Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Words from a Friend's Mother

I have a friend whose mother is in the final stages of her life.  My friend is sad, and grieving, and mad.  Helpless.  She is feeling all the things we feel when something really crappy is happening to someone we love.

It’s especially hard because my friend has just become a grandmother for the first time.  Her daughter’s baby is only a few weeks old, and so it’s a happy and joyful time in a lot of ways.  So she’s really conflicted.  She’s trying to balance the joy with the sadness she’s carrying, and the impossible conundrum of wanting all of them—her mom, her daughter, her granddaughter—to be together.  Just a little longer. 

But last night, my friend called me from the hospital.  She sounded lighter than she’d sounded in weeks.  “How’s your Mom doing?”  I asked, tentative.

“Not well,” she said.  “She’s struggling to breathe.  They tell me it will be just a matter days, now.”

“I’m so sorry,” I told her, aching for her. 

“But..."  Christina sounded really good.  I waited.

"I just had a great conversation with her,” she said.  “I thought you’d like to hear about it.”

I would.

Christina had been holding her mother’s hand and sitting quietly next to her hospital bed.  They’d been quiet, together, for quite some time.  Out of the silence, her mother unexpectedly and calmly asked Christina not to worry about a thing; it was going to be just fine. 

“Oh, Mom,” my friend told her.  “That’s not true.  Please don't go.  Not yet.  I need you to teach me a whole bunch of other things.  Like, being a grandmother.  I don’t know how to be a grandmother.  You need to teach me.”

Her mother thought awhile.  Then she said, “It’s easy.  Just be there, and don’t interfere.”

Christina loved that piece of advice and had called me to marvel at its simplicity.  “It’s perfect, isn’t it?  I’m going to remember that.  As a grandmother for sure—but it applies to a whole bunch of other things, too,” she said, sounding excited.  “Think about it.  Be there, and don’t interfere.  It applies to our work as teachers and leaders, too.  There are tons and tons of times that we just need to be there, but not interfere.  Whether it is a process, a conversation, a learning opportunity—sometimes our main role is to be there but stay out of the way of the natural progression of things.”   

Christina told me, emphatically, that this last piece of advice from her mother might be the one she holds tightest. “She’s told me so many smart things in my life—this is the one I like the best.  Be there, and don’t interfere.  It’s my new motto.”

It’s a good one.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

When People Talk About You

Being in a leadership position, by its very nature, means living under a very large microscope.  As Urban Meyer, renowned head football coach at the Ohio State University, writes in his leadership book titled Above the Line, "When you are a leader, your followers are watching everything you do."

It's something that's difficult to get used to, at first.

If you're a new principal, you can bet that there will be people talking about you in classrooms, in hallways, in the staff lounge, at community events.  In the back of the room at school assemblies, in the deli line at the grocery store, at the local pizza joint.

It can be pretty unnerving.

It's not always bad, of course.  In fact, most of the time, it's fantastic.  There will be people who will love you and your leadership style; they will sing your praises, loudly and enthusiastically.   And that feels good.  Super good.

But there are also times that you'll have to make a tough decision and you won't be so supported.  It won't happen a lot, but it will happen.  It's inevitable.  Some people won't like you.  Not one little bit.  They'll want to talk to everyone—everyone!— about how crappy you are.  That's a lot harder to be okay with.

Last week, I was discussing this with my friend Cathy.  She asked how I handle the constant under-the-microscope living.  I told her I've come to peace about it; I've done this long enough to have grown some pretty thick skin.  I've got calluses in the soft parts.

"There are always exceptions, though," I told her.  "I still get hurt, especially if I hear someone has said something unfair, uninformed, or untrue about me.  Those are the tough ones."

"And it happens when you least expect it," she said.  "Friends and family, too."

"Yes.  It does."

"Well, just look at it this way," she said.  "If they're talking about you, they're leaving someone else alone."

I thought about that for a few moments.

"Thank you," I said to her, feeling that there-are-no-words kind of grateful.  "I'm so glad you shared that with me.  I love that perspective."

