by Andre Mitchell
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Leviticus "Levi" Pointer walked the halls of Melrose High School as a freshman in 1984, graduating in 1989. On Monday morning (Aug. 6), he retraces those steps, this time as principal.
As he moves along, Pointer will carry with him thoughts of former principal LaVaughn Bridges and other Melrose principals, administrators and educators. He says their collective leadership and influence helped ignite and instill values and habits that remain within the hearts of the many "Golden Wildcats" who yielded to their tutelage.
Here Pointer, Melrose's seventh principal, talks with The New Tri-State Defender about his ongoing journey.
Tri-State Defender: Tell us why you feel this is a dream come true for you.
Leviticus Pointer: First and foremost, this is a personal dream come true. I attended this school (Melrose) under the junior/senior high configuration back in 1984. I saw Mr. LaVaughn Bridges run this school and from that moment on, I talked about one day becoming a principal at Melrose High.
I thought about it while I was a student in college at the University of Tennessee at Martin, as a teacher at Trezevant High, as an assistant principal at Wooddale Middle, as the principal at Vance Middle, and even as recent as the principal at Fairley High last year – it was in my blood!
TSD: What are some things that come to mind as you look back on your days as a student at Melrose, then UT Martin and the stops you've made at schools along the way to principal ship?
LP: The first thing that comes to mind is the instrumental administrators and classroom educators in my life who were very strict, demanding, but you knew that they cared and wanted you to succeed. LaVaughn Bridges, Joe Davis, Ruby Strong, Walter Winfrey are a few names that come to mind when I think about the people who helped to mold us.
The teachers were pivotal in helping us understand what it would take to make it in the world. They helped us develop socially and provided the insight on how to be well-rounded individuals. We were encouraged and taught to be not only "book smart" but also "street smart" and how to balance the two in a diverse world. In essence, they provided that legendary Melrose instructional leadership, academically and socially. Teachers like Eugene Powell, Mary Evans, Robert Crawford, George Dowdy...were educators who really taught and they were serious about their craft and they saw to it that you learned or died trying.
Another note to add was that Melrose alum was always in the building. One gentleman that comes to mind is a Jesse Wilburn. He made an impact as a leader – no doubt.
There was an Auto body instructor named Mr. Jerry Browning, who gave me a real-life scenario and ultimatum when he said, "Levi you look like college material, now you can spend four years of your life pursuing a college degree or you can pursue a career in auto body repair." At that moment, I began to seriously consider attending college. Nobody had broke it down, to me, like he did, but it was teachers like him who helped me to think, grow and succeed.
Of course, I followed Mr. Robert Crawford, who was my art instructor; his guidance and influence led me to becoming an art instructor. I would begin to see myself mimicking these men – especially men like LaVaughn Bridges, Harold McRae, Sonny Hicks, Harry T. Cash, (and) Oliver Johnson. And in my mind, these are legendary men who led their schools and had a phenomenal impact on the students, parents and communities that they served.
Plus, there were people who looked out for me in other ways that was just as major in me being in the position and place I am today. During my days at Melrose, I saw neighborhood friends and classmates who were hustling and getting paid, but this one fellow won't allow me to get in the game. At first, I didn't understand. I asked, "My friends doing it, so why, can't I?" Nevertheless, he encouraged me to "go to college and do the prep thang." I know better now that God's design was for him to push me toward another path.
TSD: How does that history relate to our students today?
LP: I feel we must help our students realize that Melrose was an integral part of the community, simply because Orange Mound was built by African-Americans for African-Americans and the church and school were two institutions that people in the community not only valued but looked to for hope and inspiration. Without a doubt, Melrose School played a vital role in the growth and development of this great community. Especially when you consider when Melrose was a K-12 institution, you had folks who eventually graduated after twelve years of schooling that went on to become prominent doctors, lawyers, judges, professors, skilled professionals, actors, singers, athletes, etc. So it is a must that we help our students understand that history so that we may get back to that level of excellence.
TSD: What do you consider your greatest challenge at the moment?
LP: I feel my greatest challenge and urge is to re-culture, restructure and reformat the school climate so that we have total success emerging from Melrose and the Orange Mound community.
Upon watching a video recently, I am encouraged and reminded of the vast array of ingenuity and talent that has always been a part of Orange Mound. There have been so many great African-American people who have helped to build the Orange Mound community that I am compelled to help our young people learn about that significant, rich history and those great people.
TSD: What factors led you to Melrose?
LP: My mother worked tirelessly to provide for ... me. (I was) raised with the help of my aunt and uncle who had a strong religious faith and helped introduce me to the Church of God in Christ. Willie Lee and Pearly Mae Wicks were like my grandparents and since we stayed with them so to speak, we got a sound dose of Christian principles and values, which helped to give me a solid foundation at an early age. My grandfather whom I would visit each summer taught me the value of hard work and he made sure that I learned and could do things as a man to provide for my family. My uncle played a major role by being a positive male role model as well. Of course there were others, yet my family played a strong, productive role in shaping my character.
Back in the day, I attended school at South Park, then Dunn Avenue and was planning to attend Corry Junior High and then Hamilton High, with my friends, but it never happened. My family moved to Orange Mound in '84 and that was it, I became a 'Golden Wildcat' instead.
TSD: What was your immediate family's response when they heard you got the (Melrose) position?
LP: Well, I set down with my daughter (Demi), and son (Landon), and had a conversation with them prior to me applying for the position. I wanted them to know and understand why we were having the conversation and what was at stake. Also, I wanted them to recognize the sacrifices that their father has made not only to provide a solid foundation but to also set a good example for them as we strive to achieve success.
My kids were positive, very inquisitive, but positive. They asked, "Dad, you been talking about this for a long time, right? The man we always see, Mr. Bridges, that's your principal right? Have you talked to him? What did he say? Have you talked to mom? What did she say? Well, you've been talking about this for a long time, so what you waiting on? Go for it!" All I could think about was this encouragement and support was coming from my kids.
Of course my wife, (Dana), was extremely positive and encouraging as well. She also said to go for it! There was nothing left to do but follow through with the application process.
TSD: What is it that you want to accomplish most during your tenure as principal of Melrose?
LP: I want to be that connector to my administration, teachers, students, parents and Orange Mound residents in an effort to help Melrose students understand that we are here to reach and teach our youth, but also to listen, to guide and to redirect them, if necessary.
TSD: Last question, what is your overall vision for the students of Melrose High?
LP: One, to help them understand that our purpose is to motivate and educate our young people, especially our African-American males. If we don't help them learn to become more proficient in reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking, as well as become more effective "code switchers" who are able to relate and display appropriate decorum at school and at home, then we're setting them up to fail.
Two, I think our students (and even we as adults) need to also know that "code switching" doesn't stop with our mental and verbal capacity, but with our physical appearance and presence also. I want our students to know the importance of their presentation as it relates to how they dress and carry themselves, so they can begin to understand that you don't have to be loud, obnoxious or disrespectful, but just the same have a powerful presence and speak volumes without saying a word.