Saturday, July 25, 2020

No Good Answers

"There are no good answers."

I've said these words approximately five thousand times in the past few months. I say them when people ask, "So, seriously. What do you think? What will school look like in the fall?" Then they tell me why they're asking. It usually takes me a couple sentences to identify their "side."

My child needs to be back in school. I have to work. I can't lose my job. Last spring was a disaster. My child needs socialization. Have you seen the data? Hospital capacity is lower than ever. We have to get these kids back in school. Special education! English language learners! Struggling readers! Athletes! Theatre! Music!

Or, they say:

This is terrifying. I am so very, very scared. It's a matter of life and death. Have you seen the data? So many people are sick. We cannot safely send students back to school without compromising the health of our entire community. We have to stop this push to get back to school. It's irresponsible and negligent. 

As I listen, I feel very shred of each person's conviction and passion. And that's when I say, "There are no good answers."

I also say, "You are correct."

Right? We're all correct. Regardless of our place on the spectrum, regardless of the lens we are using—academic, social, health, emotional, intellectual, scientific, political— we are all correct. We. are. all. correct. We are all correct. Which also means no one is wrong.

You guyyyyys. There's so much name-calling lately. Social media—? Blech. Individually and collectively, it seems many folks are taking this approach: Anyone who doesn't agree with me is crazy, misguided, influenced by the wrong news sources. Anyone who does agree is educated, smart, tuned in to the truth.

I have refreshed my mental health by deciding to avoid social media posts and comments. It wasn't healthy for me anymore. I'd been reading it all, scrolling and absorbing and trying to keep up. I'd thought it was the responsible thing to do—keep my fingers on the pulse of the conversation. Understand the perspectives, identify the bulldogs and leaders. Most times, though, I just felt nauseous. I'd want to shout, People! You are all correct! There are no good answers! Stop! Why are we so angry? Why are we turning on one another? 

But I never shouted. I retreated and remain calm. Yay me! It helped when I recognized I couldn't find the "right" answer. Because. Again. It doesn't exist.

Last night, I took my daily evening walk with my husband and the dog. The crescent moon invigorated Roxie; she raced around as if she were still a puppy, chasing fireflies and sniffing under each bush. For a dog, there is opportunity and possibility beneath each weed, each branch, each flower. Then I looked up. The sky! The moon! The stars! I remembered my son telling me a million Earths can fit inside the sun. "The sun makes up almost 99.8 percent of the solar system's mass," he said. "It's 109 times the size of earth. And a million of Earths could fit inside! A million! I mean..." he shook his head. "We're tiny! We are so small it's impossible to even imagine."

Perspective is hard to accept, especially when our very biggest fears and anxieties have their own podium and microphone. Perspective is there if we seek it, though. Just because someone disagrees with us doesn't make them wrong. The world is enormous, and we are teeny-tiny. I'll end with one of my favorite, oft-quoted truisms: It's all going to be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What I Did All Day (v. COVID)

"What do you do all day?"

This question came from my mother on, oh, about March 19. She is always curious about my job, and the idea of me overseeing a school from my living room was especially intriguing to her.

"I don't know what I do all day, Mom. All I know is it's taking me 14 hours a day to do it."

She laughed and told me I'm probably handling it beautifully, which, of course, is part of her job. She has complete and unwavering faith in me. She's good at her job.

Like all my educator colleagues, remote teaching and learning struck us like a thunderbolt. At first, it seemed overwhelming but do-able. After a week or two, it was just hard, in the way juggling water balloons is hard—you never know when one of those suckers might bust open and blast you in the face. And as the weeks went on and on, it got less overwhelming, because we hit our stride and learned how to manage our classrooms while managing our households, but it wasn't joyful. We were moving information around, and we were grinning at one another from behind computer screens, but we weren't in the same room, so there wasn't chemistry or energy or the million ways humans communicate nonverbally.

I developed technology fatigue. I learned, as did so many of us, that we can't thrive inside ourselves with a computer screen as our only tool.  For me, the emails started at dawn and poured in, relentlessly, until after dark. A colleague of mine told me he woke extra early one day and fiercely chipped his inbox down to twelve. Swagging like a superstar, he let himself break for a bagel and a shower. Back at his computer, not even sixty minutes later, his his inbox read 74 messages. More than an email a minute. Gawd.

