If tough love is your thing, you can find a lot to love about Joe Clark. Bullhorn cradled in one arm, a stack of books and papers resting in the other, the 48-year-old principal of Eastside High in down-at-the-heels Paterson, N.J. (pop. 140,000), charms and bullies his way through the bustling corridors of his ordered domain like an old-time ward boss, relishing every step. He pinches girls on their cheeks, slaps high fives with both boys and girls, greeting most by name.
"That a new hairdo, Tanya?" he asks one girl. "I like it. You're looking like a stone fox." "Give me some," he says, dipping his hand into an open bag of corn chips that an admiring boy is holding. "I need the quick energy." Walking through the senior lounge, the principal greets Denise Baker, who has just won a $20,000 scholarship, with some approving Clark doggerel: "If you can conceive it, you can believe it, and you can achieve it." Denise loves it. In fact virtually all the kids seem to revel in the style of the man they privately call "Crazy Joe." More than a few look to him for help: a Hispanic girl approaches to whisper that she needs a winter coat. "I'll get you one," vows the principal, scribbling her name on a pad.
"In this building," Clark proclaims, "everything emanates and ultimates from me. Nothing happens without me." He spots a sign hanging askew over the girls' rest room: "I want that fixed expeditiously," he snaps at a bemused janitor. Attempting to enter a classroom, Clark finds a locked door, rattles the knob; and when the teacher opens, he bluntly orders her to undo the lock. Her response is too slow for Clark: "I said, unlock that door!" he snaps, right in front of her pupils. Clearly, this is a man who believes that if something is wrong, get tough about it -- now. And when the troops do not march smartly to the resident drummer, retribution follows. Smartly.
Clark has proved that time and again since arriving at Eastside in 1982, after 20 years as a teacher and elementary school principal in Paterson. The school, with a student body of 3,200 -- nearly all black and Hispanic and about a third from families on welfare -- was then crawling with pushers, muggers and just about every other species of juvenile thug. Pot smoke blew out of broken windows. Graffiti marred the walls. Doors were damaged. Teachers were afraid to come to work. Clark, a former Army Reserve sergeant, took quick action. He chained doors against pushers and threatened any strays that might leak through with a baseball bat, a 36-in. Willie Mays Big Stick that still rests in a corner of his office. Bellowing through the bullhorn and the school's p.a. system, he banned loitering, mandated keep-to-the-right and keep-moving rules for the corridors, and set up a dress code forbidding hats and any gangish or come-on clothing. Students who got to school late or cut class could expect latrine or graffiti-scrubbing duty. Says Clark: "Discipline is the ultimate tenet of education. Discipline establishes the format, the environment for academic achievement to occur."