Q:How many years were you in education as a teacher, principal, and in other capacities?
(This question was asked despite the fact that interviewee had given an apt description during the first question. However, due to faulty equipment it was omitted from the tape.)
A:My first job as a principal--Mr. Bill, as we called Mr. Shrill, was editor of the paper and George was on the paper, and he said "Mary, don't teach, be the principal." And I said "I don't have any experience." And he said "you don't need any experience." So when they asked me about teaching I said "I don't feel particularly qualified to teach an elementary grade but I think I could handle administrative work." So that was how it first came about. And then when Dr. Nelson asked me at Warwick Junior High School. . . I'm a great believer that sometimes you're at the right place at the right time. And I moved into that and the principal at Ferguson left and I just moved on up. That, again, was a very fortuitous kind of thing. . . being in the right place at the right time. And I guess of all the jobs I've ever had, being a high school principal . . . I said to George one day "you know I'm almost ashamed to take my paycheck because I enjoy it so much." He said "well, I hope you don't get that notion carried out." And then there were days when there wasn't enough money in the to pay for all the heartache and problems and trouble that seemed to be on your shoulders. I think I got into the habit, then, of waking up at one or two or three in the morning to solve all the problems. And that's something that stayed with me. If I had things on my mind, I'm quite apt to wake up in the night to solve those problems.
Q: How would you describe your school?
A: You're talking about my last experience? (Yes) When I went to Ferguson, that would have been probably fifty-nine. Of course it was a 100% white school and was a neighborhood school. It accommodated Riverside, Hidenwood, Glendale down route 17 and so on but by and large it was the children who came from Hidenwood Elementary, Riverside Elementary School, later, Years. And then from as far North as Newport News went because Ferguson preceded both Denbigh and Menchville and at one time Ferguson had grown to 2700 students. Now we had grades 8 through 12. And I want to tell you that was people to people. We had classes in every nook and cranny, every corner of the library, every corner of the auditorium, at certain times in the cafeteria, and it really was terrible. They built Denbigh and we lost the bulk of our military students because that is the Fort Eustis site. And finally, while I was principal, we got back up again to 2300 and that was entirely too large also. So Menchville was built. In the meantime, they had begun to recognize that the time had come for desegregation. And I think in order to . . . in an effort to keep everybody happy they initiated what they called freedom of choice. If a child is black and chooses to go to Huntington it's through choice. If a child is white and chooses to go to Ferguson it's through choice. My first black students were three volunteers . . . eighth graders . . . who came from Carver High School. James, Ouinten, and a little girl. But here are three black faces in a sea of white students, and the little girl lasted about a week. And it was very apparent that she needed to go back to Carver which she did. But James and Ouinten, who were both very good students, . . . I can't remember how long James stayed, I don't think he graduated from Ferguson . . . but Ouinten was the kind of youngster who would have been at home anywhere. He stayed with that class and was graduated, went on to dental school and is a doctor, a dentist, and so far as I know, has been just a fine, upstanding citizen as have all of his brothers and sisters. They're the kind of people that color obviously didn't matter. By the time I got my three black students, teachers had been requested and encouraged to try teaching in a mixed situation and I think by that time I had either five or six black teachers. Then over the course of the next two or three years, as other black students began to come in beginning with my three, I added some black teachers. If there were ever any problems---teacher to teacher or teacher to administrator---I was not aware of them. I had one teacher who was an older, experienced person, and she was always extremely frank with me. You know teachers are not always frank with principals. Sometimes they say what they think you want to hear. But Helen never did. And I will cite as an example: the SCA was having an entertainment one Friday night and she came to me and she said "I think you'd be smart to change one of the things that is going to take place at the dance and the evening of fun." And I said "what is that?" And she said "you're having a slave auction." And I guess by that time I had a couple hundred black students and a good many black teachers. And she said "the students have come to me and they're very unhappy about it and I think you may have trouble if your students go through with that." Well, I never had said to students "do this or don't do this", so I called the officers in and some of the representatives, black and white, and we talked about it. In the beginning the white students were adamant. Thought it was ridiculous for these black kids assume this was anything . . . you bought somebody to have a dance with them or do some other little activity . . . and they couldn't see anything wrong with this but they weren't looking back to the connotation of what slavery was. We ended up changing it, I'm not sure exactly how they decided to change it, but I know we did not have a slave auction that night. I could count on Helen giving me the feel of what something was like. Another occasion, well every year in the beginning, we would have representatives come down from the federal government and I don't know what department they were from. They would come to interview my black teachers. Helen always told me all the questions they asked. And they started out with "alright, what's wrong? What's going on at Ferguson that you'd like to change? What's wrong here?" And unfortunately, if you're looking for things that are wrong you're going to find things that are wrong. I thought it was a terrible technique to, instead of saying to these teachers -- happy place to work, what is the best thing you've found in this school, how do you feel integration has really improved the black race, and so on---but they were negative from the word go and they probably found out some things that they wanted to hear.
Q:Well did you consider the school, being the size that it was and growing at the rate that it did and then integrating the way that it did, did you find that you were more of a manager of a building than an educational or instructional leader?
A:I think over the course of the years, Michael, it became very obvious. You see I started out big and got smaller. Because when Menchville was built, I lost students to Menchville also. So I think by the time I left it was no more than 1800 students, 17 or 18 hundred. But I had been the feeder for two schools during that time. I think that there were demands on paper work, meetings, committees, and the general administration of the school, I never did abdicate the educational program. I had three assistants, and one of them had the sole responsibility of curriculum. One had sort of administration of things pertaining to the building and the other was more in the business end of it. I reached a point where I didn't care for that division. So I sort of divided the school itself and gave one assistant principal certain departments within the school, and another certain departments in the school. But I found that I could not escape, still, the leadership of it because two of my principals were very conscientious and very strong, but the third one--- his teachers reached the point where they were coming directly to me because he was neglecting to do the things that they needed to have done. So I had to continue with that. But I had several conversations with him, which if they didn't interfere with his daily routine, he was perfectly happy and agreeable to doing the things they wanted done. No, I never did feel that I moved away from being educational leader of the building because I felt that, and my work with students, they were the strongest points that I had. I did not care for the business management of it. Or the actual management of the discipline and that sort of thing. I tried to instill in my co-workers, the three assistants plus the director of guidance and so on, that "you've been given a job to do and I expect you to do that job". I did not want every little discipline problem that came into that office to end up in mine. And I think, by and large, my assistants began to recognize that I did not want to handle everything and I didn't treat everything as a federal case. As a matter of fact, I think a strong teacher tends to handle her own or his own problems and they don't seem to have a whole lot. It's your weakest teachers that tend to be those who send kids to the office all the time and anything short of murder is not enough punishment to give these students.(facetiously and laughingly said.
Q:Did you develop that philosophy by working in that school or did you develop that school's philosophy and was it your personal philosophy that you were using as that school's philosophy?
A:Well, I'm not sure that we had anything written down that might have corresponded with my philosophy. I felt a great need to know the people I worked with and that included both students and teachers and to a great extent, the community. And I was very fortunate in that last respect because I lived in the community. The people that were my patrons knew that I bought food at the grocery store; they knew that I wouldn't have gone in the ABC store for anything on earth but on the other had they knew that I probably wouldn't have objected to having a drink. I went to church in the community and knew them all, almost all of them, from a personal standpoint. And the kids the same way. And of course my own daughter was a student at Ferguson. She finally decided after I became principal that being assistant principal was bad enough but having a mother, "old lady Passage", as the principal was more than she could put up with. No, it really was better for both of us because I think I was guilty of making decisions and wondering in the back of my mind how these decisions would affect her. And I guess I'm saying that I was a mother first and a principal second. Although she has on occasion said to me since she became an adult, "Mother, you were two different people when I was growing up". She said "I never did see the principal at home." Well, George always referred to us as the girls, his girls, and I think she saw me almost at the same level as she. Because he was an extremely strong person. The macho, big decision maker, and so on. And I deferred to him whereas at Ferguson, you didn't defer. You know, the ultimate decision had to be mine. I did a lot of decision making involving the people that I worked with and I think they knew that. I had, for example, my math department chairman and I had taught for a year with her and she had that close association and she felt very comfortable coming down and saying "why are you doing this? You know this really is not going to work" or "this is not for the best interest of the math teachers" and so on. Whereas somebody who had come in after I became administrator may have been more hesitant to have been that frank with me. Getting back to try to answer your question about the philosophy, I think the philosophy tended to evolve around me and the people I worked with, an extremely strong faculty. (emphasis on the word extremely. And in later years when I went into administration myself, I could sit at one of the full administrative meetings and count twenty-seven people who had gone on to administrative posts in Newport News who had been teachers at Ferguson. As a matter of fact, the present superintendent was the band director at Ferguson when I went there. But the philosophy was as strong as we made it. I think that in many respects, Ferguson was one of the best high schools I ever knew. In the days of the community school we had 85% of our students who went on either to college or trade school, or further training. And these were children of parents who supported the school. They wanted a good school, they demanded (emphasis) a good school and they wanted to contribute to its achieving that. And the teachers, fortunately, felt the same way. I had so many prima donnas that all I needed to do was to stand back and give them leeway to do what they could do best. And they could teach and every one of them wanted to be better than every other one. They really were a tremendous faculty. Now I lost a lot of them along the way as they moved into administrative positions. But a lot of them were young, and it was a joy watching them develop. A good teacher that you had watched and say "you know, you may want to consider some more education" . . . and one of them right now in the administration building will say "I never would have had a masters degree if you hadn't pushed me into it." I say "what do you mean, pushed you into it? (laughter) But I think if you expect the best of people, you quite often get the best from them.
