This is my personal experience with Mr. David Hudson, principal of Linwood Holton Elementary School.
Okay, here we go. I am a skeptic by nature. I am sort of the “Doubting Thomas” kind of skeptic. I need to see things myself sometimes to believe them. So when, I was on the Linwood Holton Elementary School playground with my four-year old little girl, Abbie Catherine Waters, in 2006, and another mother suggested that Linwood Holton Elementary School was one of the best elementary schools ever, in part, because of its principal, David Hudson, I internally said: “Yeah right, it’s probably an okay school, but ‘best school ever’, no way.” I have come to eat my words.
The mother on the playground that day relayed a second-hand story (lawyers like myself often refer to such stories as “hearsay”) to illustrate her point. I listened to her story as I watched my blonde-haired little one giggle and dance with joy as she played under the big tree that shaded the playground equipment. She said that one day a little girl at the school (kindergarten age) was scared of school and wanted to “go home”, lots of tears, etc., and Mr. Hudson asked her to walk with him, then have lunch with him. He took her to lunch and they sat together in his office, ate a sandwich and chatted. The little girl had lots of questions about school. She got answers. They called the little girl’s mom together and by the end of the lunch the little girl told her mom that she wanted to go back to class. Okay, that was the story, and it seemed like a sweet story, but I was cautious because this was my child’s education we were talking about, and I love my kids more than life itself. Time passed, and shortly I needed to decide on a school for Abbie.
I attended (with one of my dear friends– Anne Fox) the Linwood Holton Elementary Open House and heard the PTA president and the principal give a presentation. The PTA president said some pretty awesome things about the school. Mr. Hudson said a lot of good things, and something in particular that stuck with me. He said something similar to, “I want you all to know that if you will let me know of a problem, I will try to fix it. If you don’t tell me, then I can’t fix it, so please let me know if you have any concerns. You have my phone number, so call.” Seemed like a good school. I wasn’t sure whether he really wanted us to call him, but I kept his number anyway. Little did I know that I would be having any sort of problem that would need “fixing.” However, shortly thereafter I did have my first one-on-one encounter with Mr. Hudson.
My first one-on-one encounter with Mr. Hudson was when Abbie, at the beginning of one of the first days of school, ran joyfully unaccompanied down the hallway before the bell rang—she loved school. I ran after her and was stopped by one of Mr. Hudson’s office staff, since the bell had not rung yet. I had no time to explain and just kept running (thinking who are they to stop me from taking care of my baby). A couple of minutes later, Mr. Hudson arrived. As you know, he is a tall, really well-dressed guy, and he said something like, “Ms. Waters, after you get your daughter safely in the classroom, I would like to see you in my office.” “Eeesh” I thought. I was actually being called to the principal’s office—for real—and he knew my name. Holy crud, how do I get out of this. I was always an “A” student, never caused problems, and I was just trying to take care of my four-year old. What did I do wrong? Maybe I should just skip out of the school and go to work. Instead, I told myself that I was going to tell this principal a thing or two. Well, I should not have rushed to judgment so fast. Come to find out the rule about entering before the bell was part of an important system set up to keep the kid’s safe and Mr. Hudson explained that his main priority was to keep the kids safe. He actually appeared incredibly serious about the safety issue. Before I could even begin to start yelling at him he said, “I totally understand why you did what you did—and I am not saying that it was wrong, just wanted you to know the reason for the rule." Then he thanked me and explained that he also needed to support his staff when they are enforcing these safety rules. Okay then, I survived my trip to the principal’s office. I started to make sure our whole family followed the bell rule and I gained some respect for a man whose first priority was to keep my child safe.
The next two years my daughter Abbie thrived at Holton. She followed the school pledge to a “T”, respect for others. She had friends of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, personalities and cultures. Holton became Abbie’s life, her anchor. She had a way about her that made many folks want to hang out with her –sometimes being referred to as “Happy Abbie.” Throughout those two years, I would regularly hear from Mr. Hudson at various events, something like: “I can’t fix your problems, if you don’t let me know they exist….so please let me know.”
