Saturday, April 30, 2016

Unexpected Toughness

Yesterday at recess, a little boy fell from the monkey bars and broke his arm right in two.

He's not just any little boy, either; he's Benji.

Benji... darling, dramatic Benji.  He's in first grade.  I discovered him the first day of school when he stood smack in the center of the lunchroom, sobbing, devastated to the very core because his mother had packed him a sandwich instead of noodles.  It was my first day in the school, too, so we were brand new to one another.  I didn't yet know his whole story—how he cries at the slightest adversity, how he drives his parents and older siblings bananas with his whining and woe-is-me view of the world; how he asks fifteen questions for every one of the other kids in his class.  He's like a little five-year-old Eeyore.  And he can be exhausting.

Thanks to his teacher, who has the patience of Job, he's made tons of progress this year.  He's doing really well in school; he's built some really good friendships; and he tries—mightily, he tries—to think carefully before shouting out an impulsive question or comment during class.  It's hard for him, though; in spite of his efforts to control his reactions, he's simply an emotional kid.  He can't help but default to dramatic, tear-filled responses to things the universe hands him.

So when he fell from the monkey bars and landed right on his wrist, one would have thought the world would end.  One would have thought he would crumble into a pile of tears and screams.  After all, his arm was bent in an awkward, horrid angle.  Something was sticking up out of his wrist, jutting his skin up into a triangle.  It was pretty awful.

His teacher was there when he fell, and she—mama of three boys herself—knew exactly what to do.  She braced his arm using a Frisbee and walked him quickly into the school, murmuring reassurances the whole way.  She worked with our clinic aide to secure the arm into a splint and sling while I hustled to call his mother, who promised to be there right away.  Benji waited quietly, his face white and his lips clenched into a hard line.

"How are you feeling, Benji?" I asked.

He looked straight at me, his brow crinkled earnestly.  "I hope it's just bended," he said.  "But it willy, willy, willy huwts."

I realized then that our weepy and whiny little Benji hadn't shed a tear.  He hadn't whined.  I'm no doctor, but I knew that arm was broken pretty badly, and I knew it must hurt enough to justify a huge, full-on, blowout fit.  But he didn't do any of that.  He just crunched his face muscles together and endured the pain.  No tears, no fanfare, no muss or fuss.

Tough.  Really tough.

Who knew that version of Benji even existed?

Here's one thing I've learned:  It's when kids are faced with real adversity that gives us a glimpse into who they really are.  Not the little stuff, like forgetting an assignment, getting into a spat with a friend, or losing  a game.  No, I'm talking about the kind of adversity that requires them to reach way, way, way down into themselves and be strong.  The kind of adversity that would cause anyone—even an adult— to fall apart.

When Benji's mom arrived, she leaned down and tousled Benji's hair before gathering him into a gentle hug.  "I'm taking him to Children's Hospital for them to take a look at it," she said.  "I'll let you know what they say."

"I think Benji's going to be just fine," I told her.

I hoped she knew I wasn't just talking about his arm.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bring it to Life... Or Not?

A few years back, I was part of a long, uncomfortable meeting in which multiple people were sitting around a table trying to figure out how to best help a student with significant disabilities.  Everything felt awkward, because the parents were scowling at one another with raw contempt—their pending divorce was contentious and ugly, and they'd brought their feelings right into the room with them.  Between the two sat a court-appointed guardian ad litem.  She'd been assigned to the case by the courts, given the role of determining what was best for the child, since the parents were unable to agree.  About anything.

I was particularly nervous, because I was leading the meeting—and it was my job to negotiate, explain, and nudge everyone toward an agreement.  I was the mediator.  The one who would find compromise.  Eeeek.

Soon after we started the meeting, an idea came up— something that we thought we might try when working with the student.  I've long since forgotten the specifics, but it was some sort of behavior modification that we thought might be successful.  The child's father adamantly agreed with the suggestion.  Yes, he said; he thought it would work beautifully and he'd be happy to implement components at home.  When he's at my house, he said, rather pointedly.

Annnnnnnd, of course, the mother disagreed.  Nope.  Wasn't going to work.  Too much work for too little possibility of growth.

I could feel almost feel the heels digging in.  The line being drawn in the sand.  The flags being hoisted.

Eyes darted nervously around the room.

