Good morning, Lealman Cobras!
At a tiny, fabricated news anchor desk, Cheryl DiCicco faces a camera to deliver morning announcements.
There's the Pledge of Allegiance, odds and ends about the school day, the school mantra: "Every child making progress every day."
One more thing.
Some people need help with math, she tells the kids. Some, with reading. Some need help with hair and makeup and learning to take pride in appearance. Over the weekend, she says, she'll get guidance of her own.
There's a lesson here.
It's important to let people help you.
• • •
On a back-to-school whim, the writers of the St. Petersburg Times' fashion blog, Deal Divas, surveyed local school principals, seeking one who deserved a free makeover. That led to DiCicco, principal of Lealman Intermediate School.
She was hesitant, but agreed. The idea of pampering was foreign. She had a shag haircut, once, in college. She didn't even get her hair done for her wedding.
"I wanted to look like myself."
Most days, she pulls on elastic-waist pants and a big shirt. She flips her hair upside down and blasts it with a dryer. She has an eyebrow pencil, a shadow, a lipstick, a bit of powder. She stopped wearing mascara long ago.
She hates her hair because it's fine and limp. She can't get it to do anything but lay there. She wishes for smaller hips, but she tries not to dwell.
Mostly, she just goes.
"I just don't have the time and energy," says DiCicco. Besides, she asks, "What's the most important thing right now?"
Lealman Intermediate sits in one of the poorest areas of Pinellas, less than half a mile from a trailer park populated with sex offenders.
The school, with sparkling, sleek lines and fresh daylight, looks like a small spot of hope on a blighted canvas.
DiCicco is 57. She's in her fifth year as Lealman principal, leading 404 students in grades 5 to 8.5, a stepping stone year for kids who couldn't pass 8th grade. The goal in all cases is to keep them from dropping out.
Some students have parents in jail. Some were born in jail. Some are homeless, abused and neglected. Some have foul mouths, and some don't speak much at all.
Once, when teachers brought in Dunkin' Donuts, kids swarmed. Several had never tasted a donut. At the end of the school year, they got to choose a party or trip. The students chose a cookout.
They chose food.
• • •
Suzin Moon, owner of LolaJane's Beauty Lounge in St. Petersburg's Baywalk, leafs her fingers through the choppy, thin blonde locks.
"Where did you last get it colored?"
DiCicco chuckles. "My kitchen sink."
At LolaJane's, stylists donate their time and services to pamper DiCicco. They put lowlights in her fine hair. They make her face look longer and leaner. They wax and pluck and paint.
"I was a straight-A student for all but one year of my life."
She was 13 then. Her homemaker mother and Lutheran minster father divorced.
"At that time, ministers didn't get divorced," she says. "When you have a degree in sacred theology, there aren't a lot of jobs."
He drove a truck. Her mother had to work for the first time. The family was poor and troubled. Her father eventually wound up in jail, as did her brother.
"I can tell the kids, 'I exactly know what you're thinking, and I exactly went through that.' They think that they're alone and that they're the only ones this has ever happened to."
In high school, she volunteered in a program for kids with brain injuries. In college, she tutored girls at a New Jersey reform school. She was 18. The students were 17. At the time, the state sent pregnant girls there. She recalled how one student left her baby on a windowsill unattended. It fell out.
She's never taught regular education. She has taught emotionally disturbed and physically handicapped kids, worked with pregnant teens and in dropout prevention.
In 1988, she was teaching at Pinellas Park High when two students brought guns to school and shot three faculty members in the cafeteria. She watched assistant principal Richard Allen get gunned down at point blank range. He died a week later.
"It can't get much worse than that."
She's been called every hurtful name imaginable.
"You just have to slow the kid down," she says. "They don't mean it. They don't know how to handle the frustration. You'd be crazy if your self esteem was based on what they say."
She started dispensing Q-tips to teachers as a reminder: Quit Taking It Personally.
Still, one thing got to her. After just six weeks, she left a job teaching mentally challenged preschoolers. She put off having children with her husband for years. She was scared.
"Why does God allow kids to be screwed up so little? That's a hard thing."
• • •
At Lane Bryant, DiCicco tries on suits. She used to wear them, but like the mascara, that fell away. She models satin tops and a sweater in rich grass green. A sales associate helps her find the perfect pants and a jacket that nips her waist.
She picks up beaded earrings, a long necklace and pointy-toe silver kitten heel shoes. The students will either love them or laugh at them, she figures. She plans to wear them around the house with socks to loosen them up.
Casey Fahey, a young Lealman grade 8.5 teacher with a fuschia streak in her hair, plans to come help DiCicco get ready for the reveal.
The two are a little tentative. Students don't always respond well to change. Once, Fahey changed the color of her hair streak. A student left the room angry.
• • •
DiCicco knows most of her students by name.
She brings them clothes, paid for out of her own pocket. She drives them home if they're stranded. When they withdraw, she prods until they admit their sister got arrested or they haven't eaten dinner all week.
For Halloween last year, she dressed like a hip-hop star. She bought a size 4X shirt and a do-rag. She put gold wrappers from Rolo candies on her teeth to look like a grill and danced the Cupid Shuffle. The kids freaked with delight.
She gave the shirt to a tall student later.
"She's probably the best principal I've ever had," says Karena Massey, 14. "She always talks with the kids and makes sure we're OK. All my other principals never cared. They were just like, whatever."
She calls when they're absent to let them know they're missed. She was surprised when some stored her phone number and started texting on the weekends. A former student recently sent her a message.
"dude... i'm failing 10th grade."
They come back to visit. Some have a hard time letting go.
"They want to be around her," says Fahey. "They love it when she says she's proud of you. She's very maternal. She won't give up on a kid. She will not."
• • •
Monday morning, DiCicco wears her new suit, her hair pushed off her forehead like the stylists suggested. She's on cafeteria duty.
The students are underwhelmed. Maybe they're still sleepy. Maybe they're just too used to her scuttling around the room picking up their food trash.
Before first period, DiCicco stops a girl. Her shirt is low cut, and they've had this problem before. DiCicco offers to bring her some tank tops to wear underneath.
The girl doesn't get attitude. She nods quietly, taking the help.
Little by little, kids start to notice DiCicco. They walk backward and stare at her. They point to her shoes. Some do laugh.
You look different today... You look nice... Do you have to spray your hair?... Wow!
DiCicco goes to the TV studio, sits at the anchor and faces the camera. There's the pledge, the mission statement, some odds and ends. She doesn't talk about her makeover because it would cut into class time.
Derrick Talbert, 12, shuffles up to the desk in ankle socks and soccer sandals. He looks at his principal. He is small; his voice is hushed and gentle.
"You look pretty."
"Thank you, Derrick. That's so nice."
He smiles. He feels good about himself, and DiCicco knows.
"Are you getting a scholarship this year? I'll help you."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.