The Principle and the Principal

 

My second and last almost-year of teaching in junior high (1970-71) was no more pleasant than my first. Oh, I got along well with my students but I had a really strained relationship with the principal and some of my colleagues, one of whom thought I was an “arrogant, athletic scumbag.” In fact that quote comes from my former English department chairman, Mr. Jonathan Moody – who was just like his name, moody.

I never said anything to him that would lead him to believe I thought I was great. He was kind of like Sullivan [my epic high school fight to be told sometime later] – he took an instant dislike to me. After school we used to play basketball and he was not very good at that. Somehow [I’m guessing at this] he must have felt that as my chairman he should be a better athlete than I. He wasn’t.

But he also thought he should be a better teacher than I as well. I have no idea if he was a good teacher or one of the legion of bad teachers, but I do know he sent a lot of disciplinary referrals which tells me many of his students were tough for him to control.

The fact that I never had to send in a referral drove him nuts.

“You think you are a better teacher than I am?” he said to me one day at the copy machine.

“What?” I said.

“You heard me. As your chairman I want to know why you don’t send in any disciplinary referrals. Why don’t you?”

“I don’t because I haven’t had to,” I said.

“You really expect me to believe that?”

“You’ve been in my class a dozen times, you walk by my class, I mean, you see what I’m doing. It’s not like the kids are being bad or anything.”

“Something is wrong here,” he said. “I teach the same type of kids you do and all the English teachers do and you are the only one who has never sent in a referral in two years.”

“There was Gerry,” I said. “I had to drag him to the nurse.”

“He was a psychopath, he doesn’t count,” said Mr. Moody.

“What’s the point of this conversation?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be happy that I can control my students?”

“I know you think you are a better teacher than I am,” he repeated. “But you are not. Just because you majored in three subjects just remember that teaching is not college, smart boy.”

“Listen, I hate to tell you this Mr. Moody, but I don’t think about you and I know teaching is not college,” I said. Now, I know I said this with my voice dripping with sarcasm because I tended to get sarcastic with authority figures when I was young. I did think Moody was an idiot. As an adult, long gone from the teaching profession, I have to admit I have no idea if Moody really was the idiot I thought he was. But he certainly was uptight as I recollect his conversations quite well.

“The principal is fully aware of what a fuckhead you are,” he concluded, walking away from the copy machine.

That afternoon, my team beat his team in basketball 62 to 24. These were pickup games in the gym and there was one other player, besides me, who could dominate the game – Howard Dodd, a big guy, maybe 6’3” strong and powerful. I happened to get him on my team that day and when the two of us were on the same team, well, we were unbeatable. Midway through that second year, the other teachers decided that Dodd and I could not be on the same team and we always had to face each other. He got the better of it, overall, as a good big man can beat a good little man. But the games were exciting nevertheless.

Except that Moody got really angry every time he lost. When Moody was on my team (Dodd and I were the “captains”) he’d complain that I didn’t pass him the ball much. He was right; I didn’t, because he stunk.

The principal was also a pain in my ass. He didn’t like the things I taught. I did a section of poetry and lead it off with some lyrics from the Beatles “Sergeant Peppers” album. The students and I discussed drugs and my message was very clear – don’t do drugs. Please recall that 1970-71, the year I am writing about here, was the beginning of the big drug surge in America among junior high and high school students – following the college students’ example.

In the middle of discussing one of the lyrics, our principal Doctor Denton walked right into the room, shut off the record player, and told me to “get out into the hall so I can talk to you.” My students were as stunned as I was, but that might have also contributed to them liking me – I was in more trouble with the principal than any of them.

“What do you think you are doing?” he asked.

“I’m doing the poetry unit,” I said, faking innocence. I knew why he had dragged me out into the hall.

“You are doing stupid lyrics from the Beatles, who are communists,” he said.

“I don’t know if they’re communists but what I want to do is get the kids to see that what they listen to every day is a type of poetry. Then I will do real poetry with them.”

“I don’t like this drug stuff,” he said.

