I bonded with a third grader at the DMV yesterday. We were in a wretchedly long line. She was along for the errand with her mom. I had to renew my license, which expired in the spring when all of the DMVs were closed. It was time — waiting any longer would mean that the socially-distanced line would just be colder. So, yeah, first we bonded over the freezing temperature. We both wished we were wearing hats.
A little later, though, there was something more interesting to discuss. A fellow line-stander needed to talk with one of the officials, but was having trouble communicating. My new friend’s mom swiftly stepped in, interpreting Spanish and English. It turned out that this man didn’t need to wait in the long line in the cold at all. (Have I mentioned that the line was long? Have I mentioned it was cold?) Off he went, happily.
Then, I eavesdropped as mom told her daughter how important it is to keep speaking Spanish whenever possible. She told her that being bilingual is a gift, and that she could use that gift to help so many people. Ok, yeah, and then I joined in the conversation. Maybe this was obnoxious of me. This was a beautiful moment between a mother and her daughter, and Educator Lynn jumped in. (As I write, it just seems more and more obnoxious…) But anyway, I apologized for eavesdropping, and then told the third grader that I was a teacher and a principal, and that I completely agreed with her mom. (Didn’t mention the superintendent part. Who cares? Certainly a 9 year old would not, but maybe “teacher and principal” carries a little weight.) Mom explained that her daughter’s father speaks Arabic. The daughter only knows a little. And on we went, more conversation about all she could do in her life, all the people she could impact, knowing Spanish, Arabic, and English.
Of course, yeah, then we talked about how school is going this year. She told me that she is remote for the first two trimesters, and her mom says maybe she will be onsite for the third trimester. She loves math! Math is easy! She does not like Language Arts, but when her teacher invites the students to leave the online meeting and work on their own, she stays online because she knows that this helps her. But, really, she absolutely does not like Language Arts. But again, she really loves Math! I told her that the Spanish/Arabic/English/Math combo is golden.
We chattered on for a bit more, and then she got to go hang out in the car while mom and I kept waiting in the line, both of us lost in our own thoughts and phones. She came back on line now and then, and we jumped up and down in the cold a little. When we got inside, we agreed that we couldn’t feel our feet.
It was normal stuff: a student and an educator connecting about what is great about school and what isn’t, and thinking about the future together. Mom was generous to let me talk with her daughter; she could probably tell that I was starved for student interaction. It was just what I needed after an especially rough week, as well as seven months of hard decisions in an ever-changing landscape.
It is true that we don’t know what the rest of this school year holds. It is true that school won’t be “normal” for a long while, and when it is, it will be forever changed. Hopefully we will have taken the bright embers from this thing to help us improve what we had before.
Whatever happens, I hope my friend keeps her Spanish, and develops her Arabic. We will need her, for sure.
“I’m tired of talking to adults and nothing happens, nothing changes. It feels like they are just checking a box.” Take a moment, please, and imagine the context. Can you think of a few? I can. I can.
I have not written here for awhile. My mind and heart have been very full over the past few months for many, many reasons, so much so that I just couldn’t let anything dribble out in the form of writing. But something happened today that made the dam burst, and here we are.
Today, I had the honor of attending my first meeting of the Illinois Coalition of Educational Equity Leaders (ICEEL). This group of teachers and administrators gathers together a few times a year to consider matters of equity. From this, my first meeting, it seems to me that the focus is equal parts reflection, learning, and call to action. Without question, I received opportunities for all three today.
I’ve had many reasons to reflect upon concepts of racism and equity over the past twelve months. Last December, my husband and I had a difficult and emotional conversation with our young adult daughter around a white comedian using the N-word in context of humor and intentional social commentary. She was incensed, a lot. I reflected. A related topic was discussed today, and I was lead to watch this short video of Ta-Nehisi Coates explaining that it is indeed white privilege to believe that all words belong to everyone. (Spoiler Alert: they don’t.)
In January, I accepted a job for the next school year in a district that has created a Diversity Policy, along with a host of other statements, brochures, posters, and guiding principles that speak to topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I rejoiced in the knowledge that I would be working in the right place, a place where I could lead and learn and daily consider topics of social justice.
In July, I read the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, followed by attending a two day training in Courageous Conversations about Race. It’s not possible to express here the extent to which these experiences affected me, except to say that they humbled me and helped me understand that I did not know what I did not know. And so I have continued to study this fall, learning from several other books, workshops, and meetings. I’ve been particularly grateful to be a part of my school district’s Equity and Inclusion Committee, as it is filled with parents, teachers, and administrators who are eager to continue on a journey of self-discovery and to grapple with issues of equity in order make important change for students, families, and employees.
This brings us to today, to the ICEEL meeting. Attorney Jackie Wernz taught us about equity issues in relation to the new Illinois law requiring school districts to teach about LGBTQ history, and then in small groups we discussed practices and policies that support equity, or, more often, inequity. Truly, there is so much to do.
And finally, more dramatically, there was a call to action which came in the form of five high school students. Each ICEEL meeting ends with a student panel so that educational leaders can hear about the real impact of what they are doing (or not doing). Today, a Muslim student explained that it is not enough for a school to have a place for daily prayer if a student requests it – true respect comes in the form of being offered a place to pray. Latinex and Chinese students spoke about assumptions that are made about them due to their racial backgrounds. And an African American student, enraged that her district has taken steps to combat racism in the school by providing a four day “N-Word Curriculum”, saw through and past the positive intent around that decision with the statement, “We don’t need four days of discussion. We need four years!” Oh. It is hard to argue against that point.
This same student told us that “adults need to listen to our solutions, not just our feelings.” But she began where I began: “I’m tired of talking to adults and nothing happens, nothing changes. It feels like they are just checking a box.”
