Saturday, April 4, 2020

Writing on the Bell Curve

“You’re a fine writer,” Professor Slote told me. “But there’s a student in the class who is better. He gets the ‘A’.” He lifted his shoulders dismissively. “That’s how it works in my class. One ‘A,’ one ‘F.’ Everyone else falls somewhere in between.”

I started to cry, a reaction I regret to this day. I'm still mad that I cried. I couldn't have stopped, though; the tears were of frustration and fury, born from fifteen weeks of hard work, early morning hours spent in a cold basement computer lab, revisions and edits beyond count, all to to fit my words to this man’s schema of good writing.

“I’m not sure why you’re crying,” he said, genuinely flummoxed. “It’s a Bell Curve. Have you ever heard of the Bell Curve?” He pulled a piece of paper from the printer beside his desk and drew a gigantic, upside-down bell. “Here is the best writer in the class,” he said, starting below the hill. “He’s what we call the ‘cognitive elite’.” Then, making a slash on the beginning of the curve’s ascent, he said, with a flourish, “And this is you.”

I couldn’t think of a thing to say, except, miserably, “I really wanted to get straight ‘A’s this semester.”

“Not my problem,” he shrugged. “Listen, kiddo. It’s just the way the world works. It’s a hard, hard place to be. Part of my job is to get you ready for it.”

This story bubbled up recently with a group of my college pals. We were reminiscing about freshman-year requirements at our liberal arts college. Every freshman had to take an introductory humanities, science, art, and writing class, intended to be foundational classes to prepare, inspire, and lead us toward a major fitting our skills and interests.

I hated those classes because they were supposed to be standardized, equal, and fair— and they were anything but. Receiving a ‘B’ in an introductory writing class was massively bothersome to me; I mean, I was planning to major in English, for cryin’ out loud. I had friends who were barely functioning as students—skipping class or, worse, showing up reeking of binge drinking; turning in papers scratched out in the TV lounge over a game of euchre; open, guffawing mocking of the intro classes and how easy they were. Those students, though, were given clear, easy marks of 100% for their papers. I thought it was deeply unfair. They thought it was hilarious. “Bad luck,” they said, not sorry.

The problem with standardized classes, of course, is teachers aren’t standardized. They carry wildly different philosophies, strategies for instruction, and—we all know this, intimately—deeply conflicting approaches to grading. Professor Slote’s approach wasn’t conflicted in him, mind you; he saw it as a very simple mathematical equation, and there was exactly zero wiggle room.

But the teacher isn’t the only problem with standardized classes. Students aren’t standardized any more than teachers and instructors and professors are. Every single one is different. It can be argued, I suppose, that humans fit on a Bell Curve—if you look at all six billion of us as a lump, and if you’re up for a raucous debate about the dehumanizing nature of using such a curve— but learners don’t.

It’s not that we should be afraid of generosity with ‘A’s; in many ways, that’s problematic just as is an unwavering commitment to a Bell Curve. And we certainly shouldn’t give an ‘A’ just because a kid asks for one. But grades require a bit more thinking than a lot of the things we do.

My freshman year goal for perfect grades was, indeed, problematic. Professor Slote was right about that. Any goal in which “less than perfect” is a failure is doomed in many ways. But it took a lot of time and perspective for me to understand why. Professor Slote’s approach was to poo-poo the goal and tell me the world was hard. Far better—so much better—would have been for him to sit down and talk about it with me and, perhaps, do a little thinking and reflecting of his own.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Polio in 1954 and Cancelled School

Sixty-seven years ago, when my father was five, his entire spring term of kindergarten was cancelled because of the polio epidemic.  He was delighted.  He could play outside!  All day, every day!  At the perfect time, too!  Winter had faded; trees were blooming into spring and the days were lengthening into warmth.  I imagine him, all full of sass, dusty nose and monkey bars and bikes and baseballs, sprinting pell-mell down the street to stir up mischief.  Many kids weren't allowed outside, but some kids were, and they thought it was great fun to sneak up to spy on the houses of kids who were stuck inside, and feel very, very sorry for them.

