The Vice Principal casually approached the herd of faux rebels who were in daily slouch outside the cafeteria.He knew to approach teenagers, especially these teenagers, sideways, not head on.
They were the only identifiable group in the school that cultivated a “too cool for school” attitude. Slightly rebellious , but more entitled than truly problematic.
They were of various heights, weights, sizes, hair length. They were also in various stages of teendom, some full in the throes of allergy towards parents and authority, some just nibbling around the syndrome’s edges.
Most wore some part of a uniform – the accepted brand of jeans, acceptable footwear or a t-shirt of a band thought shockingly off colour, controversial or sufficiently grungy. They were experimenting with hairstyles, which feigned indifference but likely took hours daily to coif. None was indifferent to his indifference; each stringently conforming to non-conformity.
Some of them were cheerful, some a bit mono syllabic, but their consensus leader was downright snide – in look and speech.
Jason was the identifiable leader of this posse. He was no James Dean (google it)., but he was the group’s Big Kahuna, (google “Cliff Robertson, Big Kahuna”) Jason was the one who epitomized teenaged angst and who passed judgment and doled out acceptance or disapproval to group members.
The group, although there were a few constant members, was itinerant – some went from being Boy Scout- like at home to slouching at lunch time with the group, except on Tuesdays and Thursdays (soccer practice). There was no hubcap stealing or “turf” or rumbles on friday night, it was just a day group with whom to share the burdens of teen aged disillusionment and oppression.
But for Jason and one or two followers, it was more than that.
Jason was a bright but unwilling student. Teachers complained about him regularly:
“ Jason won’t do anything in class, he just sits there…”
“ Never does any homework. Jason thinks he’s special…well I’ve got news for him…!”
The Vice Principal had successfully spent time fostering relationships with other members of the group but Jason remained aloof and defensive, unreachable, despite many deft approaches by the Vice Principal.
The Vice Principal knew the other kids respected him, that they thought him sensitive and empathetic – that they could generally trust him to be fair and supportive. No one was spray bombing his name on the back of the school.
But he hadn’t reached Jason and he knew Jason was in trouble. He had seen the signs before. He would end up not being able to hide his contempt and would run afoul of one of the “more structured” teachers; or he’d get in trouble with the police.
Jason couldn’t make it through two more years of high school wearing contempt and anger on his sleeve – and he couldn’t be happy being merely the leader of a rebellion that was going nowhere. He was the negative leader, sought for anointing by other kids who slunk in and out of the rebellious group as it suited them. But Jason as the spiritual leader , was stuck.
The Vice Principal had tried talking with Jason matter of factly, about other kids, his family,, local sports teams, the cafeteria food. Nothing but grunting acknowledgement followed by determined disengagement.
He’d tried asking Jason if he would help Mrs. Switz move a couple of things to her car. Mrs. Switz was a popular young teacher who had agreed to allow the Vice Principal to try this appeal to Jason’s adult, chivalrous nature. He performed the task, grumbling, but put upon.
The Vice Principal had learned from experience that contacting Jason’s parents was not helpful. They were unwilling to accept what they saw as a non-problem and were openly critical of the public school system. In addition, Jason very much resented his parents being contacted when he “hadn’t done nothin’ ”
The Vice Principal had tried offering Jason a job, receiving and stamping textbooks for a week in the summer .
“Good money – Jack and Steve are gonna help too.”
Practised in engaging teenagers, the Vice Principal approached them from the side, not head on, knowing the stupidity and peril of open confrontation with authority testing teenagers.
So this day, the Vice Principal casually approached the herd of faux rebels.
“Hey guys, how’s it going? .”
The Vice Principal approached the group . Very matter of fact, being sure not to look at Jason, he casually bent over and, as he picked up an empty potato chip bag from the floor, he said.”
“Hey Jason, “I’ll pick up this potato chip bag if you’ll pick up that empty Pepsi can on the floor over there for us – thanks a lot. ” Without looking back, the Vice Principal deposited the chip bag in the trash and continued down the hallway, still not looking at Jason.
The clump of sixteen-year-old boys loitered less aimlessly. The rebel leader had been challenged to help the Vice Principal – in a matter of fact way. No overt instruction had been given. Come at them sideways, not head on. The group waited to see if Jason would pick up the Pepsi can, fascinated with his dilemma.
Jason stood unresponsive, and seeing the Vice Principal had progressed ten yards down the hall, he sneered at the Pepsi can, dismissing it from his focus.
Twenty yards down the hall, the Vice Principal slowly turned and looked back at the group. He waited until conversation had stopped and they were all looking at him. He stared at Jason, down at the distant Pepsi can and, in a loud, gymnasium baritone yelled.
