Tami McElwee, principal of Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Oyster Bay, has always been an animal lover. Her family has two dogs, a rabbit and a pond of fish in their backyard.
Still, nothing could have prepared her from coming face-to-face with a bearded dragon -- and puckering up -- on April 21.
Pick a Reading Partner, or PARP, is a statewide program that the school participates in every year. Students are encouraged to log the amount of time they spend reading every day for one month, and if they rise to the occasion, their principal must complete a wacky challenge of their selection.
Past challenges McElwee has completed include kissing a horseshoe crab in honor of PARP’s “Books by the Bay” theme, and completing 10 sets of 10 different exercises in the school’s gymnasium.
This year’s theme was “Catch a Dragon by the Tale” -- and it just so happens that Roosevelt Elementary kindergartner Alexandra Megaris owns a pet bearded dragon named Lukey. The students decided that another smooch was in order.
“I was a little nervous,” McElwee said. “Right before it happened I said, ‘So am I kissing him on the mouth?’”
McElwee and some of the members of PARP decided that she’d kiss Lukey on top of his head. The Principal’s Challenge assembly, held in the gymnasium, kicked off with McElwee triumphantly entering dressed as a knight in shining armor. The students hadn’t seen Lukey before -- in fact, many of them had assumed their principal would be kissing a stuffed animal.
McElwee and some teachers planned out a script leading up to the big moment. McElwee asked questions like, “Does the bearded dragon breathe fire?” and “Isn’t it the size of a basketball court?” The teachers then provided real facts about bearded dragons for the students, right before Lukey made his grand entrance.
Then, in front of about 400 eager students, McElwee gave him a smooch. “He was a little bit dry and scaly,” she said with a laugh, and added, “It wasn’t as scary as I thought."
To McElwee, the challenge was a fun opportunity to praise her students for setting a goal and reaching it.
“We want them to love reading,” she said. “We don’t want it to just be a task… PARP and the Principal’s Challenge is a way to ignite some fun around the process.”
There will be plenty more challenges to come, and if McElwee's cheery disposition is any indication, she will gladly accept.
"What inspires me to do it is the kids," she said. "The kids love it. This is one of their favorite days of the year."