Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“When you go into the building, it’s like roses in the desert.”

The year was 1986. I was an inexperienced 12-year-old black girl and I was eager to start my 7th grade year as a student at Shaw Junior High School, which was situated in the Northwest quadrant of Chocolate City, just blocks from The Mecca—my Mecca—Howard University. 

Black girls rocked gold bamboo earrings with their names spelled out in bold letters across the center, accentuated by asymmetric hairdos, jeans that fit like a glove, and knee-high rider boots. Black boys sported oversized gold chains and fresh white tees with pagers clipped to their waists. Chuck Brown’s “Run Joe” was in rotation, and pay phones were on every corner. No one left home without their AM/FM Walkman in tow. The Madness Shop carried all the fly gear. LeDroit Park was the ’hood, and Mayor Marion Barry’s Summer Youth Employment Program guaranteed every teenager growing up in Chocolate City a job. 

My dad worked at Shaw Junior High School as a custodian, but we lived out of boundary in Southwest D.C. He called on the principal, Dr. Percy Ellis, to request special permission for us to attend the school whose reputation begot a wait list of hundreds. He proudly paraded my sister and me to work so that we could meet the principal.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

 Dr. Ellis was small in stature but had a big presence. He had a reputation for being a stern yet compassionate leader. He held everyone to a high standard. No one received a pass, no matter their socio-economic background. He was running a high-performing school in a marginalized community.

In between scolding students and attending to various emergencies, Dr. Ellis handed us an impromptu reading and math test to complete while we awaited his return to the main office. If we were accepted, my older sister Jameela would start the following fall while I would wait one more year. I had been anticipating junior high school for years. The idea of taking the 70 bus, one of D.C.’s most eventful bus routes, through town to school with my sister was exhilarating.

After what felt like an eternity, Dr. Ellis returned. He collected our tests and carefully scanned our responses. Without warning, he leaned in toward us, his eyes looking over the large frames that occupied nearly his entire face, and said, in a stern voice, what we had been hoping to hear all morning: “Welcome to Shaw.” 

Over the years my sister and I gloated at the idea of getting into Shaw because of our exceptional performance on those tests. We didn’t know that Dr. Ellis’ decision to grant us special permission to attend his school had little to do with those tests, and everything to do with the relationship he’d fostered with our dad. 

I was eager to start my new chapter at Shaw. I could hardly wait for band tryouts, and I made the cut. The 300-member marching band had a reputation for being one of the most energetic and highly decorated ensembles in the country. Dr. Ellis and our assistant principal, Mr. Wilson Morgan, were so supportive of the band, they traveled with us during local and out-of-town performances. 

I can still feel the energy that filled my entire being as I anticipated our band performances, which included high stepping majorettes and flag girls wearing shiny white boots accented with perfectly crafted tassels that rhythmically moved from side to side with every high step, and an enchanting drumline led by the only female percussionist. 

We kicked off every performance with a call and response from our more-than-energetic drum major, Kojack. He would call out to us from a place deep down within his diaphragm. “Band! Attention!” As we quickly positioned ourselves into perfectly straight lines awaiting permission to move, we would respond in unison with both our voices and bodies, “One, two, three, four, Shaw!” At the sound of “Shaw,” all 300 of us would push our bodies back into a lean that signaled we were ready for take-off. This motion would spark a feeling of pride and joy from fellow band members and onlookers alike. 

“Shaw makes your body move!” we shouted out to the beat of the snare drums. Our legendary chant reverberated through the neighborhood when we marched a parade. For many of us, the band was more than just an extracurricular activity. It was a nucleus of invaluable lessons and authentic, life-long relationships we would cultivate and nurture into adulthood. My experience with the band is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Dr. Ellis was strategic and thoughtful about everything that happened at Shaw. From our band rehearsals that took place three times a day—8:00 a.m. before school, during lunch, and after school—to our widely attended parent teacher conferences that opened with electrifying student performances that guaranteed parent participation, school pride extended beyond the good grades and high-test scores we collectively earned. Every school organization at Shaw excelled at what it did. The school choir, cheerleading team, double-dutch team, annual school musical, and string ensemble all exuded excellence. The teams entered and often won competitions.  

