The Center Will Hold
by Charles McGuigan
David Hudson has been principal of Linwood Holton Elementary School for thirteen years now. When he took over the reins of command, the school—though only a few years old at the time—was in a state of rapid decline. Within that first year, Mr. Hudson had turned it around, and in the intervening years has created one of the most desirable schools in the Richmond metropolitan area. Mr. Hudson supports his teachers, safeguards every student, responds immediately to the parents, plays an active role in the PTA. More than that, Mr. Hudson reaches out beyond the borders of the school, and engages himself with all of the Northside community. Today, he is not just the principal of this elementary school, he is, in so many ways, the actual center of Northside, a center that can, and will, hold.
Much like the president of a country, the principal of a school sets the tone for the body they govern, and I can think of no school administrator in the Richmond metro area who better reflects American values, and who rules with the compassion and understanding our nation is known for round the world. All are welcome at Linwood Holton Elementary School under the watchful guidance of David Hudson, and neither race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, nor gender is ever used as a criteria for acceptance. Jews, atheists, Christians, agnostics, and Muslims comprise the student body here, and never are their beliefs held in contempt. And on the Northside there are sons and daughters of immigrants, Latinos and Latinas, blacks, whites, you name it. None are ever criticized for who they are, but rather praised for their uniqueness and cultural diversity, and how they enrich the school. Every boy who attends Holton knows that under no circumstances can he ever touch a girl, and there is no tolerance for locker room banter. This too: no child at Holton would ever consider mocking a classmate with a disability of any kind. To the citizens of this elementary school, that behavior is utterly abhorrent. As is bullying of any kind. The children at Holton are taught never to incite hatred of any kind, or encourage any sort of physical violence. Rather, they are instructed to be kind to one another, to defuse anger with love, and, above all else, honor one another’s human dignity, and show true respect. What’s more, the leader of this nation of six hundred doesn’t have time to take to Twitter; he has real work to do.
David Hudson was dressed impeccably from the leather of his uppers to the trademark bowtie below his chin. We were sitting in his office at Holton. There was a photograph of his daughter, now in her twenties, framed on a shelf facing his desk. And behind him, hung on the wall, was a vintage photograph of a group of pre-teen boys sitting on the hood and bumper of a classic automobile, a bulbous clunker of steel. Each one of the children adorning the front of this car like so many hood ornaments is dressed to the high nines.
“Let me explain why dress is important,” David told me as he adjusted his bowtie. “One of the things I think people never talk about is why we’re in school, and realistically we’re in school so one day the kids can be very successful in the workplace. I have a problem with kids that have clothes hanging off of their body. They can be valedictorian of their class, but they’re going to apply for a position in the real world and they’re not going to get it. Because the first thing we do is look at appearance. I would never come into this building dressed any other way than the way you see me now. My appearance has to be in a style that is respectful to the kids. I hope I’m portraying a good image because hopefully one day when they go to their job they will be able to get the job based on their respect for themselves, which comes through in their appearance.”
A half-hour earlier, as the school buses had lined the drive on the side of Holton, a number of boys, climbing down the steps of the bus to the sidewalk, hastily tucked their shirts in, adjusted their belts, and zipped up their jackets. The kids knew then, as they know now, that their Mr. Hudson means business, that there are laws they all must follow.
“Even if you’re stern,” he told me. “If you’re fair and you listen to everything a kid has to say, they don’t look at you as being mean. They know they can come to you and something is done.”
That was five years ago, and today in that same office, the two pictorial reminders are in the same place they were back then. Mr. Hudson points to the photo of his daughter. “I provide a school that I would want my own child to go to,” he says. “That’s why I have a picture of my kid there. When I look at that picture, I see my children here at the school. I make sure that when parents leave their children here they know their children will be in safe hands, and that teachers are going to work with them, and that they are going to be safe from other people in the building, whether they’re students or adults. People in this building are going to treat the students with respect, and in return the students are going to treat every other person in this building with respect.”
