Friday, December 26, 2008

In the Name of the Principal

Len Klein
Memory Sketch # 15
Monday, May 28, 2001

I spent seven years in One-Seventy-Five, my elementary school, and yet when I try to remember the name of just one teacher, just one, no one comes to mind. Of course, there were teachers and I was in their classes, but they are faceless and nameless to me. I never thought much about it before, but now that I would like to recall them, I am troubled that I cannot. In part, I understand, since throughout all of my elementary school experience, teachers were the consistent focus of my extreme hostility and disregard. Whatever positive feelings I had for them, and there was some, were dwarfed by my persistent hatred.

There was also a Principal and an Assistant Principal in my school, and their names are among the missing as well. But, in the case of the Principal, I feel the need to provide a name. Not an ordinary name, but a special one, since I feel he definitely earned it. I have in mind … a sort of dunce cap name that conveys my low regard for him based mostly on one incident that I will relate. I’ll call him Mr. Principalitis, since, in the event sequence that I remember, he behaved in a most unprofessional and irresponsible manner, which can only be attributed to a malignant inflammation of his position. As a teacher I knew years later once said about her Principal: “He thinks who he is!”

All the kids I knew were afraid of the Principal, and perhaps it was necessary that it should be that way. Control of so many children was facilitated if ‘going to see the Principal’ was a terrifying experience. This I could understand, probably even then, and it is definitely not the reason for his name being Mr. Principalitis. While fear of the Principal was used as an instrument of discipline, it did not sit well with some of the teachers. I recall, that in English spelling we were taught that the spelling of the word ‘Principal’ was easy to recall because it ended with the word ‘pal,’ and the Principal was a pal to us all. Yeah, sure.

I was in the sixth grade when, one day, I was called from the classroom to ‘go to the Principal’s office.’ My friend Alvin, who was known to all as Buzzy, was also summoned from the classroom. So, led by the monitor we made our way slowly to the dreaded Office, to which I had never been before. The monitor said he knew nothing about the reason for the summons, so our minds were left to wonder about all the bad things that we had done for which we might be reprimanded. The more I thought about it, the more I was getting scared. When we reached the secretary, she sent us right into the Office where we saw a man and a woman in conversation with our ‘pal,’ Mr. Principalitis. The woman took one look at us and said, “Yes. These are the children,” as though she was picking us out of some imaginary line-up, for reasons yet unknown to us. The ‘grown-ups’ talked among themselves for a bit, in tones of whispering negotiations, and then Mr. Principalitis ordered us to accompany the woman and the man, both of whom, in my memory, were never identified to us, out into the street somewhere.

I had never heard of such a thing, unless the Police were involved, that children should be taken from school without notifying their parents. Evidently, the notion of obtaining parental permission for the release of pupils from the school grounds did not bother Mr. Principalitis, because he went along with the request of the woman seemingly without any consideration for its propriety, or legality. We little people standing in his office didn’t even know whether or not we could object to his directive, so we complied. After all, he was the Principal and he must know what is correct for us to do. The Principalitis aspect, which in retrospect became so clear, was at the time completely obscure to us. We were too scared.

Once we had gotten our jackets from the classroom, we were walked to the middle of the Chester Street block where we lived, to the apartment building that Alvin’s family owned, and then into the back yard, without even notifying Buzzy’s parents, on whose property we were standing. One end of the yard abutted the yard of the house across the way; then and there, we were accused of breaking a window by throwing a stone across the yard. Since we hadn’t done it, it was easy to deny, but the woman was unconvinced because she had seen us playing in the yard. With no parents there to protect us from her accusations, I decided to use my most cunning courtroom logic, derived from the radio programs I listened to after school, and I asked whether she had retained the stone in question. When she replied, as if cinching her accusation, that she indeed did have the stone in her possession, I responded with, “Good! Then the matter is simple. Take the fingerprints from the stone and it will prove that neither of us had thrown it. Otherwise, there is no evidence against us.”

They looked at me as though I had said something inappropriate or sneaky and the woman repeated her accusation that we most certainly had done it and there was no use in denying it. I insisted that the stone would tell the story, and without fingerprints, they actually had no evidence at all to support what she was alleging. Just because we had been playing in the yard was in itself no proof of any misdeed. I remember the woman looking at me, nodding her head as if she knew something more than I could know, and saying, “You, boy, should become a lawyer.” From her tone, I was totally unsure as to whether that was a compliment or a put-down, but I knew it had to do with my having out-foxed her. I had undermined her certainty and made her doubtful. From there, it was back to school; nothing proven, nothing sustained.

When my mother heard what had happened, she was furious and went up to school the next day to tell Mr. Principalitis, that it must never happen again that her child should be taken from school without her permission. I’m sure she received liberal doses of bull crap while the ‘pal’ tried to cover his six, but, since I never heard exactly what happened in the Office that day, I can’t say for sure. So, there you have it, the story of how I came to have a name for the Principal of One-Seventy-Five.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

P.S. 175 was MY school in the 50's. I loved seeing this.