Chapter Four – Paradise is available as a PDF or continue reading below.
Now regretting my decision, I climb into his car.
Arms crossed, not saying a word.
Within minutes, we arrive at the airport. Taking the service road, we pass through a gate thanks to James’ clearance on the field. Multiple aircraft line the strip outside the large, metallic hangar. Getting out of the vehicle, I see a King plane take off on the runway.
Turning to the other side, I notice what appears to be a young female teenager learning a pre-op flight check by her instructor. While the aircraft’s hood is popped up, she is checking the oil stick while her instructor scribbles notes on his pad. Things like that take my mind from the unwanted excursion we are about to embark upon.
“Ah, there he is,” goes James.
I turn and see FATSO finishing up some peanut butter crackers and wiping his face. “Hey, Teach.”
“What’s up FATSO? Ready for another adventure?” Bud says.
Now many people don’t know FATSO’s fascination with aviation and technology. Guess that’s why I love him so much as we have a lot in common.
As a child, he was always experimenting and loved to turn a wrench in his dad’s garage. He even made a simple robot when he was twelve years old. Tinkering with tools and electronics, he became a whiz with technology where this combination of ingenuity and curiousness greatly helped him in the military.
He teams with a group of engineers to test pilot the newest bells and whistles on fighter jets. That’s one primary reason he flew one of the lead sorties with the Stealth bomber. To this day, he tech-savviness serves him well as he loves to get his hands on the latest devices.
“What have you been playing with lately?” I ask.
He pulls out a small, red shaped device that resembles that of a jump drive. The weirdest part of all, it has a white dragonfly on it.
“See this? This is the AudioQuest’s Dragonfly DAC. It’s a digital-analog converter that makes the music cleaner and clearer.”
“Does it really work?” I ask as I inspect it.
“Does it work? Why don’t you try it when we get on the plane?”
“Gents, I love the conversation, but time waits for no one,” James says.
We board the luxurious jet reluctantly, and quickly ascend into the clear blue sky. James sits next to me, as we discuss other things such as how the Nationals have performed over the past two weeks and how his football team expects to win their division this year.
In the back of my mind, I think; why in the world am I going down here? The journey seems like an eternity as I can sense James’ small talk is to relax me hoping I want the job.
FATSO gets on the intercom, “hey guys; we’ll land in a few minutes. Stay buckled up.”
Then I see land. Man, this is paradise! The bright turquoise waters lap shell the sandy beaches.
“FATSO, instead of doing a straight land, how about a flyover the island? Can we do that?”
“Absolutely. I’ll call it in.”
Feeling the plane make the turn in a full circle, we level out. Peering out of the bay windows, my disposition changes. From a pessimistic attitude to relaxed and easy going mind frame, I enjoy the Sun basking on my face through the oval window.
Beautiful clear blue waters with nothing in sight. I see two dolphins jumping only feet away from a large sailboat. It’s hard to believe there is a ton of shipwrecks lying below St. Thomas’ waters. Slowly, the water changes colors.
James gives us some background on the island. “When Columbus discovered St. Thomas, he found there were two native tribes: the Caribs and Arawak tribes.”
Colby points to the small cruise ships. “Check those out!”
“These cruise ships are going to the Havensight or what some would call the West India Company Dock.”
“You know they are not that small.”
“Oh, no. I can only imagine.”
James tells us a little about the cruise ships. “They come in pre-dawn where tugboats assist them to port.”
“Wonder how many liners can park there?” Bud asks.
“I’ve seen as many as three there with one anchored from the dock sitting in Long Bay with other sailboats.”
“Incredible.” Goes Colby.
James recognizes the cruise ships as he frequently uses them. “That ship is called the Ruby Princess, and that one behind it is the New Regal Princess.”
The runway markers go by like dots as we descend. Touchdown. The Lear jet comes to a halt, and we all pile out.
I take in the surroundings and smell the air. The frangipani perfumes the air, and pastel-colored houses snuggle behind the hills and come with winding hedgerow-bordered roads. Locals enjoy an easygoing lifestyle. No skyscrapers, no smog. The only fun in the Sun. Here people enjoy a leisurely and enjoyable pace.
Looking around, everyone has a smile, and now I hear the sweet Caribbean music play over the loudspeaker. Across the field, passengers disembark off an Air Jamaica plane where they receive hugs.
Looking around, I observe customs agents checking passports. Scanning the area, I see a dune buddy parked next to us.
“Ah. Splendid.” James says aloud.
“What?” I ask him.
“We are early.”
“Can you drive around town?” Colby requests.
“Don’t see why not? It’s actually on the way.”
We all jump in and get a personal tour from James. It feels weird seeing the cars and signs on the left side of the road.
He makes a left on Hospital Gade, and we see a park.
“This is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Park in honor of him when he visited here in 1931.” He slows down as no one is behind him.
“The statues you see are in honor of those that died during the Vietnam War.”
“Hey, dad, can we see some beaches?”
Chucking a little, I know what Colby thinks as he makes this request. Bud exchanges a smile with me. He points out of his favorite beaches.
“Here is Brewer’s Bay,” he states as we pass by.
Tanners soak up the rays while others relax in the water. There’s even a jet skier in the water making donuts. The pure white sand beaches are as noteworthy as Kentucky’s bluegrass, California’s redwood trees or the Appalachian green mountains.
Minutes later we pass by the famous beach, Magen’s Bay and head inland. Through the windy road, we see small colorful buildings and homes. We stop in front of a building three more miles up the street.
Getting out of the buggy, several men look at us across the street. Their hardened expressions on their faces indicate they are not the welcome wagon. Two smoke as they share what appears to be a joint. Then the smell of marijuana runs across my nose.
Smelled that too often in my parking lot at my former occupation.
I try not to stare and slowly return my focus. Initial perception paints a picture of despair. A chain-link fence creates the border of the building. Iron bars cover the first-floor windows that obstruct the view from students inside. No electronic marquee. There are a few rusty air conditioner units in some windows.
Although Colby is with us, he appears to be preoccupied with something.
“Hey, you ok man?”
