Charismatic principal at heart of engaging book about Catholic school - Catholic Courier

Charismatic principal at heart of engaging book about Catholic school

The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem by Patrick J. McCloskey. University of California Press (Berkley, Calif., 2009). 480 pp. $27.50.

The Street Stops Here illustrates the history, importance, potential and strength of Catholic urban education through an engaging and well-written narrative of one academic year (1999-2000) at an inner-city boys’ school, Rice High School in New York’s Harlem. Established by the Christian Brothers in 1938, Rice historically educated white ethnic Catholics and now has a predominantly African-American, mostly non-Catholic, student body.

The man at the heart of this book, as he was the heart of the school that year, is Orlando Gober, Rice’s charismatic principal. Gober is a complex, conflicted, passionate and paradoxical leader who believes he has a mandate to do God’s work “as an African-American man who happens to be a Christian educator.”

His ambitious goal is not merely “salvaging at-risk students” but making Rice into “a true college preparatory high school.”

Author Patrick McCloskey, who has clear respect for Gober, offers a balanced portrait of the principal’s considerable strengths and equally considerable weaknesses.

Throughout the year McCloskey was witness to Gober’s inability to create a cohesive school community, as well as his race-based hiring policies, persistent conflicts with the Christian Brothers over educational priorities, difficulties with funding and strategic planning, and a shocking inattention to his personal health and well-being.

But this lack of balance and the tendency to play the martyr role pales against Gober’s vivid God-given gift, the ability to nurture at-risk adolescent boys who suffer from the “father wound.” His ceaseless love for these boys — expressed in hours of patient listening, assessing, planning and guiding — is directed at healing the wounds inflicted on sons without fathers.

He sets high academic and behavioral standards, guides them into taking responsibility for their behavior and models by example what it is to be a proud and empowered black man.

“Securing the school’s psychological perimeters via discipline and structure allows Orlando to offer his boys an option that is both a proven, traditional path to manhood and one that nurtures the young men’s African-American or Hispanic identity without developing a false sense of self-esteem,” McCloskey writes.

The vignettes of Gober and his students are all the more poignant as the reader learns about the chaos, violence and legal hurdles so many students endure — homes and lives ravaged by gangs, drugs, imprisonment, alcoholism, violence and the legacy of a failed system of public education. McCloskey’s descriptions of lessons derailed by noisy conversation, acting out and inattention deepens the reader’s admiration for the underpaid Rice teachers and counselors he profiles.

McCloskey’s intent is not only to narrate a year at Rice, but to proselytize for Catholic education.

“Urban Catholic schools stop gang activity and other street rivalries at the front door, as symbolized when Rice students take the do-rags off their heads as they step into the building. The ritual is almost sacramental,” he writes. “The young men instantly lose their street swagger and transform into students not much different than their peers at predominantly white Catholic schools.”

In a chapter on the history of American Catholic education, McCloskey argues that it is a model that can serve today’s inner-city youths with the same success that raised Irish Americans out of poverty and into prosperity. His comparison lacks persuasiveness, though, because he fails to give sufficient weight to the richly textured cultural and sacramental Catholic life in which that Irish education took place.

Most of the students at Rice, as is true in most inner-city schools, are not Catholic, and appropriately there is no doctrinal content in the classes. Still, there is a profound incarnational lesson that is communicated through the intensity of the personal, moral, and intellectual formation that goes on there.

The education Rice students receive is a legacy not only of pedagogical skill, but of the Catholic theological instinct about the preciousness of each soul and, therefore, of the exquisite dignity of all human persons.

Linner, a freelance reviewer, lives in Boston.

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