Summer

Ah…Labor Day Weekend. A celebration of the American worker. Cookouts, time with family and friends, college football and major league baseball on television, and sales galore. Maybe even a fun run or a parade! And as some would describe it, the traditional end of summer. And by “some” I mean non-Southerners. People who refer to the aforementioned cookouts as “barbeques.” Folks who come in to enroll their kids in school only to find we’ve been back at it almost a month. “School already started? We don’t start until after Labor Day!” I get it. You’re also in school until the Fourth of July, doofus.

Let me put it as simply as I can: September ain’t summer.

Summer ended when school started back. Maybe even when football and cheerleading practice began. In August. Zero Dark Thirty August. Like a week of August that still has some July in it. The end of summer? Labor Day is practically our fall break! Families are already looking for report cards to come out and are digging through the garage for the Halloween decorations on Labor Day. And let’s not even acknowledge the pumpkin in the room.

Nonetheless, our ever-faithful Farmer’s Almanac will disagree along with our agrarian ancestors. Our perpetual cycle of equinox and solstice puts those seasonal transitions at times that don’t exactly match up with our contemporary behavior. So, what do we do with our seasons in the present day?

Listen to any song you can think of with “summer” in the title. Got one? I can’t think of a single one that doesn’t improve my mood. Summer Breeze, The Boys of Summer, Summer of ’69, Cruel Summer, That Summer, Summertime (both Kenny Chesney and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince)…it goes on and on. If that’s the effect summer has on us, isn’t that more connected to our behavior than the celestial calendar?

There is however, one use of the word summer I can get behind. That is using summer AS A VERB. For example: “Remember Pat and Paige Boyd? They summer in Grayton Beach.” That’s my retirement goal, for summer to become a verb.  As a career educator, summer has a connotation all its own.  Schools out for summer, unless there’s summer school. Summer break. Summer vacation. I don’t want to have summer break or even take a summer vacation.  I want to summer, period. No matter where it is. And feel like I feel when I’m listening to a favorite summer song.

Whether Labor Day is your end of summer or not, let’s resolve to look at our seasons a little differently going forward. Maybe not as benchmarks on our calendars, or first and last days, or even beginnings and ends. But as mindsets, or behaviors and attitudes that we choose intentionally. All summer long.

The Champ

If you’re not a fan of the sport of boxing, you may not have heard of Deontay Wilder. The title of “World Heavyweight Champion” doesn’t occupy the same rarefied air it did during the 20th Century with greats like Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson. Thanks a lot Dana White. In December 2018, Deontay, aka “The Bronze Bomber” and pride of Tuscaloosa Alabama, was undefeated in over ten years of professional boxing with a record of 42-0 and the reigning World Boxing Council Heavyweight Champion.

That is, until he met Tyson Fury. A six foot nine, two hundred seventy pound giant hailing from Manchester England, who also happened to also hold the title of World Heavyweight Champion from another sanctioning body. Their first bout in December 2018 ended in an epic, yet controversial draw.  The rematch in 2020 saw Wilder get pummeled for seven rounds before his corner threw in the towel to end the fight.  What struck me most about the rematch was Deontay’s post-fight interview. I highly encourage you to watch for yourself. In the moments after his first professional defeat and the loss of his title, with a camera in his face and still standing in the ring, Deontay:

·       Acknowledged that the best man won.

·       Admitted he did not quit, nor did he want his corner to throw in the towel.  He wanted to “go out on his shield” like the ancient warriors of Sparta. 

·       Mentioned distractions and things going on outside the ring, but made no excuses for his defeat and promised to come back stronger.

·       Expressed gratitude for the fans and wished them safe travels home. 

Even the Heavyweight Champion of the World, whose one job is to be the baddest person on the planet, has things going on outside of work and has bad days. Sound familiar? We all do.  I do, you do, and every adult and child we work with does!  If that is the norm rather than the exception, how do we support and respond to each other knowing that is the case for all of us?  While the challenges we face aren’t 6’9” and 273 pounds, we can still choose to respond with grace, humility, empathy, and gratitude.  Like a champion!