School was closed because a neighborhood girl got polio.  The vaccine had just come out—my father remembers the shot— but it came too late for her.  Adults talked about it relentlessly.  They worried.  It was a different time, so the worry and infection was kept relatively local.  Dying wasn't the fear;  death statistics actually weren't that eye-popping.  It was this: Polio sought out kids.  Kids!  The fever was polio's weapon—it climbed so high kids' arms and legs stopped working.  For the rest of their lives.  My father knew a boy who got a fever at a church picnic one Sunday afternoon, was hospitalized the next day, and when he came out six weeks later he'd lost use of his leg forever and ever and ever.

My father's mother stayed inside and prayed and made hamburger soup.  His father went into the city to work and slept with a gun beneath his pillow.  They were scary times, and polio wasn't the only fear.  But it wasn't scary for a boy with a free pass to play outside, untethered, for months and months. And besides, with school closed, he wouldn't get in trouble with his kindergarten teacher at nap time anymore.  He was asked to sleep on a little rug.  He couldn't.  He couldn't be still.

And here we are, all these years later.  It's been said these are unprecedented times.  Maybe not, but they are different.  Right now, parents all over are fighting conflicting urges.  Let the kids outside to play, or keep them inside with known germs?  Hoard food and toiletries, or be generous and take only what is needed?  Scramble for schedules and structure, or let things play out naturally?  Fight against screen time, or look the other way for a few months?  Back and forth, back and forth.

Someone asked me if am am scared.  No, I'm not.  I wouldn't even know what to fear, actually, and—thanks be— I'm in a mental place where my fears don't take on a life of their own.  The younger me worried relentlessly about all possible versions and outcomes of all possible problems.  In third grade, I sat in class and systematically, diligently, doggedly gnawed every fingernail down to blood, ripped every cuticle until I bit my lip in pain.  Worry used to give me a perpetual stomachache.

Mark Twain said worrying is paying a debt you don't owe.  He also said he'd spent most of his life worrying about things that never happened.  So worry isn't the answer here.  It's a side affect, certainly, but it's not a strategy or a plan.

There are strategies and plans, and they are different for everyone.  I'm finding my own, just like I'm finding good in all of this. I won't list my good things here, lest I be judged, but they're there.  They always are, if we look hard enough.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A cancelled conference... But! Yay! A new book!

I'd been waiting for the email, assuming it would come.  Coronavirus fear kept building, and all the media output, opinions, and cancellations were piling up.  On the phone, my sister said it was coming.  She was making pancakes for her kids, so I heard the rattle of the spatula and the sizzle of the butter behind her words, and I could picture her shrug.  "They have to cancel, Jen.  They can't not.  It's too scary."  My friends and colleagues said it was coming; one of them, in particular, should be in Austin right now at the SXSW conference, a trip she'd been excited about for over a year. She'd gotten an email twelve hours before her flight telling her it was off. Ahh, but I held on: Maybe cancellation wouldn't happen.  Not to me.  Not to me, to us, the thousands of people who love ASCD's Empower20, one of the best-known and highest-attended school leadership conferences in the world.  Hope isn't a strategy, of course, but it's all I had:  I so hoped this virus would run its course by the time a decision had to be made.

Alas, the email came at noon yesterday:  Empower20 was cancelled.  Contact your airline and hotel, they said.  They were sorry, they said.  Give us a minute, they didn't say.  Give us a hot freakin' minute and don't flip out and please, please understand, they didn't say.  I was overcome thinking of the people scrambling to unravel all the strands of planning—and then cancelling—such a gigantic undertaking.  There was much to do. Much to unpack, undo, unthink.  I ached, too, for the people who'd had to decide to actually pull the plug, of the Board of Directors who had to raise their hands in an aye vote. The impact of that vote was enormous.

On hold with the Renaissance Hotel in Los Angeles, trying to find a human being who could cancel my three-night reservation, I tried to calculate how many people were affected.  Tens and tens of thousands.  Hundreds of thousands. More?  And all the conferences, really, all over the world—all the meetings, events, performances, all the years of planning, buying, ordering, consulting, scheduling, shuffling, marketing, organizing...

Sheesh.  My head spun.

