Heartfelt Hugs

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.

John Dodig

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.

Staples can sometimes seem like a sea of sameness. (Photo does not depict actual students.)

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.

37 responses to “Heartfelt Hugs

  1. Patty Haberstroh

    Great piece. It’s so good to learn how these two are doing. A huge shout-out must also go to the girls’ mentor who stood by them, listened to them and continues to be there for them. (She’d kill me if I put her name in here but JH is a clue!) The Westport Mentor Program-341-1050 is a terrific way to give back and be there for kids in our community who could use another adult in their life.

  2. Dinosaur Dad

    Some great thoughts here, very indicative of Mr. Dodig’s commitment to the kids. “Being different at this age is difficult” is an understatement. In addition to the kids who are in the minorities he mentions, there’s another group that needs outreach – the “lost middle.” By that I mean: While we should always celebrate the accomplishments of the “leader” kids – the outstanding students, the best athletes, the talented Players kids – unfortunately there are also lots of kids who can and do get lost in the shuffle – the wide “middle” who don’t feel quite as engaged and accepted in the mainstream, haven’t found a “niche,” are trying to find themselves, and unfortunately don’t get much attention or recognition. The mark of a great school is the ability to connect with, encourage, support, and lift everyone up…and we should strive for that.

  3. The Dude Abides

    Kudos to Dinosaur Dad for a very valid point. I have always felt that a school should be judged by the bottom 1/4 of its students and not by the top. That being said, while I am sure Principal Dodig’s comments are heartfelt, I doubt very seriously the statement that “If you pick anywhere on earth to be different than the majority of people around you, Staples is the place.” From my conversations with Wrecker minorities, I don’t find that to be true.

    • Try not to be so predictable.

    • Dude – per the article, these students acknowledge the difficulties, but choose to remain at Staples. Have the students you’ve talked with wished to be somewhere else that they know to be better? Claiming to be the best (inferred above) doesn’t mean that you are good or bad, just better than the rest.
      I don’t take exception to a school principal who claims that his students are the best. I coach a girls soccer B-team, and I tell everyone that they are the best!

      • The Dude Abides

        Johnny Miller, the golfer, tells that story how his father used to call him “Champ” almost his entire youth. He loved it until he got to the Tour and realized that a more realistic approach was needed. The minorities that I have spoken to are not happy at Staples more because of the clothes, money issue rather than the color of their skin. They can not compete with the $100 jeans and Land Rovers. And it bothers them.

        • In the quest for diversity, large economic disparities are hard to avoid.

        • The question is whether or not such disparities drive human behavior. If not, then why are they mentioned so often as a source of trauma?

          • Innocent Bystander

            (1) Who says there is a quest for disparity in the school system?
            Dodig’s dictum points to the lack of it; (2) I have lived in a subdivision in the south whereby every race was represented in equal proportion to the overall city population and there was little economic diversity; (3) The human behavior mentioned was really jealousy. Your last point is well taken although a simple dress code in many jurisdictions, including some of our finest private schools, is a simple buffer to such issues of those less unfortunate.

          • The Dude Abides

            What quest? There is no quest for disparity here.

          • Of course there is. It’s talked about all the time. Can’t you see the results? Why else would we be patting ourselves on the back? How about this; if there were diversity, there would be economic disparities, otherwise no diversity. Almost tautological.

          • The Dude Abides

            Dodig needs to pat the backs of the Wreckers to keep the charade going. A 60’s love fest song. 6% of the student population is what, 70 kids? Stupid generalization. But there is disparity without diversity. There has been for 45 years since I attended. Try wearing sneakers to the JV soccer practice. Like the tautology reference.

          • Innocent; no one said that there was a quest for disparity, and race is but one metric by which diversity is measured. A more important mesurement would be a diversity of ideas and viewpoints. Unfortunately, this sort of diversity is both hard to measure and discouraged in academic circles where the keepers of the “truth” will not tolerate a challenge to their faith.

          • Innocent Bystander

            Public education has filtered out the mavericks and flush the cattle through the vast array of barracades to college where they take remedial courses to catch up. I prefer the English system where you are deemed a plumber early on and stop the nonsense.