*Deontay did come back stronger for his third bout with Tyson Fury in 2021, but suffered an 11th round technical knockout. He has not fought since, but announced last week he would return to the ring in October 2022. We’re rooting for you Champ!

I Am Legend

Remember the scene in I Am Legend where Will Smith’s character visits the video store? If you haven’t seen the movie (or read the novel it’s based upon), Dr. Robert Neville is a survivor of a global pandemic living “alone” with his faithful German Shepherd in what’s left of New York City. One of the things Dr. Neville incorporates into his daily routine is a visit to the local video store. Throughout the store, he has staged mannequins as people he interacts with on a daily basis. He also returns the DVD he borrowed the night before and picks up the next one in alphabetical order on the shelf. “Mid way through the G’s,” he tells “Hank” the clerk before asking about the new girl in the back. He leaves with no answer and an “I’ll see you in the morning.”

As a school principal, this was one of my go-to stories. How I jokingly shared with folks that I read every volume in our library. That I went in each night after the building was empty to pick out my next book, read it overnight, and return it the next morning. How I fended off those who challenged or criticized what was in circulation (to be fair, I did read all of those). While I enjoyed my time in our library perusing the shelves, it didn’t come close to a daily affair. Another aspect of I Am Legend did and it’s not what you’d guess.

Nope. It’s not Covid. Not the global pandemic. Even though the last three school years have been consumed by mask debates, vaccine questions, social distancing, quarantine learning, and student learning loss. That’s not it. Our teaching professionals responded like warriors to those challenges and continued to produce student achievement, engagement, and growth. Honorable mention if you guessed feeling like you’re being chased by vampire zombies, because that’s not too far off. It’s something else.

Solitude.

Being a principal is a lonely, lonely job. So many times I remember sitting alone in my office thinking this is something I have to carry completely by myself. I couldn’t share with my staff. I shouldn’t share with my colleagues. I wouldn’t share with my supervisors. It’s not fair to my family to take it home. Whatever this is or was, I had to bear it and address it. Alone. There’s not one person in the world I can be completely honest with about it. Even in the joy of a school celebration, athletic victory, or concert performance, the albatross is ever present. A singular, invisible black crow.

I will miss so many things about being a school principal. The kids. The first day of school. Being the good cop. Visiting classrooms. Working with teachers. Artwork in the hallways. The feeling of community. The aforementioned library. Teaching and learning. And, having a full basketball gym at my disposal wasn’t too shabby. And, the kids.

But not the burden. This “burden of solitude ( . . . ) the weight of the world” according to the American poet Allen Ginsberg. In his last trip to the video store, Dr. Neville stands “alone” with the new girl in the back fulfilling a promise. He tearfully asks her to “please say hello to me.” This burden, love, is something neither man will be able to shed. Nor will it be for principals and their school communities.

Milestones (continued)

Where does the time go? How has it been [insert years here]? Time slow down!

When social media is used for its intended(?) purpose of connecting and sharing among friends and family, it can be a blessing. First day of school pictures are an absolute favorite of mine, especially when shared as a collage or in a sequence of photos over time. I can even dig the little chalkboards with kids’ favorites and future jobs, while wishing we’d done the same. Social media is certainly no stranger to milestones. For all its faults, Facebook has one feature that generally keeps me coming back. That feature is “Memories.” Especially around birthdays, holidays, and the first day of school, our memories are shared along with comments about how fast time has passed. Every year. At the same time.

After last week’s post and conversation on “milestones,” these memories and photo comments landed just a little differently. We may perceive the milestones in our lives as coming in rapid succession or distanced far apart, even when they occur at the same intervals of time. Regardless of our perception, our reaction tends to be consistent: It went too fast.

As much as I enjoy the shared memories, I’m always struck by our concept of time. What if time did slow down? Would we utilize our time differently? Or, would we keep doing the same things we do each and every day? The stark and sobering truth is that time is not going to “slow down” and will continue to pass, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, and year to year.

Our only choice, which we have the opportunity to make each and every day, is to slow down! Time won’t but we absolutely can. Choose to be present, engage fully with the world around you, and avoid the plague of distractedness and hurry. More milestones are on the way!

