Principal for when things fall apart

Guest Commentary

Justin Willson

Justin Willson

‘A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet”, says Uchendu in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). “But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you.” This is how Uchendu rudely welcomes his nephew, Okonkwo. The latter, in lieu of committing a “female” crime (the Ibo name for an “involuntary” offense), has been banished from his father’s tribe. He suffers the paradoxical situation of being exiled to his motherland. He’ll be busy several years persolving this old debt, while his paternal tribe, in which he once occupied a high rank, itself pays off a debt to an outsider. This weakly foolish, but at least as commercially attractive predator, is Christianity. As Achebe narrates it, the two scenarios are parallel plots, and Okonkwo returns from exile to find that his own son has converted to the new religion. He proves his effeminacy, as Okonkwo sees it. An ancient patriarchy has begun to topple, yielding to an immemorial matriarchy.

To be clear, the weakness and business of Christianity in the novel — and of femininity as the analogue is trotted out — is a perception posited, on the one hand, by Ibo patriarchs, and on the other, by rapacious whites. But, as it turns out, neither women nor outsiders are the underlying cause of tribal disintegration. As with any tragedy, the “fall” can be chalked up to self-destructive patterns of human nature, especially masculinity; hence, Uchendu’s great lesson: Life will return to its Mother.

As one contemplates the self-destructive patterns dissevering DCSS, one might do well to listen to Uchendu. Broadly speaking, the American educational scene is only as riddled and patchy as our family life, and, as we are everywhere showing, the childrearing bond, the “primary” bond looks like maternity, not paternity. We in the Bible Belt don’t need to turn to anthropology to verify that one. As Apostle Paul urges: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth etc.” So I write in order to celebrate one of the great women leaders of DCSS, with a mindset like Uchendu and bearing up under the chi (a personal god in Ibo) of Chinua Achebe, who died just this spring. I write out of respect for Mrs. SaJuana Williams, Assistant Principal of Dougherty Comprehensive High School.

When I entered DCSS in 2009, Mrs. Williams made a point of consistently welcoming and training all nine new teachers, of whom I’m the only one left — which shows what she was up against. I remember thinking of Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures of Mother and Child, how she captured the strength of African-American women, thinking of how if I were an old historian, I could make excellent chreia of a day’s work with her. Her expressionless, yet warm face fit the demeanor of an institution which she so obviously loved and which so obviously needed her presence and strong hands.

I remembered during some of her meetings that, to my mind, outwent any reasonable need for paperwork, as I dismissively counted the syllables of “per-snik´-i-te,” language that Mama Joad used in Steinbeck, keeping the Joad family going, and was able to believe at least until it was over that something in this was right and good, though I couldn’t say just what it was at the moment. That is the measure of faith she could muster up, and still can, in one getting a feel for things in our schools.

It comes from her insides. Three years ago, Mrs. Williams was married to a longtime Albanian; a year later, her first child was born; after a very short maternity leave, a few months passed, and it was announced that Mrs. Williams would be interim principal of Dougherty High; the summer following school year 2011-12, she suffered the loss of her mother; before this had completely passed, she was put under the pince-nez of the DA’s office on account of a situation outside the teeth of mandatory reporting; just before January of 2013, it was announced that she was no longer interim principal.

During these three years, Mrs. Williams has remained in a major key. As she reminds students daily over the intercom: “Remember: At Dougherty Comprehensive High School, you are loved, you are intelligent, and you are a conqueror. Let’s have a great day!” It’s not a vision or theory that carries her; rather, it’s a temperament. She is imminently practical because she is competitive, a trait she nurtured during eight years coaching high school athletics. But practicality also runs in her blood. Her father was assistant principal of Telfair High School and principal of Telfair Middle School, and one senses the desire to please a superior (administratively and religiously) in her deportment. If temperament makes her outgo herself, then I believe the hope of leadership at Dougherty High stops with her. “Put your bucket down where you’re at,” as Booker T. said. Start building with what you’ve already got.

Dougherty High is never as academically minded, straightforward, clean and hopeful as when she is at its head. In a school that serves students from mostly single-mother households, with her stern, no-nonsense approach, Mrs. Williams is the prime candidate for future leadership. I am thankful for her. I am proud to have worked with her.

Justin Willson is an English teacher at Dougherty High School.