A few years ago, I stood in the hallway of a high school to meet with the principal. I waited as he greeted students, including a young man and his mother. Without warning the boy angrily spewed profanities at the principal and headed toward the door. There stood his mother, the principal, students, me, and three resource officers. Otherwise known as security guards.
The mother apologized and headed toward the door. Her son was long gone.
I met briefly with the principal and found the mother standing in the door on her phone searching for a ride. By the time I reached my car, she was walking in the snow, apparently unsuccessful. Her son, despite his healthy lead, was actually waiting around the corner of the building, peeking to see if she would rescue him. He took off again, just enough to stay in view.
I stopped and offered the mother a ride. I overheard her need to get to work, her missed wages wasted on a failed attempt to get her son back in school. As we passed her son, I slowed down and had her call him to the car. He promptly got in the back seat escaping the snow and bitter wind. He spoke, calmly, and politely. At one point, he made a disrespectful comment in recounting the scene but when I turned and looked at him, he didn’t hesitate to apologize. Like most people I meet, whether mentally ill, impoverished, or angry, they still know basic manners.
The two began to explain his predicament. He did not want to be in an alternative school and had come to ask for a second chance. He failed miserably. Cussing out the principal you’re trying to convince you will do better is not the path to a second chance. But before the principal had said good morning, he turned to the young man and snapped, “Take off that cap!” The disrespect was too much. A simple good morning would have done.
I convinced them to go back with me, to meet with the principal, explain what set him off and to apologize. They agreed. As part of a charter committee, I had helped choose and hire the principal. I was confident he would as well.
As we waited for the principal to complete a previously scheduled meeting, we had time for a lengthy talk. The young man had the support of a family much different than one may have thought. He was raised with discipline, he was taught manners. He was loved and cared for. But the traumas and oppression faced daily by many Black children, the day to day defeats were too much.
I sat down for the initial part of the meeting, just long enough to be assured the principal understood his mistake as well. He did and he apologized. Being back to the original playing field, I left them alone to do what they came to do.
It’s unlikely I’ll ever know what happened to that young man. He was certainly given a second chance, but sitting on a powder keg of anger, frustration, and oppression, he was likely ignited again. After all, the hallways of our schools are filled with children similarly harmed. But one thing I know for sure, there is a principal in the world somewhere that learned one thing that day, sometimes a simple good morning will do.
Dr. Christi Griffin is the Founder and President of The Ethics Project and the National Youth Summit. To learn more about the National Youth Summit, visit www.thenys.com.