It was supposed to be a happy reunion of former D.C. school superintendent Vincent E. Reed and the city's junior and senior high school principals, a chance for Reed to meet old friends and supporters and be honored for his work as superintendent.
But then Acting Superintendent James T. Guines got up and read a poem, "Why Me?," which he claimed was written by a third grader and found outside an elementary school bathroom. And by the end of Thursday night's dinner, many of the 200 in attendance said they were dumbfounded and embarrassed by what they considered a tasteless display of humorless humor by a man campaigning hard to succeed Reed.
The poem was ostensibly the lament of a D.C. elementary school student who was among the 10,000 who failed to meet midyear promotion standards established by the school system while Reed was superintendent.
The youngster in the poem complained: "I don't like school -- My teacher says I am a fool/Now they say, I cain't pass/When I grow up I'm gonna kick her ---!!!
"My mama's mad too/ Why me?' the last stanza begins. "I cain't read -- I don't even know no Mr. Reid [sic]./Now they say, I cain't pass/When I grow up, I'm gonna, kick his ---!!!"
In the audience, several principals refused to applaud. Reed shook his head, smiled, looked at one of the principals and winked.
"It was the most horrible thing I've ever heard in a professional setting," said one junior high school principal who attended the tribute Thursday night at the Officers Club of the Navy Yard in Southeast. "People sat there and looked at each other horrified. I didn't even applaud . . . When we all went out to the parking lot, people just stood around in groups talking about it."
"I was born in the ghetto, so it might be something that went over my head," said Dr. Dennis Johnson, the principal of Ballou High School and himself an applicant for the superintendent's job. "I tell you, I just didn't understand the symbolism or the meaning of that poem. I guess [Guines] understands it best."
Some of the principals said they recalled hearing Guines, who in the past has told interviewers that he writes poetry in his spare time, recite the poem before. Several said they doubted if a failing third grader could have written the poem, which uses contrived spellings to effect street dialect.
Guines refused yesterday to flatly confirm or deny authorship of the poem. "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't," he responded when asked if he had written it. Guines said he read the poem because he thought it was "cute" and "a tribute to the way young people might feel now" about the promotion standards -- standards for which they might later be grateful, he said.
Guines said he handed Reed a typewritten copy of the poem at the dinner with a note he had written, saying, "Thank you for establishing standards in D.C."
The plan, officially called the "Pupil Progress Plan," established a system of midyear promotions based on student mastery of specific reading and mathematics skills. Early this year, school officials announced that nearly half of the 20,000 first-, second- and third-grade students affected by the plan during its first year of implementation failed to meet promotional standards in one or both areas.
Several weeks ago, Guines, a former associate superintendent who became acting superintendent Jan. 1, criticized implementation of the plan as "stupid" and said he would have done it differently if he had been superintendent instead of Reed -- implying his way would have resulted in fewer failures.
Reed, who is now the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment on the poem.
Guines was appointed acting school superintendent after Reed resigned over conflicts with the school board. He took the position with the understanding that he could not apply for the permanent job, but could be drafted by the school board if no other candidates proved suitable.
So far, 62 people have applied for the job, and Guines, who has been actively trying to garner public support, has yet to muster significant support among the 11-member school board, which plans to name the new superintendent by July 1. Why Me?
Following is the text of a poem that was read by acting schools superintendent James Guines at a dinner honoring former superintendent Vincent Reed: Why me? I just wanna play I didn't know what the teacher had ta say Now THEY say, I cain't pass My mama wants to beat my --- Why me? I caint even see -- I caint hear what teacher had ta say Now they say, I cain't passes My mama cain't buy me no glasses Why me? I don't like school -- my teacher says I am a fool Now they say, I cain't pass When I grow up I'm gonna kick her ---!!! My mama's mad too Why me? I cain't read -- I don't even know no Mr. Reid Now they say, I cain't pass When I grow up, I'm gonna kick his ---!!! [By a D.C. Public School Student Victim of the Student Progress Plan]