James T. Guines recalls the laughter during those times that he'd read one of his salty poems; replete with street language, to liven things up at a staff meeting.
That was when he was an associate superintendent in the D.C. public schools and known to his coworkers and the media as an outgoing, outspoken guy, quick with a quip or a juicy quote -- like the time he called foreign languages "nice little luxuries" District elementary students couldn't afford.
But when Guines became acting superintendent the same kind of poetic renditions embarrassed many school employes. The glib remarks that rarely kicked up a storm before suddenly became news stories. And for the first time in his career, he found, he had to answer for even the offhanded ones to the public and his employers, the D.C. Board of Education.
This, say some observers, was Guines' central flaw, the one that above all kept him from winning the superintendent's job: Guines never made the leap from being a low-visibility associate superintendent tucked away in a corner office to the high-public-exposure hotseat of the superintendency.
Last week, as he relaxed in the tall red leather chair in the superintendent's office, which he will relinquish Wednesday to Floretta D. McKenzie, Guines acknowledged that he often didn't foresee or understand the controversy his words and deeds provoked. The press played a major role in his failure, he said.
The quote from Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players," often comes to mind, he says, when he looks back at his term. As a player, he feels he was somewhat miscast and often misunderstood.
"I was cast in a role that often times, in the perception of other people, was different from the person I am . . . I often did not recognize myself in the person I read about. I didn't see the committed educator, concerned about children."
He didn't see in the press, he said, the Jim Guines who helped pay for his young office assistant's college education, who spoke at the funeral of a young principal, who personally awarded a leukemia patient his high school diploma. Nor did he see, he said, the dedicated educator who toured the country in the 1960s, helping set up desegregation programs, or the seasoned administrator who only once had to apply for a job.
What he saw instead were reports that he told the system's former finance director, a white man, that blacks don't trust whites to handle their money; that he was unduly influenced in his decisions by board members; that he allowed his executive assistant to set up a controversial 20-week masters degree program for teachers when no university had agreed to award the degree.
There was also the time he labeled as "stupid" the system's new plan for promoting elementary school students and the time he read a poem containing curse words at a public testimonial for former superintendent Vincent E. Reed.
Even so, Guines said he would have done nothing differently. And for now, he says, "I just want to be left alone. I have done the best I could. I can be pleased with myself."
Appointed acting superintendent for six months, Guines campaigned hard to win the job, keeping a high public profile during the search for a new superintendent. He said he is "relieved" that the suspense is finally over and added, "I wish Floretta the best. She's a good person . . . I'm not sure I could have gone with the job and not had some health problems."
Guines, 49, said he is seven years away from retirement and would like to return to his previous post as associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, where he oversaw the development of the system's back-to-basics curriculum, the new stiffer promotions standards for elementary students and increased course requirements for junior and senior high school students.
But, he is quick to add, "i will serve wherever Mrs. McKenzie wants me."
The silver-haired administrator, always quick with a handshake and hello, is a permanent school employe. Whatever the job he does, he will continue to get a $50,112 annual salary, the maximum for someone at his grade.
Guines also said he intends to write a book on his six months as acting superintendent, "interpreting [those months] from my own assesment of what happened. Kind of a story behind the story," he explained as he puffed on one of his ever-present cigarettes.Above all, he said, he wants to stay in the city school system. His wife LaVerne is a supervisor in one of the system's regional offices.
Although some board members expressed regret that Guines sometimes generated news stories that reflected poorly on the system, even his critics credit him with being a good caretaker in a difficult school year. Hundreds of teachers were laid off, thousands of students failed under the new promotions standards, money was scarce, and Reed, the man many people thought single-handedly held the schools together, abruptly left the post.
"He was right for the time," board President Eugene Kinlow (At-Large) said of Guines, Kinlow and seven other board members voted for McKenzie as superintendent.
"I do think he did a good job," said board member Nathaniel Bush (Ward 7). "His difficulty was that he was functioning in an interim position . . . He couldn't exercise the type of control over the system a superintendent needs to do a credible job."