Mr. Morgan, our most memorable assistant principal, walked full speed throughout the halls of Shaw, with never a sign of slowing down. There was no such thing as a small matter for Mr. Morgan. He approached every situation with a sense of urgency, and he had a special name for everyone. “Ball-It, Lil Ball-Girls,” is what he affectionately called my sister and me while we were at Shaw.

There was something for every type of student, and we had the best of everything. From striking band uniforms and fancy choir robes, to a full string ensemble where students full of potential but with low economic capital received free private lessons, everyone could find their niche. Many students were accepted into Duke Ellington School of the Arts and other premier institutions. Dr. Ellis and his dream team believed in us, and we believed in Shaw. 

I still remember roaming the commons area, which doubled as our gathering place before school and after lunch. Shaw did not allow students to leave the building for any reason. While as junior high school students, we did not always like the idea of being locked in, ultimately it gave us a feeling of safety and security. I met some of my best friends in the commons area, and we have remained friends. 

The hallways were rich with history and legacy. The original Shaw Junior High School opened in 1928. In our new building, which opened in 1977, class pictures dating back to the early years hung on the walls outside the principal’s office. I remember studying the ancestors in those pictures and wondering what kinds of tests they had to pass to get into Shaw. 

“Little boy, little boy!” Dr. Ellis could be heard yelling from down the hall, his voice amplified by the oversized bullhorn that was a fixture on his small frame and disproportionately large feet. It was normal to hear Dr. Ellis yell into the speaker of his handheld megaphone: “You see that piece of paper on the floor?” “No Dr. Ellis,” was the usual response from any random kid held hostage by the over-zealous principal. Dr. Ellis had a way of seeing things not visible to the rest of us. “That little tiny piece of paper right there. Pick that up little boy!”

I chuckled to myself as I reflected on a story my dad told me of a time his supervisor wrote him up for having left dust on top of a classroom cabinet. Like most students during that time, I had no idea of the great lengths to which Dr. Ellis was willing to go to uphold his reputation of maintaining a clean school. 

I can’t recall a time when Dr. Ellis was not present. Legend has it, he never took a day off during his entire 33-year Shaw career. He and his team made everyone, from the cafeteria staff, custodians, security officers, teachers, and most importantly, students feel proud to be Shaw Hawks. We were constantly told we were smart—brilliant in fact. We believed it! And our school culture reflected it. 

I remember the day we had hand dryers installed in the restrooms. Dr. Ellis called the entire school of over 1,200 students and staff members to the auditorium for an assembly on how to appropriately use the new hand dryers. “Listen carefully as I explain to you how to appropriately use the dryer,” he said. “You take one finger, your index finger, and push the button. Let your hands dry and leave the restroom. One finger. Your index finger. Not your pinky, thumb, or middle finger.” The auditorium filled with laughter. Dr. Ellis also had a witty sense of humor. “What finger do you use?” The entire auditorium responded, “Your index finger!” Throughout my three years at Shaw Junior High School, I can’t recall anyone ever misusing those hand dryers.

Even the way in which the cafeteria was arranged was strategic. Shaw abandoned the traditional long cafeteria tables with attached stools lined on both sides for round tables and booths that encouraged community style dining. There were healthy food choices and a fresh salad bar with every option. We looked forward to eating school lunch. Pizza and fried chicken were among our favorites. While I no longer indulge in the pleasantries of consuming poultry, I remember the aroma of Shaw’s signature crispy, fried chicken. The smell would travel from the basement level of the building, up into our classrooms, holding our nostrils hostage until the afternoon bell sounded, signaling it was time for lunch. We believed that Shaw had the best lunches of any public school in the city. 

Shaw also had pageantry. The entire Shaw community would come out in support of the King and Queen Pageant. This annual, royal event served as the primary fundraiser for the school, and it simultaneously helped us instill pride in ourselves. Students had to meet strict criteria to participate. I remember the pressure of selling tickets the year I ran for Miss Shaw. Searching for the perfect floor length gown, and an escort, was well worth the reward. The day of the pageant, everyone anticipated the transformation of the school auditorium, the reveal of the new Shaw Royal Court, and of course, the amount of money each contestant raised. That year, with the help of my dad, I was crowned Miss Princess.

