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Monday, September 20, 2010

What's It All About?

The start of the school year has been very enjoyable for me. I have appreciated the courtesy and accommodations that people have extended me as I work to become an active contributor to the Heatly School community. The mood has been upbeat. I remain optimistic and enthused. 

After so many years of service as a school leader working with hundreds of staff members and thousands of learners, I have experienced the full spectrum of human dynamics and emotions. There have been joys and sorrows, happiness and tragedy. Despite the highs and lows, I have found that a clear and consistent course based on core values and bedrock beliefs is the most effective strategy in maintaining your personal orientation and balance. Perhaps the best example of this attitude is reflected in the following essay I wrote that appeared in the publication, The Harvard Desktop. The subject of this essay was a comparison of two different experiences that occurred days apart from each other in a school where I worked before coming to Green Island.


Opposite Directions

It was perhaps the most conflicted of any week in a career that spans two dozen years as a principal. Never before had I experienced such a wide sweep of the emotional pendulum in such little time. The difference between the beginning and the ending was tragically brief, ninety four years separated by a matter of days.

On Saturday, January 5th, 2002 I attended the 100th birthday celebration of the grandmother of one of our Kindergarten teachers. That was the first time I had ever met a centenarian and she readily qualified as the oldest person I had ever known. Three days later, on Tuesday morning January 8th, I was informed that a six year old kindergarten student in our school, had died. He was the youngest person I had known who passed away.


The tiny elderly woman, bounced around, almost as aimlessly as a pin ball in an arcade game, as she shuffled from person to person and posed for photographs. Her movements had the same effect that directors obtain by conveying speed in films through slow motion. I had seen her several times at school when she came and played an active role in assisting her granddaughter with class parties like Halloween and Valentine’s Day. She helped shepherd the five year olds about the varied activities without a trace of discomfort or inconvenience. It was truly amazing and inspiring.

A display of mementos highlighted her life. The front page article in the local paper that day called attention to her 100th birthday and chronicled her migration from Hungary as well as other personal accomplishments. It was surrounded by faded and yellowed photographs of the past, various newspaper clippings heralding special occasions associated with her life. There were countless other artifacts. The most interesting piece of the collection was a copy of her driver’s license that listed her birth date as ’02, predating cars and before anyone imagined the turn of another millennium and the resulting confusion computers would have with another ’02.

The hall was festive and full of people. Most of them were members of a vastly extended family that stretched from New York to Alaska. They were renewing connections that had withered by separations measured in time by calendars. I could see people of all ages, from new born babies to the one hundred year old honoree. The collection provided a human landscape that an anthropologist could examine with the same delightful intrigue of a paleontologist investigating fossil filled, layered rock formations. Mixed in were people like myself who shared interests and acquaintances with the woman somewhere along those one hundred years. There was her doctor, the mayor of the small town where she resided, fellow senior citizens, friends, and neighbors…

The diminutive woman, perhaps no more than four feet six inches, hustled about fueled by the adrenaline and excitement of such a special event. She was the center of attention and absorbed the notoriety, transferring it into energy that allowed her to scurry about the room and among her well-wishers. She shook hands, received pecks on the cheek, and posed for countless photographs. Her smile broadened with each flash, her eyes sparkled with every kiss.

It was a remarkable ceremony that left me in awe of everything she must have experienced, from man’s first flight to the moon landing, from World War I to expansive military conflicts too numerous and frequent to assign Roman numerals. The perspective afforded her by virtue of living one hundred years was unbelievable and profound.


However, I would soon feel the shocking reminder of the frailty of human life, a life that would only experience six birthdays, six Easters, six Fourth of July’s, six Thanksgiving’s, six Christmas’s, and six New Years. 

The phone rang in my office at 7:30am that morning. I recognized the name of the caller as a mother of two children enrolled in our school. Her voice was weary and her words were fragmented. She volunteered that she was speaking on behalf of her neighbor and, in a tone that grew noticeably more sullen and morose with each breath, she reported that the boy next door had died just hours earlier. She explained that she was serving at the request of the parents and alerting the school of the tragic incident.

