It all started with Mr. Yousef on Thursday.
Or perhaps, it had been percolating for a few weeks, and Mr. Yousef crystallized it in my Principal’s office, on that Thursday.
I sat at the conference table with him, talking about attendance and truancy and COVID, and I realized how many years I have been serving students in schools like my current one. I thought, in an instant, about how confusing and terrifying being new can be: you have no idea what the schools really do, or what they are like, or how the beauty at the core of them, the children, MUST be our core commitment, despite all the pitfalls and policy changes.
The thoughts led me back to Gus Garcia Middle School, in the fall of 2007: 15 years ago.
Gus Garcia has been popping up lately as it has come to my attention that a large number of those of us who taught there and who opened that school are now administrators in Austin ISD and Elgin ISD. It is definitely true that the difficult experiences at Garcia led us to leadership.
Let’s do a roll call….Dr. Melvin Bedford, once AP, is now Principal at Austin High School. Chara Harris, once a math teacher, is now Principal of Murchison Middle School. Brandy Gratten, once an English teacher, is the Principal of Martin Middle School. Ben McCormack, once an English teacher, is the Principal of St Elmo Elementary. De’Sean Roby, once Instructional Coach, is Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Tasha Bedford, once an English teacher, is Assistant Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Kalandra Williams, once a math teacher, is Assistant Principal of Neidig Elementary School. And me, Patience Blythe, once a science teacher, is Assistant Principal of Booker T Washington Elementary School.
As I sat in that room with Mr. Yousef, talking about attendance policy and telling him that I am known for being very, very, very aware of student attendance, I thought about those years, and why so many of us became administrators.
For many years, I have shied away from writing about the experiences I had at Gus Garcia. My issues with understanding life-work balance while working there were definitely contributing factors to my divorce in 2009. although I do believe that our marriage wouldn’t have worked no matter where either of us was working. I have shied away from it because the experiences were so intense, and so of their moment. We went through the financial crisis at that school and the election of Barack Obama; these events fundamentally changed public schools. They perhaps felt too close for real examination; I also didn’t want to upset anyone in the retelling.
But here we are, 15 years later, and schools have changed so much. In many ways they are better, and yet, the results for poor children remain the same. I wonder why that is. I have some ideas, which I will share here as the year progresses. This is my first year as an Assistant Principal, and my mentor has asked me to remember to write about it. I will.
But to go back to that meeting on Thursday afternoon with Mr. Yousef; it was one of those meetings that sends you back in time, and through time, and provides you a deep reflection on the present: that everything you have done has brought you to that exact moment in time. At that moment, we talked about truancy and withdrawing students, and I sat in that beautiful office, in that school building, and again realized that I am so lucky to have so many years of experience with which to refer.
On the day before, I was in a training for SAMA, which for those of you who are not in schools or institutional settings, is a practice of de-escalating crises that works very well. I mentioned to Wednesday’s instructor that, at Garcia, all of the teachers were trained in SAMA due to the level of need at that campus.
In other words, all roads in my mind are leading to Garcia at this moment.
It is time.
When I returned to Austin ISD in 2015 after a four-year absence, the gentleman looking at my paperwork said, “Oh. You were at Garcia. There were a lot of problems there.” I said, “Yes, there were. Whose fault do you think that was?”
Let’s dive in.
Garcia Middle School was built up on a hill, in East Austin, on the east side of 183 off Loyola Lane. It is a beautiful building that looks like a community college. The first time I went into the building, it was just a shell, and we wandered through it being told where this would be, and that. We had planning meetings in the construction trailer out front. Most of the staff had come over from Porter Middle School, which had recently been closed in South Austin.
When the school opened, it was beautiful. Huge windows let the light shine in on the east and west side. Each grade level section was painted a different color: orange, blue, and yellow. Each classroom had a plasma screen television (these were the days before Promethean boards). Each area had its own workroom with its own copier and its own computer lab (these were also the days before Chromebooks). There was a patio off the cafeteria that was planted with native plants. I was the most experienced science teacher with one year of teaching experience.
When I think about Garcia, I don’t want to enumerate its flaws and faults or describe all the things that went wrong there. To me, there is little point in dwelling on those things, and I don’t want people to feel I am pointing fingers or blaming anyone for what happened. I find it comforting and inspiring that so many of us who were young teachers there are now administrators at high-needs campuses in this area; this shows that we all learned a lot in those years, and decided to take a path that would make sure the things that happened at Garcia would never happen again under our watch.
But despite the desire to not talk about the problems, the formative aspects of my three years at Garcia keep popping up. Why is that? Is it because my time at Garcia was my first experience of true leadership? Conversely, my first experience at understanding what lack of leadership can do? Perhaps.
At Garcia, we went through three principals in one year. The first one left us in December. Before she left, she held an assembly in the gym and yelled at everyone in a voice I will never forget: it was a voice of desperation, sadness, defeat, and acknowledgment that what she had done had not worked. She was replaced by an amazing changemaker who came into that school with his giant gold rings, announcements on the PA, reward systems for students and teachers, and songs in the cafeteria. He changed everything in mere weeks. The third was a principal that no one liked; she divided the cliques and friend groups. She was challenging. She broke the staff apart to rebuild it. She was the only person in my three years there who could get the students to listen to her and only her simply by asking. She could talk to them. When I decided to leave, she asked me, “So….how is Bedichek Middle School?”. I told her that I had to learn how to teach; that all I knew was how to control classes but I needed to learn the other aspects of teaching. She and other administrators there told me that there are kids who need help everywhere. They were, of course, right.
