See that little effeminate dude in the pink shirt and plaid shorts? That’s me, age 5, in my first grade class photo. I can only guess that my mother let me dress myself. The adult in the picture is Dr. Judy Mudrey. She and her husband, Dr. Jim Mudrey, ran the school I attended from first grade through eighth grade. Originally it was called “Christian Academy of Learning” but over the years changed its name to “Grace Academy”. I was their second class of students to graduate.
On Sunday night, the Mudreys retired after 30 years. I attended a dinner that was put on by the parents organization at the school and filled with almost 200 people. Along with their daughter, Amanda (in the white flowered dress in the photo above), I was the oldest alumni there. I sat at a table populated by young teens in 8th and 9th grade and as I sat there, watching them talk and joke and roll their eyes, I thought “Was I really that young?”
I wasn’t sure what the agenda was going to be, but I wrote and memorized a short speech that I planned to give if the opportunity presented itself, which it did. After a few presentations by some of the classes, it was my turn. I walked up to the podium, looked over at Jim and Judy, sitting at a table with their children and grand-children, and was immediately transported back in time. It was like I was still five and eight and ten and thirteen, working my hardest to get the approval of my teachers. That time of my life was a time of innocence, of being sheltered and cared for, a time before I started high school and became exposed to parts of life that I never knew existed.
The Mudreys were like family to me. After I graduated from Grace Academy, I attended the same high school with Amanda, and we stayed in touch through college and into our adult life, even now. I would occasionally stop by the school and visit the Mudreys after classes were out, and even visited at home during the holidays.
Thinking of them as retirees is hard. They are some of the most active people I’ve ever known, always traveling and moving and doing something. It’s difficult to imagine the Mudreys not being educators and teachers and surrogate parents and friends and disciplinarians and guidance counselors and listeners and nursemaids and enforcers and every other role they fulfilled in creating and running Grace Academy for 30 years.
What will I be doing in 30 years? I don’t know, but I can only hope that when I retire, it’s after doing something I loved as deeply and truly as the Mudreys loved what they did.
Here is the speech I gave on Sunday night. It looks different than it sounded, obviously, but mainly because I got choked up at the last paragraph and couldn’t finish until I took a few seconds to myself. Didn’t expect that at all:
When I graduated from Christian Academy of Learning (which is what it will always be called to me) in 1990 at the age of 13, I think I knew it was the end of an era. An era that lasted eight years, to be precise. During that time, I learned how to think critically, how to write properly, and how to communicate effectively. I grew comfortable with challenging homework that made me think. I had discipline and structure at home and in school, and I was educated and surrounded by teachers and adults who legitimately cared about my success.
As I’ve matured and become an adult (well, kind of matured), I’ve reflected many times on the efforts that the both of you put into Grace Academy. The heavy workload, the guidance, and the discipline had a purpose, and every single one of your students has derived some benefit from those early years. Whether it’s our work ethic, our vocabulary, our level of success, or even our fear of talking loudly while standing in line, we, your students, have been shaped in a positive way by our experience with you.
You built an environment that was free from judgment, open to creativity, and geared towards the future. Each one of us graduated with the tools to do whatever we wanted in life, and that was in no small part thanks to you. You each took personal interests in each individual student, and that love and concern showed through your actions and efforts.
Look at me – I’m a lawyer, a salesman, a successful business owner, a writer, a reader, a stand-up comedian, and someone who always strives for success in every endeavor. As you can see, I’m extremely successful at eating, for example. I am also an individual who isn’t afraid to ask questions and push for answers instead of following anyone or anything blindly. I set my own path. Who knows what I would be if my formative years hadn’t been spent under your tutelage? From the bonding experiences at camp and on trips to the time spent practicing cursive while balancing a penny on my hand (which I think is called Tiger Mothering now), I am the person I am today thanks to the influences of my parents and thanks to you.
It’s with no small degree of sadness that I stand here today. While I don’t currently have children of my own (that I know of), it’s my goal to eventually have at least one. Or steal one from Madonna, because she has too many. And it was always my dream for them to learn and grow under the steady, calming, guiding hand of Judy and the steel, rigid, disciplined, terrifying hand of Jim. Instead, however, I will learn from the example that you have set and my household of potential, future, imaginary, fictional children will be filled with love, structure, guidance, and care, and maybe a giant Board of Education paddle as well.
Judy, Jim, the two of you were like a second set of parents to me. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done over the breadth of your careers. Both of you are amazing people, and I don’t think you realize exactly how many lives you’ve touched in so many positive ways. I love you both. Thank you.