IF THERE’S ONE THING GEORGE HIRSCHBERG knows, it’s crisis management. As principal of P.S. 10 in Paterson, a gritty industrial city in northern New Jersey, he has calmed countless schoolyard quarrels and dug into his own pocket when kids needed school supplies. Still, nothing could have prepared him for what happened Oct. 26.
That afternoon, just after dismissal, Hirschberg, 50, was standing outside the school when he heard a pop and ran into the corridor, only to find himself staring down the barrel of a menacing, 9-mm semiautomatic assault rifle. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’ ” he says. What he had done was come face-to-face with an angry accused drug dealer who had chased a student’s uncle into the building. Afraid of antagonizing the gunman—especially with children on the premises—Hirschberg summoned all his authority and made a simple request. “I said, ‘Will you please leave? Guns are not allowed in the building.’ And,” says Hirschberg, still amazed, “he left.”
The kids were safe, the gunman was later arrested, and Hirschberg became the toast of Paterson. Grateful students and teachers showered their principal of 12 years with thank-you notes, gifts and Superman costumes. Hirschberg even received a call from Gov. Jim Florio and a mention from Jay Leno, who joked in his Tonight Show monologue, “Forget putting 50,000 more cops on the streets. Let’s put 50,000 more principals on the streets!” As Orlando Ortiz, stepfather of three P.S. 10 students, says, “Mr. Hirschberg did an excellent job.”
A few days after the incident, a small, awestruck girl spied the costumed Hirschberg in the school’s halls. “Are you Superman?” she asked. Said Hirschberg: “For this week only.” That would have come as reassuring news to Roz, his wife of 22 years and mother of his sons, Marc, 19, and Robbie, 13. “I was ready to collapse,” she admits of her reaction to her husband’s sangfroid. “George would do anything to protect his school—but he’d better not do it again.”