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WEST GREENWICH â When Dr. Thomas Geismar arrived in 2007 to take over as superintendent of the Exeter-West Greenwich district, he was immersed in an entirely different world from the one heâd left.
As a school official in Broward County, Florida â then the fifth largest district in the country â he was the minority; a white face in a system of African-Americans, Jamaican-Americans, Haitians and Cuban-Americans.
âIt couldnât be more diverse,â says Geismar, 62, âand that includes race, gender, lifestyle. We actually had a diversity committee.â
A native of Rochester, N.Y. who had gotten his doctoral degree in education from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., Geismar had learned singsong island accents, the clipped Cubano speech and also southern agrarian black accents.
For instance, the translation of the Southern black âfidnagoâ is âfixinâ to go.â
âKids spoke fast, with a dialect,â he explains.
And then he came to rural Exeter-West Greenwich where, he says simply, âItâs a white district.â Plus, he had to learn another language: Rhode Island-ese.
Soon after arriving, he recalls, âMy secretary came in and said the high school wanted my resume for Korea Day because I was going to speak. I kept thinking, âI donât know that much about Korea.ââ
She was saying âcareer.â
Geismar says they still laugh about it.
On another occasion, he was meeting with a labor attorney who kept referring to the âpox departmentâ. Geismar thought it had something to do with vaccinations. âI was thinking âWhat is this?ââ
Of course, it was parks.
This is his 41st year in education and he confesses, âWhen I was 21, I wasnât sure I wanted to do this for 40 years.â
Before heading to Florida to teach and undertake graduate studies, he earned a bachelorâs degree in history from Hiram College in the Western Reserve section of Ohio. In Florida, he taught social studies then became principal of the ethnically-rich Boyd Anderson High School.
âI loved it,â says Geismar, who held the position for four years before a series of promotions within the county system. âWe had 70 buses running all over the district.â
There was also an element of danger: drive-by shootings were not uncommon and there was always the potential for violence with rival schools.
âRivalries on the football field were friendly but [the games] created an opportunity for bad guys to do bad things.â
After a student from his school was stabbed to death, word came back that someone from an opposing school was responsible â and the two teams were scheduled to play against each other on the coming weekend.
He and the other principal worked out a way to defuse the situation: the game was played on a neutral field, during the day.
After many years serving in public schools, Geismar signed on with a private for-profit charter school company. Then, longing to finish his career in a small, community school district, he took the post in Exeter-West Greenwich.
In 2008, a year after his arrival, Rhode Island plunged into economic crisis. âIt was unexpected [but] we have a wonderful school committee. They want to do the right thing. I feel very fortunate in that regard.â
He thinks local families are doing a terrific job of raising their kids to believe in tolerance â a theory borne out by the warm way in which the tiny handful of minority students have been received in the schools.
Geismar and his wife are big fans of Rhode Island in general.
âWe enjoy this area and the fact that people celebrate the seasonsâ with special events, parades and family activities. He adds, âIâve been to a lot of places in America but thereâs nothing nicer than Newport.â
Like many residents who like the occasional taste of sophisticated city life, he appreciates the proximity to Boston and New York City, the latter being a favorite destination for a train ride.
The Geismars have two daughters and a son: the older daughter, 35, is a guidance counselor in South Florida; their son, 33, is an attorney in Manhattan; the younger daughter, 29, is a speech pathologist in Georgia. There are also two grandchildren.
In many ways, Tom Geismarâs entire professional life can be described as diverse and thatâs something he appreciates.
âItâs been a great career,â he says, âand people here have been nice.â
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.