You'd think Bulkeley High School students would be feeling a bit beleaguered by now.
First came the $103 tickets for every F-bomb uttered within earshot of a school police officer. Speech in the halls became a little less free.
Then, Wednesday, students arriving at Bulkeley were greeted with hand-held metal detectors at the doors. Surprise! Those who tried to wander off school grounds with their contraband were wrangled back by police cadets.
"Oh [insert $103 word here]," became the refrain of the hour.
Inside, school district violence prevention specialist Eric Crawford barked instructions to the students streaming in:
"All hats off."
"Lose the bandanas."
"Take the sunglasses off. What are we, in Miami?"
"We're taking back the schools," Crawford declared.
But long after the first bell rang, there was still a group of students outside the front entrance who, as Crawford put it, "march to their own beat." Gentle coaxing from the cadets didn't get them moving. Firmer direction from Crawford moved a few, but most still dawdled.
And then, SHE appeared.
"[Insert $103 word here], SHE's here," came a panicked declaration from within the crowd.
I didn't know who SHE was, but in the split second it took for me to spot the imposing woman standing by the door, the students were already in line and headed inside.
It was one of the most impressive displays of fear and respect I'd seen in a while. And I tried to tell her that. But SHE cut me down with a look that sent me on my way.
So I went the more official route and asked the school spokesperson to help me meet the woman, who by then I had discovered was Assistant Principal Gayle Allen-Greene.
Friday Greene insisted she didn't have to be coaxed into talking to me, but something about the bone-crushing handshake made me think otherwise.
She's aware of her imposing, some would say intimidating, presence. She's been aware of it since she was the tallest girl in her class, which is why she often tried to blend into the background. Her mother put a stop to that. "You're a leader," she told her daughter. "No use trying to be otherwise."
Since, she hasn't been afraid to use her height - 6-foot-1 - her booming voice and, at school, her power to suspend to get her point across.
"She's a little scary," admitted Tiana Rodriguez.
No apologies from Ms. Greene: "A little fear is not a bad thing."
But in her office earlier, "scary" Ms. Greene teared up when she talked about the kids who remind her of friends she grew up with in Washington, D.C.: the ghosts, kids who miss school so often no one really knows who they are when they bother to come. The black hole of ninth grade, when most students drop out.
Her daughter is a ninth-grader in Windsor, which is why she asked to be assigned to that grade at Bulkeley. She sees firsthand the challenges the students face, and then she goes home and tries to keep her daughter from falling between the same cracks.
"Ma, you're not at work."
Of all her siblings, Greene jokes, she was the least likely to become an educator. She pushed boundaries, often trying her parents' patience. If she was close to missing curfew, she said, she would never rush.
"I figured I'd be in just as much trouble if I showed up three minutes late than if I showed up 20 minutes late."
It's hard to imagine, this disciplinarian, bucking authority. But it also explains why she doesn't seem have any trouble connecting with even the toughest students at the school.
She makes a point of knowing every kid's name, of looking them straight in the eye and shaking their hands. A traditional shake, no street stuff with Ms. Greene. And God help you if you give her a dead fish shake. "Those are the worst," she says.
But mostly, she extends her hand to all the kids for another reason.
"I want them to know I see them," she says. "Too many kids walk through their day without anyone really seeing them, without anyone saying their name."
Ruben Lopez, who's been suspended by Greene, groans when he sees her coming into the room where students sit when they're late.
But later, he's surprisingly complimentary. "She's tough. She doesn't play. But you have to respect her because she's honest," he said.
And there you have it. Hartford schools could equip themselves to the gills with metal detectors. They can fine students for cursing until they run out of tickets. And based on the three-minute, $721 chat between two girls I overheard last week, that's a possibility.
But the real, more long-term solution for schools rests squarely in something more old-school - respect, a healthy dose of fear, a sometimes-scary Ms. Greene.
"The day kids stop moving when I show up is the day I stop doing this," Greene said.
No worries there.
On my way out Friday, a student was being escorted out of his class for refusing to take off his hat. The teacher looked exasperated, the student triumphant, a huge smile on his face. And then he spotted Ms. Greene.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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