On October 8th, my eyes were opened.  Sometimes I think I “get it” – understand the struggles facing kids today more than your average person.  But, I think I realized how much I still have to learn, and how grateful I am that we have people like Principal Elizabeth Fritz.

The Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools graciously invited me, along with other community and business leaders (still pretty excited that I was considered a leader in our community…it’s like getting to sit at the cool kids table), to attend “A Principal Experience” last week.  The goal?  Spend a day shadowing a principal at one of Madison’s public schools, and take lessons back to your organization.  What I gained from this experience was so much more than I bargained for, and exactly what I needed.

I was matched at Lindbergh Elementary School – one that I was familiar with – and was thrilled!  Lindbergh was one of our Adopted Schools from 2012, and their fantastic staff, including Mrs. Fritz and Mr. Jay Matthews, helped bring 53 students to our Tri 4 Schools events, earning them nearly $2,000 for new gym equipment.  I’ve visited many times, and every time I’ve noticed how happy all the students are, and what a great environment they’ve created for their students.

We started out by visiting the kids at breakfast.  I was warmed by the sight of kids of every ethnicity sitting happily next to each other, and even though there were kids of every grade, they all seemed to know each other.  Lindbergh has almost an exactly perfect mix of the four major ethnic groups in Madison – White, Black, Asian, and Latino.  This is how they’ve grown up and what they’re used to.  It was inspiring.

When we left the gym, a boy who must have been about six was sitting slumped in the doorway.  He was pouting and did not want to get up and go to class, which quickly escalated into a stage four meltdown.  The inner mom and disciplinarian in me wanted to march over and say “Alright buddy, let’s go, stop messing around.”  Principal Fritz calmly approached him, and coaxed him onto the bench beside her.  A few tender words, and he was holding her hand on the way to the break room.  There, she explained that Ben* uses things like clay to help calm his nerves, and receives blocks of different colors for when he does things like listen and follow directions.  He was a completely different boy, and we started conversing like friends.  He was really a sweet kid.

After guiding Ben to class, we stopped back in Liz’s office.  There, she told me Ben’s story.  Ben’s Dad died when he was an infant, and his mom moved them to Madison after following a man here.  The man was abusive to Ben, and one night beat him so badly that he was in a coma at the Children’s Hospital for a period of time.  The boyfriend is now in jail, and the mom served time as well for knowing the abuse was happening and failing to act.  She recently moved back to Missouri, and now Ben is in foster care.  I was stunned.  That boy has been through so much in the few years he has been on this Earth, and this boy is growing up here. In Madison.

We had barely left the office when two girls approached us, both in tears and yelling at each other.  They were both accusing the other of name-calling.  We decided on the Divide and Conquer approach.  I sat with the younger one in Liz’ office.  She was an African-American girl named Maya* who was in the first grade.  She had a bag of chocolate chip cookies in her hand, and we made pleasant small talk.

Then, Liz returned with the older girl, a blonde girl named Meg*.  It turns out the girls are sisters.  Who actually did what doesn’t matter, but Liz had a way of helping the girls understand that they need to put differences aside and treat each other with love and respect.  It’s what sisters do.  It turns out that the oldest girl, Meg, is caring for Maya and another sister since their mom is sick.  Meg, a fifth grader, is trying to take care of her two sisters and her mom.  When Liz asked her what was going on, Meg broke down in tears and snuggled right in for a hug.  She’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and I don’t know a single person who doesn’t just need their Mom when that weight gets too heavy.

Kids are precious.  They’re impressionable.  And more and more, they’re experiencing significant trauma.  I won’t pretend to know more than I do, but after seeing these kids and hearing stories from principals and their helpers that afternoon, I was moved to action.  This is OUR community.  These are OUR kids.  They may not be related to you, but they need you.  I’m now pursuing becoming a mentor or big sister to a young girl in Madison.

What will you do when you look closer?