SYMBOLIC ISSUES AND OPTIONS Back to the kitchen and the yellow pad. Buoyed by the walk and another cup of coffee, he reviews the school’s history. “Interesting,” he observes. “That’s one of the problems: The school’s too new to have many roots or traditions. What we have is mostly bad. We’ve got a hodgepodge of individual histories people brought from someplace else. Deep down, everyone is telling a different story. Maybe that’s why Carver is so attached to his house and Dula to her English department. There’s nothing schoolwide for people to bond to. Just little pockets of meaning.”
He starts to think about symbols that might create common ground. Robert Kennedy, the school’s namesake. He has only a vague recollection of Bobby Kennedy’s speeches. Anything there? He remembers the man. What was he like? What did he stand for? What were the founders thinking when they chose his name for the school? What signals were they trying to send? Any unifying theme? A search engine takes him to Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother, where he quoted one of Bobby’s favorite sayings: “Some people see things as they are, and say why? I dream things that never were, and say why not?”
“That’s the kind of thinking we need here,” King realizes. “We need to get above all the factions and divisions. We need a banner or icon that we all can rally around. Celebrate Kennedy’s legacy now? Can we have a ceremony in the midst of warring chaos? It could back”re, make things worse. But it seems the school never had any special occasions—even at
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the start. No rituals, no traditions. The only stories are downbeat ones. The high road might work. We’ve got to get back to the values that launched the school in the “rst place. Rekindle the spark. What if I pull some people together? Start from scratch—this time paying more attention to symbols and ceremony? We need some glue to weld this thing together.”
Meaning. Faith. He rolls the words around in his mind. Haunting images. Ideas start to tumble out. “We’re supposed to be pioneers, but somehow we got lost. A lighthouse where the bulb burned out. Not a beacon anymore. We’re on the rocks ourselves. A dream became a nightmare. People’s faith is pretty shaky. There’s a schism—folks splitting into two different faiths. Like a holy war between the church of the one true house system and the temple of academic excellence. We need something to pull both sides together. Why did people join up in the “rst place? How can we get them to sign up again—renew their vows?” He smiles at the religious overtones in his thoughts. His mother and father would be proud.
He catches himself. “We’re not a church; we’re a school. But maybe the symbolic concept bridges the gap. Organization as temple. A lot of it is about meaning. What’s Kennedy High School really about?Who are we?What happened to our spirit?What’s our soul, our values? That’s what folks are “ghting over! Deep down, we’re split over two versions of what we stand for. Department chairs promoting excellence. Housemasters pushing for caring. We need both. That was the original dream. Bring excellence and caring together. We’ll never get either if we’re always at war with one another.”
He thinks about why he got into public education in the “rst place. It was his calling. Why? Growing up in a racist society was tough, but his father had it a lot tougher—he was a principal when it was something black men didn’t do. King had always admired his dad’s courage and discipline. More than anything, he remembered his father’s passion about education. The man was a real champion for kids—high standards, deep compassion. Growing up with this man as a role model, there was never much question in King’s mind. As far back as he could remember, he’d wanted to be a principal too. It was a way to give to the community and to help young people who really needed it. To give everyone a chance.
In the midst of a “re”ght, it was easy to forget his mission. It felt good to remember.
A FOUR-FRAME APPROACH Before going further, King senses that it is a good time for a review. Over yet another cup of coffee, he goes back over his notes. They strike him as stream of consciousness, with some good stuff and a little whining and self-pity. He smiles as he remembers himself in graduate school, “ghting against all that theory. “Don’t think; do! Be a leader!” “Avoid analysis paralysis.”Now, here he is, thinking, re!ecting, struggling to pull things together. In a strange way, it feels natural.
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Exhibit 20.1. Reframing Robert F. Kennedy High School.
Frame What’s Going On? What Options Are Available?
Structural Weak integration—goals, roles, responsibilities, linkages unclear
Ill-de!ned matrix structure Task force on structure
Underbounded Establish his authority as principal
Basic needs not met (safety and so on)
Poor con”ict management
Improve safety, security
Training in communication, con”ict management
People feel disempowered Participation
Political House-department con”ict Create arenas for negotiation
Doors and guards issue Damage control
Carver–Dula and racial tension Unite against outside threats
Outside constituents—parents, board, media, and so on
Build coalitions, negotiate
Symbolic No shared symbols (history, ceremony, ritual)
Hoist a banner (common symbol: RFK?)
Loss of faith, religious schism Develop symbols (meld excellence and caring?)