When former Third District School Board Representative Carol Wolf found Mr. Hudson (who was then working at J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School), Holton, just a few years old at the time, was slipping into a sinkhole. Chaos reigned, and the student population was under three hundred, well below half of what it is today. Almost overnight, Mr. Hudson turned it around.
“The first thing that I wanted to do was to hear what the teachers and the parents had to say about the school, and ways they would improve it,” he says. “Then I thought about things that I believe make a successful school. One of those things is school activities.” During that first year, Mr. Hudson created five after-school enrichment programs. Today, there are more than a hundred such activities, including some that are offered during vacation as summer camps.
He remembers those early days at Holton very clearly. “These kids were really out of control, and I had to let them know there were consequences,” Mr. Hudson says. “And I had to let some of the staff know they couldn’t act the way they acted.”
But Mr. Hudson was called on his sternness by a woman he has come to have the deepest respect for. “My very first PTA president Yvette Contie,” he says. “I would give my life to defend her. I respect her because she’s going to tell me like it is. I used to be real hard and mean. And she came in here one day and sat on this couch and she said, ‘You’re going to drive all these people away, you’re too mean.’ Yvette was right.”
My son Charles spent all six of his elementary school years at Holton, and the lessons he learned there helped him immensely in middle school. While attending middle school in Henrico County (for a total of 33 days) he was bullied relentlessly by a small group of students, and at least one teacher. The bullying was so intense that he later developed posttraumatic stress disorder that he is still being treated for, but Charles, drawing on the knowledge he had acquired at Holton, refrained from becoming a bully himself.
“There’s no bullying here because we teach the students from kindergarten to be nice,” says Mr. Hudson. “I think bullying is something that not only parents have to work on, but the school has to work on.”
Mr. Hudson remembers a pivotal moment in his own life that occurred when he was in college. A group of bullies would say mean things to one young man, and the man would laugh it off. Mr. Hudson took this young man aside and asked him if he really thought what was being said about was funny. “No, I don’t,” the young man said. “I’m just afraid.”
“Sometimes people don’t speak up for themselves, so you have to,” Mr. Hudson says. “You can’t allow people to make people feel uncomfortable, and a lot of people are not successful in life because people are doing that to them.”
But not at Holton, because Mr. Hudson has one simple rule: “You don’t call people names, you don’t make them feel uncomfortable, and you don’t touch them.”
If this golden rule is broken, Mr. Hudson encourages people to tell him. “And I mean everyone,” he says. “I give my (cellphone) number to bus drivers, parents, even the neighbors in this area. You see anything wrong, let me know. My job is not to be your friend, it’s to solve problems. My job is to make sure that every child feels good about school. I say, ‘Let’s say nice words to one another.’ And the boy and girls here are very good to one another, and to the staff.”
His staff of teachers, each carefully selected, are among the best teachers in the state. “I have a staff one hundred percent on target,” says Mr. Hudson. “Fifty-five employees in all.”
Mr. Hudson encourages his teachers to make themselves even more successful than they are. “I tell my teachers that this school for them is like a classroom,” he says. “I don’t want them to stay idle, I want them to keep moving on, and my job is to help that. The principal of (William) Fox (Elementary School), Daniela Jacobs, used to be my assistant, and I saw so much greatness in her that I encouraged her. Like my assistant now, my job is to make her a principal one day. You show them the ropes because you want it be contagious throughout the system. When a teacher wants to move up, I’m not going to hold them back. I want them to move up.“
I have walked the halls with Mr. Hudson throughout the day, following a routine that he carries out every day like a doctor making her rounds in a hospital. He visits every classroom, and spends time talking with the students and the teachers. He wants everyone to know that he is always available, and willing to make changes when necessary.
“As soon as there’s a problem, you need to tell me about it,” says Mr. Hudson. “You don’t hold it in. You need to tell me, and we need to fix it immediately. The worst thing is to wait till the next day to tell me because it has grown inside.”