Okay, I thought.  Here we go.  

Before I could jump in to try to mediate, though, the guardian ad litem raised her hand slightly, not in a can-I-speak way, but in an I'm-going-to-make-a-statement way.  She looked back and forth between the parents and said, ever so quietly, "Are we going to give this a life?"

Both looked down at their hands.

"No," said the mother.

"No," said the father.

"Okay.  Let's proceed," she said, nodding over to the intervention teacher leading the meeting.

Just like that, we moved on.

Later, when the meeting was over, I pulled her aside.  "Tell me more about this 'give it a life' thing," I said.

She laughed.  "I use that phrase all the time with clients," she said.  "The people I work with are often emotional or angry.  It's hard for them to think rationally, so they pick battles that don't matter, or battles they are sure to lose.  I like to remind them that it's their choice to make the issue bigger... or smaller.  In other words, it's their choice to give something life or not."

I nodded.  It made sense.

She went on.  "And here's the other thing I tell people.  If you choose to give something a life, it's now... a thing.  It's a living thing that will take time and energy to sustain.  So no matter what it is—a particular battle to fight, an alliance you are considering, a lie you're telling—unless you're willing to invest time into it, you better not bring it to life."


In both work and life, there are a lot of times we should consider whether we want to bring something to life— or whether it's better to leave it dormant, inanimate, and quiet.  I use this little trick a lot, because it helps me to better manage my efforts and energy.... something that I'm always trying to master.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Amy and Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

My friend Amy—?  She defines empathy.

The thing about Amy is that she is genuinely, completely, and whole-heartedly happy when good things happen to other people.

This came clear to me when I told her, a little bashfully, about the contract I'd signed to write a book about school leadership.  We were working together at the time; I was the principal and she was the assistant principal.  I loved working with her.  She was my sidekick, my confidant, my sounding board, my partner in laughing at absurdities that popped up along the way.  We were a great team, too—she was good at everything I wasn't, so I leaned on her a lot.

Working with her, the thing I kept seeing was how she was truly rooting for everyone.  Kids, parents, colleagues, her friends—she wanted them all to succeed.  There wasn't a jealous or pouty bone in that girl's body.

"So, I wrote a book," I started.  I mumbled through a little explanation, a little unsure how to say it. Her smile widened as I talked.  "So... it should be out in a year or so.  I just thought I should tell you. I should tell someone, right?"

With a wide, happy grin, she looked at me straight in the eye and said, "That is so wonderful," she said.  The tone of her voice was as genuine, kind, and happy as I'd ever heard.  "You love to write... you love being a principal... and you had the courage to combine the two."  She paused for a moment.  "Good for you.  I am so, so happy for you."

And I could feel, in my guts, how much she meant it.

I'd always loved Amy, but I loved her to itty-bitty pieces in that moment.  Because her response was so honest and so clean and so pure.

There's that phrase, "I am not competing.  I want us all to make it."  That's Amy.

And, it's important to note, she's not just like that with close friends. She's like that with everyone.  When hearing good news, it would never occur to her to think, "Why not me?"  or, "She so doesn't deserve this," or, "When will it be my turn?"  She just shares the success and celebrates it whole-heartedly.

Another thing:  It's not just happy stuff, either.  When crappy things happen to others, she aligns herself right with them and feels the struggle, the loss, the anger.  "I'm so sorry," she'll say, and it's not just her words that say sorry, but it's every single bone in her body that is sorry.

I don't get to work with Amy every day anymore, because of unavoidable changes in our job paths.  I think of her every day, though, because of what I learned from her about empathy.  I make it a conscious thing to never miss a chance show someone the kind of empathy that Amy does.

For her, it's as natural as breathing.  I have to work at it a little, but I'm happy to do so.  Really happy.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Friends, Florida, and Self-Actualization

I’m in St. Petersburg, Florida, hanging out with seven of my favorite women.  We met our freshman year of college, thrust together by chance and circumstance on the third floor of Baldwin Hall—a square, nondescript dormitory smack in the center of our college campus.  We stumbled our way through our freshman year, building a solid friendship one stupid mistake at a time.   After college, we went off in seven completely different directions, but we have worked fiercely to keep ourselves connected to one another.  