He comes out of his fog. “Um, yea, just feel like we are being watched. I don’t like it here.”
“You’ll be fine. Stick close to us.” I tell him.
Uneven window blinds now catch my attention as I scan the perimeter of the building. Hairs from the back of my neck and arms raise as I get an eerie feeling. The school resembles one from eons ago. Part of me thinks it’s more like something from the TV series “Ghost Adventures.” Geez.
About a minute later we see FATSO pulling up right behind us. “Sorry, I’m late. Lost track of time,” he says. For the first time, I see FATSO in some shorts and a 17th St. Surf shop t-shirt.
James replies, “no problem. Perfect timing.”
With a smirk on my face, we all turn to the building to inspect it more. We see a man in a blue coral colored shirt, running towards us. He approaches with a man in a brightly colored collar shirt and green shorts. As he stops, I notice he is sweating profusely.
“Hello. How are you?”
He attempts to make a good first impression “Please. Please. You must come in.” He says with a smile.
He introduces himself and speaks slowly, but clearly. A man about forty years old who wears a goatee and like so many islanders has that perpetual smile and charm.
“I am Albert Simon, Mayor of St. Thomas. It is a pleasure to meet all of you.”
He looks at each one of us.
“This is our school Commissioner Aaron Hughes.”
They extend their hands, to shake ours and exchange pleasantries.
“Please, won’t you come in?” Commissioner Hughes asks.
Slowly we walk up the cracked sidewalk. Like home, weeds are growing where one does not want it. Kinda like my own sidewalk.
Curious and yet disturbed, I could not help myself but wonder more about how the students learn here. Marching up the steps, we enter the building, and he opens the door. The Sun’s rays cast the shadow of the iron bars as we sit outside Eastern State Penitentiary.
I can’t help myself but ask, “why are there iron bars and a chain fence?”
Embarrassed, the mayor tells the story. “St. Thomas is not as sweet and innocent as they show in commercials.”
And neither is Richmond.
“In many communities, such as Lionel and the East End, they use schools to mark their turf. Drugs are common as it is a haven to exchange here rather than behind alleys where deals can turn bad.”
“So, the bars and fence are to deter it, right?” Bud interjects.
“Yes, it helps, but it does not stop everything.”
I get another chill of uneasiness.
“Look up, and down the street, there are many buildings boarded up. Homes, hotels, you name it.” Mayor Simon adds.
The truth comes out.
“Like American cities, St. Thomas has two sides. The tourist side has the bright lights and fancy hotels.”
“A facade?” James asks.
“Unfortunately, yes.” Commissioner Hughes answers. “The dark side resembles your south side Chicago, South East L.A., or Detroit.”
“Talk about a war zone,” Colby adds as he sees many buildings needing repairs.
“I hate to admit it, but it is.” The mayor says. “Gone are the days when tourists can travel at night or alone.”
“Tell us more about St. Thomas.” James requests.
“St. Thomas has approximately 51,000 residents that live over thirty-one square miles.”
“What’s the origin of the people here?” I inquire.
“Three-fourths of our residents derive from an African-European heritage. Some of our ancestors were slaves on sugar plantations or indigenous creoles.”
“Interesting, I say. What about the school system?”
Commissioner Hughes enters the conversation. “Only sixty-two percent of our children earn a high school diploma. Thirty-eight percent drop out of school altogether.”
“Wow,” Colby says aloud.
“That is why we struggle with money on our island.”
The office is immediate to the left as we enter the building. Slowly, we walk in. Scanning the office, I see one phone, three computers, a small Xerox machine and a pile of textbooks with some dating to the late 1990s.
I walk next to what appears to be the principal’s secretary desk. She uses Office XP for Dummies as a reference.
Pointing to this book, I can’t help but to interject, “might as well do a cave painting since it’s coming from the prehistoric times.”
Yes, it’s as if I’ve traveled back in time in some dream. Touring the first floor, the dark and damp halls give a sense of paranormal activity. Chairs, desks, and tables line the hallways. I think to myself I should have brought my EVP recorder and EMF meter. I glance at the stairs facing us. Two of the rails are broken. My first overall impression is not favorable.
Stay focused Josiah.
“Our principal had a heart attack, and we have not found a suitable replacement to take the job,” says the Commissioner with his distinct accent.
“How many students go to this school?” Bud asks.
“About twenty-six hundred.”
I could not help myself but empathize with the kids. Continuing to take in the surroundings, I gasp. As the Commissioner talks, I open the door into a classroom.
“Wow. They still use green chalkboards?”
I see a Dell OptiPlex 760 Tower computer in the classroom sitting next to a trashcan used for ceiling leaks. I can tell it is old and lean over to see if a date is on the old dark tower.
Scratched up floors combined with faded paint from the walls portray a situation where all children should not go through. This creepy and haunted like building saddens me.
Bud says as he looks around, “I’m glad American schools are not like this.”
I inform him, “you will see more schools like this than you imagine. This is a huge problem in rural towns and even in some big cities like Detroit.”
Bud shakes his head in disbelief. Trying to understand a little more I express an opinion to the mayor.
“I would have expected a vibrant and colorful building, full of culture and pride that excites the students.”
He shrugs his shoulders. James shifts gears on us by starting a different conversation.
“Mr. Mayor, as we discussed on the phone, do you think if the school was modern and full of opportunity, would that change the island?”
I could tell he was processing the question. “Over time? Yes.”
“How so?” James asks.
“The youth get attached to gangs and crime early in their lives. If we can only shut down the pipeline and convert or expel their leaders, then it will give us hope. The drug money in a place of unemployment breeds gangs and violence.”
“Interesting. But why hasn’t anyone started gang initiatives before?”
Commissioner Hughes replies. “We don’t have the funds or manpower to make it happen. St. Thomas is so infested that it affects more than what people want to admit. We depend on tourism so much for our economy. If we can have other places for revenue, it will change the whole island.”
“So, if someone were to help work on the improving the school, would it enable you to focus on the other areas of the city?” James asks.
The mayor’s eyes light up. “Yes, it would help greatly.”
