Becoming a Leader

By: Neil Mufson
The recent coming of autumn and the smell and feel of the air brought me back to the fall of 1968 in New England, the first time I remember feeling like a leader. It was my sixth grade year, and we were the “seniors” of our elementary school. I had previously been selected for one of the coveted positions of “audio visual assistant” and had gotten to miss a lot of class as I ran around the school setting up movie and filmstrip projectors for teachers. But I saw that assignment as fun and relief, unconnected to respect and responsibility, the lessons I was about to learn.
Of course America was in turmoil in the fall of 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated; the Chicago riots were etched even into young minds. When my parents watched the evening news, black and white images of unrest and Vietnam glowed from the screen.
Against this backdrop, it seemed natural that my friends and I felt we should address our chief grievance against our teacher, Miss Gaffney. Morning recess was 20 minutes long. Yet to ensure maximum instructional time, Miss Gaffney would march out to the asphalt playground only 10 minutes into our play time. She would wait a few minutes and then shrilly blow her whistle. Only those unfortunate enough to be in her class would have to respond by lining up promptly and trudging back to our room — while everyone else was still running around and playing until the bell rang. She said we had to be back at our desks by the bell because her class had so much to do to secure our place as the academic leaders of the school and be ready for junior high. Resentment took root.
I don’t remember how we came up with it, but one stunningly sunny and crisp fall morning we decided we had had enough. Instead of lining up, both boys and girls in my class clumped up around Miss Gaffney. She started to tell us to get in line, and someone raised his voice saying it wasn’t fair and someone else shouted we weren’t going to do it. Instantaneously, we all started yelling, “Yeah, we’re not going” and “It’s not fair” and “We want recess.” As we shouted we drew closer and closer to Miss Gaffney until we were very close. In the disorder, someone got jostled into our seemingly ancient teacher and others lost their footing and ended up kicking her. By then the other teachers had come outside to collect their classes, and my previously always gentle and sweet fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Gritsavage, screamed for us to stop it and get in line.
Excited and sweaty, we all headed back to class. Miss Gaffney scolded us that that better never happen again. In the ensuing days she must have cut back gradually on when she came outside to fetch us, because soon, almost imperceptibly, we were lining up as the bell rang, like all other classes. Perhaps our misguided protest had in fact yielded the result we had sought.
But on the same afternoon of our sixth grade act of disobedience, the classroom phone harshly buzzed, jarring us from our work. “Neil Mufson, you are to go see Principal Normandy,” Miss Gaffney announced, with a hint of glee in her voice. On that long walk to the front of the school, I couldn’t imagine what would happen to me. I figured I had been fingered as the ring leader and was in for I didn’t know what. As I approached the office, I saw Mr. Normandy in the hallway waiting for me.
“Come into my office, Neil,” he said with all smiles. I was all confused and remember feeling in a haze. He told me to sit down and then took off his desk a white heavy fabric sash that was tightly wound and had a badge on the front.
“You’ve been so responsible and respectful that I’m making you a patrol leader,” he joyously stated. He unwrapped the sash, fit it around me, and pinned the badge so it was just in the right place. “I want you to be one of the leaders of the walking patrol that goes to your neighborhood. You will walk in front and Carol Hutchinson will take up the rear. We’ll get all walking patrol leaders together later on for training. Congratulations.” “Huh?” I thought.
I don’t know what Mr. Normandy felt when he later heard about my class’s disobedience. My role in the disrespect towards Miss Gaffney was never addressed, and all I got were accolades for “making” patrol leader. I know it took a while for me to feel worthy of the responsibility that I had been handed. I felt badly about how we had treated Miss Gaffney and felt uneasy because of the incongruity between my “reward” and my behavior that very day.
Our Country School value this month is “respect.” November brings “responsibility.” In these uncertain times, much like during the civil unrest that was the background of my middle school years in the late 1960’s, questions arise about how to instill these values. Conversations here and at home with your children can often revolve around the inherent conflict between what we feel we have earned, or deserve, and what is awarded to us. While we don’t always get what we feel we deserve, let us try to instill within our children and model for them that we are all responsible for our actions and that one’s behavior truly does have consequences, large and small, for our community.  

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