There have been few surprises in my lengthy administrative career. This was one of them. I spoke without thought and only measured my words after hanging up the phone and attempting to recount what had transpired. Somehow it didn’t seem believable or official, yet it was hardly something to question.

I assembled the office staff that had trickled in while I was on the phone. I closed the office door and explained what had happened. We agreed that our primary focus in replying to this terrible situation was to maintain our composure and pursue a course of action in concert with the values and beliefs that have governed our school culture. We decided to exercise the same constancy of purpose we had enacted following the terrorist strikes of September 11th, 2001. That approach was articulated in the clarion issued on September 12th to the staff, and re-created below:

This is a day that will define us – not as educators – but as people. This is a day that we were not prepared for by college, but by our parents, family, and friends. This is a day to ignore the scores on a test, but concern ourselves with the test of our mettle.

Our school is special because of the people within it. You were each hired because of your care and compassion, commitment and cooperation. If we are determined to pursue a mission borne of fostering hope and feeding dreams, then we must sustain that belief throughout this day and those that follow.

Let us conduct ourselves with dignity and civility, sensitivity and faith. We must serve as purveyors of information, and reservoirs of understanding. Rest anchored to facts, not fiction; objectivity, not opinion.

When the school bell rings, on this day that the nation mourns, we may be judged - not by grades and points, but by hugs and tears. If we are resolved to a future of freedom, then we must remain strong, speak as one, and act for all.

We easily found the church in the tired looking industrial town that hugged the Hudson River. The bulbous dome that capped the Ukrainian Orthodox Church stood above the weary brick factory buildings. That dome, plus the lengthy trail of parked cars that flanked the street, beckoned us to the correct church.

The word somber does not describe the emotion that blanketed the gathering of people brought to this small, nondescript spot of earth for the expressed purpose of extending a saddened, tearful good bye to the young boy.

We stumbled past the grief stricken gauntlet of people that stood motionless on the sidewalk and made our way into the church. The pale and aged exterior of the facility disguised an interior of bright azure blue walls accentuated by icons splashed with gold. The Russian letters, except for a backward R, were familiar but the combinations of jumbled consonant and vowel arrangements were foreign. There were a number of older people, parishioners who spoke with appropriate accents and followed the prompts of the priests and the choreography of the church rituals, who stood along the walls and encircled those seated in the pews.

No matter the age and background of those present, the common denominator among the crowd was the focal point of their eyes. The small casket that was placed on a table at the front of the main aisle was a magnet for the eyes of everyone. Of particular attraction was the small size of the coffin. I had never seen a coffin so short. It was a startling reminder of the child’s short life.

The route to my heart was navigated by a sense of sound that was overwhelming. A stooped, older man in the first pew, with gaunt cheeks and puffy red eyes identified himself as the boy’s grandfather by his weeping as much as by his age. He was forlorn, and desperately willing to trade places with the small grandson he had outlived, unlike the expected path of successions of generations. The plaintive wailing of the grieving mother, unleashing her anguish like a siren, her cries resonating throughout the small church and engulfing those who arrived to say goodbye to the child, formed a macabre soundtrack with her father-in-law. Cantors, although chanting in a foreign tongue, expressed themselves in the universal language of loss and grief, with dirge like tones, and depressing rhythm.

The length of the ceremony was extended by the use of English and Russian languages to convey faith based farewells to the six year old. An hour later the congregation oozed from the church and lurched to the next phase of the funeral, ushered to the cemetery by state police cars. The tombstones announced rows and rows of eastern European names. The somber, wind swept cemetery was bereft of color save the green carpet, mimicking grass, that covered the mound of dirt from the excavated site of the grave.

It was soon over, after a few shovels of dirt were ceremoniously tossed upon the casket prior to lowering it to its final resting place.


While newspaper headlines splash plenty of ink across the land with tales of questionable practices and woeful test scores, the events of that week reinforced that schools are in the business of providing care, first and foremost. This essay is not meant to diminish the significance of academics and the responsibility of educators to effectively deliver instruction. Instead, it asserts that the fundamental basis of schooling exists within the following adage –

People don’t care about what you know, until they know that you care.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very touching essay. I knew that we had an intelligent man as our new superintendent but now I know that we also have a very caring man. With both of those qualities the school couldn't be in better hands!