Jewish World Review May 11, 1999 /25 Iyar 5759
at the front door
(JWR) ---- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com)
I had called him. Listening to all the expert punditry after the terrible events in Colorado, I realized there was only one person whose opinion I was truly interested in, and that was C.W. Jones.
You can't compare the America of 1999 with the America of 35 years ago--you certainly can't compare American high schools today with American high schools of the 1950s and 1960s--but C.W. Jones, a man students were afraid of, a retired Navy officer who was first brought into the small town where I went to school when so-called juvenile delinquents were beginning to disrupt the placidity of the high school, did the job he was asked to do. It was a public school, but it ran with almost military discipline. That was the doing of one man: C.W., the principal. We students didn't like his methods much.
Clothes, for example. Forget black trench coats--no one was going to wear an overcoat of any kind into classes, no one was going to wear jeans, no one was going to wear T-shirts or halter tops or sandals or shorts. Baseball caps? In school? Come on.
"Get out of here and go home with the rest of the babies." That was one of C.W.'s milder ways of throwing you out if he didn't like what you were wearing. The amazing thing, in retrospect, is that there was no written dress code--there was nothing to violate. If C.W. wasn't pleased by what you wore, you had to go home and change.
Who gave him that right?
"I don't know whether I had that right or not," he said the other day. "I never asked anyone's permission--I just ran the school. My theory was, you look like what you are. I want you looking like a student who can learn in a good environment. It wasn't just the students, you know--the male teachers had to wear coats and ties every day, the women teachers had to wear dresses or skirts-- no pants. Teaching is a profession, and they were to look like professionals. I thought we had a better school that way."
The thinking behind all of this was that a high school was not a democracy--a high school was a place that needed to be run with decorum and standards, by one figure in authority. "You can't do it without the backing of the parents in the community," C.W. said. "You can only run a school that way if the community lets you know that's what it wants."
Which, in many cases, is what seems to have gone away. There were no guns or bombs in schools in that era, but C.W. said he was stunned that administrators of any school could let things get to the point where weapons could get inside. He used an innocent, seemingly anachronistic example to make his point:
"One year the seniors thought it would be funny to put alarm clocks in their lockers, set to go off during different parts of every morning," he said.
Trivial, right? Listen to his solution:
"I broke the clocks up."
"I had a key that would open every locker. I went into every locker and took out every alarm clock and stepped on them. Smashed them."
Did he have the right to do that--open students' lockers?
"The lockers belonged to the board of education. We let you students use them. One mother came to school and said to me, `You owe me money for that alarm clock you smashed.' I said: `Not me.' That was that."
When a student disrupted classes, "I would say, `You go home and bring your father back here with you.' And the kid would always call me within half an hour and say, `My father works, and he's busy.' And I would say, `I work, too, and I'm busy, too. You're not getting back in here until I see your father.' Within 20 minutes, they'd be walking in together."
Of course, that was in an era when just about every child had a father living at home. But the idea was, C.W. Jones--like so many high school principals of his time--was running the school the parents of the town wanted him to run.
There was no need for metal detectors then. But even if there were no metal detectors at the front door every morning, there was something else there, without fail:
C.W. He would stand there with his arms crossed, just looking--looking at every student who walked into his building every day.
"I just wanted to see what we had here," he said the other day. "If I was responsible for the place, I wanted to see what we had here every morning."
He retired in 1973. Later this year, he will turn 90 years old. "I did the best job I knew how to do," he told me.
I told him that he did a good job, a very good job, and there was a second or two of silence before he said, in a soft, surprised tone of voice I had never heard from him before: