Originally posted on Open Salon on May 24, 2012:
Some time ago I completed a master’s degree program in school administration at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. Shortly thereafter, I received a certificate making me eligible to be a principal or assistant principal. Since then, I have had a few interviews for jobs that could launch the next phase of my career as an educator. Typically, the position in question is that of assistant principal.
For many administrators—certainly not all of them—an assistant principal position is a stepping stone to something they see as bigger and better, most often a job as principal. This could very well be the case for me, but I am not making any firm plans yet. I simply want to find a job where I can make the most meaningful possible contribution, and I aspire to the kind of success and influence wielded by the best school administrator I have ever known. That professional happened to be a vice-principal.
I attended Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey from 1982 until 1986. In those days, I was a nervous kid, inwardly riddled with anxiety and fear. I realize now that on the outside I likely appeared normal, perhaps with a few quirks. CBA was some distance from where I lived, and it was an all-boys school. I lacked the confidence to excel in any sport apart from swimming, which sadly would not be offered until years after I graduated.
School was a miserable ordeal for me. CBA contracted for bus service, but not to my town. My mother drove me in the morning to a bus stop in the next town, and in the afternoon I had to impose on the family of a classmate until my mother could pick me up after work. My transportation constraints prevented me from engaging in extracurricular activities, and I was a gifted but poorly-focused student. I hated every class except French.
Brother Timothy Tarmey was my French teacher; he was also the Assistant Principal for Student Affairs. Being the school disciplinarian, he ran an orderly classroom, and as we students were informed by other teachers in the Foreign Language Department, he was not only fluent in French, but he spoke like a native Frenchman. I’d say he was in his late thirties, just over six feet tall, and almost too imposing in the long black garment of his vocation, but for his glasses, which gave him the air of an academic.
Brother Tim had no time for lesson plans or notes. He was an important part of an administrative team that included two additional school leaders of exceptional caliber. Brother Andrew O’Gara, our principal, was a godfather-like character of perhaps fifty years with a stern face and deadpan tone of voice, yet he made it a point to introduce himself personally to every freshman during the first week of school and to learn every freshman’s first and last name by the end of the second week. He was the soul and presence that pervaded the institution. Mr. Peter Santaniello, whom some of us called Pistol Pete, was the Assistant Principal for Academic Affairs and a teacher of mathematics. This well-dressed, punctilious gentleman was known for his excellent organizational skills—and for his stern demeanor. He was in his early forties, lean and tall, and his dark features had a sharpness that commanded attention and respect.
These three administrators surely had disagreements and difficulties behind the scenes, but they acted truly as a cohesive whole, their work overlapping often while never seeming redundant or uneven. For example, Mr. Santaniello was just as commanding in disciplinary matters as Brother Timothy, while Brother Andrew’s mere presence precluded anything in the way of disorder. Similarly, Brother Andrew set a vision that was evidently informed by priorities and initiatives clearly traceable to Brother Tim or Mr. Santaniello. In short, all three leaders were credible, professional, and compelling forces behind the momentum of the school.
But then, something clearly set Brother Tim apart. I could be tempted to think it was his personal influence on me. Throughout freshman year, I had a solid-B average, doing brilliant work only in French class, some marking periods even getting a higher grade than the boy who would eventually become valedictorian. Seven years before the movie Dead Poets Society, my mother attended our school’s open house and walked by my classroom as Brother Tim stood on his desk telling our class about le Grand Oiseau, the Great Bird, who was reputed to consume alive idle freshmen who did not do their French homework. We took the Bird to be Brother Timothy’s alter ego, and we delighted in looking up words in French so we could write heinous slanders about l’Oiseau on the board during the extra five minutes it usually took Brother to get to class. As he walked in, he would comment that someone had written a terrible thing, that the Bird would know, and that justice would be done.
On one exam, the Bird was set before us as an essay topic, and I took up the task of describing his qualities: his fine taste in cars and food, his sophistication, his strength, and in the spirit of the satire by Bruce Feirstein, I remarked that, though French, this bird, being a real bird, would never eat quiche. The next day during my algebra exam, Brother Tim strolled into the classroom, approached the desk where I was working, and glared down at me. When I looked up, he intoned lowly, “The Bird was pleased with your exam.” He then turned on his heel and walked out.
The next year, Brother’s administrative duties no longer permitted him time to teach. I found myself in good enough hands with Mrs. Callan, a French woman whom we all called Fifi, but Brother Timothy had clearly not forgotten about me. He didn’t like the look on my face one day as I was passing his office. He pulled me aside and asked me how things were. I shared with him some family difficulties that had been upsetting me, and he made a point to check in on me every so often. During my junior year, I had a regular seat at his typewriter as I prepared my essays for Mr. Lelesi, and he killed four hours with me the day of my big date with a girl from the Ranney School at our school dance. I had my learner’s permit at the time, so he tossed me the keys to his Chevy Citation, and we headed to a restaurant called Gertrude Brown’s. I had promised to call my date at 6:30 to confirm our meeting, so Brother kept an eye on his watch and talked me over my nerves as he slid some dimes across the table for the payphone. Months later as spring neared, he gave me permission to take my seventeenth birthday off so I could take my driving test.
I did not consider myself in any way special. Brother Tim was similarly kind to many students in my school. He would see students waiting in the lobby for rides after school, and the door to his office would burst open as he carried out a case of soda and gruffly ordered two or three boys to grab cups, chips, and pretzels from the closet behind his desk. After twenty minutes or so, the party would break up as moms and dads pulled up in their cars to the main entrance of the school, and boys would sling their satchels over one shoulder, washing down their snacks with a soda in the opposite hand. Heck, all Brother Timothy did was bring out some refreshments, and yet everyone went home a little happier than if they had just been languishing in the lobby.
Of course, no one wanted to be on Brother Tim’s bad side, his anger being known to shift tectonic plates. We had all seen his eyes bore holes through the heads of errant students. We had heard his voice thunder through the halls at students as they were being suspended. Some students remember him hauling them by their shirtfronts into the main office, their feet never touching the ground. But we knew it was an act, albeit a damned convincing one we were not eager to see up close.
At the heart of things, Brother Timothy Tarmey was an important man in our world, and he dedicated himself wholly to our school. Discipline was just one facet of his work. The school handbook, penned by Brother Timothy himself, was a work of literature. He organized banquets, sometimes taking a half-dozen students out of classes for the day to help him set up at the hall he had booked. He made all arrangements for school masses and ceremonies. He was not only essential to the running of the school, he made students—and teachers, I strongly suspect—understand that they were essential in the definition of what the school was. Few of us would have understood the importance of the place to ourselves if he were not demonstrating at every moment how important it was to him.
And yet, some decades later, I know well that I have grown to be a man much different from Brother Timothy. I don’t raise my voice, I don’t get red in the face, and even if laws and regulations permitted, I would not feel the need to take a student by the collar and drag him to his doom. But Brother Tim’s example informs almost everything I do: every gag I share with my students, every private word of kindness, every gesture of encouragement to someone I feel may simply not have the right look on his or her face.
To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever have his star power, his charisma. And perhaps I’ll only be an assistant principal for a year or two before someone thinks I deserve a show of my own to run. But, I’ll put this down for the record: my ambition as an educator is to do the kind of work I saw Brother do and to do it in the spirit in which he did it. And if I toil as a vice-principal for two decades and retire convinced I did only half as well as he did for his students, the honor will be all mine.