing this post has helped a little, but I’m both filled up, and empty at the same time. I can’t figure out where I stashed my own emotions inside of me. I hope I can find them and release them this weekend. 

I did everything I could to keep A alive, and to help him find a better life. While I’m not sleeping very well, it isn’t because I think I could have done more or should have done more. I think I did more than everything I could have done. But I still feel his loss deeply. I went to synagogue last night to say Kaddish (the prayer for mourners remembering someone who has died.) I went for my father, but I also said the prayer for A. A was far from perfect, as a student, and a young man. And while many of his actions were wrong, dangerous, or illegal, he was at his core, a good person. I’ve interacted with thousands of students over my career. I know the difference between good and bad. And A was a fundamentally good person, even though he made bad choices. In my professional world, I’ve learned that good and bad, and right and wrong, are not as clear cut as they are in other worlds. 

I hope that A’s mom agrees to organ donation. I like the idea of someone in need getting his heart because his heart was his best part. It is strong, and amazing, and someone in need would be lucky to have it.

By any measurable indicator, I failed as a principal this week. But I tried to be whoever, and whatever each and every one of my students needed. I was a parent, an older brother, a caregiver, a truth bringer, an anchor, and the eye of the storm. I tried, I think successfully, to protect my teachers from most of the emotion, so they could continue to try and teach. It didn’t always work-but it did most of the time.

Two last terrible moments. The first-on Wednesday, amidst all the tears, a former student walked in. He withdrew last year, angry, after multiple fights and discipline incident after discipline incident. He is also in a gang, a different one than A. He walked in to get his transcript for the current school he is attending. But he arrived with a baby. I can’t find the words to write how I felt, but a teacher observed him entering the building with a baby, and said, “It feels suffocating and so Sisyphean.” We try so hard to help our students. We teach them to dream, to hope, and when we get it right, to turn their dreams into reality. And then another gang banger walks in, this time with a kid of his own. Another kid, having another kid. And the cycle continues. How can we win?

The second-I watched the news on Tuesday night, knowing there wouldn’t be a story. It’s just another violent death, of another African American teenage boy in the inner city. Not nearly as story worthy as whatever human interest piece they showed that night. I eventually found the article in the online version of the newspaper. It said a thirty year old John Doe male was found shot in the head on a street corner. He remains hospitalized. That was A. 17? 30? John Doe or A? What does it matter to the public? It matters to me though.

A couple last good moments. Students who no longer attend our school heard how we handled this tragedy. And some called to ask if they could come be with us, and others just showed up to be with us. I let them into the building, even though they aren’t our students any longer, under the condition that they speak with a counselor about their grief. And they all did. Two former students, both high school dropouts, re-enrolled at our school. They want to finish and they want to feel the care that we are offering. And lastly, my most difficult young man, arguably the most at risk student in our school right now, said to a staff member about me, “I hate that man. But he did give us a space to come to this week to be together, and be sad together. And it helped.” I’ll accept that compliment as a badge of honor.

There’s no question I failed as an instructional leader this week.But I think I helped kids; and this week, that mattered more. But their skills are still too low, their gaps in their knowledge too huge, and the graduation tests start in 36 days, so it’s also time to find my way back to instructional leadership. But I’m so full. And I’m so emotionally empty. And I’m so tired. A young man whom I care about deeply was murdered this week. May I never have to write those words again for anyone else ever.

Until next week and please may it be a better one...

1 comment:

  1. Eric, while it doesn't seem like much at this moment, my thoughts and prayers are with you, your school, your students, and A's family. i'm so sorry. Thanks for sharing this story. Thanks for not letting this be invisible.