Just across the train tracks from U.S. Route 321, in the town of North, S.C., nestled among mobile homes covered with red roses, sits the one-story brick campus of North Middle/High School.
Robert Gordon strides forward in the school's entryway to shake my hand. He's slim, dressed neatly in khakis, loafers and a striped polo shirt, with a pleather portfolio under one arm.
"It's been a stressful morning," he says, explaining that one middle school boy stabbed another with a pencil.
Pacing the length and breadth of the campus, covering miles in the course of the day, he greets everyone by name.
"This is Brittany, Kayla, Charlslyn, Chanel, Chante, Chelsea, Whitney, Marquel, Zaquias, Kaiver, that's Kerry ... "
It's two weeks before graduation, and Gordon seems to be everywhere at once — helping seniors fill out scholarship applications, writing recommendation letters, checking on the arrangements for that night's band concert, fixing a computer issue for a math teacher, reimbursing a dollar that the vending machine ate, making copies of answer sheets for a practice test.
A typical day for a small-town principal. Only Gordon isn't the principal. He's an 18-year-old senior.
I heard about Robert Gordon from Student Voice, a national, nonpartisan student group that's been visiting high schools all over the country to hear from fellow students. At North, the activists said, the first thing people told them was, "This school should be shut down." Then, they heard this: "You've got to talk to Robert. He knows more about this school than anyone. He should be the principal."
"He's a second principal," a math teacher, Rajananthini Velummylum, tells me. "That's what they refer to him as, the assistant principal," agrees Abigail Fersner, the guidance counselor.
"He's basically our principal," says his friend Charlslyn Jamison, a senior. "That's what people call him."
"I've never heard that," says Charles Gregory, who is the principal. He's a tall man, handsome in an Elvis mold. Gregory is a former social studies teacher who grew up in nearby Aiken. For the past five years, he's been in charge of this tiny school where 85 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch.
"In any rural area, you're trying to get them to see the big picture," he says of the challenges of leading this school. "Let them know there's life outside, other things to do and places to go." He says the students go on a lot of field trips and college visits in other parts of the state.
Gregory calls Gordon "a leader among his peers," who helps out with tasks like ushering at assemblies.
"Everybody here has more than one thing going on," he says. "As principal, I have to do a little bit of everything. Robert is happy to help out. He wants to be involved."
Taking On An Adult Role
Robert Gordon grew up in North, a town of fewer than a thousand people, and now lives in nearby Norway (population 330). His unusual leadership role at the school, he says, started in the eighth grade.
"I was class representative, and my class decided to have a middle school prom," he explains. "I pushed for it, and we raised almost $800. And after that they kind of appointed me president of the school, and every time they needed or wanted something done, they would come to me, students and teachers included."
"I've never seen a student like him," says Fersner, the guidance counselor. "He's a student who takes on an adult role. The students respect him a whole lot, and so do the parents."
Today, Gordon knows just about every one of North's 275 students by name, plus the teachers, administrators and many parents. And he has just about all of their phone numbers, too.
He spearheaded fundraising and planning for the senior class trip, a cruise to the Bahamas.
He helps students with serious personal problems: drugs, thoughts of suicide.
He calls home to check on kids in trouble. He intervenes in disputes. Even, Fersner confirms, between staff members.
Not all the teachers appreciate it. "Sometimes he might cross a line," the counselor adds. "He and I bump heads at times, but I don't deny him the right of letting him know that he has great leadership skills."
Above all, though, Gordon's role seems to be that of peacemaker. At one point he takes on a tough-looking kid with long hair and a heavy-metal T-shirt who's wandering the halls hand in hand with his girlfriend. The second time they pass by, Gordon does a little side-step shuffle, blocking their path, with a big grin on his face. He doesn't say a word.
In the middle school wing, he comes upon Essence Greene, a 14-year-old seventh-grader who's been put out of class, and asks her what the teacher told her. "She didn't have to get an attitude with me, because I didn't have an attitude with her. She told me to get out."
"Let me explain," says Gordon softly, taking her hand.
He tells her that the Golden Rule has to start with her taking responsibility: "I'm gonna treat you the way I want to be treated, and you're going to treat me the way you want to be treated. OK?"
"All right," she says, and smiles shyly.
"We're going to use our respectful words," Gordon says. "Don't forget, the church meeting tonight is at 7:15."
I ask Greene if she minds being reprimanded by a fellow student. "Not at all," she says. "His vibe is so uplifting to me."
Over the two days I spend at North and with Gordon, he is friendly but respectful to all, and almost every student treats him the same way. On a single occasion, a younger boy tosses a homophobic slur at him. Overhearing, another kid asks, "Robert, should I beat him up for you?"
Unruffled, Gordon replies: "That would be on you."
He says he'll miss his fellow students after graduation. But in the meantime, he says, "students have worked together and found me a protege. They are hoping to train this boy to be like me. He will keep my legacy."
The kid in question, Casey Robinson, is a seventh-grader. "I would probably say he has more potential than I did when I was his age."
Robinson, a slender boy, isn't so sure. "One day he came up to me and said, 'You're going to be my protege.' And I started doing speeches, like at the honor roll assembly, and all that junk. Before I ain't done none of that. I'm starting to learn. It's scary. He helps me calm down."
Gordon says he gets involved in administrative issues too. This fall, after a math teacher retired, one of her classes went without for nearly a full quarter. Students were getting assignments here and there from other teachers. Some were seniors, and the failure to pass this class would prevent them from graduating.
Gordon drove to the district office, where he is known by name. He recalls filling out a form to request a new teacher. "It was a very simple form," he says, shaking his head. "One sheet. Front and back."
Fersner, the guidance counselor, said the school had been beating the bushes to find a new teacher, reaching out to all the nearby colleges. One, from out of state, had accepted the position and then reversed herself.
