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From NPR Ed: One Student Tries To Help Others Escape A 'Corridor Of Shame'

May 31, 2016 - Posted in Education by Anya Kamenetz of NPR
Robert Gordon standing in hallway of North Middle/High School

Robert Gordon pauses in the hallway of North Middle/High School while distributing letters to students regarding their ACT tests.

NPR

Just across the train tracks from U.S. Route 321, in the town of North, S.C., nestled among mobile homes covered with red roses, sits the one-story brick campus of North Middle/High School.

Robert Gordon strides forward in the school's entryway to shake my hand. He's slim, dressed neatly in khakis, loafers and a striped polo shirt, with a pleather portfolio under one arm.

"It's been a stressful morning," he says, explaining that one middle school boy stabbed another with a pencil.

Pacing the length and breadth of the campus, covering miles in the course of the day, he greets everyone by name.

"This is Brittany, Kayla, Charlslyn, Chanel, Chante, Chelsea, Whitney, Marquel, Zaquias, Kaiver, that's Kerry ... "

It's two weeks before graduation, and Gordon seems to be everywhere at once — helping seniors fill out scholarship applications, writing recommendation letters, checking on the arrangements for that night's band concert, fixing a computer issue for a math teacher, reimbursing a dollar that the vending machine ate, making copies of answer sheets for a practice test.

A typical day for a small-town principal. Only Gordon isn't the principal. He's an 18-year-old senior.

I heard about Robert Gordon from Student Voice, a national, nonpartisan student group that's been visiting high schools all over the country to hear from fellow students. At North, the activists said, the first thing people told them was, "This school should be shut down." Then, they heard this: "You've got to talk to Robert. He knows more about this school than anyone. He should be the principal."

"He's a second principal," a math teacher, Rajananthini Velummylum, tells me. "That's what they refer to him as, the assistant principal," agrees Abigail Fersner, the guidance counselor.

"He's basically our principal," says his friend Charlslyn Jamison, a senior. "That's what people call him."

"I've never heard that," says Charles Gregory, who is the principal. He's a tall man, handsome in an Elvis mold. Gregory is a former social studies teacher who grew up in nearby Aiken. For the past five years, he's been in charge of this tiny school where 85 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch.

"In any rural area, you're trying to get them to see the big picture," he says of the challenges of leading this school. "Let them know there's life outside, other things to do and places to go." He says the students go on a lot of field trips and college visits in other parts of the state.

Gregory calls Gordon "a leader among his peers," who helps out with tasks like ushering at assemblies.

"Everybody here has more than one thing going on," he says. "As principal, I have to do a little bit of everything. Robert is happy to help out. He wants to be involved."

Taking On An Adult Role

Robert Gordon grew up in North, a town of fewer than a thousand people, and now lives in nearby Norway (population 330). His unusual leadership role at the school, he says, started in the eighth grade.

"I was class representative, and my class decided to have a middle school prom," he explains. "I pushed for it, and we raised almost $800. And after that they kind of appointed me president of the school, and every time they needed or wanted something done, they would come to me, students and teachers included."

"I've never seen a student like him," says Fersner, the guidance counselor. "He's a student who takes on an adult role. The students respect him a whole lot, and so do the parents."

Today, Gordon knows just about every one of North's 275 students by name, plus the teachers, administrators and many parents. And he has just about all of their phone numbers, too.

He spearheaded fundraising and planning for the senior class trip, a cruise to the Bahamas.

He helps students with serious personal problems: drugs, thoughts of suicide.

He calls home to check on kids in trouble. He intervenes in disputes. Even, Fersner confirms, between staff members.

Not all the teachers appreciate it. "Sometimes he might cross a line," the counselor adds. "He and I bump heads at times, but I don't deny him the right of letting him know that he has great leadership skills."

Above all, though, Gordon's role seems to be that of peacemaker. At one point he takes on a tough-looking kid with long hair and a heavy-metal T-shirt who's wandering the halls hand in hand with his girlfriend. The second time they pass by, Gordon does a little side-step shuffle, blocking their path, with a big grin on his face. He doesn't say a word.

View this story and more on NPR

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