Lack of identity (What is RFK’s soul?) Ceremony, stories
He organizes his ideas into a chart (see Exhibit 20.1). He’s starting to feel better now. The picture is coming into focus.He feels hehas a better sense ofwhathe’s up against. It’s reassuring to see he has options. There are plenty of pitfalls, but some real possibilities. He knows he can’t do everything at once; he needs to set priorities. He needs a plan of action, an agenda anchored in basic values. Where to begin? Soul? Values? He has to “nd a rallying point somewhere.
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He has already embraced two values: excellence and caring. He turns his attention to leadership as gift giving. “I’ve mostly been listening and learning. Now what? What are my gifts? If I want excellence, the gift I have to offer is authorship. That’s what people want. They don’t want to be told what to do. They want to put their signature on this place. Make a contribution. They’re “ghting so hard because they care so much. That’s what brought them to Kennedy in the “rst place. They wanted to be a part of something better. Create something special. They all want to do a good job. How can I help them do it without tripping over or maiming each other?
“What about caring? The leadership gift is love. No one’s getting much of that around here.” (He smiles as a song fragment comes to mind: “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”) “I’ve been waiting for someone else to show caring and compassion,” he realizes. “I’ve been holding back.”
The thought leads him to pick up the phone. He calls Betsy Dula. She is out, but he leaves a message on the machine: “Betsy, Dave King. I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation. One thing I want you to know is that I’m glad you’re part of the Kennedy High team. You bring a lot, and I sure hope I can count on your help. We can’t do it without you. We need to “nish what we started out to do. I care. I know you do, too. I’ll see you Monday.”
He senses he’s on a roll. But it’s one thing to leave a message on someone’s machine and another to deliver it in person—particularly if you don’t know how receptive the other person will be. She may think I’m just shining on, faking it.
On his next call, to Chauncey Carver, King takes a deep breath. He gets through immediately. “Chauncey? Dave King. Sorry to bother you at home, but Betsy Dula called me this morning. She’s upset about what you said yesterday. Particularly the part about breaking her neck.”
King listens patiently as Carver makes it clear that he was only defending himself against an unprovoked public attack. “Chauncey, I hear you . . . Yeah, I know you’re mad. So is she.” King listens patiently through another one-sided tirade. “Yes, Chauncey, I understand. But look, you’re a key to making this school work. I know how much you care about your house and the school. The word on the street is clear—you’re a terri”c housemaster. You know it, too. I need your help, man. If this thing with Betsy blows up and goes public, what’s it going to do to the school? . . . You’re right, we don’t need it. Think about it. Betsy’s pushing hard for an apology.”
He feared that the word apology might set Carver off again, and it does. This is getting tough. He reminds himself why he made the call. He shifts back into listening mode. After several minutes of venting, Chauncey pauses. Softly, King tries to make his point.
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“Chauncey, I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just asking you to think about what’s best for the school. Let me know what you come up with. Can we meet “rst thing Monday? . . . Thanks for your time. Have a good rest of the weekend.”
King puts down the phone. Things are still tense, but he hopes he’s made a start. Carver is a loose cannon with a short fuse. But he’s also smart, and he cares about the school. Get him thinking, King “gures, and he’ll see the risks in his comment to Dula. Push him too hard, and he’ll “ght like a cornered badger. With some space, he might just “gure out something on his own. The gift of authorship. Would Chauncey bite? Or would the problem wind up back on the principal’s doorstep—with prejudice?
After the conversation with Chauncey, King needs another breather. He goes back to his yellow pad, which has become something of a security blanket. More than that, it’s helping him “nd his way to the balcony. It has given him a better view of the situation. He’s made notes about excellence and caring. Is he making progress or just musing? It doesn’t matter. He feels better; the situation seems to be getting clearer and his options more promising.
King’s thoughts move on to justice. “Do people feel the school is fair?” he asks. “I’m not hearing a lot of complaints about injustice. But it wouldn’t take much to set off another war. The Chauncey–Betsy thing is scary. A man physically threatening a woman could send a terrible message. There’s too much male violence in the community already. Make it a black man and a white woman, and it gets worse. The fact that Chauncey and I are black men is good and bad: It makes for a better chance of getting Chauncey’s help—brothers united and all that. But it could be devastating if people think I’m siding with Chauncey against Betsy— sisters in de”ance. It’s like being on a tightrope: One false step and I’m history. And the school, too. All the more reason to encourage Chauncey and Betsy to work this out. If I could get the two together, what a symbol of unity that would be! Maybe just what we need. A positive step at least.”