When Principal Linda Kehm says “Lakeside Elementary” in front of her students, the response is automatic:
“Where kindness counts!” comes the chorus of voices.
The first day of school marked a new beginning following a year-long battle for Kehm, 60, who has served as principal for 20 years. “I thought this day would never come,” she said, recalling early August preparation when the building felt empty without children. She eagerly awaited their arrival.
Her enthusiasm and love for her staff and students shines. She’s the kind of principal who makes the rounds in the cafeteria to say hello. She says the 40 years she’s spent as an educator don’t feel like enough. She recalls teaching severely emotionally impaired children as a joyous experience. She sees the star potential in every child.
Her goals are simple: She wants children to understand kindness and “read a zillion books.”
Continuing a storied career
Kehm is back full-time after taking most of last year off while she received treatment for cancer. She was diagnosed after routine surgery last August and had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. Her husband, Bill Rich, retired Thornapple Kellogg Public Schools McFall Elementary principal, filled her seat while she was recovering. She returned part-time last spring.
Superintendent Sara Shubel said Kehm is truly an inspiration for the students and staff.
“My admiration for Linda grew last year as I watched how she handled this life challenge. Her love for the Lakeside students and staff and her professionalism as an educator never faulted,” Shubel said.
Kehm shares the many pearls of wisdom she has developed over the decades at Lakeside and in her several teaching positions prior, including Northview Public Schools and Grand Rapids Public Schools. But she has a newly acquired perspective developed through living life with cancer and facing fear.
She sees herself as more thoughtful, reflective, grateful and ready to celebrate each special moment in her students’ day.
“It’s just a beautiful, beautiful profession,” she said. “I’m just so lucky. I got my 20-year pin (marking her anniversary as Lakeside principal,) and I felt so honored to be entrusted with impacting the lives of children and improving them.”
Fifth-grader Trey Bolling cheered her return with his peers. “It feels really great. I felt really bad for her that she had to go through all of that. She’s making a great recovery,” Trey said. “She’s the best principal I ever had.”
Teacher Karen Sullivan has taught at Lakeside since Kehm started as principal. She said Kehm is supportive and goes the distance to meet the need of students in a warm and engaging way.
Kehm said she chose to “keep it real” and not to wear a wig when she lost her long blonde hair during treatment as a way to teach students about diversity and being different. “First graders love seeing her new hair growing in and will often comment that it looks as soft as a kitten’s hair,” Sullivan said.
Reflection and recovery
While Kehm recovered she had a lot of time to think. She watched the Canadian geese float along the Thornapple River and thought about how they always protect their young. She sees the parallels of her job with nature: Show kids positive role models and teach them to to fly unafraid by showing them the way.
She’s also sees herself as a watchdog, working to preserve childhood in a society where so many children have to grow up too fast. All children can benefit from nurturing, she said. “Kids really are kids wherever you go,” she said.
Kehm, who is swimming for 40 minutes at this time in her recovery, said she’s feeling good and just keeps moving forward.
Sullivan said Kehm’s love of reading and ability to spread kindness is contagious.
“We wouldn’t be Lakeside without her,” she said.
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