By Jackie Mah and by Jessica Wheeler
A guard's whistle blows, and a hundred metal doors simultaneously slam shut. Inside one cell, a prisoner sits on his bunk, wondering if he'll ever see home again. A week ago, he and his other black classmates were arrested near his college when they refused to leave an all-white movie theater. Expecting only a day or two in the local jail, they were put on a bus and sent to prison, to live under the same roof as hardened criminals.
But that was more than 30 years ago, and now the same man leans back in his office chair, his week-long stay in prison only a memory. Principal Phillip Gainous's life is very different today than it was during his college years, but his commitment to upholding constitutional rights has never wavered. Now, as a principal, he has taken up the cause for students' freedom of expression. His dedication has earned him national attention from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and a special place in the hearts of his students.
Gainous will speak at a conference from February 19 to 22 before the AASA on behalf of the Newseum organization. Gainous was asked to speak at the event because he was the first recipient of the Newseum's Courage in Student Journalism Award, which recognized his unfailing support of the controversial, student-produced television show Shades of Gray.
Gainous's willingness to challenge existing regulations in the interest of students' free speech demonstrates his devotion to education, even when faced with stern opposition.
In a document nominating Gainous for The Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award, media literacy teacher Christopher Lloyd writes, "In a day and age when too many principals follow the politically expedient course, our principal taught our students the value of following your principles and doing the right thing."
A friend indeed
Years after their graduation, many of the students Gainous formerly worked with while teaching at the middle school and high school level gratefully remember his genuine concern for their well-being and success. As a teacher, Gainous became deeply involved in their lives, providing a father figure and mentor for kids badly in need of the extra care.
He remembers one student, now a lawyer, who wanted to repay him for his guidance. "This guy called me up and he said, 'You always took care of me, and now that I'm making all of this money, I want to take care of you.'" Throwing back his head in laughter, Gainous continues, "Can you believe that? He wanted me and my family to move up to Boston where he was!"
Still chuckling, Gainous adds, "It's kind of nice, though, realizing the impact you had on people's lives."
Since 1964, when he first began as a gym teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School, Gainous's favorite part of being an educator has been forming close relationships with his students. In his transition from teacher to principal, one way he's managed to maintain direct contact with students is through a mentoring program at Blair that he used to take part in that allows him to get to know the kids outside a classroom setting. "When I don't have to be the principal, I'm the big brother or the father," Gainous explains. "But I still miss some of the real close relationships I've had as a teacher."
Gainous recalls a friend's words while he was making the transition from teacher to administrator. "He said, 'The reason you're concerned [about changing positions] is that you've developed a lot of close relationships with kids and you're afraid you're going to lose that. But [as a principal] you'll be in a position to affect many more lives,'" Gainous recalls. "I still remember those words to this day, and he was absolutely right."
Part of the reason why Gainous tries so hard to be the father figure missing from many of his students' lives is that his own father died when he was in the tenth grade. He believes that by filling the paternal gap for his students, he will help them succeed later in life.
The death of his father pushed Gainous to reevaluate his priorities and straighten him out. "I think I was heading down the path to be a hoodlum, trying to be 'one of the guys.' Then when my father died, I realized the effect [my behavior] had on my mother," he explains.
This realization made him decide to reverse the direction his life was taking. "The student government, during the holidays, would prepare baskets for the needy families," he recalls. "One day I got home early and found a basket down in the back of the basement. [It was] then [that] I realized we were poor, because my dad was gone and there were eight of us. And I made a vow to myself," he pauses, apologizing for the emotional tremor in his voice. "I made a vow that my school wouldn't ever have to call my mother [about my behavior] again, and that's when I started making my academic turn-around."
Gainous continued to excel both academically and athletically, earning a football, and later an academic, scholarship to Morgan State University. After a professional football stint with the San Diego Chargers, Gainous completed his Masters degree at American University and became a teacher and football coach before becoming a principal.
At 6' 2," Gainous's football player frame can make him an intimidating disciplinary figure. When he first came to Blair, the school's reputation in the county was suffering because of the presence of gangs. Gainous spent his first few years cracking down on members by calling them individually into his office and letting them know that he and the police were watching them. Usually the conferences ended peacefully, but he remembers one instance when the situation became violent. He recalls, "Once we had this guy in [my office] and he started throwing my furniture. So I grabbed him, and we ended up wrestling and rolling on the floor until my secretary heard the bumping and banging and called security."
Out of the office and on the playing field, Gainous remains a true motivator. Gainous cannot recall being harder on anybody than he was on his Coolidge High School football players. "During the pre-season days of football when [the players were] getting in shape, we would do running drills in order to build up stamina," he explains.
Chuckling before he continues, he remembers, "I had a short rubber hose, and I would give [the players] a ten-yard head start. Then I would start swinging the hose, saying, 'You gotta stay in front of me or you get whacked!'" He breaks into deep laughter, exclaiming, "I can't believe I used to do some of that stuff, but they would run!"
Everyone has his own quirks, and Gainous is no exception. Seeing him march authoritatively down Blair Boulevard, students would never guess that Gainous's favorite Tuesday night activity is catching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer on the WB. Unless, of course, they happened to notice the Sarah Michelle Gellar calendar on his office desk. When questioned, he protests sheepishly, "It was a Christmas present from my wife!"
Gainous may be grateful for the calendar, but according to his secretary Roseann Robb, who says Gainous has a "terrible time" with names, his wife will be lucky if he remembers what to call her. Robb recalls with amusement that Gainous forgot Robb's name when he tried to introduce her to the staff at the beginning of the year. Gainous admits that he once even forgot Superintendent Paul Vance's name while introducing him at a graduation ceremony.
Also a man of many unknown talents, Gainous reveals that he is a skilled tailor. "My mom made [my whole family] learn to sew. In fact, I made my spending money in college by altering people's clothes. And I still sew -- I'm good!" he boasts laughing. "I could hem your skirt, and let me tell you, there wouldn't be a single thread showing through on the other side!"
A principal passion
"[Gainous's] first love is students," says Robb. She adds proudly, "No matter how busy he is, he has time for the person who asks, 'Do you have a minute?' which he never does, but he makes a minute. He gives all of himself, and when he's talking to somebody, it's like there's nothing else."
Robb also emphasizes that Gainous has the same profound respect for everybody he comes in contact with. "If you hear his end of a phone conversation, you can never tell if he's talking to a student, a parent, or [Superintendent] Vance," because he treats all of them with the same patience and consideration, Robb says.
Gainous's undying dedication to serving Blair remains unhindered by the fact that he has high blood pressure, a stress-related condition. He says jokingly, "My doctor keeps telling me, 'If you die, I'm going to kill you!'"
However, Gainous doesn't feel that his job puts his health at risk, despite the stress involved. He admits that, on occasion, he has felt overwhelmed by his numerous responsibilities, but Gainous says he's developed methods to overcome his worries. "I can tell when I'm getting stressed, and typically what I do is I get out there, visit the classrooms and watch [the students] doing [their] thing," he says with a warm smile. "That's the good stuff."
Robb remembers when Gainous wanted some pictures hung up in the main office. Rather than giving someone else the task, he went to the hardware store, bought the right kind of nails that wouldn't crack the walls, and hung the pictures himself, remaining at school until 7:30 p.m. to finish the job. "Any other principal would have just told a staff member to do it, but he went [through] the trouble of doing it himself," she remembers.
Searching for a way to characterize her boss, Robb finally says thoughtfully, "[Gainous] is an extremely kind, patient person with a lot of trust in his staff and students. His door is always open, and I would say, 99 percent of the time, no matter who goes in, [he or she] comes out a better person."