I really do.  It's a great way to think about it. If someone is grumbling about something I've said or done, I can take it—because it means someone else ... is being left alone.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Note to New Leaders

I am reading Jewell’s memoir, aptly titled Jewel—Never Broken.  The book is long and meandering; the writing exposes the thinking of an immensely talented, intelligent, and self-studying artist.  She looks deeply at herself with a critical but fair eye.  It's pretty great.  And I found a lot of what she says resonates with me as I think about leadership.  Yes.  Really.  

Like when Jewel explains how she grasps a motto she’ll try to live her life by:  Hard wood grows slowly. 

Jewel remembers those words as a reminder that if she wanted to grow strong and last, and not be brittle or broken easily, she had a duty to make decisions that were not just good in the moment but good for long-term growth.  She noted, “It also meant not using cynicism to cover my real feelings of anxiety of vulnerability.  In a world of cool, casual, hip, and snarky, I knew if I indulged in these feelings, I would sink to the bottom of my life like a stone.  I had to respond to my life with vulnerability, sensitivity, and honesty, because they were my only real defenses in this dangerous endeavor called surviging life.  I vowed to try to remember to take the time to grow slowly.  To take the time to make notes and study.  To stay in my body even when I was in pain.”  The motto helped “with countless…decisions that shaped not just the kind of artist but, more important, the kind of human I would become…it helped give me permission to discover and actively create who I was, not who I felt pressured to be.”
Man.  That stopped me right in my tracks.  This is a tough world, and living life is, in large part, surviving it.  There’s a lot of crap—far beyond the cool, casual, hip, and snarky Jewell references.  Of course Jewell is speaking in reaction to the things she deals with as a famous and independent be-true-to-thyself artist, but I think it applies in leadership as well.  There’s a lot of crap in leadership positions.  Snark is only the beginning.  That’s why new leaders sometimes feel really breakable, no matter how hard they try to hide it.  It takes time to be the type of strong leader that can’t be crushed by angry people, ridiculous policies, community and staff politics, or the emotions that come with being the one in charge of a flawed, difficult, ever-changing.

So, if you’re new, I say:  Be patient. 

You’re learning every day. 

Hard wood grows slowly. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Home #3: I Just Want to go Home

So I'll stop yapping about it after this blog post.  I promise.

The real reason I’ve been thinking about the word "home" is this: I’ve noticed that when children are in a place of vulnerability—they’re sick, tired, scared, in trouble—they openly express that they just want to go home. 

Home can be the top floor of an apartment, or a small cabin on a country road, or a big ol' house in a crazy-rich neighborhood.  It could be a farm or a city or a nondescript suburban allotment.  Doesn't matter, really.  Home can be anything.  Regardless, it's where warmth and safety can be found.  Where you feel right when you walk home.  Where you'll recognize the smell; where you breathe into your pillowcase and the sheets feel right.  Where you feel better, somehow.

A few months ago, a third grader was sent to my office for using foul language on the playground.  He was calling people nasty names and throwing out some pretty filthy words.  He thought he'd get away with it because he was cussing in Spanish, but there were a couple of other fluent Spanish-speakers in the class, so it didn’t take long for him to get himself tattled on and sent to see me. 

But when he came in my office, his demeanor surprised me; rather than regretful or remorseful, he looked furious.  He threw his little body into the chair and crossed his arms defiantly over his chest.  His chin quivered; his face was a bright, blotchy red. 

“Um…” I looked at him.  “What's going on here?  You’re in trouble.  Why are you acting mad at me?”

“I want to go home,” he spit out.

Of course he did.


But where was home?  This boy had been in our school for less than two weeks.  I knew from his enrollment papers that he’d been born in Mexico and lived there with his parents several years before moving to India. In Dubai, he attended an international school for three years, growing fluent in both Spanish and Arabic.  "He doesn't want to be here," his father had explained when I first met them.  "When I told him we had to move to Ohio for my work, he was angry.  But he'll be okay.  In time."

Watching him now, sitting in my office, my heart melted for him as I watched him do all the things little boys do when they don’t want to cry.  He bit his lip; he glared; he squinted; he jiggled his knees; he shifted back and forth in his chair.  He glowered at me.

