My eight-year-old son, Sam, stumbled off the school bus into my arms. Sam usually skips, happy to be on his way home, happy to be outside. Happy! My pulse quickened as soon as I saw his sad face. I wrapped my arms around him, dropped to the ground and pulled him close. For a moment I let him cry. And then I said, “Sam, I have to know you are OK. Tell me what happened.”
He had been bullied on the bus. The kid who punched Sam in the stomach was younger and smaller but his teen-aged brother had egged him on, grabbed ahold of Sam and shoved him into a seat.
Once I saw Sam was not seriously injured, my concern seethed into fury. I knew these kids were from one of the few families in our neighborhood that made the trip across town to attend Elmwood Village Charter School (EVCS) in Day’s Park. When Sam started kindergarten, there were no buses. That year, I approached the mother of these boys at a South Buffalo Little League game in the hope that we could carpool. I introduced myself and casually brought up how challenging it is to live in South Buffalo and drive the lengthy distance every day, Before I could get any further, she snarled at me, “I, for one, am glad they don’t have buses. It keeps ‘those people’ from getting there.”
I almost blew my cork right then. This kind of narrow world-view perpetuates a caste system of sorts. I’ve never understood why, when you are just a few steps up from the bottom of the economic and social stratum, you capitulate to a system that keeps you targeting the people who have less and who are treated worse than you are. I cut the conversation short and stayed away.
Here is the problem with motherhood: the biological wildness of it can unhinge you. I find the term Mama Bear both apt and patronizing. As wild as you feel, you aren’t allowed to maul anyone. Somehow you must take these overwhelming instincts to lay waste to anyone who hurts your child and proceed with calm and control. I had to suppress my natural impulse to locate the school directory, Google map her house, drag her into the street, and give her a lesson on parenting children who DON’T BULLY MY SON. The woman already had two strikes. She would not get to swing the bat a third time. Rationally, I knew any direct interaction would quickly devolve – make things worse and not serve Sam. But my hands had morphed into bear claws. More than ever, I had to suppress the wild for finesse, and pour metaphoric tea with paws.
I called the principal who, at the time, was John Sheffield. I’m not sure what I said. All I could hear was my inner growl.
He said, “I will take care of this. Do you trust me to do that?”
Up to this point, my few, cursory interactions with John Sheffield had given me the impression of a genial fellow. He displayed an ease – he always looked you in the eye, smiled, and often reached out for a handshake, or if he was familiar enough, a hug. You relaxed. Your kids were in good hands.
He uniformly wore a nondescript suit coat and dress pants, offset by his sizeable tie collection which added individuality, variety, and pop. With his hands behind his back in an open but professional posture, he paced the sidewalk while students boarded their buses. He made a point of greeting every parent, every time. I once worked with a maître d’ at a private club. He knew everyone by name and gave the impression of being readily available without ever overstepping. That’s this parent’s impression of John Sheffield.
He seemed to cast a spell over his students. They liked him, joked with him, but geniality was mixed with a bit of awe. Sam had been sent to the principal’s office for getting into a water fight with a buddy in the bathroom. Sam told me he would never, ever do anything again that would get him sent to Mr. Sheffield’s office.
“Wow, what did he say to you?” I was a little too eager to learn his tricks. Sam replied “nothing” but in a way that said “everything.” Whatever transpired happened quietly and was taken to heart.
On the phone, Mr. Sheffield’s voice resonated with his years of experience. Yes, I did trust him.
“I ask that you keep Sam off the bus for the next two days,” he said, “until I can take care of this.”
He asked me to bring Sam to meet with him the next day. He informed me he would speak with the other boys and their parents after he heard from Sam. Mr. Sheffield assured me that this other kid wasn’t “a bad kid” but a bit wired and in need of direction. I was about to give him my opinion on the family when he turned the conversation over to Sam.
As Sam began to speak I had to catch myself from interrupting. I can be an articulate and animated speaker, but Sam, especially with adults, can be almost listless. I worried he would feel intimidated or forget details, but Mr. Sheffield clearly wanted Sam to speak. And Sam immediately exhibited far more confidence than I was accustomed to. He and Mr. Sheffield had established a relationship that put Sam at ease. I tucked my paws under my legs for safe keeping and listened.
Sometimes, I wrap myself so tight around my children that I forget that my place isn’t center stage. In fact, if I do a good enough job, my role will become less and less important as their life story unfolds.
Mr. Sheffield gave Sam the opportunity to stand up for himself. His account of what happened was believed and respected. In telling his story, a moment of humiliation in which Sam was the victim was transformed into his moment of strength and assertiveness.
For two weeks, Mr. Sheffield got on the bus after the kids had boarded. He sat the offenders in the front seats and spoke loud enough for all the kids to hear his instructions to them. I never found out what he said to the family or to the bus driver. I kept my word and let him handle it.
And he did.
Several months later, the younger boy got in Sam’s face again. Instead of emboldening him, the older brother sat down next to his little brother to keep the boy from harassing Sam.
Last year, Mr. Sheffield resigned to move on to a school that offered him one last challenge before he retired. On the playground watching our kids play, we parents huddled and wrung our hands, our faces pinched with worry. Could EVCS retain its productivity, discipline and order without him? Many people on the EVCS staff deserve our applause and support. They are a cadre of highly professional, qualified, committed people who work within a carefully tested and successful system. Mr. Sheffield was one of the people who put that system in place. That we can continue without him bestows the highest praise.
Unfortunately, Buffalo is littered with failing and failed charter and public schools; EVCS is the anomaly. I wish our school system were a model of abundance with Mr. Sheffields scattered throughout. But sadly, ours is one of scarcity, a system that often doesn’t support individual effort. I was happy that Mr. Sheffield would be able to share his talents with less advantaged schools. And I like the new principal.
Since I moved to Buffalo, I have observed time and time again the herculean effort by a few to hold up entire domains. As a city, we struggle mightily against in-fighting, corruption, poverty, segregation, and crime. And yet I have repeatedly witnessed an Atlas among us take on the responsibility of lifting an organization out of the abyss. In our schools where graduation rates are low, the type of authority, guidance and experience Mr. Sheffield offers can be life-changing.
The older brother of the kid who bullied Sam graduated from EVCS. I asked Sam how the brother acts now that he’s alone on the bus. Sam said he still can’t sit still. He tried again to pick on one of the younger kids but Sam and his friend told him to back off. The next day, the boy shared his candy with everyone. Sam said, “You know, Mom, he really isn’t a bad kid.”
Thank you, Mr. Sheffield.