Sunday, June 27, 2010

The joys and sorrows of a high school principal

Stephen Bennett, principal of Vic High, is more Clark Kent than Seymour Skinner. Globe and Mail photograph by Geoff Howe.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 28, 2010


You are principal of the oldest high school in the province, whose alumni includes the likes of the artist Emily Carr and two premiers,

You have an enrollment of 864 students. Some are troubled. Many are magnificent.

You troubleshoot all year long. That’s just the way it is.

Finally, June rolls around. The final month of the school calendar is hectic. There are yearbooks and final exams and graduation ceremonies.

Some students are moving on after four years. You’d call it empty-nest syndrome, except that they’re soon to be replaced by a coterie of fresh-faced and somewhat nervous Grade 9s.

The grad class departs with a bit of high jinks, a pranking tradition mostly harmless in execution. One morning, the grand entrance of the four-story brick schoolhouse is blocked by a blue tarp on which has been spray-painted “Victoria High School Grad 2010.” A waist-high wall of paving stones blocks the doors.

Another morning, hundreds of plastic utensils have been stuck in the lawn fronting the school. A sign reads, “Grad 2010. Stick a fork in us, we’re done.”

On a third morning, the entranceway is lined with dozens of “For Sale” signs, as well as some ratty couches scrounged from nearby alleyways. The realtors are called, apologies offered.

In the midst of the chaos, police arrive one afternoon to arrest a shop teacher on harassment charges.

He is taken away between third and fourth block, in the early afternoon.

As it turns out, the arrest of a teacher in the middle of the school day is not the worst thing to happen in the month.

Not by a long shot.

At 7:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, the telephone rings at home. You are told one of your students, a Grade 10 kid, is dead.

“You never want to get that kind of phone call,” said Stephen Bennett, who has been at Victoria High School for seven years, the past four as principal.

Justin Wendland, 15, was stabbed to death, killed at a bus stop on his way home the previous evening.

“There’s so much that goes through your head when you hear something like that,” he said. “I’m thinking about his family. His mom. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare.

“Then you start thinking about the kids in your school who are connected to him. You think, ‘Oh boy, how do they begin to cope with someone so young whose life has been taken from them.’

“Then you start thinking about your staff. There’re people who have taught him, who have worked with him. How are they going to feel about it?”

He went to work that morning to break the terrible news to the teachers. A team trained in handling such situations soon arrived at the school.

“It was a hard day. A real hard day.”

There were many tears, as on two subsequent memorial services held in the school auditorium.

Mr. Bennett, 53, is a lean, middle-aged man with a square jaw and neatly-trimmed grey hair. With his dark-framed glasses and soft-spoken manner, his demeanor is more Clark Kent than Seymour Skinner.

As a teenager, he decided to become an educator because he admired the teachers who encouraged his interest in ancient and medieval history.

“I had some absolutely amazing teachers. I couldn’t think of a thing I would want to do more than to be one of them. They worked so hard. They inspired me to think. They were my role models.”

The delights of teaching the young also brings with it unexpected duties.

In the last week of classes, grieving students were buying commemorative $5 wrist bands and $15 T-shirts to raise funds for a memorial, such as a bench, for their lost classmate.

“Personally, it’s been incredibly intense,” the principal said. “Roller-coaster.

“One day you’re celebrating with kids at a grad dinner dance.

“Then you’re remembering a student. Justin.

“And then you’re back to celebrating again at a graduation ceremony.”

Finally, days before the end of the school year, he announced a $10-million project to replace a technical building on campus that is slowly sinking into ground that was once a quarry.

It is said the tilt to the floor in the dance studio is such that dancers lose their balance.

The new facility, though smaller, will include woodworking and metal shops, as well as an auto shop with bays and hoists.

The building announcement provided a welcome respite in what has been a trying month.

“You feel,” he said, “like you’re just wobbling through.”

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