Q:What leadership techniques did you use to create a climate for learning?
A: Well, I tried to provide adequate resources and materials. I certainly provided personal support. And then I was very sure that they got the biggest piece of apple pie when the went into the cafeteria. Teachers need to be appreciated. Teachers need to know that you are aware of what they're doing. You can't have teacher appreciation day one day out of the year and expect your teachers to react well to it all the time. I knew the teachers. I did not become one of them. In fact I had to rise above them because I had taught with many of them. And in some respects that was difficult because it took me a little while to get over the feeling that they thought I looked upon myself as being above them when I became an administrator. And I certainly never did, not knowingly so. But I did have to develop certain characteristics of supervision because if a teacher were wrong, I had to find a solution to that. And I could not coddle a teacher in a mistake. And I guess the one thing that disturbed me more than anything else was the impact that a poor teacher had on the students, and how much they were being cheated. And unfortunately, some of them were really the nicest people that I worked with but they couldn't teach school. I guess I left some of that to the assistant principal because I gave them substantial jobs and they did them well. Unless it was necessary for me to interfere with that, I didn't. One unfortunate experience . . .
Q:That leads me to the next question. Were there any techniques that you tried that did not work or some you found more successful than others?
A: Well in our planning, we knew the direction the school was going. We knew that we needed to do some special work with slow learners, remedial work, and we didn't have a whole lot but we had enough so that it was some cause for concern with us. We wanted to strengthen our discipline program, and I'm not sure what the third thing was. So the assistant principals and I planned an afternoon workshop to be followed by dinner which the school was going to furnish. Planned a really nice dinner. Well the day that the report was going to happen, one of the assistant principals came to me and he said "the teachers have decided that they're not going to stay for the meeting." It was early December and he said "in the first place they think its a terrible time to have an afternoon workshop, and in the second place they're not willing to pay for a cafeteria meal." I said "oh, we're not charging them for it, its free." And he gave two other, a couple of other, reasons. And we got through it and the teachers did stay and I think we may have had Kimball Wiles to come and speak. Of course at that time he was a recognized authority not only in supervision, but in good teaching techniques as well. And as it turned out they thoroughly enjoyed it but I discovered something that I tried to keep in mind for the rest of, well, still do keep in mind, that I should have involved teachers in planning. I should not have superimposed this joyous afternoon and evening simply because I thought it was a good idea. That they knew nothing about it, they cared nothing about it, as a matter of fact it was a pain in the tail to even think about it. Then I learned the same thing with students. If I had problems I'd always get the pulse of the students before I began to make decisions about big things. And in the later years when I was there after there were some problems. I don't think any school, regardless of what they say, sailed through integration without having to face a good many things. Now we didn't have riots, we didn't have boycotts, we didn't have any more fights as far as I can determine than we'd ever had. But that period of survival had to be passed and that period of acceptance had to be passed. And I decided it was time for me to get school leaders together and lay problems before them or to take problems from them. And since none of us had time to do it during the day, I opened up my house one night a month and sometimes my downstairs recreation room could hold them, sometimes there was a group in the kitchen, sometimes another group up here and a group in the living room. And they might decide they didn't like the techniques that guidance was going through. They didn't understand what guidance was all about, what they were up to other than sending off college transcripts. And I invited as many of the counselors as wanted to come because I knew I'd have a large group here. I think three of them came. They asked questions, and the counselors answered and the counselors talked, and they talked, and I think they came to a much better understanding. Then one night they went through what they considered good teaching and how they felt that they were not getting good teaching. One boy, who at that time was in tenth grade, was president of his class, and he said "I would like to tell you how my day has been. I've seen three films, I've listened to one record, and I've answered questions in the other classes". And he said "I'm going crazy with that kind of teaching. I can't stand to come to school." Well I left before he graduated, and by the time he was a senior, he had his own parking lot business downtown and he got to school about once every two weeks. They had lost him completely. Kids recognize when they're getting something and he knew he was getting nothing and he was in the top level classes. Then another group that I had come, it was in the late sixties, and we were beginning to get a lot of students with the long hair and the scruffy jeans, and earrings and so on, and they were all looked upon as being left-wingers, trouble-makers, drug-heads, pot-heads, and whatever they were called. And sometimes they were in trouble but most often they were just kids trying to make it like the rest of them but they presented such a bad appearance. And if I had problems with kids I would say "a group of students are coming to my house to talk over some things and you might enjoy that, would you like to come?" And most often they did. And in the beginning I didn't have a black student. I had a very large football player named Chris, Chris Fox. And Chris was very quiet and reserved, would have never caused trouble for anybody, and would have never set foot in my house without a special invitation---he would have never volunteered on his own. And I called Chris in one day and I said "Chris, I'm trying to work with a cross section of students" and I said "there's not anybody to speak for the black students" and I said "I respect the kind of person you are and the leadership you have here as an athlete and your good grades. And I said "would you come?" and he did and he never missed a time after that. One night they had one of the school board members and he reacted well to them and they to him. Interestingly enough when Chris' class had its twentieth reunion, I went and Chris was there with his wife and they talked to me about their children and he's been successful in business. I like to feel that somehow he left Ferguson with a good feeling that the school really cared about him. At one time, Michael, I couldn't name every single student in that building by name but I could have come pretty close. I made it my business to learn to know the students. I did that in the halls, I did it while they waited for the bus, I did it during the lunch hour, I did it by going to their classes, and every single day I toured that building at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon. You can learn a whole lot about a building by being out in it. But you're not going to learn it by sitting back in your office.
Q:So you managed by walking around?
A: I did. I was very visible, very visible.
Q:How did you evaluate your teachers?
A:I felt that the evaluation forms that weren't worth the paper they took up. I asked teachers to evaluate themselves. Then I assigned teachers to the various assistant principals and then they and I got together and sort of came up with a, with one evaluation. And then I would call the teachers in one at a time and there were qualities---loyalty, which was very hard to evaluate, sincerity, then there were at least three questions that had to do specifically with their teaching techniques. Their success in teaching and so on. And I remember now that you had asked me about their backgrounds. My teachers were all very well educated. The majority of my teachers all had masters degrees even back in the middle to late sixties and early seventies. But on occasion, teachers would disagree. I did not give teachers a rating as a gift. I tried to be fair and honest about it and if I felt they deserved no more than an average rating that's what I gave them. By and large teachers accepted this but once in a while a teacher would feel that I had been very unfair and I would say "write out your justification of why you feel you deserve more." I had one black teacher whose husband was very active in I guess the N.A.A.C.P. and she was a fine person and in later years she went to Germany and she sent me a couple of gifts and we had a lot of interests in common. She was very much interested in the newspaper and was sponsor there. And my husband, being newspaper, this sort of was a bond. But I did not let that stand in the way of my evaluation of her. And I knew that by and large she was spending her time on civil rights teaching and her job was to teach English. And I called her in a couple of times and talked about it and, well, she "really was not doing that"--ah--somebody was "out to get" her and she was "not any more teaching civil rights demands than anybody else" was. But on occasion I would walk into her class unannounced and she always had to change the subject. And one day a kid said "why don't we finish our discussion?" (amused laughter). One student said to me . . .. I had one teacher who was an alcoholic. And some people thought she was the best teacher who had ever been in Newport News. And I put up with her drinking at school, after school---she, at that time was active in an after-school activity---and the last straw was one day, she got drunk at lunchtime. And she wore a wig and going down the hall she threw up all the way to the clinic, her wig came off and she was absolutely disreputable. I told her that if she wanted to finish the year, that that would be as long as I could keep her. Well she had taught for the superintendent who had tremendous admiration for her, and she had a quality of teaching that appealed to extremely bright students. Because she was low-key, she was very sophisticated in her approach, and apparently it had great appeal for some of them. I was back at a class reunion a few years ago and the president of the class was talking with me, he said "Mrs. Passage you only did one thing in all of your years that bothered me." And I said, "what was that, Jay?" And he said "you fired my teacher, my best teacher." And I said "Jay, as a student you were not privy to all of the things that I knew." And I said "keep in mind that your teacher may have met your needs, but she was not meeting the needs of those people who were violently opposed to drinking alcohol on the school grounds." And I said "I did what I had to do and I'm sorry that you were disappointed. But", I said, "I'd given her every opportunity to straighten up." And in later years she went back to teaching and she told me---she said "if you hadn't done what you did, I would have never gone away and accepted the fact that I am an alcoholic and that I needed help." See, every other principal who had had her--because she was supposed to be so good--had put up with it. They knew she was at school drinking, they knew she came to school drinking, and they tolerated it. Oh, they all talked about it, and how terrible it was, but they did not have the guts to go ahead and do anything. I couldn't have a drunk teacher in the back hall at lunchtime. I would have had as many parents who objected to that as I did the parents who said "let her be whatever she wants to be." I couldn't tolerate it myself. So, I think I've had all kinds.
