Happy Birthday to a real school reformer.. Frank Mickens!

Today is Bro. Frank’s Birthday and I am determined to remember his spirit and work. I am so appreciative of his support, friendship, encouragement and professional assistance. Frank was never a true conformer to this destructive world of public education; and so I guess that would make him a true “reformer.” He was not a “casual”, “drive-by”, “recent discover” of education;(at least their discovery of the money to be made in education.) For Frank, education was not a “filler” job on a resume, a stand-in career for a bad economy; he came to education and stayed in education to give children a chance at survival. He understood his student’s story of denial and low expectations; because in their story, he could also see his own personal story. In all of our private conversations he revealed a deep love and hope for the children of the poor, the disenfranchised, the disposable and dispossessed. He was also willing to work daily through severe and painful health issues; one day I stopped by his school to see him one late evening (yes late evening); and he could barely painfully walk. By that time he had the “years” and the accumulated sick and vacation time to just call it quits; he vowed to work as long as he could be effective; as long as there was at least one student he could save. That night my thoughts were filled with the words of the poet Claude McKay’s:If we must die

“If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

Often the news media (particularly when it concerns Black principals), want to lead with, and play up, the “gruff and tough”, “take no prisoners”, storyline; while ignoring our thoughtful and strategic vision of creating a school environment where children actually have an opportunity to learn. Our understanding of the families; the social/political/cultural and economic challenges our students face. And the important role of how thoughts about race in America creates thoughts and practices concerning the capabilities of students of color. Years after I left Science Skills Center High School (SSCHS) an official of the then Board of Education made an honest confession to me that: “We blew it with SSCHS, we did not fully understand what you built there; we did not really understand why, and how that school was working; we only knew that it was working.” In a way I understand (although not excuse) the lack of vision; for this is so much like the work of Frank Mickens. A great deal of what must be done by a “practicing” school principal to make a school work successfully; can’t be talked about, or put on paper;it is not by accident, it is a conscience and skilled commitment to student success; that alone,is destined to upset a lot of people!
I am at the same time thinking about the Bronx middle school child who is now lost to us forever; a preventable incident; a situation where both the child and the parents reached out to the school leadership for help. A “tentative” and indecisive principal, content not to confront, not wanting to “upset folks” will mis-lead a school into a place where it is not safe to teach or learn. The “bullies”, not their victims need to feel some “pain and discomfort”; until they change their ways. Like any effective principal Frank broke the “rules” everyday; it is the only way you can get students through a bureaucracy that ignores the realty of their families, their communities, their every day needs; in fact, the educational bureaucracy ignores their very existence, except for their ability, based on their “attendance” and not on their academic success or graduation; to generate money. Frank made his students “visible” to a world, and to themselves; a world that only sees them as raw material for the criminal justice/social service industry; he said no, they are human beings, deserving of dreams and aspirations. One cannot expect to be understood, or rewarded by a society, when that same society has decided to destroy the children you are so desperately trying to save; acting “cowardly and accommodating” in the middle of a war, is the worst type of betrayal…And for many children in this nation, for sure, war has been declared on them…… Frank Mickens refused to settle for an unprincipled peace…..Frank was a warrior-educator who fought the good fight for his students, to the end.