In the fall of 1971, dewy-eyed and puffed-up from gazing at the diploma on the wall which certified that I was a Ph.D, I was eager to take my place in front of a classroom somewhere in an ivy-covered temple of higher education. But a few months before my adviser threw the coveted cowl over my head (knocking my mortarboard off and drawing laughter from the crowd in what should have been a solemn moment. He was six inches shorter than me.) an economic “recession” had swept across the country. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s were a dime a dozen and could be found earning their keep in all sorts of menial jobs. So, I gratefully, if somewhat bitterly, took on the humble job of being principal of the junior high school in a small Iowa city anchored on the banks of the Mississippi River. Borrowing from the musical show “The Music Man,” I will call it ““River City”.” I was a brand-new “Doctor” (but not, as an old joke has it, the kind who can do anyone any good.) and was the first administrator in “River City” history with that title.
Cowl for a Ph.D. in the Education Profession
Now, instead of sharing my wisdom with college students I was spending my days mostly administering “justice” to kids who had been sent to my office for “discipline.” “River City’s” citizens were predominantly lower-rung blue-collar workers. As a place to live it was rather “rough around the edges.” Although fighting was forbidden in the school or on the grounds, solving differences with their fists was so ingrained in the students’ world that I once wryly remarked to my secretary that we should print a daily “fight card” along the lines of “Fighting tonight we have 8th grader Tom Jones taking on 9th grader Billy Smith.” No fighting in school or on the grounds? Okay, meet me after school across the street in the alley. There was always a crowd watching, cheering on one or the other. When I actually knew who the fighters were I notified their parents. Quite often their reaction was “Why are you telling me this? Boys will be boys.” It was a grim job from which thankfully, I was “delivered” after one school year.
It wasn’t only the students who played hardball with life’s problems in this rough and ready river town. Iowa in the 1970’s was (and possibly still is) a state that enshrines labor unions. I didn’t know when I accepted the job that the teachers’ union had “gone to the mattresses” in a war with the School Board the previous spring. After staging a “wildcat” strike in defiance of a court-ordered injunction to stay in their classrooms the union leaders were thrown in jail. Negotiations between they and the School Board were conducted behind bars until a settlement was reached. But none of this was made known to me when I was interviewing for the job. It was only after I had signed a contract to serve the following year that the superintendent of schools, my boss, called me to his office, told me the whole story and ended it by telling me to “go in there and show them (the teachers) who’s boss.” Inexperienced as I was in being a school principal I “put on my black hat” and took on the assignment to “show them who’s boss.” That ended badly.
Through experience I learned how terribly uncomfortable it felt to walk into the Teachers’ Lounge during school hours, hearing conversation as I opened the door, then hearing nothing except the ringing of tinnitus in my ears the moment I entered the room. With me in the room it was cold as the inside of the “coke” machine. I tried to comfort myself by adopting the slogan “It’s lonely at the top.” The disdain directed towards me was heightened by the fact that the President of the Teacher’s Union was on my faculty. With the teachers’ union as strong as it was, the bitterness remaining from the recently settled strike, coupled with my attempt to carry out the superintendent’s orders, I was living in a palpable “we-they” (or more properly “we-he”) situation. The sour cream on top of that distasteful pie was the fact that my doctorate was in Curriculum and Instruction, NOT in School Administration. In earning my doctorate I had no intention of becoming a school administrator. I had been forced into it by the economics of the situation. I was a salt water fish in a fresh water aquarium.
Sometime shortly after our Christmas break one of the teachers was arrested in Des Moines IA on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. He and his wife were in a very contentious marriage and he had confronted her, gun in hand, in a motel room in Des Moines. That incident was immediately front page news in our daily newspaper and before the last issue had been run off the press my boss was on the phone telling me to suspend that teacher, with pay, for the rest of the school year. When he walked out of my office after I carried out that directive he immediately made known what “I” had done. I have always felt,and still do feel, that so long as an employee is accepting position and pay from his employer, he owes loyalty to his boss. With that philosophical underpinning I did not tell that teacher that the superintendent had told me to suspend him. To me that would have been gross infidelity towards my employer.
It was after school ended for the day when I carried out that directive. Within an hour after school began the following day, everyone; teachers, students and staff, knew what “Dr. Carriker had done.” The pot simmered until shortly after lunch. Then the gates of hell swung open and chaoserupted in the building. Students began running through the halls shouting "WALKOUT! WALKOUT!" My Assistant Principal and I charged out into the building trying to settle things down. What I saw was appalling. Standing at the door of every classroom I passed I saw the teacher standing there watching: doing nothing to quell what was happening. Anarchy reigned. A few students stayed in their classrooms but at least a third of the 800 students spilled out of the building and onto the lawn.