Now let’s fast forward to the first week of second grade for Abbie in 2009. After being a perfectly healthy child, Abbie was diagnosed with cancer: Stage IV Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma. I found myself, with Abbie (on the brink of tears) and her fabulous teacher LaTonya Oliver outside of Mr. Hudson’s office on the green couch with a problem—a big one. I had heard tales of cancer kids being secretly shunned by some school systems across the country once they were diagnosed since their diagnosis and treatment causes a lot of fear and a great deal of disruption for the rest of the students. My problem was that Linwood Holton Elementary School was Abbie’s world. I was terrified of the cancer and so was Abbie. So along with LaTonya Oliver we sat there waiting to see what would unfold. Mr. Hudson invited us into his office and he first calmed our cancer fears – telling us that he had personal knowledge of others who had just gone through the same type of thing and that they were doing okay now. He encouraged Abbie to see Holton as a safe haven, i.e., HER school, even if she could only attend for a few minutes a week because of chemo treatments. She did just that, even leaving chemo just in time to make it into the second grade class photo (they had just taken the photo when Abbie arrived and I believe Ms. Oliver suggested that it be retaken as soon as Abbie walked in the door). Mr. Hudson stood with Abbie throughout the treatment, checking on her regularly.
While Abbie was undergoing cancer treatments we started to receive truancy notices. You know the ones that tell you how much trouble you are in because your child is not attending school regularly. These notices bugged me and in between Abbie’s doctor and chemo appointments I tried pretty hard to get them to stop by calling the phone number written on the notices. I explained to the folks that answered the phone that my child had cancer and that we had a home school instructor. I explained that we tried to get her to the school as often as possible. The notices did not stop. I wanted nothing more than to have Abbie in school every day and these notices –just bugged me. One email to Mr. Hudson and they stopped.
In early spring of 2011, Abbie, someone who loved doing her schoolwork, just gave up on doing any school work, saying it just was not the same. One mention of this to Mr. Hudson and the teachers rallied to bring school to Abbie. Students at Holton made flash cards of the multiplication tables, one child came to the house so that the house would seem more like a classroom, teachers visited Abbie and helped her learn cursive…one of the things she wanted to know how to do.
That same spring, in order to raise money to help us take care of Abbie while she was sick, the school came up with a pie throwing event to celebrate pi [π] Day. For a small fee the kids were allowed to throw a pie in the teachers’ and Mr. Hudson’s face. All of the money went to help with our bills. Abbie was in the hospital the day the pies were thrown. With the help of a wonderful teacher at the school, Abbie was actually able to watch Mr. Hudson get hit in the face with a pie on Skype.
After the pie event, we made an appointment with Mr. Hudson to pick up the fundraising money in the office. I contacted Mr. Hudson to arrange a time and let him know that Abbie would be turning nine the following week. Abbie and I walked over to the school hand in hand and, after thanking Mr. Hudson, were escorted by him to the cafeteria where many of Abbie’s classmates sang “Happy Birthday” to her, stood in line to give her cards, and many gave her hugs. The ear-to-ear smile on Abbie’s face was priceless. This was the last time that Abbie saw many of these children, as she died the following week. The ups and downs of her treatment took its toll, and yes, what others had said is true, Mr. Hudson joined many of her classmates, teachers and our friends and family to be at her bedside the very day she went to heaven. Not easy for anyone.
After Abbie died, Mr. Hudson, not only allowed us to have Abbie’s memorial service at Holton, but he actively participated in it. He also wrote a personal poem in her memory. That day a rainbow appeared over the school and the folks from the Bliley funeral home said that they had never seen anything like this celebration of life. While a whole group of our heroes set up the event, Mr. Hudson gave it his total support.