Gordon, she says, spoke up in the role of a concerned family member on behalf of his two cousins, who were in that class. "He made a complaint up to the district office, I'm assuming to get them to start acting more quickly."
I asked Gregory, the principal, whether Gordon helped find a math teacher. "I wasn't aware of that," he said. "Not to my knowledge, no. I don't know how he could have been involved."
District Superintendent Jesse Washington says, "We are constantly looking for teachers, especially at the middle and high school level for math and science." Salary-wise, he says, they can't compete with Columbia, 30 miles north.
A desultory spirit haunts many high schools in the final weeks before graduation, but at North it's extreme. Because of block scheduling, about half the seniors have nearly empty schedules, Gregory tells me.
In second period, we poke our heads in the gym. Students are playing basketball — shirts and skins — or just hanging out under the supervision of one PE teacher, Keith Williams. He explains that he's watching two classes, around 60 kids, because a substitute has failed to show up.
Gordon has one remaining class on his schedule, art, but he says the teacher hasn't shown up for a while. So we just roam. Of the rest of the classes he takes me into, many have substitutes, or in one case a custodial staff member, simply hanging out while kids shop for prom dresses, blast country music or watch TV on their phones.
When I ask one of Gordon's best friends, Brittany Bloome, if she likes it here, she replies flatly, "No."
"You want a page or you want a book?" she asks.
"For one, some of the administrators here don't do their jobs and some don't know their jobs to do them. Two, the kids, well, I don't know what to say. Three, it's unorganized and Robert has to step in and do something every day."
Bloome, by the way, is the valedictorian, headed to College of Charleston next year.
Corridor Of Shame
To understand how Robert Gordon came to play the role he does in this school, and the challenges that students and educators in this community face, it helps to know a little bit more about this part of South Carolina. The good and the bad.
North is located in a place with a portentous nickname: the "Corridor of Shame." That term has been applied to several school districts in South Carolina along Interstate 95, which runs parallel to the coast and about 70 miles inland.
The population of these counties is overwhelmingly poor, rural and 88 percent minority — compared with a state average of 48 percent.
The schools here are chronically underfunded, so badly that it constitutes a violation of law. That was the finding of the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2014, after a lawsuit that dragged on for 21 years. But still, the state has done little to address the inequities. The Legislature is currently considering a review of facilities for districts named in the case, to address what Superintendent Washington calls a "dire need" for upgrades.
North Middle/High School reports a four-year high school graduation rate of 85 percent. But only 10 percent of students who took the ACT met college-ready benchmarks in English, and only 2.5 percent in math.
Robert Gordon says many kids he knows who've graduated from North who do head to two- or four-year colleges eventually come back without completing degrees or finding jobs.
Orangeburg County, where North is located, has an unemployment rate of 11.3 percent, nearly twice the state's as a whole. The town's median household income is $24,600.
"Maybe five of our class [of 38] will be success stories in the end," Gordon says. "I'm hoping that I will be. I really do believe that I will be. But it's just that those odds at our school do not seem to add up."
Gordon has been accepted to Claflin University, a Methodist-affiliated historically black college in nearby Orangeburg. His five-year plan, he says, is to earn his master's in divinity at either Emory or Duke.
His ambition hints at the other side of life in North. Yes, there's a lack of resources and opportunity. But on the other hand, as Principal Gregory says, "It's a small town, quaint, everybody knows each other."
This is a tight-knit, relatively safe community where black and white kids mix unself-consciously. Large, extended families and church are often at the center of life.
Gordon comes from a long line of preachers. He's already started his own preaching career at youth revivals and prayer meetings at the many Methodist and Baptist churches in the area. In fact, he signed those recommendation letters for fellow students with the designation "minister."
His grandfather, Bobby Gordon, is the minister of a church as well as the mayor of the nearby town of Livingston. But, Gordon says, when counseling his fellow students, he takes even more inspiration from his grandmother Carolyn Gordon, a teacher's aide for special education.
"That relationship she has with her students, I always wanted to have with somebody's child," he says. "I really have a heart for the students."
The Senator Visits
On the final day of my visit, something especially momentous is happening at North.
Tim Scott, a U.S. senator, is coming to speak to the seniors. Appointed to the position by Gov. Nikki Haley after the retirement of Jim DeMint, Scott is the only African-American Republican in the Senate. And he's a distant cousin to Gordon, who has been working to set up this visit since they met at a family funeral several months ago.
North's mayor, someone from the school district and a local newspaper reporter are there to greet the senator. Scott, in a tie adorned with South Carolina palmettos, shakes everyone's hand.
Fewer than 20 kids, about half the senior class, are waiting in the library — others aren't here today or can't be found. Scott tells his story. He once drifted in school, even failing civics. "My mother used the Apparatus of Southern Encouragement on me," he says — that is, the switch.
He was mentored by the owner of a local Chick-fil-A, who helped him see his potential.
"Education was my key to escaping poverty," he says. "My only ask to you is that whatever your expectations are for the future, that you double them."
I catch the eye of a blonde girl who's extremely pregnant. She gives me a small smile.
The students ask the senator why he's a Republican. He gives three reasons: support for the military, small business and his faith. Then they want to know what he thinks of Donald Trump. He gives an artful non-answer.
Principal Gregory speaks up and asks the question that must be on the minds of so many here: "What are you doing to get more money to education?"
The senator mentions the state Supreme Court ruling that found that schools like North are getting shortchanged. "We are among the highest-spending nations on Earth, but there are a lot of leaks," he says, saying South Carolina has to work to get more money into the classroom.
After half an hour, Scott's entourage signals him to move on. "Your goals will set a ceiling on your accomplishments," Scott tells the students. "Mr. Gordon, thank you for the invitation."