I asked these students if any of them are writers (some very clearly are), and wondered aloud if they are blogging. I suggested that the adults who appear not to be listening may need chances to listen and read and think. I didn’t imagine that they would be writing publicly; making themselves vulnerable in front of this group of adults who may not be moving quickly enough but are clearly passionate about equity is not the same thing as exposing themselves to their peers and the angry world at large. But I wanted them to be thinking about it. Their responses to my questions were thoughtful; one put it like this: “I can’t narrate my experiences while I’m living them.” So anyway, I’m blogging for them, now. I had a chance to speak with three of the students after the meeting, and one of them told me that she is writing about her experiences with racism in her college essay. She promised to send it to me. Oh, I hope that she does so that I can continue learning from her.
As I discussed with the students, the adults in the room who are learning about equity and are eager to make changes are indeed on a journey, and adult learning takes time. Change takes time. But these students don’t have time. Their now is NOW. There is so much to do. We cannot be just checking a box.
This past week was Back-to-School Week for many of us. Or the week before was. Or next week will be. But anyway, whether we are students, teachers, administrators, parents, or all of the above, Back-to-School Week is a Big Deal. It is filled with excitement and hopes and good intentions and packed lunches and probably nerves and hopefully not too many disappointments.
My Back-to-School Week began with three Institute Days with staff, and two days with students. The morning of the first day for students, I was privileged to receive and read this blogpost, written by a school administrator from another district who also happens to have two daughters in my schools. This was the perfect read to start my morning… a wonderful reminder that every child is precious, and that we must carefully examine our school systems and practices through lenses that include celebration of the individual, unwavering high expectations, and a commitment to equity.
As a new superintendent in a PreK-8 school district, there are of course many To Dos on my list as the year gets started, but the item at the top was obviously being in the schools with the students, teachers, secretaries, custodians, and principals. So those first couple of days, I got to traipse all over the place, from one elementary school’s First Day Flag Raising Tradition to another’s early morning breakfast. I got to meet excited Kindergarteners, savvy fifth graders, and confident eighth graders. And the hair – the fades and the bright colors and the gold-woven braids! And the fashion — Oh the fashion! So maybe we’ll start there, as my goal now is simply to let you glimpse some of my favorite moments of those first two sun-filled days.
Students Announced Themselves through Garb and Gear:
A first grader passed me in line in the hallway, turned my way, and proudly stated, “I’m wearing a tie!” Yes, indeed he was. And a checked shirt. And checked bermuda shorts. Every color imaginable going on in that ensemble – a style-maker, for sure! (Yep, check out the photo at the top… that’s my little friend, captured perfectly by our Media Relations Specialist, Leslie!)
A second grader showed up with a t-shirt that said School Rocks! Ok, it would have been even better if that t-shirt had been on an older kid. But who am I kidding — that is just unrealistic.
And the sassy tutu dresses! And the mermaid backpacks!
And here are my favorite Kids Encouraging Kids and Friendship Moments:
A child happily shouted to mom, “I made a new friend!” YES!!!!
A Kindergartener turned to a tablemate and asked her, “You’re going to be my best friend, right?” (I’m happy to report that she agreed with this plan!)
First grade class was huddled up around a book. Child 1 raised a hand to answer a question, but then was stymied for an answer when called upon. Child 2 answered. And then Child 3 turned to Child 1 and said, “Is that what you were going to say?” What a way to support a buddy!
It seems that I spent a lot of time in first grade. Well, I mean, first grade is just joyous… how could I not! And here are two more of my favorite first grade moments:
Here’s the picture…
Here’s the narrative: “Today is Batman’s birthday!” (Yes! Yes it is!)
Teacher was reading aloud the book First Grade Stinks by Mary Ann Rodman, and one happy student announced, “First grade is the best grade I’ve ever been in!” What an old, wise child…
I got to see students at various grade levels using sensory supports to help them ease into school:
Students in some classes had flexible seating… they self-selected the type of chair that would best help them to learn. Stool or armchair? Low or high? Wobbly or sturdy?
A barely verbal girl with Down Syndrome soothed herself by happily unpacking a box of stuffed animals, greeting each doll lovingly. This moment was very quiet, and very magical.
Some smart and creative primary teachers gave their students little tubs of Play-Doh to help them keep busy and calm while supplies were unpacked and checked in and such.
If it appears that I didn’t spend a lot of time with older kids those first days, it isn’t so. But the older kids tended to keep their excitement on the Down Low, carefully checking each other out as they staked claim on their places in their new classroom societies, so I just don’t have bunches of cute stories to share about them. Of course, this former fifth grade teacher knows that those older kids will get comfortable mighty soon, and then their personalities will come pouring out!
Students in our Early Childhood Center didn’t start until this week. I can’t wait to greet those little ones tomorrow, to see school as they see it! In the meantime, I will watch this video one more time tonight. We invited families to secretly send in Back-to-School videos of the students in order to greet the staff on our first Institute Day. Leslie, our Media Relations Specialist, put it all together with great flair. Enjoy… it is a special peek into how many of our students feel about the start of school. Of course, we know that there are students who don’t greet the first days of school with unbridled joy. There is separation difficulty and social anxiety and disappointment and much more. Whatever past experiences and emotions our students bring with them at the start of school, we are here to support them through those first days, and every day beyond. I promise.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know all that much about architecture or design. I’m glad that many people are passionate about these topics, because their excitement means that I get to live in a more beautiful world. Nonetheless, I’ve been able to get pretty old without delving much into the design choices that architects make when creating spaces. There. I said it.
So, when I learned that I was going to spend a couple of hours in Spring Green, WI, touring Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, I figured that this would be a pleasant way to spend the morning. Didn’t think much more about it, except to be grateful to my mom-and-dad-in-law for this generous gift. But then I found myself standing next to this excited man in the gift shop, and it all changed.
