Our/my first day at Mount Vernon High School (New York) was the first Thursday after Labor Day thirty years ago, which means the exact date was September 8, ’83. It was mostly a very good day, except for our third period assembly with then Principal Richard Capozzola. He pronounced at least half of our class dead on arrival not quite two hours into ninth grade. Capozzola said, “There are 1,075 of you here today. Four years from now, only half of you will graduate” from MVHS. It turned out that he was wrong. Only 545 of us were eligible to march by September ’86, and 509 of us ended up doing so in June ’87. Even when accounting for the twenty or so Class of ’87 folks who decided to take their nineteen credits and graduate in ’86 instead of ’87, less than half of our original cohort graduated in years.
In Boy @ The Window and on the five or so occasions I’ve had to talk about the late Richard Capozzola and MVHS, I’ve attributed much of this to “the reality of self-fulfilling prophecies” and “the damage that low expectations can do.” There isn’t a single word that I’d change in my description of Capozzola and in my thoughts about what he said, thirty years ago or right now. When you run a school as if the students are inmates and security act on your behalf as corrections officers, it is really a surprise when students drop out? When your security measures have the effect of increasing tensions so that more fights break out, shouldn’t it mean that the head school building administrator re-evaluate such measures? Apparently not.
That’s the principal and school that I remember outside of my Humanities days. Where girls ripped off each other’s earrings in the process of slugging each other. When witnessing one or two fights a week in building was a normal part of the process. When White potheads would sneak a smoke in between classes in the courtyard, but no security would intrude.
I have no doubt that trying to curtail this was a difficult job for any principal in ’83. But MVHS wasn’t Ft. Apache, or Jersey City, or South Central LA in this era. No MVHS student had brought a gun to school to shoot someone, at least in my time there. Short of a Swiss army knife, most students used their words to cut each other down, or in threatening to use a knife, maybe, off school grounds, after school.
Over the past couple of years, I received comments about what I’ve written about my late principal from one of his children, who has repeatedly defended his father as a hero of sorts. He has disagreed, and rather bitterly, about what I’ve written, as if his experience with his father actually negates my experience with him as a principal. As part of my response to Capozzola’s son two years ago, I wrote:
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 a national award for educational excellence in 1983 [It was actually a Blue Ribbon School in 1987]. As an educator myself, I know all too well the politics involved in such descriptions of schools like MVHS and with such awards.
I’d add to this, though. I don’t really think that Capozzola actually cared about learning or the closing of achievement gap, either, not based on how he treated Humanities. And “tough love and a firm hand?” Really? That’s how you describe a father or an overseer — it should never be how you describe a principal. There was no love in his so-called toughness, and not enough firmness to prevent fights and slights that were a frequent part of my four-year experience at MVHS. And yes, many of MVHS’ students lived in poverty, but there was a sizable number of middle class Black students who attended as well. To forget that would be to, I don’t know, lump MVHS as a monolithic block of Black (and Latino) kids ready to start a riot. How is this different from a stop and frisk policy that targets poor neighborhoods and Black and Latinos between sixteen and thirty?
Which, in the end, is what both the late Capozzola and his son have done, thirty years ago and much more recently than that. To think that I put up with this for four years, at least one year too long. The embedded racial paternalism and institutional bigotry, in their words and deeds — it just takes my breath away.