Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From Heaven to Hell on American Airlines

I'll probably burn in hell for this.  I'm hiding from Elizabeth.  She doesn't deserve it, but I need a break. 

Face it.  She's demanding.  I know she can't help it, but dang!  How many times can I review her flight plan with her?

Elizabeth has Apert's Syndrome.  It's a rare condition with a constellation of unfortunate physical and mental symptoms.  First, and most notable, her head is misshapen. 

Remember that old cartoon where the witch is sitting in front of the mirror in the haberdashery?  She's trying on pointy hats for Halloween.  The sales girl standing above her delicately places a hat pin in the topmost point of the hat.  "Ouch!" says the witch.

That would be Elizabeth.  When she wears her pilled-up red felt cowboy hat with the sequins glued around the brim, her head looks pretty normal.  But when the hat flies off in a gust of wind, it reveals that her peaked head fills the uppermost regions of the hat.  Straggly wisps of oily hair do little to disguise the fact.

Her face is distorted too.  Poor Elizabeth!  She's our Quazimoto.  Porcine nose almost always free flowing.  Two middle fingers on both hands are fused into one finger.  One hairy knuckle, one fingernail. 

Her squat little body, or should I say fuselage, is always cloaked in her gray American Airlines jacket.

Elizabeth comes to me on the quad every day now.  Every brunch.  Every lunch.  She finds me to review her flight plan.  It goes like this:  First she stands in front of me and proudly taps the AA logo with the oversized middle finger of her right hand.  "Do you know what this stands for?" 

I used to say, "American Airlines" and it pleased her.  She smiled at me and we talked about how the turbulence caught her on her flight to Miami.  She had to make an emergency landing in Houston where they cleared the debris from her engines and she was on her way in no time!

Day after day we replayed the scenario:  American Airlines; Miami; turbulence, debris.  I asked her to be sure:  "Elizabeth, are you the pilot, or the airplane?"  "I'm the airplane!  I'm a 747!  I was on the runway with those other planes and they couldn't beat me.  I'm the fastest one!  I have red, white, and blue painted all over my fuselage!"

"Are you the stewardess?" she asked, eyeing me as though dubious of my qualifications.  "No, I'm Air Traffic Control," I said.

The bell rang and with that she wanted clearance for take off.  "747, cleared for takeoff!"

"Roger!" and off she flew to her classroom, arms atilt and backpack flapping.

She brought me two pieces of construction paper the next day.  One gray and shaped like a submarine with three stripes running the length in red, white, and blue pastel chalk.  The other is the AA logo, red and blue on white paper. 

On about the 200th day she approached me and tapped the AA logo I became perverse.  "What does this stand for?" she said. 

"Alcoholics Anonymous?"  "No."

"Aardvarks and Apples?"  "No."

"Artichokes and Anchovies?"  "No!" 

I could have gone on and she sensed it.  "American Airlines!" she declared with a little pat of her foot.

Students scuffled in the cafeteria one day.  Elizabeth said she was taking on fuel so she didn't see everything.  But she dwelled on it.  She worked it into the routine for weeks.  Did I see what happened?  Neither did she.  She was taking on fuel when all of a sudden, pow!  "So I just took off!"

Mucus forms a shiny sheet between her nose and upper lip.  I began carrying tissues for this reason.  Now when I hand one to her, she smears and smears, only to have it begin again. 

One of our campus supervisors observed this ritual day after day.  She called me on the walkie talkie from across the quad.  "You're going straight to heaven, you know." 

"Do you think so?"

"Oh yeah, for all these conversations, you've got a straight shot!" 

But today, behaving like the adolescents I serve, I am hiding from Elizabeth.  I'd just like to complete my lunch supervision without the pre-flight itinerary.  

It's not that hard to elude her.  Believe me, I know her routine.  So I move from my usual, highly visible spot, just to the left near a cinder block pillar supporting the overhang.

She comes out of the cafeteria at 12:40pm and lands exactly where we usually stand.  Not seeing me, she's flustered.  She begins a systematic scan of the area, turning quadrant by quadrant.  When it's time to scan in my direction, I step behind the pillar.  Like a light house beacon she turns again.  With that, I step into the cafeteria and relax.  She won't look in here.  She's already been here.  We always talk outside.