Milestones

Whether you think of them as stages of development, a state testing model, or as the green and white signs along an interstate highway, what are milestones to you? Are they something to be celebrated? Or would your rather overlook or perhaps ignore them altogether? These little reminders, not only of how far you still have to go, are a memorial to how far you’ve come. Whether we choose to celebrate or ignore the milestones in our lives, they will pass from a wide-open window into a narrow series of small mirrors with time and distance.

Since my last post in May, I’ve experienced a season of milestones in my life and family: My 50th birthday. A new job. Launching our oldest child into adulthood. And today will be the first day in twenty years that I’ve not welcomed students on the first day of school.  That’s a lot to pass in rapid succession, one after the other, as if I was traveling faster and faster. Was I traveling faster?  How were they so tightly arranged?  And yet now they are so spread out again I can’t even see the next one that’s coming.

I didn’t take many pictures. Or post much on social media. But, my son and I got to make his move together, just the two of us.  I drove the moving truck and he followed in his vehicle.  For three full days across the US. We stopped for gas, ate lunch together by the side of the road in states we’d never visited before, and slept like kings in the motel each night. He and I will always share that experience in both our lives.

My lack of social media engagement notwithstanding, I did catch one gem on Twitter over the summer. Let’s all put our phones away, enjoy our beverages of choice responsibly, and be attentive, engaged, and available to truly experience our milestones with those around us.

One Last Look

In this, our last week in advance for the 21-22 school year and my last principal’s message at Woodland, there’s one final observation I’d like to share with you.  There’s something interesting I’ve noticed about you middle school parents over the last four years.  And yes, you might be wondering what direction this is going.  But in many ways, I think your example is a powerful lesson for us all. 

As you may know, the front door has been my “post” every morning during my time at Woodland.  And, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  In almost 20 years in education, I’ve found no more successful way to build relationships and culture than greeting people individually on a consistent basis.  Whether it’s the classroom door at Ravenwood, the bus line at Centennial, or the front door at Woodland. 

But you middle school parents, especially those of you in the car line, you aren’t fooling anyone.  I see you.  Oh they never look back, so you’re not going to get caught, but I see you.  Whether the drop off happens with fist bump, a “love you,” a hug or a kiss, or even an awkward silence before the door shuts, I know what happens next.  Every single time. 

One last look.

I can imagine all the things you must be wondering.  The most precious thing in the world to you  is heading into an environment that belongs to them and not you.  Will they have a friend to walk in with?  What kind of a day will they have?  How will they respond to success or adversity?  Who will they sit with at lunch?  And who are they on the other side of those doors? 

My hope is that during the last four years, you’ve looked back with pride and confidence that your child was walking into a safe, supportive, positive, and encouraging environment that always put students first.  And that it will continue to be that kind of place for years to come.   Eventually, we will all leave Woodland for the last time, whether it’s this week for some of us, later this summer for others, or in the years to come.  When that time comes, please continue to take one last look and reflect on what a special place this is.  Thank you for allowing me to share in this special time in the lives of your children. 

Family Comes First

Family comes first.”  Hopefully in our time together you’ve heard these words come out of my mouth.  More importantly, I hope you believe me when I say them.  I’ve tried to be as accommodating, understanding, and empathetic as possible when it comes to appointments, time off, sick kids and parents, you name it, regardless of what’s expected of us at school.  I can’t recall ever turning any request down or not finding a way for us to make it happen, because school will be here when we get back!  If you’re like me though, you occasionally get stuck in a reflective loop about whether your words match your actions.  Whether we are living up to our own standards.  I’m not.  Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve realized that I’m failing in this area.  With whom you might ask?  I hope you don’t think it’s you, but I realized that it’s with myself.  My family hasn’t come first. 

I came in last Sunday (yes, Easter) right at 1pm loaded for bear but our school network was down, so no email, drives, or anything available.  I texted the middle school principal group to see if anyone else was having the same issue.   No response.  After about an hour or so, I packed up and took the party to the home office.  I didn’t even take my weekly selfie of me alone in the parking lot, which I’ve been doing lately to make myself feel better?  When I got home, I thought to myself:  Self, there’s no law that says the callout has to go out at 4 or that my newsletter has to come first.  Sit outside.  Enjoy some family time. 

