True Confessions: My Visits to the Principals’ Offices
I had the “opportunity” to visit the principal’s office three times during my career as a student. The first visit occurred in fifth grade after my foot involuntarily jerked sideways and kicked Cathy Braugham in the shin while she was taking a math test. She let out a screech that put Tarzan’s chest-thumping yell to shame and then pointed an accusatory pencil and glare in my direction. It was a Friday afternoon and Mrs. Richardson’s weekly allotment of patience buttons had all been pushed. Cathy and I headed towards our principal, Mr. Edmonson’s, office.
I vividly remember the slow trek. Cathy had this maniacal we’re-going-down-with-the-ship-together look on her face. I tried on a where-will-I-live-for-the-rest-of-my-life-once-my-parents-disown-me mask. We inched our way along the gray linoleum hallway, two condemned prisoners heading toward an unknown fate. I had never been to the principal’s office, but had heard stories that did not end happily ever after.
We approached the office and reluctantly reported for duty. I imagined vultures circling the school waiting to feast. Tears lined up like lemmings on my lower lids ready to take their plunge. And then the principal’s secretary uttered fourteen of the most beautiful words I have ever heard, “Sorry. Mr. Edmonson has left for the day. He went to get a haircut.” Two thoughts immediately materialized: 1) I just dodged the biggest bullet of my life, and: 2) Mr. Edmonson is nearly bald, what’s this about a haircut?
I never did visit with Mr. Edmonson. All was forgotten the following Monday. Cathy Braugham and I eventually became good friends. I grew to appreciate my principal’s well-groomed head.
My next visit to the principal’s office occurred in junior high. It was a case of guilt through association. I was nabbed from study hall along with Dennis Wright and Ronald Miller, two veteran troublemakers who had been sitting next to me shooting spitballs. We were marched to Mr. Sedlacek’s office and ordered to sit outside until he was available to interrogate us. He eventually greeted us at his door with rolled up sleeves and furrowed brow. He motioned us into his command center and directed us to remain standing. Mr. Sedlacek paced in front of us like a drill sergeant inspecting his troops. Suddenly, he pivoted on his heel, stared at me, and calmly asked, “Who are you?” No venomous accusation, no scalding scolding, just a simple, anti-climatic inquiry. Boy, was I disappointed. On the brink of landing a starring role in The Spitball Trio, I had quickly been recast as an unidentifiable extra. Mr. Sedlacek determined that I wasn’t the sort to keep company with professional spitballers, ordered me to stay out of trouble, and released me on my own recognizance.
My final excursion to the principal’s office took place my freshman year of high school. I was summoned to Dr. Tangdahl’s office after having been absent the first two days of school due to a prior commitment with summer camp. It seemed like an unkind way to start my high school career, but Dr. Tangdahl proved to be a benevolent soul. He told me it was his habit to personally greet new students and welcome them to Westside High. He proceeded to inquire about camp, asked if I was related to the other Hoffmans who had passed through the school, and answered my rookie questions. (He assured me there were no elevators in the school and cautioned me not to fall victim to seniors trying to sell elevator passes.)
I share these vignettes with you because each, in some simple way, has shaped my principalship. Like Dr. Tangdahl, I too want to get to know and understand students. I want to appreciate what motivates and engages them. I want them to realize that I take a personal interest in their learning, challenges and successes. This interest compels me to try to visit classrooms on a daily basis in order to observe learning styles and help craft best instructional practices. It compels me to be present, as often as I can, at bus and food lines and at recesses. Finally, like Dr. Tangdahl’s headquarters, I want my office to be more than the place you visit when you’re in trouble. I want it to be a space where students can share concerns, let me know what’s up at school, or just try out a corny joke or riddle.
I suppose my quixotic attempt to learn all of the student’s names (not an easy task, believe me) derives from my visit to Mr. Sedlacek’s office. I never got over the fact that I was a complete stranger to him. Addressing a student by name shows both respect and the desire to make that important personal connection.
As for Mr. Edmonson—well, for all you fate-tempting firebrands, beware: I never get my hair cut during the school day.Here’s wishing everyone a year of incredible growth and learning.