Ever since my dad passed away a few years ago, his younger brother Ray and I meet for lunch three or four times a year. My Uncle Raymond turned eighty this year, and he is one of the wisest people I know. We talk about faith and books; we reminisce about my dad; we talk about our careers; and we talk a lot about education. When we part, Raymond always braces my shoulders, looks me deep into the eyes, and tells me in his bass-toned voice, “Matthew, you are doing God’s work.” It’s hard for me to convey the positive impact his words have on me.
The last time we met, Ray said something I’ve been pondering: “Matthew, people say that we are what we think we are, but when we are small – children – we are and become what the people important to us tell us we are.” Of course, the flip-side of this comment is that “big” people are equally defined by how we treat those who are small, the least of us. We cannot be great and mistreat the people who depend on us most, often children.
One of my favorite metaphors from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is his -explanation of the “trim tab.” He illustrates the idea that tall orders of change begin with the smallest of changes, similar to the way an ocean liner’s ten-story tall rudder is first pushed by its tiny trim tab; the whole ship then begins to veer. I believe it. I also believe that the direction we take as a society, in particular as public schools, is defined by how we treat the smallest of us and those who depend on schools the most to meet their learning, social, and physical needs. Are all the responsibilities to transport, feed, accommodate, and nurture children of all strengths and challenges unfair? I don’t think so.
American public schools exist to share with all. Our schools are like a ten-story rudder guiding the nation to a better place, a smarter society, a world-driving economy and democracy. It all starts when we first reach out to take the hand of a four- or five-year-old who needs us, and we do our best for the least.