What’s In Your JunePile? (2021) (8 Days of Positive Impact)

Well this is interesting. I wrote the first version of this blogpost on May 28, 2018. Rebooted it with some new thoughts on June 1, 2019, when I was transitioning into a new role but was the same person and educator at my core. And here I am, on May 20, 2021, returning to it once again. We are nearing the end of what is clearly the longest school year in the history of school years, and again I’m thinking about my JunePile and Positive Impact. So, this has become a little log of what runs through my head as an educator at the end of the school year. Perhaps your thinking is similar.

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!

May 20, 2021

It has been roughly 14 months since we closed our school buildings due to a pandemic. It has been roughly 3 months since we reopened our school buildings for hybrid learning. It has been roughly 2 months since we opened our doors for as many students as wanted to be onsite.

We have published… maybe 5 plans for schooling? I’ve lost count, really I have. I have forgotten exactly how many times I’ve stood before my school board with my amazing team to describe what school would look like next.

We have given up on the idea that the directives that we have to follow and make reasonable for our setting will be the same directives that we’ll receive tomorrow. We have given up on the idea that what happened before will substantially inform what will happen next. We have given up our egos — they didn’t serve us anyway.

It has been 9 months since I had shoulder surgery. It has been 4 months since I fell and broke my arm — same arm! I have been to exactly 65 Physical Therapy appointments since September. I know this. I just counted. I went on my birthday. I went this afternoon. I’m going again tomorrow.

But also… when I look out my office window in the middle of the day, there are now fifth and sixth graders hanging out at the picnic tables in the sunshine. Our exhausted teachers continue to show up physically and emotionally for our students every single day. Our weary parents and guardians appreciate so much more about teaching now that their living rooms/bedrooms/hallways have been classrooms. There is, I think, more gratitude than grief just now.

And also, I’ve added yoga back into my routine. It hurts, a lot. It feels great, a lot.

And also, it turns out that when you give up ego, you gain trust.

So back to that JunePile. It is huge! But also, it is shared, much more so than ever before. It isn’t mine, it is ours. And we’ll get through it, and toss what we don’t really need to do at all.

And the Days of Positive Impact? Well, there are exactly 8 days of school left. So, I just wrote 8 Days of Positive Impact on my calendar for tomorrow, and 7 for Monday. Days of Positive Impact. There’s no time for anything else than that.

We’re on the Last Leg of this Thing

How steep is too steep when cycling uphill? | Cyclist

Beth was a strong triathlete. I was a sluggish runner. And to celebrate our 40th birthdays, we decided to race together. I used to think that this story was about me, and the power of determination. Now, with humility, I realize that it is about my friend, and the power of support. Oh! Well now, that’s kind of embarrassing.

Beth and I have been best friends since my seventh birthday party. Secrets, sleepovers, summer camp, gymnastics team, school plays, we shared them all. And then, when we turned thirteen, she moved across the country. Somehow we kept the friendship going, and now we have hilarious and touching letters and audio tapes that tell the story of our friendship and our lives.

Exercise had always been a part of our connection starting way back to that YMCA gymnastics team, so racing together seemed like the perfect way to celebrate our entrance into our forties. I found the race for a wonderful “Girlfriends Weekend” in Galena, Illinois. Beth would fly in from Denver, and we’d drive from my home in the Chicago area to the sleepy town of Galena, filled with farms, wineries, gift shops, and bed-and-breakfasts. We’d race, drink wine, and relax at a lovely inn. There was only one problem: while Beth had been competing in triathlons for years, and I had run some races and liked to bike, I didn’t really swim. I mean, I COULD swim — I just had no interest in training as a swimmer.

But good news! The Galena event was a triathlon and a duathlon! Here’s the description of the event: For triathletes, the event begins with a swim in the waters of Apple Canyon Lake with a beach start & finish. Duathletes begin with a 2-mile run. The 2nd leg of the race is a breathtakingly beautiful 16.8-mile bike on the hilly & winding country roads of Jo Daviess County. The final leg is a 4.3-mile run, which winds up and down the picturesque lanes & roadways.

