A novel sort of wishful thinking has taken hold in New York City's savage South Bronx. When an abandoned building has been boarded up, it has become popular to place facsimiles of quaint shuttered windows on the planks that cover the places where real windows once existed, as if bright pictures on the outside could hide the desolation within. Located in the same neighborhood, amid the gangs and the drugs, looking much like a fortress, stands Jordan L. Mott Junior High. Here there is no bright, artificial exterior, nor is there any need for it. In contrast to the deserted buildings only blocks away, something important is going on inside. It's called education. The man responsible was the first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics in 1963, Bill Green.
An All-America with career per-game averages of 22.1 points and 9.6 rebounds, Green graduated from Colorado State after leading the Rams to the NCAAs once and the NIT twice. He was arguably the best all-around collegiate athlete in the history of the Rocky Mountain region, and his future in some professional sport seemed assured—he had been drafted by the Boston Red Sox and the Dallas Cowboys, as well as the Celtics. But his athletic career came to an abrupt end when he suddenly developed a fear of flying. Naturally, Green had traveled by plane many times while at Colorado State, but in his senior year he found that each flight was making him more anxious and more afraid. Finally, after a couple of terrifying trips, he decided that that was it—no more.
"One time we were on our way back from Utah," Green remembers, "and the plane was definitely out of control. Baggage was falling out at the back of the plane. People had started praying, everyone was panicked. I decided it was time to be concerned. Then I got stuck in a rainstorm over Mississippi. After that, I just couldn't deal with it."
During the preseason, many Celtics tried to persuade Green that in order to have a pro career he would have to conquer his fear of flying. Intellectually Green knew this, of course, but although he sought professional help, nothing worked. Green simply couldn't fly.
After talking to him about the problem, coach Red Auerbach agreed to let Green travel by train to a preseason game in St. Louis but insisted that he fly back to Boston afterward. Green couldn't board the plane. "The fear just built to the point where I couldn't take it anymore," Green says now. "I made up my mind: I wouldn't do it." He quit the Celtics just before the NBA season began. "Auerbach told me to go work on it [the fear] and come back later," Green recalls. But he never did. To this day, however, Green is convinced that he could have been a successful pro. And to this day, he does not fly.
Green earned a master's degree in health and physical education at Brooklyn College, and in 1971, after several years of teaching in New York City public schools, he went to Jordan L. Mott to interview for an assistant principal's job. "When I got there," he says, "the school was in total chaos. The principal had left, simply walked off the job and never came back. They asked me if I wanted the job. I said yes." Green doesn't like to talk about those days, preferring to stress the more positive situation that exists today, but he does admit that in the school's corridors roamed gangs with colorful but ominous names like the Savage Skulls, the Ghetto Brothers and the Young Saigons. Each gang forcibly controlled its fiefdom. Green remembers breaking up a knife fight in the gym and trying to convince the teenager with the knife that his future should include more than what was out on the street. "The conditions frightened me, too," says Green.
But Green persevered in his efforts to make the school safe and productive, and he succeeded by applying competitive principles from his athletic experience to motivate students in the classroom. Says Green, "Kids have to have a reason to attend. You have to have a magnet. You have to make the kid want to be good." In the world according to Green, the student/player is given rewards based on the performance of the class/team; his rules make Texas's no pass-no play law look tame. Each of Green's classes must earn a certain number of points academically before any of its members are allowed to even attend a basketball game, much less compete in one. Class trips and parties are similarly earned on the basis of academic performance and good attendance. Finally, there's the most obvious vestige of Green's sports background: a complex master schedule, drawn up at the beginning of each term, pitting all the classes in each grade against one another in good old head-to-head, in-your-face competition. Reading and math are the games, and the desk-to-desk combat is fierce. The won-lost results and the standings are posted and followed keenly. It's a system of which Red Auerbach could be proud. "In some schools, it's not popular to be bright. We make it popular," Green says. He also made music popular. After he discovered a few discarded instruments in the school vault, Green decided to organize a band. By augmenting his powers of persuasion with fund-raising activities, he put together a fine band, which competes regularly with other city schools.
His approach might have gotten Green into difficulty with his superiors were it not for his astounding results. His students are drawn from two primary schools that are ranked near the bottom of the barrel (Nos. 574 and 614 out of 623 public schools) in reading skills. By the time his students leave (after eighth grade) they are reading a full grade above their own level, a reflection of Jordan Mott's impressive ranking—in the top 11% of all city public schools. That kind of performance helps explain the awards in Green's office: school-district trophies for outstanding academic achievement year after year, a certificate of appreciation from the parents' association, several plaques in recognition of the school's remarkable 90% attendance rate. There's not a piece of athletic memorabilia to be found anywhere.
Green is intensely private, almost shy, yet a poster on his desk, given to him by a student, reveals a less serious aspect of his personality. It shows a stuffed teddy bear in tennis whites, a testament to Green's passion for tennis, as well as to the affection his students feel for him. He's sort of like Mean Joe Greene in that Coke commercial. Yeah, I'm tough, but I care, too. When he walks the halls, the 6'6" Green is an imposing figure—there's no question who's boss—but he moves with an easygoing grace that puts his students at ease. "You couldn't have a better principal," says Miriam Suazo, 14, a member of the student council. "We have fun. Well, not only fun—it's work, but it's work and fun!" Says Yesenia Hernandez, 14, president of the student body, "One of my teachers said she used to be at the school before Mr. Green came. She said it was real bad. The principal didn't do anything. Mr. Green really changed things."
Green stands tall on the streets of the South Bronx.