The Principal of the Thing | Piedmont High’s head honcho on texting, fear, and Rawhide.
In American life, there is no more accessible public figure than your very own high school principal. You may never shake the mayor’s hand or get a robocall from the governor, but chances are that some way, somehow (maybe right after third-period Spanish in the hallway), you will come face-to-face with your high school’s chief of staff. A fixture of the scenic Piedmont High campus for over 30 years, Richard Kitchens is one such ultra-accessible veteran of the corridors. Now in his second year as Piedmont High’s majordomo, Kitchens likes seeing things from the trenches. Unlike your average muckety-muck, he’s also a super-straight talker, as I found out in a recent phone chat (and no, I did not wind up with detention).
Paul Kilduff: Does a hush come over the room when you walk in?
Richard Kitchens: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, I don’t know why that is. I’m not necessarily the disciplinarian but I guess there’s always that fear factor a little bit. Nothing wrong with that.
PK: All this texting as the number one way to communicate—are we raising a generation of kids who are not going to be able to talk to each other?
RK: Letter writing, of course, has gone by the wayside. I think that ended with Thomas Jefferson. But I just read . . . a critique of the impact on grammar development of middle school students because of the prevalence of texting. And I think people are finding new ways to spell “your” via text. On the other hand, maybe it’s going to enhance communication. Talking to one another is slowly becoming a dying art.
PK: Has the Internet made being a student too easy? I’m 50 years old; I didn’t have the Internet when I went to Berkeley High. I can’t imagine what it would have been like. I don’t know if I would have rolled out of bed.
RK: It is an opportunity to really develop critical thinking skills. In the past, we’d go to the Encyclopedia Britannica. I can remember our teacher saying, “Don’t rely on encyclopedias. Go to other sources.” But that’s the equivalent of what kids are finding today. Our challenge is to get them to ascertain which are the good sites . . . and then to not cut and paste. It’s so easy now to, for lack of a better term, cheat. What you and I would probably call cheating, the kids [today], they don’t see it that way.
PK: Rewriting the CliffsNotes—I got to be pretty good at that. What do you do about incompetent teachers in today’s world?
RK: You coach them.
PK: But you can’t necessarily get rid of them?
RK: Well, no. But I’ll be completely honest with you, we don’t have any incompetent teachers. You can tell pretty early if somebody is not able to hang with our kids. Our kids demand an education in the classroom and they can make it real tough on a teacher who doesn’t or can’t deliver that. It’s not a comfortable position for that teacher and they’ll get prodded by us if that’s the case.
PK: Is the annual bird-calling contest still going on?
RK: It’s been ratcheted down a little bit from when I came here in the late ’70s. It consumed too much of our resources, frankly. It’s a neat little thing and kids do work pretty hard; there just are not as many of them willing to put the time in.
PK: Is winning it still an automatic invite to “The Tonight Show”?
RK: That motivates some kids, you know. They want their five minutes of fame so that Letterman can make fun of [them].
PK: Oh, they go to Letterman now.
RK: When Johnny retired, there was a brief time period where I think we went on “Ellen” once. Jay Leno said, “No, no, I don’t want them because that’s too much of what Johnny did.”
PK: Piedmont High’s teams used to have “The Clan” written on their jerseys and would play against Oakland teams. That must have been kind of a difficult situation.
RK: I came here in ’79 and was coaching JV basketball and I inherited those uniforms, the Scottish Clan. These are the Highlanders; we wore kilts. It’s defensible on that level.
PK: Was there a lot of pressure to get rid of that nickname?
RK: No, but we have. It had lost its cachet and it’s borderline insensitive. We don’t need that kind of image. Piedmont has its own image issues, you know, being where it is and what it is demographically.
PK: The Beverly Hills of the East Bay?
RK: When I came here, it was largely Republican. Today, it’s largely Democrat.
PK: It’s interesting you mentioned that because they had a huge Obama fundraiser there in July.
RK: Piedmont’s not liberal by Berkeley standards but of course, you know Berkeley’s in its own world politically.
PK: I read somewhere a long time ago that Clint Eastwood was kicked out of Piedmont High School. Is that correct?
RK: I have inside knowledge on that because his father was an outstanding athlete here in the ’20s and was inducted into our sports hall of fame a few years ago. His father had passed away but Clint and his mother came to the event. He got up and spoke and clarified that he wasn’t yet in the high school. I think it involved an incident riding a bike on our field. He was disinvited to attend Piedmont High School as he was about to enter.
PK: For riding a bike on the field?
RK: Well, I think it might have been ride a bike on the field and tear it up when it’s wet.
PK: You’ve got to wonder what kind of image Clint Eastwood would have had had he gone to Piedmont High School instead of Oakland Tech. It would have been a completely different Clint Eastwood. He would have made different movies altogether, don’t you think?
RK: You never know.
PK: No Rawhide. No Dirty Harry. I mean he would have been some intellectual.
RK: Well, I don’t think Clint would have changed too much. We’ve got our share of people who could appear in Rawhide at the school. Not everybody’s a preppy, buttoned-down kind of character.
PK: Well, I don’t think you put your foot in your mouth in this interview.
RK: Well, I tried but you coached me out of it.
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