Interview with Mr. Powell: Official Transcript

Interview with Mr. Powell: Official Transcript

Kenith Powell with Travis Brackin on Friday, January 7th, 2022


This is a transcript of the interview with Mr. Powell cited in “Mr. Powell leaves St. Pete High after 25 Years”. Please search this title on the Palmetto and Pine website to read the article summarizing times of his life at St. Pete High, as well as staff and student opinions on his legacy. 


  How many years have you been at St. Pete High? What brought you to St. Pete, and then to St Pete High?


Powell: I’ve been at St Pete for 24 years, and what brought me to st pete was I was living in Austin Texas, where I am from, and I met my wife, who was from St Pete in 1997. There was a big bad riot in St Pete, and she was worried about her dad, and I said I had never been outside of the state of Texas and that we should go to Florida. We got here to Florida and I wasn’t looking for any work because I said I was going to take a break, but my wife wanted to go to the employment office to get a job. As we were going down 5th avenue, we seen a big sign outside the school saying “Help wanted in the Kitchen ”. So we pulled in and she interviewed with the kitchen manager, and the next thing I know I got a job in the kitchen for 4 hours. 


  In your time, how many principals has that been?


Powell: We have had 5 now up to my sweetheart right now Ms. Lebo. 


 Why leave the school now?


Powell: My mom had a partial handicap since 8 years old. She got pushed off a cotton truck, they were going to pick cotton, and they were playing on the back of the truck and she got pushed over and hit by a bus, so they put a plate in her leg, but I am here now because I knew she was in good hands when I left. I talked to her in August of 2021, and as soon as I got off the phone with her she had a slight stroke. My sister, who was then taking care of my mom, said that she needs some help. My sister was kinda getting kind of burnt out. So I told her, she had been doing it for 24 years, it’s time for me to come home and help with my 80 year old mom. If it wasn’t for that I would still be here loving Florida and loving St Pete High. I wouldn’t have another job.


  Did you have an age at which you planned to retire? Or a number of years?


Powell: I really wanted to retire at 65. Believe it or not I am 62 now, I’ll be 63 on the 14th of January, and so I went head on and took an early retirement at 62. 


  How has your role as a campus monitor at the school changed over time, or has it been consistent?


Powell: Oh it changed over time. In the early 2000 we had gangs that was just out of control over here at the school, and I put myself right in the middle of the gangs who would post up somewhere, I would sit right there with them until they decided to go to class. It got to where there was a lot of the gang members, eventually where they got out swept out of here and they started heading to other schools. So now we don’t have much of a gang issue; we have gangs from the southside, different neighborhoods. Those things have faded. Now I am mostly dealing with normal behaviors. People who don’t want to go to class, or have a problem with teachers, I have to mediate kids with what they are here for and what their goals are. I’ve been successful, now it’s got easier because of the kids who I mentored over the years, their kids are coming to school here. Those parents are letting their kids know that “I went to school here, Mr. Powell took care of me, you respect him”. That made my job easier. Being here long enough that kid’s kids are going to school here, that makes my life a lot easier.


  So you’ve seen about two generations of people come through now?


Powell: Brothers and sisters, their moms know me, siblings tell their little siblings, and before they come on campus they say “hey you know my brother? He told me about you and stuff like that. That really really helps. The longevity and getting to know these kids really paid off down the road for me.


  Do you have an easy time remembering all of those names? Someone says their name, do you say oh I know exactly who you are?


Powell: It takes me a while. Now they have to pull out the picture and show it to me to go “oh yeah, I know this guy”. Or I could be in the mall and this guy looks to be about 33, long dreads, looks like some big time drug dealer yells my name and the whole store turns to look at me, “this guy? Why you calling this guy’s name?”. It takes me a minute when they say their name, and I try to play it off and say “oh yeah I remember you!”. But it gets to the point where I tell them “I’ve been at St. Pete for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of kids, what year you was there?”. It’s amazing. I have teachers here who went to school here who I knew then. It’s crazy. 


  Is there a memory you have from working at St. Pete High that perfectly captures your time here, and one other that perfectly captures the culture or spirit of the school?


