This guest post was written by Heather Nicholson (Mr. Sidney’s daughter) and a parent of a former CLC middle school student.
Over the last few days, I have seen so many back-to-school postings on Face Book—happy children smiling for the camera, ready for a new year. My picture is a little different. Here is my dad, Mr. Sid, ready for another year at Cornerstone.
Ten years ago, when my daughter entered middle school at Cornerstone, I coaxed my father into considering the afterschool coordinator position at Cornerstone. He had recently retired from a long career in law enforcement in New York City and had moved to Tallahassee with my mom so both could be closer to my family.
I thought it was the perfect job for him. The schedule would give him a chance to play golf (his new Florida hobby) in the morning and work in the afternoon. Besides, my father has always loved children. Many many years ago, he had planned to work as a teacher after graduating from college until he realized he could not support his then-growing family on a New York City teacher’s salary.
When he started at Cornerstone, he was a bit skeptical about the job at Cornerstone and felt uncertain whether the school really wanted an older retiree in charge of the afterschool program. But Cornerstone embraced my father, and he embraced the school. Today, every time I ask my dad about his day when he returns from Cornerstone, his face lights up and he says, “My day was GREAT! Let me tell you…” And he launches into these amazingly wonderful stories about the kids.
Most people reflect on how certain schools bring out the best in their children. I no longer have a child at Cornerstone, but I do have a dad. So this piece is about what Cornerstone has done for my dad.
My father believes he has the best job ever. He loves watching the children use their imagination on the playground. He has come to understand and appreciate that when children are allowed to be themselves, they can grow into responsible and compassionate young adults. National educational studies boast about the importance of unstructured playtime in our very structured society. Independent play helps develop leadership characteristics, teaches children fairness, imposes natural boundaries, hones communication skills, develops team working skills, and allows children to set visions and watch how others respond to their visions in an attempt to implement them. These are all building blocks for professional and personal success. And my father has found tremendous joy and pride in helping to foster this environment for students.
So, the fact that this happens in Cornerstone’s afterschool program is not accidental. He has shaped an intentional environment based on his confidence in the old-fashioned sense of freedom children had when he grew up. This is the Cornerstone difference. Teachers are empowered with the ability to create environments that enhance children’s learning instead of being beholden to a rigid agenda.
This empowerment has also allowed my dad a productive space at the table. Several years ago, when he asked to direct an all-school play, the answer was an affirming yes, and he took to writing his first and only play for kids. When he inquired about a field day, the school created one. When a substitute was needed for dance, he brought in his salsa and swing music (he danced salsa for many years in New York), and he taught the students that dance is integral to childhood. When kids became interested in running, he offered to help form a track team.
My father experiences the same freedom to imagine and create that the kids receive at Cornerstone. Each day in afterschool he watches how differences are overcome and friendships are formed. He observes the camaraderie the students develop through sports and play, the intricacies of communication styles in advocating play, and the emotional intelligence that develops in abundance. For these students, afterschool is a safe and fun place. For my dad, it is a place where magic happens. Not just every day but the ten-year cumulative effect—watching children come through that space, playing and creating imaginary worlds—has renewed my dad’s faith in the wonder of childhood.
Each time I come to visit Tallahassee (we no longer live here) and listen to his stories about Cornerstone and the children attending afterschool, I feel so happy. He may not realize it, but my father has found a second calling. Everyone who knows him realizes how much he loves the place.
Cornerstone has given my dad the freedom to recreate himself. This job has been an awesome gift. As a granddad of a certain age (you can all keep guessing), he has never before felt so young or vibrant. And I have never felt happier for him. Thank you, Cornerstone!