Since the school was located conspicuously on a busy street near the edge of the business district it was clear that this demonstration was premeditated for the media was on the scene immediately. The only “authority” to be seen out there on the lawn was myself and my assistant principal. No teachers, no superintendent, no support. It was my problem. I found a “bullhorn” and began trying to make myself heard above the din of students’ yelling. I announced repeatedly that they must report back to their classrooms immediately. Failure to do so would result in being suspended from school. It didn’t take an hour but it surely felt like it before students began drifting back into their classrooms. Ultimately, all but a hardcore dozen or so went back inside. The day ended with no further incident. I called the superintendent to report what had happened. He already knew and was completely lackadaisical about it; neither chastising nor supporting me. In retrospect, I suspect he was waiting to see if any of the fallout would land in his office. And years later in hindsight I knew I had been working for a self-serving, incompetent person toward whom I showed undeserved loyalty. He disgraced his office.
Early the following morning I was invited to discuss and answer questions from "call-in" listeners on a local radio morning talk show. At the end of that half-hour I felt as if I had inherited the mantle of Genghis Khan, the scepter of Attila, the Hun and the uniform of Adolph Hitler. I had become the lightning rod for all the hostility directed towards the school system by the “union” and their many supporters in the community. I didn’t know whether I’d be fired or not when my one-year contract was up but I knew I did not want to be an administrator in that school system in the future.
There was one other terrible incident arising from the hostility directed towards me that hurt me more than any other thing. I didn’t even know about it until after we had moved on. Our oldest son was an 8th grade student in my school. He had learned to keep a low profile but obviously, everyone knew who he was. One afternoon while he was sitting at a desk in a quiet study area he heard someone say, “Hey, Carriker.” When he turned to respond, he was sucker punched by a cowardly student. The student, whom he barely knew, told him there would be more to come “after school.” Fortunately, that didn’t happen. He made it home before the young thugs got organized and there was no further assault on him. He didn’t tell his mother or I what had happened until months later. He didn’t want me, as principal, to act in reprisal. He said that would’ve made things worse, and it probably would have. As for telling his mother – he didn’t want to worry her.
Blessedly, late in the school term I was hired to be the Associate Principal in Charge of Instruction by a large, prestigious school system in suburban Kansas City in one of their five high schools. It was a plum job for which I was educationally and motivationally well-prepared. We left ““River City”” within days after my contract expired. I had occasion to drive past that junior high school building years later. I still felt “bad vibes” as I passed it.
I very much wish I could write that “Everyone lived happily ever after” as the closing sentence to this unpleasant-turned-pleasant episode in my life. With much regret, I can’t do that. An insidious enemy had been insinuating itself into my life for quite some time and it ultimately poisoned my career as an educator. This isn’t the place to fully describe how that came to be. I have fully disclosed that enemy, the nature of the poison and how it affected my future career.
However, there is a humorous side note to all the “Sturm und Drang” I weathered in that epochal year of 1971-72. In that time, it was still unusual for those with advanced degrees to serve as administrators anywhere except in large city school systems. Certainly, “River City” had never had an administrator with such a title. When I arrived on the scene it was a novelty for students (and faculty in formal situations) to address their principal as “Dr.” To make the situation even muddier, my first two initials are “M.D.” My wife had presented me with a nice desk nameplate reading, “M. D. Carriker, Ph.D.” which I proudly positioned at the front edge of my desk. Anyone with a degree of sophistication would recognize that medical doctors put “M.D.” behind, not in front of their names. But that fact escaped a great many folks in “River City”. I heard there was some questioning as to why a “Doctor” would be serving as a principal. As I have said, “River City” was a small city that was “blue collar” and quite “rough around the edges.
One day after school my wife and I were shopping in one of the local supermarkets when we met a couple with a young boy beside them. The boy was a student in my school. As he passed he smiled and said, “Hi, Dr. Carriker” and I returned the greeting with “Hi, Jimmy, is this your parents?” He answered affirmatively. Dad was a large man whose abdomen announced that he, “Bud Weiser” and friends were bosom buddies.
Illustration only: Not the actual person
He displayed that friendship by wearing what is commonly called a “Wife Beater” undershirt as an outer garment. We acknowledged he and his wife with a friendly “Glad to meet you” or something along those lines. Then they disappeared around the end of the aisle and into the adjacent aisle. That’s when we heard, “Hell! He don’t look like no doctor to me.”
I left the store wondering what a doctor looked like and where I failed the test.
All in all, my feelings toward my year in that Purgatory on the Mississippi are well-expressed in a large, framed poster that hangs on the wall in my “Man Cave.” Beneath the picture of a hard-bitten, disgruntled looking cowboy the caption reads: “There were a helluva lot of things they didn’t tell me when I signed on with this outfit.”