“Well, the lyrics I am doing are anti-drug stuff,” I countered.

“We are not going to discuss drugs in the classrooms,” he said. “It will only encourage them to take drugs.”

“You know I think you are wrong here. You have to realize that today’s kids are really getting exposed to drugs now. They need an anti-drug message.”

“We are not discussing drugs in the classrooms of this school,” he said.

“Look, you’re the principal…”

“I’m glad you realize that,” he said.

“But you are wrong on this. You’re going to catch kids sooner or later using drugs and you’re going to wonder how it all happened. You know ‘an ounce of prevention’ and all that.”

“No,” he said. “Not in this school. No lyrics. Go straight to the poetry section. I don’t want any of this modern education crap that you are doing.”

Just then Moody wandered by. As department chairman he only had to teach two classes so he had plenty of time to do whatever the hell chairmen in that school did – which was get paid to do almost nothing.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I am explaining to Mr. Scoblete,” said Doctor Denton, “that he is not to do Beatle lyrics about drugs or any lyrics for that matter as a part of his poetry lessons.”

“You call that education? Lyrics? What were you thinking?” asked Moody.

I didn’t answer. What was the use? Both of them stared at me.

“You’re the bosses,” I finally said, “but if I were a betting man I would wager that sometime this year or next year you are going to wake up and find you have some kids right in this school who are using drugs. I’d put a bet on it.”

“Not this school,” said Doctor Denton.

“You think you know everything?” asked Mr. Moody. “You have to realize that out here in the suburbs we don’t have that problem. We’re seventy miles from New York City. These kids are not like the kids you know in the slums of Brooklyn where you grew up, they are innocent. We don’t want you polluting their minds.”

You idiot, I thought, I didn’t grow up in the slums.

In April of 1971, the principal caught nine kids in the bathroom drinking booze and smoking marijuana. A couple of kids had some pills too – I never found out what those were. Doctor Denton took firm action. He suspended the kids for a couple of weeks. Then he got on the loudspeaker.

“This is Doctor Denton, your principal. As some of you know, we caught nine students using drugs in the bathroom today and they have all been suspended.”

I watched the faces of my students. Most of them looked truly shocked. There had been some truth to the assertions by Denton and Moody that these kids were largely innocent.

“Because drugs are dangerous to all of us, I am now telling each and every student in this school that there is to be no talking between classes or in the lunchroom during lunch. It must be total silence. You are all being punished. If any of you are thinking of using drugs in this school look around you and realize that what you do will affect everyone else. If you use drugs the whole school will suffer because of you! This punishment starts immediately. Anyone talking between classes or in the lunchroom will be paddled [yes, in those days in that school you could paddle students – and Mr. Moody was the school’s official paddler, something he seemed to enjoy immensely] and if it occurs a second time you will be suspended. This punishment will last five days. I hope all of you learn your lessons from this.”

I looked over the classroom. Darby Colton raised his hand. I nodded to him.

“Can we talk in class?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, of course.”

There was silence and then Chuck Smith raised his hand. I nodded to him.

“Mr. Scobe do you think this is fair? We’re all being punished for what some other kids did. There are a thousand kids in this school [actually 900] being punished for what a few did. Do you think it’s right to punish everyone?”

“Okay,” I said. “Do I think it’s fair? No I don’t. Do I think it’s right? No. I think it is stupid. But I also know in life a lot of people get caught up in situations where they are innocent of anything but take it – a punishment, a beating, whatever bad thing it is – because of what others have done. That’s a lesson you are learning right this minute but do I think this is fair? No.”

Being young, being idealistic, being perhaps stupid, I went on to teach a lesson about how innocent people get caught up in all sorts of horrible things – like the Holocaust, war in general, disease. I thought it was a pretty good lesson.

