Early Times at School

Elementary School

My first experience with state-maintained public schooling was at East Harper Elementary School in Lenoir, NC. My first kindergarten teacher was Ms. Livingston. I loved that class and that teacher. She was kind and responsible and seemed to really understand the kind of weight that was being placed on her shoulders. She wasn’t there for a paycheck, or a career, or for the retirement benefits; she was there to teach children skills that would serve them well in life if they would remember them and practice them. I was blessed to have many such teachers during my academic career, but I wanted to put very special notice for this one person, and here is the reason why.


One day when I was in Ms. Livingston’s class, she was overworked and overwhelmed with a mountain of forms and paperwork that had to be filled out about each child in the class, so she established a rule. from present time at the moment until 11am, no one was to ask her a question, raise their hand or otherwise disturb her unless there was a serious, life-threatening urgent reason to do so. Perfectly acceptable as the time was approximately 9:45am, so an hour and 15 minutes of concentration on this work that she was told MUST be completed before the end of the day.

I sat there in my seat and worked at my lessons until I felt the need to use the restroom, not urinate, but defecate. The rule was do not ask questions or raise your hand for attention until 11am, so I held it back as long as I could, but then had to release. Yes, everyone, I took a dump in my pants sitting there in my seat because I would not disobey the rules to go and relieve myself in the normal way.

A few minutes later, one of the other children smelled this and raised the alarm, the teacher’s assistant came over and started to take me to the restroom and of course Ms. Livingston wanted to know what was happening. When they explained that I had an accident, she seemed confused because I had always been able to control myself before. So, as any decent person would, she came to me and asked, “Are you sick? Is something wrong? Why did you go in your pants?” and I responded, “Because you said no one was supposed to ask you questions or raise their hand for attention until 11 o’clock, and I didn’t want to break the rules.”

That young woman broke down in tears in front of me and hugged me and apologized to me for that happening to me and told me that she was going to call my mom and get me some clean clothes as soon as possible, but that I had done nothing wrong and did nothing to feel ashamed of; that the mistake was hers and she wanted to make sure that I understood that I was right and she was wrong and she wanted to make it right.

In that moment I learned more about humility and personal responsibility than any other class could have ever taught me in hundreds of hours of lesson plans. This was a teacher, not there to have control, not there to be looked up to, not there to get the glory, but someone that was broken at the thought that the careless way she spoke to one of her children could lead to them being thought of as wrong.

I think the more modern term for this ideal is “duty of care” and it’s one of those things that it’s very hard to teach someone that doesn’t learn it through an event like the one I just described.

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