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Treasured Gift

When you’re a teacher, the last day of school before the holiday break is full of excitement. Kids nearly levitate with pent-up anticipation of days off school, no homework (except from that one colleague who thinks starting a research paper is a good holiday activity for young people), and gifts. While there are also many students whose anxiety ramps up as the break approaches—those for whom teachers and school routines are the only things in their lives to count on—the air still swirls with excitement those final days of the winter countdown.

A teacher’s desk is filled with little presents in the last days before the holiday break. Small gift bags stuffed with tissue. Envelopes with Starbucks cards addressed “To my favorite teacher.” Little boxes of chocolate. Baked goods in cellophane presented by a teenager saying, “You can have one now!” with such eagerness that you put diets and allergies aside and bite into the mix of food coloring, cereal, and corn syrup with a delighted smile just to see it reflected back.

On the last day of school you haul bags and boxes to your car: candles and body lotion and soap and cookies and holiday pins and mugs and apple ornaments and maybe a big poinsettia or two. It’s a fun way to start the holiday, bringing home these little treasures from students you love and reading their cards and notes.

It’s been years since I had my own class of students. (Unlike teachers, school leaders do not find their desks loaded with offerings in December!) Many of the gifts from my students have long since faded in memory—candy eaten, cookies turned to crumbs, candles burned, lotions used up. A few ornaments from students still grace our tree and bring me a smile year after year.

But there’s one gift I can’t forget.

Marina (not her real name) was in my first period seventh grade language arts class. She was smart and funny and…sometimes sad, for reasons I would come to understand as we got to know each other. In the first week of school, as I was learning names, I worked hard to pronounce hers the way I heard her say it—with the Spanish “r” sound that made my tongue feel like it was doing a back flip. She rewarded my efforts by not laughing and honored them with shy smiles. One August day, she paused by my desk on her way out of class and said, “You’re the only teacher who can say my name,” before darting out of the room. It was generous of her…she had one R in the first name and two in the last, and I was so clumsy in my pronunciation. But because she was brave enough to let me know I’d gotten it close to right, I wondered for the first time how many times we teachers had gotten names wrong through the years while a child sat without telling us.

One day after class, she lingered, and I asked her if everything was okay. You don’t work with teenagers long before you realize that when they hang around, they need you. Usually the hallway passing period full of friends is an irresistible attraction. Marina confided that she missed her dad. He had taken a job with a road crew in another state and had been gone from home for weeks. I asked if he was able to visit, and she shook her head. She didn’t know when he was coming back. She blinked back a few tears as she told me about him. Then she shared that her mom was working two jobs now—day shift and night—and Marina was in charge of her three younger siblings. “They’re pretty good, but not much help,” she said. I gave her a hug and told her how proud I was of her for helping her family like this. Suddenly, I had a much deeper appreciation for homework completed in her neat precise handwriting—probably long after dinner and housekeeping and getting little ones to bed. After that, she’d linger now and then on days she needed a boost, or I would give her an extra smile and a squeeze on her shoulder, Mom-style, as I cruised the room during writing workshop. It was such simple stuff…the kind of thing a teacher does without thinking. I sometimes get annoyed with my past self that I didn’t do more to help her.

She wrote journal entries that were achingly matter-of-fact about the worries in her life—family members without papers who could be deported, relatives in Mexico she was not sure she’d see again, moves that had disrupted the continuity of her life, merging cultures, friendships, and—sometimes—the family’s ongoing struggle to make ends meet. I responded with encouragement and what I hope was compassion, receiving the words as her audience of one. I was used to students pouring out their hearts, and many of them faced significant challenges, but Marina was especially good at describing hers with such clarity and such resilience that I could not help but admire and love her.

When December came, we were deep into our last big push on student research papers (turned in BEFORE the holiday for me to grade while they got the childhood relief of being “done”) and enjoying the fun stories and lighter activities of the season. A week before the break, little gifts started trickling in from students whose uber-organized parents wanted to get the teachers checked off their list. Not judging…I’m that mom too. Before each class, there’d be one or two students offering a bag with a smile or leaving something on my desk and watching with a grin as I came in from the hall and discovered it.

Teacher gifts are a tricky thing and require a difficult dance of gratitude for the recipient. I always had my own kids drop them off before the school day or leave them for a teacher to find after school rather than presenting in front of peers and putting teachers in the awkward position of receiving graciously without hurting those who watch. Even as I thanked the excited givers, I was conscious of Marina’s and others’ eyes on the exchange, knowing that gift-giving was especially stressful or impossible in their own families.

