Sunday, May 4, 2003

Leaving principal's office

One mother said when she got the note from the principal's office, she burst into tears. No, her daughter did not have head lice. Nor was she being notified that she would be expected to sell a carload of candy bars to pay for soccer uniforms. It was not a problem with grades or discipline.

The woman had just learned that Michelle Gummer, principal at Blessed Sacrament School in Fort Mitchell for 17 years, won't be returning in the fall. This - I am assured unanimously by parents, faculty and students - is an extremely emotional loss. It's hard to imagine. I remember my principals as being a little scary, certainly remote. They didn't know your name unless you were a troublemaker.

The candy apron

Ms. Gummer - Mickie to grownups - knows every one of her 600 students by name. It is not rare for her to notice an uptick in somebody's grades and send a personal note and a stick of Juicy Fruit gum home with the report card. She zips around the halls in a voluminous white apron, its 100 colorful pockets crammed with candy. Funny, good-humored and, still, an administrator who keeps her eye on the big picture.

The big picture, Mickie says, is making sure the kids get what they need. Academics, of course, but sometimes other things.

Last week, she took her fourth-graders to Frankfort so they could see where their government works. As we talk, she looks wistfully out her window at the first graders. This is Camp Out Day, when they pitch tents, eat hot dogs and write postcards "home."

I am not amazed to learn that as soon as Mickie got rid of me, she slipped out of the office to join the real kids around the fake campfire. "She loves them," says Debbie O'Daniel, a secretary. "When she gets bogged down with meetings, she'll just say, 'I have to be with the kids.' "

Mickie doesn't know what's next. "I'm not burned out or anything," she says. "I just think it's time to do something different, maybe teach at a university." She's a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph and is considering an opportunity at her alma mater.

"I'd love to see her teach other principals," says Karen Schmidt, who was president of the parents' auxiliary last year. "She is one in a million."

Sometimes for a kid, it just takes one. One person to notice you're struggling. Or when you've struggled and succeeded. A note. A stick of gum. An invitation to dip into the candy apron. The chance to feel special. Evidence that school is a place where you can succeed and maybe have some fun.

The principal has to make sure textbooks arrive, that new teachers are hired, that safety procedures are current, that the floors are clean and the playground equipment is in good repair. Meetings. Conferences. Memos. Test scores. Teacher salaries. Building repairs.

And then somebody comes along who wrestles with all these things and still remembers her most important work happens when she steps outside her office.

To see what the children need.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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