Yeah.  He was angry.  Really, really angry.   

I made a quick call to our Spanish interpreter, a lovely woman who understood the anxiety and fear that comes with being placed in a culture that is entirely new.  We sat down next to our new student.  We talked to him:  we told him we knew he was angry and that we understood that he was feeling alone.  I rubbed his back, feeling his  muscles slowly unclench.  He cried in a deep, gaspy way for awhile.  Finally he began to speak, switching back and forth between English and Spanish, as if he was trying to pick the best way to make us understand.

And we did.  We understood that he had no idea what he was doing in Ohio, for Heaven’s sake, and especially in the principal’s office in Ohio.  He wasn’t home.  He was where I felt at home, sure, but this wasn’t his.  He felt as far from it as one could possibly ever feel.

We didn't talk about his foul language that day.  I didn't give him consequences or ultimatums. To me, the foul-language problem was secondary to the real one—that he felt unmoored and misplaced.  So, instead, we let him talk and cry and be angry.   I hooked him up with our guidance counselor, and they spent a few hours making plans for how he would build some friendships and become part of our school community.  His teacher gave him some special jobs in the classroom and let him talk to his new classmates about his experiences in Mexico City and Dubai.  In time, he began to feel proud of where he'd come instead of angry about where he had arrived.

This is just one story of a time a kid told me he just wanted to go home.  But it happens at any other type of vulnerable time, too.  When they have a fever or when they are missing their mama or when their father has been away for awhile.  Or when they forget something important.  Or when they are in trouble, or scared, or their throat really hurts.  All those times, they say, "I want to go home."

Home can be anywhere, really, and it can mean anything.  For a little person, though, home mostly means the place they want to go when they need things to be okay.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Home #2: Why I Let the Ferns Die

I let $40 worth of hanging ferns die this spring.  On purpose. 

They were those gorgeous kind, floofy and floppy, gigantic and summery.  I loved them.  I get two of them every year and hang them on our front porch, watering them every other day or so.  They last all summer and deep into the fall, adding this great splash of deep green to the front of our house.

But this year, within a day or two of hanging them, both had become home to a big, strong, sweet nest of bird eggs.  The nests were built down in the deepest part of the fern, beneath the complicated criss-crosses of the stalky part of the plant.  The first time I went to water the plants—both of them!—I was started backwards when a mama bird came whooshing out, she herself shocked and startled. I peeked in, and there were four little eggs lying in wait.  In each fern.

So I stopped watering.   I just left the ferns alone, only peeking in two times to check on them.  The first time, the eggs had just hatched a grayish brown pile of scrawny babies, their mouths opening and closing in a silent cry.  The second time, they were plump and feathery, just a few days from learning to fly.
And the ferns?  They were decidedly dead.

My kids noticed this the other day.  “Why do those plants look so bad?” my son asked.  

I told them the story about the birds and how I’d decided it was worth replacing the ferns in order to give the birds a good home.  “When birds build a nest for their eggs, they work really, really hard to make it strong and safe,” I explained.  “It takes them days.  It's hard work. And then they lay their eggs, and then spend weeks sitting there keeping the eggs warm.  Then the eggs hatch, and the birds hustle around—for weeks, again— getting food for the baby birds until they’re big enough to figure out the learn-to-fly thing,” I said.  “I couldn’t bear to be the reason that the whole process got stalled.  That the grown birds worked that hard, or that the babies didn’t get to grow into big birds…”

My kids were quiet, thinking.

My husband chimed in, clear and succinct. “Here’s the thing.  Everything on this earth deserves a chance, at least.  A fighting chance.”

“What’s a fighting chance?”

“It means that all of us should be safe and protected by someone or something until we are big and strong enough to fight for survival on their own,” he said. 

He’d explained it better than I had.  Yes:  everything deserves a fighting chance.   And to those baby birds, their fighting chance was a place to be born, to grow, and to get the strength to fly away on their own.  A few ferns had to die a little earlier than expected, but the gift they gave—the gift of home, the gift of a fighting chance—was well worth it. 

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...