Little City

The impact of beloved high school principal Bernadette Ray ’99, M.A.T.’01is felt throughout the region.

Everybody in Tacoma wants a piece of Bernadette Ray ’99, M.A.T.’01. She can’t go to the grocery store without folks stopping to talk, so she tends to do her shopping at night. As the new principal of Wilson High School, Bernadette loves everyone in her community—current students, former students, parents, teachers—and being at the center of it all. But after teaching and coaching at Lincoln and Wilson high schools for nearly two decades, heading up the board of The Grand Cinema for eight years, being “peripherally involved” in Puget Sound’s Black Alumni Union, and sitting on an advisory council for youth oncology at MultiCare, she’s learning about balance. Sometimes that means going incognito in the cereal aisle.

Bernadette was born in Panama, where her father was stationed in the military during the volatile Noriega years, but the family moved to Tacoma when she was 2 years old. Her parents had requested a transfer to Washington, D.C., because their families were on the East Coast, but they ended up at Fort Lewis—a very different Washington. “My dad thinks that the Army intentionally sent them here because it was 1978, and they were an interracial couple,” Bernadette says. “My mom thinks that my dad filled out the paperwork incorrectly. We don’t know what actually happened, but they got off the plane and they saw the mountains and the water, and they have not left.”

The Ray family lived in Central Tacoma on South 10th at Alder Street. Their house was within sight of the rental house at South 8th at Alder where Puget Sound students have lived for years. “I was always fascinated by the big kids across the street,” Bernadette says. “I wondered who they were, where they came from, what they did. That curiosity is part of how I got to Puget Sound.”

Bernadette had been a swimmer at Stadium High School, and during college, she went back to coach. She started the water polo program there at age 21. She had been a sociology major, but realized that she liked coaching so much that she’d make a good teacher. She changed her major to English, earned her Master of Arts in Teaching, and immediately got an opportunity to fill a long-term substitute teaching position in the English department at Lincoln High School.

She continued to teach there for the next 10 years. During the last two, she was also the athletic director.

Everything was swimming along the way things did in Bernadette’s world, until bam—cancer. She was 34 years old and diagnosed with uterine cancer, which at her age doctors called an “anomaly.” She had three surgeries, 18 weeks of chemo, and six weeks of radiation. It’s the thing most everyone fears, but Bernadette, characteristically, saw the silver lining.

“People think I’m crazy when I say this, but the year that I was going through treatment was one of the best years of my life,” she says. “It was very clear to me who loved me, who was my support, who was my community. I just felt this outpouring of love from friends, family, community members—I had people helping with meals and knitting me hats and ex-boyfriends coming over and baking me bread. People just showing so much kindness. I never questioned that I would be OK, ever.” And she was. Today, she says she’s “clean as a whistle,” with no sign of cancer.

In 2011, after the crisis was over, Bernadette left Lincoln to work at the Tacoma Public Schools main office as the assistant director of student life, which encompassed athletics activities, as well as harassment, intimidation, and bullying cases and training. She also enrolled at UW Tacoma to get her administrative credentials. “I did that for two years, and really enjoyed it, but the district has 57 schools, and I missed being a part of one smaller community,” she says.

When an assistant principal job at Wilson opened up in 2012, she jumped at the chance. Six years later, Principal Dan Besett retired, and she was tapped for the job. Bernadette was as ready as ready could be to fill that role, and she had to be. The 2018–19 school year began with a teacher strike, and classes started seven days late. In February, a massive snowstorm closed school for nearly a week. “It has not been boring,” Bernadette says.

And then there are the ordinary, day-to-day challenges. “Being the principal is like running a little city,” she says, explaining that a school is a microcosm of society. “We have students who are very focused and interested in taking every step toward their success. Then we have students who we really have to pull along the way. I feel like that’s absolutely true in society.”

It’s true in her own family, too. Her mother, Marion Ray, says that Bernadette was always a “self-directed, independent go-getter” who loved education, but that she was disturbed by the injustices her two younger brothers faced.

“My brothers both identify as black men,” Bernadette says. “Once they were in about seventh or eighth grade and they weren’t cute anymore, they were treated very, very differently.” The youngest, Jeff, took every opportunity he could get. He was a student-athlete and in the International Baccalaureate Program at Foss High School; now he’s an electrician. Matt, the middle child, had a harder time. “The interesting thing is that we hold very similar values—they just manifested so differently,” Bernadette says. “We were both hustlers. I just hustled the grades, and he hustled on the street.”

What Bernadette learned from her brother was that all students have strengths that should be nurtured. “Matt can take a hammer to anything and fix it,” she says. “He’s really good with cars. That wasn’t valued in the schools that we attended.” At Wilson, she makes sure it is.

Bernadette Ray ’99, M.A.T.'01
Bernadette Ray ’99, M.A.T.'01, principal of Wilson High School

In recent years, Wilson has won seven consecutive School of Distinction Awards, which makes it a desirable—and diverse—public high school, because students from all over the city, not just the neighborhood catchment area, want to attend. “We’ve got kids who want to go to Harvard, and we’ve got kids who want to be underwater welders,” Bernadette says. “We attempt to provide a diverse array of options.”

Those include technical education programs and an advanced cooking class, where teachers team up with local restaurants. Wilson is also the only high school in Tacoma with its own hot shop for glass blowing.

Of course, there are challenges that go far beyond academics. “We’ve got so many kids with ADHD and developmental issues,” Bernadette says. Drugs are an ever-present problem, and so is bullying on social media. One student she can’t forget is a girl who was a sex worker at age 16. She was in the foster care system and would often run away, and that’s how she took care of herself.

“She taught me not to judge,” Bernadette says. “She taught me to think differently about how people have to survive.” The former student now has a job and life goals, and she comes back every few months to check in, a sign of how much Bernadette’s willingness to listen affected her.

“Taking that moment to really figure out what’s going on with students is my way to make the biggest impact,” Bernadette says. “I think it’s important that I am my authentic self. What I mean by that is taking a moment to recognize a student for something I’ve noticed that maybe no one else noticed. Those little things are what I think matter the most to my students. You know, 10 years later, that’s the letter you get in the mail.”

Patrick Erwin, the principal of Lincoln High School, says Bernadette was “beloved” by the students there. “She really honored and respected them, and at the same time expected a lot from them,” he says, adding that he was happy to see her move up at Wilson, where she has a wider reach. “She’s taking what she did in the classroom to the whole school.”

Above all, it’s her kindness that Patrick and others admire. “It’s built into her to try to make things better for other people,” he says.

“That’s how she’s always been,” says her mother, Marion. “She is a strong advocate for all of the children. She just has a feel for trying to make education a level playing field.”

Being present for everyone is Bernadette’s strong suit, even if it takes everything she has to give. “You’ve got to show up to the baseball game. You’ve got to show up to the choir concert,” she says. “You have to address all the needs of your little city of 1,300, plus their parents and families.”

Luckily for all who love her, she has no plans to leave. “Sometimes I feel compelled to go and live somewhere else and be forced to make new friends or just have a change of scenery,” she says. “Then I think, no, I love Tacoma. I have traveled. I’ll continue to travel, but I don’t need to uproot to do that. I’m definitely a Tacoma girl.”

 

By Stacey Cook
Photo by Sy Bean
Published July 31, 2019