The sun was shining brilliantly on that Saturday in February 2008. It took just a bit of the chill out of the air, and I wondered what might happen on Monday morning when I entered my classroom at Riverside Elementary School (formerly school #44 in Indianapolis Public Schools). I felt quite numb as I listlessly stared out the window at the old Crawford’s Bakery & Deli on 16th Street and Capitol Avenue in Indianapolis.
I was sitting across the table from my closest friend, Haneefah Khaaliq (you can follow her 2022 campaign for U.S. Senate here). We were both in our first year serving as classroom teachers and assigned to teach second grade. We had an automatic connection and seemed to thrive off one another’s energy. And as I type this story, I can assuredly say I would not have survived year one without her.
Just a week earlier I found myself up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, getting dressed to attend the wake for one of my student’s fathers who had just died. As I scurried around my studio apartment that sat catty-corner from Shortridge (middle school at the time), I got a text message from one of my colleagues at Riverside. He told me I may want to turn on the news. As I watched the details unfold, I remember my knees hitting the old wooden floorboards of my apartment. If you’ve ever received news that breaks you one bone at a time, you know how tumultuous it is to cry out to the Creator and in pure agony ask why.
One of our second-grade students from my classroom had been murdered. Karissa was shot in the head through the picture window of her home. I vividly remember hugging her mother beside her casket and not realizing at the time that I didn’t have to put on a brave face and push my emotions down. The “fixer” in me told myself I absolutely had to be strong for the 25 other second graders who just wanted to know where their classmate was. “Is she looking down on us from heaven?” “Where do people go when they die, Miss G.?” “Why did this happen?” I was practically still a kid myself, and I’m still unsure how I survived the rest of the school year if not for the comunidad at my school and having a confidante like Haneefah.
The woman who inspired me to become a school principal was my principal at the time, Ms. Doris Thompson. I could write an entire column devoted to the poise, strength and pure grace of this woman. The district had asked her to come out of retirement to work with Riverside and we — yes, our team made AYP (state measures at the time) after just one year. Ms. Thompson led with an iron fist that was wearing a velvet glove, and I had so much admiration for her.
For me, I would like to say that I was forced to live my life differently as a result of tragedy, but I didn’t open the door completely when grief knocked. This would inform my school leadership journey. It was a learned skill (pushing down emotion) that made me unshakeable in many ways and terribly broken and unavailable at the same time. I lived in a world with this cognitive dissonance for many years.
I begin this topic with my own story because it brings the pieces together that create the (often) painful portrait of becoming a school principal. So how does this look during COVID-19 and what is the actual role of the school administrator in 2020?
En Comunidad is a column that aims to unify communities through showcasing the power of human stories that share the heartbeat of leadership legacies in Indianapolis and the Midwest. For experiential learning resources related to culture, equity, and inclusion, subscribe to EducatorAide’s resource kits here.
Justine González is an Indiana native and first-generation college grad having served in both Chicago Public and Indianapolis Public Schools. Her consulting firm, EducatorAide, partners with organizations to help create culturally connected, equitable, and inclusive environments.