So, great! Beth could do the triathlon, I could do the duathlon, and everyone gets a trophy! (Ok, probably not that last part…) I wasn’t worried about the double run. I knew I could do a 2-mile and then a 4.3 mile later. I figured that the bike ride would be the challenge, as all of my biking had been for pure childlike enjoyment. I had no bike races behind me. So, ok, there was plenty of time to bike train between registration and the race. Problem solved!

But not really. Life got in the way, and while I kept my running going, I never really did get around to that bike training. Ok but no biggie! I can ride a bike, and I like it! I’ll just probably be really slow! That’s ok, I’m not in it to win the thing, just finish.

Have you been to Galena? I had not been there for years, and really just remembered that it was pretty and that there were a lot of shops. And I didn’t think much about that line from the event description: … 16.8-mile bike on the hilly & winding country roads of Jo Daviess County.

I remember my breath kind of catching in my throat as Beth and I drove into the county, her racing bike strapped to my car alongside my clunky bicycle. Hilly & winding country roads? Oh my. I mean, these were HILLS. Huge, steep hills. Up and down. There was, I knew, absolutely no way that I could bike up those hills. I was unprepared. I was quiet, and Beth was, too. She knew, too.

But hey, we said we were going to do this! So, we signed in, found our B&B, had our carb-loading dinner, and showed up early the next day, ready to race. Well, as we now know, Beth was ready to race. I guess I was ready… to have an experience. This was before we all toted cell phones around all day, so we figured out how we’d meet up after finishing. Then we gave good luck hugs, and went to our respective starts.

My start was that 2-mile run. This should have been no big deal for me… except that it was one mile UP a hill, and then another mile back. Um, I was used to running in the flat Chicago suburbs. By the time I was about halfway up that hill, I was already in last place. There it is.

On to the 16.8 bike ride. As I remember it, there was nobody around when I got up on my bike… that’s how far behind I was. Off I went, discovering within the first few minutes of the ride that I was absolutely unable to bike up the hills. Did not want to quit, though. Was not going to quit! So, I went with the “experience”, and, for 16.8 miles, I marched my bike up hills, chatted with the cows and lambs in the beautiful countryside beside me, got back on the bike at the top of each hill, and whizzed down. I was FAST going down those rolling hills! Look at me go… WHEEEEEE!

At one point, I heard someone calling to me from behind on a megaphone. I later learned that Beth, long finished with her race, had tearfully alerted the officials that her friend was still out there. Something must have happened to her friend! They were certain that all racers were in by now, and they were closing the course. NO! HER FRIEND WAS STILL OUT THERE! SHE WAS WEARING A BLUE SHIRT! So, yeah, there was a police car behind me, wanting to know if I needed help. I refused to talk with the officer, because I was afraid that in my exhausted state, I’d give in and climb into that car, defeated. BUT I WAS NOT GIVING UP. I was going to finish, and so I didn’t engage with the nice officer. I did turn once, though, and looked just long enough to see that behind me were that police car, a truck, a bus, and a line of cars. No, I’m not kidding about this. I had stopped traffic. In retrospect, I can see that it was really quite rude of me to put my own stubborn needs in front of those who had somewhere to be. I wish I could apologize, so many years later, and deeply hope that I was near the end of the bike ride when I made this selfish choice.

There, at the very bottom of the last hill, was Beth, running towards me with her arms up in either a hug or a V for Victory. Probably both. “You’re done!” she shouted. “You’ve finished!” She was laughing and kind of crying with relief that her friend was ok. And I looked at her, and said something like, “What? No I’m not. There’s one more leg! Still have that last run to do.”

So Beth, having already completed a 660 yard swim, a 16.8 mile bike in the hilly and winding country roads of Galena, and a 4.3 mile run, having already FINISHED HER RACE and gone through extreme worry about her hapless friend, decided to do that last leg with me. Yes, that’s right. She ran alongside me for another 4.3 miles. Supported. Me. The. Whole. Way. I can only imagine how exhausted she must have already been when she decided that she had over 4 more miles left in her, harvested because her friend needed support.

So I’ve been holding this story back. I’ve been blogging for a few years now, and told quite a few of my own stories in those posts. Not this one, though. I think it was because I couldn’t figure out what this story was about. Is the story about my own determination? Well, that’s just obnoxious. Is it about being so stupid that I would go forward while so ill-prepared? Well, that’s just embarrassing, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about the importance of preparation since then. I have people who count on me, and I can’t just forge ahead without putting in the work first (and I don’t).

