How a grade school principal showed me a path forward

“In showing me forbearance, you allowed me to save face. You treated me as if I deserved kindness.

  • Thursday, September 9, 2021 3:09pm
  • Opinion
Marie Koltchak

Marie Koltchak

Editor’s Note: As the 2021-22 school year begins, The Beachcomber offers this commentary recently written by islander Marie Koltchak — her letter to a school principal thanking him for an act of kindness shown 50 years ago. For all our island students and our heroic educators, we wish for a school year filled with kindness and compassion.

Dear Mr. Smith:

I imagine a principal might be hard-pressed to remember one kid out of the river of children streaming through Main Street Elementary School from 1968 through 1974. I remember you, though.

You probably have no idea how a small act of mercy on your part affected me in ways I did not recognize then. But even as confounded and as young as I was, the act stood out, so different from the treatment I normally received at the hands of adults who did not know how to deal with the whirling dervish of pain and noise I was then.

That you showed me kindness when I was in trouble made me notice that I could be, deserved to be, treated gently. And 50 years on, the gesture touches me still.

Let me take you back with me to the day in question.

There I stood, alone, in the girls’ bathroom, the 1909 Georgian Revival building’s high ceilings and tall windows towering above me – light ricocheting off mirrors, white tiles and stalls, and a long line of gleaming porcelain sinks.

While standing idle, inspiration struck: Sinks, faucets, drains, toilet paper…among all the equations dogging me, this was one physics problem I could set in motion.

As I prepared to get to work, a child from another classroom came skipping in, wearing a bright red cardigan, her long brown braids bouncing off her shoulders.

Delighted with unexpected companionship and eager to share, I laid out the simple genius of my plan, and as I described it, a smile, like sunshine slowly sweeping a meadow, spread across her face.

Instant co-conspirators, fast friends, dare I say soulmates? We rolled up our sleeves and, like skilled craftsmen without a moment to lose, set about stuffing toilet paper in every sink drain. We loosened the faucet handles, a couple of plumbers in reverse.

Satisfied, we flitted out the door before the first waterfalls lapped over the sink rims and slapped the floor tiles. We went our separate ways, not a care in the world.

I remember feeling surprised at how quickly the beleaguered school janitor discovered his newest chore: mopping up the new Main Street Elementary School flood plain.

As a muffled, all-points bulletin manhunt-announcement droned over the school speakers, my neck prickled.

And just as it dawned on me that maybe I hadn’t thought this thing all the way through, my co-conspirator was busy pitching me, expertly, under a bus.

Soon, I would sit where other grubby reprobates had trembled before me – on the hard, wooden bench outside your door, waiting for punishment.

My third-grade teacher hovered, topped with a translucent beehive hairdo, like hard, yellow cotton candy. She and I did not like each other.

What I did not comprehend then is how much a troubled child can disrupt a classroom, stealing precious teaching time. And how difficult that must have been for her, day in, and day out.

And she probably didn’t understand how lost I was, my siblings and I trapped in a house whipsawing with mental illness.

In childhood, I felt disoriented and confused. I did not get the guidebook on social norms – people just seemed to expect me to behave, but I didn’t understand what they were asking of me. Emotionally injured, I had no “off” switch – what we now call impulse control – and spun to the chaotic rhythms brutality provoked.

So I imagine my teacher greeted my co-conspirator with open arms, like welcoming an innocent lamb back into the flock. My teacher, fed up with shenanigans, probably suspected I wouldn’t amount to much, and now had concrete evidence.

Smugly, making a show of it, she marched me quaking, prisoner-style, to your office.

Looming at your desk, leaning forward, you seemed bemused. Having watched over hundreds of children, and six of your own, maybe you’d already seen a lot.

When you asked me why I had done it, I wailed, sincere and frightened, “I don’t know!” (At the time, it just had seemed like the thing to do.)

Over the years, I’ve come to understand why a 9-year-old would act destructively. Living in chaos, I took my hurt and anger out on, in this case, the school.

In showing me forbearance, you allowed me to save face. You treated me as if I deserved kindness. It was new to me. You subtracted from my shame and allowed me a glimpse of the world through different eyes.

Justice came swiftly. I remember being banished from the school’s bathroom for the rest of the year. I walked home every day at lunch, but since I lived one block away from school, I don’t remember suffering.

What I do remember is the compassion you showed me that day – it would go on to glow like a moonstone at dusk, gently lighting the path to hope.

— Partners in Education board member Marie Koltchak knows first-hand that the love and care children receive plant the seeds of the compassion they will share in turn.

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