“I know young people like to do things quick”
The first time I went to the Hernandez to spend time with the principal Ana Tavares, I didn’t know some important things. Here’s an excerpt from my fieldnotes from that first day:
She asked me about what sort of prep work I had done before starting the ethnography. I mentioned the book on research practices around ethnographic fieldnotes that we had been reading, and she stopped me in the middle of my sentence, saying that I can read all the books on social research that I want but it’s not going to prepare me to actually do the ethnography well if I don’t have a background knowledge of the history of the community. Her expression shifted from one of excitement to one of worry. I was completely thrown at that point. Going in I had felt well-prepared, with a good grasp on what to expect in doing ethnography and a decent conceptual knowledge of the work that goes into working in the field. Hearing her use the word “disappointed” in describing how she felt about my state of preparation was not at all what I was expecting. She said that she “didn’t want me to come in and get it wrong,” because I am not at all from the background of the kids who go to the Hernandez. “I know young people like to do things quick. But it’s also important to do things right,” she said. She mentioned a documentary about the founding of the Hernandez that was going to be screened at 4:30 that day and told me I should go see it. She paused for a second, then amended her recommendation, saying that if I wanted to continue doing the project that she would require that I see the film.
The Rafael Hernandez School practices a form of bilingual schooling that’s referred to as “two-way” or “dual language” bilingual. The documentary I watched after our meeting, Dos Idiomas Una Comunidad, explores the founding of the Hernandez school, showing how this pedagogical practice - and consequently the ethos of the school - is centered on the belief that when done right, bilingual education is a tool that can do more than just teach kids another language. By not simply teaching English to kids who don’t speak it and calling it a day, and instead creating a community of both English speakers and non-English speakers learning two languages together, the documentary argues that a school can be a powerful tool for affirming, solidifying, and empowering marginalized and oppressed identities (Dos Idiomas).
The Hernandez was founded by Cuban immigrant and educator Margarita Muñiz in the 1970s amid the throes of Boston’s school desegregation efforts. The school’s history and character has been shaped by its identity as a culture in resistance. Firstly there was the struggle to found and keep open a school that was radically progressive during an already tumultuous time for education in Boston. But another key factor was how the school stubbornly survived and remained a positive, safe space in a gang-run neighborhood (Dis Idiomas).
“Don’t worry about all that”
Ana has piercing, inquisitive eyes and a strong, powerful smile that alone might be off-putting but together give her an air of cool, collected poise even when she laughs (which is often) or gets swept up in her thoughts, interrupting herself by sharing snippets of stories she’s reminded of. She’s the kind of person who makes you think about what you say, but not because she’s scary or intimidating. She makes you think because you can tell that her beliefs are deeply held, and she won’t hesitate to be real with you. She also seems to expect the same from others. At points while we were talking one-on-one, I would interrupt myself to figure out how to say what I wanted to say and she would tell me to forget all of that, implying that she didn’t want me to feel like I should come up with intricately well-worded sentences every time I wanted to talk to her. I got the sense that she wanted me to just say what was on my mind as it was, and wanted to react honestly to that.
She seemed to have a similar effect on other people. She led all the conversations I observed, asking questions and setting the agenda, requiring people to move with her and to respond to her deep beliefs quickly and honestly. Her fierce loyalty to the school and the community was a constant theme in my time with her, starting from that first interaction where she put me in my place with my background research.
“I’ve had my principal’s license for 15 years, but I never wanted to use it until I was needed here”
That fierceness and loyalty took two distinct forms. The first kind is the loyalty and trust that she has in her staff and in the community. Although she is clearly capable of doing her job (“I’ve had my principal’s license for 15 years,” she mentioned to me once, “but I never wanted to use it [until I was needed here].”), she introduced nearly every staff member I encountered as indispensable. When explaining people’s roles to me, she’d preface each explanation with a nickname (“I call him The Child Whisperer”) or a joke (that one faculty member is a semi-retired principal whom Ana tricked into working part-time with her) or an affirmation of their worth (she’s “the only thing keeping me sane”). These flavorful introductions didn’t seem planned or canned. The staff members who she was speaking about seemed genuinely flattered by what she said, giving me the sense that the compliments were genuine and heartfelt, rather than performative praise for the benefit of an outsider.
The trust and loyalty with her staff wasn’t only performative. In the moments I spent with her in between meetings or episodes of her day, she would continually ask me if I had any questions or what my take on events was. In addition to seeming very eager to talk about the goings-on with me and hear my thoughts on them, she would always have something to say if I mentioned a staff member. She expressed amazement at how well the Operations Coordinator (who seemed to be her sort of second in command) could understand what she was asking no matter how vague and scrambled up her thoughts were. We laughed about how ridiculously on top of things and capable the Director of Student and Family Engagement (the semi-retired principal she nicknamed The Child Whisper) was after peeking in on a rowdy 8th grade class he had calmed down. When the secretary was out with influenza B, she solemnly acknowledged on multiple occasions how much slack needed picking up in her absence. The loyalty she shows to established members of the community is supportive and internally focused. She refers to her personal needs and things she admires as an individual. The fierceness comes from how readily she expresses these things and how she makes sure that people she trusts know they have that support from her.
“I was like… ‘If she says ‘rules’ one more time…’”
The other kind of loyalty and fierceness, which I experienced on that first day, is shown to outsiders coming into the Hernandez community. When she steps into the mode of interacting with people outside the community - be it the mayor, the school superintendent, interviewees for jobs, or BPS psychologists coming to help with grief support - she dials up her presentation of herself as someone in control, someone who’s not messing around. This doesn’t mean she gets more boisterous -- in my experience, it’s the opposite. She’s much more wisecracking and jovial when just around her staff. Her presence becomes very calm, and her speaking becomes very direct, losing the quick leaps and associations she makes at other times. This version of her loyalty is protective rather than supportive; it comes across as the direct continuation of the school’s history as a place that has had to fight to exist.
