Capo, Mi Capo

I’ve learned so much over the years about mediocrity, authority and leadership that I should be about as jaded as a Buddhist statue. Yet I sometimes still find myself shocked when I encounter people in leadership positions who may be incompetent, but who are definitely jaded and borderline sadistic. Among those who’ve disappointed me the most are educational administrators — deans and department chairs, advisers and guidance counselors. No one, though, was more shocking to listen to than my high school principal, Richard Capozzola.

My first day of high school was one that introduced me to the reality of self-fulfilling prophecies and the damage that low expectations can do. On a day in which we were beginning Humanities at the high school level, our principal announced over the PA system that the freshman class was to assemble in the auditorium. It was third period, the first of two study hall periods for me, so I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about MVHS. Our principal, Mr. Richard Capozzola, was welcoming our incoming class to high school. He was an old-looking man in his late-forties, I guessed, balding but doing the comb-over thing to cover his hairless middle. This was before he went the toupée route. He was short, like most of the Italian administrators, wore a bushy mustache and generally acted as if he were a warden instead of the chief administrator for an educational institution. After welcoming us, Capozzola said, “There are 1,075 of you here today. Four years from now, only half of you will graduate” from MVHS.

My mouth fell open, and not just because of what he said. I couldn’t believe that someone whose job it was to make sure as many students received the best possible education would assume that only half of his students were capable of finishing high school. For a moment I thought what Capozzola said was for effect. But the look on his face and the words that followed said it all. Capozzola talked about “discipline” and “behavior,” “detention,” “suspension” and “expulsion” throughout the rest of his speech. Nothing about grades or test scores, Regents exams or graduation. The only message he was trying to send was that he’d prefer if the students who didn’t plan on graduating dropped out by the end of the day. If I’d been a student who had struggled academically and socially before high school, that’s the message I would’ve taken with me out of the auditorium that day. Instead I was pissed with Capozzola and anyone who thought that this was the way to make students feel at home. It felt racist, considering the school was about three-quarters Black, Afro-Caribbean and Hispanic by then.

I also had two run-ins with my Capozzola in April ’87, a couple of months before I graduated from MVHS. It was a day in which I managed to escape my AP Physics class and was awarded a small college scholarship. I was about to find out how quickly life can turn full circle.

That morning, I already had survived one confrontation with “Capo.” I was standing outside the school waiting for the doors to open to start the day, like I had for the past four years. I had my Walkman on as usual, when Capozzola walked up to me and demanded that I turn it off and take it off.

“No, I don’t have to do that,” I said.

“What did you say?,” the balding, rug-wearing runt said to me in response.

“I’m well within my rights. I have headphones, which is all that sign requires,” I said, pointing at the various “No”s sign of what MVHS prohibited on its grounds. A Walkman with headphones wasn’t on the list. I continued.

“The first bell hasn’t rung, and I’m outside of the school building, and you have no right to tell me to turn my Walkman off.”

“You and me better not cross paths anytime soon,” Capozzola said, slightly flustered by my barrage and turning pinker by the second, before walking through the front doors and then to his office.

“Capo” and his crack security team made every effort to punish us for any misdeed. By ’86-’87, this included tardiness for getting from one class to another. We had five minutes to get from one class to another on a twenty-three acre, two-story building and campus. Because students would take more than five minutes to arrive to class, Capozzola, Carappella and company created a random “sweeps” policy. At random times each day, the security staff would lock down various parts of the school, temporarily trapping students who hadn’t made it to their next class on time. The guards would then “sweep” up the miscreants, who’d either end up in detention or, depending on their frequency of being caught by the guards, suspended from school.

That afternoon, I left AP Physics for Division E principal Dr. Zollicoffer’s office, one of the few Blacks in authority at MVHS. He was a very tall and big man, at least six-four, and well over two hundred and forty pounds. He apparently had been aware of my existence for the past four years. In his gravely, football-player-like voice, said, “The Afro-Caribbean Club has decided to honor your achievements with dinner and a $500 scholarship.” I sat there, completely shocked. I hadn’t heard of this club, barely knew who Zollicoffer was, and hadn’t been expecting anyone to give me a scholarship, at least not anyone from Mount Vernon. He spent the next few minutes chatting me up about how significant a person I was to the Black and Afro-Caribbean communities in Mount Vernon, my responsibility to “give back” to “my people,” about where I was going to college and what my major would be, and so on.

