The world lost a true hero recently, Detective Steven McDonald of the New York City Police Department. Detective McDonald was an amazing man who, in his words and in his life, embodied character and a belief in the inherent goodness of people. In my career as an educator, I was privileged to have had a small association with this paragon of faith and perseverance.
In addition to our academic disciplines, as teachers we are continuously challenged to teach students life skills, social emotional literacies and good character. We do this through direct instruction and in the ways in which we conduct ourselves in front of kids. I have met scores of educators who embodied these qualities but few of us have endured the circumstances that Detective McDonald experienced in his life. He was on patrol on July 12, 1986, when he spotted a teenage bicycle thief and two others in Central Park. When he moved to frisk one of them, one of the other youths shot McDonald three times, with one bullet piercing the officer’s spinal column, paralyzing him for life. His wife was three months pregnant at the time of the shooting.
About six months later, McDonald made a statement that defined the rest of his life: “I forgive him and hope he can find peace and purpose in his life.” His generosity and spirit inspired people across New York and around the world. He devoted the next 30 years of his life to helping others. “I’ve learned there’s more stories of love and forgiveness than there are street corners in our city. There are many stories,” McDonald said in an interview in Dec. 2016.
I first met Steven when I was a teacher in Queens, New York. I aspired to be a “teacher leader” and was developing the skills and the temperament to assume a formal role in school administration. I implemented at my school a parent volunteer program. Parents came to school and tutored kids in need of support. Through an organization that trained my volunteers, I developed a contact with Detective McDonald, who came to my school and spoke to kids in an assembly.
Steven’s mission was to leave my kids with two powerful messages:
- The most powerful and liberating thing you can do is forgive others. When you harbor anger towards another person this diminishes you. To forgive others liberates us and makes us stronger, greater, and more righteous.
- Every one of us is different in our own way and every one of us is special.
You could’ve heard a pin drop when Steven read to our kids a poem which began:
In all the world there is nobody like you.
Since the beginning of time, there has never been another person like you,
Nobody has your smile, your eyes, your hands, your hair.
Nobody owns your handwriting, your voice.
(I was moved when I read in one of his obituaries that he read this same poem at a precinct in Washington Heights, just a month before he passed away.)
Fast-forward about five years. I was the assistant principal in a nearby school district on Long Island. Knowing how powerful Detective McDonald’s message was for my kids in Queens, I reached out to him to come speak at my new school. Again, Steven’s message of forgiveness and love was poignant, righteous and irreducible. Members of our staff were moved to tears; students and adults thanked me for arranging for Steven to come to our school. It was deeply humbling to me when, following the assembly program, many kids told me how lucky I was that Steven was my friend, simply because I’d arranged for him to speak at the school. This is how middle school kids see the world, “You introduced Detective McDonald at the assembly, so he must be your friend.”
There was an expression in late 19th century America that referred to the great heavyweight boxing champion of the age, “Let me shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan”. This saying became a cultural catchphrase in the late 1800s. You can look up its origin but this axiom, despite it’s whimsical connotation, was meant to describe the intense experience of simply shaking the hand of a person who had once shook the hand of a great man like Sullivan.
This is exactly how I feel about my association with Detective Steven McDonald. He was one of the greatest individuals I have ever had the opportunity to meet in person. He had a significant influence on my life and, through his visits to schools throughout the metropolitan region, he profoundly impacted the lives of countless children. I was privileged to have met him only a handful of times but I am so proud of my connection with him and sad at the news of his passing. In my own life I will honor him by focusing on the ideals upon which he lived his life: forgiveness and the inherent goodness of all people.