“I see.” James returns.
“Well—what do you think?” As the mayor turns around.
“I don’t know. What exactly do you mean?” I play dumb to avoid answering.
“Where do you think are places we can help improve our education?” Asks the mayor.
James’ eyes get more prominent as he tries to tell the mayor with nonverbal hints to stop.
I think for a moment. “I have ideas but want to hold them for the moment.”
Looking perplexed, the mayor then says, “ok, then why don’t I show you where our children live.”
Whew! That was close.
Walking out of the school, it’s obvious that students are not getting a quality education. Meanwhile, I see Commissioner Hughes and James hold a quiet conversation as we walk down towards the vehicles.
Curious to know their intents, I shun away as I fear their conversation centers on me.
Climbing back into the dune buggy, James turns on the engine. The scenery changes from pristine beachfront property to busy streets leading into the center of a marketplace. Hundreds of people shuffle the sidewalks as hustlers work their businesses.
Pulling up next to us, he says, “we will go past the vendors and into one neighborhood. A lot of our children live there.”
Honking the horn and carefully maneuvering past the townspeople, we travel through an alley lined up with trash bags. Litter covers the drains, and a horrific smell emerges from the waste.
He stops his car and follows his lead, “we will now walk from here.”
The mayor continues the tour. “The average salary for working families barely reaches $35,000. If it weren’t for the tourism industry, we would have nothing. Most families don’t even come close to earning this.”
I feel sorry for these children. Though they have a beautiful island, poverty is poverty. They grow up in poverty-stricken areas just as bad if not worse than our own cities. Locals live without basics such as air conditioning, electricity, and a car. Some homes are made of sheet metal, wood, rope, and trees that represent a hard lifestyle.
The beautiful palm trees and serene waters cannot hide the horrid conditions. There is no way out but to use drugs, gangs, and crime.
As we walk further from the buggies, families line up on their porches as the residents see who comes to their side of town.
Then one little girl, dressed in a blue and white dress, walks up to us. “No, Mia,” yells the mother.
She wraps her arms around her child and looks up at me. “I’m sorry mon, she means you no harm.”
I stoop down and smile. Her big brown eyes gaze at my face. She gently reaches up for my hair and touches it to feel the texture.
Bud, next to me, stoops down to look at her. “She likes my red hair.”
The child exchanges a smile and looks at her mom assuring her it is all right. Then without moment’s notice, the rest of the kids race towards us.
In the sea of colors, the children smile and laugh with us. I could not help myself as I pick one up and hold her in my arms. Putting her down, I hand her an ink pen out of my pocket.
She gives me a big bear hug and says, “mèsi.” (thank you)
As I let her down, James confesses something. “I’ve been studying this for a long time.” He pauses to find the right words. “If America doesn’t change our education system, we will soon be in a similar position.”
I remain silent even though he is one hundred percent correct.
“Think about this for a minute. The canary in the cage for America is St. Thomas. What we do here can be applied across the nation.”
“Yes! Yes!” Goes the commissioner.
“Gives kids hope. Improves the economy as there are so many similarities.” Mayor Simon adds.
James resumes. “The poverty rates are comparable, youth violence is everywhere, economic failure at every junction. There are just not enough resources, and when you combine this with the dispirited teachers, it leaves kids with little hope.”
Hearing his words echo in my ears, James continues to be spot on in his statement. Scanning the street, I see a wave of teenagers on the playground. Some play hopscotch while others are playing a pickup baseball game.
“Hey, kids,” Hughes says.
They all recognize him from the visits to the schools.
“Come on over here mon and talk to my new friends.”
A sea of blue and white uniforms runs towards us. We exchange hellos.
The mayor asked the boys, “what do you think of school?”
One kid says in broken English, “sucks. School leak and smell bad.”
My mind immediately goes back to the smells inside the building.
Other chimes in, “The teachers try their best, but they do not know the information and do not give us what we need.”
Hughes blushes as she knows what the children speak is the truth.
James grasps for his unshaved whiskers and asks, “do students behave?”
The kids laugh. “Sometimes. There are some that do not want to be in school.”
Note to self: more professional development in student engagement, and classroom management.
Realizing it is embarrassing for both men, we conclude this part of the tour and thank them for talking with us.
Walking back to our parked buggies, we see a tall, round belly man with a white beard approach us. He wears a large gold cross on his black t-shirt and carries a Bible in his right hand.
“Ah, brother.” Hughes points and embraces the stranger in a hug.
“How are you, my brother?”
“Fine. It’s nice to see you.”
The man then turns to us.
“Hello, my friend.” The mayor says.
“How you doing, mon?” Replies the man.
“Are these the people you are talking about that will help us with our schools?”
James feels mortified as he did not want everyone to know his plans. Pausing and not knowing what to say, the man introduces himself.
“I am Rev. Amani, and I am the pastor of the church you see just down the road. It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is ours,” James calls back. “My name is James, and this is my son Colby. These are my friends Bud and Josiah.”
After shaking our hands, the mayor gives us insight on Rev. Amani.
Mayor Simons boasts, “if you want to encounter someone that knows the island and the people, then look no further. Rev. Amani does more than what people think he does. Outside of the church, he works with children faithfully.”
The Reverend begins his story.
“Typically, I start by visiting the sick children. I sit with them and share stories of our island and tell them a few Bible stories.”
I like this guy. Very genuine.
“We break for lunch, and after that, we go outside and play games.”
Bud taps me on my shoulder.
Rev. Amani continues. “I’m determined to keep the peace between the local vilaj and win them over to Christ.”
Bud wants to know more. “What kind of issues do you see here?”
“Organized crime. There are multiple gangs here always trying to take each other’s turf. I heard you already met the acquaintance of one of them when you were in Haiti.”
I could not help myself. “Omar?”
Stunned at how a stranger knows a local, Rev. Amani wants to learn more. “How do you know him?”
“Let’s say we had a run in not too long ago?”
“You know the man is evil.”
“Yep, sure do. Can’t seem to get away from him.”
Rev. Amani makes references without making it obvious.
