Marcie Schellhammer

Sometimes an offhand remark, no matter how innocent, has the ability to cut like a knife.

The other day, a story was in The Era about the closing of St. Bernard School. Archbishop Walsh and Southern Tier Catholic School Principal Thomas Manko was quoted in the story about the number of children potentially attending the Olean, N.Y., school next year: “We’ll probably end up with 10, maybe 12 students (from Bradford) for this school year. The really nice thing is that these are quality children and families.”

That quote gave me pause, and didn’t sit well with a few community members to which I’ve spoken.

“Quality children.”

Umm … what?

I asked Manko to clarify, which he did, in a lengthy email praising the staff and students at St. Bernard’s as being warm and gracious, and explaining his comment was meant as a compliment and not a disparity against anyone.

“The experiences that I have had with the St. Bernard students, parents, administrator, faculty & staff have been wonderful,” Manko wrote, in part.

“Also, my comment was not meant to slight any non-St. Bernard families or children. All families and children are welcome at Archbishop Walsh & Southern Tier Catholic and together with our faculty, staff & administrators we create a dynamic and pleasant learning environment, both academically and socially.”

In speaking with St. Bernard parents and potential students of the Olean-based school system, Manko said, he was impressed with “the parents’ and child’s sincerity and commitment to receive a faith-based values and rigorous academic education that offers a variety of social growth opportunities. These conversations are very pleasant and enjoyable where we have an opportunity to know one another better.”

OK, that makes sense.

Perhaps it is because I’ve been in the news business for quite a few years, but when I read his initial comment, my mind went immediately to what the word quality means.

It’s a comparison. Merriam-Webster defines it as a degree of excellence, or as a social status.

To clarify, here, I am not a person who gets offended easily — or really, much at all. And I can’t say I was offended by what Manko had said, even before he clarified it.

Puzzled, I would say, was my reaction.

We have all heard people who bash others who rely on public assistance, or denigrate people who have substance abuse issues in their families. We’re familiar with people who hold others in disdain for poverty, disabilities, race or religion.

Thankfully that isn’t the case here.

My purpose in writing this column isn’t to call out Manko or the Catholic schools he represents.

My purpose is cautionary.

First, I am wholeheartedly against people jumping to conclusions and interpreting someone else’s meaning. The people with whom I had spoken regarding the comment were not condemning, but were hoping for clarity. In today’s world, where society tends to react and persecute first and disregard any effort toward reason, it’s a welcome reaction.

Second, I would offer a word of advice that I learned in Sunday school, singing “O Be Careful Little Eyes.” The words caution one to “be careful little mouth what you say.” This is easier said than done — I certainly know that. And we cannot control how people will interpret our words.

Third, a reminder to us all: Children come into this world a blank slate. They absorb the world around them at an astonishing pace. With proper care and guidance, a child can overcome a lot and may be the one person who brings to the world something amazing.

Albert Einstein had a bad attitude and was kicked out of schools. Richard Branson left school at 16, disinterested. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school.

Quality is everywhere. We just need to be open enough to see it.

Marcie Schellhammer is the Era’s assistant managing editor. She can be reached at