“I fell in love with a little girl named Claire who lived in a house made out of whatever wood they could find and tar paper in a garbage dump,” said Cripps, who is retiring May 23 after seven years as Head of School at Marietta’s Eastside Christian. “She had never been into the town, which was about a quarter mile from where she lived.”
Fifty years ago this summer, Cripps was fresh out of high school and hot on the path of a medical career. She got the chance to work at a Head Start program, and that small girl in Cleveland, Tenn., at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, wound up sending Cripps into education, instead.
She worked with the girl all summer. Toward the end, a simple trip to the ice cream parlor proved unforgettable for both of them. Tasting ice cream for the very first time, four-year-old Claire’s confused senses initially told her it was hot. Then, as the sweetness registered, she fell in love. Cripps did too.
When the afternoon ended the girl said, “Please let me stay here with you.” Cripps lost track of the girl over the years, but Claire has, in fact, stayed with her the entire half-century since they parted ways. Cripps was inspired to spark that same desire for learning in every child.
A million stories later, thousands of lives touched along the way, Cripps will step out of the classroom for good this month.
From then until now
To listen to her coworkers and students tell it, Cripps’ influence on children sits in equal measure to Claire’s influence on her.
“She’s done so many things for our school and enriched not only the children but the staff here,” said Lynne Floyd, who works in admissions and development at Eastside. “She’s impacted the children in a personal way.”
Though she’s the top administrator at Eastside, a K-8 private school on Lower Roswell Road with 350 students and 40 staff members, she’s never far from the classroom. Her job includes the option to teach any time she wants and she’s on a first-name basis with almost the entire student body.
“I’ve always been a teacher at heart,” Cripps said.
Eastside is known for its sports and drama programs, and Cripps added that the school has individualized instruction along with a small size that allows most everyone in the building to know each other.
As part of her sending off, Eastside students were asked to write Twitter-length sentences about Cripps. Younger grades offered humor along the lines of “Kids Say the Dandiest Things.” They completed the sentence “When Mrs. Cripps retires she can” with phrases like “sleep in,” “watch TV in her jammies,” “go to Florida,” “go to the beach,” “move and groove!,” “get a pet tadpole” and “watch TV and have popcorn in pajamas and a hat.”
But older kids offered the kinds of memories one might not expect them to associate with a school principal.
“I remember when she tied my shoes in second grade,” wrote sixth-grader Davis Eaton.
Eighth-grader Michael Buice said the best word to describe Cripps is “joyful.”
Far from the brooding headmaster one might see in the movies, seventh-grader Emma Gallagher talked about her personal connection and the things she’s learned from Cripps.
“When you say ‘educator,’ it’s someone who teaches someone else something and makes an impact on their lives,” she said. “She gives me great advice and she’s talked me through a lot of situations with my friends or with other people. If I’ve ever had problems with friends or something she’s shown me what to do in that situation.”
That doesn’t mean things always have to be serious.
“I took a selfie with her yesterday,” Emma said with a laugh. She said Cripps knows how to have fun just as well as she knows how to give serious life lessons.
“The very best thing about being a professional educator is the children,” Cripps said. “I will miss the voices of little ones singing ‘God our Father’ as a lunchtime prayer, the excitement of sports, teaching reader’s and writer’s workshops and the hundreds of freely given hugs in the hallways. And I will forever treasure the relationships of a lifetime.”
History in Cobb and what’s next
Cripps taught in public schools at the beginning of her career. When the church she attended, Mt. Paran Church, began to expand its Christian school, she decided to make the switch.
“I saw it as an opportunity to be there and be able to talk about my faith openly every day,” she said.
Since then, she’s taught at East Cobb Christian and North Cobb Christian in addition to Eastside.
Cripps’ journey also included a few years off to help with family. She has three sons with her husband, William. They are Gary, who works for Wal-Mart corporate, Todd, a pastor at Vinings Lake Church, and Joshua, who restores antique cars. The Cripps’ sons are married to Katie, Trina and Staci, respectively. Grandchildren are Asher, Evelyn, Cassie, Kathie Diane, Cora and Lucy.
Even as she moves to Ellijay in retirement, she won’t leave the education field. Besides spending time with her grandchildren, Cripps will fly around the world as an external review team member for the Association of Christian Schools International and for AdvancEd, formerly called the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. She’ll travel in two-week increments to review schools, many of them overseas, as they present documentation for school accreditation.
A million stories
The 45 years of Cripps’ career in education have left her with so many stories. It doesn’t take much to get her to tell one.
There are stories about former athletes, about students who overcame hardships, students who she still keeps in touch with decades after they left her care. These days, she works with the children of former students and, increasingly, with the children’s children.
Over the years, she’s found that the students who went through some kind of dilemma are the ones that stay in touch.
Reaching for the bookshelf in her office, Cripps begins the story of a student who saw tremendously tough times in her North Cobb Christian 4th grade class.
The girl’s college-aged brother died in a motorcycle accident that year. Cripps learned of it through a phone call and, though it was during the summer, the girl had told family members she wanted to see her teacher.
They spent two hours together that day, comforting each other. Knowing how much the girl loved poetry, Cripps asked her to write.
“On my way there, I spontaneously stopped and bought her a journal and a pen,” she said. “I said, ‘Jennifer, you and your brother had a great relationship.’ I said, ‘I know you played tricks on each other. Write down the tricks. Write down the things that made you laugh. Write down how unfair this is and how angry you are and how hurt you are. And every time you think of him, write something down.’”
That girl struggled for years. She missed her brother; she wanted to be where he was. But she knew, through what Cripps and others taught her, there was something bigger than both of them and that eventually they would be reunited.
Two years ago, Chele Manton, Cripps’ longtime administrative assistant, put a meeting on her calendar with a question mark next to it. Every time she asked, Manton would say she couldn’t remember, she’d forgotten what it was.
Manton’s poker face worked well enough, but when Cripps’ saw a beautiful, blonde-haired girl walk into her office, it didn’t long to figure things out.
“I passed her and said, ‘Are you Jennifer?’” Cripps said. “She said yes, came in and sat down. We had a conversation and before she left she handed me her book that she had just published.
The girl, Jennifer Shirley, was in college by then and published a book called “The Rest is Still Unwritten.” She gave her mom the first copy. She gave Cripps, her fourth-grade teacher, the second copy.
“Mrs. Cripps showed me that it is okay to be upset and angry as long as I did not let it consume me,” Shirley wrote in describing her book. “She showed me a way to channel my emotions, which helped me greatly.”
Shirley still has the journal Cripps gave her.
The experience touched Cripps, like so many others have.
She’s amazed each year watching the new kindergarteners in the morning assembly. When worship starts the first day of school, they can’t read the song lyrics on the screen. But sometime around October they start picking up the words. By May, all of them can read.
“I think it’s such a reflection that God chose to honor us in his image by allowing us to communicate with one another through the very thing he gave to us — his word,” Cripps said.
Those moments make up the story of Judith Cripps.
“Everyone has an amazing story,” she said. “That we’re born OK is an amazing story. We have great experiences. We have things that sorrow us so greatly we can hardly breathe. All of those things are amazing stories, and we all have one. It’s what we decide to do with it that’s the treasure of life.”