Five mornings a week, he's out rescuing unfortunate people from the cold and the dark. He also saves people who are miserable from living with ugly light fixtures and inconvenient outlets. He goes out, does whatever-it-is-he-does and, by the end of the day, he's got happy customers whose frowns have turned into smiles of gratitude. He gets thank yous almost every day. Is that fair?
As happy as I am for his good fortune, I've harbored a certain amount of envy over the instant gratification he gets from his work. I mean, in spite of paychecks and raises, how many of us have ever been thanked for the work we do?
We may write well, nurse, cook, raise kids, negotiate, prosecute, analyse, coordinate and supervise with the best of them, but it's a rainy day in LA before anyone picks up a phone to tell us how much they appreciate our work. Am I right?
That's how it's been for me, at least.
Until last week. (Click Read More to see the rest of this story)
On Tuesday, I got a call from George R. Rhodes, my first boss, from another century.
It was 1965. We were at the front lines of the War of Poverty, within sight of the US Capitol Building.
George was the new principal of McKinley Technical High School, and I was new to just about everything. Out of college about a week and a half, someone told me Tech was a good school to work in, so I applied for a job teaching English.That was it.
I was 21, barely a year older than some of my oldest students. I had spent my youth reading French literature, so you can imagine what I knew about the real world. Four years in a Title One school straightened me out, real fast.
Black, conservative, maybe 35 years old, with a doctorate from Catholic University of America, George turned out to be the best boss I ever had, bar none. Imagine a younger and shorter Barack Obama, and you've got a good idea of the man who hired me. He was cool, calm, focused, considerate and very dedicated to students. In three short years, George Rhodes took a school of 3,000 students in a tough neighborhood and turned it into a showplace of excellence.
I taught at McKinley until a year after George left. Shortly after, I worked for him as a research assistant when he was named assistant superintendent for secondary schools. At some point, he suggested I apply for a fellowship to graduate school, and I got it. His recommendation carried a lot of weight in those days, and probably still does. Eventually, the US Department of Education snapped him up and I never saw him again.
Until last fall.
I ran into him (not unexpectedly) in Washington at the 40th reunion of the school's Class of 1968. We didn't have much time to talk, but I gave him my card and he promised to get back to me.
You may recall that 1968 was one of the worst years in the life of anyone on the north side of 50. I can't even remember all the awful stuff that happened. I just remember that I thought the world was about to end -- my world, at least.
We had barely recovered from the Kennedy assassination. The Vietnam War raged on. Huge demonstrations had set the city on edge. The US Marines recruited kids in the school's hallways, encouraging them to sign up before they graduated so they could wear a snazzy Marine uniform to the senior prom. Many took the bait.
In April, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. The next day, riots broke out all over DC, and everyone at the school was trapped in the building. From my second-floor window, I could see the fires, smell the smoke and hear gunshots from every direction.
Without alarm, George got on the loudspeaker and told everyone to leave, but get off the street before the 4 pm curfew. No city busses were running. Roadblocks were set up all over the city. Military jeeps patrolled black neighborhoods, with soldiers manning machine guns pointing off the back.
I gave a two students a ride home. They wisely chose to sit on the floor of the car so no one would spot them in a white woman's car.
The school remained closed for another week, then an Army National Guard unit moved in. They used the building and extended campus as bivouac. Armed soldiers patrolled the halls making everyone nervous, and we had to step over radio wire to get in and out of classrooms.
By June, everyone was exhausted. How the students remained sane, I'll never know.
So, last week, more than 40 years later, the principal called to thank me for attending last year's reunion, but mostly to thank me for the work I did as a teacher in the late 1960s. He said he took great pride in the accomplishments of the school's graduates (a number of retired military officers, at least one Navy JAG, school administrators, and a sprinkling of Ph.D.'s were among the reunion crowd) and I should take credit, too, because they got where they got, thanks to teachers like me.
I thought I would collapse and fall right off the kitchen stool while I was on the phone.
I asked him why he hired such an unproven newbie, and he said he could tell when he met me that I "was going to do good things."
"You were so serious," he said. Yeah, well, my then-husband and I were starving to death, so it was very important for me to hold onto that job. Plus, I loved the work and the students.
I followed this man for five years through two different jobs, and never forgot what he taught me about work, life and what really matters. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when I "graduated" from those first jobs and got out into the real world, only to discover that GRR was the exceptional boss, not the typical one!
I'm telling this story to remind everyone to mentor as many young people as they can, whenever they can. You may be the exceptional person in their lives.
Help them be the best they can be. Be their guiding star, if you can.
And, if they do well, praise them, thank them--early!--for their efforts, because you may be the only one who ever does.
In case I didn't say it before, thank you, George Rhodes. Thank you.