By Fred Dickey May 13, 2013
I suspect that if you had a popularity contest at his high school, Carlos O. Gomez would not be the winner, not even a finalist.
That’s now. In about 10 years, that’ll change because students grown older will recognize that their assistant principal practiced tough love for their benefit.
Gomez would be quick to amend that to “fair love” because he’s got to sell himself to teenagers who tend to have pretty good “fair-dar,” or, put more conventionally, an instinct for judging who or what is fair. One of the first things kids learn in school is to protest, “That’s not fair!”
And that can be a problem. As teenagers are quick to detect life’s unfairness, especially directed at them, it can first lead to pouting, then grievance, then alienation.
That’s when 36-year-old Gomez has to go to work. As assistant principal of Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, he and three others of his rank must enforce behavioral standards and impose discipline for a student body of 2,600. Maybe some others with his job would see that as their only duty, but Gomez would see it as the bare minimum. To him, success is achieved when troubled or troublesome students straighten up and reach for their potential.
I first confront Gomez with a question that is often answered by a frown: What makes kids misbehave?
It’s a two-fold problem, he says — nurturing in the home and poor schooling. He says problems that germinate in the classroom usually have roots in the home: Parents who don’t discipline, don’t insist on high standards, divorce and leave a child with only a mother or father, fight a lot and, very important, don’t place a high value on education and don’t show an appreciation for learning.
“I don’t care what kind of reform we have in education, the problems will never go away unless we address what’s happening at home.”
He doesn’t have to go far to make his point. “I came from an immigrant household, but my father liked to read. He always was looking at a book or a newspaper. I was lucky. I learned to love reading. That was critical for me. But there are many households who do not have that. I stress to parents themselves — read, read, read.”
Gomez says schools conduct all kinds of meetings and open houses for parents, but they never see all the parents who need to hear what educators have to say.
He thinks corporations can help do more for education than just give grants, scholarships and donations. He has an idea that might sound hare-brained at first, but becomes more reasonable when he explains it. He thinks companies, large and small, should include parenting skills as part of their in-house education programs — as they do with sexual harassment, for example.
“Can you imagine if Walmart, if Target, if Microsoft, all these people who give so much money toward school reform make sure their employees are taught good parenting skills?
“They may say, ‘That’ll diminish our production because of lost time on the job.’ But you know what? What about those parents who spent hours on the job worrying about their kids being bullied or getting poor grades? How about that parent who has to come to my office in the middle of the workday to pick up the kid who has just been suspended?”
I say, “I’ve heard from teachers who say principals won’t back them up in dealing with out-of-line parents.”
“That’s not true. No, no, no. That wouldn’t do us any good. I just can’t believe principals do that. We don’t want a situation to be an us-versus-them. What the good (administrator) does is get the facts — from the kid, from witnesses, from the parent, from the teacher. And based on that, they can see who’s in the wrong.”
Have you ever told a parent they were out of line?
“Me? Yeah. I do it tactfully. I always bring it back to their kid: I think this is what’s best for your child.”
Do you counsel parents?
“Absolutely. The parent who’s quick to say, ‘I know my child. They wouldn’t do such a thing.’ And that’s funny, because how do you know your child as a student? You don’t. I present them with what facts I have, and 90 percent of them come around. The one out of 10 who just won’t budge — their kid is a saint — (I say) ‘I’ve informed you as best I can. At this point, this is what’s going to happen.’”
How does a kid who has great parents, good schools and good support turn bad? Can bad behavior be genetic? Born to be bad?
“I can’t afford to believe that, not in what I do. A child may be born with less ability, but not born bad. You’re not in the right job if you think a kid can’t be fixed.”
What are the toughest things to repair in a wayward child?
“The things that are so deeply ingrained, like lying as a daily practice, stealing, violence. The hardest thing I have to deal with is the impact of kids being from dysfunctional homes, especially divorces. No divorce ever does good for a kid. I feel strongly about that.
“Kids are very short with answers. They don’t want to let you inside. If I were ineffective in my job, I’d stop right there. I’d give the kid a discipline and send him on his way. But I like to dig deep when I talk to kids. The superficial stuff is what happens in the classroom or on campus. What’s underneath is what I like to dig into.”
What makes a bully?
“A person with low self-esteem, number one. Somebody with an aggressive, abusive parent at home. If they see it in their parents, most likely they’ll become bullies. Kids really do capture a lot. We don’t give them enough credit for what they see at home and at school, and what they learn from adults.”
Gomez is an adviser to Spanish-language parents who might be unfamiliar with the way our schools work. He says they might tell him that their kids say they have no homework. His response? “They’re lying to you.” And also, “Have them read a book rather than play a video game.”
He is a creative fellow who has published a short-story collection, “Immigrant Me,” under the name C. Osvaldo Gomez. He might consider using his fiction skills to create a plot about an ideal school serving only concerned parents and studious children. Because, no matter how he strives in his profession, that’s the only way he’s going to see them.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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