By Brian G. Ricca
When I was a brand new superintendent, I had a mentor. My mentor was an experienced superintendent, largely considered to have been the youngest ever in the state of Vermont. At the time, I was told that I was the third youngest in the Green Mountain State. My mentor was wonderful, sharing all kinds of wisdom that could only have been gained by doing the job itself. One of the many, many lessons I still follow to this day is to block out my Friday afternoons for classroom and school visits.
This past Friday, I made my way to Frenchtown Elementary School and wandered into Mrs. McCann’s first-grade classroom. First-grade classrooms will always be close to my heart, as the last time I was a full-time teacher, I taught first grade. I slipped in quietly, with little notice of the six and seven-year-olds in the room, grabbed a chair, and listened as Mrs. McCann began to read Itty Bitty Kitty Corn.
The story is about a kitty and a unicorn, their friendship, and being exactly who you want to be. Mrs. McCann artfully read aloud, deftly redirecting her students throughout while dotting the story with thoughtful and meaningful questions. Her questions elicited such responses as “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and “That really wasn’t nice.” There is so much wisdom in those little bodies.
Our brains are wired to see and notice differences. I distinctly remember the four-quadrant segment on Sesame Street and the song that went with it, “Which of these kids is doing their own thing?” Identifying differences is one thing. Attaching a value, or in some cases, devaluing others because of those differences is entirely something else. When we do that, we put a label on being “other,” and in subtle, and often not-so-subtle ways, use that as the defining factor to disengage, to overlook, and to ostracize.
Yes, this is a first-grade story. Yes, it is a simple concept. Yes, there are other considerations we have as adults. And there’s a life lesson that we could all use right now.
As adults, we are putting too much emphasis on differences and not enough on what unites us. As adults, we are putting too much into what the “other” is doing wrong and ignoring our own missteps. As adults, we are criticizing those who do not agree with us and not taking the opportunity to show human decency.
In gratitude to Ray Proulx (my mentor), Mrs. McCann, and most of all, her Frenchtown first graders for reminding me to be a better human.
Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich public schools.