Only now, as I reflect on this past most difficult year, and as I look forward to the next few months, do I realize that the story isn’t even mine. It’s Beth’s, and it’s about supporting others.

Here we are, 12 months into a pandemic. There has been so much loss. We have been worried, we have been in pain, we have been wretched. In the midst of all of that, we have also found the strength to pick people up around us, to run beside them when they need it.

Here we are, on the last leg of this thing. We can’t give up now. We can’t decide that we are all the way at the end when, in fact, we are not. There is still a 4.3 mile run ahead of us, and this last leg is incredibly important. Realistically, finishing that duathlon so long ago was important only to me. But doing this thing right, finishing strong when it comes to the pandemic — well, that should be critical to all of us. We are depending upon each other.

In schools (yes, my work as an educator always brings my focus back to schools), we have been through so much. We have planned and changed, drafted and scratched it out, stretched. We’ve done things we never, ever thought we could do. We are proud, and have learned. There are moments that we probably hope to forget. Through all of that, there has been support. Now, as we lean into the last few months of school, we are changing again. We are filled with pride and excitement and, yes, fear.

Please, everybody, grab a friend. Offer support and accept the grace of those who care about you. Finally, we are on the last leg of this thing. We can finish strong, together.

Turn Right

It was the summer of 2019, and I had carved out vacation time between leaving one job and beginning a new one. I wanted to clear mind clutter so I could start my new role completely ready to go. Central Park was my perfect setting, and I was meandering through the park, alone.

But first, all this: I have a very, very emotional connection to NYC generally, and to Central Park specifically, built through some wonderful visits. Although he primarily works from home (and of course, works completely from home in the Coronaverse), my husband’s work is based out of NYC. This has meant lots of travel there for him over the years, and I have tagged along quite a few times. During those trips, a typical day includes me wandering the city solo while he works, and then meeting up for a delicious dinner, maybe a show, maybe a fantastically crappy slice on the way home from a show.

So excited to see Trevor Noah… before it was the Daily Social Distancing Show!

Those meanderings through the city have meant so much to me. I have always been a good solo traveler/explorer. Being alone away from home allows me to completely immerse myself in a space, encourages me to take in the sights and smells and sounds in ways that I can’t when my attention is also on someone else. I once jotted down fragments of fascinating conversations that I heard on a blistering summer day in NYC. That may sound sketchy and creepy, but all I can say is it did not feel so at the time. I had a blast spinning mind fiction about what I was hearing. (Did you read Harriet the Spy as a child? One of my favs… it was kind of like that.) Of course, I love exploring the city with my husband, and have also experienced very special duo trips with each of my daughters to celebrate their 16th birthdays, and I have cherished opportunities to meet up with friends in the city. In short, for me, just about any way to vacation in this city is a good way.

And oh, the adventures that are possible! My college roommate and I stayed with my now long-passed great aunt in Manhattan for a few days in our early 20s. We got separated on the subway (one on, one off) due to a confused get-off-here-oh-no-the-doors-are-closing moment, and a madcap chase around the city ensued. This was long before cell phones, and included one of us sticking a note to a subway post with chewing gum. We also looked up and met a musician whom I had admired as a teenager. (In the end, he maybe was and maybe was not actually that musician, and this was perhaps a risky evening.) My oldest daughter Eliana and I ended her special birthday trip with a race to the airport after an unexpected, extended afternoon when we discovered a Red Carpet event for a Harry Potter movie premier, with stars galore. Also, Larry lovingly stores up his own culinary adventures from solo work trips, and then showers them down upon me when we visit together! Oh, and the music — truly, I can’t even. Add to these the quiet moments that are available, like breathing in the stillness of the New York Public Library main branch third floor in Manhattan, or staring up in wonder at the Ceremonial House Ceiling in the Oceania Exhibit at the Metropolitan Art Museum (“The Met” for us insiders…) (I must insert another children’s literature shout-out: cannot go to The Met without imagining being locked inside for a night, just like Claudia in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.) Every visit is an exquisite mix of the exciting and new and chances to re-experience spots that have grown familiar.