We were both looking at this chair, a replica of one of Wright’s designs.
I thought it looked cool, and kind of uncomfortable. He was mesmerized. Something in his demeanor, in the excitement that was buzzing off of him, let me know that it would be ok to strike up a conversation, and so I did. I learned that this was his fifth tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright property. No, he wasn’t an architect or a designer. He was a SuperFan! Well, he didn’t quite say THAT, but it was really, really clear. He wanted to buy this $1,745 chair, and the screen behind it, and the lamp next to it, but knew he could afford none of these. I gave him some space while he took photos of these beautiful objects, and we talked a little bit more about his love of architecture, and his reverence for this particular architect. And while I was learning from him, I just kept thinking, “Oh, I hope he is on our tour!” I mean, excitement was just shooting out of the top of this guy’s head, and I knew that my visit to Taliesin would be greatly enhanced by his presence.
I admit to feeling a little disloyal to my husband, who was with me at the time. Larry DOES love architecture, and already knew quite a lot about Wright! It is just that we’ve been a couple for thirty two years, long enough to be able to predict each other’s responses. He knows me well enough to expect that I wouldn’t quite share his level of enthusiasm about the trip, and so he fell into the pattern of just pretty much keeping it to himself. But this Gift Shop Man didn’t know that I wasn’t as excited as he was, so he freely allowed all of that electricity to shoot right at me.
Alas, Gift Shop Super Fan Man was not on our tour – he was scheduled into a different excursion of the grounds. Probably this was just as well, as I might have stuck a little too close, risking his enjoyment and maybe my reputation. But no matter, I was now primed to be passionate about this topic. Like any great teacher, he had kindled my enthusiasm, and now he was stepping out of the way for me to discover the thing myself, which indeed I did.
There is no doubt that Taliesin is absolutely beautiful. Our guide was a master storyteller, and certainly he helped me to understand and appreciate some of Wright’s design principles. But, alongside learning about the interplay between natural setting and construction, I visited the school on the grounds and heard about the architect’s constant goal of teaching his visitors about design, and thus ultimately I could not help but default to my own Geek Arena – and that is Education. And so as we worked our way through the living spaces and studios, I learned as much about Frank Lloyd Wright the Educator as I did about Frank Lloyd Wright the Architect.
Case in point… while Larry studied the spaces, the lines and light, and took gorgeous pictures like this:
…I enjoyed the beauty, but probably spent equal time thinking about all of the young apprentices Wright influenced over the years, and poured over old photos such as this:
The teacher in me also couldn’t help but pay attention to how the youngest tourists were experiencing the visit. I loved having the chance to learn from one girl of about fourteen or so who murmured, “They’re different blues” to her mom. What? Oh!
While I was noticing something else in the room, this girl was observing that the two chairs at the table did not match. (And then our guide told us a story of how that came to be, but I’ve already forgotten the story, because I was lost in the wonder of all of these strangers standing in the same place, seeing different things.)
And that’s where I’ll leave this one. Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius and a flawed man – indeed there are many unflattering stories about him. Sixty years after his death, there we all were, learning about and from this master whose legacy continues to inspire artists, architects, designers, photographers, collectors, educators, students. There we all stood in the same space, bringing our backgrounds and perspectives and experiences and passions to the moment. Just like we do all of the time, with everything. And my curiosity was kindled at the start by observing someone else’s passion for the topic. As teachers start the process of transitioning back into school-year-mode, perhaps they are thinking about how to transfer their own excitement about learning and/or content to their students. A reminder from my mom-and-dad-in-law to the Gift Shop Super Fan Man to me to them: sometimes all it takes is letting your own inner excited light shine. And then you have to stand back and let your students illuminate the place for themselves.
Just over a year ago, I wrote this post, reposted below if you are a scroller, not a clicker. Lots has happened in the past year, and now the JunePile is different (but also, sort of the same). New thoughts, below the old post….
May 28, 2018:
It started when I was a teacher. Every year, every May, there would come a day when I would just start tossing things in a pile to deal with “later”. Later meant after the last smile was shared with a student, after the last grade was given, after Field Day. After the last day of school. I never knew when the day would come — just one afternoon I would realize that there were only a few weeks and lot left to do with my class, and I could only spend precious time on papers, projects, and tasks that would really mean something to my students. The rest would have to wait until school ended, in June. The JunePile.
It continued when I was a principal. I tried to keep an organized office, so the JunePile became a JuneBox which was stashed under my desk. And if something wasn’t important to others before the end of school, well, then, it wasn’t getting done until everybody went home.
Of course, now, most of my JunePile is electronic — more of a JuneList, if you will. And as an assistant superintendent, I have many projects that are best done in the quieter summer months, anyway. But nonetheless, the habit continues. I’ll get very stressed about how quickly the end of school is coming, and one day will breathe a little sigh of relief when I remember that there are SOME things on my list that don’t have to get done right away. And anything that won’t directly affect students, families, or staff gets put in the JunePile to be dealt with after the school bus pulls away for the last time.
The end of the school year is always such a rush, isn’t it? Educators are amused when folks who have not devoted their lives to school ask in May, “So, is school winding down?” Winding down? Winding DOWN? Hilarious! School does not wind down. We run like crazy to the edge of the cliff, and try very, very hard not to fall off of it. That’s it, and everyone who lives by the rhythm of school knows it.
But that last day of school WILL come, and then indeed it will be time for me to dig into my JunePile. This year I’m wondering, though, why am I even considering doing things that don’t have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators? So, perhaps my primary responsibility on my first day after school lets out should be to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Yes, there is filing that went undone this year, and I’d eventually be sorry if I couldn’t find something I need. Ok, I’ll crank the music up in my office and file. But I’ll hold myself accountable for ensuring that everything else enhances the work or life of someone, or supports my own learning and reflection.
