By Jennifer Song
"I dream that I've come upon this secret mist I developed. I spray this mist in the halls and the students breathe it and do 100 percent academically!" says Principal Phillip Gainous, as he leans back in his padded chair. He then looks up at the ceiling, shaking his head while saying, "Boy, if it were that easy!" before letting out a thunderous laugh.
In many ways, Gainous's life would be much different if, in fact, it was that easy. But changing the academic attitudes of high school students has been an ongoing, uphill battle for him. "Our biggest hurdle right now is trying to get students who don't perform well [in school] to change their minds [about their education]," says Gainous, with a hint of exasperation in his voice. "We have to learn how to get [an academic] turn-around."
In the spotlight
Because of his involvement in this struggle, Gainous exhibits an unrivaled dedication to his students. After upholding students' first amendment rights by supporting the responsible but controversial, student-produced TV show Shades of Gray, Gainous was invited by the Newseum to speak before the American Association of School Administrators. The national conference, which was held from February 19 to 22 in New Orleans, was attended by nearly 4,000 superintendents, principals, and school board members from various states and countries.
Gainous was a member and presenter of the five-person panel that led a discussion on "How the Student Press Can Succeed and Still Cover Tough Topics." Gainous's presentation focused on the trust he has for his students.
He was shocked to hear stories from other schools of their reluctance in upholding students' free speech rights. "Some states would die if Silver Chips was printed there," says Gainous with laughter. "It is unbelievable how scared to death [other school administrators] are to allow students any kind of freedom."
A new set of rules
Like Blair started in need of that magical mist, Gainous lacked direction in his early years. However, when his father died when he was just 15 years old, he vowed to change his academic behavior and to do a better job taking care of his family.
But it was not until his freshman year at Morgan State University that he fully realized his capacity. "I learned consistent study habits so [academics] became easier for me. I found I loved the sciencess, biology in particular, and I [had] never realized how much I liked it," Gainous says, locking his hands behind his head. "It wasn't until college that I learned how good I could be academically once I put out the effort."
Ironically, Gainous learned these study habits as a result of chasing girls. "[When I was in high school,] there was a certain academic level that I had to maintain to hang with the group of girls I was interested in," he remembers. "By college, I realized that I had to know a lot more [to be around and attract girls]."
Besides his interests in science and girls, Gainous loved to play football. He started on both his high school and college teams, and participated in three touch football leagues when he was younger. Because of his academic success at Morgan State, Gainous was named an academic All-American offensive guard. He also made All-Interhigh as a fullback, All-Met as a tackle, and All-Conference as a guard.
Before the end of his college football stint, Gainous played in the 1964 Orange Bowl, which was then called the Orange Blossom Classic. With 3:37 remaining in the fourth quarter, Gainous remembers being up 7-6 over Florida A & M. Gainous, who played most of the game on both defense and offense in the humid Florida air, stopped a run by Bob Hayes, arguably the fastest player in football. Hayes was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. Remembering his tackle, Gainous wears a triumphant grin briefly, but then recalls a teammate saying, "'Nice tackle Gainous, but here they come again.'" Hayes scored three touchdowns that game, and Florida went on to crush Morgan State, 37-7.
Justifying his team's 31-point slip in the last three minutes, Gainous explains that Florida would beat their opponents by 60 points. "[The Florida players] physically wore us down. We each lost 15 to 20 pounds that game in the hot, humid air. Meanwhile, Florida would substitute whole line-ups because their team was twice the size of ours!" he recalls.
In 1964, the San Diego Chargers drafted Gainous because he was "a tackle-sized guard and brainy. At that time I was big and fast," he explains. "I weighed 250 pounds and I was trim, mean, and lean. Now, I'm big and wide!" he says, looking down and pulling at his cream-colored sweater.
During his rookie professional season, he played on the taxi squad, whose members would be brought up to play if there were any injuries to the starters. However, Gainous had what coaches called "brittle ankles," or ankles that sprained easily. Gainous remembers having to take care of his ankles even through high school. "My coach always made me wear black high tops, while all the other players wore low tops, which I thought were cool. I tried sneaking in a pair of low tops, but my coach was waiting with my shoes," he says with an embarrassed laugh.
Because Gainous questioned his durability in the pros, he played with the Chargers for only two seasons. His release from San Diego would be the last time he would play organized football. "Playing football was a great experience because I learned life lessons in teamwork, responsibility, and taking care of your position. It was fun and it was the first time I got to travel," he says, smiling broadly. "Those were some really good times."
Those good times also refer to his marriage to his college sweetheart, Patricia, on June 8, 1964. They met when Gainous was a senior and Patricia, who is now a teacher, was a sophomore. "I first noticed her big green eyes and the way she looked in her majorette uniform," he admits with a mischievous grin. "[Because I was older], I would guide her academically. She played basketball and hockey and was very athletic, so we had common interests," he explains.
Gainous's only daughter, Philicia, who is now 21 and will graduate from the University of Maryland in May, was named with a combination of her parent s' first names. Gainous also owns a boat which he named Philicia. Like her father, Philicia is athletic and at times stubborn, according to Gainous. He smiles when recalling her independence as a child and adult, and her exposure to strong academics.
Gainous is then silent, trying to articulate how he hopes he has positively influenced and raised Philicia. "I hope I've taught her values, especially caring about and respecting people. [I've taught her about] taking responsibility and giving her best effort," he says.
Although he says he tries to be a role model for his family and his students, he points out that he has flaws. "I'm an impatient listener and sometimes my impatience shows through," he admits. "Although I'm courteous, my mind's going crazy [with so many thoughts]. There's a tremendous difference in relating to people when you give them your full attention, and I'd like to be better at that."
But even more challenging to Gainous is changing the academic behaviors of some students. "[This task is] an all-consuming thought. It's making my hair white," he says, chuckling.
Gainous's passion for Blair and its community is evident to many teachers and some students. "It's rare even during my relaxing times that I'm not thinking about how to improve this school. If I didn't have my boat, I'd probably be here working on the weekends," he admits.
This passion has held through his teaching and administrative career. "When I was a principal in Virginia, I would come in [to school] on Saturdays with my daughter. She would roller blade around the halls while I would work in my office," he recalls. "I thought this was normal!"
"Normal" would be far from describing it, but then again, Gainous has a passion that is unparalleled by other "normal" principals. Certainly, other principals would hang their awards for their students and staff to admire, but Gainous, absorbed with the responsibilities of the new school, leaves his plaques neatly stacked on a bottom shelf in his office.
Perhaps his most important achievement, though, will be one that he can't hang in his room: the success of his students. And one day, his efforts and determination will triumph, making the secret mist seeping from the walls a reality.