The PRINCIPAL legacy Baltimore educator Camay Murphy retires to a chorus of thank-yous

June 13, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, VA. — Arlington, Va.

Each school day for the past 14 years, Camay Murphy has climbed into her ancient Mercedes and driven the 84-mile round trip between her home in Baltimore and a little elementary school called Ashlawn.

Mrs. Murphy, an optimistic and steadfast woman, is the school's principal. She is also one of Baltimore's secret treasures, on loan, as it were, to Arlington County.

Although folks in her family tend to wear well with time, at age 66, Mrs. Murphy is ready to hand the school over to a younger educator. That means the time has come for Arlington to return Baltimore's gift. It's time for Arlington to say, thank you, Baltimore. And it's time for the Ashlawn parents to say thank you, Mrs. Murphy -- which they did in a tearful going-away party Friday night.

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The state of the nation's public schools preoccupies America's policy makers, starting with President Clinton. But study after study has concluded that schools that work have the same three attributes: a safe and functional school building, intensely interested parents and a strong principal who sets the standards but also allows teachers to teach.

In her recounting of her career, Mrs. Murphy says the secret of her success is really quite mundane: She hired good teachers "and let them do their thing."

Of course, it's a bit more than that.

Her love of music was responsible for Ashlawn's having perhaps the only elementary school jazz band in the country. Her willingness to listen to just about any idea resulted in everything from Arbor Day tree-plantings and poetry readings to "International Night" to a day a few years back in which she personally taught students the "Electric Slide."

And in this day when teachers worry about hugging kids for fear of having their reputations tarnished, Mrs. Murphy's gentleness with the children sets the tone.

"I remember seeing her recently at the end of the day put her hand very softly on the shoulder of a tired, distraught kid," recalled parent and PTA activist Robin Allen. "She leaned over and said something quietly in a little guy's ear just to calm him down and offer him support. She has a great gentleness with children you don't always associate with principals."

At a time when multiculturalism is being subjected to a backlash because of some of its excesses on college campuses, Mrs. Murphy could be a model for how it can be a unifying experience. Although her ethnic roots are in Africa, Ashlawn's International Day includes children in costume from every conceivable ethnic strain, Swedish as well as Asian. Nobody is left out.

Cab Calloway's daughter

She was born Camay Calloway in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a heady time and place to be a black American, better still if you were the daughter of famed jazzman Cab Calloway. As a girl, Camay was lucky enough to have Lena Horne sing her to sleep. As she became a young woman, she'd accompany her dad to the famed Cotton Club. At rehearsals, Camay mingled with the greatest of the great. With Paul Robeson. With Duke Ellington. With Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

These confident, wealthy and acclaimed African-Americans had traveled the world, and young Camay began to have dreams about traveling herself.

Her own gifts were not musical, however. What motivated Camay was education. After getting her bachelor's degree at New York University, she came to Washington for graduate school at Federal City College and the University of Maryland. She landed a job at Burgundy Farms, a boarding school in Alexandria, Va.

But in 1960, Nigeria, just emerging from British colonial rule, put out the word that it was looking for bright, young African-Americans to help it educate a generation of Nigerians who were going to be asked to run their nation. It was a challenge Camay Calloway couldn't resist. In West Africa, where she was a headmistress in a boarding school and where she helped build a grammar school, she discovered her organizational abilities -- and connected with her own past.

"I got a stricken conscience -- what you'd call a black experience -- while I was in Nigeria," she said. "Burgundy [Farms] was a great place, but it catered to the upper middle class. I decided that when I returned, I had to be involved with black kids. Do something for my own."

In 1963, she returned to the United States, but this broadened perspective about what she wanted to accomplish professionally led her to the public schools.

She worked at a variety of administrative jobs, and, in 1978, she landed the principal's job at Ashlawn, a run-of-the-mill grammar school in a nondescript neighborhood of small brick houses and one large, racially mixed apartment complex, which includes a number of mostly Hispanic immigrants and some poor families who live in subsidized federal housing.

Almost from the beginning, there was ambivalence. Not about Ashlawn, but about the commute.

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