SHE HAD PURPLE HAIR. She was a little lady, black and very soft-spoken. She was wearing a suit, dark-colored and very proper, and her office, like her, was very neat. She was an assistant principal or maybe a dean of a Washington high school and we had come to see her because one of her colleagues had been killed earlier that week in the school. It was amazing how she could look the other way.

It was a day out of Kafica, a day reminiscent of one in the Army, a day of experiences that in no way matched what you were told. It would have been funny only it was about schools and teaching and, of course, about children. They weren't in class and no one seemed to care. Everyone was looking the other way.

There had been a murder. A vice principal had been shot earlier in the week by one of three kids who had come into the school to rob the bank. They had stuck up the teacher who acted as bank manager and they were running from the building when the assistant principal saw them. His name was Herman L. Clifford and he must have been one of those men who doesn't fear tough kids, who treats them all as children, who stares them down and bends them to his will. He tried to stop these kids and one of them shot him. He was 45 years old and had two kids of his own.

I bring this up now because there is now a lot of controversy about the Washington schools, which are not, really, all that different from schools elsewhere. People are being shocked by what they read and they find it hard to learn that kids are being graduated who can't read and that the school hallways are chocked with kids and that no one goes to class if he doesn't want to. People talk this way but deep down they know better. I have known better since I went to that school three days after the vice principal was shot.

This was 1969 and I was an education reporter and I had the job because I wanted to write about colleges. Colleges were where "it" was happening then - "it" being the disturbances and the attack on the traditional curriculum and the domestic war against the war in Vietnam. Few cared about high schools then, few of us reporters anyway.One of the few times I was in one was when Allison Krause got killed at Kent State aand I went to her old high school.Another time was when when the vice principal was shot.

We went in. We didn't ask anyone's permission and we didn't call ahead, we just breezed into the place and talked to teachers. They told us that this was a tough school and that the kids were tough to teach and they told us, too, that they had no more than one quarter of their students in class at any given time. I have looked back at the story we wrote and there is a teacher we quoted. "It's a different quarter each day," he said.

I remember that teacher. He was with the teacher corps and he told us how he had to teach a lesson four times - once for every quarter of the class that showed. He told us how the teachers used the sloppy attendance as a way of holding down the kid. If a student got bored, he just walked off. He walked outside or he simply hung out in the halls. The halls were full of kids.

We went from classroom to classroom, from teacher to teacher, and everywhere it was the same story - no kids in the classrooms. You could look through the glass at the top of the doors and see the teacher at the front of the room and then swing your head back and see all those empty seats. So we went through the halls and finally we went into this office and she was there - the lady with the purple hair. Where are your students, we asked, and she said, softly, that they were in the classroom.

She was very firm about that. She never lost her temper or raised her voice, but insisted that her students were where they were supposed to be. She took out her attendance records and show them to use and they showed, as she said, that all the students were where they should be. It was like the day in the Army when half the company had sneaked off to sleep in the woods and an officer stopped our sergeant and asked him where his men were. He was supposed to have 100 but he had maybe 50 and he just looked at the clipboard and said, "Let's see. I got three at the dentist, and two on KP . . ."

This was like that. The lady with the purple hair just held her ground. She had two there and maybe three somwhere else but all the rest were where they should be. She kept shoving the attendance figures at us and we kept showing them back and that, in a way, is what has been happening the last 10 years. We all knew - knew in a way you felt in your gut - what was happening in our schools, but we just looked the other way. We talked a cheap language that had nothing to do with standards and with discipline and with marshaling everything, you had to pin a kid to his seat and keep him there.

It has been nearly 10 years since that day and now we learn all over again what has been happening in our schools. We learn about illiterates being groduated and kids hanging out in the halls and students just walking from the building, going their own way. Somewhere in those schools is an old lady with purple hair who is just marking them off, keeping her figures, sending us crippled kids but wonderful attendance figures. All we've chosen to see are the figures.

Like her, we've looked the other way.