"Mrs. Plath!"  A group of students beckons me and I'm off to lighthearted conversation about Senior Ball.  Am I going?  Will I dance?  So much normal fun!

Then, from the corner of my eye, I can see her, taxiing closer.  She found me.  Darn.  As I turn toward her the other students peel away, and it's just Elizabeth and me again.

"Mrs. Plath!  I was looking for you!"

"You found me Elizabeth."  I hope it didn't show too much, my weariness.

"I just wanted to tell you, Mrs. Plath, thanks for everything."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Moral Obligation

One of the greatest satisfactions of being a school principal is found in that rare moment when you feel you’ve made a difference. Principals are suckers for that. Give us the tiniest inkling that we’ve somehow helped, and we’re in it for another year.

Such a moment presented itself recently after a particularly disheartening event at my school.

We had a fight.

Not all that unusual on a high school campus since the invention of high school campuses. Kids get mad at each other. The anger builds up. They don’t always have the skills or finesse to deal with their anger more subtly. So, they hit.

Maybe ten years ago, that would have been that. Now, it’s not just that any more. Fights seem worse these days, even if they’re just the same old fights among teenagers we had back when our dads were punching each other behind the gym. Because the whole world seems to be racing toward the brink, we cannot feel confident that this fight might be the ordinary old kind of fight. This fight might be the fight that leads to the next one and the next one…the never-ending retaliatory kind of cyclical fight that defies logic and common sense. It could be that kind of fight. Or it could be worse.

Because we want to avoid all fights, we keep our collective ears to the ground and respond to the smallest murmur of discontent between individuals on campus. We counsel and advise young people in how to deal with peers they don’t like. We offer a wide range of options so that student A can resist the urge to smack student B.

We’re actually pretty good at it. But we’re not 100%. And so, this week, at lunch, A smacked B. B smacked back. And because they were equally matched, we had a frenetic fight with a big audience.

Such things are so very discouraging for so many reasons. Word goes home from the audience, and the community adds that piece of data to their view of our schools. And because of human nature, those bits of data get repeated more frequently than say, the data that we had 82 Scholar athletes from our Fall Sports teams. That’s 82 athletes with GPA’s of 3.0 or higher. We have another 63 from Winter Sports.  Spring Sports are likely to be impressive too.  Graduating seniors going to Stanford and Berkeley.  Another Gates Millenium Scholarship winner this year.

But aside from that, such events create a stir on campus that may take days to subside. So, I went on the PA and talked to the kids. I said they each had the moral obligation to keep us informed if they knew a conflict was escalating.

They usually do know. They see the hard looks, and hear the insults, sometimes days before the players face off. We do get tips. We always act on them. And, we are quite successful at averting combat when we have the information in advance.

I told the kids all this and appealed to their moral sensibilities. Help us stop the fights before they begin. Help us stop the violence.

Now, in the lunchroom are Mike and Jacob, two seniors, pals, horsing around. They’re “play fighting,” making a show for their own amusement and for that of their friends, other big healthy strapping boys who smile and watch. It’s slow motion, as though these two are rehearsing for the next take on a movie set. They grab each other and pretend struggle.

I see this from across the room and begin to move toward them to fulfill my role of killjoy. But Danny sees them too. Danny is small and developmentally delayed, and Danny has heard my speech.

Before I reach Mike and Jacob, Danny gets there. He pushes himself between them facing Mike with outstretched arms to protect Jacob. Danny looks up at Mike’s fake snarl and says, “Stop! Stop the violence!”

By now I’m on the scene and Mike turns to me with a questioning smile. “We were playing, Mrs. Plath.”

“I know, Mike, but he doesn’t.”

Danny has turned to Jacob. “Aw you all wight?”

Jacob, too, smiles a questioning smile, but turns to Danny and clapping him on the shoulder says, “Thanks, man.”

I thanked Danny too. He helped me know there is hope. Someone is listening.