OAK PARK, Ill. - Thursday was the last day of school at Oak Park's Beye Elementary, and 6-year-old Matias Best didn't want to go.
Matias is on the autism spectrum, and transitions can be a challenge. Transitioning from the school year to summer break felt a little daunting that day, and so, he declared, he would not be going.
"I knew it was going to be a tough morning for him when I had to get him out of bed at 7, and he said, 'I am not going to school. It's the last day, and I am not going. Period,' " his mom, Laura Best, told me. "He talks like a little adult when he wants to make a point."
She and her husband, Neil, carried on, getting their other son ready for school and out the door. She walked Matias' twin brother, Evan, to school and noticed one of Matias' teachers on the playground. The teacher asked about Matias, and Best explained that he was still at home with his dad, struggling to leave for school that morning.
"I said, 'Can we FaceTime him?' " Best said. " 'Maybe when he sees you, he'll turn it around.' "
They called him. He wasn't budging.
"She was using all her tools and her bag of tricks to get him to talk," Best said.
Then Mr. E, the principal, walked by.
"I was out and about after the bell rang, and I happened to overhear mom and the resource teacher FaceTiming, trying to get Mati here," Jonathan Ellwanger (Mr. E) said. "So I just joined in."
Matias lit up.
"He said, 'Mr. E, why are you on the phone?' " Best said. " 'You're calling my house?' "
Ellwanger asked Matias if he'd like to know what was on the lunch menu that day. He asked Matias if he'd like to come join them for the last day of school.
"Then out of the blue, Mr. E says, 'Well, buddy. Would it help if I just walk over to your house and pick you up to go to school? I've never been to your house!' " Best said. "And Matias is like, 'Yeah! Yeah, that would work! Daddy, is that OK?' "
Mr. E asked Matias if he knew his address. Matias did. Mr. E told him he'd be right over.
"I know that often a little grease for the wheels is all that somebody needs," Ellwanger said. "A little change of pace. A new face. I just offered to get him unstuck, and in this instance, that was the little bit of grease that was needed."
Beye Elementary is a K-5 grade school of around 370 students. I asked Ellwanger if he and Matias had a special bond or a set of experiences he was drawing on in that moment.
"He's just one of our Beye School Bobcats," Ellwanger said. "Every principal I know would have done what I did. Every teacher here at Beye School would've certainly done that same thing if they had the freedom, liberty and time to go walk down the block."
A few minutes after the call, Ellwanger was at Matias' door, ready to escort his formerly reluctant charge to his final day of first grade.
"Once we were unstuck and we were on our way, it was just the two of us talking," Ellwanger said. "Just shooting the breeze. We talked about what he's going to be doing this summer. We talked about what we're going to be having for lunch. We talked about our days."
Ellwanger is retiring after one more year at Beye. He's been with the school since 1987, first as a music teacher and, for the last 18 years, as the principal. He grew up in Milwaukee and attended Northwestern University. He planned to become a high school choral conductor, but he fell in love with Beye and never left.
"I was just so touched because it really takes a village," Best said. "My kiddo was going to miss the last day of school. At the end of the day, he would've realized he missed the last day, and then it would've been too late."
Matias' dad snapped a photo of Matias and his principal walking to school. Matias' mom posted it on Facebook with a little story about the encounter. Comments, likes and loves poured in.
"For all of us, little things are big things," Ellwanger told me. "This is a little thing, but it's what we do and, hopefully, describes what we are trying to be about as a school."
What a beautiful example of humanity - guided by kindness, proceeding with grace. We can all follow that lead.
The little things are big things. I love that.
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