As Principal for a Day, the lessons are mine

At 7:30 a.m. I board the B train to Brooklyn. I get off at Borough Park and walk several blocks through a Hasidic neighborhood to Public School 180.

Outside the building is a large notice board. On it appears the school motto, "Our sails are set for success," followed by "Principal for a Day: Welcome, William Dean."

I blush to the soles of my feet. That's me!

Three fifth-grade girls escort me to the principal's office. Wasting no time, the principal hands me the announcements of the day. Outside his office is the public-address system, which is linked to all the classrooms.

Students in each class recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the National Anthem. I introduce myself via the microphone to the 555 students in this pre-kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school and then read the announcements.

I am serving as Principal for a Day as part of a program to introduce New Yorkers to the city school system.

I visit a kindergarten class. The boys and girls are seated on the floor. I sit on a small chair. We talk about our names, and about brothers and sisters and family pets.

Alexandra, called Sasha, is of Russian background. Lim is Chinese. Thirteen percent of the students at Public School 180 are recent immigrants. Fifty nationalities are represented at the school.

I feel comfortable in a class setting, having taught at my former grade school while a law student and having later run a school in Puerto Rico. That was in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was too busy teaching children in Grades 4 through 8 to worry about missiles.

Several classes enter the auditorium to the ringing chords of "Men of Harlech." The song evokes memories of my time at school, where we began each day by singing hymns.

Students perform scenes from Broadway musicals. I tell the assembly something I truly believe: that music is one of the joys of life. Always make room in your life for music.

More classroom visits. The rooms are large and filled with sunlight. Artwork covers the walls. The students are animated and welcoming.

I visit the gym and put on a demonstration of basketball shooting. Fortunately, my shot is "on." It always is when I have an audience.

The Parents Association hosts a lunch for the Principal for a Day. Lunch is a five-foot-long hero sandwich stuffed with delicious salami, followed by homemade cheesecake.

Sensing my mellow mood, the principal tells me how last year's Principal for a Day arrived in a stretch limousine, spent the day at the school, and then wrote out a $10,000 check.

I remind the principal that I came by subway and on foot. I promise to do something for the school, but it won't be monetary. (I may arrange for an actor or writer to come to the school, or have a class visit a judge in his courtroom and chambers.)

A visit to PS 180 raises one's spirits about the education these children are receiving in New York City. The students are eager to learn, and the administrators and teachers seem skilled and dedicated.

How impressive it is to see children from many national backgrounds learn together in peace.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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