There are firsts in every life — the first day of school, the first winning team, the first lost tooth — the first love.
In my life, some of the great “firsts” have to do with my life as an educator — my first class, my first Head of School, the first student who didn’t forget…and the first class I saw through the turmoil and triumph from Freshman Fear to graduation, serving as their Dean of Students.
It was 1992 and I had been 12 years as a Lower School and Primary School Teacher who came alive in the classroom. I could see the magic happen and nothing enlivened me more than watching the discovery from the inside out — when, like the transformer toy, the child of wonder opened like the Lotus flower to the young adult whose passion for love and learning was cultivated and nourished before their parents were even aware.
Almost over night, a new need called me and although it was only a flight of stairs between the worlds of Lower School and Upper School, it reflected the continental divide. Suddenly, I was planning dances and listening to heartbreaks and finding my classroom in the middle of the student lounge and pretending that the uniform code was a life altering commitment to a social norm. It had the clarity and disparity of the international date line, but nearly instantaneously my heart opened to the extraordinary journey of adolescence. There were permission slips, detention slips, drop/add slips, sign out slips…and then there was Suzanne.
Sometimes, almost without awareness, someone slips into the cracks of your heart and you realize (although perhaps only in retrospect) that you have never been the same — and never want to be. Such was my journey with Suzanne Kondratenko — a journey that taught me something profound about what it means to open your heart, have it broken in two, and to learn far more than you could ever teach.
In those days, we had students work the reception desk after school and keep tabs on the comings and goings of everyone who passed through our doors–answering the phone, paging us when we were needed at the front door and trying to keep tabs on the Religious of the Sacred Heart. Suzanne almost became part of our religious community, and definitely part of our lives. From paging me to allow an easy escape from a community meeting to long hours of asking me about what led me to Religious Life and who God was for me and how I knew that the Sacred Heart of Jesus had room for her, Suzanne became part of our world — part of my world. Suzanne made us laugh until we cried with stories of her beloved family and asked questions that drew us closer to the God of our lives as she became both prophet and student in the simple act of being present.
I always find it hard to see our graduates off on graduation night, knowing that my life’s work is to set them free in a world for which they are both prepared and which needs the gifts they have discovered. And still, there are tears and a hint of sadness as they cross our threshold for the last time as students. But after those years of shared life, evenings of answering the phone and answering the call of life and growing into a distinguished young woman of faithful love, integrity, joy and grace, we shed more than a few tears as our religious community blessed Suzanne on her way. We knew she would be back…
Grace surrounded us as we welcomed her sisters into our lives, to find their own way and to discover their no less spectacular gifts in this place that we have called home for generations. Suzanne couldn’t resist a quick visit when she found her way home and had new tales to share with us and always a new set of questions that made me wonder who was the teacher and who was the student.
I was in a meeting as a new Head of School, finding my way in a new terrain of loving the work and knowing both the weight and the wonder of leadership. September 11, 2001 forever changed the way I have understood what it means to lead — for it is to find the way to navigate faith in the midst of the temptation to fear. Just rebounding with the news of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and making quick plans to head with our students, faculty and parents to the chapel, Suzanne’s younger sister burst into the room, “Suzanne is in New York and my Mom can’t reach her” she sobbed.
I was in disbelief. Suzanne lived in Chicago. I couldn’t imagine that this was true — there must be some mistake — I was flooded with the memories of the front desk and her faith that would move mountains, her contagious laughter, her passion for anything that had to do with her family and her insistence that kindness was a religion that must be followed. As I drove later that day to be with her mother and sisters while her father and older sister headed to New York, I could feel her tender strength and her courageous love for others — her nearly tangible presence invaded my rock solid confidence that this was a bad dream.
In the years that have passed, I have made a commitment to live with the confidence in love, goodness and grace that enfolded her. I have begged God to give me the right judgement that made her stop her descent down the narrow steps of the Towers to help a pregnant woman who was struggling to breathe on the smoke filled passageway. Likely, it was a choice that was defining and one that has defined the life that has shaped who I am and how I choose to live — she lived from the inside –out, doing what she believed and being the faith she knew and trusted.
There are many things that I am not sure about, but I am entirely confident that Suzanne is held in the heart of Jesus. Every morning as I pray in our small chapel, I have a view of a picture of Suzanne and the dispersed illumination above the crucifix in our main chapel that forms a perfect heart. I know that Suzanne lives in the heart of things — in the middle of love and laughter– in the middle of things that are hard for the right reasons — in the middle of the next generation of her family who now walk the same halls she did — in both the laughter and the tears…Suzanne is in the heart of things.
