Finding Hope Under Fire
"A lawyer," the girl says.
"Ain't nobody going to pay you to work with all those diamonds and gold," replies Beck, shaking her head.
Common sense concern for her students—combined with a refusal to "take any foolishness, ever"—are the hallmarks of Beck's style as a principal. To the kids at Jefferson High, a five-story redbrick fortress in Brooklyn's poverty-stricken East New York neighborhood, her tough love promises a refuge from a world where, some teachers say, guns are easier to obtain than library cards. But that promise was broken twice during the past six months when the halls of the school were filled with gunfire and the lives of three children ended abruptly.
Last November, during an argument over a book bag, Jason Bentley, 14, allegedly pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and ended up killing Darryl Sharpe, 16, a bystander, and seriously wounding Robert Anderson, 48, a computer instructor who tried to intervene. Three months later, Tyrone Sinkler, 16, and Ian Moore, 17, were standing in a second-floor corridor at Jefferson when Khalil Sumpter, 15, allegedly settled a long-standing feud with the pair by fatally wounding them with a .38-caliber revolver. (Bentley and Sumpter have both been indicted for murder and are currently awaiting trial.) The incidents catapulted Jefferson High into national headlines and left the mostly black and Hispanic school community shaken. For Principal Beck, 54, the pain had a special sting. "I was devastated. I'm a mother to these kids when their parents aren't there," she says. "It hurts that something so tragic could happen in my school."
Jefferson High is hardly alone. Of the 6,019 reported victims of shootings last year in New York City, 530 were children. The city recently allocated $28 million for police and metal detectors in schools, and cities across the nation have been forced to take similar measures. But Jefferson's principal and her many admirers had thought her school was different.
In 1987, when Beck took over as principal, Jefferson led the city's high schools in reported incidents of violence. "It was a school in shock," she says. Within a year she had cut the number of robberies and assaults at the school in half by insisting that everyone leave their gold chains and Walkmans at home. She issued student photo-ID cards, increased the number of full-time security guards from seven to 13, and started a peer-run mediation group that has so far resolved more than 500 student quarrels, many of which might have ended in violence. At the same time Beck has improved the school's academic standing by increasing the enrollment in college preparatory classes.
Beck's efforts got her noticed. Just a few months before the first shooting, she received a 1991 American Hero in Education Award from Reader's Digest. The morning the second round of shots rang out, Beck was awaiting the arrival of New York City Mayor David Dinkins. "He was coming to celebrate the wonderful things we are doing here," she says. In an impromptu speech at the school a few hours after the shooting, Dinkins was cheered by students when he described Beck as a "magnificent" woman who "cares deeply about you."
Even amid the praise, though, Beck was never under the delusion that life beyond the schoolyard was improving for her charges. A year ago, in a speech to the New York State Assembly, Beck reported that 50 percent of the 1,900 students enrolled at Jefferson have suffered stab wounds at one time or another in their brief lives. During her tenure as principal, more than 50 of her students have died as a result of violence in the neighborhood, and many more have seen friends or relatives killed. "These are children of war," she says. "They feel despair, frustration, anger. There's no one answer, but kids do need to learn to have another level of respect for one another."
Beck herself learned respect back home in St. Louis. The only child of a shipping clerk father and a schoolteacher mother, she remembers her parents emphasizing "that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you." For Beck, helping others meant teaching. "I used to line up my dolls in front of a blackboard," she says. After graduating from an all-black high school in 1956, she got her bachelor's degree in music education from Fontbonne College for women in St. Louis. A talented singer, she won a spot in the Metropolitan Opera chorus in New York City but elected to teach junior high school in Brooklyn instead.
Beck left the classroom in 1981 to launch LYFE (Living for the Young Family Through Education), a support service for teenage parents in New York. Six years later, city school officials urged her to take on the task of taming Jefferson High. One person who counseled caution was her husband, Richard Beck, 54, a high school social-studies teacher who retired last year. (Married 27 years, the Becks have one child, Paul, 24, a computer programmer.) "I told her, 'You're in a no-win situation. Whether or not you turn the school around, it will be at a great price,' " Richard says.
As Richard predicted, the job has taken its toll. Two weeks before the February shooting, Beck suffered a heart attack and has since been taking medication. The kids at Jefferson High were quick to notice one of the drug's odder side effects. "They say, 'Hey, your hair is green.' And I say, 'I know, it's my medicine,' " Beck says, with a laugh. " 'But the real reason is that I'm the Incredible Hulk's mother.' "
A good thing, too, given the atmosphere of fear that still pervades her school—and the work that must be done to make Jefferson safer. Every day since the February shooting, guards with metal detectors have screened each student and visitor entering the school. So far, Beck reports, no weapons have been found. In recent months the black entertainment community has shown its support: Bill Cosby, Cicely Tyson and Spike Lee have all attended Jefferson antiviolence rallies.
Beck has just a year in which to banish weapons from her corridors: She has decided to retire in June 1993. "I'm tired," she says. In the meantime, she is doing her best to give the kids at Jefferson High a renewed sense of hope. "We're still in a state of mourning, and we're all very, very hurt," she says. "The students miss their friends."
GAVIN MOSES in Brooklyn