Guest Column

Only in Cambridge

by Thomas Fowler-Finn

In the 20 years that I have been a superintendent, and even before that, I have been ever conscious of my position in the community. I might not shave my face on a day here and there, but that would happen thoughtfully on a day well chosen. I might enjoy a glass of wine or two with my wife, but when out in public, not more than one, if any. I feel funny going to the bank during the week, even though it may be the only time available to me due to meetings and events.

Perhaps my behavior wouldn’t be much different if I worked in some other vocation, but I wonder about it. In my current superintendency of 2½ years, I have found myself in circumstances unlike those of any of the prior three top spots I have held.

The Cambridge, Mass., community is one of the most diverse in the country in regards to ethnicity, household income, lifestyles and politics. The liberal climate presents many wonderful as well as perplexing and challenging situations. When the U.S. Army recently staged a 230th birthday celebration on the Cambridge Commons, the paratroopers falling from the sky and the guest speakers presenting on the makeshift stage drew many dignitaries, the curious public — and the fully engaged protesters.

As it so happened, I was accompanied by a 5th grade girl whose father had bid $75 at a school fund-raiser so that she could shadow the superintendent for a day. As the two of us walked to the Commons, shouts from protesters drew our attention.

One protester dressed in army fatigues was standing dead still with fake blood dripping from eyes, nose and mouth. My young shadower whispered to me that she knew he was alive because she had seen him walk over to the spot he now occupied. It wasn’t long before this bloody protester found a way to get over the barricade, whereupon he was physically lifted up by several police and simply dumped horizontally on the ground outside the barricade.

On his next attempt the protester was forcefully arrested. I asked my 5th grade partner what she thought.

“I think he deserved it,” she replied.

Laudable Lesson
So we talked. We talked about the importance of free speech and public demonstrations. We talked about the reason for arrest and how it was unrelated to whether the protester’s point of view was agreeable. The protester had broken the city ordinance twice, and so he was arrested.

Unbeknownst to me, a woman of about 60 who had been listening over my shoulder to the discussion approached close to my face and blurted out, “Good lesson!” She then marched off across the Commons and into the crowd.

As my young friend and I continued on, roaming through the events on the Commons, I was pulled aside and harangued by a parent upset that I had not done enough to get more school children to take a field trip to the Commons to benefit from this great learning opportunity. On our way out, several protesters screeched from afar: “So are you going to enlist your daughter to kill other people?”

When I returned to my office, I was greeted with an e-mail from the parents of a 2nd grader upset their child attended the protest. The parents demanded their child’s name and personal information be withheld from military recruiters — once the girl reached high school. While the demand was many years premature, I was heartened to learn the family was planning to stay in the Cambridge Public Schools through high school.

Historic Acts
It is these types of interactions that make the job intriguing. Keeping perspective on the various viewpoints of a community, particularly one as diverse as Cambridge, is an essential part of the job. Equally important are the opportunities to participate in important and, in some cases, historic events.

Perhaps the most memorable event so far of my time in Cambridge occurred when the state prepared for the issuance of marriage licenses to couples of the same gender. Of course, Cambridge wanted to be the first city in the state to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. I am pleased to be working in such a community.

Many superintendents might feel at odds with their personal position versus their professional stance on such highly emotional issues, but Cambridge is a special place, and I wanted to participate in the ceremonies. I thought it would be great fun as well as a moment in history.

In order for Cambridge to be the first city to issue a license on May 17, 2004, the city council, mayor, city manager and others had planned to do so as soon as possible after midnight on the 17th, a Monday. To do that, City Hall needed to open on Sunday at about 10 p.m. in preparation. Staffing during the late night and wee early morning hours could not be accomplished by forcing civil servants to report to work. This meant that volunteers were needed.

That was all I needed to hear.

A Special Occasion
Not long after I let the mayor know I wanted to volunteer, I was assigned to work at a welcome desk just inside the entrance in City Hall. Harold Cox, director of the city health department, and I were to hand out numbered tickets and give instructions to the would-be spouses as they entered. The ticket holders were allowed to be accompanied by a well wisher or two, but the number would be limited due to the legal occupant capacity of City Hall. We were hearing that people would be coming from across the state and the country to get married in Cambridge.

A few days before the event, I had called Harold to discuss what we should wear while on duty. I knew most volunteers were planning to dress in comfortable, loose clothing because of the time of day and long hours. However, I thought the day would be really special, and I knew Harold and I would be the first to greet the participants, so I asked whether Harold would be willing to wear a tuxedo. Sure enough, he liked the idea. With a special pass issued to volunteers, the two of us entered City Hall very well dressed that Sunday night.

Thousands of people had amassed in the front of City Hall on the ascending sections of the stairs and the grounds. Some were hoping to marry while many were friends, supporters and, of course, demonstrators for and against licensing gay couples. Riot police took their places outside and in. News media from around the world came to pursue stories.

In all, I handed out 264 tickets that night. The recipients were in high spirits. I can’t think of another time in my life when I was among so many jubilant people, each celebrating the same personal event.

Harold and I were thanked over and again and given goofy tokens of appreciation for the role we played. It gave me a strong feeling of being a part of the community. I also gained a greater sense of myself through this volunteer act. I’ve often shied away from controversial issues and events to preserve my effectiveness in the school system as an objective arbiter and bias-free leader.

Respect for Dad
While I always make known and stand by my values, beliefs and advocacy for children and public education, a part of me has remained reserved if not hidden. In participating in events like these, I have found a more comfortable way of living and working in Cambridge that I believe makes me a better superintendent. Perhaps it is because of this wonderful community, or maybe it just took me 20 years to recognize what has always been available to me. Even more surprising were the thoughtful and varied discussions with my wife and children.

Finally, little did I know the events that evening would make it to the screens of MTV. My own children have grown up with a father always in the news, never making a snow day call that didn’t draw abuse from an unhappy classmate and continually putting them in circumstances they did not anticipate.

However, now they have a father who appeared on MTV, and they think that’s pretty cool.

Thomas Fowler-Finn is the superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools, 159 Thorndike St., Cambridge, MA 02141. E-mail: