At 10:25 a.m. on the last Wednesday in October, the auditorium at Adams Elementary School in Normal Heights buzzes with the voices of parents and children waiting for the student-recognition assembly to begin. The parents sit in a ring of fold-up chairs placed around the edge of the room. Some hold flowers wrapped in cellophane or star-shaped helium balloons that read “Congrats!” The children sit with their classmates on the floor in tidy rows. Two lines of PE cones create an aisle down the middle. Up on the stage, another group of students sits in fold-up chairs arranged in a semicircle.
The principal, Mr. Murchison, whose cornflower-blue shirt stands out against his dark skin, takes his place in front of the stage. He wears his gray suit jacket open and slightly off center so that it hangs longer on the left. Broad-shouldered and over six feet tall, he looks as if he’d have a booming voice, but he certainly doesn’t need one. The children have his attention. He claps his hands three times. The children clap their hands three times in response, and suddenly, it’s quiet.
“It’s uplifting to me,” Murchison will tell me after the assembly, as we discuss the fact that he is one of a small handful of black male principals in the San Diego Unified School District.
“But,” he’ll add, “at the same time, it hits me hard. My aunt used to always say that African-American males between the ages of 18 and 25 are usually incarcerated or deceased. So when I turned 25, we got on the phone, and she said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a big party because you beat that statistic, and you’re going to beat many more.’ Those [statistics] are facts. We’re not just dealing with rumors.”
Now, he starts the assembly by thanking the parents, teachers, and students for coming to support the children who are being recognized today for their accomplishments. He invites the teacher from room three to come up and introduce her good citizens of the month.
For the next half hour, Mr. Murchison (Derek, to his staff) hands out certificates and school bumper stickers as the children on the stage step forward and receive recognition from their teachers. At one point, he pauses the proceedings and asks the students to sit up straight and put their hands in their laps. All 175 of them do exactly that. Murchison then takes the opportunity to acknowledge a bespectacled girl in the audience for listening intently, clapping politely, and “practicing the Adams way.” He surprises her with a coupon for one free lemonade from the Hot Dog on a Stick company.
“Family structure is one part of the crisis in the African-American community,” Murchison tells me during that later conversation. “Too many of my African-American students don’t have their fathers.” He’s careful to add, “Many single-parent families are doing an amazing job raising their children, but it has been shared with me by parents, and I have [also] witnessed, that it can be very difficult to meet the needs of our children when there is only one parent in the home.”
He considers himself fortunate to have been raised in a two-parent household.
“My mom taught me the best she could to be a man and to deal with the issues and problems that African-American men face,” he says, “but my father had a different perspective because he was actually facing it. He wasn’t just talking to me about something he’d read in a book.”
Don’t get him wrong. This self-professed “mama’s boy” takes his mother just as seriously as he does his father. It was she who oversaw daily family dinners and homework and bedtime routines for Derek and his brother. It was she who insisted on Saturday game day.
“No matter what you were doing or how cool you thought you were, you had to be home for game day,” Murchison says.
Even more than what his mother expected or insisted on, she stands as an example of perseverance in the pursuit of one’s dreams.
“My mom’s dream was always to go to school to be a teacher,” he says. “I remember growing up, all the time she would say, ‘One day I want to be a teacher. One day I want to be a teacher.’ I mean, it was constant.”
And then she made it happen.
“It was really inspiring to me because at age 53 she got her teaching credential and taught for ten years. She just retired last year,” he says. “She loved it, and she still wished she could teach, but Oceanside had budget cuts, and they gave her the golden handshake. She wasn’t ready to retire, but if the economy wasn’t bad, she probably would have taught till she was 70.”
After the assembly, Mr. Murchison poses with the good-citizen students while their parents snap pictures. Then, at 11:10, he rushes to a meeting with three female teachers. On the way, he pops into the computer lab to let the literacy-resource teacher know he’ll be just three more minutes.
The teachers sit at a rectangular table in a room that smells like chili. It looks like a storage room with a table and sink. Bookshelves along one wall are stacked with binders and books. Two doors at either end of the room lead outdoors, and two or three times during the meeting, people tiptoe through. The teachers express their frustrations about a new math curriculum the district has adopted. The benchmark tests, they say, word the problems differently than the curriculum.
“I know you’re frustrated,” Mr. Murchison tells them, “but remember that in life we have to address all different kinds of things, so we need to teach our children to use critical thinking.”
They nod. He reminds them that as long as the children can show that they know a concept, it doesn’t matter which method they use to prove it.
“And don’t let one assessment be the measure of your teaching either,” he offers.