          • Innocent: You should now join the Dude in the undisclosed location before your heresy stirs the establishment to hunt you down.

          • Innocent Bystander

            The Dude wants to tweak the system and pull the bottom up. I say tear it all down. Push the brains to excel in special classes. The other 80 % goes to shop and perhaps bartending classes.

          • Innocent: Sounds like the German model. It won’t gain traction here; too much money riding on the current system. BTW during the real Sputnik moment, pushing the top 20% to excel was not considered a bad thing. Now, it is considered bad form and anti-democratic.

          • OMG we stole all the German scientists after the war to compete with the Ruskies. ISO top guns now for the Chinese. IMHO must change the model. Got enough average well-rounded imbeciles. Enough FUD. Darwin is GR8

          • Why not give each family the almost $20,000 per year per student the BOE spends ( using a proper budget instead of the faux budget preferred by the BOE and Landon), and then let them decide how and where they want their children educated? If parents thinks their child should be a plumber, or a carpenter, or whatever, they could then act in a manner most consistent with that outcome. Instead we have $20,000 per student per year one-size-fits-all mismatch.

          • The Dude Abides

            I agree. I believe that is called the voucher system. It would instill competition, extreme evaluation of the student-product and probably lead to happier lives for those less gifted i.e if you are told your entire life that you are going to college because you live here and your parents both are lawyers, what you gonna think when you get sub-prime SAT’s. That you just don’t belong??? Dodig’s dog and pony show of perfect harmony is ridiculous and not reality. The kids are smart enough to know b.s and by the age of 10 know where they stand in the pecking order.

  4. The ghost of my English teacher's pet peeve

    I whole heartedly applaud the principal’s efforts to encourage a supportive and inclusive community among his students. That said, is there an English teacher that might gently be able to advise him of grammatical rules around numbers? My high school English teacher taught us to spell out single-digit whole numbers and use numerals for numbers greater than nine. She would have flunked us if we wrote “6 years ago with 2 African American Staples freshmen”. It should be “six years ago with two African American Staples freshmen”. I’d hate for any Staples students to be dinged on the essay portion of their SATs by following their principal’s example here…

    • The ghost of my English teacher's pet peeve

      Of course, my English teacher also would have flunked me for having failed to check the spelling on the post above. Oh, well… Wholehearted apologies.

      • I’ll take the hit for that. John Dodig had it correct. I changed the words to numbers to fit my blog format, in which ease of readability trumps Strunk & White. I do know the rules — but this is a blog, not a formal paper. Blame me, not the principal.

        • The ghost of my English teacher's pet peeve

          The ghost of my English teacher retracts her horror.

  5. The main threat to the Staples “village” of homogeneous love is economic disparity. That is something that the administrators may not be able to fix but certainly is a factor in the comfort level and “being liked” and being accepted.

  6. I can’t help it. I have to comment in response to the negatives out there. Some people ALWAYS see the glass half empty. I thank God every day that I see something positive and dwell on that before I go to sleep every night. I’ve lived in schools as a professional for 42 years. Kids can be cruel to one another. Nothing is perfect, but the environment at Staples is positive, supportive, and accepting. If you are looking for one example of a kid who hates school you will find her. If you are looking for one kid who has been made to feel picked on you will find him. If you are looking for an example of intolerance, you will find it. I never said Staples is perfect. All I said is that in all of the schools I have lived in as a student and as a professional educator, Staples is the most accepting place I know and that is because Westport is an accepting (not just tolerant) place. Come on you you angry, doubting people…..see the good in this community. It feels so good.

    • Why are the people who disagree with your perception considered negative? My child is in private school because of a terrible experience at Staples. I am not angry. Just disappointed.

    • Dodig sounds like Palin. When she is wrong, she whines that everybody is a naysayer.

  7. The Dude Abides

    Many of us DO see the glass half empty but strive for it to be filled. There is a difference, obviously, with those who see it full all the time. But the joy comes from the journey . . . and not the bravado of reaching the unreachable summit.