I like the idea that my thoughts are private- that a thought might become known only when I write it down or say it out loud. A “private thought” implies that  I can think a thing but do not have to act upon it. I can pretend I am not accountable for it. Thoughts, I think, do not count the way actions and words do.

Last week, when an autistic girl refused to get on the little yellow bus at the end of the school day, I got to re-assess the “private thought” theory.  I got called over the loud speaker to help in a bus situation. When I stepped onto this bus, I found the girl, the driver and the girl’s teacher, teeth clenched, spitting out curt phrases at one another. The girl, Martha, wouldn’t sit down, wouldn’t shut up, and wouldn’t wear the mandatory harness. Both the teacher and the driver leaned into this girl and even I could “hear” them cursing in their heads.

Then, Martha and I made eye contact. In that instant, what popped into my mind was how she and I knew each other. She had called my name during her talent show performance earlier that day. “You rock, Principal John.”

So, in the moment our eyes connected, I smiled and called out her name: Martha! It was spontaneous. Then she sat. She stuck her hands up so that I could slip on the harness that she had to wear. It took ten seconds.


What made Martha change? Could it be that the girl felt  the driver and the teacher sticking her with their thoughts?  What, then, did she feel when we made eye contact? So much for the privacy of thought.

An idea, even unspoken, exists. Real, sharp, biting – or gentle and loving. We lack ways to measure this truth, but there it is. Even if I refuse to admit what I’m thinking, it still shows up.

How far does this truth go? For example, when I write an incident report about a child, or when I think harsh things behind the closed doors of my office – when I speak unmeasured things to a confidante miles away, is there something that slips out and touches the target of my musings?.

In my grade school, all of the boys feared one teacher and went great lengths to avoid her. She spoke as if she were sinking and I can recall being puzzled at how such kind sounding words managed to come out of her mouth when I felt she was sticking me in the ribs. I can still picture her twisted smile. All of that stuff in her head got out, no doubt.

So we really can’t hide? Maybe not.

As within, so without. To pretend that I am not on full display is missing the point. What I do want to become is a pioneer of openness – to live as though everything – thoughts included – mattered and I might stand up and be counted for all of it.


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