True Story: Pless

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012


In 1975, an apprehensive, 27-year-old, African-American history teacher from Atlanta, GA arrived in Westbury, NY filled with high hopes of success and racked by self-doubt. That fellow was me.

Born and raised in the Jim Crow South, I wasn’t at all certain I was up to the task of finding a job — not when more than 2,000 teachers in New York City had been laid off due to budget cuts. But as I settled in to my new surroundings and became more familiar with the “Long Island lifestyle,” I secured a job with the Westbury Public Schools.


Eventually I became principal of the local high school. For the next 18 years, my passion for education and the well-being of my students became all-consuming and I neglected personal, emotional, and medical issues.

I thought I could handle the arduous, 18-hour days, but I was deluding myself. After 12 years of holding my demanding position, I began self-medicating — first with alcohol. But an onslaught of cluster migraine headaches eliminated alcohol as a remedy.

That is when I was introduced to cocaine. Self-medication led to addiction and resulted in my professional and personal downfall. My office was often empty, I violated relationships with family and friends, and I was financially bankrupt.

A late-night traffic stop brought my world to a screeching halt. I was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. My humiliation and anguish were compounded by the headlines: “High School Principal Faces Drug Charge,” one local newspaper screamed.

After a review of my case by the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, I was offered the Drug Treatment Alternative Program, which brought me to Phoenix House.

Phoenix House was totally foreign to me. Like so many others with substance abuse problems, I felt that my behavior did not warrant such intensive therapy. My mandated stay of six to nine months was difficult to accept. However, as time passed, I became more aware of personal issues I needed to address. This was a painful emotional process. Many days I felt hopeless — no matter what I did, I would never be able to regain the life I had thrown away. I tried to encourage myself by the fact that I was now retired and would travel once I completed treatment, but this did little to help. Only by confronting my denial that I had an addiction could I begin to ease the pain. Most importantly, I had to learn that the addiction was not a character flaw, but rather, an illness.

Eventually, the demands of structure and routine of Phoenix House became a normal part of my life, and Phoenix House provided a sober environment in which to develop coping skills. I was sustained by two important concepts: “self-help” and “you are your brother’s keeper.”

As my treatment progressed, I rediscovered my commitment to education. But the dilemma was not knowing how I could still make a contribution to the field.

Once I completed residential treatment and six months of outpatient treatment, the charge of drug possession was dismissed, and I left the courtroom feeling truly fortunate; I had been given a second chance. I welcomed that second chance and accepted a position as the Vocational/Education Counselor for Phoenix House Hauppauge Center. Now I could give back to others and once again contribute to the field of education.

With renewed commitment to the students in my home community, I began attending meetings of the Board of Education to keep abreast of what was transpiring in the school district. My interest in district issues and participation in the public sessions prompted me to consider running for a seat on the Board. This was easier said than done. Many old insecurities (along with some new ones) arose, but I was able to overcome them by utilizing the skills I had developed in treatment.

In fact, confronting my fears — of possible rejection, of the inevitable media coverage my campaign would generate — became a new form of treatment for me. Once the campaign began, the rigor of a busy schedule  coupled with the coping skills I had developed helped me to maintain a positive attitude.

On May 16, 2006, I was elected to the Board of Education in the same community where, three years earlier, I had been arrested. This affirmation from my community was more than gratifying; it reaffirmed the ideals of my campaign slogan, “It’s not about how you fall, but about how you get up again.”

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