Summer was over and Mitch was about to start a new year at school. He was nervous for a lot of reasons: would he make new friends? What if he gets lost? Who would help him if he didn’t have the strength to walk anymore? Who would understand that while he looked normal, he had a muscle wasting disease and doesn’t have the strength of healthy children?

I remember being little and having big worries. I would think to myself at a department store, “What if my mom forgets me and never finds me again?” After all, the world was a very big place and I was just getting familiar with my neighborhood – and any place more than a few blocks away felt like a different country. Maybe even a different world. So, as a child, I was worried about being lost and never found. As a father, I see things differently today. Were my child to get lost, I wouldn’t stop searching until I found my precious child. I would sell the clothes on my back, and my very life if required, to save them. But I didn’t know that as a child. My understanding was limited to my life experience – which was crayons, backpacks, and lunchpails.

So when Mitch shared his worries this year, the child in my heart related. I remembered how I felt and I wanted Mitch to know that I cared. Knelt down so I was eye-level with him and said, “Sweet Mitchie, I will never let you get lost. I will always look out for you and never will you be so far that I couldn’t come racing to save you. Okay?” Mitch would nod softly with tears in his eyes. With that, I hugged him and whispered, “I love you, son.”

Little Mitch was still nervous, but he trusted me and he trusted his mother – who is an infinitely better parent than I could ever hope to be. She sets a standard I strive to emulate, however imperfectly. 

Mitch and a handful of other children his age waited patiently for the doors to open. When the bell rang, the kids were summoned to the door only to be greeted by Shelly Davis, the school’s principal at the time. When I think of the tender mercies in my son’s life, I have no doubt Shelly is one of them.

She took little Mitch under her wing, along with other children with special needs, and helped them feel loved and important. Under her kind care, Mitchell grew strong in confidence and self-assurance. Though he was quiet and shy, he was growing a little more each day because of the way she treated him. Although she was the school’s administrator – she was its best teacher, too. She needed no chalkboard or textbooks, no podium or megaphone; she taught by example and helped these young children believe in themselves.

I watched this good woman from afar and each day I fell to my knees and thanked Heaven for placing her in my son’s path. She was exactly what Mitch needed at the time – and I’m sure she was exactly what many other children needed, too.

When I think back on my education, never once were the mean teachers, detached or ready-to-snap principals and overbearing school staff a positive influence. To the contrary, they got in the way of the very thing they were there to do. Instead, the ones who shaped me were the ones who saw me in the hall and said hello with a smile. They were the ones who got to know me and saw what little I had to offer the world, yet they recognized my potential and watered my tiny seeds of potential with encouragement. They were the ones that said, “I see you. You matter. You can do this.”

I love and appreciate good educators; the ones who not only teach concepts, they teach people. The ones who teach us how to be good people. Shelly did this for Mitch and countless other children. I know Mitch loved her because she first loved him, and that gave him permission to believe in himself. 

Though I am no formal educator, I believe the bedrock of education isn’t books, but belief in self. That will do more for the soul than all the books ever written, standing quietly on a shelf.