“You see those two guys over there; they work for him. They report back on anything.”
“Then how do you stop him?”
“He knows I want nothing of his or his counterparts, and if he sees me working, he usually leaves me alone, but for my brother, Aaron, that is another story. This villain continues to trouble him through the pupils.”
Looking at his watch, James knows it’s time to wrap it up. “We appreciate your time, Mr. Mayor and Commissioner Hughes.”
Walking back to the buggy, the mayor thanks us for coming.
“Come back soon. May God bless you for a safe journey,” says Rev. Amani.
Sitting down in the back seat, James says. “Let’s head on back home.”
Driving by Smith Bay Beach, no one speaks. It seems that Bud, James, and Colby saw a side of life I’ve seen too often. James carries a sad expression on his face. I’m staying quiet as I just want to hurry and go home as it reminds me of the students in my former school.
One by one, we all get back on FATSO’s plane back home. After a quick lift off, I turn my head; I see Colby dozing. That explains why he was quiet. Our day in St. Thomas has made an impression.
James sees an opportunity and moves next to me. He can tell that what I witnessed bothers me.
“Well, what do you think?”
“You can’t help but feel horrible for them.”
“I know.” James concurs.
“Americans have so much to give to our children, and they do not take advantage of it. Too many parents don’t interact with their schools, and our society ignores the issues.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
I continue. “Bureaucrats assure the status quo.”
Bud now sits down with us.
I add, “at least in St. Thomas, you can tell that most want a better situation and do not mind working for it. They genuinely seem grateful for any opportunity.”
“You’re right, Josiah. St. Thomas just does not have the resources which is half the battle.” He continues, “I remember reading in one report from the U.S. Workforce that a seventy percent of human resource personnel interviewed insists that their employees possess professionalism and show a strong work ethic.”
In the back of my mind, I can see what my friends say through my own experiences.
“The people here want it. A better society. A better education. A better future for their children.”
Bud agrees. “I know. I wish they have more to give to the kids.”
Then I open my big mouth. “They can. But it starts with finding a leader. The right leader.”
Should have kept my mouth shut.
James looks directly at me in silence. I am afraid that what I said may be misconstrued.
He picks up the conversation. “My immediate thoughts are three ideas. First, force the bad guys into the shadows. Light it up. Second, intercept the kids on the street with better options. Third, revolutionize their schools and inspire the community.” Knowing he hit his point home, he leaves grabs a Coke from the galley.
As I sit in my seat, guilt kicks in as an internal battle takes place.
Part of me wants to go there and become the principal, but I still cannot shake off the elite educational clown show.
I can’t do it. I can’t.
Yet—St. Thomas possesses such great beauty and weather. It serves as a shocking backdrop for the horror of the schools, so out of character with the people. It is the canary in the cage for America.
Unsure of how to shake off the conflict, I consider all options without interruptions for the next two hours. Then James sits down next to me and rekindles the conversation.
He smiles at me. “You know, I’ve seen you work for years as an educator and know you have a gift for working with kids.” I look out of the window but listen.
“Look at what you have done for Colby, and you didn’t even teach him.”
Now I shrug my shoulders.
James brings his pitch. “I’m at the point of my life where it is more important to help others than to help myself.”
Trying to avoid the conversation altogether, I look out of the window again. But against my wishes, I still listen to what he says.
“That’s why I will transform a community and the only way to do this is through the schools.”
Then something sparks my interest to listen more. Is he going in a different direction than I thought? I nudge my ear closer as the humming of the jet engines distract me.
He adds. “What I just witnessed is something that no child should go through. That’s why I will rebuild that school for them.”
I breathe a sigh of relief as he did not mention me. Pausing momentarily and carefully measuring his next words, James knows this is the make or break point.
“And I want you to become the principal.”
The moment I was dreading all trip. Oh no.
“Me? Why me?”
“Because you have what it takes to ensure its success.”
Great reluctance consumes my mind. “I just can’t do it.’
“Why?” James insists.
I counter. “I could come and assist them with professional developments or even some consulting, but I will not be their principal.”
James refuses to take no for an answer. “I’ll pay for your salary plus retirement, your home, any trip you want to take back to the states, anything.”
“They need you—”
I cut him off in midsentence. “I know, but I just can’t.”
“More than what you know and will accept.”
I take a deep breath and reflect the offer on the table.
“Any sane person would jump on the opportunity, but I feel like I am not the one for the job. At least not now.”
“You understand that I’m not asking you to change your job or your dream.”
“It’s not my dream anymore.” I look around to see if Bud can bail me out but see he and Colby are out cold.
“Being a principal was placed in your path.”
Resonating with his words, I zone out and look at the floor.
“I’m just asking you to change the location where you will do it.”
Struggling with my words, I ponder on my next words as I don’t want to hurt his feelings. “James—I can’t.”
With a sad expression, James turns away and says, “I understand. Won’t bring it up again.”
Recognizing that a large boulder is off of me, I felt as if I dodged a bullet. But I let my best friend down.
I’m torn between both worlds as the guilt weighs heavy on my heart.
FATSO lets us know we are close to landing and to make sure we stay buckled up. Thank God, the next ten minutes zoom by, and I see the airport. As we disembark and return to the estate, I thank James for the trip and hop into my truck. Not wanting to engage in any more conversation, I transition to my truck quickly.
Cranking the engine, James approaches me. He puts his hands on the window and says, “I don’t want you to be mad at me for making you feel uncomfortable.”
I put the transmission in gear.
“You’ve known me for too long. I’m not mad at you.”
“Thank you,” I say feeling slightly better. “I don’t feel like I’m ready to make that jump again.”
James attempts to emphasize his point with me. “But don’t you want to be a part of something special?”
Here we go again.
“Somewhere without clowns telling you how to run your school?”
I move my truck slightly as a subtle hint.
“This would be a pilot for our entire country to see. Journalists from all over the world will be invited to come and cover its progress.”
I shake my head politely.
“We will be transparent. We will reinvent how America designs and delivers education.”
I put on my glasses to send another obvious clue.
