I wrote the following in 2014, unpublished until now:
Recently, I’d watched a “Dateline” episode about Columbine High School shooting survivor Samuel Granillo, who documents his journey to process his pain of survivorship by visiting other campus-shooting survivors at their schools. In true form, I started crying about 10 minutes into the show for the full two hours. So many aspects of that documentary pulled at me, though one fact in particular kept coming back: the Columbine principal, Frank DeAngelis, promised in April 1999, to remain the school’s principal until every school-age child graduated through CHS, in effort to help to heal the community. And that last graduating class held its commencement exercises in June 2014.
In May, I took a chance, well out of my comfort zone.
Not really knowing what I’d do with the information, I Googled Columbine High School’s official school page. Amid all the end-of-year and graduation information links was DeAngelis’ email address. With nothing to lose, I sent him an email to say how remarkable his promise was and how affected I was by his appearance. I explained why I wasn’t teaching now, and I thought that his words could really speak to our Lake Norman community, even from 1,600 miles away, even if he couldn’t talk with me until sometime later.
Imagine my surprise when he sent me his phone number later that day. I was terrified. Be careful what you ask for, indeed!
After summoning the nerve to call, I was again surprised that he answered his own phone*.
Because I’m no Barbara Walters, I wasn’t entirely sure where this conversation would go. But once he started talking about kids, I settled in. It wasn’t long before I realized DeAngelis was the kind of principal I would have enjoyed working with, philosophies in sync. I’ve always said you can tell within the first few minutes if someone’s educational philosophy is rehearsed or real. And without prompting, he verbalized my own essential component for a strong educational foundation: He said, “Love is a key factor.”
DeAngelis and I did not talk about his accolades, nor his regular educational practices, which are sound and numerous—and they will reinvigorate your faith in public education. You can find his teaching traditions in any quick Internet search. Also, I didn’t ask him one question about that day, April 20, 1999, a little out of fear, but mostly out of respect. I hadn’t reached out to him to recall those details, and for the purpose of this call, it wasn’t really my business. His very existence is authority enough. We talked about teenagers and parents and how sometimes there seems to be an impossible breach between the two.
There comes a time when every family is enlightened by the rite-of-passage called adolescence. Its arrival, and subsequent changes, can surprise and frustrate even the über-prepared parent and rankle a child’s greatest champion. DeAngelis admits that parents find themselves in a tough situation when they love their children dearly and they want to be their best friend. “They will say to me, ‘Frank, can you tell them not to wear those baggy jeans or that risqué clothing?’ or not to do some other behavior. I tell them no, that they have to do it; and they look shocked,” DeAngelis says. “But parents have to provide the boundaries for their children. Sometimes that includes tough love.”
Throughout his experiences, he has seen many parents stress over a self-inflicted dilemma. “Parents have told me they think their child may be doing something he shouldn’t, but they don’t want to snoop through his room because it violates his rights. One parent’s son even padlocked his own door. I said, ‘You take that door off its hinges. That’s your door.’ If you think your child is involved with drugs and alcohol or something else, you have a responsibility to parent him. I can’t tell you how many kids come into my office, going through something, and they actually say, ‘I wish my parents cared enough to tell me no.’ I promise you: kids want boundaries, and they need them now more than ever.”
DeAngelis says kids aren’t so different these days really. “I’m going to be 60 years old, and I’m becoming like my parents, who are still alive, by the way,” he adds. “It’s ok to say, ‘As long as you’re under my roof, 18 or not, it’s about respect! It is not ok for my kids to not call home. I’d do the same thing. If I was messing up, my mom took away my clothes, not all of them, but the ones I’d want to wear. She always checked to see if I was getting involved in anything that would hurt me. So, if your kids threaten to leave home at 18, let them go. They’ll be back. Let them figure out how to pay the rent, the cell phone, fuel, and cable bills on their own. You’ve been ‘subsidizing’ their lifestyle; trust me, they’ll be back.”
While DeAngelis recognizes parental fears, he advises: “Throughout life, one of the greatest lessons is when we fail. As parents, we can come in and offer love and support. But today, parents will not allow their kids to fail—they question why they don’t get the lead in the play, or they go after coaches when they don’t make the team. The reality is our children are not going to get every job or make every team. They need this experience, and they need our support in it.
“I worry about this idea of doing everything to protect your child. We want their lives to be better than ours, but we’re missing a key point. Give the child a solid foundation with a strong sense of moral, ethical behavior. Sooner or later, once they do leave your house, they will struggle, whether it be a marriage, a job, whatever. Then it’s the moral fiber they can fall back upon. Sometimes college is the first time they leave home. As a parent, you’re not there to wake them up. Professors don’t call about attendance or missing assignments. And if you haven’t prepared them for responsibility, they’re going to come home early.”
He warns helicopter parents that sometimes what they perceive as providing assistance, they are really “doing” their child’s work, cheating her out of learning the coping skills she will need throughout her life. “Schools have an obligation to teach children how to read and to complete math skills; but they also need to be taught lifetime skills. I tell my students they can’t be tardy every day or miss 10-15 days in a year because they can’t do that in life. They won’t retain a job.”
Whether or not you agree with DeAngelis’ philosophy, you can trust that his “tough love” is build with love and respect. He gets kids. He understands the varied nuances of teenage boys and girls—and he isn’t cynical or snarky, even when he speaks of the less-than-flattering features of adolescents. He’s the man you’d want in your own children’s corner because you’d know he loves them. With him, a “child’s best interest” isn’t a platform.
The day after I talked with DeAngelis was the seniors’ last day, and DeAngelis had only one month until retirement. He said he looks forward to this new chapter, including spending more time with his fiancée, Diane. “My friends and family are worried I won’t have any self-worth,” he jokes. “I have a little more. I love Columbine, and I’m strong. I have no physical ailments—even my recent blood work is normal—but this will be an adjustment. My head is ready, but my heart and soul aren’t. I’ve been here for 35 years; it’s not that simple.
“Personally, I’m a very reactive person. I seek support. But after visiting Sandy Hook (he’s been twice), I thought maybe I could become proactive. I can talk to kids and parents, and I can carry the message that it’s never too late. Love is a key factor.”
*I later learned it was his cell number (who does that?!) when I received a call from the school secretary, Jane, following up to my email request; she was trying to make sure I got to talk with him before he retired. She didn’t know I had already spoken with him, but this sweet—and long—voicemail conveyed her concern about his schedule and her desire to fit me in it. She was certainly going above and beyond to ensure it happened, I thought. And so did Frank DeAngelis. After all, amid national interviews with Anderson Cooper, innumerable newspapers, and stations, and trying to wrap up “another school year,” he readily gave me 30 precious minutes of his day. An inspiring gift.