Q:You mentioned a few minutes ago some of the things you did to include your teachers in on the decision-making. What other techniques did you use to make teachers feel important?
A: Well we had department heads to serve as chairmen of their particular subject areas. We often had study groups. I encouraged their continuing their educational pursuits especially if I or the division could offer afternoon or evening classes. At faculty meetings they often made reports on what they had done so that they could be featured. I tried to feature one department every month so that they could go in some depth as to how their department was functioning. I encouraged their visitation at other schools where something that they were particularly interested in might be--was--going on there to a high degree. We had drink machines in the teacher's lounge and I used all of that money for teacher improvement. All of that money was used by the teachers for their own activities. And if it included a trip somewhere, if it included going to a conference, if it included having some well-known leader come in, and we had a good many activities at school. One of the most fun things that we did as a faculty was to participate in what we called "stunt night". And all the teachers--almost all the teachers would volunteer to be part of the skit. And of course the favorite thing that the kids liked, if we did it every year it would have suited them, was to make fools of ourselves of being the students and one of them being the teacher and so on. They never tired of it. And they played a basketball game once or twice a year with other teachers serving as cheerleaders. They were very willing to be a part of the school and in so being, I tried to make it pleasant for them. We always gave every one of them a yearbook, we bought enough yearbooks so that every teacher could have one free and that got to the point where that really was not an inexpensive gift. I submitted their names to server on city wide committees where I felt they would do a good job in the selection of textbooks, discipline study,(pause), I don't know, just sort of trying to think back for fifteen years, it's sort of hard to remember. And another thing that I tried to do--I encouraged teachers to let me know when something unusual was going on in their classroom so that I could come and observe it and to know about it and be a part of it. I guess one of the most interesting things that teachers did--and they conceived this idea themselves--was to have for the seniors, a two week mini course in the spring of their senior year. And along with the students that that was done with, a faculty committee of people who taught seniors, they came up with oh I'd say ten or fifteen different areas. One was flying, in fact Bob Driscoll had the flying group and that was culminated with a flight over Newport News at the Patrick Henry Airport. One group wanted to learn to play Bridge, another group had Parapsychology, one group studied Mythology. A lot of their pursuits were very literary and academic and some of them were just pure fun. The superintendent was so afraid that we would take time out that had to be a part of their--what?--180 hours of the year that he asked me to go to Richmond and present it to the Department of Education and make sure that we were not violating anything. He was just, he was so afraid that we might do something to jeopardize. And we went up and they encouraged us to move ahead with it and so on. We discovered something though, that kids are kids. They were not getting grades on this. We had perfect attendance for several days, then all of a sudden they weren't hearing about the Callacach (phonetic) family in Psychology and the crazy things that those people did. That first of all you've got to learn the basics of anything that you do and sometimes that's tedious. And five or six days was enough for them. They were ready for a day at the beach and a few other things that were much more appealing. Then word came out that we were having one of the instructors in the parapsychology--see what they wanted was abnormal psychology--he was coming over from the Casey Institute at Virginia Beach. And the newspaper came--the newspaper was very attentive to what we were doing--and did several interviews and when they came out with the occult and some of these things we were studying the fundamentalists and the reactionaries all of a sudden said "what is it you're doing over there." And this little Jewish girl--I'll never forget --she was interviewed about the course and she said "well, some people objected so we just changed the name of it." (laughter) But when I say some of them started skipping out toward the last, there was a very small number that did that. And we evaluated the program--l don't think we tried it again as such, because you wouldn't want to do that sort of thing every year. But that was another example in which I stayed completely away from it, let the teachers serve as the chairmen, assume the leadership. They had students in with suggestions of courses. They gave them a list, it must have been fifty different courses, and they checked the ones they wanted. So actually they came up with what they wanted to study. And I can't remember how many different things a student could do in a day. I don't think too many different ones. Of course they had to be somewhere all day. Some of it may have taken place away from the school, I'm not real sure. I know that the flying thing did because they went up to Patrick Henry for all of that. We had some people from the community come in and teach the classes. The lady who did Bridge was one of the parents. And some of the kids really learned to play Bridge and I think that's good. Some of them wanted athletic programs. I don't know. I wish I had kept some of those things but my gosh, over the years we're like pack rats anyway, and I've kept far too much and just can't bring myself to throw it away.
Q:What did your teachers expect of you? Did they come to you thinking that you were the enemy because you were in the office up in front and they were the underdogs. Just what did they look to you for and what did they expect of you?
A: Michael, it's sort of hard to say. The thought never occurred to me that anybody on earth would ever fear me. But I have had people since I left the schools to say "I was scared to death of you." And I, for the life of me,--my personality is, as far as I can determine, was exactly the same then as it is now. Of course there may be people afraid of me now. I'm fairly large, I always tried to dress in an appropriate manner. I'm certainly not the world's most attractive person but I feel that I've always tried to make the most of what I have. I think I maintained a certain dignity that may set me apart. Also the very title itself set us apart. Too often we neglect to talk with people when we can talk about good things with them. You know, if the school calls for him ---"what's he done?"---"what trouble's he in?" And if you ask a teacher to come into your office to talk, this is the first thing they think of. You know "what have I done?"---"I'm scared to death to come." The thought doesn't occur to them to sit down . . . I had a committee once and I wish I could remember what I called it. And it was a discussion group of that ... apart. Also the very title itself set us apart. Too often we neglect to talk with people when we can talk about good things with them. You know, if the school calls for him ---"what's he done?"---"what trouble's he in?" And if you ask a teacher to come into your office to talk, this is the first thing they think of. You know "what have I done?"---"I'm scared to death to come." The thought doesn't occur to them to sit down . . . I had a committee once and I wish I could remember what I called it. And it was a discussion group of that nature and we--almost every teacher in the school who wanted to be on one of those committees--and we discussed educational type things. And different people served as leaders of them. But I can't remember . . .I can't remember the details. Yes, I think there were people who were afraid of me. And I think the position, itself, made it me and them. Just like the people out in the Division look upon people in central administration as us and them. It's hard to separate them. And just like people here look upon Richmond as being us and them. That you're defensive about what is yours and what is theirs and too often your communication with them is when they're demanding something from you or needing something from you. You reach the point that when they come with something you think "oh Lord, what do I have to do now, or what have I done wrong now", that kind of thing. I did have the advantage of having worked in the capacity as a teacher and I think those people learned pretty soon after that that we were all doing this together. And that's the one thing that I did strive for that we were all in it together. And that was what I missed most of all--they knew what our goals were and they wanted to be a part of it and they were a part of it and I tried to show my appreciation of what they did. And when there were successes they were their successes too. I've tried always to give people credit for what they did.
Q:What about your assistant principals? You had three of them. How did you handle them as far as . . . I know you said you assigned them . . . but as far as them feeling a part of the team, the way they looked to you, were they in fear of your position and/or how did you handle them?
