A Story of a Special Man!

If you wonder how much of a difference one individual can make, consider this story about a man named Charlie. His life offered a wonderful example of the power of relationships. He passed away a few years ago but he lives on in the hearts of many of the people he touched, both students and teachers.  Every few years, I like to pull the story out, dust if off, and delight in the memory of this special man with whom I spent only a few moments of my life.

Charlie made an enormous difference in the lives of literally thousands of young people and hundreds of adults in the high school all three of my children attended.  One of the teachers who worked with him shared Charlie’s story in a letter to the editor of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, a few weeks after his death. Otherwise, few outside of the Wayne High School community would have known about this special man, and the quiet but enormous impact he made.

Charlie was a black man working in a high school that was somewhere between ten to fifteen percent black. He did not have an impressive title, did not make a great deal of money, had no formal authority, there were no letters after his name, and he was neither a star athlete nor a celebrity.  Charlie’s stature as a powerful positive leader came only from the force of his personality, his dedication to his job, his love of people, and his God-given ability to make people feel important. He was a human being who, out of the pure generosity of a loving heart, accepted responsibility for making his corner of the world a better place.

I first heard about Charlie years ago when my kids were in high school, but it did not make a great impression on me.  I just assumed Charlie was one of the kids at school.  The first time, and one of the few times I met Charlie, I was working as a substitute teacher in this high school I thought I knew so well.  Like other teachers, I was monitoring the hallways during the passing period, standing by the door to my classroom. It had been a rough day and I was reeling from difficult period of a math lab class when this man came up to me. 

He was dressed in a suit and tie and it never would have occurred to me he was a custodian until he grabbed a broom from a cart he had left a few feet away and swept up some debris from the floor.

“How is it going, today? Is there anything I can do for you?” He asked.  “You just call me if you need something,” he continued and then proceeded to rattle off his name and extension number.  He shook my hand and smiled before continuing down the corridor and I watched him, trying to figure out who in the heck he was. 

My eyes followed him as he spoke to a couple students he passed. From the smiles on their faces I can only assume he was smiling, also.  Moving on, he gave another student a high five, and then stopped to pick up a couple of broken pencils that lay on the floor. 

A dozen yards farther down the hallway a young girl had been leaning against the wall, alone.  I had noticed her earlier as she had a lonely and forlorn look about her and I suspected she had been crying.  As this custodian drew closer, he drifted over to her and then stopped and smiled at her and put his hand on her shoulder. 

 This made me immediately suspicious because we are told, frequently and pointedly, not to touch the students, especially members of the opposite gender.  I could not hear the words that were spoken, but after a few seconds the girl offered up an embarrassed smile, followed seconds later by a laugh.  Charlie lingered a moment, in quiet conversation, and then sauntered off, dishing out more high fives to students as he passed.  When I looked back the girl was still there, standing in the same spot but she stood a little taller and had a smile on her face.  Whatever this janitor had said to her must have been something she had needed to hear.

 Later in the day, in the faculty lounge, I asked a teacher about the custodian in the suit and tie.  He laughed, and said, “well, that would have been Charlie.”  He went on to say, “he’s a very special guy around here and both the kids and staff love him.” 

 I asked others about him, including my youngest daughter, now a teacher herself.  Whoever I asked, just the mention of his name would evoke a smile, and everyone proceeded to tell me pretty much the same story. “He is everybody’s friend and always has a kind word for you,” my daughter explained.

Charlie, God rest his charitable soul, was a beautiful human being and positive leader.  He took his job seriously and took pride in keeping things clean for the students and teachers.  Even more importantly, he reached out to people to share his positive attitude.  He accepted responsibility for making this high school a better place and for making its people feel special and important. 

He had a special ability to sense when someone—teacher, student, or substitute —needed a kind word, a high five, or a warm smile and I am certain Charlie never wasted an opportunity to share his gifts.  None of these activities could be found in the job description of a school custodian but Charlie made them a part of his daily routine. They were a part of who he was.

This man demonstrated it was not necessary to have a title, formal authority, or even someone’s permission to be a leader and to make a positive difference to the world and its people.  All one needs is a belief that people—all people—deserve our best effort and that we can make a difference. While doing what most people would consider an unimportant and mundane job, this man changed the world around him. He did it by reaching out to people with a generous heart, simple acts of kindness, reassuring words, and a genuine desire to make each of them feel special.

Gifts such as this may brighten only a moment in an otherwise stressful day, but we never know how much of a difference we make when we give the best of ourselves with joy and affirmation.  It is a lesson from which all can all learn when we wonder if what we do matters. We can choose to believe every job, well done, adds a little beauty to the world and every smile or act of affirmation can make a difference in the life of another human being.

