Staples principal John Dodig is a graceful, insightful writer. Each month in the PTA newsletter “For the Wreckord” he tackles real problems, raises crucial questions — but no one beyond the readership of high school parents ever sees his words.
Here is John Dodig’s March column — another challenging window into Westport, and the world.
I just finished reading a short article about Ricky Martin’s recent coming out and what it has done for Latinos who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The author feels that by doing so, Martin made it easier for young Puerto Rican and Latin American men and women to reveal their true identities and, in general, be happier people.
This article reminded me of a conversation I had about 6 years ago with 2 African American Staples freshmen who were feeling alone, angry, and frustrated by being in a school where there were only a few people who looked like they did. Both happened to be Bridgeport residents who attended Westport schools via the Open Choices state program.
When I met them during a moment of anger and frustration, I asked if they would speak to about 40 Staples adults, all of whom were members of our Collaborative Team. They agreed, and did so.
These 2 young women opened up to us in a very passionate, emotional outpouring of feelings. They shared with us that they thought each day about quitting while riding on the bus. They felt that it would be easier to move back to their home school in Bridgeport, where they would blend in with the crowd. It was only through the unwavering personal attention of the Staples social worker assigned to this program, their assistant principal, and their very caring Staples teachers that they stayed with us.
Over time, they began to feel that they were part of the school population and no longer outsiders. They somehow learned to deal with comments from their friends back home who said that they were changing and becoming “uppity Westporters.” That period of transition, where they felt that they didn’t belong in either setting, was probably the most difficult.
By the senior year, however, one girl became the Homecoming Queen. She was presented with a huge bouquet of roses on our football field, to the cheers and applause of almost 3,000 people. I overheard her tell her parents on the sideline: “They really like me!”
The other young woman was asked to be the student speaker at baccalaureate, just before graduation. Her emotional speech left not a dry eye in the house.
About a month ago, those 2 young women returned to Staples to let us know how they are doing. One is now in hairdressing school, living on her own with a car and paying her own bills.
The other received an associate degree from Norwalk Community College, and is now working on a bachelor’s degree in criminology at UConn. She wants to be a policewoman.
Both returned to see and hug the people who helped them through their transition at Staples. After my hug, one said to her former assistant principal: “Thank you for caring and for being so tough on us. I now work with people of all nationalities. I realize that how I am treated is totally dependent on how I treat others.” More tears flowed.
There is no getting around the fact that Staples has a minority population of about 6 percent. The largest minority population of 2.8% is Asian. The African American student population is only 1.4%, and would be much smaller if it were not for the Open Choice program and the ABC program.
The Hispanic population is about 1.9%, and has not changed over time. I can’t imagine that this will change in the near future.
It is important to remember that others have taken the place of the 2 girls I wrote about in this article, and that some are feeling just as they did. The best we can do is be aware of it, and try to help them come to the same realization at an earlier age.
Being different at this age is difficult. We all like to be with people who think like us, look like we do, and have the same cultural identity.
Would it have been easier for those 2 girls to have transferred to their home school, where almost everyone had the same color skin? Maybe. But they did not, and they believe it made them stronger, wiser, more adaptable adults.
If you have to pick anywhere on earth to be different than the majority of people around you, Staples is the place. Yet there are so many people in our school and community who are attuned to this, and are involved in making minority students’ lives happier than just about anywhere else I can think of.
I am writing about this not because of any particular recent incident but rather to talk about something that everyone knows is true, in hopes that more of us will become involved in reaching out and making all kids feel “at home.”
Whether a Staples teen is gay, a Muslim, African American, Hispanic or so tall she or he has to bend over to get through a door, Staples has to remain a warm and welcoming place.
In this case, it does take a village to make this happen. I urge you to talk about this at one of the organizations to which you belong. It is important to all of us.