Relaxed: Bobby Thompson keeps CHS calm

In schools today, students with problems have seemingly limitless resources to help them cope. But in the late 1980s, when Bobby Thompson was teaching in Dallas, Texas, the coping mechanism of choice was still the paddle.

The mild-mannered principal of Charlottesville High School recalls with a laugh how misbehaving "big Texas farm boys" who had been sent to the school office, would doff their cowboy hat, lean their knuckles on the desk, and ask the principal to "help me burn off the tensions."

Thompson also has vivid memories of his own turn at the end of a paddle. After several consecutive days of being late in the ninth grade, he remembers, he was given the choice of a three-day suspension or "10 licks."

"No way I was going to go home and tell my parents I'd been punished," says the Lynchburg native. "I took the licks."

Shortly after graduation from Lynchburg College, Thompson began teaching sixth-grade in rural Campbell County, where to the 38 students in his class he taught everything from math to social studies to phys ed.

Today as he directs the daily life of more than 2,300 students at Charlottesville's only high school, Thompson marvels at the changes he's witnessed over the course of his career.

"Today students have an insatiable need for instant gratification," he says, "and they can have that need satisfied by the Internet.

"Imagine living through a war where 'embedded' reporters send minute-by-minute reports," he marvels.

Thompson is also impressed by students' wide ranging interests that the information revolution feeds. He eagerly enumerates the ways Charlottesville High School meets those interests, citing the school's 18 Advanced Placement courses, its award-winning band, and a fine arts program that's the envy of surrounding counties.

But Thompson's pride in the accomplishments of the students in his care is countered by dismay at what he considers the unfair image of his school in the media.

"The press try to portray us as an inner-city school," he says. "I wish they could come and spend a day and see what CHS is really like."

When Thompson describes how roughly 90 students think highly enough of CHS to pay tuition to be able to enroll, he notes, "We must be doing something right when so many parents are willing to pay to have their children come here."

But just like his students, the principal looks forward to summer vacation, particularly since it means that he and his wife can head for the beach, the second great love of his life. In fact, it was the proximity to the beach that first lured the couple back to Virginia from Dallas.

"Texas wasn't for us," he says, remembering with obvious distress a place with "no trees, no rivers, no lakes and wall to wall cement."

So when the last bell rings in June, Thompson will turn his sights to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

No doubt he'll be thinking that this is surely a much better way to "burn off the tensions."

Age: 56

What brought you here? My wife and I moved from Dallas in 1989 when I became the Buford Middle School principal.

What's worst about living here? Traffic on Rio Road and downtown parking

Favorite hangout? Bizou

Most overrated virtue? Tolerance

What would people be surprised to know about you? I enjoy bird watching in my backyard.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I wish I could be more patient.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? That I have been principal at CHS for 10 years.

What do people find most annoying about you? I am not tolerant of mistakes. I get upset with people who make them.

Whom do you admire? John F. Kennedy. He brought people of all races and religions together.

Favorite book? The Bridges of Madison County

 What subject causes you to rant? Unkept promises

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Technological and medical advancements

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? Terrorism

What do you drive? 2002 Honda Passport

What's in your car CD player right now? Robert Cray's Take Your Shoes Off

 What's your next journey? My wife and I will go to Hilton Head Island this summer.

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I received 10 demerits in high school for "tardies" to class. As a result, I received a paddling from the assistant principal.

What do you regret? Not moving to Charlottesville sooner

Favorite comfort food? Fried chicken

What's always in your refrigerator? Bottled water

Must-see TV? Will and Grace

Favorite cartoon? Blondie

Describe a perfect day. Sunny, about 90 degrees with slight wind, sitting on the beach at Hilton Head

Walter Mitty fantasy? To be George Steinbrenner

Who'd play you in the movie? Jack Nicholson

Most embarrassing moment? In high school I tried to sneak in the back door to a Christmas dance, only to get my foot caught in a cord and pull over the Christmas tree. I was caught red-faced and red-handed.

Best advice you ever got? Knowledge is worth giving away. Rumors are to be kept to yourself.

Favorite bumper sticker? Assume nothing