No doubt Charlie believed he had the most important job in the world. By having a relationship with each of them, Charlie made a difference in the lives of twelve hundred students and a hundred members of a school’s faculty and staff, while keeping their school clean for them, year after year after year.

It was the relationships that mattered. Given what we can learn from Charlie, imagine what a teacher can do in his or her classroom by doing the best job of which he or she is capable and by making every student feel special and important.

Relationships are everything in life and they are everything in teaching.

God bless you, Charlie.

Black or White They’re Just Kids: They Need Us & We Need Them; a refrain!

The original version of this article was written two-and-half years ago but events in the intervening months suggest to me that it needs repeated; with a few updates. It will be followed by a related article on bullying and peer pressure.

It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.

My wife and I have now have four grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, and golden brown skin. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest two grandkids are the biological offspring of my youngest daughter and her husband. The eldest (and our third) is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. Our fourth, now 18 months of age, has skin not quite as pale as his big sister’s but hair every bit as red.

Each of them have magnificent smiles that light up our lives even more than the lights of the holiday season and laughter that warms us during the coldest of times. Their smiles have reminded me that throughout my whole life, whenever I have been blessed to see a child smile, I am blind to any of the other features, that for reasons that are difficult to fathom, cause some human beings to pass derisive judgment. For me the smile of any child is a source of incalculable joy that is as common to the shared universal human experience as anything else in life.

These children represent our family’s beautiful rainbow and like all grandparents we love them so much that it hurts.

When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. In the four-and-a-half years since the birth of this sweet child, our nation has been rocked by racial violence and hatred. We have known that the American people have been divided, politically, for decades but could we ever have imagined that the President of the United States, through his words and actions, could model such rhetoric and enmity?

It is bad enough that so many citizens could interpret our President’s words and actions as a license for the public expression of embittered hatred but are we truly so divided, ideologically, that good men and women would choose to tolerate such enmity out of hope that this President can “make America great, again.”

Is there any reason to believe that a man who builds walls, figuratively and literally; who condemns one of the world’s great religions for the radical violence of a few (as if Christians have never done a despicable deed); who provokes confrontations; calls people names; who brands the free press as liars; who challenges the legitimacy of our election process; ignores and ridicules the advice of his diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement advisors; who rejects the research of the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists; and, who blames others when things go wrong can be the kind of leader who will unite a culturally diverse nation? Can a bully provide the kind of inspirational, positive leadership we need, so desperately?

Through the escalation of the violence and hatred over the last four-and-a-half years we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little guy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.

I have spent my entire lifetime striving to understand why our world is so full of hatred over issues as insignificant as the color of one’s skin. I still struggle to understand why differences in eye or hair color are perceived as different shades of beauty while differences in skin color produce such extremes of bitter passion.

I was blessed to be born to parents who taught that we are all children of Creation and that we were blessed to live in a country in which we are all considered to be equal under the Constitution.

I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism. Somehow, I never noticed that when I was playing with my black friends that my white friends were off doing something else and vice versa.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. Innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for young children to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All but one of these kids were black. While I was responsible for the boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who came to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised. While my job was to keep them safe, I must confess that these youngsters taught me far more than I ever could have taught them.

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 and worked with their families. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children. Later, when I decided to focus on my life-long dream of writing books, I worked part-time as a substitute teachers for my local public school district and glimpsed, first hand, the challenges that both students and teachers face.

What I learned about children during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids.

They all laugh when they play or act silly; cry and bleed red when they get hurt; get mad when they lose; celebrate when they win; get embarrassed when they are made fun of; yawn when they get sleepy; respond to warmth and affection with warmth and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents or society or when bullied.

These boys and girls all have the ability to learn; they are all curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation. They all deserve the best we have to offer and the very fact that so many children fail provides irrefutable evidence that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

I truly believe that, in spite of the heroic effort of our teachers, it is here, in our elementary schools that we will find the roots of the problems that beleaguer us as a nation and society. Whether we are teachers, administrators, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education, educators must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible.

The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. That children are failing is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between black and white children and other minority classmates is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce. Like any other production- or service-delivery process it can be reinvented to produce the outcomes we want and need.

This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is that they are the people in the best position to identify the failure of this flawed educational process but they hold back as if they are afraid to act. It is critical that we understand that this lack of action is not because they are bad people or incompetent professionals rather it is because they have learned to perceive themselves as powerless.

Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice.

The over-riding truth as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century is that we need each and every one of these boys and girls just as desperately as they need us. Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, black or white or any of the colors of the rainbow. What we see happening, today, is a preview of the rest of this 21st Century unless we choose to act.

It is only when we have gained an understanding of the forces that impede the education of our children and accept responsibility for our outcomes that we begin to acquire the power to implement meaningful changes in policy and practice. This is what positive leadership is all about.

I invite the reader to check out my Education Model and White Paper to see one way we can reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we need.