Lessons Of Life
This story is as much about my son Charles as it is about Linwood Holton Elementary School. Six years ago, Charles entered the school for the first time—small and innocent and unformed. We entered the conference room just outside the main office and he sat in my lap with his fingers tucked in his mouth as six people around the table looked at him. I could smell the Johnson’s baby shampoo in his hair, could feel his bones (he has always been so thin) prodding my thighs. His eyes were wide and he sat there absolutely silent and I had never seen him look so vulnerable. It seemed to me that I was giving him over as in an ancient temple, somehow surrendering him to a life that would make him whole or ready him for an unforeseen destiny. My arms were wrapped around him tightly because I did not want to let him go: I admit that. Everyone at the table knew a lot about my son—Robin Barber, Christal Mark, Cheryll Hughes and Dr. Mary Pace. And so did David Hudson, a man who became an immediate friend and for whom I have the deepest respect and admiration. All of these women I would come to know and, more than that, trust and trust absolutely. But all of that took time. Where my children are concerned I am a lion and I will pounce and maul if I perceive any threat to them. This is bred in my bones, driven by instinct, not logic, and I make no apologies for it.
It seems to me that life, when viewed through the right lens, reveals itself as an unending series of victories, each one a call for celebration. Just consider the recent eruption of spring out of the sodden earth, transforming the world overnight from monochromatic blur to polychromatic mural. Think of the first steps your son or daughter took, or the first words he or she uttered. That’s the way Charles’s first teachers at Holton—Christal Mark and Ricky Gay—viewed every tiny breakthrough of each student in their kindergarten/first grade classroom.
Here’s how it was in their classroom those many years ago:
Christal Mark and Ricky Gay stand by the door to their classroom and welcome all the children who enter. Charles wangles out of his backpack, unzips it, removes a marbled notebook and yellow folder, placing them in a wire mesh basket, and then zips the backpack up and hangs it from a hook in his cubby. He takes his seat at a small table across from Charles McIlwain and in a few minutes the entire class rises with their teachers, facing a small American flag, their hands, palms down, across their hearts, as they recite, more or less in unison, the Pledge of Allegiance, and after that solemnity, they say a sort of pledge to Holton Elementary School.
“It may seem like a small thing to an outsider, but everything a student learns, and I mean all students now, is a victory,” says Christal.
Her first professional job was a trial by fire. She taught a class of deaf and blind, profoundly retarded adults at a United Cerebral Palsy facility in Brooklyn, New York. She had ten to twelve of these adults and each one had extremely limited cognitive abilities. Most were nonverbal.
“It was frustrating,” she remembers. “I had adults that I had to change and I had to teach how to use the toilet and then I had to figure out a way to communicate with these adults.”
But she employed perhaps the most important tool of a teacher—patience. And through her patience and understanding, her ability to listen to words not even articulated, Christal was able to shatter barriers, and through it all there were always those seemingly small victories that beg immense celebration.
Christal turns to the students. “I’m going to give you till quarter till to finish your class news and then we’re going to break up into our groups,” she says.
“Come on Charles,” she says. “Good job Charles. Now, make the ‘h’ taller; that looks like an ‘n’.” And Charles improves his version of the eighth letter of the alphabet; there’s no mistaking it for the fourteenth letter now.
When Christal starts up another lesson, Ricky Gay has a little time to talk with me. “I’ve always seen somewhat of a silver lining waiting to come out,” he says of the children he teaches. “You’re just trying to bring it out. It won’t come out if you lose patience. I want them to be able to speak freely and speak about the things they want to say, but they have to stay on task.”
As soon as Ricky rejoins the class, Christal joins me. She turns around and watches Ricky working with the class. “We’re a perfect team,” she says and then reflects some on the art of teaching and its many rewards. “I love children,” says Christal Mark. “When you see them grow—emotionally, academically—it’s a good thing, you feel like, ‘Okay, I had something to do with that.’”
She invites me to consider my own son who has benefited tremendously from this program over the past seven or eight months. “Look at Charles,” she says. “You saw him independently writing and when he came in he couldn’t hold a pencil. I feel if I do nothing else the rest of the year, I did something with Charles and that’s enough. They’re making progress—all of them—and that’s enough to keep you doing it. Someone’s got to care for our children and see that they become individuals that function out there in society. They’re our future, one day they may take care of me.”
