Integrity


Every morning in my classroom, we start the day with “morning meeting”.   We always open with  a special greeting, chosen by the “Meeting Leader” for the week. Sometimes the greetings are silly, but sometimes they are profound.

This morning my Meeting Leader had his classmates greet each other by naming someone they admire. We had a good discussion before we began.  I asked the kids to think about what qualities they would truly admire in a person.  We talked about the difference between “liking” and “admiring”.  We talked about people who are famous, but not particularly admirable (Alex Rodriguez, Justin Bieber).   We listed qualities that we do admire: honesty, kindness, respect, generosity, gentleness.

They are only ten and eleven years old, but they understood exactly what I was asking, and they understood exactly what it is that they admire.  Basically, without ever using the words, they said that they admire integrity and kindness above all other attributes.

We went around the circle, greeting each other and saying, “I admire…….”  The names that they chose were sweet and touching, and sometimes surprising.  “My grandma”, “Abraham Lincoln”, “David Ortiz” and “Mother Theresa” all made the list.   I was a proud and pleased teacher; children constantly surprise me!

Tonight I came home and opened my hometown paper.  On the front page, I saw a tribute to a local gentleman who died this week.

I knew that gentleman, and I was sad to hear of his death.   I thought about my impression of him, and I was immediately brought back to the conversation with my students this morning.

Mr. White was born and raised in the town where I have lived for the past 24 years. When I met him, he was a bit of a local legend.  Some thirty years older than I am, he immediately seemed ancient to me. My first conversation with him happened at his place of business, when I brought in a TV for repair.  I remember that he struck me that day as sharp, no-nonsense, blunt.  Talking with him was a little bit like being sent to the principal; I was both nervous and awed as I tried to explain what was wrong with my appliance.  He sounded smart.  He didn’t seem like a man to suffer fools.  He made an impression that lasted.

Over the years, I would see Mr. White around town.  I remember running into him at a local restaurant, and exchanging a quick Hello.  I’m quite sure that he had no idea who I was, but local legends know enough to acknowledge those who cross their paths.

After we had lived in town for about a decade, I was asked to fill an empty seat on our local School Committee.  I was excited, and humbled and slightly puffed up about it.  I have three kids, and I’m a teacher!  What a perfect fit!

My enthusiasm was short lived, however.  Soon enough, I was made aware of the terrible pressures being placed on our local schools.  The state budget was a shambles, the testing and accountability craze was just beginning to take hold, and local politics were a hornet’s nest of anger, envy and greed.  It was a bloody, stinking mess and it turned out to be the most painful, disillusioning, demoralizing four years of my life.

But there was one local political leader who held himself above the fray, and who always seemed to be a beacon of hope.  It was old Mr. White, his frown consistent, his carefully articulate arguments irrefutable, his back bent.  Throughout my four years of fighting desperately with town leaders for enough money to run the schools, Mr. White remained a man of open and honest integrity.  While he rarely agreed with our requests, Mr. White never resorted to the kind of infantile name-calling that characterized the rest of our Board of Selectmen. He asked sharp questions, but he listened to the answers.

One of my favorite exchanges with him took place at a town budget meeting. The Finance Committee and Selectmen were pouring over the School budget, and Mr. White found an item that he questioned.  He raised one finger, and asked in a crisp, firm voice, “Why in the world do we need to spend this kind of money on an internet hub?  I went to school with no internet, and I did just fine.”   He glared out at those of us on the School Committee, sitting in folding chairs in front of him.  “Well, Mr. White”, I said carefully, “My Great Grandmother used a slate when she went to school, and that was fine for her. It wouldn’t have been a good educational tool for me.”  There was a pause, and I felt my heart hammering in my chest.

Mr. White nodded his head. “Good point”, he said briskly, “So tell me how this thing works.”  We did, and he convinced the Board and the Fincom to support the request.

More years went by, and I no longer served on a local board, but Mr. White did. At one time or another, he has served on just about every board and committee in town.  He rose to speak at every Town Meeting I have ever attended, always in a shirt and tie, always intelligent and articulate, always passionate about his beliefs.   I continued to admire him, and I remained in awe of his calm fervency.

When Mr. White’s beloved wife died a few years ago, I went to her funeral.  It was lovely and very touching. He spoke eloquently of her as his “companion, best friend and lover”.  At the end of the service, as we filed out, we passed a basket filled with little seed packets.  Mr. White asked everyone to take a packet, and to spread them in our gardens. “They’re ‘forget-me-nots'”, he told us, “They were Mary’s favorite.”    I took a packet, and dutifully spread them in my flowerbeds.

Every spring since then, I have been greeted by the gorgeous, audacious little faces of those flowers, spreading now across my lawn and even into the woods.  A reminder of life going on.  A reminder of love and beauty and passion.

This spring, when I step outside my door and find myself surrounded by that heavenly blue, I will think of Mr. White, and his Mary. I will think about what it is that I most admire in others, and I will try to find a trace of those qualities in myself.

Well done, Mr. White.  The next time my class does the Admiration Greeting, yours will be the name that I share.

myosotis

19 thoughts on “Integrity

    • I wondered if that word would be common! Our little New England town is run by traditional Town Meetings; the board of selectmen are our elected officials, who hire a town manager. The School committee is elected to run the schools. Interesting example of true democracy; one citizen, one vote. But, oh, the infighting and intrigue…..!

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    • What I really liked about Mr. White was that he didn’t try to hold himself in, you know? He was brash, and prickly and brusque. But somehow, he was never rude and never mean spirited. He was a really towering intellect, but he never, ever used it to bully others, like many other do.

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