Powell: Yes. When I first got here, the Devil Head in the front hallway. Everyone goes around it. It’s been like that for so long, and this new generation doesn’t know about it and I have to jump in and tell them the story around it. It’s amazing how that works. About 8 years ago, this is great, student pranks were big around here. One prank some years ago was to put 7,000 crickets in the junior courtyard. Someone went out and actually bought it! What happened was, to get in, a student cracked the window on the 1st floor, and their whole crew came in. In the front hallway, on a cabinet we had a light and a camera pointed at the devil head. As we watched the film, they had their faces covered, but they all walked around the devil head, so we knew for a fact they were st pete high students. We got to looking closer, and then I noticed they all had the same sweatsuit and tennis shoes. I had seen them before, and come to find out,  I realized the girls soccer team has that same stuff on. So I went to coach Ruiz, and he said they were his kids. It’s great how we figured that out just by watching the devil head. Nowadays, kids are just walking over it, they don’t know the tradition. 


  How was it enforced back then?


Powell: Well students would get really mad and yell to not step on it, so it trickled down for those years. They would see it, they’d stop, and go around it. 


  That doesn’t happen much anymore. What could we do to get that going again? Some seniors know, others don’t, so should they enforce it?


Powell: Using devil vision. I think making a thing on devil vision about the tradition. Because this school is so traditional. It has always been traditional. So let’s pick this back up, because I thought it was a real cool tradition. 


  What have you enjoyed especially about the students?


Powell: I have always really enjoyed the senior pranks, I am always wondering what the senior prank is going to be this year. It got to the point where it was getting out of hand, so I had to let the seniors know if they were going to do a prank to let me know so I can run it with the principal so no one gets in trouble. One time in the student parking lot, someone had bought 500 cement bricks, and they put them at the student entrances. I mean, 6 feet high, students couldn’t get in! So some of us who needed bricks, we took them home! One time one of the portables, they took the teacher’s furniture and put it on the roof of the portable. One time between the bell and old bell room, they put real grass, soccer goals, the whole thing. The one that drew the last straw, a group came in and put glue in all of the teachers doors. The county had to send workers, locksmiths, down to get it all cleared out before school started at 6. At that point, I said I have to get with the senior president and know what the senior prank will be this year. It can still be on the teachers but it has to be approved so you guys don’t get hammered. 


  What is the most important or impactful lesson you have learned from a student while working here?


Powell: Yeah, I’ve learned a lot, that our kids have so much talent. Our drama team, they are amazing. Our sports; I coached the girls team here, I coached with coach P, our sports program is great. I think we have some of the most talented kids in this county. I just love them. This school embraced me, it’s my family, these kids are my kids. I’ll bend over backwards for them. But if you are wrong, I’ll tell you if you’re wrong, and I’ll step into that father figure role. But if you’re right I am behind you 100 percent. We have so many smart kids. We have kids from IB acting, thats doing movies now. It’s just amazing. I keep all the memories of pictures I take with kids on my wall. Things people drew me, sports memories. Volleyball, oh, I’m a fan of all our girls sports.


  Had you worked at a high school before coming here?


Powell: No. This is the only job I had in Florida besides throwing newspapers. Right now, I am doing a mentorship with a disabilities gentleman, I’ve been doing that for eight years. I pick him up, 5 hours, give his parents a break. I bring him to the basketball, football games, you have probably seen him there. That’s one of my things, my passions, I always work with those who are mentaly handicaped. That’s what I did in Texas, and when I came here, I started doing it one one one on and off campus. 


  You’ve been a mentor for a lot of people, did you have a mentor when you got your job on campus, who showed you the ropes?


Powell: When I got here, I started in the kitchen for 4 hours. I was serving at the outside cafe underneath the media. We had rolling carts to bring out there. Then bell would ring, kids would run and come and jump in line, and there was an administrator out there, Mr. Jones. My second day here, kids come in line, a lot of kids just came and started skipping everybody, and I said “I’m not going to serve you, go to the end of the line”. Some kid, I’ll say it how it is, said “oh so you like crackers?”, and I didn’t know what he was talking about, I was new, so I said “Man I like ritz crackers, salty crackers, cheese crackers, any type of crackers, but you not gonna get any crackers if you don’t get at the end of the line cause these kids was here first”. So the AP said “hey man, you are pretty good with kids, I like that. Would you ever mind being a teacher’s aid?”. I thought he “you opened a door, I’m gonna go through it”. So I became a teacher’s aid. While I was a teacher’s aid with the ESE department, my job there was…


  What is the ESE Department?