And Google Meets. They were an acceptable substitute at first, but I grew to dread them. I did them, and I did them as well as I could, and I don't like admitting I hated them, buuuuuut... well, you know. I kinda did.

Look at this:

Video calls are unsatisfying not just because of the lack of touch but because they require mutual active presence. Conversation is only a part of companionship. It's hard to just be when you're on a call, hard to see when you're constantly looking. 

These words came from Lauren Collins in "Missed Calls," a heartbreaking piece in a recent New Yorker about her father dying, an ocean away, and her only way to connect with him in his last days was FaceTime. Her mother and brother held the phone up to her father's ear so she could talk to him, but she didn't know how to do this massive job of saying goodbye over the phone, and she didn't know if he even knew she was there. At his funeral, she dialed in to the cemetery, where only three people—her mother, brother, and undertaker—were there to see him buried.

Can you even? Jesus.

I've not lost someone I love in this mess. My people are healthy and life has been good. My stressors felt enormous from behind my laptop, but they weren't. When I look back at the whole thing, I am ashamed, because I was—am— so lucky I feel like folding with gratitude.

But remote learning created a hole. It's a hole we tried to fill with iPads and iPhones and iMacs and iBooks and idontevenknowwhatallelse, but it was still a hole.

Our governor recently announced school will start up in the fall. I know there is a lot to be worked out. Lord knows, the questions will burst forth, and they will be fast and they will be loud, and it will be a challenge to answer them, one by one, systematically and thoroughly. I'm up for the challenge, though... even if it takes 14 hours a day.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Working in Sales

A woman I know is out of work. She was laid off in February. "I kept telling them they didn't need my position. I told them they should cut it. Promote me to do something bigger." She laughs. "They listened to the first part and not the second."

She doesn't know what she'll do, once she's on the market—when her unemployment runs out, she'll look again. "I was in sales for thirty years, but finally put myself out to pasture. I can't sell anymore." Then, as is her way, she corrected herself immediately. "But that's not true, because I will have to sell. All of us have to sell. All jobs are sales jobs. Right?"

It struck me because it's so true. Principals, teachers, baristas, writers, roofers, crossing guards, lawn care workers, lawyers, tree trimmers. They all have a thing they want to be valuable—and valued—by others. Naturally, I thought about being a principal in the midst of online learning. There's not a soul on earth who asked for COVID-19 and the ongoing aftermath; as such, there's not a soul who wants the product—and in my world, the product is online school. Selling something no one wants to buy is an uphill battle, friends. No one could stand the thought of a shuttered school. No one liked online learning, no one thought it was a legit replacement for face-to-face instruction, no one trusted it, and no one will miss it when it's gone.  But still we had to sell it as a product because it was the only product on the market, and we had to convince people that its value surpassed that of no product at all.

I've been overcome by the product my district and school put out there, by the way. It was on-point. It was precise, sharp and clean and fluid, matched to every family's home environment as best as we could.

But some people were mad about it— justifiably so—because direct instruction looked really different than they'd thought it should; it seemed spotty and confusing; posted assignments felt like busy work; and, worst of all, differentiation was hard to get right. Some kids needed a lot more and some kids needed a lot less and some kids, honestly, didn't "need" anything. Home doesn't feel like home when it is a domestic battleground, the uncomfortable host of ongoing fights about homework, sibling disagreements, and screen addiction.

Beyond the people who were mad, a lot were grateful. And said so.

Most were really quiet. I suspect they were simply... enduring.

