ALLENDALE, S.C. - The cards were stacked against him even before Al Lamback got into the game.
The principal says he knew that going into Allendale-Fairfax High School four weeks ago, but he was willing to "gamble if it meant saving the lives of children" who needed what he had to offer.
The longtime Aiken County educator is the fourth principal of the high school since 1999. A broken contract cost the last principal his job and gave Mr. Lamback a new one.
When state officials hired Michael McIntosh as a principal for one of South Carolina's poorest districts, he wasn't certified for the job. So they fired him in February for not keeping his promise to get the required state document. He didn't apply for it until after he was dismissed, and by then, Mr. Lamback had been hired to take his place.
The removal caused confusion in a community that involuntarily became linked with the Education Department in 1999, when Allendale County was forced to surrender day-to-day operations of its schools. Parents held public meetings, and students threatened a sit-in - all at the urging of Mr. McIntosh, who says he was fired for "not being a yes man." His dismissal also resurrected claims that the state was managing the district poorly.
Although some protesters insisted Mr. McIntosh was fired because white officials believed a black principal couldn't do the job, that claim was defused by his replacement. Mr. Lamback also is black.
Veteran English teacher Brenda Baxley says the controversy caused discord among the faculty and student body.
"Morale at the high school is the lowest I've ever seen," she said. Hiring Mr. McIntosh was one of several "serious blunders" the state has made since it stepped in, she said. "Frankly, I've lost faith in the Department of Education."
Some of that faith has been redeemed now that Mr. Lamback has signed a three-year contract at the high school. But he almost didn't come, he says, because he knew it would be a hardship for the people in Aiken County who would need to find a special-education teacher in midyear. Finding one at all is tough enough. And Mr. Lamback had come out of retirement to re-enter the classroom.
"But then I thought, `If I were a parent with a child in the district, I would want somebody to help him,"' Mr. Lamback said. "I think I was really destined to be here. These students aren't any different than others in the state. They want the best education they can get, and they don't care who gives it to them. So that's what we're doing."
For Mr. Lamback, "doing" means more than just disciplining students and making sure they do well on standardized tests. It's also about proving that small-town children can make good in a big world.
He knows because he did it.
He lived with his mother and 10 siblings in North Augusta. His father died from a heart attack while working in a mill when Mr. Lamback was just 4, and "it was a struggle making it to the table sometimes," he said.
It also was a struggle to get an education. His older brothers and sisters paid for him to go to college.
Since then, Mr. Lamback has taught school and been a principal and a high-level administrator.
"Give us a couple years, and everybody will be hearing nothing but good things about Allendale-Fairfax High School," he said. "We're going to be OK."
A yellow banner hanging from the school's ceiling is a constant reminder of that goal.
"Excellence in the making," the banner proclaims. Another nearby says, "We're all in this thing together."
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.