After class, as the students went silently into the hall – these kids were terrified of having Mr. Moody paddle them – I roared into the crowded teachers’ lounge, jumped on the table (I was always dramatic) and launched into a speech attacking Doctor Denton’s idiot punishment of all the students for what nine students had done. I compared him to Hitler and his running of the school to a gulag. Most of the teachers just looked at me silently. Maybe a small group agreed with me but they were all afraid of Doctor Denton, who did run this school with an iron fist. I told the teachers that even my students thought this was an unfair and stupid punishment and that I told my students I had agreed with them.

At this point, one teacher walked out of the teachers’ lounge and went straight to Doctor Denton’s office where he ratted on me. This teacher was taking courses so he could become an administrator and I guess he figured getting my scalp on his spear would help him achieve his goal.

After I finished my dramatic harangue in the lounge, to a crowd that looked at me as if I were a total idiot, I then went straight to Doctor Denton’s office to give him a piece of my mind, not knowing that Doctor Denton was already well aware of my opinion. I passed the future-administrator in the hall as I headed for Denton’s office.

“That was fast,” said Doctor Denton’s secretary.

“What?”

“Doctor Denton wants to see you,” she said. She rang Denton, told him I was there, and then said to me, “You can go in.”

I walked into his office.

“Sit down,” Doctor Denton said pointing to the chair in front of his desk.

“Doctor Denton,” I started but he cut me off.

“I don’t want to hear anything from you. I know what you did in the teachers’ lounge, trying to incite the teachers against me, and I know you did something that no teacher should ever do – you criticized me in front of your class. How dare you? Who do you think you are? I am now putting you on notice that if you do one more thing I don’t like, I am firing you. Do you understand that?”

I couldn’t deny I had disagreed with his policy in my class – how did he know that? How did he know what I had just said in the teachers’ lounge? Was this guy psychic – or bugging the school?

“I understand what firing means,” I said. “Do you understand what free speech is?”

“You can have all the free speech you want, Scoblete, but you don’t have tenure and I can fire you and not have to give a reason. So free speech away all you like young man but one more thing and you and your free speech are gone.”

That “one more thing” happened the very next day.

I had a lovely student named Jennifer Van Hatton, an honor student with a 98 average in my class. Today she might be about 60 years old but then she was as cute as a button 7th grader just on the verge of growing into a beautiful young woman. She was everything a parent could want in a child – smart, athletic, well behaved, and well mannered.

Jennifer’s locker was right across the hall from my classroom. At the end of the day, Jennifer realized that she had left her notebook in a friend’s locker and she whispered to her friend, “I need my notebook.”

Unfortunately Jennifer did not realize that Doctor Denton loomed right behind her.

“YOU TALKED!” he screamed so loud that every kid in the hall and all the teachers could hear him clearly.

Jennifer turned around, saw him, and froze like an ice sculpture. I was about five feet away from them, standing outside my classroom.

In one quick movement Doctor Denton grabbed Jennifer by the collars of her blouse and shook her. “YOU TALKED!” he screamed and then balled his hands into fists with her blouse inside them and lifted her right off the ground. Jennifer looked as if she were in a state of shock.

I wasn’t really thinking clearly – or maybe my subconscious was thinking clearly – I really don’t know. I just know in two big leaps I grabbed Jennifer away from Doctor Denton, ripping her blouse in the process, then turned and hit Denton a left hook on his jaw that sent him staggering. I followed that by stepping in with a straight right and then pushed Denton as hard as I could. He fell to the floor – knocking over a student who was standing close to him. I then yelled at him, “Don’t you ever manhandle one of my students!”

I could see that Jennifer was crying now.

“You stupid fuck!” I yelled at him again.

Some other teachers came running and got between Denton and me. Denton was standing now, still a little groggy, and he allowed himself to be lead down the hallway to the nurse’s office. I could see the kids eyeing me as they walked past me to go to the buses. One kid whispered to me, “He deserved it.”

Jennifer was helped to the buses by one of the hall aides and that is the last I ever saw of her.

When I got home I didn’t bother to tell my wife that I had just punched out the principal over this talking principle. She never liked my rebelliousness. I figured I would be fired – maybe even arrested for assault.

The next morning I never made it down the hall to my class.