I Tweeted and Facebooked and made videos and phone calls. I was the principal of the school and I was by-God selling this thing, because I believed in it and it would do, for now. But I'll be so glad when I can go back to selling other things:

Early literacy intervention.
Canvas book pouches.
The endless parent pickup line.
Fire drills.
The postman's cheerful wave, every day precisely at 11:14.
Social studies.
Reader's Theatre.
Cafeteria chicken nuggets.
Crayons worn down to bits.
Dried-up glue sticks.
Ice pops on Field Day.
Belly laughs with Jaclyn, my fun, smart, sassy assistant principal.
Bags of ice for playground scrapes.
All the Post-its.
Library books.
Staff potlucks.
The walkie-talkie.
Recess. Indoor or outdoor? When is the rain coming?
Bus exhaust.
Science kits with beakers and sand domes and virtual worm dissections.
Carpet stains from Godknowswhat, covered by a circle rug of butterflies and honeybees.
The turtle aquarium.
Social stories.
Did I say hugs?
Lost and found, ridiculously overflowing with 45 gloves with no match.
The lounge microwave smelling like lunches of fifteen people before me.
Choir risers.
Bathroom breaks.
Gogurts and Lunchables.
Numeracy games.

Those things. They are the things I'm interested in selling.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Mother's Day

I launched this blog because I'm a school principal and I have a lot to say about that. But over time, I've sometimes wished it were something else. I feel a pull to tell personal stories and overturn memories. Especially now. I'm in a mood. I have professional fatigue with these days. So many edu-blogs feel judge-y and pretentious, both adjectives I'd rather avoid, thankyouverymuch.

So let's talk about Mother's Day.

No, no, no!  Don't leave! I don't want to talk about my kids making me breakfast in bed (god, no, please) or the cute cards they created from bits of construction paper and a marker from the junk drawer (we're long past those days) or about our fabulous takeout meal (the restaurant asked if we could please call back in an hour and a half... so we had frozen Ora Ida french fries and soup).

So, no, not that. Imma write about Facebook's Mother's Day.

I reallllllllly monitor how much time I spend on social media. I post rarely, and try to limit myself to ten or twenty minutes a day of scrolling. Even though I'm a grown-ass woman, I constantly wrestle with social media anxiety, which has me believe everyone is prettier, smarter, wiser, more wealthy, more accomplished, more good, more generous. I mean, seriously, guys: Everyone else is awesome and I suck. Or so says Facebook.

Thus the limits. I log in, scroll for a few minutes, and leave, before my mental stability has a chance to quiver.

But: Last Sunday, Mother's Day, I let myself go, because I couldn't not. I scrolled for the better part of a morning. Far from making me anxious and less-than, I felt caught in this perfectly perfect moment where the world came together to honor women who'd been mother figures to them. There were many stories of love, real love, grateful love, the kind of love where there aren't really words to adequately capture it. Not really. Not ever. Sooooo many people taking a moment and talking about Moms.

I know it wasn't everyone. Many people have painful pasts and heartbreaking Mom stories, and they were abstaining from the day's celebrations. I know. And some posts made my eyes pricker in tears, particularly from mothers who have lost a child. I saw a post of a friend who, a few years back, had sobbed into my neck after her daughter was killed in a senseless, stupid accident. "Losing a child is beyond anyone's pain tolerance," she wrote, describing a life lived with a hole in her soul. There were stories of a miscarriage—women honoring babies they never held. There were women who wanted to be mothers who can't, or aren't, or won't. They raised their hands, publicly: Don't forget us. We want to be mothers, but we can't. This is hard. Today is hard. And there were eulogies to lost mothers.  I miss you every day, Mom. I wish you were here, Mom. Thank you for the gifts you gave before you left, Mom. What I wouldn't give to have you back, Mom. 
To balance out the sad, there were countless stories of ridiculously pure, simple love. Thank you, Mom. I love you, Mom. You're my best thing, Mom. And because we know other-daughter relationships are complicated, we can also know each story hid layers of hard times and fights and misery, but the posts showed forgiveness and grace, patience and understanding, healing and health.

And! The photographs! I studied them, pulling similarities between generations of women: A dimpled smile, a big nose, a head-thrown-back-in-laughter, hair color matched in a perfect shade, all caught by someone's camera in a still moment of uncanny likeness. "Oh, yes. That's definitely her mother," I would think, seeing my friends with their mothers or mothers with their daughters, caught in an embrace or sharing a moment in time.

Everyone has their own mother story, as varied as dandelions and their wishes. And for one untethered Sunday, I scrolled until I got a glimpse of all I could hold, filled up, again, with the touch that only a mother—and a day set aside for mothers—could bring. 

Saturday, May 9, 2020


When I was a kid, my mother adored lilacs. She still does.

