Hope High School in Providence, RI, where I graduated in 1983, was what would now be described as an underperforming school. If you attended public school then, you took a test in 8th grade to see if you were qualified to attend Classical High, Providence’s college prep school. I passed that test but decided to go to Hope because they had an arts magnet program and I knew at that time I wanted to be a writer.
I never took a survey, but I got the sense a lot of the other kids at Hope were there because they didn’t pass the test. I didn’t know why you would go there if you did pass it and weren’t interested in the arts. The school had a reputation for failure and chaos. Many of the windows were broken or boarded up, there were no AP classes, and the teachers seemed weary and resigned to their role as caretakers more than educators.
I didn’t mind all the academic apathy. The homework was easy, which left me time to read my own books and write my own stories and design my Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Plus, I knew if I had gone to Classical, I’d have felt competitive with all the other achievers, and I wanted less competition in my life, not more of it. Somewhere in me already I was sensing, though not owning, the generosity necessary to write and share stories.
My sophomore year, Hope got a new principal. Tony Caprio sounded like a mafia don when he spoke. He was a short man, with a tough, blunt Rhode Island attitude. The first week after he arrived, he called a school-wide assembly. I didn’t like assemblies. I found them depressing reminders of the school’s lack of cohesion. The kids talked and didn’t pay attention. I didn’t want us to be obedient, but I did want focus, purpose, and courtesy.
Mr. Caprio climbed on stage in his shabby suit, grabbed a microphone, and began stalking back and forth explaining that things were going to change. “This school,” he said, “needs pride and dignity. That’s what we need. And from now on, when I’m your principal, that’s what I’m going to demand. The grades, and the success, and everything school is here for will come, but first we need pride and dignity. Pride and dignity!”
No one whooped or cheered, but they listened. And as I stood at the back of the auditorium, I found myself moved for the first time in my life by something resembling civic awareness. That is, something more than myself, and of my place in a community. Tony Caprio was correct, I thought. It all starts with the right attitude, the right belief. Maybe no one had ever spoken to most of these kids that way.
I had been listening to teachers and principals and vice-principals my whole life, these adults who were supposedly in charge, and nothing they ever said seemed capable of changing or helping anyone. I had decided that since between them and the prevailing attitude that politicians were corrupt and useless, I should just take care of myself and let the world burn if it wanted to. Listening to our new principal, I realized I would be happy if I was wrong about that.
Things began to change at Hope. New windows were to be installed all over the school, both replacing the broken ones and upgrading the old ones. The halls were less chaotic between classes. A kind of natural order seemed to be imposing itself on the teachers and students alike. It was as if he had given us permission to care–if not about the school specifically, then at least the experience we were having there.
I had only one personal meeting with Mr. Caprio. I needed a letter of recommendation for something. I sat in his office, him behind his big desk crowded with papers and pictures of his wife and kids, and explained what I was going to do. I didn’t really like him. He was blunt and impatient and a little old-fashioned. Plus, his accent sounded like that of a TV criminal. Still, I didn’t care. I didn’t need to like him. He was the right man for the job.
Until, that is, he was indicted for insurance fraud, having apparently set his summer house on fire. I don’t recall anyone being particularly surprised when we learned the news. Not that we all thought he was a crook, but that this is simply what happens at Hope.
The windows he ordered, however, and continued to be installed right up until I graduated. I still thought from time to time about that first assembly. I know he was no saint, but I do think everyone has some saintliness in them, which is just what was reminding us of that day.