“Oh Mister Scoblete,” said Mr. Moody in a great mood this morning and drawing out the word mister as if I were anything but a mister. “Doctor Denton wants to see you in his office.”

I walked down the hall to Doctor Denton’s office.

“Mr. Scoblete is here,” said his secretary into the phone. “Go ahead in,” she said to me.

“Doctor Denton,” I said as I entered. I had given this some thought and I wanted to apologize for hitting him when Mr. Moody walked into the office and brought a chair over to sit next to Doctor Denton. I could see Doctor Denton had a little bruise where my right had hit his cheekbone.

“Doctor Denton,” I started again.

“Please be quiet, meeeessssteeerrr Scoblete” said Mr. Moody. “Haven’t you done enough to disrupt this school?”

“Mr. Scoblete,” said Doctor Denton taking out a large folder from his desk. “As of today you are no longer working here. You are terminated.” Well there was no point in apologizing now. I was a goner. He pointed to the folder. “In this folder is a record of your behavior as a teacher in this school. Mr. Moody I would like you to read some of the highlights of Mr. Scoblete’s performance while he has been a teacher here for the past year and three-quarters.”

Mr. Moody happily took the folder, opened it, and began gleefully reading, Oh happy days – for him. Page after page of all the things I said which went against school policy, all the things I taught which I shouldn’t have taught, and page after page of statements written by Mr. Moody about my “lack of respect” for all the educational philosophies he and Doctor Denton believed in.

He delighted in reading the never-ending list of my educational character flaws but I had heard enough.

“Stop,” I said. “I get the picture. I’m leaving. You want me to leave right now? At least can I say goodbye to my classes?”

“No,” said Doctor Denton.

“You’ve had enough influence over them – too much,” said Mr. Moody.

“You know not one of those nine kids caught taking drugs came from my classes,” I said. Yes, that was a stupid thing to say because I was not responsible for the behavior of my students outside of my classroom, but I was looking for something to say to defend myself against this inexhaustible list of my not respecting this, that and the other thing.

“Take whatever materials are yours and leave,” said Mr. Moody.

“Mr. Scoblete, one last thing,” said Doctor Denton.

“Yes,” I said.

“If you go for another teaching job, if it is in the right district, I will give you a truthful recommendation. I think you should teach high school. You see, you are a good teacher, maybe even a great teacher; you just don’t fit in here. And I am not going to press charges because you hit me because I was a little out of line myself. So you see you can still have a career in teaching – if you pick the right district to go to.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Actually I appreciate that. And I am sorry that I hit you. I should never have done that.”

Doctor Denton nodded.

“I think you should find some other occupation because you don’t have the temperament of a teacher,” said Mr. Moody contradicting the principal.

I got up and left without a glance at Moody.

I took home all my belongings. I didn’t tell my wife about hitting the principal but I had to tell her that I had been fired. It was the end of April and I was out of a job. My wife didn’t work.

“What are we going to do?” she said to me. “You’ll never get another teaching job.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you’ll have to work.”

She eyed me.

As a postscript to the above: I did get another teaching job. I went to 10 interviews at various high schools across Long Island and all of them said that because of my behavior on my last job they just didn’t want to take a chance hiring me – “and good luck.” I gave myself one more interview and figured if I lost out on number 11 I would have to look for another career. The 11th job interview, which was at the school where I experienced the Weird World adventures [to be addressed in the future], consisted of four parts – an interview with the department chairman, in this case Gregory Monahan, then an interview with the principal, in this case Edwin Krawitz, and if both of them liked what I had to say at the interviews then I would be asked back to teach a lesson in front of a class. Then the students and teachers who were watching me teach would have their say.

I made it through the interviews. I never lied. I told the truth about everything that happened at my last district – except I never said anything about punching out the principal. When they called Doctor Denton he affirmed everything I said and, thankfully, he also did not mention my landing two solid ones on his jaw. He also told them he thought I was a great teacher. In retrospect – I am looking a long ways back in the past now – I might have – in my youthful enthusiasm and stupidity – underrated Doctor Denton. He could have blackballed me from teaching after all and he didn’t. Mr. Moody on the other hand, even in retrospect, was an idiot.

