Education Opinion

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — November 28, 2007 4 min read
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Winter Wonderland is taking on a new shape. Way back in 2002, pre-Katrina, I was principal of Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School. It’s approximately two miles from McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School. But the two schools are worlds apart. At Haley, part of our Christmas tradition was to have a huge—I mean huge—winter scene with a giant decorated tree, animated figurines, and gifts. As the transplanted teachers sadly remind me, we aren’t at Haley any more. I was a fanatic about the holidays; the principal of our charter school is not a Grinch, just more reserved.

I petitioned the members of the Board to make the pending holiday one of our projects so that the principal would not have “one more thing” on her To Do List. We are getting lots of garland and candy canes to hang in the hallways. Teachers will be decorating their doors for a contest. The principal has planned the holiday meal with the addition of cake and ice cream. I’m going to ask the principal to let the classes have a party during the week before our holiday break, if it is not in her proposal already. The plan is to get to school early next Saturday to gussie up the building and surprise the students. We’ll need to turn on the lights on our soon-to-be-purchased Christmas tree. How hard can it be?

I was pretty distressed to note that the beautiful foyer at our school did not have any electrical outlets. It’s the perfect spot for the 9-ft tree and the red poinsettias we want to use around the base. It’s ideal for the tables with the miniature carousel, skating pond, hot air balloon, and lighted village, except that we can’t plug anything in! It’s sure to create a hit in the neighborhood. We are even planning to put out a sign inviting visitors with toddlers to view our displays and receive a treat.

We looked for other spots in the building to set up the glorious display. The auditorium stage is on the second floor where the Pre-K, Kindergarten and First Grade students would never see it. The basement is too open to monitor the gifts that teachers plan to donate for our lottery. In the hallway outside of the office, the tree would obstruct traffic.

When I was about to give up on the idea, Cynthia Horne, our Business Manager, said we could probably get electrical wiring completed in a few days. She assured me that she had just made a similar request of the newly hired maintenance company to add an outlet to her office for the extra equipment she needs. I didn’t really believe it was possible, mainly because I did not want to get my hopes up. Also, I had lots of trouble getting an electrician to finish re-wiring my house. Much to my surprise, when I was at school yesterday, I saw the poles and electrical frames in place for the new outlets. Two outlets were already completed and two more were in the works. I am so excited.

Actually, I’m more excited about having Cynthia as our Business Manager than I am about the outlets for the Christmas lights. Cynthia was the school secretary and office manager during my final days as principal at Haley. She has such a pleasant personality and a positive attitude that everyone who came in contact with her reminded me of how lucky I was to have her in charge of our school’s office. She is such a delightful person that whenever she was absent from school, the Assistant Secretary and I used to harmonize our rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” by Bill Withers. [And I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. . . .] Often, the teachers would come to the office and upon realizing that Cynthia was not there, they’d turn around and say “Never mind.” I felt the same way.

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. At one session, the speaker said that commitment and a positive attitude were more valuable than skills when one is facing a difficult task like school improvement. Cynthia demonstrates the will to get things done and the creative outlook to see solutions to problems. We need those attributes as we create our model school. She’s an excellent role model for our staff.

I remember that sometimes I’d come to school in a grouchy mood—I’m not a morning person. Cynthia would close my office door and protect the staff from my ugly attitude, until I improved my outlook and behaved better. She’d make coffee or order breakfast for me from the cafeteria to help me get on the right track. Throughout the morning, she’d check on me and, if necessary, offer a prayer or a hug. I couldn’t stay in a funk with her around. She’s still spreading sunshine.

During those years, Cynt completed her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, taking one or two courses a semester while working full time, raising a family, and helping her husband in his photography business. I don’t think it was a coincidence that her employment with a non-profit organization ended just as we opened our school. We are very fortunate to have her as our Business Manger. She’s a gift we receive every day. And, because of her ingenuity, we’ll be spreading a little more cheer this holiday season.

The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.