“Think about that and quit feeling sorry for yourself.”
The words ring in my ears, but I can’t shake them off. Then he gives me one last piece of advice.
“Always remember, go where you feel you can help the most.”
Dodging another bullet, I see a way out. “I will and thanks again for the trip.”
I exchange a smile with James and roll up my window. Setting the cruise control my thoughts wander on the trip home.
The internal conflict tears me apart on the inside. Having this bitterness inside me and quitting a job where I was not appreciated continues to enrage me. Ever since I left, I can’t help myself but to be bitter about that man. How Omar and his colleagues are blocking the future for so many kids is just plain wrong.
I cannot believe how much of an impression St. Thomas left on me. I now hope I can return my focus to finding a new job and stop second guessing myself. Getting home around six I catch up on some yard work. Cutting the grass and giving it a good trim ends my mentally exhausting day—or at least I thought it did.
Later that evening, Bud comes on over, unexpectedly. We crack open suds. After downing a few, we talk about the school.
Unsure if guilt sets back in or if it destiny, I open Pandora’s box. “I’m still dumbfounded at how weak the school’s condition is compared to the rest of the island.”
Bud strikes a nerve. “What you are afraid of Josiah?”
Taken back from the comment, I was not sure if the alcohol enhanced the comment.
Feeling defensive, I reply. “Can I be honest with you? I’m worried about failing again. I’ve never failed before, and it bothers me.”
“How did you fail?”
“I left those kids instead of fighting for my job and my school.”
“You were forced out.” Bud notions.
“I was afraid to fight for what I believed in.” Pointing to my chest.
Bud changes tactics. “So, what you’ve learned in Green Beret training and all of those fights we were in doesn’t matter.”
Please don’t go there. “You’re destined to fail in life, and no matter what you say or do, sometimes you have to know when to walk away.”
I replay the meeting with Bozo.
Bud interjects. “You only fail when you stop trying.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “That’s what I’m not saying.”
“Well, that is what you are implying.”
“You’re quitting, and basically, you failed at what you care about the most.”
Anger takes over.
Bud counters and doesn’t let me have a word. “This is life or death to these kids. If schools don’t give them a quality education, we lose. The same thing will happen again unless you go down there and help that school. So, you can sulk all you want to but the reality is that they need you. You have nothing to lose at all. Swallow your pride, your fear and get to it. Fight for those where you know you will win.”
I sharply ask, “whose side are you on Bud?”
“No one’s side. You know me—I will say what I think is right.”
I stand up and walk to my kitchen.
“You’ve known me for years, and I will not change today.”
Infuriated at him, I could not take it any longer. “Know what; you need to leave.”
He knew he made his point. Even if it cost me my friend.
“Might as well. Nothing is going on here at all except for some excuses and a coward.”
Bud grabs his hat and leaves quietly. I walk with him to the door. He turns unexpectedly.
“If you change your mind, I will go with you.”
Wham. I slam the door. Enraged about the evening, I go to my recliner. I sit here and stew.
Flipping the remote for a show to preoccupy my mind, it dawns on what he said. All along I’ve feared something I know is right.
Do I have the guts to begin anew? Can I start a new fight in a place so unstructured? I don’t know if I have what it takes to do it again.
Uneasy at what I saw and now in the conversation that just transpired, I find myself restless. The echoes of the trip and conversation still haunt me. Seeing the smiles on the children’s face, the young girl I picked up and the smell of poverty simmers in my subconsciousness.
Tossing and turning over, grasping for the covers and then ripping them off, I finally drift off to sleep.
Memories of the bar fight, Omar, Sheets, the catatonic school board, Colby, James, FATSO and Bud now crowd into my dreams. I will not commit to something nor will I be a part of education anymore.
I’m can’t and I won’t.
The next morning, I slowly open my eyes. 7:21. Ugh.
I struggle to get out of bed. Gather my senses, I open the blinds and see the sun’s reflection on my truck.
Pouring a cup of coffee, I do something I rarely do; sit down and watch the morning news. Taking my first sip, I get comfortable in my recliner. I see the stack of cans on the table with my cell. I contemplate calling Bud.
“And this just in our newsroom. Two teens shot in a gang-related incident. More details at noon.”
The news ticker scrolls what I heard. Disgusted as I hear only negativity, I turn off the news as it shows uninspiring information. Looking around, I realize that I have no agenda and hit the gym.
Driving on Broad St., I can’t believe what I see ahead.
I pull up next to my old executive director in his blue Prius. The elusive mosquito. Little does he know I am watching him as he dances and sings in his seat.
He becomes startled as he turns in my direction. I smile. Without thinking, I flip him off. He turns back towards the light and turns three shades red. Jerk.
Savoring the moment, I regroup my focus. Going down the road, I turn into a parking lot where I observe a mother patiently waiting with her two little children for the bus. It appears as if they have been waiting for a long time as her face tells the story of how she wishes they were already gone. Her appearance tells of a hard life. The woman in torn jeans, black Adidas hat, and faded shirt ends her call. Tears flow from her face. She wipes them with her sleeve.
Unable to get out of the truck, I watch helplessly. Moments later, the bus finally comes and picks the family up. Thinking to myself, the city bus is notoriously late.
Entering the gym, I attempt to get the news and trip off my mind. Going to the bench press, I put on my buds and crank up my workout playlist. Pumping iron makes me regain my composure. Completing the circuit of bench press, incline bench press, curls, triceps, biceps and running for five miles on the treadmill, I call it a day.
Getting home around noon, I turn back on the tube as the morning news still haunts me. It remains on the channel I had cut off earlier.
“And now we’re getting an update on the shooting,” catches my ear.
Losing my surrounding, I key in expecting the worst. Oh no. The news is not good. I recognize Laurel Street from which the reporter tells her story. She then turns to the family as they are in Monroe Park.
One mother speaks. “I— I can’t believe he’s gone,” as the camera fades away to let the viewers see her shirt with a photo of her son but I can’t recall the face.
It pans back to the reporter. “The two teens died here in a gang-related gunfight last night.”
