From 1994 to 1999, I had the privilege and honor of being principal of Lewisville Middle School in Moncton, NB, Canada. Oh, how I loved that school and my job. I cannot say enough about the amazing teachers and the hard work and success with our students that we experienced together. When I think about my days at Lewisville, I know that I learned many lessons there about leadership and school improvement in general. Still, to this day, when I am working as a school improvement coach, my thoughts often go back to that school when I am trying to think of an example or a situation that might help a principal or teacher understand what is needed. This week’s blog is dedicated to the memory of someone whom I met during those years at LMS, Mr. Philip Riteman. His impact on me as a young principal and mother of two will never be forgotten…
Mr. Riteman passed away last Wednesday, August 8, in Halifax, after a life full of emotional contrasts. If you had the opportunity to spend time with him, you would soon understand that he had so many stories of survival, tragedy and of course, love and happiness as well. Philip was a Holocaust survivor. He was number 98706, as his prison tattoo reminded him every day of his life. It was only in the 80’s that he actually began telling his story from those days. As his son Larry told the media this past week, “He got out and he told people what he endured. And he relived it every time he told it…it was clear he had seen something absolutely awful”. Anyone reading this who had the privilege of hearing Philip speak would know exactly what Larry means. He could not speak about his experience without the emotions. They were raw and they were real and his message genuinely and passionately delivered each and every time…”It is better to love than to hate.” (https://www.ctvnews.ca/…/holocaust-survivor-philip-riteman-dies-at-age-96-1.4045898)
I remember the first time he came to Lewisville Middle to speak to my students. We had several gang related incidents in our city and I was contacted and asked if I would like to have Mr. Riteman visit the school. I had never met him but I knew that I wanted my students to experience many opportunities to learn from others. As I sat in the gymnasium with five hundred middle school students, I can honestly remember being nervous about how my students might react to him. Would they be respectful? Would he have their attention? (middle school students and the word attention often do not go hand-in-hand.) I just wanted it to go well. From his first words to his last sentence, there was absolute silence in the room. His story was spell-binding and when he finished, the students did not want him to leave.
It wasn’t just his story-telling ability; Philip used every opportunity that he had in his life to speak about love. He reminded my students that, no matter what was happening with others, it is always better to love than hate. I had the chance to visit Philip and his lovely wife, Dorothy in their home a few times. We always had great conversations about things happening in the world and despite the scenarios, Philip would always bring the dialogue back to his very strong opinion that love would change the world. I know this sounds cliché and we all might say this often, but Philip lived it each and every day.
One time after I left his home, I remember thinking about how difficult it must be for him to live his life with love instead of anger. I knew that he had to feel anger and profound sadness. His parents and seven brothers and sisters were among the millions of people killed in the Holocaust. He survived two concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau. And, if he could live his life focused on a positive mindset, I sure knew that I could do that too.
As I think about my work as a school improvement coach, I know that being able to believe in people, despite the challenges, is critically important. I remind my principals and teachers every day, that, they have to believe in their own abilities and the abilities of their students. It is so easy to fall back in to, what might be a comfort zone, of thinking that things cannot get better or seeing people through a dark and gloomy lens. That will not work for us if we intend to improve the lives of our students.
I want to end by telling you that Philip also shared some great stories about his first days in Newfoundland and Labrador (emigrated in 1946 when the war ended). Speaking very little English and building a career as a salesman/business owner brought its challenges but he smiled his way through. Even before he was helping all of us understand his core message, he was living it. He made me laugh and he made me cry. And, mostly, he made me think. In fact, Philip is always with me. His message of love, not hate is forever in my mind. For more reading about this amazing person, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Riteman. Thank you for being here with me. See you next Saturday.