Another way that the fierceness manifests itself is in her low levels of patience for people who are not willing to take the time to try and understand what the school is about. During interviews for paraprofessionals (staff who help teachers with transitions and classroom management), her response to interviewees who didn’t seem to be clear about their limits as educators was to really drive home how much the job would be asking of them. Here’s an excerpt from my fieldnotes on those interviews.
When asked about what ages she’d be most comfortable or excited about working with, the candidate expressed interest in working with the youngest students. Ana seemed disapproving of that. Looking at the resume the candidate had handed her, she asked what experience she had with kindergarteners. The candidate responded that she had worked in a kindergarten classroom for a little bit almost 20 years ago, and Ana countered that the field has changed drastically since then. She made the job sound tough, but doable, very directly telling the candidate that she would want someone to have experience with young kids before diving in. She said, “I would be hesitant, to be honest, to place a teacher without that experience in an early childhood classroom… It’s physically a big challenge.” Then, laughing, she explained that working with kindergarteners is “like running a marathon, not a sprint,” and that she’s been known to need to take naps after working in the younger classrooms although she is not a napping kind of a person. This reminded me a lot of the response I got last week when I told her that my class hadn’t done background research on Egleston square before starting the ethnography project. If she’s not happy with the situation, she tells you, and gets tough and honest. But then she laughs and it’s a little bit hard to tell whether it’s all okay or whether she’s laughing at your incompetence a little bit.
The mood lightened after the interview was over and it was just Ana, the Operations Coordinator, and myself in the room. Ana got up and asked me from the doorway what I thought. I started saying something about how I don’t really know the intricacies of the job that well, and she brushed me off, asking point blank “ignoring all that, would you hire her?” I paused, and said that no, I wouldn’t, seeing as how the candidate seemed hypertraditional, very unadaptable, and not really able to hack it with the younger students at all. Ana returned to the table laughing loudly and agreeing on all counts. “Are you kidding me?” she said. “I was like, if she says ‘the rules’ one more time…”
Her response to the candidate who she found unqualified showcases how her protectiveness of and pride about the school manifests when she’s mediating the meeting of the school community and the outside world. In the time I was there, the outside world that she deals with was mostly the wider world of the Boston Public School system. For instance, a phone call with her boss about trying to shore up some more personnel for support while the school was grieving the death of a very influential former teacher and down two key staff members took a very similar arc to the interview in the fieldnotes above. Slipping fluidly between English and Spanish, she asked her question, waited for the response, supplied information about the situation on the ground in the school, and cracked a joke. Her boss referred her to someone else who works in the BPS system. Chatting with her after she got off the phone, she expressed to me a similar sort of frustration expressed through humor, though this time at being asked to tangle herself up in emails and bureaucracy instead of her boss just going down the hall to talk to someone.
“Y’know why? It’s cuz you’re using common sense”
Her frustration around interactions that create more work for her makes sense to me. The work I saw her do appeared exhausting, in both an stamina and emotional sense. But Ana’s expression of that frustration often comes out through humor rather than anger. Just before she got on the phone with her boss, she and I were talking about the lawyer who was at the school conducting interviews to check in on the school’s proficiency in teaching English Language Learners. Here’s another excerpt from my fieldnotes:
She started telling me about how the whole concept of focusing on english language learners is flawed. “It’s really archaic,” she said, mentioning how it’s ridiculous that our education system is so english-focused, and tying that to cultural oppression. She contrasted the district’s focus on making sure people who don’t speak english get taught how to do so with Hernandez’s focus on two-way bilingual education. The difference, according to her, is that the two-way education is less about giving people proficiency in different languages than it is about giving the students whole new ways to stretch their brains and learning capacities. I agreed and made some similar analyses. She joked that I should be going to city hall to advocate for them instead of these lawyers and other folks. “Y’know why?” she asked, “It’s cuz you’re using common sense.”
I got the feeling that joking about hard issues is a good way for her to express her stress and her frustration at how hard her work is without letting it bring her down. The moments where she relies on humor to get her point across are often the ones where she’s expressing frustration with the school system or with unqualified interview candidates. She also laughs a lot during conversations about racism, class privilege, and gender. The laughter seems to stem from her adopting a “what can you do?” attitude that reflects on how she’s got a hard fight against those things rather than belying that she actually feels resigned to those oppressive structures.
“All these parents, just blowin’ up my phone... If you don’t want to interact with the community, DON’T be the principal of the Hernandez”
The day-to-day tasks involved with Ana Tavares’ job as the principal of the Rafael Hernandez school revolve primarily around keeping the school and school community healthy and running smoothly. Her stance in these tasks draws on the school’s history and identity as a community in resistance, and consequently belies a fierce loyalty to the school and to the community. This stance takes two distinct forms: the effervescent, supportive, and empowering loyalty that she demonstrates towards established members of the school community and the calm, protective loyalty to the school she uses with outsiders looking to come in to the community. Through all this loyalty, though, she doesn’t ignore the fact that her job is hard, stressful, and defined by identity politics and the struggle involved in creating a positive culture. Acknowledging these things doesn’t always show up in terms of doom and gloom, though. While she does at times express resignation, more often than not her response to adversity is light and humorous, naming the situation and the immensity of her fight against it.