I didn’t want to believe the text message. I ran upstairs to my loft and began making calls to confirm the news. “Yeah man,” Delbert “DJ Kraze” Jarmon said. “He died of a heart attack this morning. Earl Pappy, the former Principal of Hillside High School, died on Sunday morning.
I soon discovered that his last days were engulfed in a tussle to find work after resigning his post at Hillside. He walked away after being pressured by members of the alumni association, some parents and folks like me to turn things around at the troubled school. People were tired of all the negatives that came with having a student enrolled at the Hillside. It was time to shift the cycle of dismay that made Hillside a laughingstock among North Carolina schools.
I’ll never forget my last encounter with Earl Pappy. It was during a meeting with the Site Based Management Team at Hillside. They were troubled after reading a blog I posted that called for a change in the culture at Hillside. Pappy was angry because the students were angry. I listened as other members of the committee shared their opinions about my blog. It wasn’t until Pappy spoke that I decided to write an apology to the students.
“I haven’t read what you wrote,” he said. “I don’t need to read it. My students are upset and that’s all I need to know about what you wrote.” It was the look on his face that got my attention. I could tell he cared about the students. He was right. They had heard enough bad news about their school.
“He was more like a friend than a Principal,” Cortland “Big Dre” Gallaway said. “He really cared about us.” Big Dre talked to me about how Pappy would listen to the students. In his mind that was a good thing. In the minds of some of the teachers it’s what made it difficult for him to succeed.
One teacher told me Pappy was a bad match for Hillside. The school, in that teacher’s opinion, needed a disciplinarian, someone who would tell the boys to pull up their pants. “He would have been great in a school like Hillside New Teach or in a setting where the emphasis was just on the academics. The problem I have is in how he was set up to fail.”
From all accounts Pappy had a hard time finding work after leaving Hillside. I’m told he spent his last days depressed due to the stress caused by having to deal with a career change. Is that what happens after we throw people among the wolves to be devoured while attempting to make a difference? After being forced to leave his job, the school system failed to find a place for Pappy to continue to use the gifts that landed him the job. What happened to all those accolades that had leaders of the system raving about how he would make a difference?
“He was easy to work with,” said Nakia Jones. Jones has served as a substitute teacher at Hillside since 1996. She has watched Principals come and go. “The one thing that set him apart from others was his support for the arts. He really believed in what we were doing and did all he could to support us.”
Pappy’s biggest critics acknowledge that he was a great person. “I can separate how I feel about a person from how I feel about them as a leader,” Jarmon said. “As much as I liked him as a person I did not think he was the right person for Hillside.”
It is hard to talk about a person after they die. During his life I believed Pappy was set up to fail. I wrote that the Alumni hindered his progress. I believed then, and still do, that it was a lack of support from the community that led to his end at Hillside. I believed then, and I still do, that our expectation for Pappy to save the ship from sinking void of help from those looking from the outside would set him up to fail-just like those who came before him at Hillside.
What troubles me most is what happened after he walked away. No one was there to offer him a job. No one cared enough to help Pappy stand with integrity after the pressure was too much for him to continue in his role at Hillside. It is disturbing to me that black men with insight take that risk everyday to make a difference. They throw themselves in the midst of the hardest battles only to be cast to the side after they are unable to make the expected change.
This man deserved the right to work with dignity. Why didn’t we support him after he walked away? Why couldn’t we find a way to utilize his enormous gift? Why do we give black men one chance to fail?
This was a great man who loved the students at Hillside. They cared for him for reasons some may never understand. He made a difference in their lives. Despite all of that he couldn’t get a job.
Help me understand why. It’s a shame. No, it’s a damn shame!