Charles was fortunate enough to have had Christal and Ricky for kindergarten as well as first and second grade. They shaped him and gave him form and to this day he loves them.
In the subsequent years Charles has had a long succession of excellent teachers, each one a gem—Mrs. Hunley, Miss Smart, Miss Dupler, to name but a few.
Before each new school year started several remarkable women, who I call the Miracle Workers, would gather in the conference room and discuss Charles’s progress. These were the same women who were in that same room when we first entered Holton.
This team is led by Dr. Mary Pace and this is what she said to me three years ago as we held a mock meeting with the other members of the group.
“I’m here to be sure that the goals and objectives that we‘ve set for the child are indicative of what we see in the present level of performance,” says Dr. Pace.
When I ask where they all get their saintly patience there is a general eruption, and the comments come hurling at me.
“It’s not patience, it’s our passion for what we’re doing,” one of the women says. There’s general nodding and a chorus of uh-huhs. Then Robin Barber says: “My father once said, ‘I don’t know how you chose the path you’ve chosen because you’re the least patient person I know.’”
There’s another round of universal nodding. “I love what I’m doing,” says Cheryll Hughes. “I just truly love seeing the results that I’m getting from the children, seeing the smiles on their faces.”
I ask if any of them remembers the Helen Keller “water” discovery moment.
“All the time,” they all say.
Dr. Pace beams a smile like a crescent of moon. “One of the things that I can honestly say is we take them as they come,” she says. “We cannot control who comes through that door and we accept all that enter and we give them the very best that we have.”
Dr. Pace has worked in schools her entire professional life.
“If we have not put that child first, then we have failed,” she says. “And we have that kind of team that doesn’t want to offer excuses. We need to be sure that at all times we’re on top of it and this team does that.”
Cheryll Hughes, a speech pathologist of more than 35 years, tells me it is not an option to leave any child behind. “The day that I feel that I can’t teach a child,” she says. “That’s the day that I retire. Never will I say I can’t. I do not give up and I instill in them that they can do anything. There’s nothing that they can’t do, it may be hard, but if we work on it together they can do it.”
Proof is in the pudding. Just a week before a non-verbal child suddenly formed words in his throat. “We were working on taking turns and so he noticed the other child saying, ‘Cracker please,’” says Cheryll. “And then he said, ‘Cracker, please.’ I think I gave him five crackers.”
And the story doesn’t end there. “And so we worked on something else later,” she continues. ‘And I said, ‘Want cracker, please.’ Guess what he said? ‘Want cracker please.’ It gave me goose bumps.”
Robin Barber, the occupational therapist, sits at the far end of the table. “If a child needs accommodations or modifications I help with that,” she says. “And generally I work a lot with teachers on how to alter the environment or alter the work so that a child can be successful.”
At times successes are almost imperceptible. “It may be as small as having a child who’s able to pay attention to what’s in front of them for three minutes,” she says. “I mean it may be something that small. But if they haven’t looked at anything you’ve put in front of them all year long that’s a huge triumph and if you’re not looking you might miss it.”
She is quiet for a moment, reflective. “We all have things that stress us out and challenge us and we think, ‘How will we survive the day with these things?’” says Robin. “But then you look at what some of these kids are up against and they don’t know any different and they keep plugging along and they’re not sorry for themselves and they’re not sad about it they just try and you kind of put things in a little bit of perspective.”
You can possess the most glorious ship in the world, outfitted with the latest technologies, manned by able bodied seamen, but if the captain of that vessel does not cut the muster your voyage is doomed. About a decade ago Holton Elementary, which was a brand new school at the time, was on the verge foundering because the wrong person was at the helm. School Board representative of the time Carol Wolf changed all that by bringing in a new principal, a man beloved by students, parents, teachers and the entire community.
David Hudson dresses impeccably from the leather of his uppers to the trademark bowtie below his chin, and by so doing sets a standard for staff and students alike. He’s trim with a wide jawbone and an easy manner. We’re sitting in his office at Linwood Holton Elementary School.
“Let me explain why dress is important,” David tells me as he adjusts his bowtie. “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 lined the drive on the side of Holton Elementary, a number of boys, climbing down the steps of the bus to the sidewalk, hastily tucked their shirts in, adjusted their belts and zipped their jackets up. The kids know that Mr. Hudson means business, that there are laws they all must follow.
“Even if you’re stern,” David tells 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.”