Powell: It’s the department for kids with learning disabilities who probably aren’t going to college. So what they did was, Ed WHite hospital was down the street, and we built a relationship where those kids could do work jobs there, like laundry, day surgery, different jobs. I would walk them over and make sure they were good. Back to the other question, when those gangs would get ready for a big fight, the campus monitor at the time would call in, so they would have me step into his place. I took it right on, getting to know people, standing with the bad kids, so the SRO said “you know what, I think you need to be a campus monitor”. Again, I said to myself “you opened another door, I’m gonna go through it, I’ll come through”. That’s how I became a campus monitor. I had to then learn on the fly. 


That all was in one year, two years? 


Powell: About a year and a half. While working in ESE.


Did you enjoy it right from the start?


Powell: Oh yeah I loved it! I wasn’t sitting around, I was out getting to know people, what’s going on, why are you by yourself, connecting them with teachers, getting them help. One time, right after becoming the campus monitor, Teachers name redacted kids were going here, and a person had a personal vendetta against the teachers husband, saying he was going to come to the school to hurt his family. So when I came in that morning the SRO said what we had to do, and the police were already in the area. As soon as I leave the office, I go to the cafeteria and see this guy peeping behind it. I get on the radio, call in, we follow him out, and they got him as he left campus. The teacher still says they owes their life to me. I always say thank you but it’s part of the job.


  That was your first year on the job?


Powell: First year on the job. 


  You have left a big impact on lots of students over the years; most of the recent graduates or older siblings of students here have a memorable Mr. Powell story for incoming students. 


Powell: Oh yeah I can’t go anywhere without it. South Tampa, St. Pete, “hey Mr. Powell!”. There is nowhere in Florida I can’t go! I go to Orlando and somebody that went to St. Pete High is there. It’s amazing. They ride by the school, see me on my golf cart, honk and holler “Mr. Powell!!”, it’s crazy!


  Right! You’ve left this big impact, how do you think you will be remembered at St. Pete High, by both these next graduating classes and by staff?


Powell: Different kids have different views. Some say Mr. Powell saved my life, if they weren’t listening to me they wouldn be in the position they are now. They just love me to death. It’s amazing. Even the kids I write up who get in trouble, they’ll be mad at me then but as they get older they understand. They say I got them kicked out, but I say “Hey man you got yourself kicked out!”, and they say “oh yeah yeah you all right Mr. Powell”. I always thought I would have these vendettas, I would be looking over my back because I was doing my job, but I find it totally different. I guess as they get older they realize what their mistake was and how they could have  made it better, and I guess I told them the right thing to do and they just didn’t listen. As the old guys say, we are running the marathon but the kids are running the 100, so we will catch up with them and they will understand what we are trying to do. 


  If you had to guess, how many incoming classes will be saying “hey where is Mr. Powell?”, how many years?


Powell: I hope for a long time. I really do, I really do. I just love this school. It’s the best place to work. So many weird stories of busts, getting drugs off this campus, it’s amazing, it’s amazing how much drugs used to come on this campus in the middle of the 00’s. Nowadays with the vapes, we hardly get any weed busts here. One time, this guy was here who had 490 ounces, and he was supplying St Pete high and Dixie. He was a St. Pete student, and he left campus then came back. He was in the old dirt parking lot, we didn’t have that beautiful one back then. I was like “dude what are you doing”, and I could smell the marijuana coming from his car, so I called the SRO over. The guy refused to get out the car, but the SRO said he was, called for backup, cause he could smell the marijuana from the car too. So he looks under the seat, got brown bags already ready to deliver, and pops the trunk. There were shoeboxes, shoeboxes, shoeboxes of marijuana ready to distribute. He was waiting for the bell to ring to get rid of his product. By the time his mom called, her biggest issue was why he was being arrested instead of like “what my son doing?”. I’m blasting him and she is getting mad at the officer for arresting him. I thought it was bizarre.


  Have drugs been the biggest issue? What has been your biggest issue while here?


