Want to know what The Friends School of Atlanta is like? Ask Karen McMichael, known to her friends at FSA as Kaymac. She will be retiring as the school’s administrative assistant at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, but Kaymac’s Friends School journey started years before, when she and her husband decided to send their son, Ian, to FSA in 1998.
“Our son was at Georgia State University’s Child Development Center,” Kaymac recalled. “They recommended the Friends School for him, specifically because he wasn’t any trouble and he was [and still is] very bright. They felt he was going to fall through the cracks in the public schools. We visited FSA first, and to tell you the truth, we didn’t visit any other school.”
After Ian started attending, Kaymac volunteered her time and soon found that the culture fit her like a glove. She felt at home, so much so that when she was brought on staff full-time in 2001, the transition was virtually seamless.
She’s done a bit of everything over the years. She does website updates, performs some registrar work and helps with admissions in ways that coworkers identify as completely responsive, patient and effective in bringing calm to often stressful situations. She has taught word processing, Photoshop, jewelry making, among other subjects; and, as a teacher’s aid in reading, has experienced the joy of witnessing a child’s “aha” moment, the initial spark of understanding, of conquering a small hill, looking back with pride, and looking forward with confidence. “The squiggles on the page, the letters, now mean something to them,” she said. “It’s different with every child, but once you witness it, it’s something you never forget.”
“Kaymac’s smile and gentle nature was refreshing as well as encouraging to the children that she assisted with reading,” recalls long-time first grade teacher Celest Samas. “Her love of books has inspired generations of FSA first graders.”
The entire FSA experience is shaped by a kind of empathy that anyone associated with the school—staff, teachers, students, parents, alumni—knows very well. “Early on, working here and sending my son to school here, I learned about not judging people by my life. Consider what the other person’s life is like.” That is, she doesn’t judge someone based on her own life experiences, but instead tries to truly understand the complete context, and how the whole of a life shapes a person. It’s living the expression “knowing where the person is coming from,” but on a much deeper level.
This philosophy even lends itself to her teaching. Speaking about Kaymac’s jewelry-making middle school exploratory, 6th graders Katy and Paideia said, “Kaymac gives lots of freedom to express yourself, always makes space for laughter and responds right away when you need help.”
Living it comes through listening instead of waiting to talk. It also comes through feeling at home in silence, be it during class, silent meeting or during administrative staff meetings, where silence plays a key role. After someone expresses an opinion, everyone sits for a brief period of silence, allowing time to reflect on what was just said. That builds understanding, reinforces empathy, and buttresses FSA’s unique, enduring community.
“I’ve loved this place since the first day my son started school here, and I’ve never stopped learning. It’s such an amazing community.”
Those who have worked side by side with Kaymac in the administration, whether for decades or just a few years, are not sure how to move forward without her capable, reassuring presence. “It would be impossible to innumerate all of the ways that our beloved Kaymac has served the school community,” according to Waman French, Head of School. “Speaking personally, Kaymac has provided the ultimate support during some very difficult times as well as joyous ones.”
Likewise, Nancy Bent, Director of Advancement, shared, “Kaymac is so utterly reliable, so meticulous with detail, so unflagging in her willingness to serve however she is needed. I will dearly miss partnering with her on the work of the school.”
Kaymac may be retiring this year, but she—like all the students, staff, teachers, and alums who have passed through The Friends School’s doors—will never stop being part of the FSA community.
By Tim Heston
Tim Heston has written for business magazines since 1996. He’s won some awards here and there, but his greatest achievement is being the proud parent of an FSA fifth grader.