Truth be told, writing this blogpost was indeed in my JunePile. It definitely did not have to get done prior to school ending! But then it was Memorial Day weekend, and I had some time, and was in the mood for reflecting. So I went for it.
Of course, summer is much, much more than a time to catch up with work. For me, it is also reading in a hammock and walking after dinner with my husband and exploring Chicago neighborhoods with my daughters and going to Botanic Gardens with my parents and eating on a patio with friends and completing the Summer Challenge at my yoga studio and if I’m lucky, some traveling. Many years ago, inspired by a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich (or perhaps Eric Zorn? — I cannot find the column, I’ve tried!), I was motivated to capture my summer memories by buying a pack of notecards, numbering and dating them, and every day of the summer writing down at least one summer activity that I enjoyed that day. I still have those cards in my nightstand, and occasionally use one for a bookmark, finding peace, adventure, or luxury in a summer memory. I just pulled one out; it reads, “7/3: Getaway to Wisconsin — Lazy Nap, Lovely Anniversary Dinner, Movie — Spiderman!”
And there you have it — those summer pleasures are what really belong in the JunePile. So, what’s in yours?
June 1, 2019:
So, why bother to repost about the JunePile? Well, because a lot has changed for me. I am an educator, leader, and learner in transition, and that has somewhat changed my JunePile. A few months ago, I was offered a new job, and thus am transitioning out of the position of Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in one school district and into the position of Superintendent in another school district. 1 transition is actually 3 transitions:
# 1 I am transitioning into my new role with new administrators, central office team, Board of Education, teachers and staff, all with the help of the generous superintendent who is retiring.
#2 I am transitioning all of the projects and responsibilities (and physical stuff) of my current role to the wonderful administrator who is taking over as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in my current district. And HE is currently a middle school principal in this district, so…
#3 We hired a new middle school principal, and the two of THEM need time to transition.
All of this takes an enormous amount of time. So, what am I doing on a rainy Saturday morning when I have 100 transition tasks in front of me? Writing a blog post! But the writing is purposeful, as truly it helps me to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing. And what is that Main Thing? Positive Impact.
About two weeks ago, I was having a pretty hard day. And at the end of that hard day, my response was to realize that I only had 20 work days left before turning in my keys and ID, taking a glorious two week vacation, and starting my new job. Now, I’ve never been a person to count down to the end of something — for me, that’s just never felt like a positive way of looking at time. However, once I DID, well then, I KNEW. And I realized I would keep counting down, which caused me to understand that I needed to attach something meaningful to the countdown so that the passage of time would be focused positively.
Thus… Days of Positive Impact
Every day, starting on Day 20, I’ve had the countdown in my calendar with that label (so, yesterday said 11 Days of Positive Impact). And at the end of the day, I create a list of all of the people or situations that I think/hope I’ve positively impacted that day. I recognize that I’m letting myself be kind of vulnerable here, announcing this strategy — depending on who you are and how you roll, Days of Positive Impact may seem a little “woo woo” and dorky. Don’t care — it’s how I roll.
Last year at this time, I wrote about the importance of culling the JunePile, and knowing that I should only do the things that have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators. I knew I needed to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Well, friends, now that I’m leaving my job, that commitment is ever more important. It would be very easy to focus on details that are not meaningful. I could make myself crazy by crossing every T on things that won’t help anybody, that will just allow me to feel finished. I could worry about all of the projects that I wanted to do in this job but just couldn’t complete or even start. There are many! But I’ll leave those for the new guy.
So here we are. Monday will bring 10 Days of Positive Impact. 10 days left. I can spend them on work that will help the organization and people around me, or I can spend them on busy-ness. I know how my time is best spent. Yep. Time to get to work!
We were off our usual beaten path, and I went for a walk. There, across the street, I was drawn by a sign in front of a low-slung, unassuming building: “Writers’ Night Tonight.” Seemed to be some type of a music store. And I hesitated, just for a moment. Should I head back to the comfortable room that Larry and I had rented for the weekend, or should I go in, find out what this “Writers’ Night” business was? I wandered in.
And here are the things that happened because I wandered in.
I met Tony, the owner of The Music Exchange, whose eyes lit up when I asked about Writers’ Night. He described what was basically an open mic night, with one rule: in the tiny performance space adjacent to the store, the musicians and spoken-word artists could only perform works that they had written. He ticked off the names of some musicians who would be there, seeming to assume that I’d know who they were. I didn’t. We exchanged backgrounds a bit. I learned that he had lived in Park Ridge in the ‘70s and ‘80s, working as both a musician and a potter. The guys in his band slept on his couch sometimes, and when they left town to start the band Shadowfax, he chose pottery and stayed behind. Shadowfax, the New Age instrumental group that I enjoyed in the late ‘80s – wow! He proudly displayed the treasures in his music store: the cigar box guitars, the vintage Fender. He told me about the studio below the shop, describing the weeklong music-writing workshops that occur there three times a year, musicians from all over the world converging on the town and staying in the ’50s-era motel next door. Larry had to see this place and meet this guy. I promised we’d be back that night.
I refused to tell my husband where we were going, simply brought him into this space where a few folks who seemed to know each other well sat around the BYOB room, joking and telling stories. We met Pat, who shares ownership in the motel next door, built in the ‘50s, prototype (maybe) for the first Holiday Inn, and filled with a vintage vibe. Eventually, someone was moved to get the Writers’ Night started. Cathy, Tony, and Pat all played, each an incredible, soulful musician. A nice man read a piece about being part of the Geezers’ Club and sipping $0.88 coffee at McDonald’s, striking notes of humor and poignancy throughout.
