The disciplinary hearing was well under way when Frances Jolley, the principal of Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School, held up a hand.
"Shhh," she said. "I hear crying."
She looked expectantly at Buell G. Duncan, an IBM Corp. general manager for Maryland, turning the situation over to him. Outside in the main office, Mr. Duncan found a young girl bent over double, sobbing and gasping for breath, suffering from an asthma attack.
Mr. Duncan was hovering helplessly as others rushed the girl outside when he was interrupted by another emergency. A student had cut her finger with scissors.
He was taking notes on that incident when someone called out that a nurse had arrived to talk to him about the asthmatic student. The gray-suited Mr. Duncan was conferring with the nurse when Mrs. Jolley glanced at her watch and clucked disapprovingly. It was 11:50 a.m.
"We're missing cafeteria duty," she said, watching the strugglingIBM executive with unholy glee. "Come on, Mr. Duncan. You can manage your time better."
It was a day in the life of a middle school principal. Mr. Duncan, Dunbar Middle's "principal for a day" as part of this week's commemoration of business partnership week in the Baltimore schools, had started at 8:15 a.m., greeting 600 boisterous youngsters as they trooped into the big, red-brick building on North Caroline Street.
He had been at Mrs. Jolley's side ever since. "Mr. Duncan asked me for a schedule, hour by hour," Mrs. Jolley said. "I said, 'Are you kidding? Are you kidding? Come on, let me show you the real world.' "
The two patrolled the halls.
Up stairs, down stairs. Where are you going, son? Let me see your pass. Why are you late? Take off those gold earrings. Let me see your pass. What are you doing out of class? You're not supposed to use this stairwell.
Along the way, the two confiscated a radio and dropped off a particularly persistent "walker" -- a child frequently out of class -- at the Adaptive Center, a pilot in-house detention program. They stopped in to visit classes.
"This is unbelievable," Mr. Duncan told Mrs. Jolley. "I always thought I had a pretty challenging job. I tell you, it's nothing compared to this."
"It's mild today," Mrs. Jolley told him.
"Oh, don't tell me that," Mr. Duncan said.
Then it was time for the second lunch period. In the cafeteria, a lively bunch of students created a babel of noise over grilled-cheese sandwiches and tater tots. Everybody was getting ice cream, courtesy of IBM.
But there was a problem. Not everybody had gotten ice cream. The principal-for-a-day went to the microphone: "Everyone who did not get ice cream today, please line up."
The entire population of the cafeteria converged on Mr. Duncan. Soon, only his head was visible amid a crowd of boisterous seventh-graders. Mrs. Jolley stood by and laughed. After a few moments, Mr. Duncan fought his way out of the crowd, smiling sheepishly. "That was dumb," he said.
Mrs. Jolley solved the problem: All those who hadn't gotten ice cream could show up a half-hour after school to get their share.
Leaving the cafeteria, Mr. Duncan accosted two students carrying yo-yos, also forbidden in school. One got away. Upstairs, the IBM chief went from classroom to classroom,
looking for the miscreant. "I'm going to find him," he vowed.
Then a more serious situation developed. A young boy, in tears, said two other boys fondled him while a third restrained him. The case was put in the hands of a school police officer, Willie Avery.
Mr. Duncan was cruising the halls again. "I'm still looking for the guy with the yo-yo," he said. "Meanwhile, everything is out of control, and I don't feel like a very good principal."
The duo returned downstairs for a conference on a special-education student. The conversation turned to school-business partnerships -- some 200 in city schools. "On paper it looks good, but how much is really there?" Mr. Duncan wondered.
The discussion was interrupted by a summons to the school police officer's smoky office, where the victim of the alleged sexual assault was sitting with the three boys he had accused. The children's parents had been called.
When Mr. Duncan reappeared in the conference room, he triumphantly placed a yo-yo on a pile of confiscated items.
The conference was finally about to start when Mrs. Jolley was summoned over the public address system. Connie Bray, head of the math department, was calling from the University of Maryland Baltimore County to say one of the group of kids she had taken there for a math contest had deliberately overdosed on asthma pills.
The boy took 20 to 40 pills and had been rushed to the emergency room. Mrs. Jolley said she would stop by the hospital later.
By the time the two made it back to the conference room, it was 2 p.m. Mr. Duncan was supposed to discuss business partnerships.
He talked with department heads about a follow-up meeting to discuss how IBM, which provided computer training to 60 Dunbar youngsters, could help the school.
The conversation was brief; the two principals had to hurry to meet the parents of the four boys involved in the alleged sexual assault, a city police officer and a teacher who was nearby during the incident.
Voices were raised as Mrs. Jolley acknowledged concerns and laid out her position. The three boys would be removed from school briefly while the police pursued the possible criminal aspect. It was a good 45 minutes later before everyone filed out.
It was 3:30 p.m. An awe-struck Mr. Duncan prepared to take his leave.
"Teachers are saints," he told Mrs. Jolley. "The right kinds of teachers are saints."