I always must visit the magnificent Ceremonial House Ceiling at The Met.

Perhaps one of my favorite elements of this city is that there is a surprise around every corner. Unlike my beautiful hometown of Chicago, which I feel has “these parts” and “those parts”, each with their own wonderful flavors, in NYC it seems as though the city can completely change as soon as you turn right down another street. Mixed-up flavors. Don’t like what you are looking at? Turn right! And, the park is like that, too. What do you want? Zoo? Bridge? Garden? Tower? Lawn? Monument? Boats? Bikes? Bench? All there.

Came upon this bench during my last visit to the park. How cool!

And, everybody who loves NYC (and the park, too, maybe) has their OWN NYC. Everyone wants to tell you about their special places and the BEST restaurants, and cannot believe that you have not visited them. Unless you really hate cities, there is truly something for everyone. Some reading this may be thinking, “Parks, shows, museums, libraries? Doesn’t this woman ever go to a sporting event?” (Do you know me? No.) “What about shopping?” But anyway, that’s the point. We are all different, and NYC celebrates all of us.

Way at the top of this story, I was wandering around Central Park, reflecting and clearing my mind. And now that I’ve made it through a tiny love letter to New York, I’m ready to return to that walk. It had been a rough and stressful spring for me for a lot of reasons. (See What’s in Your JunePile? Reboot… if you really want to know, and perhaps consider the Days of Positive Impact strategy that I used to get through the end of it… which could maybe be useful for any one of us just now…) I was ready to start my new job, and really wanted to shed myself of those stresses before beginning anew. And I had a visual for it. I’d walk into the park with that heavy backpack of stress weighing me down, I’d empty it somewhere along my path, and emerge from the park light and ready. Corny? You betcha. Didn’t care, still don’t. It was exactly what I needed, and it worked, and while unburdening myself, I also picked up two momentos from the day.

The first is the painting featured at the start of this writing. I came upon an artist in the middle of the park, and fell in love with his work, and spent at least an hour selecting the piece that spoke to me most. Let’s be honest — it is kind of gaudy. I know that, and I love that. But, while the colors are loud, the spot is serene, and that perfectly sums up a lot of what I typically need in and for my head. I also had fun searching the park to find the real spot, pictured below. That’s part of the magic of wandering alone. You can do exactly what you want, and I wanted to find and photograph that spot.

When my new painting arrived at home via FedEx tube, Larry and I hung it in our guest room, easily viewed from the hallway. I gazed at it often, remembering that trip and why it was important to me. And then the pandemic hit, and the guest room became my home office. Now, the painting hangs behind me, and every single person who has been on frequent video calls with me has seen it. With those bright colors, it isn’t really fade-into-the background art. Sometimes during a meeting, my eye will catch on my own image and background, and I will think about all that is on hold, and all that is waiting for us when we can emerge from this situation together. Some things will be forever changed, hopefully for the better. Also, hopefully, we will be able to return to what was already wonderful. To that end, I note that I was hesitant to even write and share about this now, as we ALL have things on hold. Some of us have lost people, moments, resources, and opportunities that we will never get back. So, to some extent, the fact that I’m yearning for a visit to NYC is a pretty low-level concern. But, yeah, maybe that’s part of the point. In the midst of true tragedy, it is still ok to acknowledge smaller losses. We can make space for desires alongside needs.

The second memento from the 2019 Day in Central Park is more of a talisman. I purchased a metal Central Park-themed water bottle for my new workplace. Knowing that I was headed into a new role in a new district with new stresses, I expected to have a special use for it: I’d have it with me in meetings, and if I needed a moment to gather myself, to pause before speaking, I could focus on that bottle. It would center me. Yes, it has been in use. I may have people from my work community reading this, and now they know that if they see me focusing on that bottle in a meeting, I may have something going on. That’s ok. I’m a real person who occasionally needs to settle down, just like everybody else. You might as well know.