Then, two years later when the kids in Abbie’s class had their “moving on” ceremony in 5th grade, Mr. Hudson was kind enough to include Abbie with her class in the yearbook. I was at the “moving on” ceremony to see Abbie’s friends move on to middle school, when I was called on stage by Mr. Hudson to see my daughter’s picture with her class in the yearbook. This meant the world to our friends and family and to me, Abbie’s mom.
Now let’s do another fast forward to the Spring of 2014, when our newly adopted daughter Melissza (adopted from Hungary at age six, knowing only a handful of English words) started at Holton two weeks after landing in the United States, and joined the kindergarten class in Mr. Garber’s room. She was scared, disruptive and a very high maintenance child at first. It literally took five of us (myself, Ms. Oliver, Ms. Goldberg and two wonderful 4th Grade students: Brynne Severns and Claire Sulanke) to get her out of the van and into school one day. When she first arrived she would get scared and angry, pull hair and hit. One day she got in trouble for her actions and was taken to Mr. Hudson’s office. Funny thing is, by enforcing the rules, treating her like any other student who had done such a thing (i.e., by talking to her as only a principal can do) he helped turn her around. She did not know English, but she knew she was in trouble. She was not suspended or anything like that, but his chat with her went a long way to make her feel like she belonged at the school and her behavior changed.
About that same time, Melissza saw that a baby tree had fallen down in front of the school and asked, in her own way, if she could go tell Mr. Hudson about it—dragging me by the hand to the principal’s office (did I mention that I was an A student who tried to avoid the principal at all cost). Evidently, Melissza and Mr. Hudson had built some type of mutual respect for each other during their chat and she somehow thought he could fix the tree. I sat with her silently as she tried to explain her concern to him. She used a lot of hand gestures and pointed at the fallen baby tree. Mr. Hudson looked out the window with sincere concern. I then offered up some of my interpretation of what I thought she was saying. Then Mr. Hudson thanked Melissza, and said he would try to work on it. The next day, the tree was fixed. Melissza saw it and smiled really big, and said two words with a strong Hungarian accent: “Mister Hudson.”
In 2015, Melissza still had some problems getting ready for school in the mornings, but there was no need for five people to help her out of the van. I mentioned this problem to Mr. Hudson during drop-off one morning. That very day he had a talk with Melissza, and things are much better now. He kept reminding me, in front of Melissza, to let him know if my child had any problems and asked if I still had his phone number. I did.
During the Spring/Summer of 2016, at the end of the school year, Melissza wanted to be on the Ginter Park swim team and promised to go to the practices. We signed her up and after the first practice, she didn’t want to do it anymore. I mentioned it to Mr. Hudson as an aside and he said, “I’ll go some morning to watch her and maybe that will help.” I said that the practices were at seven a.m. and most of them were after the school year had finished. He said: “That’s okay, just send me the schedule.” Well guess what, he actually showed up for not just one, but two summer swim practices at 7:00 a.m. (he is not paid for this…he did this because he cares).
Take a gander at the look on Melissza’s face…and yes Melissza swam well that day (and so did a few other Holton kids that were at the practice). Was it a complete turnaround? No. Melissza still didn’t care for practices, but she did attend them and swam well enough to be invited to attend Champs–the end of the year competition for swimmers who had done well at the swim meets.
This year, Melissza had a panic attack in school based on things that occurred before she was adopted and she was scared that she could be hurt. Mr. Hudson, once again was there. He took her to the office and from what I understand, he explained to her how the school is set up to keep her safe.
Bottom line, I was a skeptic, but I have seen, firsthand, and not just through word of mouth, the impact this incredible human being has had on our family. I am no longer a skeptic. Our family has been very blessed. Mr. Hudson is certainly not the only hero in our lives, we have many, but he is definitely one of them. In this season of Thanksgiving, we are so thankful for the families of Northside and that Mr. Hudson is the principal of Linwood Holton Elementary School. (Originally Posted by North of the James, December 2016).