Sunday, March 31, 2024

A Principal and a Rivalry

             In recent days, I have become the Johnny Damon of central Jersey education.

            For 20 years, I have worked at Westfield High School, a secondary school in Union County – first as an English and journalism teacher, then as an assistant principal. But starting July 1, I will be the principal of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, a secondary school in the town next door to Westfield. For many years, the two schools have been archrivals in athletics, with huge student turnouts whenever they play each other.

            And now I’m moving from one to the other. I’m by no means the first educator to do such a thing, and we certainly have plenty of similar examples from sports as well – one notable move being the New York Yankees’ signing of centerfielder Johnny Damon after he had led the rival Boston Red Sox over the Yankees en route to ending Boston’s 86-year World Series drought.

            I recall the headlines of the Yankees’ signing and thinking to myself, “How am I going to root for Johnny Damon?” He had symbolized the rivalry, and was going to have to shave his famous beard and long hair to comply with the Yankees’ facial hair and hair-length policies. But once he showed up in the Bronx, Damon was fully committed to the Yankees, and by 2009 he was helping lead them to a championship as well.

            When folks have asked me about my own rivalry switch, I have shared that the high school I attended had the same nickname as Scotch Plains – the Raiders. And when I got to college, I attended a university whose heated rival, Duke University, shared the same nickname as Westfield – the Blue Devils. So based on my formative years as a student, I don’t expect to have much trouble rooting for the Raiders and against the Blue Devils. The difference will simply be that I’ll know and care deeply about the students and coaches on both sides. I can think of far worse things than that.

            And the principal of Westfield High is a dear friend and mentor, so I’m sure we’ll figure out fun ways to handle big rivalry games – who has to treat the other to lunch, or who has to wear the other school’s gear, based on the outcome. She’s also shared that she really looks forward to beating the school with me there. So, all right, bring it on.

            Becoming a school principal carries with it tons of challenges and opportunities, and I am preparing for those with a complete and dedicated effort. I think all of my colleagues and students – in the past, present and near future – care more about what I bring to the table as an educational leader than the reality of my rivalry switch.

            In the end, Johnny Damon was a baseball player, first and foremost. And he played with class and determination. I guess I could do far worse in comparisons.