And this weekend?  Welp, since I was going to be home alone, I decided to go see my parents in Alabama who I haven’t seen since Christmas.  My dad is approaching 80 and they don’t travel much anymore (unless it’s a special occasion like a grandson’s college graduation in two weeks).  My Dad said they hadn’t had me to themselves since 1976, when my youngest brother was born.  I arrived on Friday night (after leaving right before school dismissal) to my favorite supper (corned beef hash, cabbage, and butter noodles) and a coconut cake.  My mother’s maiden name is Cassidy and yes, we are of Irish heritage. 

On Saturday, we drove around to all the old homes we’d lived in, talked about the old neighborhoods and neighbors, and had more cake and presents to celebrate our birthdays.  My Mom’s birthday is Tuesday and we are ten days (+25 years) apart.  We also went to the cemeteries of several friends, classmates, and teachers, saving our visit to my middle brother’s grave for last.  His birthday is May 5th

If I remember one thing about this weekend, it won’t be supper, or the cake, or riding up and down memory lane.  As we were leaving the cemetery and walking back to our vehicle, my Dad was trailing behind, which is not uncommon.  Even 80 year old former college football players struggle to get around.  When I looked for him, he had walked back over to my brother’s grave to reach down and touch it before we left. 

I’d never seen that.  And probably will never see it again.  But I saw it this weekend.  Because family comes first.  And just for the record…you’re my family too.

Cobra Kai Never Dies

If you remember the 1980’s as I do, the Karate Kid franchise is a classic.  An underdog tale with great music, the good guy winning in the end and getting the girl, and several references that have made it into pop culture lexicon.  Even people who haven’t seen the movie know the Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi, wax on/wax off, and the crane technique.  My beloved Alabama Crimson Tide adopted the “crane technique” as a touchdown celebration last season over 35 years after the movie premiered. The Karate Kid is such a classic that it’s reboot as Cobra Kai on Netflix continues to be wildly successful and will soon begin its fifth season as a streaming behemoth.

What I’ve enjoyed most about Cobra Kai series is that it is told primarily from Johnny’s perspective.  If you’re Johnny, Daniel is the bully! Daniel always starts things he can’t finish (until Mr. Miyagi steps in).  Daniel moves in on Johnny’s girl, butts in on their conversations, and when Daniel sprays Johnny with a hose at the Halloween dance, Mr. Miyagi is there to save him from another beating by taking down Johnny and three of his friends.  Then, Mr. Miyagi and Daniel have the audacity to march into the Cobra Kai dojo to demand a cease fire to train until the tournament.  Which, of course, allows Daniel free reign to torment Johnny and Cobra Kai at school. And let’s not even get started on the illegal kick to the face that wins Daniel the All-Valley Championship!  

If our collective experiences over the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that there can be two wildly different perspectives on the exact same event.  Wildly different. Even over the simplest and most basic things. As hard as these differing perspectives may be to comprehend, they are reality to those who hold and experience them, much like Johnny and Daniel’s in the Karate Kid.  I encourage you, and ask you to help hold me accountable, to continue to do what’s best knowing that we all don’t see the world the same way. As Mr. Miyagi said, “no such thing as bad student.  Only bad teacher.”

Ruminations from Left Field

I remember my first exposure to sarcasm.  As a ten year old baseball player, I made the All-Star team in our league (for the record, every ten year old made the All-Stars because of the small size of our league).  In our generation, “All-Star” teams were similar to today’s travel teams, except with only one tournament at the end of baseball season instead of fifty-two all over the country every weekend of the year.  We’d have a tournament against other leagues in our home county, then against the city kids in Montgomery if we won our county.  Once that was over, the rest of the summer was ours!