Why did I take this seemingly random school picture during that last NYC trip? Well, it’s about another quirk of mine. Ever since I became a school principal in 1999, every single time I’ve passed an elementary or middle school during any trip away from home, I have paused to wonder what it would be like to be a teacher in or the principal of that school. Not a conscious choice, just something that happens. What would the families be like? How could I best support the staff? What would the children need? What would I learn there? I note that when I began working in school HR, I didn’t wonder about the HR needs of that vacationland district. Now that I am a superintendent, I don’t see another school and wonder about what it would be like to be the superintendent in that far-from-home community. I absolutely love my role in education, would not be doing anything else, anywhere else, but still, those imaginings are always about being a teacher or principal, being within the beating heart of that school. So, yeah, I took that picture then, and now I am wondering how the NYC students and parents and staff are faring during the pandemic. I know what I read and see on the news. I know how it is for my school district. Everywhere, we are doing our very best, and everywhere, we are exhausted, worried, frustrated, proud, learning, and, when we can muster it, motivated and hopeful.

Last May, our youngest graduated from CU in Boulder. We had travel plans and accomodations booked, family coming from all over to celebrate our daughter and enjoy Colorado. Of course, in the end, we could not go. Sophie did not walk, but there were still graduation pictures!

In the midst of our combined sadness about not being able to be there to celebrate graduation, we promised Sophie that when we can do so safely, we’ll treat/meet her for a trip to NYC. I’m not sure who that cheered up more, Sophie or me. Anyway, we WILL do it. And even though we will be in the city as a family, I expect that I will crave a trip through Central Park alone. However, instead of visualizing the shedding of stresses like last time, I imagine that I will be reflecting on all of the new skills and knowledge that I’ve gathered since the start of the pandemic. I won’t want to lose those, just figure out how to put them to the best use as I turn right towards a new view.

On Being Found by a Mentor

Cast Photographs | Oliver! | Oliver twist, Nancy oliver twist, Theatre geek
Well of COURSE that isn’t me at the age of 14 playing Nancy in Oliver! Don’t be ridiculous…

How do you get from singing along to the Broadway station on Sirius XM to reviewing your professional mentoring history? I’ll tell you how…

I was on the way to work, distracting myself from some major worries with show tunes. Love me, don’t judge me! On came a song from The Pajama Game, the musical that my junior high school produced when I was in the sixth grade. THAT brought me to the next year’s musical – Fiddler on the Roof. I played Hodel, the political activist daughter who follows her man to Siberia for love, and eighth grader Mark Adams played Tevya, my father. The NEXT year we did Oliver! I had my heart set on the female lead role of Nancy — the saucy, gutsy, abused girlfriend who is bludgeoned to death. (I could NOT make this UP! And, for what it is worth, I have no memory of any “listen kids, abuse is wrong, please don’t be traumatized, we’ll help you through this” talks from any adults who were connected to the show. That is perhaps another blog piece.)

Anyway. What I remember about the audition is that for some reason, Mark Adams, last year’s leading actor, now a high schooler, was present for the auditions. Maybe he was invited to “help”? And before I brought my small self up to the front of the room, he handed me a notecard. On it were some notes, some tips, written just for me. I think there were some vocal suggestions, but the specific comment I remember was: “Don’t play around on your clogs.” (It was 1980. We wore lots of clogs.) I didn’t. Maybe in part because of Mark’s tip, I stood firmly and confidently, sang my heart out, and got the role!

Ok, so WHY in the world do I remember that? I am pretty sure it is because it was my first brush with mentoring. In a very small way, Mark was mentoring me. Here’s the deal… this high school boy had no designs on me. I don’t think he was asked to hand out notecards (I didn’t see anyone else get one.) I think he saw something in me, and wanted to help me along. I remember the moment because this older person, someone I admired, showed me that I was worthy of his time and attention. Mentoring.

My next mentoring memory? I was walking down the stairs at my friend David’s house. He and Andy and I were all teachers, and David and Andy were just finishing a principal preparation program. The two of them were trying to convince me that I should pursue the role, too. They told me that I would be an awesome principal, and probably told me why. I hadn’t been thinking about that path, and then suddenly I was. And I did it. Now, many years later, I am a school superintendent. In this case, mentoring was just a gentle push, again coming from someone seeing something in me.

