Ralph Waldo Emerson receives credit for saying, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer."
Recently a tense five-minute period resulted in a school principal earning hero status—to me, at least.
During afternoon recess, a man appeared at the edge of an elementary school's property and tried to enter through the fence. When alert staff members approached him, he would not talk to them and, instead, began trying to open a side door into the school. The principal immediately implemented the school's lockdown procedure to protect the students. Everything up to this point followed standard procedures. Then the amazing five minutes began.
A parent who happened to be volunteering in the school could see the man outside the glass door and recognized him as a mentally challenged person who lives near the school and regularly attends her church. This description made the situation even more anxious: a man, with confirmed (although not fully understood) issues, trying to enter a school. Call CNN. Anderson Cooper should board a jet, now.
When she shared this information with the principal, he took an unexpected approach, one that completely ignores what all media sources would report as the appropriate path through such clear and present danger. He gently engaged the near-intruder who stood outside the door, and asked him why he wanted to come into the school. That's when the principal discovered that this confused man needed simple help.
Compassion was allowed to trump fear. "The time is always right to do what is right," Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. The principal opened the door and helped the man. A few moments later, the man was on his way home. Tell Anderson to turn the jet around; there's no story here.
Or maybe there really is something worth reporting.
In today's world, horrific events have ushered in many new cautions. And I neither disagree with strong safety procedures nor dismiss the evil that has taken place in schools, public places, neighborhoods, and elsewhere. I wholeheartedly agree with the principal's decision to follow procedures and protect the children first.
But caution, when allowed to expand unchecked into the extreme, can extinguish compassion. If everyone is afraid of everyone, no one will help anyone. Okay, let's whittle that exaggeration down by focusing solely on the fear of people who look and act different. Is that altogether uncommon?
That's why this principal deserves hero status. He did the right thing (protecting the children) and continued to do the right thing—helping a person in need. When he didn't need to. When many would have counseled him against it. But a man who just wanted some help stood in front of him and he responded in a manner that likely made heaven proud.
Because love happened—as in "Love your neighbor as yourself."
A difficult command to follow, no doubt. Especially when your neighbor looks and acts different. What would you have done? I'm not sure I know how to honestly answer that question. That's why I wrote this column. I don't want fear of people to ever paralyze my ability to help people, whether it's on an upcoming mission to trip to Haiti, on an errand to the mall, or on a walk through the neighborhood.
Martin Luther King, Jr. also said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
In just five minutes one day last week, an elementary school principal measured up well—even though no one noticed.