Before becoming an administrator, David taught in secondary schools in the area and witnessed to some pretty disturbing things. These experiences stayed with him and helped forge his philosophy of administration. “I saw a lot of children stop coming to school because they feared coming to school,” he remembers. “And I said, ‘If I ever operated a building I would never, ever permit this to happen.’ “
David Hudson seems to be everywhere at once. He is a constant figure in the halls and on the bus loop in the mornings and afternoons. Each day he makes it a point to visit every single classroom, yet he still finds the time to complete the mounds of paperwork in his office. He works six days a week at the school, holding what is called Saturday school on the weekends; he is the first to arrive in the building in the morning and last to leave at night, frequently after seven.
“I know all of my students here, I know if they’re special needs,” David says, then checks the wall clock. “At eleven, I give a little girl her insulin. And any kids that have medical needs I take care of them myself.”
As we prepare to leave his office so David can conduct his morning classroom visits, he gestures toward a photograph of his daughter. “You see she’s right in my line of vision,” he says. “I always look at her picture when I make a decision. If I had my daughter in school how would she be treated? I look at all the children at Holton that way and I tell my teachers to do the same. Would you do that, it that were your child?”
Back out in the hall, David Hudson tells me a story about himself that happened some ten years ago. He doesn’t want many details revealed, but at that time he saw the world from a different vantage point and learned on a deeper level what special needs are. And this may be why he is the best principal I have ever met.
It all followed a surgery and a protracted recovery. “I had to learn how to walk, talk, everything, hold a cup,” David Hudson says. “Everything I had to work with my special and severe and profound kids on, I had to do myself. And it made me appreciate things even more because people don’t realize how life really is. And let me tell you I live it every day of my life. Little things that we take for granted. I don’t take anything or anyone for granted.”
One of the reasons Holton outshines other schools is the involvement of its parents who represent a broad spectrum of our culture. At about the time an oil company, through greed and carelessness, jeopardized the very health of the Gulf of Mexico, two Holton Moms planted the seed of an idea that somehow lessened the blow from what would become our country’s worst environmental disaster. The project, which was the brainchild of Susanna Raffenot and Ellen Shepard, would become known as The Dandelion. Many other parents volunteered and community businesses made donations. What was created is something that will be here long, long after every student now at Holton has moved on—gardens, an outdoor classroom and a veritable arboretum that compliments and nurtures the environment while teaching children and adults alike about all the green living things.
Rolanda Scott taught Holton students about beauty. She surveyed the classroom we were in, handily fielding questions as we talked. “These kids are artists in the purest sense of the word,” Rolanda said. “They make things because it feels good. They make things because it makes them happy. I’ve had a child come in here weaving who was angry at the world and he came up to me afterwards, which kind of surprised me, and he said, ‘Thank, you Miss Scott.’ And I said, ‘For what.’ And he said, ‘I feel so much better now.”
Not long after she started teaching at Holton, Rolanda discovered a lump on her breast. “I’ve been fighting breast cancer since 2002,” she said. “It seems like forever. The kids have gone through seeing me with hair, without hair, partially grown hair.”
Not long after the initial diagnosis, Rolanda heard a sermon. The Anglican priests asked his communicants to look out the windows at the blue, cloudless sky.
“‘Beautiful sky isn’t it? Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he asked.
The listeners gave a unified nod. And then he said this: “Why me?”
“Every morning when I get up and look at the sky, I ask why me?” said Rolanda. “I know that I’m very fortunate to have a job like this where I can reap the benefits of the children’s wonder without letting too many people know how much fun I’m having.”
On July 6 a couple years later, Rolanda Iris Scott died. She had sculpted glass and young minds for years. My son Charles benefitted from her teaching for three years.
Rolanda was a patient teacher who treated every child as a rare vessel. She saw art in all things and taught her students to do the same.
Fourteen years ago Rolanda gave me a glass Christmas ornament the size of a pomegranate. Each year since my kids and I carefully remove this singular ornament when we prepare to decorate our Christmas tree. This ornament has strength to it, but it is also fragile. Like us all. On its surface there are worm-like ridges dribbled on this sphere when it was molten and being given life by the breath of Rolanda Scott. Of all our many ornaments we treasure this one the most. And as we hang it I cannot help thinking that Rolanda’s breath is sealed within that glass bauble for all time, just as Holton Elementary School will remain in the heart and mind of my son for his earthly eternity.