Sheepish admission:  Yes, I took a selfish moment to mourn the death of my presentation.  It was titled No Way, Not Me:  Disrupting the Path to Principal Burnout.  I was really proud of it.  Finally I'd mastered Google Slides, and finally was going into a presentation with full confidence. But my presentation was—is— an itty bitty microscopic casualty of this whole thing, and I didn't let myself be bummed, because my bummed-out-ness was inconsequential in scale, and of course would do nothing to contribute to fixing a single part of this mess.  So I'll keep washing my hands, walking my dog, and look forward to this virus doing what it needs to do so we can do the next right and fun thing.

Besides, I have something to look forward to!  This!  Yay!  Late next week my new book will be released!

Like my first one, it is published by ASCD and is called The Principal Reboot:  Eight Ways to Revitalize your School Leadership.  The book covers eight categories that tend to get pretty tricky-and-sticky for principals, and holds a bunch of ideas for how to start to have a bit more fun with the job.  It's a book for veteran principals, sure, but it's also for anyone who works in a school and is looking for innovative ideas to boost things a little.  Bring some shine and sass to an immensely complicated and exhausting job.  Avoid burnout.  Be inspired.  Have fun.  Laugh.

So far, I'm unspeakably blessed that coronavirus has only marginally affected my life and my plans.  But a lot of people have lost a lot.  I'm thinking of them all.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Heyyyyyyy girrrrrl.... Women in Leadership

I recently presented at a Women in Leadership conference.  I've presented enough now that I don't get  terribly nervous; I prepare, I review, I gather myself, and I go do it.  It's fine. Fun. I really like it.

But this time, I was really, really nervous.

Why, though?  This was supposed to be my tribe.  The group most welcoming and forgiving.  Being surrounded by my own kind should have given me a sense of you-can't-mess-this-up, a confidence so strong I could almost touch it.

Instead, I wondered if I should have found the time to get some gel nails. Why I hadn't gotten my hair done?  I wished I'd picked a different outfit.  Was my mascara smeared?  Had I even remembered to put it on?  What about deodorant? I wished I looked more put together, calmer, less oh-my-god-where-are-my-keys and more I-have-this-all-figured-out.

The source of my anxiety wasn't in dispute: I didn't want to let them down.

Because, I mean, what could I say?  What hadn't these women already heard, felt, dealt with, considered, read?  I could talk about all the versions of mental illness I'd grappled with in my life, but they'd probably already lived through their own versions of that story, and besides, this presentation wasn't about me:  It was about them.  Okay, then.  Maybe I could give them a giant pep talk about being a woman in leadership.  The problem with that approach?  I was actually feeling pretty crappy and lonely as a female leader right then, and I didn't want to be inauthentic or dishonest.  So.  Perhaps I could just bust on men.  That was easy, and seemed something I could get away with:  Empowering women by diminishing men.  But—ugh!— I didn't want to do that, either, because I don't believe women should think about their place in the world in terms of the men in it.

What, then?

I thought about the well-adopted myth that women who live or work in close quarters will find their menstrual cycles begin to sync.  I've always loved this idea.  In college, in a house on Locust Street, my five female roommates and I would do the eye-roll-giggle, conspiratorial and team-like, at how we all seemed to get our periods at around the same time.  It felt good to think of our bodies working together, talking to one another without our knowledge, lockstep and moving forward together.  It was comforting and safe, a biological nod to our one-ness.  Here's the problem:  It's not true.  Turns out the statistical likelihood of some sort of menstrual cross-over, in the course of twenty-some-odd days, with a group of women, is why it feels we're all doing it together.  But that's all it is.  A feeling. "Period Drama," Act 4 of this episode of This American Life, explains all of this.  Give it a listen if you don't believe me.

So that's what I talked about with these women.  Not about our menstrual cycles, exactly, but instead about how it feels when women come together, not as verified by science, but as a product of being ourselves and believing we are better together.  About having an unspoken alliance and loyalty to one another.  About lifting one another up instead of tearing at the throats and jugulars of other women.  How competition between women can kill our best parts and leave us diminished, lonely, and without a safety net.

In the end, despite all the pre-angsting, the presentation was probably one of my best.  My message felt delivered and received, the intent achieved:  We, as women, collectively, have a choice.  We can choose toxicity or we can choose positivity.  With one another, I mean.  Hey, girls.  Hey:  We don't have to feed into stereotypes created for us, about us.  We can work together to be our very best versions of the women we are.

