Every once in a while, we meet someone who leaves a lasting impression on our lives. It might be a chance encounter or a side comment from a lifelong friend that leaves its mark. We never know what influence our actions and words have on others.
For example, a stranger gave me a ride to the airport today when I was stranded, so I could get home to my girls. I feel a huge debt of gratitude to her and know I won't ever be able to pay her back. I can only pay it forward for someone else.
Kindnesses extended to strangers can change the mood of an entire day for the recipient and for the provider. That's the thing about reaching out to help others - it is just as rewarding to you as it is to the person whose life you touch.
Wheeling Country Day School was honored and privileged to have someone who reached out to help our children and our teachers and parents every day for 24 years. I only had the privilege of working with Frank Maltese for five years, but I came to know very quickly how many lives he touched every day. When we arrived on campus, Frank had been there before us. Small nuisances were taken care of, lights were on and rooms were warm. I could greet students every morning with a smile because Frank had started my day that way.
Every person I was kind to compounded his kindness to me, and I was only one of many people whose day started better because of Mr. Frank. The math is fuzzy, but that means there are hundreds of people every day whose lives were touched by him - multiply that by 24 years and the number becomes staggering. And 24 years was only his time at WCDS, a job he loved after he retired from his "real" job.
Before Frank passed away, he left our students a large note on his workshop door that read, "Thank you WCDS family for the 24 years you put up with me." He was grateful to them. After all he had done, he was grateful to them. Children were surprised he was thanking them. One of them even commented to me: "We should be the ones saying thank you. He did so much for us for longer than I have been alive."
Gratitude is a funny thing - it is humbling. It makes us aware that no man is an island. We teach children the manners to say "thank you," but let's make sure we teach them true gratitude and, therefore, true humility, too. It is obviously a life lesson Mr. Frank left to the students at WCDS.
I had the chance to say thanks to Frank personally last December, but I whisper it again on my breath every morning when I walk into my office. Even after he is gone, he starts my day on a positive note, and impacts all those I see every day. Frank chose to see the best in people - kindness won the day.
In his honor, I will remember to choose kindness and express gratitude. After all, the children are paying attention to my actions and my words even when I don't realize it. We never know the influence the smallest gesture might have.
Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 5 and 9.