By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times
Just a few years ago, Michael Cates was leaning back in his chair inside his office in the Itawamba Agricultural High School band hall pondering the future.
“I think I’m ready to try something new,” he said, speaking in generalities, with nothing concrete in mind. He was back in school, working on an administration degree with no set goal, eyeing the future, but not focused on any particular thing.
“I decided I wanted to get another degree,” he said. “I had no desire to leave band directing; I just wanted to go back to college. But, that opened up another door, I stepped through it and the next thing I knew, I was the principal of a K-12 school.”
Cates has stepped in as principal of Tremont Attendance Center, filling the shoes left vacant by former principal Eddie Moore, who left for Pontotoc High School during the summer. It was a big move for the former Fulton band director, one wholly unexpected.
Then again, last year he wasn’t expecting to become the school’s assistant principal. Doors open, he said.
He referenced a recent speech Federal Judge Sharion Aycock gave a group of Tremont students.
“It’s all building blocks,” he said. “You don’t know where you’re going sometimes. You just do your best — that’s in the academic world and your personal life — and opportunity will open. You just step through that door when it opens.”
He rubbed his eyes and laughed.
“I mean, what person in his right mind in high school wants to be a principal?”
He was, perhaps, only half joking.
“I never envisioned that,” he said. “I never had a clue I wanted to be a band director. Opportunity just kind of opened up. You work hard and just listen to the people around you. That’s the most important thing: surround yourself with good friends and family and let them influence your direction. Before you know it, things just take their own course if you’re just willing to work.”
Moore’s leaving, the new principal said, was just another door ajar.
Through the open door
“We’re in the middle of growing,” Cates said of the school. “We’re up more than 50 students this year, at this point. We’re in a constant state of change around here.”
It’s not just the size of the student body that’s changed, or the man in the principal’s office; the school is now guarded by two large gates blocking off access to the campus via car. Cates said the gates help make the school a safer place during the day, and keep intruders out at night.
Safety, he said, is one of his primary goals.
“I think Eddie Moore put things in motion,” Cates said. “His mind was to get a school that was disciplined and high achieving. I think that my goal is to be the most effective school possible. We’re going to have to be safe, well organized and have high standards. Those are our three goals right now.”
While working with 12 grade levels is difficult — the vast differences in the curriculums is enough to spin heads, Cates said — the principal claimed to be working with a good team. In fact, Cates credited his teachers, staff and the community as a whole for holding him upright at times.
“I used to think the principal had to be the leader, the person who has the vision and pushes the school towards it; but, now I realize the principal is just part of that team,” Cates said. “You don’t want to be a leader who all of a sudden turns around and finds no one’s behind him. You want to be sure you’re all on the same page.”
He said the school — teachers, students, administration, faculty, community and all — have entered this school year with a new dedication.
Tremont is a school of fighters, Cates said.
“The faculty and staff here are proud of this school, proud of these students and are highly motivated,” Cates said. “Their encouragement is one of the main reasons I took this job. I don’t know anybody who would step into a K-12 administrative job without some doubts.”
Even with those doubts, Cates was answering phone calls, talking with teachers and excusing himself briefly to handle a tech problem like he was a man at home.
“This is just an excellent school,” he said, settling back into his chair. And you know, every school has its down moments, but I think Tremont is climbing now.
“We’re gaining ground,” he said.
Adam Armour can be reached at 862-3141, by e-mailing adam.armour@ itawamba360.com or by visiting his blog at itawamba360.com.