A: I never did sense that they were. I always tried to keep them informed. I did not want anything to come to them as a surprise. I certainly did not want to know anything that I didn't pass on to them. But they had a need to know. I started every week with a staff meeting. Sometimes it couldn't be until late afternoon because, you know, the best laid plans and something erupts and you don't--you aren't able to carry out what you want to do at that particular time. My first black assistant who incidentally has kept up with me through the years--I don't think I've heard from him . . . I've heard from him since George died because he found out about that and I know he's written to me twice since then.--He came from Carver and he was a nice, gentle man. And has since then gone on to get his doctorate. But I would often sense his nervousness and his lack of security and sometimes his almost brusque manner when he was trying to work with people so that it gave him a bad appearance and people did not seem to care for him. And I talked to the superintendent about him but I felt the black-white situation was having a tremendous impact on his performance. And he said, "why don't you talk with him and if he wants to go back to a predominantly black school maybe we should consider that. And I knew it was going to be a very delicate situation because I didn't want him to feel if I brought this up that I was trying to get rid of him. And I knew there was a danger that that was what he would arrive at--that I was dissatisfied with his performance and wanted him to go back to a black school. And it took a long time. I'm not sure the first time we talked that I got up enough courage to say to him "you know, if you're having trouble, if you're dissatisfied, why don't you unload on me." But that was hard for him too because just like we, very quickly, said--I feel that the papers in Norfolk blew this thing up greatly distorted--(this referred to conversation prior to interview about a mutual acquaintance who was having trouble of a racial variety in his school in Norfolk)--and that was how he may have felt about what I was sensing in him. He may never have felt . . . this may simply have been his personality that he was by nature a person who worked under tension, who was nervous about things and so on. I do not know. He did not always turn out . . . if he'd write a memo sometimes I'd have to correct a spelling word or check grammar or something like that, but I always just did it and gave it to the secretary to type. I never, never bothered him with the fact that I had done it. And I don't think I did that more than once or twice. And I may have said to him, "you know, you may want to say it this way" or "had you thought of saying it this way". I had a good relationship with these boys. They were always young, they were always attractive, and they always wanted to do well I think. And for that reason it was always easy to work with them to try to make things better.
Q: They were always male?
A:Um Hum.(affirmative nod) I did not have a female assistant. Of course one of the first things George McIntosh said to me when he hired me "there's one thing I always want you to do yourself." I said "what is that?" And he said "don't delegate your athletic program to anybody." He said "that's your job." Because he said "it's an important part of your school and if you turn it over to them you'll never be part of it and you'll lose it." And I said "why do you think I took this job?" (laughter) Of course one of the main bits of trouble that I had--we built a new gym and we were all very proud of it. And I think that by nature some coaches are just sloppy and happy people. And on Sunday's is when I did my big inspection of the building. And my husband would go with me because he didn't want me in the building over the weekend by myself. And I'd go into the boy's gym and their coaches' quarters were just disreputable. So I'd call in the chairman of the department and I'd say "you've got to clean up the gym. You've got the best facility in Newport News and you've got the best facility at Ferguson High School and you're just mistreating it." Then I said "if you're sloppy the kids are going to be sloppy and the first thing I know, the showers are going to be filthy, there are going to be dirty towels everywhere, the floors are going to be in bad shape . . ." and they resented that. They said "well"--Dan Henning was one of my assistants and I think it was Dan who said . . . it may have been Mickey Bird . . . said "she doesn't have any business over here, she's not supposed to come in here." And I said "let me tell you one thing. There's not one spot in this building that I'm not responsible for and that gym had a big priority." No, they did not want me over there and I wouldn't have gone over during the week because, half-naked boys and half-naked coaches running around . . . I can remember a time when coaches couldn't come out of the gym in their gym clothes. Can you remember that? Was that before your day? (Interviewer response - "I really don't remember.") Well I can remember when they either had to put a skirt over their shorts or put a sweatshirt or something over their little skivvies or whatever. And I thought it was a sort of sad day when we accepted the fact that they could do as they pleased. And I guess one of the greatest compliments I've had--and I feel like for an hour Michael all I've done is sit here and brag about myself--but I went back to Ferguson one day and, no, I think somebody may have told me this. They said all the teachers were in the teacher's lounge and they had on various modes of dress, mostly in slacks and dungarees and just generally sloven. And one teacher looked at another and said "I'm glad Mary Passage is not here. She wouldn't put up with the way we look for fifteen minutes." And another said, "nobody cares what we look like now so we're not going to bother." But another said, "I like the old days better." And I held out for teachers and students in slacks for as long as I could but fashion dictates a whole lot of things. And the kids used to come in. They used to come in relays saying "please Mrs. Passage, let us . . ."--I was the last school in Newport News that gave in to it. "Mrs. Passage we'll wear slack suits, we'll wear nice shirts, we won't wear dungarees, we won't wear jeans, we won't wear sneakers . . ."--They hadn't been wearing pants a week until they were coming . . . and the more money they had the scruffier they wanted to look. And I, I just gave up. I have always felt that your behavior tends to reflect where you are, how you're dressed and I think school is a very serious business. And I think if you come dressed for the beach you're going to act like you do at the beach. And I had one teacher who, particularly on Fridays, used to come in her cocktail clothes. And it was back in the days when dresses were very short and you were quite prone to wear the big ruffled petticoats under them. She not only wore purple petticoats when she wrote on the blackboard and she stretched up to write she had on purple panties too. (laughter) The boys really liked that and the girls knew that she was in direct competition with them and they hated her for it. And I said to her one day "why don't you wait until you go home before you come with these clothes on?" I said "I think it interferes with your teaching." She was incensed that I thought that she was inappropriately dressed. Dress is important. The principal in a school sets a feeling that nobody else has any control over. And the adults that work there take their cue from the principal and the students take their cue from the teachers. And if you make it a place for learning, and not a whole lot of foolishness, the anything goes kind of feeling, I think you're going to have a much happier place. Because in the first place, kids have expectations of their teachers just like teachers have expectations of them. Since I've been working on this project through the state department on effective school climate, I know that people who work in a good place and go to school in a good place do better than a cold, forbidding, I don't care, this is my job, I'll teach that class, I will get out, I will have nothing to do with any of them, all of them are a bunch of bastards that should fail anyway, kind of place. (recited in a monotone) I really believe that some teachers feel like that. I had one teacher who came into teaching when he was 35 years old, had made a failure in business so he decided he'd give teaching a chance. And I felt he was just as miserable a failure in teaching as he had been in business. He didn't really teach much in class but then his tests were so hard that everybody ended up with Ds and Fs. The last week of school he would go for his reserve training somewhere in Washington. He always left a telephone number so we could get in touch with him. I permitted him to give his exams early and finish up the grades for his students. One . . . I think it was the night of graduation . . . a very conscientious student came to my class and he said "Mrs. Passage I feel like I have to talk this over with you because later on I don't want to lose my diploma, but" he said "I shouldn't have passed Government." He said "I have three Fs, an F on the exam and a D for the semester." And I said "well that is sort of a strange combination." And I said "we'll just call your teacher. He's in Washington and he'll). be available to return my calls sometime today." So I called him, told him the student's name, told him the student's grades and he did not hesitate. He said "well, they were all high Fs." So you see there are Fs and there are Fs. I had a hard time keeping enough students in his class and I called him in one day and I had reached the point that I tried to take every student out that was so dissatisfied they couldn't stand it--the superintendent that it was the only thing to do--so I called him in one day and I said "you know, if I took every student out of your class that wants out, there wouldn't be enough left for you to teach." I said "do you like kids?" He said "a few of them." (laughter- then she quoted) "Well it would certainly be to your advantage to cultivate a few more because I have a hard time getting students in your classes and an even harder time keeping them in there." He was just sort of a nothing. He didn't bother with them. As far as he was concerned, if Michael Penn was sitting in that seat he might know your name, he might not. It didn't bother him one way or the other. But I think you have to teach the whole child. I don't think you can separate that kid's feelings from his learning. And I think until you have done something to let that student know that you care about him and you care about his learning and you're interested in that, you can be the best teacher in the world but if you're just delivering information, forget it. You will lose half of the advantage that you'd be giving that child if that kid knows, now "Mrs. Penn wants me to learn this, Mrs. Penn's going to help me do this, Mrs. Penn likes me, Mrs. Penn is my friend." And I believe that. I firmly believe that.
Q:You were so open with your teachers and people who worked with you. Did you ever have call for grievances and if you did how did you handle them?
A:No. By the time I left Ferguson High School the negotiation kinds of things really had not come into prominence. I had a teacher who taught one of the vocational courses (short discussion of whether it was D.E. or I.C.T) and one weekend he took a group up to Washington and they got hotel rooms and according to the girls they didn't leave the hotel room all weekend. They played poker and drank beer which I thought sounded like a tremendous amount of fun for them but sort of unacceptable as far as a sponsor's sitting down and having a drinking weekend apart from a weekend with his students. And I talked to him about it. And he was just as happy---"oh I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that. I won't do anything like that again. And then one day something else came up. I don't exactly remember what it was. And then one day he had a study hall in the afternoon and I walked down to the study hall and he and the boys were sitting there matching quarters. And I thought "Lordy, he has never learned." So I called him in my office and I said "I feel like I've reached the end of my rope. I've talked to you about drinking with your students, now I find you gambling with your students." And there was something else had come into that, this was the third thing, third run-in we'd had. And he said "I don't think you have any recourse, why don't you fire me?" He said "I'm not fit to be a teacher." And I said "I think that may be the only solution."
Q: Did you fire him?
A: I did. I did. Yeah. He fired himself. (laughter) So he went back to Tennessee. Said "my father has a furniture store and has been needing me to work in it" and he said "I don't think I need to stay here." And I said "well we will part friends and you can go home." And he did.