One of my takeaways from being in Title 1 public schools for so long is that people with years of experience have opinions and observations that are priceless; they are diamonds. You may not agree with everything, but there is a truth that resonates and is useful to apply to your own situation. Ultimately, experience gives us perspective so that when big changes occur, like what is happening now, we remember and know that we will make it through this, too. Younger teachers don’t know this. I didn’t know this back in 2007 at Garcia Middle School.
I had two rooms at Garcia: first one without a window, and later, one with two gorgeous windows on the second floor that I often opened each morning because the fog would roll into the classroom and I loved it. It was a very foggy place; a hilltop that was covered in cloud in the early mornings and backed up to a greenbelt that was never named as such due to where it was in the city. In the back of the room, I had a coffee maker that some other teachers used. When I wasn’t at school, which was rare, students would open the windows and throw textbooks onto the roof of the first floor.
During transitions, why do we drift backward into memory? Does it ground us somehow? Remind us that if we survived then, we will survive now? Do the memories help us interpret the realities of this moment? It is hard to say.
I don’t know what stories from Garcia will pop up here. Will it be the time we made cricket houses in the science elective and I didn’t realize that crickets eat cardboard and all the crickets escaped to be found by the custodians? Will it be how the 8th graders self-segregated in class every time you turned your back on them? Will it be the city gang truce meeting in the library? Will it be the time that student brought a giant knife in a Jordans box to kill me? Will it be the time the two boys got in a fight and one shot the other one in the face (both survived)? Will it be how the kids stashed drugs in the upstairs 7th-grade boys’ bathroom ceiling tiles and sold them at lunch? Will it be the time I was observed by the district and a boy was walking across the tops of lab tables while another was hiding in a cabinet, and others were making and sending darts into the ceiling tiles and yet, I still received a positive evaluation? Will it be the time that I wrote a blog post about advisory that somehow was picked up by a national publication and ended up on the front page of the Austin American Statesman? Or will it be completely different memories? We shall see.
If I could share one truth about serving students in Title 1 schools with anyone who would listen at this exact moment in time, it would be this; if you are not in the schools, you have no idea what happens within them, and you do not understand their importance. The importance of the schools is critical; it is key to the future of the country as a whole. The more they get broken down, under-funded, criticized, or have unfunded mandates applied to them (I am looking at you, HB 4545), the impacts on the children and adults in the schools are massive.
I remember when President Obama was elected, when Dr. Helen Johnson became principal, when TEA came in to audit our campus, and we began to talk about this new test called STAAR. It all happened there, at that campus. So many things happened there, and I can remember so many of them vividly; they were that intense and meaningful.
At that school, I wore striped knee socks every day; I had probably 10 or so pairs. The students asked me why I wore them every day, and I told them it was because I had prison tattoos on my legs and I couldn’t show them. Would I say this today? Definitely not. But the kids loved it and thought it was hilarious. They called me “Colorful” there, not Ms. Blythe, and never once questioned how someone who had been in prison could be their teacher, let alone this tall, weird, white lady. In fact, those students *insisted* that I was not white. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant.
What is happening in the schools this year is heartbreaking: how can there be so many openings? One of the biggest things I learned at Garcia is how I cannot solve the world’s problems; I can only hope to influence a small group of people in front of me. I learned about the importance of the students in my care, and the teachers that I could help. As our year begins, my current campus has the lowest turnover rate in our district and only has one open position. That tells me a lot about our school. That tells me we can grow; we have a whole crew of caring people who chose to stay after the hardest year I have ever experienced as a public school educator.
I wish I could take you all, the general public, the Texas state legislature, the US Congress and Senate, and bring you into the schools. You would see the needs; you would meet the students and you would see how much they need access to a high-quality education delivered by caring adults. School is another form of nutrition; anyone who tells you it isn’t critical to every child has some hidden agenda that I am not interested in understanding. I wish I could bring you into these classrooms; like the time at Garcia, when I had the most bonkers class I had ever had up to that point. The students never stopped talking: I didn’t know how to help them calm down then, and I randomly, in desperation, put on a video of Charlie Chaplin. Almost instantly, they asked, “why is no one talking?” They then completely calmed down, and from then on, Charlie Chaplin videos were rewards in that class. To that end, one day I told the students that I had lost my voice and could not speak, and they had to find ways to help me communicate. All of a sudden, everyone could raise their hands before speaking.
Schools are magical and majestic. But mostly, they are critically important to the lives of children. Throughout the pandemic, the lives of children have been an afterthought. They have not been our priority. Government leaders seemed to think they would just bounce back and be fine after all of the time away from school. Those of us in the schools understand that this concept is a false assumption; the time away was damaging to so many of them, in many ways that we, as adults, will probably never truly understand.
I thank you for joining me here and reading my ramblings about grief, life, schools, and our country. I do love it so. I love its children most of all. I hope you do, too, even if you don’t have any of your own. And I do hope you think about how important school was for you, and act in kind.