There was only one lilac tree on our farm, and it was a spindly little thing whose flowers barely bothered to open. It grew, reluctantly, from behind the dilapidated workshop where my father repaired broken farm equipment. Seven or so years after they'd move to the farm, my father tore it down and built a bigger shop, this time with a real concrete floor and a functional garage door. It had a chain, even, to raise and lower it. He saved the lilac tree. "Probably the only thing I did right in this marriage," he mused to me once, which seemed a dramatic thing to say but actually was probably true, given the decades-long implosion of my parent's marriage, an implosion that was so quiet and slow it took forty years to come to a final, painful, legal conclusion.

The lilac tree never flourished.

But there was a grove of lilac trees in the swampland a few miles from our farm. Eight or nine of them, I think, enormous and full of lilac blooms so thick you could almost feel the pollen as a real, furry, fuzzy, live thing. My mother hunted those lilacs like a starving woman. Driving home from the grocery store, she'd turn left on Willow Road, and my siblings and I would wail: "Noooooooooo, Mom!" We knew what was next.

Mom parked the station wagon along the ditch on the gravel road. She dumped the groceries out of the brown bags, piling the pasta and ground beef and cracker boxes and Comet on the floorboards, and sneak over to the lilac trees, her eyes shining, the happiest criminal on the planet. She broke off the lilacs, branch by branch, and filled the grocery bags. Armfuls and armfuls of them. Us kids watched out for the telltale green pickup of the State Wildlife Ranger. I was terrified they'd arrest her and take her to jail. I knew somewhere inside me it was ridiculous, but I was a very worried child and jail was the worst thing I could imagine. I pictured it: Us four, walking home, carrying the groceries, and telling my father, "Mom got arrested."

"What for?"

"Stealing lilacs."

He'd shake his head. "Sounds like your mother," he'd say, and go on fixing whatever was broken that day.

She never got arrested. At home, she'd shove those lilacs into Mason jars and scatter them all over the kitchen. She placed one in each bedroom, too; mine went on top of my worn-out antique dresser—antique not in the collector sense, but antique because it was so damned old. I could see them as I fell asleep, and their scent nestled up in my dreams. I'd stare at the purple blooms, up against the repeated pattern of my Holly Hobbie wallpaper, and I'd feel the coming of spring.

I stole lilacs from my neighbor today. She has a beautiful lilac bush. She wouldn't care; I'm sure of it. She'd tell me to take more. Still, though, I snuck them, my eyes flitting around like I was stealing cash from an ATM. I scurried back to my house to look for a Mason jar. I wondered if stealing lilacs is part of my joy of having them. I took a picture and sent it to my mother. "I can smell them from here," she said.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Conversation About Creativity (A Real One)

Son: Mom, what have we done that's creative?

Me: Um.  What?

Son:  It's for language arts. I need to write something we've done over the last six weeks that's creative.

Me:  I can't think of anything. Crap. I mean, we must've done something creative, right?

Son:  No.

Me:  Well, I don't know. Think of something. I have to work, honey. You know that.

Son:  Mom!

Me:  [putting aside my laptop, swearing I won't forget what it was I was doing before this hundredteenth interruption] Well, okay. Creative. Sure we've been creative. We've... well, we've cooked. A lot. Three meals a day.

Son: That's not creative. Besides, I haven't done it. When school closed, you said I'd have to help you with the cooking, but I think I complained too much so you gave up and stopped making me.

Me: Well, yeah. Okay. I'll get better at that.

Son:  So? What have we done that's creative?