So let's do that.  K?

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discharge me from the hospital.  I couldn't wait to start my new life with my husband and my perfectly perfect, brand new baby boy.  Time's not flying, I thought.  It's just getting started.

"I know, I know," I said, sick to death of hearing it.  "Everyone tells me, 'Don't blink!  It'll be over before you know it!' "

"Actually, you don't know. You can't know until you experience it."  She scrawled her signature on the last form. "My kids are forty and forty-two."  She seemed edgy.  Bitter?  Resentful?  I wondered, subconsciously, as I often do around testy people, if there was anything I could say or do to make her feel better.

"But you're so proud of them, right?" I tried.  "I mean, I'm sure you miss them being so little, but I bet there are wonderful things about being a Mom to grownups.  Right?"

She stared at me.  Not kindly, either.  "It's not about what I miss or what I like.  It's about the passage of time.  You can't stop it or catch it.  It's like water in a sieve."

She looked down again at the tiny human in my arms, and her expression softened a little.  "Well, let's get you home." She stood and helped me into a wheelchair.  Wordlessly, she pushed us out of the room, down the elavator, and into the soft spring air to my husband's waiting truck.

It took years figure out what she was saying to me.  It took getting dunked into the everyday work of being a parent to really understand the elusiveness of time.

The days have been long—sometimes painfully so—but oh, oh how quickly the years are going.  I've been marveling as my children turn into real humans.  My friends tell me this is just the beginning; they say it'll just be a minute until I'm an empty nester and I won't know what happened.

Why, then, do days sometimes seem like an endless slog of sameness, in spite of what will, someday, feel like rapid change?

A friend of mine has taught sixth grade for over twenty years.  A few months ago, over a cup of coffee, she mused, "I spend my days with people who are always the exact same age.  It's like time stands still in my classroom."  Ahhhh, yes, I thought, struck: There it is.  Time stands still for teachers, who work with young people in the beginnings of their lives, day after day after day, and those students stay the same age.  Then, if we're parents, we go home and contend with the unexpected marvel of our own little people turning into bigger and bigger people. This is the quandary of educators, especially if we haven't changed jobs or grade levels much.  It's why time is such a fickle thing for us.  That's why we can say, with a completely straight face, "This week flew!" and then, in the next breath, "God, this week seemed to take ten days." And we are precisely, exactly correct in saying both.

The nurse was right.  It isn't only about what we love, hate, dread, desire, aspire, or regret, or what we miss when it's gone.  It's also about capturing time when we can, and about understanding that it's immeasurable.  We can't control time and we certainly can't change how it feels as it flows by.  And we don't know until we experience the elusiveness of it.  Like water in a sieve.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Managing Hard Days

I was deeply unhappy in college.  Freshman year, I kept a pencil by my bed and made a little slashmark on the wall next to my bed, without fail, every evening, before I slept: One more day over. The mark indicated I’d accomplished something, even if only the simple act of getting through another day of college. Transferring wasn’t an option; I had scholarship money I’d lose, and the yoke of liberal arts education is no freshman year classes will likely transfer to another school. I was stuck. I pored over the college catalogue, finding a loophole in the system to get out in three years by taking summer classes at a local university and signing up for upwards of 26 credit hours each semester. When I’d pulled it off, and applied for graduation a year early, the dean apparently threw a tantrum. How had this happened? How hadn’t my advisor known I was planning an early exit? Did the registrar, bursar, or transcript office not catch this? Three years? It was unacceptable; liberal arts graduates couldn’t possibly be well-rounded and "career ready" if they busted through the college’s rigorous curriculum in just three years. Could they, now? 

Didn’t matter:  It was too late.  The only thing he could do, at that point, anyway, was listen to the screeching of my tires as I left town. I had two suitcases, a pile of cash from my last shift at Red Lobster, and a fierce, unrelenting belief I could survive anything.

