Note: This essay appeared in The Whitehall Ledger September 15, 2010.
This year marks the first time in three decades that Cardwell School opened without Sally Kreis in the classroom. As is customary with Sally, she left her classroom humbly without fanfare or accolades; but on the occasion of her retirement from teaching I want to tell you about the Sally Kreis that has helped shape my life.
Sally taught me in the 5th and 6th grade, but decades later rarely a week goes by that I don’t respond to something with, “Sally Kreis taught me that.” When people complement me after a speech, I can say, “Sally Kreis gave me the confidence to do that.” When someone remarks on the style of my penmanship my answer without fail is, “Sally Kreis made me write until I got it right.” When someone acknowledges my optimism, I say “it is because my life is filled with people like Sally Kreis.”
Sally is a teacher who goes beyond the basics and teaches by example how to live. Her gentle, yet firm, approach is to allow students to test the boundaries of their own independence and potential, while ensuring we never go too far beyond our abilities.
But when we do and when the cruelty of false invincibility robs us of the innocence of youth, Sally never judges. Sally builds. She helps us learn from the experience to mold and shape the future. Years after I left her classroom and was establishing my career, a tragic car accident of my own making took from me the life of a great friend and everything I had ever worked to achieve. In the darkest days of my life, Sally, in her quiet and gentle way, wrote me letter and sent me a copy of the poem If by Rudyard Kipling that years earlier she had encouraged me to recite from memory before the entire school. Back then, Sally used the exercise and the poignant words of one of the greatest of the classics poems to instill confidence in me. To paraphrase, the poem says “If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise….you will be a Man my son.”
As a boy, reciting those words changed my life. As a man, reading those words saved it. Sally always knows just what to say and do.
When the rawness faded and the political pile-on of the accident began, Sally refused to do the easy thing and walk away. She is loyal to the core of her being. Nearly a decade after that tragedy, Sally still marks every August 15th with a kind note of encouragement that reminds me that life can be, will be and is still meaningful in the wake of failure, loss and adversity. And she has been there at every joyful occasion in my life since then – completing a marathon, getting married, earning my MBA, becoming a company president and experiencing the birth of my children – with her presence or with a note as if to subtly nudge, “I told you so.” Every time I look into the eyes of my own children, I know once again that Sally is always right.
Our lives are really just fabric woven from the people and experiences that shape us. My fabric is stronger because of Sally Kreis. Sally may not be imparting knowledge in front of a chalkboard this year, but the lessons she has taught us, the confidence and values she has instilled in us and the example she has set for two generations of young people will help all of us privileged enough to have been in her classroom to in turn do our part to impact the lives of others for generations to come. That is a legacy worth acknowledging. Thank you, Sally.
Shane Hedges is the third generation of his family to have attended Cardwell School and now resides in Washington, DC with his wife and two children and is the president of the nation’s leading company for leadership education for high-achieving young people.