“Come in, come in…,” Alan Alterbaum gestured as I entered his office, the door of which was already completely open, containing a handful of students who were crouching over desks, hurriedly filling out random papers. “Sorry guys, you are going to have to leave…” The door was shut moments later, muting considerably the hubbub that always takes hold of the attendance office after 3 o’clock.
Looking around, the office of the school’s Assistant Principal comes across as less intimidating than one would think. His desk is certainly the focal point of the room, heavily weighed down with piles of papers and miscellaneous office supplies. A bulletin board hangs behind the desk, containing various pictures and two miniature Puerto Rican flags. In fact, the flags accompanied by the leafy green plants in the room support a relaxed, tropical aura more than anything. It is hard to imagine that this very space housed Alterbaum’s first class in which he taught about 28 years ago, at the beginning of his career at Sleepy Hollow. The interior decorating surely attributes to the 360-degree difference.
“I worked about 8 ½ years as a math teacher,” Alterbaum stated, the last year of which he spent as the chair of the Math Department. His proficiency in the subject renders him the ability to sneak into math classes every now and again, and even test problems on the board. Of course, there is no other day such as the renowned “Pi Day,” where students and teachers face off on March 14th to test their knowledge in arithmetic, one select member of the losing group getting nothing more than a pie in the face. Every year, colorful posters advertise the event to students, the selling point being the ability to “pie” Alterbaum in the face – the ultimate adolescent luxury.
Having come to Sleepy Hollow after teaching 9 ½ years’ worth of math in a school in Buffalo, it seems surprising to find a man with such a prominent mathematic background in administration years later.
“It was supposed to be for a year,” he said, referring to the change of pace that presented itself to him one summer. During an administrative shuffle, Alterbaum agreed to serve as the school’s Vice Principal—for one year. “As it worked out…I decided I would stay on as Assistant Principal, and the rest is history.”
These last five words certainly speak volumes of Alterbaum’s “history” throughout the halls of Sleepy Hollow. In the eyes of a student, he’s always had a catastrophic nature about him, rendering him the popular nickname of the “A-Bomb.”
“I can’t put a finger on when that came up,” he laughed. “It’s something that I’ve always had [follow me], even in Buffalo.”
Ask any student who has experienced Alterbaum on a bad day, and they will surely attest to his “all business” attitude. The image of “A-Bomb” striding down any given hallway with a determined look on his face is enough to awaken even the most exhausted Junior. I once witnessed him stubbornly waiting outside of the girls’ bathroom for a seen-texting-offender to emerge.
“Just go,” a fellow student said to the texter inside, “It will be a lot worse if you wait.”
These sorts of encounters are not out of the ordinary. Alterbaum is notoriously known for successfully tracking down students who have come in late, and explaining to said students that having less than “X” amount of in-school time disenables them from partaking in after-school activities.
On the topic of discipline, Alterbaum shared what he feels is the most effective technique to discourage inappropriate behavior.
“I think we have to be fair, but we have to be punitive,” he stated, “This is where we live during the day, and we want to keep our school clean and we want to keep our school safe, and anybody who is going to interfere with those two things has to pay a price.”
Certainly those closing thoughts were circulating through Alterbaum’s mind one morning about 17-18 years ago when he came into work to find the exterior of the building completely covered in graffiti.
Meeting the then-Superintendent in the main office, Alterbaum was immediately put on the case when he was told, “I want to know who’s responsible, and I want it done now.”
Taking on the mindset of a 19th century detective, Alterbaum went to work. “By 3 o’clock that afternoon we had him arrested,” he concluded. The person responsible for this grand-scale vandalizing deed was in fact not a Sleepy Hollow student, but one from a school district in the Pleasantville/Briarcliff area. It turned out that there were a lot of factors that meshed together perfectly in discovering the perpetrator. This student had partaken in a course at SHHS, and a teacher recognized the graffiti outside. Getting in contact with the individual’s school, another teacher found the same graffiti in the student’s notebook later that day. Bingo!
“When it rains, you can still see the remains of some of the graffiti on the outside of the middle school gym,” he added, the new construction erased most of it.
This was, in Alterbaum’s mind, one of the biggest disciplinary cases in his experience. However, during his 20 years in administration, a lot has changed in the types of issues that arise on a daily basis.
“It’s different [today]. We’re dealing with issues now that 28 years ago didn’t exist.” The top of this list consists of things such as cyber bullying, excessive abuse of electronic devices, even sexting. “Adolescents tend to push limits. What they tend to want to get away with varies from generation to generation, but ultimately the behavior is the same.”
Perceived immortality is one of these topics. “We need to reinforce values and make [students] understand that what they do can come back and haunt them. It’s sad when you have to go to a kid’s funeral,” he said simply, “[It’s happened] too often…in a lot of cases it’s avoidable.”
When one works in the same school for almost thirty years, the changes that the community undergoes with the passing of time are reflected in the school. Having such a legacy at Sleepy Hollow, this writer asked, “What is this school’s greatest weakness today?”
“That’s a good question,” Alterbaum answered. As he pondered the superficial daily matters that come up, and took a deeper look into the school’s core, the answer he gave was not only the school’s weakness, but also its greatest advantage: diversity.
“I wish there was a way to bring kids [closer] together,” he said. “Appreciating the fact that kids are different is something that we constantly need to work on because it’s something that we can always do better at… I think you have to tackle it a little at a time and make inroads into changing values, and in getting kids to understand.”
On the flip side, he commented how he is pleased with the school’s diverse air overall, and how well it can work. “[Alumni] come back and say how their experience at Sleepy Hollow has helped them to adjust to the real world. Being exposed and not afraid of others is key to understanding diversity.”
The Conklin /Alterbaum team is often times called the “veteran team” of Sleepy Hollow, both of them having worked together for about 17 years as the Principal and Assistant Principal respectively. “I was an Assistant Principal for three years when she came on as Principal,” he said, speaking very highly of the connection between the two of them. “You work with somebody as closely as we do for as long as we have and you know how each one of you is going to deal with a situation.”
The bond between the two of them is apparent; they work well together and get their points across clearly and swiftly.
“Jokingly you can look at it as a marriage,” he smiled. “We’re well past the getting-to-know-you stage.”
This year’s holiday season brings about a bittersweet topic for Alterbaum. His final semester as the school’s “veteran” Assistant Principal is approaching.
“At this point, I’m not ready to accept the fact that this is my last year,” he said determinedly. “I still have a job to do, just like last year and the year before. I don’t want to shortchange anybody.”
He spoke briefly about his future plans, which may include moving out to “the Las Vegas area.” Somehow, this didn’t come as that much of a surprise. Perhaps in later years we will come across the renowned A-Bomb working as a blackjack dealer. It seems suitable; after 28 years’ worth of work at Sleepy Hollow, he certainly knows how to play his cards.
“I’m not ready to retire yet,” he accentuated. “When I walk out the door at the end, I will deal with it then.” Filling out the last moments of the interview, Alterbaum spoke sentimentally. “I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into making this a school that everybody can be proud of.”
[blockquote class=blue]Amelia Rose is a junior at Sleepy Hollow High School.[/blockquote]