Why the Capital High School T-Shirt Debacle Was Lose-Lose-Lose-Lose

Recently, my community witnessed an event that, in the scheme of things, was a tempest in a tea pot. Some graduating high school seniors defied the authority of their principal in the last few days of school, lost their right to march for their diploma, then regained the right to march. This was all over some t-shirts.

I don’t struggle much to define what I think about local events, but this one threw me for a loop. The butterfly effect of a series of choices by students, school leaders, parents, school board, and the chattering class kept the whole thing a moving target.

What went wrong?

In short, everything. There were so many bad decisions in play it was almost impossible to form an opinion as it went along. Today, the kids are graduated, the graffiti is scrubbed from city property, and we have all moved on.

The problem is, we may not really be able to start over as easily as we might hope.

My eyes were opened to some of the serious issues facing any administrator at Capital High School when I attended the funeral of its first principal, Mr. Clendenen. Clendenen presided over the consolidation of two power house schools in Kanawha County — Stonewall Jackson and Charleston High — into one school with strong identity and sense of pride. Many people thought that it couldn’t be done, that bringing together these long-standing rivals was too difficult.

In short, the Sharks and the Jets just don’t get along. Mr. Clendenen and the merging student bodies had a mighty task at hand.

What I learned at Clendenen’s memorial service is that we need to never take for granted the creation of a new and successful high school out of two former enemies. The very existence of one functioning school filled with academic achievement and student pride is a gift to our community. But from a historical perspective, it just happened.

From my armchair, I think the principal at Capital High School picked an odd battle to fight to the death. There is not much public disagreement about that. There are, however, a few more issues worthy of review.

A friend of mine put it well when she said, “You know who my parents would have been angry with over this? Me. If I were told five times not to do something by the principal and then I did it and encouraged others to do it, losing the privilege to march for my diploma, they would have taken it up with me.”

Requiring 18 year olds to face the consequences of their choices did NOT happen here. Parents and community members pitched a fit and asked the school board to intervene. Never wanting to miss a chance to lead a charge into an inappropriate drama, the school board asked the county superintendent to overturn the principal. Though phrased as a compromise, the principal lost. The kids marched, and then in an entirely predictable final act of defiance threw their victory in the principal’s face on stage. The adults in the audience erupted into wild applause.

It is a good thing when conflict can be resolved in win-win situations, but that didn’t happen here.

The principal lost: He was stripped of all respect and authority by the superintendent.

The parents lost: They can expect to get several phone calls from college and beyond asking them to come clean up their kids’ messes when they disregard life’s rules because they “just don’t agree with them.”

The kids lost: Not understanding the long-term consequences of what they did, they see themselves as heroes, and to many today they are. The sad thing is they learned the wrong lesson here, and leave town with an image of immaturity and privilege.

The community lost: The adults here tore down a good man. I can’t help but wonder how many people taking jabs at the principal would survive one day leading Capital High School. Though he may have made a tactical error, it was his to make.

Adults need to get a clue and rally around each other when the stakes are high. There were so many other ways this could have ended, not the least of which could have been an after-party for the kids where they wore their shirts and celebrated on their own terms.

I applaud the students for their willingness to take risk for their beliefs. The problem is, at the end of the day, the adults took back their real glory by erasing the consequences of their actions.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote letters from the Birmingham jail. As the saying goes, I’m just sayin’.

God Bless the Children of the Hollows

It’s a little cold in these parts this week.  We’ve been closing schools less for the ice and snow and more for the single digit temperatures.  I signed up to receive my county closings and delays by e-mail, and received an odd and amusing list of bus route changes yesterday.

Bus shelter built by parents for their children

Note: This list is incomplete, but I picked out a few personal favorites.

##### Bus Route Changes ####

  • Buses 1118 & 1111 will not run Bufflick Hill; buses will turn at Sweeney Hollow
  • Bus 1107 will not run Dodd Hill; will turn at rock quarry
  • Buses 602, 620, 631L, 624 & 401L will not run Dry Branch Hollow; students may catch bus at the mouth of the hollow on Cabin Creek
  • Buses 1014, 1004, & 1015 will not run Happy Hollow
  • Bus 1010 will not go over Mt. Carmel
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not go into Tate Hollow
  • Bus 1012 will not run Holmes Hollow – will pick up at mouth of hollow
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not cross Buzzard Rock
  • Bus 1002, 1004, 1015 will not run Hughart Hollow

Two things come to mind.  First, I’m not sure many of us truly appreciate how hard it is to get to school, still.  There is a lot of yammering about and criticizing of rural educational attainment rates, parental apathy, and lazy kids.  I don’t know about you, but if I missed breakfast (again) so I could stand in the freezing cold and wait for a bus that’s not coming up my road for the privilege of being picked up at “the mouth of the hollow,” I might stay in bed.  This is assuming I know the bus route has changed.  It is probable my parents don’t have Internet service in my home near Buzzard Rock.

By the way, I’m six years old.

The second thing is that I could have walked to my child’s elementary school yesterday, easily.  Some days when school is delayed or closed I feel myself becoming agitated that children are missing a day of instruction “over nothing,” and then I receive an e-mail like the above and I rethink the situation.

If we all can’t be there, no one gets to be there.

This is the beauty, and the frustration, and the agony, and the glory of the public school system.  If we can’t figure out a way to pick you up and get you there — you, the one child on at the mouth of X Hollow — we will wait for you.  If conditions are so bad that we can’t find a way to get every last young’un to the school house, we will all stay home.

I posted a few of these bus route changes on Facebook and an old friend immediately recounted, “Remember in 1976, when Kenna Elementary lowered ropes down to the foot of the hill to help kids climb up to the school one winter?”  This was not my school, but this was my West Virginia growing up.  School was important, and grown ups did crazy but wonderful things to make sure we arrived there and that we wanted to be there.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was this spirit of we all go together.

We don’t have the system where it should be.  There are more than a few things that are not right in terms of policy and process.  The energy around we all go together, however, is still there; I remind myself that is a good thing in the Big Picture per the values of our country when I start to fume over inefficiency.  We need to keep that spirit, but find a way to not let it keep us at the lowest common denominator of everything all the time.  Upgrading our system to year ’round schooling would be a solid launching pad for getting our priorities as well as our values back in sync.

In the meantime, it’s very cold again this morning.  God bless the children of the hollows.  Amen.

Image credit: I.D. photo show on architecture, lost and found