I didn’t hear his tantrum; my advisor only told me of it, years later. She’d been “written up” for approving my courses each semester. They'd dinged her for "lack of communication." I was, by then, back on solid footing and making a nice life for myself. I told her how grateful I was; she’d known I was unspeakably unhappy, and the only thing she could do, in any practical sense, was sign my class sheets without questioning me.  It took just a silent, swift scrawl of her pen. 

I tell this story because I believe being unhappy, struggling, fighting through misery, makes us stronger, better people. I worry we don’t let kids fight through unhappiness. We want to take it away. Find its origin and kill it. Lie, cheat, steal, or punish so our little people don’t suffer. Look for ways around it. Deny bad days, or, failing that, try to make it all better with pep talks, ice cream, or by raging at the person who caused it. Lordy, I get it: I hate seeing my kids in pain. One of them has a particularly heart-wrenching cry, and it makes me actually ache to see it.

But I know—I've lived—the power of fighting through misery.

It’s not just kids I’m worried about. Adults feel pressure to be happy, to be grateful, to find the good in their lives. I call bull on that. We all have crappy days, crappy weeks, crappy years. Why deny it?

“Sometimes the only thing to do is get up, brush your teeth, and make yourself do something.”  So said my father when I was a kid and didn’t feel good. Or when I was sad. Or depressed. Anxious. Frustrated. Overwhelmed. That’s the strategy I was raised on, and it’s in my bones, now:  Get up and do something. Even if it’s a teeny-tiny something. Something. One thing. Any thing.  

“When you feel your worst, that’s when you most need to pull out your very best dress, put on a little extra blush, and make yourself march in to work.”  So said my first boss, a baller principal who really, really loved her blush. She's right. Being miserable is hard when you know you look good.

My husband has a strategy, too.  He reminds me of it this time of year, when we’re both in the rut of gray January days:  “Every day, find at least one thing you’re looking forward to.” This one works really well for me. Sometimes they are super-simple things. My breakfast of avocado toast. My workout. My chai latte. A hot bath at days' end. The sweet, sweet moment stretch my legs between the crispy cool sheets and let my eyelids rest.  

Rather than work around hard times, we need to work through them, and we need to show others— kids, our students, our mentees—to do so, too. Looking forward really works. In the evenings, when I think about the next day, rather than despair about all the crap on my schedule, I find I actually have a lot to be excited about, especially if I allow teeny tiny things to be Things to Look Forward To. It's not about gratitude, necessarily; it's a simple decision to have —and enjoy— a decent day.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Experience of Living

I don't watch much TV, but every now and then, especially in winter or on thick, thundery or snowy days, my kids and I get into a blankets-and-bodies pile for an episode or ten of Top Chef.  A few seasons back, Fatima Ali was our favorite contestant.  She had all the things: Talent, wit, sass, thoughtfulness and kindness.  An immense amount of natural, honest beauty.  She felt more real than the other contestants.  I admired her.  The fact that she... well, existed made me feel good.

But a few months ago, in an episode somewhere in the middle of the current season, there was a line, white-against-black, in the closing credits:  "In memory of Fatima Ali."


A quick Google search told me the story:  She was gone.  Cancer.  Twenty-nine years old.

Here's what she said in an essay as she sensed her time waning:

It's funny, isn't it?  When we think we have all the time in the world to live, we forget to indulge in the experiences of living.  When that choice is yanked away from us, that's when we scramble to feel."  She went on, "I was always deathly afraid of being average in any way, and now I desperately wish to have a simple, uneventful life." 

I found a lot to think about here, layered between sadness about her death, about the death of someone so sparkling and real.

It's so stupid-easy to forget to indulge in the experiences of living.  To get stuck on a fear of being average.  To forget the value in a simple, uneventful life.

This school year, I'm trying to focus on enjoying the littlest things, and not scramble for them, either, but actually seek them, find them, and feel them right when they're happening.  Last night I had a ghost itch on my foot and I took my sneaker off and scratched and literally marveled at how good it felt, but even more than that, I marveled that I'm now old enough and focused enough to notice my own ability to feel something fantastic in simplicity:  The scratch of my own itch.  And all the magical things that happen in a day, like that ten-minute period of sweet silence when every child is in a classroom and there aren't any problems to solve, for just that moment.  Or when the thunderstorm holds off until the precise millisecond every child gets off the bus and safely into the building.  Or when  kid comes up behind me and gives me one of those for-real hugs. The feeling of connecting with a staff member in a new way.  Or other things, too, in everyday, average life:  The first bite of a homemade brownie.  The way my dog looks at me.  When I don't muck up the polish on my toenails.  The satin-y feel of September, when the air is neither too hot nor too cold and really nothing at all except perfect.

In a job where we're all running around with sledgehammers, using will and strength to eliminate and tear down problems, it's nice to flip things around and consciously slow down to enjoy the simple and the uneventful.

Rest in peace, Fatima.  I am grateful for you and your acceptance that average isn't something to fear.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Mrs. J Goes Rogue

In sixth grade,  my classmates and I were caught in the middle of a bit of a hubaloo in my rural elementary school.  It was 1983, and the idea of gifted education was just beginning to sprout from, well, nonexistent roots.

All fifth and sixth grade teachers were asked to identify gifted students from their classes.  Once a week, those students would go to the cafeteria for "gifted class," taught by an "enrichment expert" they'd brought over from the junior high school.  Only those teacher-identified kids, though:  All the others would stay in their regular classrooms.  To be ungifted, presumably.

Most teachers did as asked, and letters were sent to parents.  Your child's teacher has indicated that your child exhibits learning and behaviors of a gifted child.  Every Monday afternoon, your child will receive special instruction... or something like that. Classroom teachers distributed the letters, concealed in long white envelopes: "To the parents of..."

At the time, I didn't know any of this was happening.  Because I was a student in Mrs. J's class.

Mrs. J. instinctively and immediately recoiled against the whole thing.  She quietly ignored her principal's mandate, refusing to bear the responsibility of such a subjective and arbitrary gifted identification process.

So on the first Monday, when the principal's voice boomed from the P.A., asking for all gifted students to come to the cafeteria, Mrs. J. stopped us, right in the middle of our study of the solar system.  Pack up your Trapper Keepers and follow me," she said.  Innocents, all, we did.  The principal's eyes widened as we walked in, all 27 of us, single file, led by the marchy-marchy Mrs. J.

He sputtered.  "What is this?"

"Gifted students," she said.

"But... you were to identify them.  A small number of them.  Five, or six, at the most."

"All my students are gifted," she said, firmly and fiercely and full of fight.

I don't know what happened next.  I can't remember a single thing beyond the set jaw of Mrs. J. and the stunned expression on the principal's face.  Never before, or perhaps since, have I seen, in person, someone so unafraid of her position, of the why and where and how she stood.  It was a marvel, being defended in that way.  I mean, she stuck up for us.  All of us.  "All my students are gifted," she'd said.  All my students are gifted. 

I don't know if she got in trouble, or if the gifted class continued, or if the principal took a step back and rallied the gifted identification process toward fairness and transparency.  Didn't matter, really, because Mrs. J.'s 27 students had learned more that afternoon than any gifted class could begin to teach.

Not long ago, in a Facebook exchange with Mrs. J., another of my classmates recalled this moment.  "You were such a badass, Mrs. J.," the student said.  Mrs. J.—mid-seventies, perhaps, or maybe older by now—simply left a winky, smily emoji in response.  Right in character.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Pull to Apologize

I received an email from the editor of a teacher blog.  She asked if I would write a couple articles as a guest author.  I angsted about how to reply, finally landing on this.  “I’m not a teacher,” I responded.  “Is that okay?”

I recognized my question was an apology of sorts.  Not because I’m actually sorry.  I just suspect I shouldbe sorry, or, more accurately, I feel like the teacher readers would wantme to be sorry, because I am, admittedly and indisputably, no longer a teacher.  Indeed, it’s been 13 years since I taught in a traditional classroom.

“Oh, C’Mon.  You teach,” said one of my loyal friends.  She was referring to my work as a graduate instructor.  That doesn't count, I told her.  My graduate teaching doesn’t require a tenth of the paperwork and requirements of teachers in a traditional K-12 classroom.  Nor does it require dealing with—oh, you know. Small children.  Teenagers.  Or, most of all, parents.  “It’s not realteaching,” I lamented.  