(Please keep in mind that all of this thinking is going on with The Broadway Station playing, while driving on autopilot, early in the morning…)

After that came, I think, a bunch of No Mentoring. Or, at least, I don’t remember anyone taking me under their wing for a long time. I could have used a mentor as a young teacher who could not find my place on my teaching team. I could have used a mentor as a beginning principal who went right from teacher to principal. (Yes, now that I think of it, I did have a wonderful formal mentor who was paid to work with the new administrators. She was a retired principal, and excellent, and I was grateful to learn with her. But — that is different from having someone see something in you and say, “Yes. Of my own volition, I want to help this person. I want to help her develop into who she can be.”) Anyway, teacher-to-principal is pretty difficult, and I could have used someone around who voluntarily filled my bucket.

Indeed, I do believe in formal mentoring programs, and in fact built one for a statewide professional association when I served on their executive board a few years back. Participation was voluntary for mentors and mentees, and I feel that we helped people. Still, though, not the same as someone specifically selecting you, helping you to find your greatness. There is, I believe, a vast difference between being assigned a mentor, and being found by a mentor.

Kate was also my mentor. She was my superintendent for four years, and she made it very clear, very early on, that she was invested in me becoming a superintendent. She was there to listen and advise and question and gently push. I came to her undecided. By the time our working relationship ended, I was decided. I am so very grateful for all of her words of wisdom. Now, every once in a while, I will think or say something, and realize: I am channelling Kate.

This brings me to two amazing mentors. The first is my husband, who is currently in the other room blogging, too, and does not know that I’m writing about him. Many years ago, Larry was a youth group advisor and religious high school principal, and the connections that he built with his high schoolers most definitely surpassed the typical student/advisor relationship. And it wasn’t because he was a friend. He was a mentor. He pushed his kids, he asked them questions, he expected things. He gave each of those teenagers all of the time that they needed. He helped them find their truth. All these years later, he still gets invited to weddings, is sent baby pictures, schedules coffee dates with his former students. I feel very sure that many of them have paid it forward, going on to become mentors themselves.

This brings me to Rabbi Mark Shapiro. Rabbi Shapiro was my rabbi growing up, and Larry worked for him during that advisor/principal period of his life. There is a Facebook Group called “I Am a Jewish Leader and Mark S. Shapiro Was My Rabbi!”, and there are 127 members, some of whom are pictured above in a photo from… probably the early ’90s. I know almost all of the people in this photo, people who looked to this magnificent rabbi as their mentor. Those people became who they were professionally at least in part because Rabbi Shapiro watered that seed for them. He let them know that they could and should do it. He let them know that they were needed. He mentored them. When this great leader passed away a few months ago, everybody who knew him had a story of how they were touched by him, how he made them feel special. And those who were truly mentored by him know that it is their duty to go out and find heart and talent and beauty in others.

Of course, writing all of this, I have thought of many others who have played mentoring roles for me. I won’t write about all of them here, as really, this isn’t about me. It is about our collective responsibility to find greatness in others, to invite, to suggest, to give of our time. I am committed to this concept, and feel confident that it is a moral imperative for each of us to let others know that we see something special in them, we see something that maybe they don’t see themselves yet. This is work that should never be finished. So, I’ll leave it here:

Thank you Mark. Thank you Andy and David. Thank you Kate. You probably don’t remember any of this. But I do, and I’m trying to pay it forward, feet solidly on the ground, not playing around on my clogs.

I Bonded with a Third Grader at the DMV

Yep, that’s me, entertaining myself with a window selfie while waiting in line at the DMV

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.”

“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.

On-the-Ground Intel: What Happens During the First Days of School?

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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.

Welcome back to school, friends!

Standing in the Same Space

Photo Credit: Larry Glickman

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.

My picture, not Larry’s…

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.

Because I Wandered In

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.

Guests are welcome to pick up and play any instruments. Three times a year, musicians gather from around the world to come here and write music together. Cathy told us that musicians gather in a circle, and play a version of Spin the Bottle — instead of creating kissing couples, the bottle creates music-writing partners for the week.
Guests have breakfast at this 50’s era counter top. The breakfast diner is known for it’s free-flowing coffee, and hard-boiled eggs.

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.

The Labels We Carry

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.

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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.