Walking into Langley High School in July marked the first time Kathleen Barbee, the school's new assistant principal, would be working in an American school, but not with American students.
The Tennessee native accepted a teaching job with the Department of Defense after graduating from Fisk University in 1987 and had been teaching on United States military bases in Germany ever since, most recently in the Heidelberg school district.
It was also a first for the school. Barbee is the first black administrator to roam the halls of the McLean school.
"I'm the first black assistant principal, but I can't tell," Barbee said. "Kids are kids all over the world and when parents realize you're their child's advocate, they don't care what color you are."
<mh>Mixing School and Reality
<bt>As assistant principal, part of Barbee's job is as the disciplinarian, but she also tries to give her students something to look forward to.
"I made a pact with my kids. If I have to suspend someone and then if I don't see them the rest of the quarter, I'll make some quality time with them. I'll take them to lunch, McDonald's or something," Barbee said. "I try to make it a learning experience. I was bad in school; I know what it's like. But if they improve a grade, I'll take them out. It's getting expensive. When I walk into a classroom the students all raise their hands and say I want to go. I have to look at them and say, 'Child, I don't even know who you are.'"
Barbee began her career in 1987 teaching English and social studies at Department of Defense schools to American children, who in many cases had never been to America. Many of these students were more than likely also going to follow in their family’s footsteps and pursue a career in the military. Barbee was elevated to the position of assistant principal at the school she had been teaching in five years ago.
She returned to the United States last year on sabbatical to complete her doctorate and decided it was time to stay, making her way to McLean this summer. In six months, the former wrestling coach has also developed a reputation for bringing a dose of reality to the halls of Langley.
"She exudes enthusiasm. She is a straight talker and she has a great rapport with the children," said Beth Reisig, Langley PTSA co-president. "She's terrific. I'm thrilled she's here. She's a breath of fresh air."
Barbee said part of her job is to make a connection between school and the real world for the students.
<mh>Importance of Education
<bt>Barbee's world consisted of growing up in Union City, a farming and blue-collar community in Tennessee, where she was one of five black students to graduate in her high school class of more than 100.
It wasn't until Barbee entered college at Fisk University, also in Tennessee, that she experienced racism. The historically black college was founded for former slaves and had a policy of accepting light-colored blacks over their darker-colored counterparts. In fact, Barbee said the college required a photograph accompany every application up unto the 1970s. She said the lighter-colored students and professors tended to look down on the other students while she was there.
"I didn't really experience racism until I went to Fisk. Sure it went on in my community, but I guess my parents probably kept it from me," Barbee said. "That's why black American history is important. We can sometime be our own worse enemies. My mom always said we need to practice social kindness."
Her parents also passed on the importance of education to their children, including the belief that a black person couldn't make it in America without a college education. They had always told her, they didn't care where she went to school as long as she went.
<mh>Falling in Love
<bt> At Fisk, Barbee was an English and pre-law major, but had developed a love for being an educator. In her senior year, her advisor told her she had amassed enough credits to major in education and suggested she try student teaching for a semester.
"I was interested, so I did a semester in a school, the seventh grade, in an inner-city school. The children, black and white, didn't have much. They would come to school hungry, but they were there every day," Barbee said. "I fell in love with teaching."
So much so, that she says her perfect administration position would include teaching one class a day.
"The kids trust and respect her. She sees all sides of an issue. She does all she can to make sure there is diversification," Reisig said. "She encourages the students to bring in the community. She brings another dimension and we’re glad she is at Langley."
While Barbee does not know how long her tenure at Langley will be — she aspires to join the Department of Education in a leadership training capacity — she is comfortable slipping into the job of role model.
"I think I'm making a difference especially for the black kids, all 33 of them. They see me interacting with everyone, getting along with everyone. It makes me feel good that the black kids see me as a role model and the Hispanic girls. It's just part of their culture for the parents to expect more from the boys. It's good for the girls to see a minority and a woman in an authoritative role," Barbee said. "I really like it here. I'm happy when I go home."
<mh>More Role Models
<bt>The Fairfax County Public School system is full of black role models including Frank Jenkins, principal of Herndon Middle School and his assistant principal Loretta Robinson, and Fairfax High School assistant principal Magurtha White.
Jenkins is the product of Catholic schools in Washington D.C., where he played sports and graduated near the top of his class at Archbishop Carroll High School.
"Carroll was 85 percent white, but it wasn't something anybody paid attention to. When I graduated, there were eight sections, A was the smartest and so on. There were not any students of color in A. There were two in B. Three in C. I was in C," Jenkins said. "I knew people looked at me differently because I was near the top. But I spent a lot of time studying. I had to work. Teachers mentored me and they pushed me. Everyone who was successful was mentored."
Jenkins tries to instill the same philosophy in his students today, saying every one of them could be on the honor roll. He encourages his students to work to their potential, whatever that may be.
Robinson, by contrast, attended segregated schools through junior high at Portsmouth. While in high school, the schools integrated, but only the staff. It wasn't until about 10 years ago, the schools in the seafaring town became integrated all around.
"In high school, we had two staff members that were white and they seemed to fit in," Robinson said.
The tables would turn when Robinson accepted her first teaching job at the age of 21, 30 years ago. She became the special education teacher at Fairfax High and not only were some of her students 17 and 18 years old, nobody told her she would be the first black teacher at the school. During her 10 years at the school, the most black members the school had at any one time was three.
When her students ask her about racism, Robinson tells hem the story about when she worked at Rose’s Five and Dime while she was in college. She said one day while she was riding the bus to school, there was a bunch of Klu Klux Klan members in the store parking lot. As the bus approached, one of the members started walking toward it. Robinson was scared about having to get off the bus and walk past him, but the bus driver refused to leave until the KKK member did.
White also attended segregated schools while growing up in Virginia — Thomasburg in Brunswick County. She first went to school in a two-room schoolhouse that had close ties to the local Baptist Church.
"Everyone knew 'The Star Spangled Banner,' the 'Preamble to the Constitution,' 'The Gettysburg Address' and religious hymns," White said.
It was also a close-knit farming community where everyone knew everybody else, which made it hard to get in trouble in school, White said, because the whole town would know it.
White began teaching in integrated schools in Farmville 31 years ago, then the city of Alexandria and finally she settled in Fairfax County 24 years ago.