I recognize the mother and sisters but still can’t remember where I’ve seen them. The next moments did not prepare me for what I dread. The news now shows photos of the children, and I realize that they were two of my former students. Overwhelmed with emotions, I collapse into my chair.
Turning the TV up, my worst fears are confirmed. Oh, my God—Jamal and Akeem.
Listening to the entire report mesmerized, I frantically flip channels to see if more developments were given on other stations and just my luck, the other segments end simultaneously. Horrified and stunned, I sit emotionless, zoned out and in disbelief.
It can’t be. I saw the boys not too long ago.
Having flashbacks of the boys, I can see them laughing in the cafeteria. Jamal’s always had a smile on him and wore that stupid Chicago Bulls hat that drove me nuts while his brother kept sagging. I laugh a little as I remember the time when he walked, he had to hold his Dickie pants from falling to the ground.
Reminiscing about my favorite moments with them, I struggle with their deaths. They died too soon and had so much potential. The denial changes to guilt as the pain from the reality sets in.
Knowing the boys, the way I did, I knew I should have done more for them at the end of the year. Even though I spoke with them regularly, I should have got them paired up with a mentor or at least got them in a sport. In the bottom of my heart, their deaths were attributed there was no father figure in their lives.
Damn it; I should have done more.
As the guilt stabs my heart, chills now go up and down my spine. Goosebumps rise from my forearms as I struggle to contain my emotions.
Turning off the TV, I sit in silence and hear the clock ticking in the kitchen where I receive a premonition as my inner spirit calls. One that reminds me I was destined for this profession. At this moment, I know I must return to education. I get up and go into the kitchen.
Pouring black gold into my favorite Star Wars mug, I take a sip. Reaching for the laptop, I ponder on my next steps. Setting the computer on the glass table, I look out of the kitchen window as it warms up. Mixed emotions set in. Some angry, some determined. I open the Word document I worked on for years and retrieve the ten-point plan.
The clicking of the keys takes over the silence of the room. Finding comfort in updating the plan, I stop and briefly smile at the updates. As the cursor blinks on the screen, my answer comes. Looking up and taking another sip of coffee, I ponder on the future. It had been the first time I had done so in a while.
Reflecting on my career, I realize I have come to a junction that defines my life. I close my eyes to pray for this life-changing decision.
Dear Lord, I know that I am here and am in turmoil. Help guide me through to the right decision, so I can serve you best. In Jesus name, Amen.
Slowly reopening my eyes, I take a deep breath. Hearing the clock tick the day away, a new feeling arrives where a sense of calmness overcomes me as I now have my answer. I pick up the phone and place a call.
“Is the offer still on the table?” I ask anxiously.
“Yea. What took you so long?” James replies.
Taking a breath and reaffirming myself, I state, “just needed to clear my mind. I want it. It’s where I need to be.”
“What made you decide this?”
“Let’s just say, I know where I need to be.”
Listening anxiously to the other end for clues, I wait for an answer.
“Then it’s yours. Come over, and we can discuss a little more.”
Relieved and appreciative, I confirm the decision.
“Sounds good. Thanks so much.”
My emotions turn to enthusiasm. Grabbing a pen and pad, the laptop, another cup of coffee, and the keys, I sprint out the door.
The warm sun basks on my face as I turn up the radio. Enjoying my favorite tunes while my mind drifts away into another world, I can’t wait to begin the plan.
I pull up to the gate. The guard immediately waves me through, and I drive up. Gathering my belongings, I walk up to the door and use my elbow to ring the bell.
“Welcome. Come in!”
“Let me take these from you,” as he grabs my computer. “We can work in my office.”
“Sounds good. Thanks.”
“But first, let’s go into the kitchen and grab a bite.”
Entering the kitchen, I find my Godson sitting on the island reading the newspaper. Grinning from ear to ear, I am elated to see Colby again. He appears to be in good spirits.
“What’s up Josiah?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” As I wink at him. “How ya feeling?”
“Much better. The bruising is almost gone, and I can wake up without feeling sore.” Looking him over the slight discoloration of purple and faded yellow speckle his face and arms.
Turning towards the fruit stand, I reach for an apple and banana.
James turns to ask. “Why the change of heart?”
I shrug my shoulders. “Can’t describe it. I know this is where I’m supposed to be.”
James listens as I tell the story of the last two hours.
“Two of my former students were murdered yesterday — a big wake-up call.”
“And—” James asks curiously.
“That’s when it hit me I am doing exactly what others are doing.”
“What’s that?” He asks.
“Making excuses and denying that the problem exists.”
James gets up and crosses his arms. “I see.”
“I kept telling myself that they would be all right, but they weren’t,” as I pause. “And I could have saved them.” The pain of losing a loved one sets in again and I replay a conversation with the boys.
James puts his hand on my shoulder, and I look up to him. “That’s why you are here now. To help others know what you know so that this won’t happen again.”
The soft voice in my heart speaks and affirms that I am here making the right decision. Understanding what James says we return to the office and set up.
James knows I got the reassurance I needed and changes gears. “Come on. Let’s get the elephant out of the room. How much did you make as a principal?”
Even though he is my best friend, we’ve never discussed finances, and his question throws me off. But I answer.
Within a blink of an eye, he replies. “Why don’t we make it $250,000 plus benefits?”
Taken back by the generous offer, I can tell he has more to say.
“But before we go any further, I establishing conditions.”
I grab a sheet of paper and prepare to take notes. “Ok, shoot.”
“First, I want you completely honest with me at all times.”
“Next, you can assemble your staff anyway you want to do it.”
Unexpecting the last request, I scribble it down. Questions now enter my mind a mile a minute.
“Third, I all students will graduate. They will go to college, go to work or enlist in the military.”
Knowing the conditions were fair and doable we shake hands. “You got yourself a deal.”
“Good. Then it’s settled.” The doorbell rings.
Stepping out the office, James yells out, “Hey Colby—”
“Got it, dad.”
Moments later. “Dad it’s for you.”
“Tell him to come on back.” Wondering who else he invited, my focus breaks temporarily. Colby stops at the entrance to the office as my old friend, Bud, enters first.
Bud approaches me, takes his cap off and extends his hand. “Sorry about last night.”
“About what? You were trying to get me to see the bigger picture.” Relief comes as we make amends.
“I am giving you my honest opinion. No worries.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. How did you know I was here?”
Colby answers. “I texted him.” I give Colby a stare. “What? You need each other.”
His heart is in the right place. “Thanks, Colby.”
He returns a smile. Returning my focus, I feel giddy as I realize I’m getting paid like I’m a CEO. Now committed more than ever, I am ecstatic to learn more about his idea. Picking up the pen and placing it on the paper, I fire away from the questions that have loomed.
“Ok, what about a budget?” I ask carefully.
James shows a side of him I have never seen before. His posture displays a genuine openness, and facial expressions match his attitude.
“Do not worry about a budget.”
Stunned at those last words, I wanted a double take. “Seriously?”
“Yes! Get the best teachers, the best supplies, renovate the school anyway you want and make it happen. I know that you will not take advantage.”
The atmosphere in the room now reminds me of a press conference where I am the center of attention. “Josiah, this your school, your show.”
Jotting down ideas, I draw a circle. “Wow! This is unbelievable.” Looking back up at everyone, I blurt out. “I need a support team outside of the administrators.”
I turn to my friend. “Bud, you in?”
He grabs a pen and a sheet of paper off the desk. “You know it. Somebody has to watch your six.”
Colby sits there, feeling the synergy and blurts out, “I want to come.”
Unsure if he is able, I double check with his father. His father nods his head.
“Are you ready to come?” I ask as I gauge his disposition.
“Yes, the doctors say I am. I am still a little sore and stiff, but otherwise ok. I’m pretty sure I can finish my treatment anywhere.”
Not wanting to take any chances of a full recovery, I reply with a condition myself. “Only if your therapist, Dr. Browne, or one of her associates come.”
James pats my shoulder, “thank you, Josiah.”
“Good. But if I see or hear of you starting back up, you’re done.”
“I understand. Trust me; I won’t let you down,” Colby reaffirms in a matter-of-fact tone.
There is one person left I have not spoken about their part. “James?”
“I will only be available limitedly.”
Puzzled at my peer’s response, I could not leave it there. “Really. Why?”
“Eleanor has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and I need to be here to take care of her. So, I’ll man the command center.”
Colby’s mouth opens in shock, “dad, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you need to take care of yourself. Josiah and Bud will be there to support you.”
Sensing tenseness is quickly depleting the oxygen in the room, I regain our focus.
“Bud, I want you to oversee the building our new school. Coordinate with James on a contractor who will work with us and will you contact the mayor today to find a suitable place and what permits we need to get for the building.” Bud scribbles away. “I want the school to have dorms.”
James says, “are we building new? Where? Retrofit? A hotel?”
“Not sure yet, truthfully?”
James adds, “I have a friend who owns Stronghouse Construction in St. Thomas and will get you his number.”
“I could also buy the Frenchman’s Reef, and we could convert it to a residential school.”
Bud agrees. “Cool beans. I will also find the best schools in America and incorporate their strengths and combine them with our idea.”
“Ok, works for me,” I reply.
Bud then asks another good question. “Have you heard of any schools, I might want to look at to get some ideas?”
Looking up, it hits me. “Yes, check out the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).”
“Ok. Will do.” Then another notion comes. “Hey, I got another idea. Let’s get FATSO to assist us with technology. James, that ok with you?”
“Sure, he can do it when he is not flying.”
“Sweet. Bud, can you call him and let him know?”
Thinking of other areas to begin the work, I come up with another important task. “Colby, I need to do a couple of things.”
“Ok, what is it?”
“First, do a little research on what you think will be a great 21st Century school. Find schools that have incredible features.” He reaches for a post-it. “Note them and help me incorporate them into our facility. Once we think we have found the essential elements, we will get with Bud and FATSO and merge them into the plans.”
He stops writing and glances at me with no expression. “I’m not exactly sure what you mean.” looking perplexed.
Pausing for a moment, I re-ask. “If you design a school that would be fun, and exciting, what would that look like? What some key components that kids should see that draw them to learning?”
Still seeing uncertainty, I grasp for more ideas. “Ah.” Then it hits me. I go to James’ computer and log in. Holding my pointer finger up, “Hold on, as I look at the screen.”
Going to my cloud, I retrieve the ten-point plan that includes the essence of the question. Printing off a single copy, I hand it to Colby.
Colby reflects. “Hmm, it should be fresh, colorful, and full of energy.”
My eyes grow wider. “That’s it. That’s exactly what I want our school to have. Continue to think on that level.” I reply happily.
Transitioning to the next idea, James returns to Colby for one last statement. “One more thing. You are still attending college while you work.”
While scouring the Internet for more ideas, James keeps pace with the importance of him attending school. “Set the example for our students. The University of St. Thomas is only three miles from Charlotte Amalie.” James says.
“Your dad is right, Colby. This is not an option. You will attend school or not go at all.”
With the team having their first homework, I tell them my next steps.
“I will look for highly qualified staff. We’ll have a faculty that possesses unique characteristics in their personality and can plan and deliver relevant lessons that make students craving for more. These professionals will allow their classes to explore, research, reflect that will drive their student’s education.”
Bud brings up a good question. “What about the existing teachers working in the school now?”
“Their professional development will occur side by side with the new staff and will be a part of the overall plan we develop.” I acknowledge.
James breathes easier. “Good, I don’t want to lose their expertise nor set the precedence we are taking over. Our initiative must resemble that of support or resource.”
Knowing our opening meeting is a success, I wrap up. Bud looks perplexed as he picks up the recent print out. “What’s exactly is this?”
“This is what I call the ten-point plan. It is what I think what every school should have.” I print off a copy for everyone else. “Look at it as you work on your areas.”
They all scan it. “Questions?”
Everyone shakes their head no, and I look at my watch. “Ok. It’s 2:37. Let’s spread out rather than being here confined to one computer. Why don’t we meet back here tonight at 8:30 to discuss what we’ve found? We must have this school ready as soon as possible.”