Every Wednesday, Mr. Hudson meets with all his teachers, and asks them if they have any concerns. “For almost fourteen years I’ve done that,” he says. “I train my teachers and student teachers to tell me when there’s something wrong. No matter how well you think something is running, there’s going to be a problem. I praise the teachers when they tell me there’s something wrong. I can’t fix good, don’t tell me anything good. Only tell me something that I can fix. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I listen to what people say.”
He preaches the same message to parents, and he’s not kidding. Every time I had a concern when Charles attended school there, I would call Mr. Hudson, sometimes as late as eleven at night, and he always took my calls, and tackled the problem immediately. “I’m out there in the front of the school in the afternoon, and I’m out there in the morning” he says. “I’m around all the time. I walk through the community at least once a week. If I look at a parent and see something wrong, I call them and ask them, ‘Are you okay? Is there something I can do?”
Mr. Hudson has often heard parents on the playground after school talking about their concerns. “I’ve said to them: ‘A problem you don’t share, is a problem you don’t want fixed,” he says. “’You need to tell me. You’re out there on that playground talking, it’s not going to be fixed. Come here and tell me, and I will do something.’”
Along with special education and administration, Mr. Hudson also studied and taught mathematics, and he suspects his fascination with math may have had a direct effect on his problem-solving strategies. “I’m going to look at it, I’m going to analyze it, and I’m going to react to it,” he says. “I have that math background. With math you have to always figure out a problem. You have to solve the problems. It’s rarely that I have to solve the problem the next day. All problems can be solved.”
Years ago, Mr. Hudson learned to eliminate one simple, monosyllabic word from his vocabulary, a deadly and defeatist word, a word that can destroy life dreams for good and all.
“I never say no,” he says. “My father told me that. “The worst thing you can do is tell somebody no. First off, you’re lazy when you say no. But there’s so much more to it than that. When you say no, you pour water right on the flames. You put it out.” So regardless what the kids, the teachers, the parents suggest, Mr. Hudson always listens, and he doesn’t say no.
Consider the Dandelion Garden, which has been coming into its own for the past six years. It serves as outdoor classroom and hosts a variety of eco-friendly gardens and a veritable forest that will take decades to mature. What’s more, this initiative teaches children and adults alike about the beauty of gardening, and all the tasks associated with it. Kids learn to grow their own vegetables and herbs, and how to create compost and how to tend raised beds.
Holton parents Susanna Raffenot and Ellen Shepard were the mothers of this garden project, and when they presented the idea to Mr. Hudson, he did not say, “No.”
In fact, he threw his full support behind these two women and their project. He even dug and weeded, got good dirt under his nails. And then in 2010, when Mr. Hudson received REB Award for Distinguished Educational Leadership, he donated the $15,000 monetary award to the school to further develop the learning garden program. The outdoor classroom, which won a Golden Hammer award, is fondly called The Hudson House.
Ten years ago, I met with Mr. Hudson and asked him if he would consider becoming involved with our annual Christmas on MacArthur. He was instantly on board, and has since become the unofficial grand marshal of the parade, year after year, always dressed to perfection and driving one of his classic sports cars, brimming with toys. Mr. Hudson transformed the parade, seeking active participation from students, parents, the school’s chorus and band, long with the marching bands of other local public schools. He tirelessly promotes the event to the student body, encouraging kids to bring their donations for Toys for Tots. Each year, the kids at Holton donate more toys than any other group. They have learned from Mr. Hudson that generosity is humanity’s greatest achievement.
“We have every nationality here, we have everything, and we make good people out of our students,” says Principal David Hudson. “I tell kids and parents during the awards program that the first thing I look for is good citizenship. What happens when you make good people? They’re going to take care of society, and they’re going to take care of each other, too, because they know how to act.”
Would that politicians would begin to understand these profound truths, would that these leaders had attended Linwood Holton Elementary School, a great public school, a school for all children, a school well-governed by a man whose objective is not power, but the safety and well-being of his citizens, every last one of them.