I’m a principal now, a principal with an urge to apologize because I’ve left the teaching club.   

There are a lot of clubs, of course.  Many many many many clubs.  The parenting club. The athlete club.  The church club.  The aging-parents club.  The overweight club.  The wine club.  The scarred-childhood club.  The disability club.  The dog club. The cat club.  The minivan club.  The big house club.

And of course for every club, there is a counter-club.  The not-parent club.  The I-was-never-an-athlete club.  The cat club. The I’ll-never-ever-ever-drive-a-minivan-club.  And so on.

Being in a club feels good. Everyone wants a tribe, and we love finding and surrounding ourselves with others who share club membership with things we are, the things we do, the things we care about.  Defecting, though, is difficult and disconcerting.  It gives us that urge to apologize.  

I grew up on a farm surrounded by Amish and Mennonite families.  The neighbor girls, sisters, Rosanne and Christy, were my closest friends; we ran between our two farms, often atop horses or Schwinns.  But there was this shadow, this thing—a worry, heavy and weighty, almost visible—and they carried it all the time, whispered of it, like an inevitable, impending disaster:  Excommunication from the church.  It lived in them as a low-grade anxiety, watching for them to do any number of unforgivable things.  They couldn’t, for example, remove their bonnets or let their hair out of a bun. Wear pants, or shoes with color, or a dress with fabric that wasn’t on an approved texture palette.  Shout or sweat on a Sunday.  Or, for that matter, do anything on Sunday.  Once, Christy had a legit panic attack because she thought she saw her bishop drive by and spot her not wearing her bonnet.  

“I don’t understand how they can just kick you out,” I’d ask, confused, uncertain, then, of how you could just lose your membership to something that defined you.  

“They can,” they’d fret. 

“But it’s who you are.”

Shrug.  “It’s who we are now,” they said.   “But you never know….” 
Whenever we leave a club, by choice or force, we feel badly, like we have betrayed someone—other members of the club, certainly, but worse, ourselves.  No wonder there is an urge to apologize. No wonder we miss it when it's gone. Virtually all my principal friends look a little longingly in the rear-view mirror at their teaching days, sad and sorry they are no longer teaching. 

I think I’ll l always be a little sorry I’m no longer an English teacher.  It’s been many years, but I still think of it a little wistfully, especially this time of year, when I wish I were still in that club. 

But we shouldn’t apologize.  Leaving clubs is a form of change, of following a calling or an opportunity.  I'm starting my fourteenth year as an administrator.  This is my club now, and I'm just super-lucky my club crosses paths with my previous club. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Accepting Anger

My friend Amy and I meet every few months at Starbucks and chat, chat, chat.  We yack like magpies, nursing our tea and comparing notes on all kinds of stuff.  A lot of times, our conversation circles around our kids—because, above all other things, we really don’t want to screw up on the parenting thing. 

“My daughter taught me something the other day,” she said.  “I think you’ll like it.” 

They’d had a huge teen-angst fight. The daughter raged.  There had been some sort of slight, some misstep, some wrong thingAmy had done.  It was an onslaught of it’s-not-fairand you-never-let-meand you’ll-never-understand.

Amy held it together as long as she could, but finally snapped back, succumbing by doing exactly what she always swears she won’t do—explain, rationalize, rant, and rage right back.  Her daughter finally screamed, “Just. Stop. Talking, Mom!”  

Amy stopped talking.  

Recounting the moment for me, she confessed, “I kept thinking of the opening scene in Lady Bird.  Awesome, awesome movie, by the way. The mother and daughter are driving somewhere, and they are fighting, and the daughter ends the argument by opening the door to the speeding car and throwing herself out.”  The mother screams in terror and shock.  It sets up the movie’s plot— an ongoing, relentless, terribly sad, unwinnable mother-daughter-love-hate battle.  

Amy said she stood there in the kitchen with her daughter, both of them in miserable silence, and she kept thinking, Boomerang-style, of that movie, and the car door opening, and the kid tumbling out, and the mother’s terrified scream.   

Then her daughter spoke. 

Mom. Pause.  Just because I’m angry with you doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.