I taught the class. I am good with an audience in front of me and I was the favorite for the job after my lesson. The teachers who saw me liked me and the students – the most important group – liked me too. Gregory Monahan, a new department chairman, now had to make a tough decision – hire a young firebrand that could give him enormous headaches if I turned out to be a maniac. Gregory Monahan spoke to two of his colleagues and dear friends, two of the best teachers I ever met and ever saw in a classroom, Gabe Uhlar and Lenore Israel. They both told Monahan to go for it. Hire me. “He’s the kind of teacher we want,” they said.

As a new chairman, as someone who could be inviting disaster by hiring me, Gregory Monahan decided to go for it. Now, I can’t say I was perfect for Mr. Monahan but any disputes we had I have to say – he was right. I went from being a kid to being an adult under the tutelage of Gregory Monahan, Gabe Uhlar and Lenore Israel.

I named my first child Gregory in honor of Gregory Monahan. I have no idea how my life would have turned out had he not taken a big chance with me. And for that I am forever grateful. I actually hope he reads this book and knows that I still have the utmost respect for him.

[Gregory Monahan died a couple of years ago. I did tell him how much I respected him when he retired. He was a great teacher and a great department chairman – a great man in my opinion.]

(The above is an excerpt from my book The Virgin Kiss.)

7 thoughts on “The Principle and the Principal”

  1. The Virgin Kiss must be one helluva book. It’s $369.78 (+$5.10 shipping) on Amazon, though a beat to hell used copy can be had for $29.95. I wonder what collector’s edition copies of Island Magazine (issues 1 and 2) go for . . . featuring my interview with Otto Preminger with questions “punched up” under you editing fingers. I remember very much not liking your edit but don’t think I mouthed off then. {I was Charlie Schwartz back then}. I also read your “Did I Die?” column. Speaking as one who has (on 9/15/1988 – Live at Five told the world I was dead. There was video of the accident site but not of my body, which had already been carted away to the NY Hospital. I screwed up traffic so badly that none of the TV stations could get cameras to my dead body on Second Avenue. It was a broken neck, but I got better. Then I rejected the surgery and ooo life really kind of sucks from that point on. Digression: was the “youth nightclub you watched over on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst called “amazingrace”? If so I have a story for you… Glad you have kids and grandkids and the lovely A.P. Must be nice to have a normal life.

    1. Hi Chuck, seems you have had a hard time of it but your writing is compelling. Send me your address (fscobe@optonline.net) and I will send you a free copy of The Virgin Kiss. My memories of Island Magazine are dim. That was almost 50 years ago. The nightclub was called The Gallery.

  2. Ahhh, middle school in the 70’s! Glad you sent the Principle into the next realm! I remember witnessing a math teacher throwing a kid sailing into a radiator. We called her Roller Derby ( my older sister’s class called her Alligator Wrestler). When I reported her to the Dean she was seated next to him. I looked her in the eye and said what happened and she denied it. Hope Karma caught up with her.
    My father taught high school for 30 years and then Admin moved him to elementary his last 2 years. As you know you will never find a more concentrated bunch of corrupt a-holes than school admins. I shall not name the district because it could be one of most here on LI during the 70’s-90’s
    The people who cared for the kids often were subjected to the jealous power hungry inept higher echelon petty power trips. Your story sounds very similar to my father’s except for the Principle ultimately doing the right thing and admitting his behavior was wrong. You must have knocked some sense into him, you should have run for the Board!

    1. I had a couple of administrators that I actually liked, one being Gregory Monahan. He was an excellent teacher and gave himself two classes of the toughest kids (he only had to teach two). His replacement gave herself two honors classes. That tells you something. I admired Monahan. The rest? They fit your description to a tee. Pat your father on the back for me.

  3. Darn these spell checkers!!! My reply has goofs!!! Principal!!! I would definitely get a paddle for not paying attention!

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