The room grew very still when Larry got up. Not my Larry, another Larry. Like us, though, not a regular. He, too, had wandered into the store that day, and had been encouraged to come back for Writers’ Night. He wore a very large pair of overalls, he stared at us, and then began speaking in a tongue we did not know. The room held its breath. And then, in English, he explained his Mohican greeting, and went on to introduce himself more deeply. This introduction was filled with anger for land that was stolen, and reverence for the land itself. It was rich with memories of growing up on the res, and was unbearably resigned and hopeful all at once. Larry eventually read a brief, sweet poem, and then was ready to sit back down, as we all thanked him for blessing us with his open-hearted gift. In all honesty, I think that I am writing this blog post so that I will never forget these moments of sitting in awe as this man spontaneously and courageously spoke his truth in front of me.
Just before Larry read, I’d decided yes, I’d share one of my blog posts aloud. Hearing this man’s message, though, I felt a bit humbled. But, I decided that I’d go ahead and read in this very safe room, in front of these new stranger-friends. Here I am, reading about a quiet walk I took with my husband’s step-father.
A young woman, a new resident in the area, had declined over and over to read, although she’d apparently shared in the past. She explained she had nothing new to read, just the same poem she’d spoken before. I told her I’d never heard it, and others agreed that they, too, had missed the earlier reading, or wanted to hear it again, and eventually she took the stage. As poems sometimes do, it started light, and deepened into beauty and pain as she spoke about her soldier brother. Either he had died in service, or she worried he would not make it back. Husband Larry and I do not agree on the literal meaning, but to my core I felt the emotion behind the words, nevertheless.
More music from the talented three who were in essence the hosts – Tony, Pat, and Cathy – and the evening drew to a close. But not quite, because Tony had promised to show the store to Larry (my Larry, now, not Larry from the stage). We saw the cigar box guitars, the Fender which we were told was one of the first 100 made, the picture of Tony and Jackson Brown from a gig.
Larry heard about the Shadowfax thing. And then Tony asked us, “Had we heard about Pat’s background?” Pat, from the motel, right? Yeah, right – now he performs at Writers’ Night and I think many gigs, and he is a partial owner in the motel, but many years ago he was one half of Timbuk 3. Wait… what? Pat is Pat MacDonald from Timbuk 3? He and his then wife, Barbara K, were a band that Larry and I enjoyed in the late 80’s. Do you remember The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades? Yeah, that’s Timbuk 3. They also wrote and performed a song called Facts about Cats, which definitely ended up on one of the many audio tapes Larry sent to me in college. Mailing mix tapes back and forth was part of our early romance, as we met while in college but went to school across the country from each other. This was of course long before any easy electronic means of communication, and so these tapes served meaningful dual purposes: sharing something important with someone important, and a daily, musical means of staying present in each other’s lives. Music has always been integral to our connection: our first “I recognize you” conversation at a summer party occurred around John Lennon, I fell in love with my husband in a record store, and as I write this, a new Van Morrison song plays in the background – almost 28 years after we danced to a song by this artist at our wedding. Did I digress? All this to say, meeting half of Timbuk 3 together was a thrill.
Larry told Pat about something that had resonated with him from a Timbuk 3 interview many years ago, Pat talked about the song-writing process that he and Barbara K had used, and then gave us a live-performance Timbuk 3 CD. Cathy and Tony also gave us CDs… in all, we left The Music Exchange with four CDs. Pat invited us to stop by the Holiday Motel the next day, sharing the insider tip that the coffee is fresh again after 3:00.
So we did stop by. I cannot overstate how much we would have ignored this motel had we not met these musician locals. Here’s what it looks like from the outside.
But then, here’s what it looks like on the inside.
In a span of 24 hours, we looked into the souls of generous writers. We faced a Native American who spoke with anger and love, and a young woman who shared the meaning of loss. We made new friends, if only for an evening. I shared my writing aloud, having never intended to do so. We experienced vintage: guitars, motel, people. We met amazing musicians, including blasts from our pasts. And all because I wandered in.
When I was a girl, I was a dancer. Even before I was big enough to take ballet, I was twirling in my sister’s hand-me-down tutus. Once I started taking classes, I continued with many forms of dance all the way through college, with only a few years off when I labeled myself a gymnast instead of a dancer.
I remember when I first let the “dancer” label form as a word in my head. I was probably around nine years old when my park district dance director decided that instead of participating in a regular recital, all of his classes would work together to create the ballet Coppelia. The pivotal moment happened during dress rehearsal, when I saw the cast list up on the wall. There were a few people in the cast who were not dancing at all, and their names were listed under the word ACTORS. And the rest of us, well, we were listed as DANCERS. Oh! I’m a dancer!
One high school summer, I split my time between scooping ice cream and taking classes in the “carte blanche” program of a studio that was well-known for their professional adult dance company. Each day, I took a bus to Evanston, dance bag on my arm, and took as many classes as I wanted. By this time, I already realized that I wasn’t all that good — I needed more time than some others to pick up a combination, and I wasn’t really physically built for dance. And I’d been passed over for some dance opportunities at my high school. Didn’t matter. That summer, I was taking classes nearly every day, and besides, when I was nine and in Coppelia, my name was listed under the word DANCER. I can still remember what it felt like to walk down the long hallway to class, while girls chatted their dance-chat as they changed their shoes. The label worked for me: I was a dancer.