Q:We talked about you being principal during the time that integration began. How did you find changes in education when the state department started making so many mandates like the Standards of Quality, the National Education On Excellence Reports that were coming out. Did it change anything? Take time to think about it if you like.
A:By the time Standards of Orality came into effect I was no longer a principal. I was in the administration building and responsible for secondary education. And I didn't get as good a first hand view of it as I would have if I had been in the schools. My impression is, and I certainly could be off base, that nobody took it too seriously in the beginning. I think there was one that had to do specifically with teachers and they were fairly general, the expectations. And of course there were specifics as to teacher training, certain programs that would go into effect. But they've been added to. I don't think gifted education was part of it in the beginning. I think that was added later. It may have been but I'm not positive. I know they've also been revised. In the beginning they were just sort of nice little booklets that everybody had a copy of. Now I went to Richmond over a fairly long period of time and served on Dr. Sewell's, Bill Sewell's committee from UVA and the committee was divided--I think there were maybe seven or eight standards at that time--and each, we were subdivided, and we had one standard to develop, each of us did, and we were supposed to give a full explanation of what that meant and to develop it in depth so that schools could understand. And we came up with, then they had a writing committee, and they came up with a very voluminous book. And they printed enough of those darned things I think that every teacher in Virginia could have had one of them. And I don't think a single teacher in Virginia read one of them. But it had to do with such things as class sizes, the curriculum, the testing program, attendance, citizenship. I think it started out with the objectives of education in Virginia. Then it went . . . I served on a committee last year and I think we may have edited one last year. Of course, the schools began to realize that the general assemble which initiated the standards of quality, was serious about it. They said to them "if you expect us to do all these things, pay for them." And I think they have. I think ultimately they have come through and seen to it that funds are provided for the standards of quality to be implemented. I looked on standards of quality in the same light that I looked on something that is implemented from somebody from above. I'm not sure the extent to which superintendents were able at the time they came from Richmond, to seriously consider that all of this has to be done and it has to be done now. I know in Newport News they organized a very powerful planning committee and the purpose of that committee was to study and implement and to monitor standards of quality. And I think they may still have that committee. I'm reasonably sure they do and it was made up of, I think there was a teacher or two on it, principals and supervisors, even a parent or two. And people did begin to feel that the General Assembly means business. I guess the testing program was on there too. And then we went into a period when test scores became extremely important.
Q:How important do you feel these national reports are. I mean the National Committee on Excellence in Education report as well as the Nation at Risk report?
A: I'm not sure to what extent it is going to change education in Virginia. It was a nice report done by a nice group of people. Of course 1 was disappointed that they didn't go further with gifted education. I think we're at a point in gifted education that we either should do more or less or leave it alone. And if teachers knew how to teach and taught as they should teach, we wouldn't need to separate any students from other students. I had never even taught a class in which students were ability grouped. It tended to do it itself. The ### very nature of the course did a whole lot of that. But when I came to Newport News the principal said you will have one X group, which was the top group, two average and one below average or something to that extent. And unfortunately when you begin to get so many below average classes you teach them below average. And sometimes they end up getting nothing. It's good to have the studies and I think ours parallel the Nation at Risk. That report was . . . the governor felt it would be good for us to do something in Virginia. And I'm sure that with their public hearings they felt they had the pulse of the people. Guidance is always a good subject. Gifted education is a good subject. Kindergarten's a good subject. Child abuse, sex education, we have a whole lot to talk about that didn't use to be a whole lot of the responsibility. We, several years ago decided that we'd like to put family life into the Home Economics curriculum and at certain points along, the Phys Ed. curriculum. And of course recognize that the minute you mention family life or sex education that a group of people is going to get their dandruff completely out of proportion. So they organized teams and on every team was an educator, an administrator, a teacher, and a medical doctor. And we did open hearings all over town and it became very apparent . . . I've forgotten how many schools . . . I was of course chairman of one of them. And we delivered the same canned introduction to what we were doing and of course the people wanted us to get through with that mess of what we wanted to do and get on with question and answer time. Well after about my third school when this same fundamentalist preacher showed up, I knew exactly what question he was going to ask. I knew I wasn't going to leave it to this little young teacher that was with me to field. But he would say "now about this discussion about masturbation?" And I would say "well, there are places where it might be appropriate for a Phys. Ed. teacher or a man teacher to discuss that with his class." I said "it probable could even be approached even in a mixed class if the person teaching it had enough background in education and experience to handle it." But he'd never stop there. "well what are you going to teach about intercourse?" Well I couldn't handle that one too well. And I'll never forget one day I . . . the superintendent always called us in after they were over and say "how did it go? What kind of questions did you get?" because we used to get forty and fifty questions. And I mean the question and answer became longer than the presentation. And I went in to talk to him that day and the superintendent of personnel was there that day and she said "did you know Mary Passage can't talk about intercourse without blushing?" And I said "I may never be able to talk about it publicly without blushing." And I said "I don't make any apologies for it." And the superintendent said "I'd blush too if I had to discuss it publicly." I mean he really did not spare us. Oh. He was dreadful. But change comes about slowly and now we're faced with what we're going to do about the clinics where we give students the contraceptives and teach them how to take care of themselves and, we've come a long way. We may have gone too far. When I read the reasons why parents don't want their children exposed to that I have great sympathy for that. I may not have wanted my daughter . . . and the thoughts of my daughter being able to have an abortion without my knowledge . . . really, I cringe inside. I think we just tried to do all things for all people and in so doing have hurt a lot of people along the way. Some principal said to me a few years ago "the school is a microcosm of the community. And it reflects exactly what the community is interested in and I think he's exactly right.
Q:Do you remember what happened, where you were, what your kids did, how the reaction was on November 22nd that year?
A:Yeah. I think it was about probably close to one thirty and somebody was listening to a radio or somebody came in and told me that President Kennedy had been shot. And of course I went immediately to a radio not trusting to spread news that may or may not be true. And heard that it was true and I felt these students have a right to know this. And I turned on the P A system and I thought "I'm not going to be able to say this. There's no way I'm going to get this out without crying." And I think I said that "President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas and the prognosis is not good." Before I finished somebody held up "he is dead". And I said "I'm saddened to tell you that he has died." And with that I flipped that darn thing off. Even right now and I was not the greatest admirer of Jack Kennedy but the very thoughts that that is so implanted in your mind you'll never forget it. And that building was so quiet and then all of a sudden everybody had something to say to everybody else. You may not have been teaching then, you probably weren't. I think we had two days holiday. I don't think we went back to school until after he was buried. I know we didn't go back Monday. And of course my memory of the weekend was never being very far away from the radio and T.V. set. And I was sitting right here (referring to the den in which this interview was being conducted) looking at a T. V. set when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. And we were having painters here at the time and the house was one grand wreck and George had gone out of the room and of course they showed it 100 times after that but we stayed right there. It really was a national emotional tragedy. Now my husband was in the second world war. He was in the navy and Franklin Roosevelt's death affected me equally as hard as Jack Kennedy's because I remember I was visiting my sister in Winston Salem and at that time I had moved back to my home in Morseville and daddy had a little rental house next door. Jane and I were living there and we had come over to visit my sister who was teaching and her husband was home and that came over the radio. I think that was in April in Warm Springs, Georgia. And I guess I was so emotionally charged knowing George was somewhere in the South Pacific in the third fleet that when I heard it I really did just sit down and cry. And I remember Jane looking at me, she was one at the time, she had no idea why I was crying--you know you cried if you fell or something awful happened--but that was a tremendously emotional time. And then when they had the procession from the station to the white house and his vacant horse, empty saddle, and people along the way just dissolved into tears. And I remember a beautiful picture of and older black man standing at some little station somewhere between Georgia and Washington, and the tears streaming down his face . . . Of course I'm not sure. We didn't have television in the forties (incredulity), so I must have seen this in newsreels in a theater or something like that. Or in the newspaper. Life magazine is probable where I saw it. But that too was . . . because nobody thought Truman had sense enough to come in out of the rain . . . I mean he achieved his greatness after, long after, he had left the white house. But the thoughts of his taking over and ending this war . . . now since then I've been reading histories about Roosevelt and I'm not sure whether we hadn't put him on a pedestal that may have been a little bit high. Same thing with Jack Kennedy. But Jack Kennedy had tremendous charisma.
Q:That was a tremendous emotional experience for this nation and I don't know that you could compare it to Martin Luther King's death because it wouldn't have affected as many in this nation as a President's death but how did you handle that?