On my first all-star team that summer, another team’s coach served as the manager instead of my team’s coach, so it was like starting over again unless you’d played on his team during the regular season.  At our first All-Star practice, several of us, outfielders maybe, were warming up and talking in short right field before practice.  Some instructions were shouted to the assembled group, but for whatever reason, none of us responded or moved.  The ten year olds.  On the first day of practice.  With a new team and and a new coach. 

Then came a question in a tone that I’d never heard before:   “Do you need an engraved invitation to go to left field?” 

We didn’t react immediately as our ten year old brains began to unpack the question.   We did pick up on a few cues however:   “Left field,” and knowing that we were currently in right field, we needed to move.  And, since he asked a question, we should probably answer him because you always respond when an adult asks you a question.   But, he doesn’t sound happy with us and might not want an answer (little did we know we were getting exposed to rhetorical questions as well as sarcasm).  Regardless, we knew something wasn’t right where we were so we beat feet for left field. 

From that point, I don’t remember a single thing about any of our all-star practices except that question on the first day.  I do remember our team losing our first tournament game, then winning out to win the Area Championship.  We went on to lose two games to the city teams and had the rest of the summer off before school started in August.  My friends and I had a good time playing baseball together and being kids.  I played centerfield and wore #7. 

In reflecting on our coach’s question almost 40 years separated from that day, I can state the following with absolute certainty:

  • No ten year old baseball player in the Holtville Dixie Youth League in 1982 had ever seen an engraved invitation, much less received one for any of our birthday parties. 
  • We’d still be running foul poles if one of us had answered his question in the affirmative. 

I wonder now, what was his intended purpose or desired effect?  We all went to left field.  I’m pretty sure we’d have gone to left field no matter what.  Even if he’d just gotten our attention and said “hey, run to left field.”  We’d have run over there still not knowing anything about sarcasm or rhetorical devices. 

Was it to make himself feel better or smarter than the ten year olds since we didn’t hear him or understand him the first time?  Was it to assert his dominance or authority?  Was he trying to embarrass us or make us feel dumb?  I’m almost fifty years old and still have no idea.  What I do know is that whatever it was, it wasn’t about us.  It was about him.  

In our communications with others, and especially in our most difficult coaching and leadership conversations, our goal should be to encourage and model positive behavioral change. What approach has a higher likelihood of success if behavior needs to change? Shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and punishment? Or reflection, recommendations, partnership, planning for next steps, and following up? You can get behavior to change either way, engraved invitations notwithstanding. The only difference will be the relationship that exists once they get to left field.

Nobody knows…

In the spirit of a Disney theme at school, who remembers this scene from Lion King?

Poor Zasu.  Living the dream one day under Mufasa’s protection, then imprisoned by the evil Scar the next.  And don’t get me started about listening to those hyenas non-stop and not being able to do anything about it.    

That song that Zasu is singing though…have you heard it before?  It’s what keeps coming to my mind after this week.  “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow.”  Can’t you just feel the emotion?  It’s a song with an amazing history, beginning as an African-American spiritual during slavery, being published for the first time during Reconstruction, and finding popular acclaim during the 20th Century performed by legendary artists like Louie Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Sam Cooke.  What a song.  Just a classic.     

But after this year and after last week especially, I’m sure that’s how many of us feel.  Like we have to take a licking and keep on ticking, and either we can’t defend ourselves or nobody’s defending us.  That we have to absorb blow after blow and take on more and more with no relief or support.  Constantly questioned, even as a professional with multiple degrees and decades of experience.  Not trusted to complete the simplest of tasks without being challenged.  I get it.  It’s a bad place to be in mentally, spiritually, and physically, let alone professionally.  But that’s where we are.   

So, I decided that song wouldn’t apply to us anymore.  Nobody knows?  No longer the case.  This week alone I’ve shared all of the inappropriate, unprofessional, profane, and antagonistic emails and voicemails our teachers have received.  I will continue to raise the awareness of what you all are enduring on a daily basis, when not a single one of us would be here if we didn’t want what’s best for kids.  I hurt for you all and will absorb as much of it as I can until things change.   

People will know the trouble you’ve seen, people will know your sorrow, and better days will return to the Pride Lands!  It’s the Circle of Life!