***

Leon Barnes, Ateya Ball-Lacy, and Collis Baker Credit: Courtesy Ateya Ball-Lacy

Not until I became an educator in a high-needs middle school did I realize that the security officers at Shaw who searched our bags for candy and chewing gum were also keeping the crack and guns that had flooded the streets of D.C. out of our school. Nothing that Dr. Ellis did was coincidental. In retrospect, I see how prohibiting Timberland boots, untucked shirts, hair bows, and bandannas was a strategic way of keeping the drug culture from infiltrating our learning environment. 

During the late 1980s, the intersection of poverty and crack cocaine crippled black communities throughout the country. Crack cocaine snuck in like a thief—like a well trained military regiment waiting to wage war on her enemy. Crack infiltrated our neighborhoods, kidnapped our mothers, murdered our boys, incarcerated our fathers, and in the aftermath, left generations of broken black families to mend themselves. 

Chocolate City, the nation’s capital, was no exception. Crack flooded the streets of D.C. Even Mayor Marion Barry, a chemistry Ph.D candidate and civil rights leader turned masterful politician, was at a loss for how to stop the violence that snatched hundreds of black boy bodies a year in his city. Like many politicians before and after him, he had his own bout with drug use. 

Before crack cocaine tore through our community, Chocolate City was a place where black families created villages out of government-manufactured housing projects and poor black children didn’t know they were poor. I watched children become victims of the gun violence that paralyzed D.C.

I remember the day I learned that a schoolmate was shot in the back of the head on her way to school. She did not survive that gunshot. And I recall the time another schoolmate was shot in the chest. Rumors that a fight would take place after school had been circulating. Following dismissal, a crowd started to gather in anticipation of the brawl. 

I heard the whisper of my mother’s voice in my ear, “Ateya, always run in the opposite direction of a fight. A bullet has no name.” My sister and I walked away from the crowd and boarded our bus. 

The shooting made the news before we reached home, and I remember seeing my mother’s worried face. I can’t imagine the horror she must have felt as she waited for us. It was then that we learned of the shooting. My mother told us that a Shaw student had been shot following a fight, and it was reported that she could succumb to her injury. 

I recently researched the details of what actually happened that gruesome day. Reliving this memory was more difficult than I expected. We were children, barely teenagers, forced to cope with the trauma of gun violence. 

Tanessa Starnes is her name. The date was June 2,1987, and she was 14 years old when a single bullet nearly ended her young life. After undergoing emergency surgery at Children’s Hospital, Tanessa miraculously made a full recovery. Contrary to what I remembered, the bullet was successfully removed from her body months after the shooting. 

Very few black families were unscathed by the violence intensified by the invasion of crack cocaine. I myself lost several first cousins to gun violence. My middle school years were full of both triumphs and tragedies. Even through the deterioration of families and whole communities, Shaw remained an incubator for greatness. 

***

Runelle “Kojack” Gilliam, Ateya Ball-Lacy, and Patricia West Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Shaw Junior High School was my living classroom—the blueprint for how I lead and serve in my community. Today, I proudly serve as a middle school assistant principal and academic dean of students within the Prince George’s County Public Schools system. While the work is challenging, it is far more rewarding. 

Long before I was a college student in the lecture halls of The Mecca, I learned through personal experiences the effectiveness of paying attention to details, sweating the small stuff, maintaining positive school culture, showcasing students as a strategy for parent participation, putting safety and security first, and of course, having a special name for every one of my students. These practices are in my professional tool belt as a passionate educator.

Dr. Ellis, the legend, passed away in 2003. I attended his homegoing celebration with my infant daughter at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ—a celebration that attracted educators, politicians, and generations of families that had all been impacted in some way by his brilliance. He had retired in 1995 after working for 46 years in the D.C. Public Schools system, and 33 years at Shaw. He was charged with educating every student who resided within the boundaries of his school, and he saw the potential in all of us. For him, we were diamonds in the rough waiting to be unearthed. His eulogies reflected that. 

Twelve years later, in 2015, my sister and I went to the memorial service for our beloved band director, Mr. Lloyd Hoover. By then, nearly three decades had passed since we’d been students in the halls of Shaw. A crowd of grieving former Shaw students and teachers stood outside the church. They were all there to honor the life of Mr. Hoover. While we were saddened by his sudden passing, it was refreshing to see so many familiar faces from Shaw Junior High School.

As we entered the church, I heard a familiar voice say, “Lil Ball Girls, Ball-It!” It was my favorite assistant principal, Mr. Morgan. Hearing his voice caused emotions to swell inside us that no room could contain. In that moment, my sister and I were no longer adult professional women with careers and families of our own. We were vulnerable young girls overwhelmed by our feelings. Thirty years later, Mr. Morgan still called us by our special names.  