I’ve been thinking about the power of labels recently. We’ve learned to view them as troublesome when we talk about students, not wanting kids to be limited by what we say about them. And I agree with this; we need to be awfully cautious with our language when it comes to children! We are especially carefully when referring to students with disabilities, using person-first language such as “child with autism” rather than “the autistic” (it is hard for me to even write that — it now feels so wrong!), making sure that we label someone first as a person, and then describe a disability. Disabilities aside, we can do a lot of damage when we carelessly slap negative labels on young people (ANY people): trouble-maker, bully, liar. A mentor of mine likes to remind, “We don’t define people by their worst acts.” These wise words apply to so many situations, and are especially powerful when we think about the twists and turns of the days, weeks, and years of childhood. Because a child has made trouble, is she a trouble-maker? Because he has lied, is he a liar? We can address the behaviors without labeling the person responsible for the action. You never know… he might make a completely different choice tomorrow! Let’s let him re-define himself.
However, giving students certain labels can be positive. I believe there is power in giving students labels that define something that they can do: Writer. Reader. Helper. Athlete. Dancer. Artist. Leader. And we do hear this in classrooms: “Writers, please share your work with your partner.” “Artists, it is time to rinse out our brushes.” Those labels are empowering because they cause children to see their “work” as important, and help them dream up futures built on their passions.
My college-daughter, Sophie, has been home for a few days for part of her Spring Break. This time together has had three focuses: shopping for her older sister Eliana’s wedding dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!) and her own maid-of-honor dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!); celebrating her 21st birthday a little early; and preparing for an upstairs carpet/paint job by virtually emptying out her childhood bedroom. This last activity brought many delights (that sounds sarcastic, but isn’t, I promise!), as her room was chock-full of buried treasure. First of all, it turns out that this girl who always felt she wasn’t a Writer was indeed a Journaler. She found at least seven different notebooks that recorded a vast array of events, some monumental, some mundane, all important. Although I love to write, I’ve never mastered the art of journaling, can’t seem to write just for myself, and I’m green with envy that my daughter now has this record of her own young thoughts and events. Her Bat Mitzvah DVD also turned up, and we watched together, listening to her little voice carefully reading and chanting, remembering her Bubbe, and laughing at who awkwardly danced together at the party. And then there was a lovely moment when sixteen year old sister Eliana stood in front of about 200 people and said, “I’m a musician, and like many musicians, I like to express myself through song.” Instead of giving a lengthy speech, Elli labeled herself a musician and sang a meaningful song to her sister. Confidence can bring labels, and labels can bring confidence.
A wedding and a new job will bring new labels for me in the year ahead: mother-in-law and superintendent. These labels will bring new experiences and new perspectives, and likely will layer over some of my older labels for a time. But they will still be there. Am I still a dancer? Any family member who has spent enough time hanging out in my kitchen will tell you, “Yes.” Thank you, Mom and Dad, for supporting those years of dance when you surely knew that I was not headed for the Joffrey. It made a difference.
Karen and I met in and supported each other through graduate school, each acting as guide, confidant, editor, and cheerleader for the other. When I think of driving back and forth to Urbana during a hot summer in the mid ’90s, trying to figure out how we would get all of the work done, I think of Karen. And then our lives went in separate directions, and we lost track of each other. All of this was before Facebook and Twitter and texts and it was flat-out easier to fall out of touch, and so we did. This was indeed a terrible loss for me, one I let happen.
Then recently, I had reason to reconnect with Karen: I have accepted a new position in the school district where she worked back when we were in graduate school, and letting her know this was the perfect reason to find her again. And then, just as I was getting ready to send a message to her, I learned that a teacher I know had been a student of Karen’s, just around the same time when the two of us were such close friends. The teacher told me with excitement that having Karen to guide her was one of the reasons that she chose to become an educator. Karen is strong, smart, and passionate about education and making a difference, and so is the teacher who was her student. Amazing – both women whom I admire and respect, connected so long ago. Yet another reason to reach out. And so I did.
Karen’s response to me was lovely, no surprise, and it included this, about her former student: She was a bright young woman, a great athlete, strong sense of empathy… I always saw in her a bit more than she was ready to hear. In one phrase, Karen had summed up the essence of what we should all be doing with our students: seeing what is possible, seeing the greatness that glimmers around the edges of our students’ poor choices and fears. Really, now, think back to your best teachers. Is that what they did for you? Probably, in some way, yes. Karen is currently the director of a regional Safe Schools program, serving young men and women who need something extra to be successful in a school setting. So, you know she is still seeing more in students than they are ready to hear.
This brings me to Ladybird, the beautiful Greta Gerwig film that I saw separately with each of my young adult daughters over the past year or so. This movie hooked me as a mom who raised teenage girls (What did I get right? What did I get wrong? HOW wrong?), and also caused me to think deeply about the messages of empowerment and positive risk-taking that we give (or, sadly, sometimes don’t give) to our young people. High school senior “Ladybird”, who renamed herself as she was becoming who she was becoming, is faced over and over again with adults who do not believe in her, or who are afraid to show that they believe in her. Her guidance counselor outright laughs at her college dreams. Adults fail Ladybird all of the time.
One of my favorite moments in the film occurs between Ladybird and her principal, a good-humored nun who actually does support her, who sees and celebrates Ladybird’s spirit and strength. “What I’d really like,” Ladybird says, “is to be on Math Olympiad.” The nun answers, with some kindness, “But math isn’t something that you’re terribly strong in.” And wait for it… Ladybird responds with, “That we know of YET.” (Want to see the scene? It is at the end of the trailer.) That phrase has stuck for me, and I keep trying to find ways to sneak it into encouraging conversations. It is a spark of hope. It is breaking through. It is believing that something else is possible. It is what we need to give to our students. For sure, it is what many of the adults in Ladybird’s life did not give to her — she had to give it to herself. It’s what Karen clearly gave/gives to her students.
