One image from the second grade lingers in my memory. It was the day our principal ate lunch with us in the cafeteria. On the surface, Mr. Weil was hardly “cool.” He wore horn-rimmed glasses. He had on a tie with his short-sleeved shirt. He even ate his hot dog with a fork. But this kind man was still a big hit with the second graders, because he genuinely liked spending time with children, and it showed.
Fast forward to my second year at Conyers Middle School, when we were named a National School of Excellence. I personally take no credit for this, but our principal practically floated down the hall when the award was announced. Mr. O’Neal was a former football coach, and he loved winning. Everybody liked his energy and sunny optimism. No sooner had the trophy been installed behind glass, he was already thinking of how to top it.
Mr. O’Neal had a sly sense of humor. After the award ceremony, he called the school’s exhausted head custodian into his office. Miss Juanice was one of those classic southern school janitors, complete with a tall hairdo and a raspy voice. She and her staff had worked themselves to the bone for that contest. Mr. O’Neal praised her and then said, “Now next year, we’re going for the World School of Excellence, and I hear the judge really likes a clean building.” Half the school heard Miss Juanice holler, “Lord, have mercy!” as she high-tailed it out of the office.
Just two years later, I was at Rockdale High School, and Mr. Gibbs was my principal. Years of serving in administration had turned his hair snow white, but they hadn’t dampened his joy for teaching or his love for young people. A generously encouraging man, he sent letters to students who made achievements of any kind. More than that, he was a model of integrity.
During my freshman year, Rockdale won the state championship in basketball. It was our first big win in program history. The whole town was elated, but nobody was happier than Mr. Gibbs, which makes what happened next all the more impressive.
Weeks later, an assistant coach was going over some academic records and made an unfortunate discovery. It turns out that in the final game of the tournament, we put a player on the court for the last 45 seconds who was not academically eligible to play. We had been 23 points ahead, and those 45 seconds didn’t change the outcome. It was an honest mistake.
Still, the assistant coach took it to the head coach. The head coach took it to the principal. It broke Mr. Gibbs’ heart, but he knew there was only one thing to do. He reported the violation to the state, and we had to forfeit the trophy. It was an agonizing day but also a proud one. Such a costly display of sportsmanship was so striking that both The New York Times and “20/20” sent reporters to cover the story.
Before I go, I have to tell you about our assistant principal, Mr. LaPier. More than once while I was at Rockdale High, we had bomb threats. They were always just phone pranks intended to disrupt classes, but school protocol required that we take them seriously. During one of these threats, the entire student body was milling around outside the building.
Mr. LaPier was a tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, and I heard him barking orders. He pointed at various staff members and said, “You … go check the cafeteria.” And “You … go clear the vocational wing.” I was a wise guy even back then, so I sprinted over to Mr. LaPier, performed a mock salute, and said, “What do you want me to do, sir?”
Without missing a beat, he said, “You … go sit on the bomb.”
Which I thought was funny. It was a clever rebuke to youthful insolence. But the fact that both of us could joke about bomb threats in those pre-9/11, pre-Columbine days is telling.
High school principals have a tougher job now. Every week seems to bring fresh evidence that the world is a deeply disturbed place. My heart goes out to Mr. Thompson, the principal of the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and to courageous school administrators everywhere. They face real danger day after day. But they also give us hope, by continuing to model that optimism, wit and love for young people that I cherished in my principals. We need these men and women to stay strong. I’m thankful for them all.