***

Runelle “Kojack” Gilliam Credit: Courtesy Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives

Over the past few months I’ve looked up some of my teachers to see what they remember about their Shaw experience. I had an extensive conversation with Ms. Patricia West, my 7th grade social studies teacher. She candidly talked about her love for teaching with the same energy and passion I remember her having when I was in her classroom. I believe it’s worth mentioning that she remembered the full name of every person in my family. During the interview I asked Ms. West to elaborate on the challenges she faced as a first year teacher at Shaw Junior High School and how Dr. Ellis’ leadership impacted her teaching career. 

Ms. Patricia West 

I started teaching at Shaw when I was just 22 years old. I thought students and parents would not accept me because of my age. Dr. Ellis created an environment where all staff and students felt fully supported and respected, which made my challenges as a new teacher obsolete. 

The things we speak about in education today as innovative thought, Dr. Ellis implemented during the 1980s. He had a shared vision. He wanted Shaw to be an inner city school where nothing was impossible to achieve. He ensured that every teacher in his building was certified and delivered great instruction. Dr. Ellis built the school’s master schedule himself, strategically matching students with specific teachers to maximize their success. Even back then, he rejected the one-size-fits-all approach. Teachers had to be able to offer more than just great instruction. Each teacher at Shaw Junior High School had to have a skillset that would benefit students outside of the classroom. 

Things were not always perfect. During my tenure at Shaw, I lost three of my students to gun violence. The violence that was happening in the city during the 1980s as a result of the crack epidemic took a toll on all of us. Because of the nurturing and caring environment Dr. Ellis created, we had great school counselors that helped students and staff cope with the tragic loss of our students. 

Dr. Ellis had three assistant principals that focused only on academics. Many school districts have adopted this approach. Dr. Ellis even understood the impact of the arts. He understood the importance of nurturing the whole child and understood how the arts and sciences complimented one other. Dr. Ellis’ leadership set the standard for how I teach even today. He was an extraordinary leader.    

Many often wonder how Shaw Junior High School could produce such masterful musicians during a dire time, in a community with few resources and little hope. I asked Dr. Leroy Barton, co-director of the band during my time at Shaw, to share his account of how they achieved this level of excellence.  

Dr. Leroy Barton

I attended Howard University as a music education student. I was blessed to be assigned to Shaw Junior High School to fulfill my student teaching requirement. Mr. Hoover was my student teacher supervisor. 

I can recall a fellow HU student speaking about how rough the old Shaw neighborhood was. I remember him saying, “When you go into the building, it’s like roses in the desert.” The environment was rough but had nothing to do with what we could do on the inside. 

Coming out of New York, I played with some of the finest concert bands there ever were. I also had experience playing in the Marine band before being accepted to Howard on a veteran scholarship. During my senior year at Howard, I recall going to an event at one of the prestigious museums hosted by Mrs. Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife. I walked in on Mr. Hoover’s rehearsal and was absolutely blown away. His students sounded as good as the Marine Concert Band I played with. 

Mr. Hoover’s vision was to give his students the greatest experience they could have because he knew it would change their lives. I shared Mr. Hoover’s vision. I was brought up in excellence—no excuses, no substitutes, no opting out. That’s what I wanted to give to my students. 

Dr. Ellis demanded excellence and that’s what we gave. I believe in the self-fulfilling prophecy. If I tell you you’re great, that’s what you’re going to believe. Dr. Ellis set high standards for his faculty and expected everyone to live up to them. He charged us with giving our students the best education. You all had no choice but to be great. Mental discipline was at the forefront of everything we did with our students because we understood mental strength would make you all successful. Shaw Junior High School’s band was better than most high school and some college bands. 

Dr. Ellis was an extraordinary individual. He was committed to managing a building that was first rate. He was a no-nonsense administrator. There was no junior high school in the country like Shaw. 

Kojack, our drum major, captivated audiences around the city with his signature dance moves. His style was a combination of athleticism and a high-step that expressed unabashed confidence. Kojack was a local celebrity when I was at Shaw. I spoke with him for the first time in 30 years in preparation for this story. I asked him to explain how he became the drum major and what impact that experience had on his life. 

