“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” — Martin Luther King
Mentorships are typically sought out. An organization, company or association sometimes offers mentors willing to invest time and energy into someone’s life. We might find a mentor at work who is willing to teach us. Many teachers become a teacher because of someone who positively impacted their lives in a classroom. Clearly, I did. Sometimes in life, a mentor comes along, and they are not from where we expected. They offer up valuable advice or provide security and safety. I have become more convinced over the years that mentoring has little to do with what the job is and more to do with character, vision, and relationships with others. The ability to work with others and emotional intelligence: these skills equate to caring, communicating, and emotional support. Mentors can come from all walks of life; I have learned not to underestimate that.
I typically write about my students and their influence on my life and lessons that can be learned. My point in writing about these experiences is to share those lessons; I hope they add value to others. Lessons come from expected and unexpected situations or people. Adults that work in schools yet are outside of the classroom often get overlooked as educational contributors. Today I want to share the impact one of these educators had on me. I have had many amazing educators that influenced me in my life: teachers, principals, a reading specialist, and my bus driver, all contributed to my life. One unexpected mentor impacted me in a way I didn’t realize until later in life.
In second grade, every day, I saw Mr.Nash. Mr. Nash seemed to know everyone and was always there to help. When he came to the lunch tables, I sat up straighter. When he asked us to pick up lunch trays, we did it. If he saw us in the hall and asked us to take a ream of paper to our teacher, we did it. I remember one time a kid named Ray was blowing bubbles in his milk to the point of it spilling out of the carton. Mr. Nash walked up, and Ray sucked in so fast he blew milk through his nose. Mr. Nash contained his amusement while we all roared with laughter. Ray said “sorry” sheepishly. Mr. Nash simply said “Ray” in a disappointed and amused voice as he handed him a paper towel. There was no doubt Mr. Nash was respected.
Mr. Nash was always kind to students; he made us feel important. He might have raised his voice, but I never saw it or heard it. If he asked us to do something we did it. We spent every lunch with him. He smiled at us; he said —“hello,” he asked us how we were doing. One day he got a ball out of a fenced-off area and tossed it to me. Let me tell you for a short kid in second grade with a basketball, I just became an NBA player for lunch recess.
I was confused and ultimately dismayed one day when a man in a suit walked by and the kids started calling him Mr. Ibarreta. Students said “hi “to him as he walked by. I asked Veronica sitting next to me who he was. “He is the Principal.” “Then who is Mr. Nash?” I asked. “Mr. Nash is the janitor.” Veronica asked, “why do you think we call him Mr.Nash? Nash is his first name.” “It is?” I said.
I was shocked that Mr. Nash was not the principal. There must be a mistake. No offense to Mr. Ibarreta but I didn’t remember if I had ever seen him before that day. To me, Mr. Nash was already doing the job. I was just as dismayed that I had been calling an adult by his first name, something never allowed by my parents. It was disrespectful. It sends the wrong message to children; I remember standing there in shock.
I believed Mr. Nash was the principal because he looked after us, he was an authority figure, he was respected. Every day he was there to help us, to keep us in line with a simple “boys.” He was respectful, dignified and he was my custodian. He did more than greet us; he cared. He was my first mentor as a principal, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
As the new principal of Rancho Las Positas, on my first day, I met Don Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier had been the custodian at Rancho for several years. He greeted me warmly. I asked him what he loved about his job and what is one thing he would like to see changed. He immediately said, “the kids, that’s why we are here.” Don then proceeded to give me a list of things he would like to change! Some were reasonable and understandable; others none of us could improve. We laughed together at his list. In the following months, I saw Mr. Ladnier interact with the kids, and I noticed he was the biggest kid of them all, always teasing and joking with the kids. In fact, a few times it got him in trouble with the yard duty because he went too far with his joking. Students at Rancho could apply to have “jobs,” and many students coveted working for Don. They helped clean up the cafeteria, wiping down tables, sweeping and putting items away. Students learned responsibility, leadership and how to serve, and they loved it. It was a privilege for them to be part of Mr. Don’s team. Don taught them and guided them in their jobs.
Something had not been sitting right with me, and I went to Don about it. I asked him, “why do the kids call you Mr. Don?” In fact, all of the staff referred to him as Don. Don said it was no big deal, that he did not mind. I respectfully suggested that the students and staff should call him “Mr. Ladnier.” After all, he was an elder on staff; he was a military veteran; he was an educator just like everyone else. At the time he was the only African American educator on campus. It was bothering me that we called him Don, and I could not let it go. Like “Mr. Nash,” kids were calling him by his first name. He explained that he liked being called “Don or Mr. Don.” I told him my Mr. Nash story. He asked, “does that mean I am the principal then?” We laughed, and I although I said “no,” I also explained that he did have authority on this campus and was an important role model in the students’ lives. He deserved total respect. Even though no one was intentionally being rude to Mr. Landier, I told him I would like to come back from break and ask all staff and student to call him Mr. Ladnier. The funny part to me is he felt his name was hard to say. Well, with a name like Calabrese, I figured they could learn Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier gave it some thought but came back and said he preferred to go by Don. I respected his wishes and, as a compromise, I called him Mr. Ladnier or Mr. Don from there on out when talking to students. I still feel guilty about it. I know it seems like a small thing, but is it? Mr. Ladnier was a caring adult on campus that students went to for help, support, encouragement, and empathy. Mr. Ladnier did all of that willingly. Don should have gone by Mr. Ladnier. I should have introduced him that way and made it official. It was the right thing to do.
Rita Pierson says it best — “Every child deserves a champion—an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”
Anyone can have an impact on a child’s education. Anyone! They are all our kids! Everyone can encourage a student. We can all contribute to creating a positive school culture that positively impacts a child’s education. Research shows connecting students to positive adults can increase their academic achievement and reduce discipline issues and dropouts. Also, students trust more when they see we are willing to spend time with them. Nash Gamino and Don Ladnier did just that. They gave their time to care for kids. They gave as much supervision, counseling, and encouragement as I did as a principal. They were mentors and taught children. My parents taught me my job is never over anyone else. Everyone contributes. Mr. Gamino and Mr. Ladnier added to the lives of children every day, and they contributed to my mine. For that, I am forever grateful.
“If you want to be a great leader, remember to treat all people with respect at all times. For one, because you never know when you’ll need their help. And two, because it’s a sign you respect people, which all great leaders do”. — Simon Sinek
With something to think about….
your friend Chris