“I don’t know a lot about Northwood; I’m new here,” David Orphal said. “But every year I’ve taught I’ve gone to funerals for my students. Last year I went to three, all violence related.”
Orphal, a new social studies teacher at Northwood, is out of his comfort zone at his newest school. He finds himself more at home when teaching at inner city schools such as Skyline, where he taught in Oakland, Calif.
“Originally, I thought Northwood didn’t really need me,” Orphal said.“I’ve always worked in real high poverty, high needs areas, and that isn’t Northwood. Frankly, that was actually a strike against Northwood.”
Orphal explained that working in a school like Skyline created a certain dynamic to the task of teaching, a dynamic which most Chatham County teachers would not be able to relate to.
“Northwood is absolutely nothing like Skyline,” Orphal said. “Here, everybody’s got a laptop. At my last school we had 200 putty colored desktop computers for 2,000 kids.”
Orphal recalled a time when a girl, whom he called Janice, had been having issues throughout the day with outbursts of anger in various classes. These outbursts were related to fear, which Orphal explained is “not something you want to show” in a school like Skyline, because it “marks you as victim.”
In Orphal’s account, he went on to say that Janice had been in a verbal argument with another female student, but her aggressor had decided to take it to the next level and involve her older sister who said she would “come to the school and shoot Janice.” This sister had been convicted in the past and had a violent history, so the threat held legitimacy.
“‘Big Sister’ had been in and out of prison a couple of times, and had actually done drive-bys,” Orphal said. “This wasn’t like a kid saying ‘I’ll kill you’ with nothing behind it; this was the kind of kid where this threat was real. It wasn’t until later in the day that we were actually able to figure out what the problem was, get the two kids to sit down, get the issue all worked out and also get the one kid to call off her older sister. All this came out of name calling.”
Orphal said that the needs of his students at Skyline made him a more involved teacher.
“Teachers can’t be just teachers,” Orphal said. “We’ve got to be social workers, we’ve got to be first responders. So much goes on that gets in the way of kids learning.” The environment Orphal came from in Oakland was one of an un- predictable nature, and has affected him physically—Orphal was once shot in the hip.
“I don’t want to dive too deep into that because there are going to be kids on campus that think somehow that’s cool, and it’s not,” Orphal said. “Violence in the inner-cities isn’t cool, it’s ugly; I wasn’t cool when it hap- pened. I was crying. I wish my mom had been there; I had pissed myself. There’s nothing cool about that.”
Despite Orphal’s previous experiences as a teacher, he is optimistic about his first year teaching at Northwood.
“I feel like I’ve got my first shot at making it through a whole year without going to a funeral,” Orphal said.
Teaching in the inner city is not Orphal’s defining affair. After recently packing up and moving across the country, he plans to use his broad life experience to start fresh in Pittsboro, where he’ll be closer to the people that matter most.
“Part of it’s getting closer to Grandma and Grandpa [who live in Florida], and part of it is I’m falling in love,” Orphal said.
Orphal explained how having adopted what one might dub a “yes-man” personality has gotten him involved in numerous organizations and groups.
“I was working at a continuation high school and I had an opportu- nity to get my master’s and I said yes,” Orphal said. “While [I was] working on my master’s degree, the board said ‘Are you willing to be a part time professor for these class- es?’ and I’m like, ‘okay.’ When that had passed, the local teachers’ union said they needed someone to be the grievance chair so again I said ‘okay’ and spent a year doing that. I just kept saying yes.”
Orphal credited his variety of life experience to this open-minded, “yes-man” personality.
“Just sort of saying yes when an opportunity comes my way and going ahead and jumping in and doing the work has led to some really magical experiences,” Orphal said.
Despite interest and participation in secondary involvements, Orphal has kept teaching students and staying in the classroom his priority.
“I got offered jobs with text- book companies, sales, education-related software companies, all things that would have paid tens of thousands of dollars more than teaching,” Orphal said. “I said no every time. I don’t want to work and not see kids lighten up inside.”
Orphal explained he has further reason to say no to alternative jobs and the higher income they may bring.
“I am a religious man,” Orphal said, “and I do believe that God has called me to serve kids directly.”
– By John Dunning