I received the news in early April via a text message from my husband.
Ellen just announced her retirement.
Oh no. When?
“Ellen” is Dr. Ellen Milgrim, the long-time principal of Wallingford Elementary School where both our boys spent their formative grade school years. She is also the boss of Dave (I know most of you thought I was the boss of him, but no) as he has been teaching there for the last 16 years. Of course we all knew this day would arrive; I’m not sure we thought it was going to be THIS year or THIS rapid, but here we are. Nothing like ripping off that bandage as quick as possible to minimize the pain! But I am certain she was thoughtful in her approach and timing. Why should her retirement be any different than anything else she has done?
To say Dr. Milgrim is beloved here in our little town is to speak the simplest of truths. Her work as an educator, administrator and mentor has lifted up all who have had the privilege to engage with her. Ellen has defined our school district in the most exemplary manner and our community collectively functions at a higher level because of the contribution she has made. She has, perhaps unknowingly, transcended her role as principal, rising above the day to day duties of running a school and making a difference in the lives of so many.
So how does one achieve such a feat?
I’m sure my community could construct a long list of Ellen’s traits and qualities that have endeared her to us. Words like kind, smart, empathetic, confident, funny and insightful would easily roll off the tongues of colleagues, parents, children and alumni. But lest you think we’ve developed a commoditized profile worthy of match.com, you should know that there is something more. I have thought about this for some time, trying to transform the feelings in my heart into words in my head. And it comes down to the simple message that Ellen has delivered each and every day since she has been here with us.
Her message is: You matter.
I can’t imagine she has explicitly stated those words to the thousands of people she has touched, but the point has been conveyed loud and clear to each and every one of us.
The children of Wallingford Elementary School know they matter because Ellen knows them all by name. Thousands of students. Every class. Every year. For nearly 20 years. She greets them in the morning and sends them off in the afternoon. And not only does she know “John” and “Jennifer” but Ellen knows that John is a great writer and Jennifer is a visual learner and Felix is nothing like his older sister, Ramona and Teddy is struggling with some issues at home. These kids aren’t just educated. They are “seen.”
The parents know we matter because we see her car parked in the empty school lot on evenings and weekends, especially in the summer months when it’s time to match students with teachers for the following year. We know Ellen has her eye on every placement. The child centric policies she has put forth at the school — like siblings getting different teachers — are flexible enough to meet the needs of a diverse populace. A meeting with The Principal at WES is not an exercise in anxiety but one in collaboration. I cant imagine anyone leaving her office not believing that they are all on the same team.
The teachers who report to her – I am married to one – know they matter because they are given the latitude to educate in a manner that best suits them and their students. Dave experiments every year with his class. One year, he gave up having desks for an entire month. He encourages gum chewing on test days. His kids are blogging and making movies and holding poetry slams at the local coffee shop. Ellen doesn’t say “yes” to everything (no, the kids cannot stand on top of their desks anymore), but she wholeheartedly supports a spectrum of teaching styles, demonstrating respect for her staff’s varying approaches and philosophies.
I could easily go on. I know there are countless stories out there that bring to life all the ways Ellen let us know that we mattered. The list of people who have done the same for me, (aside from those who are legally obligated to do so). are few and far between. And isn’t that all we really want and need on this earth? To matter?
My work schedule is such that I won’t be able to take part in much of the farewell festivities this coming week so in this space I needed to tell Ellen that she has mattered to me. To my sons. To my husband. To my community.
Dr. Ellen Milgrim doesn’t walk on water. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ellen has risen above because she is so firmly grounded. She has led so many of us on a path of growth and love, never too far ahead and often stopping to assure us in her calm and confident way that we are going in the right direction. So as Ellen takes those first steps onto a new road to a different life, I can only hope that the ground is soft beneath her bare feet – for she has not only left behind a legacy, but also her very large shoes to fill.