The period-ending bell had rung and students had been shuffling through the hallways by the time he gave me the chance to say “Thank you. Thank you very much!” and leave. I ran through the hallway and around the building to get my stuff from AP Physics, and proceeded to the gym on the other side of the school when the second bell rang. At that point, I was about eighty feet from the gym, and trapped between two gates.

The guards escorted me to Capozzola’s office, who immediately smirked at this turn of events. Even though this was my first offense, he wanted to make an example of me.

“I can make it so that you’re not only suspended, you won’t graduate with your class,” Capozzola said.

“I was in Dr. Zollicoffer’s office and on my way to gym when the sweep happened. You can ask him yourself,” I said.

Reluctantly, Capozzola picked up the phone and called his Division E principal, who I heard laughing on the other end of the phone at one point, as Zollicoffer explained that I’d been awarded a small scholarship.

“You can go, but I’ve got my eye on you now,” he said, almost with a sigh, after he hung up the phone. I was smart enough not to say anything else in return. But my sarcastic smile probably said it all.

The last time I saw Capozzola was little more than a year later. I was on one of my meandering walks lost in thought about what I needed to do to find a summer job, during my unemployed summer of ’88, when I bumped into my former principal at the corner of North Columbus and Euclid. The toupée was gone, as was his prison warden swagger. Capozzola recognized me immediately and stopped me to talk. He apparently had been forced to resign as principal. Of course, he said that he was burned out trying to save the school. I don’t remember much else. I was in college now, in between my freshman and sophomore year, and listening to an a-hole go on and on about his trials and tribulations. To say the least, I didn’t feel sorry for him.

But I have thought about that conversation in recent years, with all the work I’ve been a part of around K-16 education reform, about how teachers and principals experience burnout, often never to recover. At least most of them know that it’s time to go when that happens. Maybe Capozzola was a great principal or teacher once. Somehow I doubt that. What I do know is that thousands of students attending MVHS never had a chance to become decent students or graduate, thanks to his leadership. That’s the damnable part about having someone like Capo in a crucial leadership position.

2 Responses to Capo, Mi Capo

  1. Steven Capozzola says:

    I just read your blog about my father, Richard Capozzola. (FYI: He just passed away from cancer last month, actually).
    Just some things you might want to know about him and Mount Vernon High School:
    -He worked incredibly hard 7 days a week to keep the high school together. He was there from early morning till 10 pm’ish most week nights, and that was every day during the school year. He went in to work on Saturdays and Sundays every week as well.
    -When he first started as principal in 1979, the place was a falling-down mess. It was in serious physical decay, which he fixed. He is also the person who got signs put on the building, both front and back, that said “Mount Vernon High School”). He also worked hard to create and launch the school’s Hall of Fame. Can you recall some of the star graduates of MVHS?
    -I remember in his early years as principal, he would come home with a shirt ripped, or with blood stains on it, from breaking up a fight. By the time you got to the school in the late 80’s, it had actually become “safe.” Students and teachers were no longer afraid for their physical safety.
    -When my dad first got to MVHS, no principal had lasted more than three years there. He lasted 10. It took a tremendous toll on his health and energy. I watched it happen. However, during his principalship, test scores rose tremendously. The school started churning out top students and became the first Westchester high school to receive a National Excellence award from the White House.
    -The sad fact is that the high school is no longer in good shape. By all accounts, it is no longer as safe, and it the building has deteriorated. My dad was incredibly proud of the high school; he would be very saddened to see it now. Apparently, the Hall of Fame has not been kept up-to-date in many years.
    -Bottom line: what you found so onerous as a student may well have [a] saved your life [b] ensured that you received a good education. As a kid I would have complained the same way as you, but now, as I approach my 40th birthday, I understand why my father did what he did. They say you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Well, MVHS was not Scarsdale, it was not Harrison, it was not Greenwich, Connecticut. It was a tough, unsafe, low-income school/area that was ready to burst open on many days. It required tough love and a firm hand. That’s just the real world.
    -I remember Dr. Zollicoffer well. He and my dad were friends. Someone you really might want to speak with, though, would be Brenda Smith, who eventually served as Mount Vernon’s superintendent of schools. Brenda made sure to stay in touch with my father, and spoke with him shortly before he passed away. She was very impressed with and appreciative of his work at the high school.
    -My dad wasn’t forced to resign. He finally asked Dr. Prattella, the superintendent of schools at the time, to please get him out. My father was nearing retirement age and exhausted. Dr. Prattella, who has recently and repeatedly told me of what a great job my dad did in an impossible situation, acquiesced and combined several positions to create a new job for my dad at the board of education.
    -A final thought. The best writing gains strength from using restraint and reason. If you really want to criticize my father’s job performance, I wouldn’t resort to depictions of his appearance as “fat, old, balding,” etc. Readers are less likely to trust a writer who conveys pettiness. It’s not about appearance, skin color, religion, ethnicity, etc., It’s about what a person sets out to do in life, and whether they accomplish it. I know that my father, Richard Capozzola, was thrust into a near impossible situation. But he survived it and turned a falling-down school into a winning one.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing away. You have my condolences. Thanks for all of your additional comments about your father’s work at MVHS.