A:Well, that had a tremendous impact on me and for a ridiculous reason. I had five bus loads of students in Washington the day Dr. King was killed. They were caught in a traffic jam where they sat for five hours. And five loads of kids would be close to 200 students and certainly adults on every one of them. Well parents began calling me. And I was beside myself. And Mr. Brown who always arranged the bus trips station master at Fort Eustis and he couldn't get in touch with them. There was no way for anybody to get in touch with them. I felt like they were somewhere but then by that time we were getting these pictures of burning buildings, rioting, and all of these things. And here I've got 200 kids up there. And about nine o'clock he called and he said "they've gotten out of Washington, they're on their way and they feel they must stop at Jarrells to get a bite to eat. And I think they got home pretty close to midnight. See the impact of Martin Luther King's death wasn't as great on me as the fact that I had kids up there who might or might not be in trouble. But I can tell you I remember that day. I think a lot of his popularity has also grown through the years when blacks as well as whites have come to realize what kind of person he really was. And that he is looked upon as being, I guess, one of the foremost blacks maybe the foremost black certainly the spokesman that the great humanist that somehow had been lacking with George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington who were bright, brilliant men. But there was nothing emotional in their appeal. And right now if I went downstairs or if I turned on T. V. and listened to the last words in that speech that Martin Luther King made that they always play when they show the dream. I just, you know black, white, green or purple, I'll start crying again. It's a tremendously emotional experience. I think emotions bring us together and I think too often, Michael, we forget about people's feelings when we're teaching them. We're not teaching robots. We're teaching children. And you're not dealing with robots when you deal with teachers. It has to work both ways. Teachers have to be appreciated so that they in turn can pass that on to their students.
Q:You had such a good relationship with your teachers the whole time you were principal. But in a school that size, with the kinds of problems from outside bombarding you, you had to have felt a great deal of pressure.
A:I did. And I made a big mistake. I had an athletic director who was an old former coach, he died last summer, and we reached the point that we had to hire for large football games 10 or 15 policemen to keep order for us. And I also began to have to hire people to work at the gates, and ticket takers and all kinds of . . . A football game was a very expensive undertaking. It's also a very important one because I'm a great believer that that contributes a whole lot to school pride. And I had some problems. The chief of police had already called me two or three times that his police didn't like the way they were being treated. And on this particular Friday night the athletic director had grabbed one of them and given him an order to go do something. And when I got to school Monday morning the chief of police called me. These are his words Michael: "My policemen will not go back to Todd field as long as he is in charge." So I thought "well, there's no point in having somebody in charge up there if I can't get policemen to come and work with them because that's the one thing I'd have to have. I cannot have a couple thousand people together, charged up over athletics, some black and some white, and from rival schools and so on without having assistance from the police." Because in the first place they said we had to. And I called my assistants in first. Without exception they said "relieve him of that duty." He wasn't doing the work anyway. He had an assistant who was doing all the work. I think he did take the money by the bank. Then I called the superintendent whom I could not get so I called his assistant. And I said "what would you do?" And he said "I don't think you really have any choice." And I knew it was his last year and he was going to retire and you see I wasn't using my heart. And I should have just circumvented it by leaving him in the position and yet assigning others the duty. But he was so bull-headed if he had been up there he would have been bossing the policemen. And I called the chief of police back and I said "you know I'm seriously considering relieving him of these duties". And he said "well you'd better because if you don't my policemen are not going to work for you." So I called him in and I had the assistant principal who was in charge of athletics there with me and I said "it really bothers me to do this." And I said "in many ways your work has been satisfactory." But I said "I've had an ultimatum from the chief of police and if you remain in this position I can't get policemen to come because he refuses to send them to Todd field to work my football games." And he didn't say too much. But he got right in his car and went down to talk to the chief of police who was a personal friend and he came back and he said "Mrs. Passage, I'm not calling you a liar but" he said "chief Peach did not say that. He said to me 'Harry, now you know that I wouldn't say a thing like that. You know that I wouldn't hurt you like that'." So it left me in a very bad position. And my faculty rallied behind him 100%. And when he retired they gave him a dozen Jefferson cups and a pewter bowl. They wanted to show me that "you may hurt one of us but we'll get back at you." And you see, I knew, I knew as it went on that I'd made a very bad mistake. And I don't think I made too many that hurt to the extent that did. If I had it to do over I would say "you've got four months of it, somehow, get around what it is you have to do." But being, as you say, straight forward, I felt "take care of the problem by getting rid of the problem." Now he kept on with his classes. And it probably hurt his salary a few dollars but not enough to . . . it wasn't the salary. The fact that I had done this to him. And boy they showed me. They showed me. And after I went up to the administration building, chief Peach came as a representative, he was elected to city council and he came as a city council representative to attend school board meetings, and one day he stopped me in the hall and he said "Mrs. Passage, I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed working with you. You're just a wonderful person to work with." And I said "well I appreciate that" and I went on my way. But I figured if he were that much of a two-face, we didn't have very much as a chief of police. That he treated me exactly the same way that he did other people and when it was expedient for him to lie, he lied. He was the sole cause of my doing what I did. And then to tell Harry that, I just could not believe it. But I did learn one thing, don't trust people too far because if you back them in a corner you're going to be the one that's hurt when they come out. I did learn also that there were certain people that you'd better stand with your back to the wall because if you let them behind you you're gonna get it. It has to toughen you some. That hurt me terribly because when he died this summer, it really was not very convenient for me because I had broken my toe and it was hard to wear shoes and even harder to walk, and I thought there is no way I would stay away from that funeral. And through the years his wife was a lovely person. She made marvelous butter mints, I'd go by and buy them from her and so on. But I always felt that coolness that really bothered me because we were . . . he was a good friend of mine and I liked him very much. He was a hale and hardy Clemson graduate who was a happy individual to work with. He wanted to believe that his friend, the chief, had remained true to him and "old lady Passage (voice fades off). Just like another occasion when somebody said that I had left the school in debt. I left 54 thousand dollars in the treasury at Ferguson. With money in every class. The only debt that I left outstanding was the yearbook which was to be delivered in August. When people say or do things that infringe upon your integrity . . . I treasure my reputation. I'm a great believer that because I opted to become a school teacher that I had to be better than other people. I don't believe that you teach kids by saying "don't smoke, don't drink, don't do this or don't have sex or whatever. I felt that an example was far superior. I got a card from one of my students, (looked through mail on desk) from Egypt last year. He is professor of divinity at Furman University. He said (reading from card)"Dear Mrs. Passage, I know this is out of a clear blue sky but I was thinking of you the other day when I discussed teachers' influence on students. We're on a six week middle east study tour with sixteen students and it has been fascinating." Now he didn't say what he said, he didn't say I remembered you fondly, or kindly but you know after he graduated in '65-66, how many years later that he would sit down and write me a card. It says even more to a principal because if you went back to your high school you wouldn't be going back to see the principal, you'd be going to see some teacher who influenced your life. So, you accept that, that your influence on students comes one way and teachers' influence in another.
Q: Teachers need something that is good for them in this day and time. I suppose that this career ladder and merit pay and this kind of influence is coming from people who are dissatisfied by the teachers or with the schools or they are dissatisfied with their children and have to strike out at someone. What do you think about the merit pay and career ladders for teachers?
A:I think teachers should be rewarded. I think the career ladder has to be objective in a sense that tangible things will move you further up the ladder. I'm not sure that we are going to reward people for the right kinds of things because good teaching is not necessarily measured by the number of degrees that you have or the number of hours that you've spent doing that. But unfortunately it's about the only way you can measure . . . I can't walk into your room Michael and evaluate you and say "because of the quality of your teaching your salary's going to be moved up to the next step or you're going to receive merit pay." And I think teachers do deserve more pay if they're better than other teachers. I also think they deserve more pay if they've spent a lot of money preparing themselves. They need to be compensated for that. And I hope somewhere along the way that somebody smarter than I can come up with a combination objective-subjective kind of evaluation or instrument that they're going to reward the right people for doing the good job. I've seen teachers who've taught 25 years and they were just the same as the first year they taught. They've had one year's experience in 25 years. And I used to have a principal who said "teachers don't improve much, they're what they are. And you might give them a little bit more but you never change them." But if we're going to keep teachers, and it's pretty obvious that a lot of people going to college now are not opting to be teachers, we've got to make the incentive more attractive.
Q:Do you think money is the answer to drawing qualified teachers?
A:Ultimately, probably not. I think good teachers inspire kids to want to be teachers. When I left teaching I had a letter from a truly outstanding student. And she was away at summer camp the year I left school teaching to become public relations director for the government. And she said "you have crushed every ambition that I had because I looked upon you as being what I wanted to be when I grew up. And now you've left teaching and where does that leave me?" She said "I'm disappointed, and I'm disgusted with you and I think you should be reprimanded for leaving teaching". Doralee Forsythe. And I never heard from Doralee again I don't believe. But she said it just like it was. You know when you have a role model that's doing what you think is really worth while and that person leaves it for, as far as you're concerned, no reason, then the disappointment was so great that she just sat right down and let me have it. And she may have been right. I don't think I ever really and truly left teaching. Even now, I teach Sunday school and I put just as much time into it. Those referring to seven books on a hassock) are my reference books for preparing my lesson. And I do have good classes and nobody enjoys them any more than I do. I think I'm a born teacher. And I think that's why I still like working with teachers. I think that's why I still do, for bed and board, the evaluations for the state department. I love to be among teachers. And I like kids, especially high school kids. Most people say they're horrible to work with but I never did find that so.