Runelle “Kojack” Gilliam

When I was in the 7th grade I tried to sneak out of a side door. Ms. Lee, a vice principal, caught me as I was attempting to make my exit from the school building. She immediately took me to the main office to report my behavior to Dr. Ellis. I thought for sure I would get a pink slip (a small sheet of paper that signified a school suspension). 

After giving me the scolding I had coming, Dr. Ellis walked me to Ms. Ross, my homeroom teacher. Ms. Ross told Dr. Ellis about my dancing skills and suggested I see Mr. Hoover, the band director. Mr. Hoover’s first question to me was, ‘Do you know anything about instruments?’ I told him that I played the French horn. He responded, ‘If you can play the French horn you can play anything.’ 

Mr. Hoover worked with me from that moment forward. That summer he put me in a drum major camp where I learned about being a leader. For the first time, I was intrigued by the idea of being a leader. By 8th grade I became the 2nd drum major. It wasn’t long before I was the drum major. Mr. Hoover was a steady fixture in my life from age 12 to 24. I studied music at the collegiate level under the guidance of our co-band director, Dr. Barton. Mr. Hoover guaranteed me a scholarship for as long as I was enrolled in college. 

My talks with these great men taught me how to be a man, they prepared me for life. Dr. Ellis, Mr. Morgan, Mr. Hoover, and Dr. Barton were not just educators. They were mentors and role models. Their guidance gave me the confidence I needed to lead the famed 300-member marching band at the tender age of 13. I was the best at what I did because these men motivated me, they had faith in me. 

I also interviewed Mr. Ricky Kelley, who served as one of our school security officers, to ask him to talk about his efforts to ensure our safety at Shaw. 

Mr. Rick Kelley

Safety for Dr. Ellis was a high priority. He was the first principal to install metal detectors. Today every school in the city has metal detectors because of Dr. Ellis. During the time when you were a student at Shaw, we had a lot of kids involved in gang and drug activity in the community. The idea of teachers having a duty post is an extension of Dr. Ellis’ forward thinking. 

He stressed being on time and being where you were scheduled to be. He often said, “If you’re where you’re supposed to be, things can’t happen.” Many of you were not aware of the people who would try to get into the building from the outside. We protected you all from that. Your safety and the safety of every staff person in the building was Dr. Ellis’ first priority. 

***

Credit: Courtesy Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives

I recently rode past my old school. I was appalled at what stood before me. The exterior was covered in graffiti. I saw signs of abandonment. The current state of the old school building does not coincide with its legacy. From the outside, one would never know the history and fond memories that building holds for so many. I met some of my best friends there: Dana, Chatika, and Mattie. Seeing my old school compelled me to resurrect the Shaw experience and memorialize it in a way that would pay homage to our great leaders, the life-long friendships we’ve maintained, and the memories we carry with us. 

We lost many soldiers during that tumultuous time when we were Chocolate City. Some got caught in the crossfire, some got turned out by the fast money, some simply lost their way. Those of us who survived did not come out of that experience alone. There were villages that surrounded us. Villages like Shaw Junior High School that were intentional and deliberate about keeping us safe. 

My daughter Nia recently handed me a piece of paper from her school announcing a feasibility study to determine if my beloved Shaw Junior High would be the new home for her school, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. My heart smiled at the idea of my daughter, along with hundreds of brilliant, high achieving black students, once again gracing the halls of Shaw. With its extraordinary reputation for high academic performance, the idea of Banneker High School occupying a space that serves as a pillar for excellence in our city is genius. I can’t think of a better way to honor Shaw’s legacy.   

My conversation with Kojack reaffirmed the impact the Shaw experience had on our young lives. When I asked him what he would say if he could have one last conversation with his icons, Dr. Ellis and Mr. Hoover, he tearfully responded, “I would say thank you. Thank you for making me the man I am today.” 

This is an ode to you, Shaw Junior High. May you always live in our hearts. May the energy of all the beautiful memories you’ve created forever make our bodies move! 

Everyone at Shaw was expected to learn the school song, which we’d sing to kick off assemblies and all-school events. I can still hear us sing:

Praise we our school, our dear Shaw Junior High 

Thy name we pledge to love and glorify. 

With glowing hearts we will do our best 

To perform our tasks with cheer. 

And pay honor to the dear teachers rare 

Who labor with us here.

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