As followers of the Parent Imperfect know, for the ten years ending this past September, either one or both of the PI’s children attended the Rafael Hernández School in Roxbury. Vince left the school over two years ago to attend Boston Latin. For a variety of reasons, the PI and Liz moved Connie to the Hennigan School for fifth grade. Connie misses the place terribly, and will miss it even more tonight.
They touched and were touched by hundreds of lives while at the Hernández, which deserves to be called a community like few other schools. But one of those lives dominated their school experience more than any other, because it was one of those big, unforgettable lives. La Principal, Margarita Muñíz, was involved in all aspects of the life of the school. She knew EVERY student and felt perfectly comfortable pushing EVERY parent to do more. The school had been her dream, and she was living her dream like few other people ever can.
Canonization is probably not coming. Not everyone involved with the school liked everything that Margarita did, but no one could deny that she was absolutely committed to the school and to the success in life of every student who sat at one of its desks. She was both a tireless promoter of the idea of dual language immersion as an educational philosophy, and a fierce defender of the school against anyone who would question its value or restrict its access to resources. No one knew this more than the administrators on Court Street.
But Margarita would be the first to recognize that she did not create the Hernández, or keep it going, by herself. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community of children and their families, and many committed professionals, to raise a successful school. By any measure, the Hernández is a shining success.
Ken Larson was the man behind the woman for many years. As the school’s Assistant Principal, he did much to create the conditions for Margarita to work her particular magic. He was always there, but almost never in the limelight. He was disciplinarian (of a style), administrator, community liaison, school bus monitor, fashion consultant, photographer and, occasionally, shoulder to cry on. Over the years, his relationship with Margarita became much more than that of Assistant to La Principal. As a white male submerging his own need for personal recognition to create space for a demanding and dynamic Latina on a mission, Ken played a role that few men can effectively play. The PI was never privy to the personal conflicts that must have happened from time to time, but the apparent synergy between them was as remarkable as it was unusual.
About three years ago, Margarita became ill. The whisperings that it was serious gave way to resignation to the possibility that there would be no recovery. Through all sorts of debilitating treatments, Margarita remained engaged with the school. leaving no question who was in charge. She rejected the idea of retirement and woe betide anyone who suggested it. Others, Ken included, stepped forward to help as illness claimed more of her energy. The sense that Ken would be there through all that was happening (and was about to happen) provided some kind of solace…some sense that things would be OK. Not only did he have to exert more leadership (always quiet) within the school, but, over time, he also became a primary caregiver and support for Margarita. Who else? Those who give care often overlook their own.
In October, the school held its annual Noche de Fiesta, a big community party to raise funds for special programs at RHS. To no one’s surprise, Margarita was there, every bit La Principal, but clearly a woman coming to the end of a long struggle. The PI spoke briefly to both her and Ken that night. Ken was, as always, dressed to the nines and doing absolutely nothing to draw attention to himself. When someone saluted Margarita from the stage, the PI looked around to see her raise her hand in appreciation, with Ken standing behind her, brimming with emotions even more mixed than the rest of the crowd.The view was an image that deserved to be preserved.
During the weeks after the fiesta, the Hernández community began to prepare itself for news of Margarita’s passing. The school put in place bereavement teams ready to work with the loss that now seemed certain and imminent. And then, on Tuesday, came the news that the teams would need to spring into action. The school had lost a great leader, but it was Ken Larson, not Margarita, who had been found dead in his apartment. How could that be? There are still no details to be had, just the shock rippling in waves across a community expecting something, but something else. For once, in the very last instance, Ken was not behind Margarita.
Had Liz or the PI been dropping Connie off at the Hernández today, it would have been a morning never forgotten. Instead, the news came in a phone call. At some point last night, Margarita joined Ken, probably to tell him to talk to parents about the problem of late school bus arrivals, or something else. They will continue to be present at the Hernández, at every Math Night, Young Authors’ Celebration and, of course, whenever there is another Noche de Fiesta. Even so, now it will REALLY take a community.