Powell: The biggest was probably gangs, because we don’t know if they have weapons, they get in a bunch, and they would have fights all the time, all over campus. So it took me about a good 4 years to be consistent. The gangs started going away because they were like,.. Well I would go stand on the corner of 25th with them until they leave. They would ask me what I was doing and I would say “I’m just chilling with y’all”. 


 Was there a year where it was at its worst?


Powell: There was one year when, oh my god, they stuck every behavior on the southside in Saint Pete high. I mean any problem you had at Lakewood, Gibbs, Bogie, they brought them to Saint Pete High. You had Blue shirts, Red shirts, Orange shirts all over campus, the shirts showed their gangs. It was unbelievable. We had chicken wings in the bathrooms, fights over here, fights over there. Finally the county realized they had dropped a big nasty bomb on St pete High and started tricling them out of here. But can you imagine, you had kids from Bogie, from Lakewood already in neighborhood fights, and now they are all on campus. One time there was a report of a gun on campus. When we got that gun off campus, the county realized, decided they had to give St Pete High relief. The boy was sitting in class, he had his regular pants on, and gym shorts, turned to the side so the gun was sitting right in here (references crotch) so you couldn’t see it. So when they told me he had a gun, me and the SRO, they waited on the outside, and I walked in the room to get it. I thought it was in his backpack, so I grabbed that and told him to come with me outside. They grabbed him, and searched him, and found the loaded gun on him then. Another time, and this is why I got rid of backpacks at the end of, during exam week, because we don’t need them. It’s because a kid had a gun in his backpack. He didn’t hear my rule, so he came with it. He wouldn’t give it to me, and I said either you’re going to give it to me or the SRO is gonna get it. He gave it over, saw the gun, zipped it up, walked him into the SRO office, and he can’t go to a public school anymore. From that point on, we banned backpacks on campus. That was back in 2001. Man, when I went to school we didn’t have any backpacks, you carried all your books under your arm! I’ve seen kids hunched all the way over, I was thinking he is gonna have a back problem before he gets out of high school!


  Do you plan on returning to St. Pete High? If you don’t, do you plan to continue working at High Schools? 


Powell: I’m not going to work at another high school. I’m leaving all of my memories and all of my hard work here at St. Pete High. When I go back to Texas, if I do anything near or around the school, I’ll probably be a crossing guard in mornings or afternoons, or referee volleyball or basketball games or something. Working in a high school, these are going to be my memories until I leave earth. Matter of fact, this is the first high school I ever worked in.


  When you came to St. Pete High with your wife, was it just by chance that you took this job in the cafeteria? 


Powell: Well when we went in, the lady said she had eight hours for us to split four and four down the middle, and next thing I know I was working here. I was doing something before, I was throwing papers for the St. Petersburg Times in the morning. I thought I could put some more work on, that I could do that. I didn’t know about it beforehand. Throw papers, get here at 6, be out by noon. 


  Is there a phrase or piece of advice you would like for all of the students at St. Pete High to know? About your time here, or a moment in your time here, or something you always tell people?


Powell: Kids are looking for the future, they are looking at now. Now comes a lot faster than you know it. If you don’t buckle down, oh man. For freshmen it’s very important you get all your credits. Sophomore year it’s the same. By the time you are a junior, you may be slackin, by senior year you may only be coming bout half the days. Four years seems like a long long way, but it comes really really fast. So buckle down, do what you got to do, and it makes it a lot easier when you getting ready to go to college. And my best memory of St. Pete high is every year, it never fails, someone imitating my voice. We even have a teacher, just got here, who is the girl’s soccer coach, he does my voice about as good as anyone around here. There is a senior, long hair, and he is always with the “hey boy, what you doing!”. When my wife worked here, she was a campus monitor here, now she is a campus monitor at Seminole now, she be walking down the hall and hear a voice thinking it was her husband!


  Is there one that has been spot on? Is it flattering?


Powell: Oh yeah I love it! Ms. B, actually, had a contest. Is that the thing? [points to flier] Right there? Best Powell impression? And when we dress up, when you dress up for homecoming week as teachers, I dress up as a student. I have the ankle monitor! It’s awesome. 


 Ok, that is all that I have. Thank you very much for doing this with me.


Powell: Last thing I want to say, the staff, I appreciate all of the staff here, from Ms. Lebo all the way down to Bruce. They’ll get a kick out of that!