Actually, I know that I am who I am because she taught me to open my heart and let the light in…and then to give it back again like the miracle of love that cannot be contained by terror, but only reflected in the triumph of love.
Thank you, Suzanne…now and forever.
We were living in Kansas City and the first day of school was fast approaching. In the grain belt, the start of school and my early August birthday regularly aligned with our arrival in the new city where my father’s corporate transfer took us. School shoes were often my birthday gift and it never occurred to me that a doll would be more welcome than new shoes. Such was the occasion as I began second grade.
New school — new uniforms — new phone number and address. “10032 Mission Road, Leawood, Kansas DU1-4565” I repeated to assure my mother that I would not be lost forever, besides my brother Pat was just up the stairs with the big kids. He wouldn’t forget me and I knew that he knew the way home.
I liked the new beginnings — new kids and new teachers and whatever had happened at the last school was irrelevant (until I had the startling revelation in Middle School that there was this thing called school records that seemed to follow you like a bad dream). The only downside was that you never knew what was cool in the new school and what should go in the first day lunch box, where to stand at recess if you wanted to be sure not to play kickball so you wouldn’t ruin your new shoes, and certainly not what color your shoes should be to be qualified as acceptable for social matriculation.
I loved my red shoes and so did my Dad. He told me that I looked smarter in my red shoes which was important since first grade had not been a roaring academic success. I believed it and in an attempt to squelch the first day of school terrors, I slept in my red shoes for the week before hoping that the smart shoes would navigate from toes to head.
The day arrived and I, a great school lover, brimmed with eager expectation only curtailed by my 7th grade way cool brother’s less than enthusiastic approach to this new year. We walked into the school and I greeted my new teacher who fortunately lived across the road from our house (I thought that might be useful in the event academics were not going my way) and met two kids who seemed like reasonable candidates for my social agenda.
My world didn’t crash until recess when the gorgeous girl who had read the entire public library over the summer (with a 3×5 index card identifying the characters in each book in writing that didn’t look very much like any 2nd grader I had ever met) decided it was a good time to tell me that anyone who wore red shoes was permanently banned from the club. I didn’t really know from what club I had been banned but I determined that permanent isolation was in my future as there was no way that new shoes would be. One pair of shoes for the year was the family limit, and suddenly they didn’t seem to help my quotient of either intelligence or admission to the club.
It didn’t change much — every day the same recess regulation of the club admission and the two of us with red shoes were banished to sticks and sidewalk. Until one day when she made a grave error. I was waiting for Pat to find me — we were “walkers” so we had to wait until the bus kids and the car kids left so our odds of our survival were increased. The great reader from the North thought it was just the right time to yell out the bus window, “Too bad about your stupid red shoes for a stupid kid who can’t read.” I didn’t realize it, but Pat was standing behind me as I completed the routine by burying my head in my hands in a refusal to make eye contact or to shed a tear.
On the way home, just about the time we passed the bank and the Safeway grocery store, he wanted to know about the red shoes. I begged him not to tell our parents — they didn’t need to know. We had a pact about many things, so this could easily be placed in the vault. I told him the whole saga about the club and the shoes and how she made fun of me because I couldn’t read as well as she could and I could only play with sticks on the sidewalk. He didn’t say much except some advice about making up my own club.
A few days later we were walking home and I was tagging behind, as usual…when we got past the bank onto the long stretch before we hit our road, he stopped, threw down his book bag and said, “Come here right now.” I adored him and he almost never raised his voice at me and so I moved quickly. He proceeded, “I have had enough. Either you do this or I do it, but you really need to handle this.”
“Okay,” I said somewhat confused with the interaction, “but exactly what am I supposed to handle?”
“The red shoe club. You walk up to her. You put your toes to her toes and look her in the eye and say, “I love my red shoes. You wanna talk about it?” ” Now. Right here practice.”
And so I did. With eager voice he commanded, “Not good enough. Again. and Again. and Again”
And now, he said, “You tell me what day you are going to tell her. I am going to stand and watch. You can do it and I got your back.” And so we set the date and I was permanently expelled from the club, but no one ever made a comment about my red shoes — and I loved them back into being my smart shoes — and never forgot what it feels like when someone has your back and gives you the tools to do for yourself what no one else can do for you.
Happy First Day of School. Don’t forget to wear your red!