We adjourn, and everyone leaves with assignments in hand. As the team walks out of the room, I realize we forgot something important. Very important.
Turning to my benefactor, “I guess we will use the same school at St. Thomas?”
Everyone stops and listens in. James answers. “No, I will build you a new school. These kids need to look forward to something. Something that will not only inspire them but make the community proud.”
Bud and Colby leave the room, and I ask one more question to James.
“Then when will we begin?”
“I want everything ready as soon as possible. That is why Bud and Colby are here.”
“Thanks, they will be an immense help.”
“You know you cannot do everything yourself and by having Bud and Colby there allows you to see the big picture and get there quicker.”
James brings up an excellent point. Time to create the big picture, but first my stomach tells me to take a break.
Escaping my new occupation momentarily, I drive to my favorite Charlottesville Italian neighborhood joint, Vivace, I grab the Alla Parmigiana with a side salad. I sit down at the bar facing the TV where I enjoy watching ESPN. Memorized in the bliss of sports, I let my guard down. Halfway through the lunch bell, a group of ladies come in and sit behind me where I eavesdrop on their initial small talk. They wear their Maroon and White Binford Middle School shirts. I can’t help myself but overhear some of their conversations. Thankfully, they don’t recognize me.
“Can you imagine us doing some of those ridiculous strategies?” One exclaims.
Another one chimes right in, “I know, this is a complete waste of time.”
“We have to endure the rest of the afternoon with this torture.” A third teacher responds.
“I’d like to see him teach our school.” Then one of them changes their voice in a manly voice with a distinguishable squeak.
“I promise you that by using a foldable in every chapter and copy key terms, students will increase their likelihood of keeping their material.”
He’s back—. They described Bozo the Clown to a tee and didn’t even mention his name. What a putz. These poor teachers must listen to his meaningless drivel all the way up here on a summer day they are off.
One of them adds, “can you believe he did magic tricks to begin the presentation?”
They all giggle loud. They then shift their conversation to discuss the problems of education and how impossible it is to use the presentation as many obstacles interfere with its ability to function.
“How in the world do they expect me to do this meaningless activity? Our principal mandates we must teach the material the same as the other classes. I mean, come on.”
Another chime in. “We need to have the flexibility to review our data and center our studies around the students’ weaknesses.”
Their echoes still haunt me. It only reminds me that every teacher experiences the horrors of our broken system. One can’t help but feel their misery as they are trapped. They strive to do the best they can with what they got.
Placing my card in my wallet and rising, it hits me. That’s it. What I am missing is the most crucial piece of the puzzle. I cannot plan a school unless we have a plan or vision in place that identifies both the problems and solutions.
Speeding back to the mansion, I race back before I lose my train of thought. Settling into the groove again, I crack open the laptop and grab my notepad. I retrieve my folder from the cloud.
As the blinking cursor awaits my command, I stare intensely. There it is. The ten-point plan. I reread the ideas already down on paper one by one.
The Ten-Point Plan
- Teachers and students return to the basics.
- Fuse interdisciplinary learning that creates critical thinking, and project-based learning evaluated with a rubric.
- Center the school around STEM.
- Minimize rote learning and eliminate standardized tests.
- Give educators the flexibility to choose their professional development based on their needs and interests.
- Businesses provide input on curriculum development and implementation.
- Ensure success by building in opportunities for students inside and outside of the classroom to enrich their academic and personal skill sets.
- Wrap career readiness and exploration in every lesson.
- Respect all students by building a strong rapport.
- Don’t become stagnant. Continue to be fluid and improve.
Pausing after rereading these points, I type a few more that must be embedded into the original document.
- Develop a specific action plan for every student and teacher. Review three times yearly.
- Discover what excites every student.
- Provide all children with an advisor and a big brother/sister.
- The depth of subject matter is more important than breadth.
- Continue to assist and mentor students after graduation.
- Build success inside and outside the classroom by improving the quality of life at their homes.
- Teach the way you would like to be taught.
- Center a child’s education in English (speaking and grammar), mathematics, and Career and Technical Education (CTE).
- Create an expeditious process to fire poor educators.
- Hold negligent parents accountable for their child’s education and behavior.
- Create a system of incentives rather than using punitive means.
- Enforce proper English inside and outside the classroom.
- Those who bully and bystanders who encourage bullying will be reprimanded severely.
This list identifies the critical issues surrounding education. From teacher inadequacies, and bored students, to meaningless professional development, these points offer hope to resolving these day-to-day problems schools face today.
Knowing the importance of describing the teacher we need, I found a report from the American Management Association and Partnership that stresses America’s future workforce needs 21st Century skills.
The report reveals that every student needs the three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic, and need much more. Today’s students must also possess critical thinking, communication skills, collaboration, and creativity to ensure the company’s success for future growth.
Tapping my pen on the notepad, I ponder.
Then it hits me.
The staff must help develop and implement the ten points, but first, I must have the right team onboard.
No matter how I slice it, force feeding the points does not allow the plan to take root. Instead, we must own it from the beginning, continually refine it, and make shared accountability.
For some, this notion will be difficult. For others, they will struggle in identifying what it looks like and how to capture it. Regardless of where they are, our team must get away from Common Core, No Child Left Behind and other forms of standardized initiatives.
Part of America’s education system revolves around the concept that our society cans education and truthfully, it does not fit everyone. My premonition tells me that selling this part will be easy.
They will appreciate that we are progressing beyond the testing era and focusing on the student as an individual, not a number. Individual plans for every student that hinges on the teacher’s strength.
That’s it. That’s how you get buy-in from staff.
Empower them to adjust the framework and develop it the right way. Provide the staff with the tools and resources to differentiate the delivery of a lesson, so students gain the knowledge from multiple intelligences.
Sliding the pad on the desk, I have hit the exclamation point.
What I have written is fresh, innovative and is desperately needed. Now it’s time to share the message with the leadership team so we can build on this framework.
But will they buy into it?
Will they see what I see?