|Up close, a full-sized flag is surprisingly large.|
“Make the other person feel important, and do it sincerely.”
–Dale Carnegie, Principle #9
In 1998, Ontario’s Education Minister Dave Johnson was preparing to release the province’s new Kindergarten curriculum – the first update since the early 1950s. It had been two years in the making and was considered a pure “good-news announcement” during a tumultuous period of education reform.
We identified an elementary school in Rexdale. I knew if I simply placed a call to the school and asked if we could have the launch event there, the principal would be likely to just say “No.”
Instead, I asked only for an appointment. I drove out to the school, prepared to make my pitch. When I entered the principal’s office, a room full of women were waiting for me – teachers from kindergarten and early elementary grades had been invited too.
They had issues with the Mike Harris government. They had issues with the way teachers were being portrayed in the media. They had issues…but, they also had hope.
“I don’t agree with a lot of what your government is doing,” one kindergarten teacher noted. “But, I can’t see anything bad about this announcement. And our kids…this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them. I would hate to have them miss this chance.”
And so we were able to carefully negotiate an event. The teachers suggested the audience be kids from Grades One and Two, as those kids are already much more mature than the 4 and 5 year olds in kindergarten. “The kindergartners won’t be able to sit still for five minutes, and there could be crying,” was their logic. I appreciated the intelligence.
“We know this is a media event, but will the kids be able to ask questions too?” another teacher wanted to know. Yes, we could set that up, I promised.
“Will the minister bring the kids a present?” another teacher asked. “These kids have nothing. A gift exchange would be very important to them.” Yes, I promised, we could arrange that.
The day of the event, hundreds of small children lined the hallway, waiting to greet the minister. Their joy and excitement was palpable; but it could not compare to the energy in the library where the announcement would be made.
There, classes of Grade One and Two students were sitting cross-legged on the floor. They were fascinated by the rows of cameras set up across the back of the room. As the teachers had warned, even these older kids could barely sit still with all the excitement. Behind the cameras stood the Education staffers accompanying us to the event, including Linda Zavarella, Education’s Events Planner, and John Capobianco, our very-Tory office MPP liaison.
Dave Johnson took a seat at the front of the room and began talking with the kids. He explained to them that Ontario had done a lot of work to develop the best way for kids in kindergarten to learn so that they would be ready for grade one, knowing their letters and numbers and other important things. He made pretty quick work of the announcement, answered reporter questions, and then we opened the floor to the kids.
“The kids have made a present for you,” their teacher informed him. One of the kids came forward with a book of poetry, one poem written by each child in the class, and hand-bound with a special cover. Every child in the room was squirming with pride as he accepted the gift.
“Does anyone want to ask the minister a question?” the teacher went on. I held my breath, worried the kids would be too shy to speak up. I need not have worried.
“Do you like reading?” the first question came without hesitation.
“Oh, yes, reading is a very important part of my job. I read a lot, every day,” Dave answered.
“What is your favourite book?” was the next question.
The response was absolute, impromptu political genius.
“This one!” Dave replied, holding up the hand-made book he had just been given. “This is my new, favourite book!”
An outburst of delight swept the room. The kids’ pride in their work and excitement that someone so important loved their poems was clearly now one of the highlights of their existence. It took several moments for noise to abate.
Meanwhile, Dave came up with his next brainwave.
“Let’s read a poem from this book,” he suggested. Dave opened the book to a random page and looked at name at the bottom. “Let’s read this poem by…Tory. Tory, do you want to read it with me?”
A scream erupted at the back of the class as a little girl leapt to her feet, ran to the front of the room and hurtled herself onto the minister’s lap. The TV cameras were rolling, eating up every second of it.
Together, Dave and Tory read the hand-written words on the page.
At the back of the room, John Capobianco was wide-eyed in disbelief.
“Rita, that was amazing! Did we set that up?”
I laughed out loud. “Are you kidding? I could not have set that up if I tried.”
After the poetry reading, Dave gave the kids his gift – he unfurled a brand new, full-sized, gleaming Ontario flag for the kids to hang in their classroom. The kids gasped in awe – full-sized flags are actually quite large, and the crimson and gold colours seemed to pop right off the fabric. The teachers were nodding in appreciation – apparently we had picked exactly the right gift.
The kids filed back to their classrooms, buzzing with excitement. Linda and I packed up supplies. Had that actually just happened? I asked myself. On top of every other perfect detail, he opened the book to a poem written by a girl named Tory?
This event still stands out as one of the best I ever managed; from start to finish, the entire announcement had been an exercise in making people feel important.