Personal development for all people, at all ages, has been on my mind a lot lately. Stretching. People trying things out, doing things that they haven’t done before. And that’s where Honky Tonk Angels comes in. (What now?) If you happen to have read any of my other blog posts, you may already know that my husband has been taking guitar classes for many years, and that sometimes I hang out with him at the music school, or at a nearby coffee shop. And that last year I even took a vocal ensemble class while he was strumming away in another room. This winter, however, Larry cajoled me into taking a class WITH him — we are both signed up for an ensemble class called, you guessed it, Honky Tonk Angels, where we are, in essence, a band that practices (and eventually performs) a set of songs written by female country/western musicians. There are a few guitar players, a guy who plays fiddle and bass, and me, a “vocalist”. Look at that, I had to put it in quotation marks. Say it, a vocalist! But the thing is, unlike the rest of the group, I don’t really play an instrument. I played guitar in college, very, very badly. I can play piano, just a little. But secretly, for the past few years, I’ve craved the drums.
Now, just the vocalist part is already basically new for me. I have plenty of past singing experience, but it has all been more musical theater and choral singing. I have never actually FRONTED a band before. (Never mind that I’m paying for the pleasure of doing so – that’s just a side detail, right?) And then, today, I nudged myself even further out of my comfort zone. After harmonizing on one song in the background while someone else was singing lead, I thought, “Why not?” and quietly spoke up, “Could this song maybe use someone on the drum kit?” And it was YES. And I DID.
Here’s what I’ll say: Drumming isn’t something I’m terribly strong in. That we know of YET! Ladybird would be proud. And Karen would believe in me! I’ll have to tell her about it the next time I see her.
It is the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we are enjoying a stroll at the Chicago Botanic Gardens — my parents-in-law who are in town from Minnesota, my brother-and-sister-in-law who are in town from Calgary, and me. It’s cold, but not too cold, and the gray sky perfectly complements the landscape, which is turning from rich golds and reds to cool blacks and whites. There are plenty of people here at “The Gardens” with us, happy to welcome the holiday season this way, although most of them seem to be gathering at a special exhibit. So, our walk is pretty solitary, and the place is quite different than it is when all is in bloom. In June, the beauty here is bright and sweet smelling and romantic and full of potential – kind of emotionally wonderful and loud. In November, the beauty is quiet, and it is perfect for contemplation.
I’m walking with Joel, my father-in-law. Well, to be very specific, he is my step-father-in-law, but when you marry into a family that is rich with a mother, step-father, father, and step-mother, you just kind of have two fathers-in-law, and two mothers-in-law. That’s what I have. Add in my two parents, and my daughters have grown up with the gift of six loving grandparents.
Anyway, Joel has always been quiet and observant. He is not going to tell a long story in a group at a party. He’s not going to intentionally call attention to himself across a room. However, one-on-one, he does have stories to share, and if you ask the right follow-up questions, they might just come out, not in a tumble necessarily, but in a satisfying trickle. Over breakfast this morning, when it was just the two of us, I learned that his father died when he was thirteen, his mother remarried when he was fourteen, and then his life changed again when his baby brother was born, when he was fifteen. I have known Joel for 31 years, and I did not know any of these things until this morning. Maybe he wasn’t telling; maybe I wasn’t asking. Anyway, now I know.
Because of today’s walk, I also now know that a shrub like this grew in his yard when he was a boy in St. Paul. He helped to tend that yard, and as I have always known him to be someone who closely examines his surroundings, it is hard for me to imagine him quickly mowing the lawn and pruning the shrubs. I envision him stopping often, distracted by something that he found odd, or puzzling, or beautiful. Of course, that may not be true — he may have rushed through the job like any other boy, and then run off to play baseball. But I like to imagine him a bit like Dickon from the Secret Garden, talking to birds and coaxing saplings.
Here he is, today, carefully examining an unusual vertical garden. There was a sign in there, and he wanted to read it. Most people would not have seen it, or if they had, they would not have taken the time to gently move leaves aside to be able to see it well. Joel did. He was curious, and was not in a rush. In the 31 years that I have known him, I have never seen him be in a rush.
Joel is also a classical musician, a cellist. This past summer, while relaxing in Minnesota on the beautiful porch that he and Harriet, my mother-in-law, have created, I learned that he hears music in his head, almost all of the time. I don’t mean the annoying ear worm riffs that get stuck in all of our heads from time to time. He hears full symphonies. They play in the background of his thoughts, both when he is quietly introspective and when he is engaged with others. Sometimes, his mind composes. (“Do you ever write them down?” I asked. No, he doesn’t, and he said something self-depreciating about his internal compositions. But I bet that they are wonderful, and that the world is missing out by not being allowed to hear them.) While we walked today, I brought this up again. He’s been hearing these since he was 8 years old, when he began learning the cello. Yes, he was hearing music right at that the moment — he was re-experiencing the beautiful concert that he and Harriet had enjoyed at The Chicago Cultural Center two days prior. Take a moment, please, and try to imagine what that would be like — to have beauty in your head at all times.
Harriet and Joel were married a few years before I married my husband. Here they are, together, enjoying this fall day, this day after Thanksgiving. Really, in fact another day of Thanksgiving. Tonight, soon, we are entering Black Friday Excitement at Barnes and Noble where my daughter is working. They always have an option for holiday gift donation books there. I doubt it is on the list at the register, but maybe I’ll buy a copy of The Secret Garden to donate, in honor of this walk, in honor of Joel. Anyway, tonight — a Black Friday store and a nice dinner out. But today we experienced a quiet walk with loved ones, and for this I am extremely grateful.