 “It was so honest, and so true,” Amy said.  “It was the best apology she could offer to me right then. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”  

In my job, it happens all the time.  A teacher is mad at me because I’ve made a decision they don’t agree with.  That doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong.  A parent writes me a scathing email about a discipline decision.  They’re mad at me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong.  I offend someone with a word choice someone finds offensive, but it doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong.  It's a regular occurrence at home, too:  My children are furious at me, but I’ve not done anything wrong.  In fact, sometimes they’re mad because, actually, I have done something right.  Something reallyright. 
For someone like me, who is uncomfortable being the recipient of another person’s anger, receiving misplaced anger is ongoing learning curve.  I don’t know that I’ll ever actually master it.  I’ll always prefer that no one be mad at me at all.  But it helps to think I can accept the existence another person’s anger without taking responsibility for it.  Which means, of course, I don’t have to try to fix it, or apologize for it, or try to make it go away.  I can just let the anger sit there and do what it needs to do. 

It’s something I’m going to try.   Maybe, as with anything else, it will be another step in finding peace in what feels like an increasingly angry world. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

No Code: Parenting and Principaling

I made up a word for this post.   I turned "principal" into a present participle, because it really should be used in forming an active continuous tense.  So:  We are principaling, people, just like, for many of us, we are parenting and adulting and teaching.

I've been thinking of a close friend of mine.  She's  raising two teenagers.  As many before her have learned, a woman can birth two children, and they can grow to be so drastically different that it feels they can’t possibly be related.  

Same ingredients, same oven, different cakes.  Really different cakes.  

One of my friend's children is spending all his time overachieving.  He is winning awards and focusing on being  The other is spending her time sabotaging herself and infuriating everyone in the vicinity.  To honor my friend's privacy, I’ll not go into details.  I'll just say this:  My friend spends pretty much all her time trying to crack the code, trying to understand, trying to do the right thing.

No Answers Yet
Parenting the first child didn't seem difficult.  Everything made sense.  But it's worrisome, for my friend, how perfection seems the only goal.

The second child is challenging everything my friend thought she knew about kids, about love, about loyalty and commitment, about anxiety and depression, about medications and school systems and lawyers.  

My friend has come to the conclusion she doesn't really know anything.  She shrugs a lot.  She send me this picture a few weeks ago.  I've read every one of these, her text read.  

Did it help?  I responded.


We didn't discuss the photo-bomb wine, because it's super-funny, except it's not.

This photograph reminds me of the bookshelf I have in my office.  It's stuffed with books, each one representing my attempt to crack the code of principalship.  

Principaling.  Parenting.  Neither have a code (though that doesn't stop us from looking for it): There are too many ingredients. Time, demographics, effort, community, culture, history, nature, nurture, perhaps the way the wind blows and the stars align.  Most people parent as they were parented, or they flip the narrative and parent in the precise opposite way they were parented.  It makes sense, because pretty much everything we do in this world is related to something we've seen from others and our conscious decision to follow the model or eschew it.

Principals are in the unique situation of watching many different parenting styles and being challenged not to judge a single one of them.  It gets more complicated when we, ourselves, are parenting and principaling.  It's a recipe for second-guessing oneself pretty much nonstop. We have hundreds of models of students surrounding us every single day, we have the model of our family of origin, and we have the idea in our heads of how, and who, we want our children to turn out to be.

Here's something to think about:  As parents and teachers and principals, we seek the impossible.  We simultaneously want to protect children from pain and difficulty; we also want them to be tough and resilient.  We can't have both, but we also can't end up with neither.  We want a manual, knowing full well there isn't a manual.  As educators, we see mistakes happening in action— parents who are going way too far one way or another, with kids take control of a household or forcing it to fold.  We deal with the aftermath.  Then we go home and try to parent the hell out of our kids, exhausted and overwrought with the stimuli of our day, and find that many days we're just hanging on, tight, until bedtime.

I say "we," but I really mean "me."  I often use inclusive pronouns to make myself feel like part of a team.

There's lots of books out there, and there are a lot of Facebook groups, Twitter chats, blogs, and feeds.  None can provide the answers for perfect parenting or perfect principaling.

But there is one thing:  Getting up, stepping up, working our fingers off, and being fierce in our determination to do the

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