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.
Derek Murchison, principal, Adams Elementary
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.
The three minutes he promised the resource teacher have come and gone. The teachers have more to say. They go on to talk about how much both teaching and learning have changed since they were students. He listens, and he points out some differences that he recalls as well.
“When I became an administrator, my mom was the person who kept me grounded,” he tells me later. “Her thing was, ‘If you want to be a good teacher, you always have to remember what it was like to be a student. And if you want to be a good principal, you can never forget how it was to be a teacher.’”
By the end of the meeting, the teachers are laughing. Having good relationships with his staff is important to him, but Murchison’s job is not always lemonade coupons and happy teachers.
“We [principals] have earned the right to be in this position,” he says, “because we have the qualities to lead a school. And one of those major qualities is that you have to be courageous. You have to have tough conversations. There are plenty of things I do on a daily basis that people might not like or appreciate, but I always do it with my focus on the students first.”
One of those tough conversations is about what he calls the “huge educational crisis” that has caused a significant achievement gap with black and Latino students, and also with English-language learners, who are those students whose first language is not English. At Adams, 16 percent of the population is black, 70 percent is Latino, and 62 percent are English-language learners. Murchison believes that the first part of closing that gap is in acknowledging that it exists.
“You can’t be naïve and say, ‘Oh, race doesn’t matter,’ ” Murchison says. “If that’s the case, then this isn’t the community for you to work in…Before you can get a child to achieve on academics, you have to build a relationship. They might listen to you, they might respect you, but they’re not going to get all they need to get from you if they don’t have a relationship with you.”
And before that’s possible, he says, teachers need to understand where the children are coming from and what their needs are. To deny the role race plays in the daily life of children of color is a mistake.
Of the 22 classroom teachers at Adams, Murchison tells me that 1 is an African-American male, 4 are Latino, and 5 are bilingual.
“Look, I don’t speak Spanish, but 70 percent of my students are English-language learners. I may not have the experience of learning how to speak another language, but I’m still serving my students, and I’m doing a good job. I’m still able to communicate, interact, and collaborate with my students and their families. Whether that’s done with my broken Spanish or using a translator, it gets done,” he says. “By the same token, I believe one hundred percent in the teachers at my school, regardless of their race.”
He pauses. “The bottom line,” he says, “is that as an African-American community, there aren’t enough of us in San Diego to meet all the needs of African-American children. It can’t just be about what black people are going to do for black children. Education is a collaborative process, and the whole system needs to support the diverse needs of all our students.”
When I pose a hypothetical about what he’d do if he questioned a teacher’s racial sensitivity, he makes it a point to remind me that his answer will also be hypothetical.
“First off, it would be behind closed doors,” he says. “And it has to be done in a way that’s going to teach the person how to improve themselves. This job requires having good communication skills, regardless of what we’re talking about. If I just blatantly attack someone based on my own perceptions, we’re not going to get where we need to get.”
He tells me that, for reasons of confidentiality, he cannot discuss specific teachers or students. And he neither confirms nor denies that there are any specifics to discuss in regard to the matter of racial insensitivity.
Murchison nearly scoffs at the question of how his life would have been different had he been born white.
“My mom’s mom is from Alabama,” he says. “My mom tells us stories and shows us pictures from when she was a kid at age 10, 11, 12…she would go visit her aunts and uncles in Alabama, and she had to drink out of the ‘colored’ water fountain, and [she talks about] how she was with her uncle one day and someone called him ‘boy.’ My father did two tours in Vietnam. He fought for our country, and he came back here and he was still discriminated against.”
While his parents’ stories remind him “how far we’ve come,” his own experiences remind him “we still have a long way to go,” Murchison says.
“When I go to the store, I might have been working in my yard over the weekend,” he says, “and I might have grass stains on my pants. I’m not naïve. I know I don’t get the same kind of service as everyone else.”
Then, too, there are the derogatory comments that he hears occasionally when out with his Mexican wife. But the incident that has stuck with him the longest is the one that reveals how the black community has internalized its own struggles.
“My aunt took me to orientation at San Diego State,” he recalls. “My parents were in Japan. I was one year older than most of the other students because I’d spent one year in Japan after graduating from high school. I was excited. I already had study habits and work ethic and all that. So they were leading us on a tour across the campus and taking us to all the nice places, and the parents were all there. Of course, my aunt was there asking all these silly questions, and I’m 18 years old, embarrassed by her. This African-American man came over.
“We were sitting there talking, and he said, ‘How you doing?’ I said, ‘Great,’ and he said, ‘I’m excited that you’re here at San Diego State. It’s good to see African-American men at a university.’ I said, ‘Well, thank you, sir.’
“So then he said, ‘How’d you get here? Are you on a football scholarship or something like that?’
“I thought, Why wouldn’t he think I’m here on a math scholarship? I was there for my grades, not football. I didn’t fault him for that, but I thought, He’s an African-American male, and he thinks that of me. So what will everybody else think of me?”
At 11:30, Mr. Murchison substitutes in the computer lab so the literacy teacher can attend a meeting of his own. A group of 18 kindergarteners sit looking at the screens of 18 MacBooks. Some have found their way to the school website. Others jiggle their mouse or press random keys.
“If you can hear me, put your hands on your head,” he says.
For the next 20 minutes, he helps them find the page in the school website that offers direct access to several kid-appropriate sites, such as Discovery and PBSkids. As he moves from child to child, setting them up with Elmo or Barney or SuperWhy, he keeps the whole class engaged.
“What’s my name?” he asks them. “Anybody know?”
It’s quiet for a long second. These kindergarteners are, after all, only two months into their first year at the school. Then one girl pipes up. “Mr. Nursison,” she says.
He smiles. “That’s right. My name is Mr. Murchison. And does anyone know who I am?”
The whole group shouts, “The principal!”