From the Supt.: Elephants, Riddles & a Kind Lunch Lady

by | May 31, 2024

Above: Supt. Ricca at lunch with some Frenchtown second graders. Submitted photo

By Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D.

The staff member I spoke to extended their hand, shook mine, and left the room with tears in their eyes. There was nothing I could say to make it better. Sometimes, I have to have hard conversations with adults as part of my work as superintendent of schools. 

I reviewed the conversation with the building principal, who was present for its entirety. There was no way to soften the blow; what I had to say was hard to hear. Candidly, it was hard to say. 

As I walked out of the principal’s office, I thought, “This is not why I got into education.” Twenty-eight years ago, I graduated from The College of the Holy Cross, bound for Chicago and Inner-City Teaching Corps, a volunteer program that no longer exists. It placed recent college graduates in schools on Chicago’s West and South sides, in often forgotten places in the Windy City. I did that because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. When I ask potential teachers as they interview for positions in East Greenwich Public Schools why they got into education, inevitably, I hear some version of that: to make a difference in the lives of children. 

I did not get into education and, ultimately, educational leadership to make other adults cry. 

While I reflected on that, I started to leave Frenchtown Elementary School. As I pushed the doors open, I was reminded that Donna McPhee had asked me to stop by the next time I was in the building to see her class. I spun on my heels and headed toward the pod that was home to all our second graders and the adults responsible for their teaching and learning. 

As it turned out, I was too late, and they were already lined up in the hall, on their way somewhere else. But as I approached the group, one of them pointed to me and said, “Here comes the elephant man!” It’s not what you think. 

It’s not in reference to the 1980 film with the same name. It is in reference to one of the times earlier in the year when I wandered into that particular classroom as they discussed a book with an elephant as one of the main characters. Ms. McPhee invited me to be a part of the conversation, and I shared that when I was in Thailand in 2019, my family and I got up close to elephants at a sanctuary on the island of Ko Pha Ngan. In fact, this was our holiday card that year: 

Supt. Brian Ricca (aka Elephant Man) with his family during a trip to Thailand in 2019.

I had promised that the next time I saw that class, I would show them the pictures and videos of us interacting with elephants. This was that next time. But they were on their way to lunch. 

I walked with them into the cafeteria and sat down next to one of the kiddos who was particularly interested in these pictures. While sitting there, the very kind lunch lady, Jen, asked me if she could tempt me with a slice of pepperoni pizza, spicy curly fries, a bag of carrots, and two milks. How could I say no to that?

Before I knew it, there was a crowd of Frenchtown kiddos around me looking at the pictures of the elephants. Then they were telling me Knock Knock jokes. Then, we were all trying to guess the riddles that the adults ask at the end of lunch before cleanup and recess. 

That’s why I got into education and even educational leadership. To make a difference in the lives of children and the adults who do the work of teaching and learning. As it turned out for me that day, they made a difference in my life. The kindness of a lunch lady and the simple pleasures of cafeteria life at Frenchtown Elementary School. 

The kids always make it better. 

Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.

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