      I’m sure that your father worked very hard. But my comments for this particular blog post are from the perspective of a kid while in high school and in the years immediately afterward, and not an objective perspective as an educator or scholar. To be honest, some of the things that your father did while principal I found offensive at the time and know are not sound from an education policy perspective either. MVHS wasn’t in the middle of South Central LA in the 1990s or the South Bronx in the 1970s, for that matter.

      My posts on my blog — at least the ones that deal with my times growing up in Mount Vernon between 1969 and 1987 — are snippets of a memoir I’ve been working on for a number of years. I’ve been writing from that perspective, with the occasional ability to look back at myself as a 41 year old to comment on my thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams. It’s not a pretty book, full of heroes and villians, but rather, a manuscript about imperfection, growth (or the lack thereof) and pain along the way.

      That means that when I write about someone like your father, it’s about my thoughts from ’83 or ’87 (though filtered through the mind of a man in his early 40s). And, by the way, I never called your father “fat” (I called Carapella that, and he was). These self-reflection posts aren’t about complete accuracy — if they were, I’d probably would never post. They’re about revelation, about confronting demons long past and worries that seem ever-present.

      In my defense, I’ve contacted Brenda Smith, Larry Spruill, and others in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2007 requesting interviews as I’ve worked on this project, with no response. Others who no longer live or work there I’ve interviewed over the past seven years, and much of what they’ve said confirmed the general feel of what I wrote, even if a couple of the details are inaccurate.

      Make no mistake, I for one, didn’t feel one iota safer in my four years at MVHS because of security sweeps, the closing of the courtyard to student use. Not to mention the general feeling I had that people who looked like me — regardless of my grades — weren’t welcome, whether that was intended or not. It’s a bit paternalistic to suggest that a heavy-handed approach to security “saved my life” or led to an national award for educational excellence in 1983. As an educator myself, I know all too well the politics involved in such descriptions of schools like MVHS and with such awards.

      One thing I haven’t written about was the last time I saw your father. It was the summer after my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. I bumped into him on North Columbus, near the overpass for the Cross County Parkway, as I was headed north, probably on one of my many walks that summer. Your father had just resigned his position. He actually stopped to talk to me, not about how I was doing in college, but about his burnout and about the gloomy future for MVHS. I felt sorry for him, as even then he had a job that I didn’t envy. But, given all of the racial strife in MVHS, the school district and Mount Vernon, none of what happened was surprising.

      You should be proud of your father. You’re his son, after all. At the same time, I don’t have the luxury of looking at anyone’s body of work — including my own — through rose-colored glasses. We can agree to disagree on this. But I’d recommend reading my other posts on Mount Vernon and MVHS and Humanities before passing a guilty judgment on me as a writer .


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