Q: Do you think the schools are as effective now as they were when you were principal?
A:I can't answer that except indirectly. Now, I've been in some schools where I felt they were so cold and so unfeeling and they don't see it as their business to do anything except see that there's classes. I've been in others that the day of a game and they're so excited, everybody was in red and it was just a great, wonderful rapport that was obviously there between the students and the faculty. I don't know whether the objective of schools nowadays is to do anymore than cover a curriculum or syllabus. I know that that probably is true of some schools. But I guess I read probably a couple hundred applications this week of students for the Governor's School. And you could see sort of coming through there the impact that teachers had had on these students. I think good teachers are better than they've ever been. I think students are going much deeper into subjects than they did even when my children were in school. My daughter said "Mother, I haven't had chemistry, I had a history of chemistry." And nowadays that certainly would not be true. I think maybe with the entrance of negotiation kinds of things going on and the VEA and the NEA becoming more of, I don't think they're a militant group, I think they're a group that want for teachers what teachers rightfully should have. And I think a lot of things that teachers have gotten they would have gotten anyway without the pressure from these groups. But you've got to hold some things out so you can have some bargaining tools. That we have moved it away from the genteel profession. My gosh when I started teaching teachers were almost looked on with reverence. You know the teachers were the top people in the community. I mean there was nothing that was too good for them. And they often joined in the community and I grant you that I was in a small community.
Q:What does it take to be an effective principal and what was your key to success?
A:I think that they would have had the same respect for me that the white kids did. I don't think that my life would have been in any more danger than it ever was. The only time my life was ever in danger was when a white boy who was trying to get into an assistant principal pushed past me and threw a chair at the door leading to the principal's office, So hard that he broke the door. The bottom of the door shattered. And it took three men to hold him. I never had a black student ever threaten me in any way. In fact the whole building thought that I ran him to the hospital. That was a traumatic thing. But he was not angry with me, he was angry with the principal. And there was a misunderstanding. He'd been suspended and he needed to come back and talk with his counselor and get some things straight so I'd given him permission to do that. You see I made a mistake and forgot to tell Charles Miller that he was authorized to be in the building that morning. And he saw him and confronted him and he just went berserk, the boy did. We got him down to the office and I was talking to our legislator when they brought this lad in and he was cursing and yelling and carrying on. I excused myself and went out and he made no move to harm me in any way. But Charles Miller was back in his office and that's where James wanted to go. Well, before the police came to take him away he had injured two teachers and an assistant principal. And then I had to go down and testify at his trial. He was the child of a couple that had met in a juvenile home in California. They could have cared less about him. They had him and a little girl. And the judge said to him "James, I hope we can help you. We're going to send you to a place where we can do some testing and do some rehabilitation to help you to make yourself able to come back to regular school." And he got up to leave and he looked at his parents. They didn't say kiss my foot--goodby. He walked out, they walked out. It was not hard for me to understand why he was like he was. He'd been abused all his life. And he'd never known what happiness was. And we continued it by not understanding. But he was dangerous. He was in Eastern State and one of my friends--her daughter was a psychologist--and he was in her little group and I said "Margaret, Sherwood should always have somebody around who could help her out" because she was a tiny little thing, maybe weighed a hundred pounds. But apparently she didn't have any trouble with him. All he really wanted was somebody to understand his problem. The counselor came in and she was just horrified that we were holding him bodily. We had to. He was determined he was going to kill Charles Miller. And I think he did get back there and I think he did knock him down. I'm sure he did. But I would, I would be a principal and I would be a principal because everybody in that school is working toward one thing. And that is what is good for that school. The students, the teachers, the parents the administrators. In supervision, I don't care how good something is you're going to sell it because of you. You're not going to sell it because anybody wants to buy it. Nobody does want to buy it because chances are it's going to be different, it's going to make more work, and you're not a part of it. And at the end of a day, I used to say to myself "what have I done today to help anybody? I might as well have stayed at home." But I knew in my school that my day was brighter because I was principal and somebody else's day was brighter because I was principal or somebody's day was worse. Sometimes they were worse because, you know, I was old lady Passage. I wasn't always sweetness and light. Sometimes I had to really come down on kids. And sometimes I had to really come down on adults but I'll tell you one thing, you would not find one of them that would say that I was unfair.
Q: Would you have done anything to prepare yourself differently for the principalship?
A:I probably should take some lessons in budgeting. And I think if things had been available, you know, how to get along with people, and some of the things for good management that have come along since then. I might have done some of them but on the other hand, Dr. Nelson said to me when he asked me to be assistant principal . . . I said "Dr. Nelson, I don't have a masters degree." And he said "a masters degree is not going to make you any better." I said "well, I have a lot of teachers who have masters degrees." He said "if it makes you any happier go and get one it might come a time when they'll require it." And I think he was exactly right.
Q: Then you had a natural ability?
A:I think I have common sense. I think I used it often. And I think maybe it caused me to do some things that I probably shouldn't have done. They may not have been educationally sound but they appeared to work.
Q:Do you think it's the responsibility of principals to identify and develop future school administrators?
A:Yes. I had a Government teacher and the one aspiration he had in life was to be an outstanding coach. And his only athletic experience was with intermurals and in P.E. class. And he had been teaching I guess four or five years and I knew that we were going to have big changes at Carver and Huntington. And I knew that it would not bother him to go into an all black school. And in talking with him one day I said . . . and he already had his masters, I had taught him in my philosophy class, Foundations of Education at William and Mary, and when he finished that he immediately did his military duty and before he finished he wrote me a letter and said "I would like to work for you." And he did end up working for me and I assigned him a Government class only to discover that he wasn't endorsed in Government but he was still one of the best teachers I ever had. And I encouraged him to go ahead and get his name on the eligibles list to be an administrator and he said "I can't, not yet." And I said "why?" And he said "I have got to have a winning team in basketball or baseball." said "you know the opportunities. And I may not be there when you're ready." But he finally did become an assistant superintendent and may be a superintendent now, I don't think he's a superintendent, I think he's an assistant superintendent. But I really did him a disservice because the fact that he was an outstanding teacher did not carryover to make him an outstanding administrator. He was an assistant principal in Newport News in a Middle School and went to a High School and while he was there made a decision that he was going into the ministry. And he left, gave up his job and before he began his training he'd already changed his mind. There was something troubling him. -----don't know whether recognizing---- So, I his shortcomings or maybe his lack of faith in what he could do followed him into that but I think he's still unhappy. And I don't think he's ever sold his home here. I think they would like to come back here. And he has been limited to small locations and small school divisions and so on. But he is so inflexible in how he sees administration that he finds it difficult to work with people to bring about . . . I don't know what he's lacking. But I was in his company not many months ago and there's still that hesitancy that I feel is interfering in his being a success at what he wants to do. But I've encouraged others and particularly a couple of women. One who went on to become an assistant superintendent. Oh, there is nothing that she can't do and do extremely well. She's an absolutely marvelous educator. And you want to hear the sad thing, she has left education and she and her husband now own a bed and breakfast place in Maine and are perfectly happy but she will go back into education. There is no doubt. Education can't do without her. You don't get the same satisfaction in cooking breakfast for forty people and making beds that you do in seeing your educational theories become a part of a school division.
Q:What kinds of procedures should be used to select principals?
A:I guess you can't deprive people from aspiring to administration because if you're promoted you have to be promoted into administrative posts. And I think people who are in education to stay by and large do get masters degrees. I think first of all they want it because they're that interested. It brings them a little more pay. It makes them eligible for promotion. Now, I have two friends this year who got their doctorates. No they didn't, its the advanced degree. And one of them left the school division and one of them became assistant principal right out of the classroom. Well, I could recognize leadership qualities in her. Very articulate, very attractive, very much up to date on what is going on in education and I think it was pretty obvious that she ultimately was going to move into administration. An older person who graduated at Christopher Newport a few years ago, I'd say she was probably in her early thirties, very charming, cultured, and she almost immediately became assistant principal. I think your appearance is worth a whole lot Michael. I think people who are in the job of hiring people look at you and they want, and I hate to say this, but I think they want young, attractive people whether it be man or woman. I did not receive one job in my life that I applied for. For one thing, I was getting pretty well on in years, and secondly I was a woman and I don't think the man wanted to work with a woman, and third I think that there was some feeling on his part that he didn't want his assistant to know more than he did. It was very apparent that I was better qualified for the job than he was. And also that I would give it more. I think women are prone to do that. I think that they are often more dedicated and sacrifice more. I can't say that except from my own experience. But I know one thing, I did not become a woman principal because I had the same qualifications that a man would have needed to get into that job. I think I had to be head and shoulders better than any man who would have been appointed. Otherwise I would have never gotten it. Because I was the only woman principal in Virginia in an triple A school at that time.