“Jason, I asked you to pick up that Pepsi can, now pick it up! ”
There was no doubting his anger.
The entire hallway was quiet for what seemed like minutes. The rebel group stood motionless. Slowly, oozing contempt, Jason picked up the Pepsi can and deposited it in the recycling box beside the garbage can, with the disdain of someone who had just changed the diaper of a child not their own.
The Vice Principal, his will be done, huffed away around the corner, leaving an astonished group to mitigate Jason’s compliance.
“ Wow, I’ve never seen him that mad before.”
“He looked like he wanted to pound you!”
“Whatever”, said Jason, his snide quickly back intact.
Jason left the group and walked outside seeking solitude. He was confused.
The next day, Jason was noticeably absent from the group outside the cafeteria.
The pop can incident, forgotten by the other flighty group members, wasn’t forgotten by Jason.
An hour or so before dismissal for the day , the Vice Principal sent for Jason in Math class.
Trudging towards the office, Jason prepared himself for battle. He hadn’t looked for it, but here it was. He hoped his imminent martyrdom would be painless and quick. He rehearsed a few lines to express his objection to being picked on.
“Come in Jason”, said the Vice Principal, Jason did.
“Sit down “, said the Vice Principal. Jason did.
The Vice Principal stood, his back to Jason, looking out the window, as if contemplating what he was going to say. He turned.
He looked Jason in the eye. Jason looked away. The Vice Principal continued to look directly at Jason, who finally had to look at the Vice Principal or otherwise appear cowed.
“Jason… I owe you an apology” , the Vice Principal finally spat out in a pained voice.
“ Huh,”? Said Jason.
“ That’s right. I lost my temper yesterday and yelled at you in front of your friends”.
The Vice Principal walked back over to the window, put both hands on the sill and looked down at the floor.
“Jason, I’m an adult and I embarrassed you in front of your friends. It was inexcusable and I know better.”
“Whaaat” ? said Jason ,eyes wide.
The Vice Principal turned around and looked at Jason.
“ I hope you will accept my apology .I was not respectful and it wasn’t professional –I know better.”
The Vice Principal paused, looked at Jason and asked.
“ Will you accept my apology, Jason” ?
“ Huh, well, sure, I guess so, but …”
“ Thanks Jase.”. The Vice Principal sighed, relieved.
He wasn’t done yet.
“ Jason, I promise that I will never publicly embarrass you again as long as you are at this school .
“ I feel a lot better than I did yesterday. I felt bad all evening. To me, treating people with respect is the most important thing we learn in life, and when it’s difficult, it’s even more important. ”
“ I guess so”, said Jason, not quite knowing how to respond.
“By the way, Jason, I’m going to come to the cafeteria tomorrow and extend my personal apology to you again in front of your group.”
“ You don’t have to do that, sir” said Jason, slightly horrified.
“Jason, I do have to. My job is to help students at this school, not treat them disrespectfully. Don’t worry, I’ll make it quick and painless for you.“
The Vice Principal did go to the cafeteria the next day, and he did make it quick and painless. He stressed the importance of treating others with respect and that just because he got angry with something “someone” did didn’t excuse his responding by being disrespectful and losing his temper.
“ Right Jason”?
“Uh ,yes, uh… sir”, I guess so.
“Good. I also want to promise all you guys that I won’t disrespect any of you in public. If I am concerned about something you do, I’ll ask to talk to you privately about it.
If I’m disrespectful to any of you in any way, I’ll expect to hear from you… privately.
Silence “O.K. guys “ ?
“Sure”, “OK”, “Yeah” murmured the bewildered group.
In the days and weeks after the apology, Jason didn’t become a stellar student and he didn’t put on a charm offensive. But he graduated on time, without major incident. He even excelled in Physics 12.
Within a month of the “incident” another aggrieved rebel took over the leadership of the cafeteria loiterers, mostly because of the vacuum left by Jason’s growing indifference to leadership.
Liberated, Jason happily became a peripheral member of the less rebellious (admittedly older) rebel group, until his grade 12 year, when he joined an intramural ultimate frisbee team at noon on Thursdays and Fridays and spent a lot of time with a very straight –laced girlfriend.
After graduation, Jason started his own home renovations business.
It soon thrived, much to the Vice Principal’s delight, because, reports say, of Jason’s assiduous attention to customer relations and respect for his employees.
Always come at them sideways, never head on.
Good real-life story, Jim. VPs have a tough job, that often goes unacknowleged by staff or students.
Looking at some of my past students (elementary school) who later slouched their way through high school: it’s amazing how well they are doing now, as adults. They don’t go far if they don’t learn respect, though, so it’s never a mistake for teachers and admins to model it.
Great story, and reinforces the notion of patience and reaching kids one at a time (or in small groups!)