Why Halloween Spooks Administrators
Halloween was a big holiday in the rural community where I had taken a job as an elementary principal. Thick artificial cobwebs hung like crepe over porches illuminated by tiny pumpkin lights. Styrofoam tombstones sprouted in front lawn cemeteries. Witches and ghouls lounged comfortably on the steps.
Halloween at school was a community event with an outdoor parade followed by class parties. Students cut out bats, ghosts and pumpkins to decorate the windows. Everyone – students, teachers, and staff --wore a costume to school on Halloween. Everyone but me, that is. As principal it occurred to me that in case of emergency, I would not exhibit the gravitas the situation might warrant dressed as Snow White or Charlie Chaplin. Teachers, however, came to school as vampires or teabags or rock stars and taught reading and math to diverse classes of mice, chickens, aluminum foil R2D2s, pint-sized WWF wrestlers with inflatable muscles, and girl singers with pudgy bare midriffs. The real festivities started in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, at the Legion, some of the regulars thought that, in the spirit of the season, somebody ought to put on the giant gorilla costume the Legion used for special occasions and “surprise” the kids at school. It wasn’t long before a volunteer donned the costume, jumped into his pickup truck, parked, and entered the school through the loading dock. His buddies said later that the best part was watching a gorilla drive a truck.
The shrieks of the terrified first graders could be heard all the way to the main office. By the time I got to their classroom the kids were cowering under their desks while the gorilla jumped around the room, beating his chest and howling. Even the teachers looked terrified. Anger made me brave.
“Hey!” I yelled, glad I was dressed as a civilian and not as a princess. “Stop it! You’re scaring the kids!” The gorilla froze. “Take that mask off!” I demanded, my heart pounding. The gorilla hung his head, and then removed it, revealing a very drunk, very shamefaced father of one of the kids. The gorilla shambled out. I called the police and told Quasimodo, the custodian, to lock all the doors, including the overhead at the loading dock.
That afternoon hundreds of parents, relatives, and community members -- some of them in costume -- attended the students’ parade. Word of the gorilla incident had spread rapidly. While some parents (especially those who had first graders) thanked me, others felt I had “overreacted.” “It’s just the boys having a little fun,” one mother chided me.
Finally, Halloween at school was over and, high on sugar, students piled into the buses to head home for trick or treating that evening. I slumped in my office chair grateful that the gorilla had gone quietly, but wondering how I had furthered the cause of education that day and whether I had a future in that particular community.
A superintendent friend of mine, concerned as I was about the waste of instructional time at Halloween, decided to do something about it. Encouraged by a handful of parents, some of whom objected to Halloween celebrations for religious reasons, he decided that students would no longer have parties and parades at school. Instead, they would have a “Harvest Celebration” after school. Students would bob for apples and press colored leaves into waxed paper. I admired his courage. Parents who attended the board meeting did not.
Community expectations can’t be ignored if you want to survive as a school administrator, and if you’re an outsider, you may be surprised at how warmly parents defend some traditions and how unhappy they are when you deviate from those traditions. I guess it comes down to whether you can live with the gorilla in the room.