Me: [Desperate] Write about last Saturday when we drove up to the farm to see your grandmother and grandfather and Aunt Leah and your cousins, and Leah and I decided we wanted to find that fallen-down 18th-century cemetery we'd stumbled across when we were kids, so we set off toward the wildlife area across from Killbuck Creek, just down the road from the farm, and we made you and your cousin Carli come along, so the four of us traipsed across a field of dried foxtail and briars and thorns, but we couldn't find the cemetery in the place I was certain—certain!—it would be, so we turned north, digging and high-stepping through the woods, but there was still no cemetery, and you and Carli gave up and went back to the road, where she turned a hundred cartwheels, and then you realized you'd lost your phone but we followed our steps backward and found it, by some freakin' miracle, in the briars near that fallen-down oak, and then we went back to the farm and told your grandmother we couldn't find the cemetery, and she told us we looked in the wrong place—it's closer to the road, she said, down the hill by the crossroad by the creek—and then as we were standing there, someone saw a tick on my neck, and then we realized we all had ticks, and you were creeped out, so you went into the barn to shake out your clothes while I just picked them off myself, one by one, including one literally in my bellybutton and a couple beneath my waistband, about ten total, I think, and your grandmother somehow had a pack of matches in her pocket, probably from the Camels she sneaks in the pottery studio when she thinks no one will notice, so I took them and tore off the matches and lit them burned the ticks to death, one by one, and I left their dead bodies on the bed of your grandfather's rebuilt '78 Chevy pickup, where they'll stay until he drives it somewhere, at which point the tick corpses will blow off into Holmes County somewhere.

Son:  That's not creative.

Me: It is. Write about it. If your teacher says that's not creative, I'll give you ten bucks.

Son: Swear?

We shook on it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The other six "C Words" of COVID-19

COVID-19 has uncovered some of the solid truths about education and "school": How much we need and love the actual physical space, how much we value what happens there, how much we depend on one another for energy and momentum. These are truths we’ve long known, as educators, but now get to see the rest of the world understand, too.

Here they are.

Community: Yup. We’ve always known it matters to be part of a community—as a classroom, a school, a town, a place, a where-we-live community. We see it so clearly now in our students and their parents. They are looking around for their people. They’re finding it in different places, but it’s still there, in Hangouts and Meets and Zooms, in Homeroom and S’More and SeeSaw, in writing and reading and phone calls and waves from the classmates taking walks down the street: My friends. My class. My teacher. My school. My district. That’s me. I’m part of this thing.

: In terms of power and potential, there’s no match for a teacher’s connection to students. Academic rigor isn’t our priority right now. Instead, it’s about connections we make with students. That’s it. Teachers have immersed themselves in what they do best: Being present. I have piles of evidence of this unique teacher-student magic, now done virtually: Students grinning into the screen, engaged in conversations with their teachers; Google Classroom with pages of dialogues between students themselves and between their teachers; emails; snapshots; learning new things about one another every day.

Camaraderie: This C-word could be “collegiality,” but I crossed it out because it wasn’t… well, it wasn’t enough. It has to be bigger and broader. Why? Because there is a genuine, powerful affection we have for one another— not just between educators, but also between students, parents, and community. Even students who drive us bananas during the school day are part of our network of mutual trust and affection. We miss it. We miss them. All of it and all of them.

Confidence-building: “You’ve done well.” “This is fantastic.” “I am so proud of you.” In these past weeks, I’ve heard these words said between teachers, from teacher to student, from teacher to parent to student, all around and back again. We’re rooting for each other. Whether it is stretching how to use technology, or discovering fancy and fun new ways to share learning with our students, or just managing to get through the day, we are telling one another how great we’re doing. It feels like we have a constant pep rally for the collective whole, and it feels good.

Conversation: This has emerged as an undeniable: We need to talk to one another. All the online assignments in the world don’t make up for talking something through. We need the uplift of human voices and a place to put our rhythm of thought. We need words to bring our ideas and discovery into the light.

Care: “Take care of one another.” We’ve known this; we’ve said this. And now? Well, now we really know it and we really mean it when we say it. Being human, and working to educate the world’s youngest humans, means we, teachers and educators, know, in our souls and in our guts, how to care for others. Now, though, it feels more real and tangible and touchable. Instead of breezing through a standard series of “How are you?” “I’m fine. You?” “Fine.” “Thanks,” we’re slowing down and listening to the answers. Indeed, that’s how we should always take care of one another.

I feel human connection more acutely now that I can no longer do it on auto-pilot. I miss what we’ve lost, but I feel reaffirmed and revalidated in what I know to be true about teaching and learning. I look forward to the future with a new, unexpected excitement, because I know we will teach better, stronger, and with more focus on the things that really matter.

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?

No Good Answers

"There are no good answers." I've said these words approximately five thousand times in the past few months. I say them when...