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.