By Holland Landy
On the morning of June 27, 2017, I was about a week into my summer break, sitting on my couch having my morning coffee when news broke that Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Commissioner Mitchell Chester had passed away. He had been appointed to the Massachusetts state board of education as its Commissioner in 2008. At that time, like most Massachusetts teachers, I knew very little about him. I just came to work, did my best for students, and never really got involved with who was at the helm at the DESE headquarters up in Malden.
In March 2009, Commissioner Chester was on the verge of declaring my school district of Fall River ‘level 5’ and having the state take it over. The whole city, including me, now knew who he was as we were all on edge trying to figure out what kind of heart the Commissioner had and what steps he would take that could ultimately change the game for all of us.
And he spared us. Very soon thereafter he gave our district the chance to commit to a recovery plan that he and his team had approved. In time, we worked hard as a district and because of the second chance he had given us, we became stronger and better as a collective district.
But presently, Chester said, “it’s a much more professional committee, more focused on what’s important. And I’ve watched the school district improve as a result. It’s a real success story. (buyfallrivernow.com)
This was the first impression—and experience— I had with Commissioner Chester and I will never forget it. He was willing to give us a chance to get better. And we did.
Commissioner Chester was known by many to be a no-nonsense type of guy. While many disagreed with him—and even feared him, I always looked at him and his department as a forgiving entity that truly had the best interest of kids in mind.
Massachusetts is number one and leading the country in education and most others are trying to follow suit. I credit this success to the teachers and staff of the state but also to the bold leadership coming out of Malden, led by Commissioner Chester.
On June 27th, his death shocked me and I began to reflect on what he had done for me personally, in my own life, away from the textbooks and the classroom. In 2012, due to my substance abuse and battle with addiction, I made some terrible errors in judgement that ultimately led to my departure from my district. I felt my whole career was over and that I was nothing but a lifeless failure of an educator. With my license and career in limbo, I took some time off to let it settle in that I had screwed up so bad that my career was over. But it wasn’t.
In 2015, Commissioner Chester and his team put any licensure and decisions related to my employment on hold until I showed them that I was serious about putting forth a solid and committed recovery effort. I had to promise that I’d comply with a corrective plan of action. Much like Commissioner Chester did for my former district in 2009, he gave me, personally, a second chance in 2015.
I took the Commissioner’s opportunity as a one time opportunity to clean my act up before it lead to the end of a career that I loved. Commissioner Chester had put the ball in my court and it was all mine to either run with, or lose. I’ll never forget the department of education telling me that “mistakes are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them.” Chester and his team encouraged and supported me in taking any step necessary to do what was needed to get my life right so that I could be an asset to the many children he had tasked me to serve.
In September of 2015, I received the call of my lifetime. The department of education called to tell me that they were reinstating my educator status with them so long as I continued the work I had been doing. On that day God worked through Commissioner Chester and the Department through mercy, forgiveness, grace, and the belief in second chances. I was so grateful and I expressed my gratitude by working hard and proving to the state that I was capable of correcting my past mistakes.
This week I celebrate two and a half years of sobriety. I am strong, and healthy and more determined than ever to never repeat the failures and poor judgments of my past.
Commissioner Chester is no longer here with us, and that is a huge loss. But one thing is certain as he watches down from above as I look up:
Commissioner, this man to whom you you gave a second chance, will not let you down. I will forever owe you and your department a debt of gratitude for the enormous gift you gave me by giving me another shot to get this life right. My dreams of teaching are a reality and live on today and you had a lot to do with that. Thank you for choosing not to give up on me.
God Bless you and Rest Forever Easy Sir.
East Falmouth, MA
Holland Landy is currently a 5th grade teacher at West Broadway Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island. He has written about his struggle with addiction and now works to ‘pay it forward’ by helping others avoid the mistakes he made.