A remarkable educator, helping kids (including this one) be their best selves

A remarkable educator, helping kids (including this one) be their best selves

It’s not easy for any of us – at least, I know it’s not for me – to make changes in who we are, to build our muscles of empathy and compassion, to grow into our better selves. And there’s a big debate about whether “character” can or should be taught in our public schools.

My mom’s remarkable career as a public elementary school guidance counselor leaves me no doubt that it can and should. As she retires this month, I want to take a minute to appreciate the enormous difference she’s made in the lives of thousands of kids and families. Including my own.

Carole Lander has been the guidance counselor at Claymont Elementary School – in the Parkway School District, in a suburb of St. Louis, where I grew up – for over 35 years (and she worked in a few other schools before that). For every day of that time, she has shown up to help kids navigate the rough things so many go through, to get along with each other, and to learn what are really the most important lessons.

My earliest memories of her teaching are of Duso the Dolphin – a puppet with some great stories about how to deal with hurt feelings and anger, how to cooperate when it’s not easy. (Apparently DUSO stands for Developing and Understanding of Self & Others, and has been attacked by right-wing critics. But I loved the stories of Duso and his friends, and felt like I had a team with me.)

I remember the year my mom she spent weeks with different signs appearing throughout the school that “BAFIS is Coming!” When he came, it turned out BAFIS meant “Be A Friend In School.” We don’t spend much time in school helping kids figure out how to be good friends. For some kids, it’s intuitive (just like math is for some). And for some, it’s not. But really, what could be more important?

My mom’s work has gone way beyond the classroom. When I was in middle-school, and divorce (at least as I remember it) was still relatively infrequent, she organized a support-group of kids whose parents were getting divorced – helping them deal with the mix of mistaken self-blame, anger, and embarrassment.

She’s done some amazing work surrounding disabilities – not only working with kids with disabilities to help them find the strength for both self-acceptance and navigating an often-unfair world, but also helping all students appreciate a fuller range of abilities, and try to see the world from other perspectives.  Mom also had the insight that another support group was needed -- this one for siblings of kids with disabilities.

During my mom’s years at Claymont, the Parkway School District has been part of the St. Louis voluntary desegregation program, which has meant that a handful of low-income kids from the city of St. Louis attend Claymont (in St. Louis’ western suburbs). A big part of my mom’s mission has been to help those kids navigate a strange, unequal, and sometimes hostile place. To support these kids and their families, to find a way for them to get some of the things that other families take for-granted – from a Halloween costume to the clothes for a job interview. Whether it’s home visits to families who live almost an hour from school, or pushing a teacher to think hard about what “discipline” looks like, her work is rooted deeply in the idea that each kid is an equal, beautiful human being, whose potential it should be all-of-our jobs to help nurture.   

More recently, my mom has become a big devotee of “mindfulness for kids.” It’s worth noting here that neither my mom nor I are lifelong or natural practitioners of mindfulness. We tend to be compulsive about details, a little controlling. Maybe even stubborn (well, me, at least :-). But she has seen what a powerful difference it can make to help kids build the ability to focus their attention on the present moment, to recognize and understand their feelings.

She’s been just as good a counselor in her 70s as she was in her 30s and 40s. Throughout all those years, her office has been a treasured place for kids seeking a little refuge. A safe space, in the very best sense. You can see how some of the current teachers & kids feel about her in this video that they made for her.

And did I mention that she works out just about every day (she began the day after my bar mitzvah in 1982)? She is a force of nature. I feel deeply lucky to have been a guinea pig for many of her lessons, to have her as a role model for doing work you love, day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out – even as she has always been there for me, for my sister, and for our kids in our own lives.

She’ll continue to help kids and families in her retirement. And we’ll get even more chance to see her, since school-year trips to NYC won’t have to be weekend/school-break only! But as she retires, I’m mindful of how much she has shown me about the extraordinary power of public education, to help all kids, not just to learn math and reading (though she helps a lot with that, too), but to figure out how to relate to each other, how to work together, how to navigate through anger and emotion, how to find and be our best selves.

The most important stuff, really.

Thanks, Mom.

(Given her passion for her work, and her steely resolve, it’s not surprising that my mom kept working a couple years longer than my dad. He’s worth reading about, too).

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