My colleagues, Alicia and Jeff, and I agreed that this weekend we’d each blog about a connection between our work and our Thanksgiving vacations. (Please check out their reflections: “Grandkid” Suits Me Just Fine and Of Gratitude.) And yes, I do have a connection. Today we moved slowly and looked closely. At work, I have to fight with myself to be able to do that. There is so much, and it all happens so quickly. And it is important to take time, to examine and not rush past. Beautiful, quiet moments happen all of the time if we are intentional about slowing down and SEEING. In my school world, that moment worth seeing is usually a child making a discovery. It’s too easy and too terrible to miss it.
“Trust me.” The words are supposed to bring you comfort, but don’t they kind of give you the creeps? It seems like every conniving bad guy in every movie ever made has said them. I did a quick Google search when I sat down to write this blog post, and immediately came up with this chilling moment from The Godfather, when Michael Corleone tells his reasonably suspicious wife: Kay, my father’s way of doing things is over, it’s finished. Even he knows that. I mean, in five years, the Corleone Family is going to be completely legitimate. Trust me. That’s all I can tell you about my business. (If you are not a fan of the movie franchise, you’ll have to, well, trust me: Kay should not have trusted Michael in this.) However, despite all of these movie-warnings (not to mention the politicians…), over and over again we ask those with whom we work to trust us. We’re not the bad guy — that’s other people!
A few weeks ago, my colleagues, Alicia and Jeff, and I agreed to try out being Blog Buddies. This was Alicia’s brain child. All three of us are blogging, so she suggested that we all write on the same theme one day, and then link to each others’ posts, and see what would happen. How would we take the theme in different directions? What would we learn from each other? Would our readership grow? We agreed upon the theme of Trust for our first effort in this experiment, and today is that day.
When we first chose our theme, my mind went to the conversations that we often have in school leadership. We regularly think about our work through the lens of Building Trust / Earning Trust / Deserving Trust. My favorite book on this topic is Stephen M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust. I’ve attended and run workshops on trust-building, and believe strongly that there is always more to learn about it. No matter how good we may think we are at this, we can all falter. We can all break trust, and then need to start again.
However, lately I’ve also thought a lot about Giving Trust, and that is my lens today, exploring trust through 3 avenues — Giving Trust to our Colleagues, Giving Trust to the Process, Giving Trust to the Universe.
Giving Trust to our Colleagues
One way to give trust to colleagues is to trust their work and their opinions. This part is easy! I work with incredibly smart, talented people — without question, I trust the high quality of their work and their professional views. I also think about trusting colleagues in relation to collaboration and time. It’s this: I am lucky to work in an extremely interdependent system. We try hard not to exist in silos, and thus when there is a project to do, rarely is one leader responsible for the whole thing. Much of what each of us does touches many other people and departments. This commitment to collaboration improves our products and decisions immensely, however there is a downside regarding our day-to-day work, as collaboration takes time, and time is a very precious commodity. We are BUSY! So, we find ourselves frequently waiting for each other (while the “other” is working on equally important projects!) — for questions to be answered, for one-to-one and group meetings to be held, for drafts to be reviewed. All of us sometimes ask others to find time for something, and all of us sometimes convey that we just don’t have time right now. We will soon! Why this big lead up? Because I think that trusting colleagues can mean trusting that they indeed are eager to work with us on something, and they will do so as soon as they can. The work ethic in my school system is truly exemplary, and we have to trust this ethic and the relationships that we’ve built enough to know that the work will indeed get done, and will be better because we’ve done it together.
We also rely upon this system-wide strong work ethic when it comes to our own departments. We believe whole-heartedly in surrounding ourselves with smart people, and then trusting them to manage their own work without top-down close scrutiny. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get involved in setting priorities, and of course we believe in the importance of checks and balances. But the “checking” can come from various people. In this case, trusting your colleagues means knowing that others are just as invested as you are in excellence, and then behaving as such.
As I consider Giving Trust in this context, it is not lost on me that there is, or at least there should be, a direct relationship between Giving Trust and Building / Earning / Deserving Trust. When our teams don’t believe that we trust them, then they don’t trust us. When we do trust them, and display this regularly, then strong trust grows between us. The thing runs on a continuous loop, I think. When the loop is broken, a swift attempt at repair is important. However, the loop may, well, hang by a thread for awhile. And, the more trust that existed previously, the more quickly the loop mends.
Giving Trust to the Process
Has anyone ever reminded you to trust the process? If not, then friend, I admire your patience! For many of us, trusting the process means knowing that when we skip steps, it shows in the end product. It also means remembering (or, if need be, reminding each other) that when we are worried about a situation, we likely already have a process in place to deal with just that type of thing. We have to just trust the process. Which can be slow. Which can be hard for us when we are worried, or hurried, or just generally impatient. (Impatience… seems like a theme… I feel another blog post coming on…)
Giving Trust to the Universe
There are many variations on this, some religious, some metaphysical, some that probably came directly from your mother. And in truth, this concept can be a bit hard to take in many contexts, as there are an awful lot of terrible things that happen in this world which can make it hard to trust that there is a reason for everything. And also it can be pretty hard to remember in the moment, even when the problems only FEEL gigantic. I remember once lashing out at my bewildered husband when he was trying to comfort me with, “It will be ok,” as I was sure that he did not know that! (Sorry, Larry… that was not nice of me back then…) (And also, thanks for not doing it again.) (Enough about my marriage.) But the point is this: if we want to subtract out the truly heinous things that happen to people, Trusting the Universe is a pretty good concept. And for many people, it rings true even in the most horrible circumstances. One of my colleagues has a sign in her office that I love, which reads: Not to spoil the ending, but everything is going to be ok. In most cases, I do believe that is true. It just may be a pretty painful route before we get there.
If you enjoyed thinking about trust with me, I hope you’ll also check out more thoughts on the subject from my colleagues, Alicia and Jeff! It was rather freeing for me to think about trust as a commodity to be given away. Its quantity isn’t finite, like for money or time. In fact, it multiplies.