Q:I have enjoyed this but before we stop I want you to do something for me. I want you to take me through an imaginary typical workday from the time you get to school on Monday morning until its time for you to leave. Walk down the halls, tell me what you did and let me walk with you.
A:Well, we'll pretend or whatever. What if I could walk back to Ferguson Monday morning . . . I tell you nothing would make me happier. I never pass it that I don't get the same nostalgic feeling that I had every day that I worked there. I think my day began roughly seven thirty or quarter of eight. The first classes probable were about eight thirty. I liked to be at school in plenty of time to walk out to the buses which I often did or to walk to the cafeteria or to just be around in the halls. Sometimes I just stood in the front hall. Sometimes they were a little boisterous getting off the buses and seeing me seemed to quiet them down. I did not make the announcements on the P.A. but I always wanted to be sure if any students had received any recognition for anything, either academics or athletics, that I as principal congratulated those students, we had other people who did morning announcements but those announcements were reserved for me. Very often I would not be able to stand out and wait for buses because our policy was in overnight suspension that you come back the next day and your parent comes with you. And most often I had to talk with that parent. Sometimes I had two or three. So I often started the day with parents and students to be reinstated in school. Then the bell rang for homeroom and we had morning announcements. Sometimes I would, through necessity, go back to parent conferences. But I often scheduled teacher conferences too. It would be those teachers who had first period free I would see during that hour. If I were not totally tied up then I would take a tour of the building. Sometimes I would have to speak to the custodians about the condition of the building. Sometimes I went outside the building. Sometimes I'd go to the gym and watch a class and if they were doing folk dancing sometimes I would go through a couple of turns with them. I might walk on to the cafeteria and have a cup of coffee. I might come by the library and glance at the paper. Then back to my office by mid-morning and I guarantee you that by that time, I'd have some other parents come in or a teacher with a request or somebody from the guidance office with questions or some student group that needed to see me. Then by late morning the mail would have come. The secretary would have put the important mail and personal mail on my desk so I might take a few minutes out to look at the mail. And then when the lunch hours began and we usually had three lunches beginning at about 11:30 and ending around 1:00 and that was a time when you really had to be in the cafeteria, in the halls and monitoring the halls to keep students out of the areas where classes were going on. Then the happy my going into the girl's restrooms to see how many of them were smoking and there always was somebody. But not once have I ever caught a student smoking. They were just holding them for somebody else. There were a lot of cigarettes held, let me tell you. And they were so funny they would stand up on the john and look out so if I opened the door man that cigarette hit the hole immediately. But you had to do that. That was one of the unpleasant things that I had to do. Now I hated being a policeman. Potty Patrol. But back in the beginning you did not have any smoking areas. And even after we got smoking areas some of the girls were ashamed to go to the smoking areas so they still hid out in the john to do their smoking. But I would always pass through the smoking area at least once and it was so horrible and so filthy that I moved it away from where I had it at the entrance to the building and where you went through a corridor from the old building to the new wing which isn't new at all any more but it was new for us--I put them outside there on the door and in my later years my teachers who were over there, the Bob Driscolls and the others who knew would say "well they're all smoking pot today." Well I didn't know what pot smelled like. it was outside. And I always went and spent a little time there. Another thing that I had to watch. Riverside Hospital was so close that kids there on drug rehabilitation given off campus privileges always came to Ferguson because these were their friends. It wasn't the happiest atmosphere but the smokers, oh, they were just as happy as the day was long. And they welcomed me "don't you want a cigarette?" and this kind of thing. But it was very important that I be there where they were. Then after lunch everybody settled down for a class or two and that gave me a little breathing time to get some work done at my desk. I had to check my correspondence, this kind of thing. Then everything went full blast when it was time to make the afternoon announcements then to go home. So again I went back out to the buses and patrolled. Once in a while I would invite my bus drivers to stay in the morning and have coffee and cake in the building. And I did that a couple times a year. I did it in appreciation for what they did. I often attended the SCA meetings. After school I almost always attended some club meeting, some group that particularly wanted me to be there. And I'd often walk out to the athletic field where they were practicing. There were always a lot of activities going on in the afternoons that I wanted to be on top of. So I made myself very much available through the building. Almost always some problem would arise from some kid's going home. So quite often I'd have a parent show up and that necessitated parent conference. My day normally ended around five. But it was usually closer to six by the time I got away so I really had been there since seven thirty. Quite often I had to go back in the evening and Saturdays, and Sundays. The last year I don't know why I kept records of them maybe I sort of sensed that that was my last year, I think by actual count I attended 1-5 additional meetings, gatherings, groups, competitions or whatever beyond the regular school day, beyond five o'clock in the afternoon or Saturdays and Sundays. So that was sort of what the day was and sometimes George would pick me up and one afternoon he picked me up and I guess I was coming home early for some reason. A bus, I guess it was an activity bus, let a couple of kids out and they started fighting and I said "oh George stop the car." He said "stop the car? We're going home. You don't need to referee fights here on Corbin Drive." I said "George, I'd referee a fight anywhere, you know that." Oh and I almost always had one or two boys at city farm and when I'd pass he would say "don't wave at those boys." (laughter) And I would say "George, that's John Newell or that's Billy Ford" or whoever the case may be. And he would say "I don't care. I don't want you waving to them." But I always did.
Q:What was the toughest decision you ever had to make while you were principal? The very toughest that you can think of right now?
A:I think the toughest decision I ever made was when I decided that I would leave. I was offered a really fine position and I agonized over it. And I decided that I was not going to leave Ferguson and I was not going to leave the principalship. Then within a year or two I made the decision to go. And I think I based that on my husband's pleading with me to get out of being a principal. Because he knew that it was really taking a toll on me because it was so demanding. And was becoming even more demanding. And I think maybe he feared desegregation in a way that I did not. Because I knew black kids and I had worked with black kids and I had no more fear of working with black kids or teachers than any other. I knew it would be different. I knew it would no longer be the neighborhood school I was accustomed to. I knew it would very quickly become a title one school. I didn't realize that half the classes there would be taught at remedial level. But I think deciding to leave it was one of the hardest decisions I ever made.
Q:How do you account for you success as an administrator?
A: I surely don't know. I think I'm a person who speaks up. I think I'm articulate. I think I have confidence in myself. I think I'm willing to take risks. And apparently other people have recognized that in me. And I guess they've recognized that I had some ability. I think if it had been left up to me I would have stayed in the classroom thirty years. And happily so. Because I like to teach and I used to once in a while think, wouldn't it be fun just to teach today? And then I said "you know you're really lying to yourself, you would not go back to teaching." And I think people that say they would are fooling only themselves.
Q:Can you tell me what caused you to choose retirement when you did?
A:My stars, I was 65 years old. I'm now seventy years old Michael. I'm very flattered that you had to ask me. And right now I'm going through some feeling that it's time for me to stop these volunteer things I'm doing. I've seen people stay too long until you wished that they would retire. You feel that they have lost a whole lot of their peppiness. And I've worried about that. That I would hang around until everybody says "now when is she going to leave?" And I think people begin to read into things. Things that really shouldn't be there because they know it's time for them to retire and you're not bothering to accommodate them to do that.
Q:I hope you don't give up chairing evaluations because you certainly do make them a joy.
A:Thank you. Well, I think there's a certain levity that whatever you do is appropriate. And I could never do anything that I couldn't smile once in a while and into which I couldn't inject a little bit of humor, and in which I couldn't be very much myself. I'm not so tied to being afraid to have people laugh or to laugh at me. And I think that I have met with some degree of success. I know when I've done something well and I know when I've done it less well and I know when I've really made a mess of things. And I think a whole lot of my success is because I haven't been afraid to be myself and to make people feel comfortable and at home and to laugh too. You know a lot of times it might be just as easy to cry as it is to laugh. But I find if you laugh enough you're really going to do that instead of crying and you will feel better. And I like people. And I think that comes through.
Q:Before I ask you to sign this release form, is there anything that I should have asked you that I did not ask you?
A: No. I think you know more about me than you need to know.
Q: I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed this and I can't tell you how valuable this is going to be. This oral history that they are doing, I don't know who is going to use it or when, but I'm sure that what you have contributed will be some of the best material they will ever get. And I will certainly do you justice and send you a copy of my narrative.
A: Oh, I'd love to see it. I'll sign here where it says interviewee.
| Back to "P" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |