By Erika Webb
Ease accompanies Dr. Betty Creamer into a room. This might explain the delighted clamoring of a classroom full of eighth graders to gather 'round the St. Barnabas Episcopal School Head of School for a photo.
That or the momentary reprieve from a biology test.
The middle school students' reactions to the "principal's" unexpected appearance were a refreshing mixture of adoration and respect.
The Snoopy tie she wore spoke volumes about her approachability.
Dr. Creamer was hired by St. Barnabas in November. At that time she was working in Nigeria where she was head of an international school. Prior to that, she was head of an international school in Casablanca, Morocco.
She expected to be in Morocco for a long time, but visa limitations in the aftermath of the Arab Spring -- a less-than-smooth, or complete, transition from the old authoritarian rule to a new democratic order -- brought a change of plans.
"Not only am I pleased to be at St. Barnabas, but I'm pleased to be in my own country," Dr. Creamer said.
When former Head of School Karen Lyons prepared to retire, a wide search for a new school leader was conducted.
Parents and educators wanted the students to have a broader educational experience.
Who better to oversee that broadening than a woman who has traveled to around 30 countries, absorbing aspects of countless cultures and myriad traditions along the way?
"I want to teach them to appreciate different cultures and to be able to interact with people and go places without fear, be comfortable in a place where people speak another language," Dr. Creamer said.
Tolerance is too mere a message for this theologian.
"It's not so much about tolerance, as in 'OK, I'll live with this,'" she said. "I'd rather see (students) celebrate others, ask others 'What is this holiday you celebrate? Why do you do this?'"
Even in our own country, Dr. Creamer noted, there are different traditions and ways of celebrating Christmas -- from when people attend services to when they open presents or what they eat for the holiday meal.
"Even how they decorate the Christmas tree becomes a tradition," she said.
A bond is formed via awareness when children are able to talk about traditions, exchange information about differences or similarities, in their school day, she said.
"In Casablanca, every classroom looked out over the Atlantic Ocean so one of the activities for PE was surfing," Dr. Creamer said.
There, graduating students were trilingual, fluent in English, French and Arabic.
"Today all classes were taught in English. Tomorrow in French," she explained. "It was not unusual to see a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American switch to Arabic to speak to another student in the lunch line."
"Kids are alike and different. We're all part of our culture," Dr. Creamer said. "They're all creative, eager and wonderful in their own ways. At the same time they're different because their families and cultures are different."
Dr. Creamer who also has worked in Japan and Korea said students who spend one year living in another country return "easily two years more mature than their classmates here."
The genuine joy she exudes is born of broad and rich experiences combined with faith.
She has climbed the Great Wall in China, rappelled volcanic cliffs in South Korea and twice visited what was then the Soviet Union, with teenagers.
At Winthrop University, Dr. Creamer studied theater and graduated as a certified teacher. She has taught in public and private schools.
A desire to combine her love of theology with her passion for teaching led her to attend seminaries to obtain her master's and doctorate degrees.
"I've always been interested in theology," she said. "I've really been able to blend it with my love for schools. To me, this is not a job. It's my ministry."
In their final year at the school, St. Barnabas eighth graders participate in retreats at the YMCA Camp Winona as well as at other churches off campus. The retreats provide an atmosphere outside the norm where these future leaders brainstorm about service. They are expected to formulate plans and follow through with projects to benefit others.
"Being faith-based we look at servant leadership. When (students) leave a retreat they look at what it means to be servant leaders ... how will they serve the school community and the larger community as leaders? ... and they'll put together service plans, will have a service project," Dr. Creamer said.
To meet this woman with kind eyes and a quick smile is to intuit that her message to young people is not preachy. Willingness to share hemispheric realities with students is her gift to them, not presented self-righteously.
"At my last school parents were paying about seven times the tuition they pay here; only an elite few can get that kind of education," she said. "On the way to school, I sat in the back seat. I had a driver to take me to school every day. We passed lean-tos and children, 7 or 8 (years old), carrying buckets of water on their heads, mere children dipping water out of buckets and pouring it over themselves, bathing in the morning."
Only 33 percent of females are educated, and in the government schools, education typically ceases after the U.S. equivalent of fifth grade.
"It's difficult for people to understand how great we have it here," Dr. Creamer said. "Those dwellings have no electricity, no water, no toilets."
"Even those teachers ... educators are so poor they are probably reading and writing on a third grade level," she added.
Dr. Creamer walked into a California pharmacy to get a polio vaccine before going to Africa where the disease is rampant.
"It's so difficult there to get a polio vaccine for children," she said.
Outside St. Barnabas Episcopal School, the National Blue Ribbon Schools flag flies. The program recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students' academic achievement, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
A National Blue Ribbon Schools flag overhead has become a mark of excellence in education recognized by everyone from parents to policy-makers in thousands of communities, the agency's website states.
So much so that a number of students travel, in buses provided by St. Barnabas, from Ormond Beach and New Smyrna Beach to the school in DeLand.
As of this school year, St. James Episcopal Church School in Ormond Beach no longer holds middle school classes. After enrollment in sixth, seventh and eighth grade dropped to under 20 students last year it was deemed not feasible to continue offering classes for those grades. Eventually the school closed all together.
Some of those students now make the trip to school at St. Barnabas.
Dr. Creamer didn't just "end up" at the school.
"This is a calling, the work of the Holy Spirit," she said. "That's why I blended the education degrees with the theology degrees."
Her personal goal at the school is part of a larger aspiration, a ministry held in trust for the future.
"This school is a mission of St. Barnabas Church," she said. "How do we position the school to continue in the best possible way for the next generation and generations to come?"
When chapel services conclude, the congregation says: "We go into the world, rejoicing, to love and serve God."
Dr. Creamer's book, Into the World Rejoicing tells more of the story of her calling.
If St. Barnabas teachers, staff and students go into the world rejoicing and leave a springboard for others to do the same, Dr. Creamer will have answered well.