So here we are, 24 years after our first meeting, and we've become college graduates, teachers, professors, salespeople, scientists, mothers, homeowners, and lots of other stuff, too.  We’re still flopping around, trying to find our way, but still, once a year, we come together to talk about the path and the stumbles and the triumphs. 

With the passage of time, the main difference is that we’re all deep in the motherhood thing. 

Yesterday at lunch, we talked about that.

We’d spent the morning on the beach—a feat in itself for the northerners in the group, who had been receiving texts from downtrodden spouses back home immersed in a snowstorm.  Not us, though.  We were warm.  It was sunny and sandy and salty and perfect.  

Midday, we meandered our way toward a nearby hotel and sat down at the pool restaurant for lunch.  As we waited for our food, we fell into our typical routine of talking about the stuff that's happened to us in the past year—and years beyond, too.  

"I love the forties," several of us said.  "We're in good relationships; we have stable work; we're connected to good friends.  In a lot of ways, we've figured stuff out."

“I feel like there’s some self-actualization,” someone else said.  “Like I’ve come to know and understand my flaws and faults.  And I’m really okay with them.”

“I can even laugh at them,” said another. “My things are just part of who I am.  I’ve got things.  Yeah.  So what.  So does everyone.”

Which led us to our children.  We all admitted that we see traits in our children that mirror our own things.  Anxiety.  Fear.  Perfectionism.  The ability to be crushed; a refusal to compromise; a naive and foolish view of how things work in the world.  And so on.  All seven of us are identifying the things we've passed on to our children that we, ourselves, had to manage or overcome over the course of our four decades.

“The crappy thing is that they’re going to have to recognize and manage these things on their own,” someone said.  “We can give them all the hints and the tricks that worked for us—the things that carried us along through the mess and pushed us out to the place of acceptance.  But they don’t want to listen, necessarily, and they don’t have to.”

“Because they have to find their own way.”
“And it’s going to be hard.” 

“For them.”

“And for us.”

Said every parent ever.

Let the journey continue.     

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Gift Professional Development... and Gilmore Girls

I haven’t written in a few days because I got caught in the snares of NetFlix.  Specifically, I got caught in the snares of Gilmore Girls.  It was bad, people.  I skipped a couple workouts.  I let my husband cook meals.  I didn’t think for one second about work.  I’m a little embarrassed.  I still have another season to go, though, and you better bet I’m gonna see this thing through.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.  I just wanted to talk about a big change in attitude I had recently. 

I was attending a mandatory professional development that had been arranged and supported by my district leaders.  As we gathered together, some of us were lamenting that we were there, anxious about missing a day of work.  I was right there with them:  I had way too much to do back in my office; I needed to complete some evaluations; I had phone calls and emails to return.  Most of all, I dreaded the inevitable falling-behind that would greet me upon my return to work.  We all wondered aloud, Was the learning planned for today really going to be worth it?  If so, how?

Of course, our grumbling wasn’t anything new.  A lot of us do it when we are asked to attend PD.  Of course we know it’s important, and we’re happy to dole it out—we do it all day long, really, with our students—but we don’t necessarily like to attend ourselves.  We feel like learning how to do our jobs better gets in the way of… well, of doing our jobs.

But this time, our presenter stood to begin and hit us with this little gem:

“To be here today is such a gift. You have been given time to think together, to collaborate, to share ideas.  Your leaders care about your growth, which is why they have arranged this opportunity for you.  Let’s remember to be grateful for this gift, shall we?”

And with those words, my thinking immediately shifted.  Just moments before, I’d been grumpy about being there.  But now, I caught myself:  why bring a poor attitude to the learning?  Why not be grateful, instead?  Why not look at it as the gift that it really was? 

It was a wonderful day.  I got a whole pile of new ideas and inspiration.  When I returned to work the next day, I wasn’t burdened by all the things I needed to do; I was refreshed and eager to tackle new challenges.

It’s just more evidence that the approach we bring to learning makes all of the difference.  We know this is true because we see it in our students.  But it’s a big jump to apply it to ourselves.  It takes a conscious decision.  It takes saying to oneself, “I am going to appreciate the gift I’ve been given, and I’m going to honor and respect the gift by actually using it.”  A good attitude isn’t an accident.  It’s a choice.

So is four straight hours of Gilmore Girls, I guess.  But that choice was an easy one. 

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 discha...