On the last Friday before the break, Marina came to my room before school began. I don’t know how she got past the breakfast supervisors in the cafeteria, but there she was…holding a card with my name on it in a handmade envelope of folded paper and a small gift wrapped in tissue paper and tied with a hair ribbon. She beamed as she handed it to me. “Open it!” She was almost bouncing with excitement. I untied the hair ribbon and—because I recognized it—handed it to her and said, “Here! You have to keep this. In our family we always give the bow back to the person who made it for good luck!” We don’t (unless my mom demands we not throw away a perfectly good bow), but she accepted my explanation and the ribbon. Inside the tissue was a box with a gold lid. I lifted it and heard her breath catch as I lifted the cotton blanket covering a pair of earrings—gold posts with three tiny diamonds each descending in a column.

“They’re beautiful!” I said, and they were. Her face lit up.

“The diamonds probably aren’t real diamonds,” she said, apologetically, and I struggled to keep a straight face.

“Oh, but they look real!” I said. “And I would be too worried about losing real ones. The design is beautiful. I’ll be able to wear these all the time!” Because there were no other student observers, I was able to share my delight freely with her. To this day, I’m still glad for that. “These are perfect! I love them!! Thank you.” Then, thinking of all the times she’d written about her parents’ hard work, I grew serious. “You shouldn’t have.”

She covered my wrist with her hand. “I didn’t steal them,” she assured me solemnly…something that had not even crossed my mind. I lived in a world where no one had to steal a gift. It didn’t even occur to me.

I realized suddenly that her words were also part of the gift.

I beamed at her. “That makes them even more special.” I can still see the look on her face. It makes me smile even now.

I did not ask how she got the earrings. I don’t know to this day how she came to have them for me. But they are one of the best presents I’ve ever received, still precious to me in memory. I wore them often with my school outfits—the dangling diamonds with my casual sweaters and tops. She always smiled to see them, and I would touch my ear—Carol Burnett style—our own little private joke. Later that year, when Marina’s seat was empty because the family moved without notice, I felt that sadness teachers always do when we lose a student or say good-bye to a class. And whenever I wore the earrings to a party or special event, I would smile, remembering the giver and her assurance, “I didn’t steal them.”

Several years ago, our home was broken into while we were away at work, and most of my jewelry was taken. In the hasty ransacking of my jewelry box, the thieves dropped a number of small items that I retrieved in tears that night from the closet floor. The tiny diamond earrings my husband gave me for our first Christmas were embedded in the carpet, and I was so grateful to see them…special survivors I cherish because I remember how proud he was to give them to me. Lying next to them among the broken beads of some costume jewelry, an IU pin, and a Halloween necklace was one of the gold posts from Marina, and I felt a rush of joy. I lifted that single earring with the three dangling fake diamonds, and saved it. I’ll keep it forever. It’s a treasure.

Next Door

Full disclosure: I don’t like “the site formerly known as Facebook,” and I don’t really understand Instagram. I enjoy Twitter—it feels like a fun quick one-line blog to me (one that only my few hundred followers ever see…thanks, friends!) and offers me some good links to professional content.

And then there’s “Next Door.”

I signed up for Next Door because it seemed like a good idea to crowd-source community safety. How else would I know that porch pirates are on the loose in Covington Lakes or that Farmingham Woods is experiencing car break-ins? Or that a particular restaurant made a guy named Larry very sick after he ate their Thursday special?

Also, I got a puppy. And, honestly, I was worried that if it got lost, I’d be frantically trying to figure out how to set up an account and choose all the images of crosswalks or stoplights just to ask people for help finding it when time was of the essence… So I set up my account as a precaution and promptly ignored it. My puppy seems to stay in the yard. I keep my car in the garage, try to bring in packages promptly, and avoid Thursday Specials as a rule.

Thus, I have rarely used Next Door. The one time I tried to engage on it, I ended up with 86 extremely micro-manage-y replies to a very innocent post I made trying to explain to a very angry “neighbor” why sometimes a dog walker leaves a bag under a bush to retrieve on the end of the walk instead of carrying it for two miles. I did not understand public/private settings on Next Door and was thus subjected to a million DMs titled “Dog Poop” over the next 72 hours until my sister who is more social-media savvy than I am helped me figure out how to disengage from the whole thread. YEESH. I had no idea people were so passionate about dog poop, but they are. Trust me. They are.

Having learned my lesson after the dog poop debacle, I have stayed off Next Door for the most part. I monitor reports of suspicious cars, coyotes that might eat your dog or children, recommendations for painters, and free exercise equipment for sale. And I keep to myself. If Next Door were really a neighborhood, I would be that neighbor who comes and goes with a shy smile without speaking instead of yelling at you about why your grass isn’t mowed or giving you my best advice on why you should replace your windows or whether the teachers in our school district should settle their contract based on my extensive lack of knowledge of the situation.

But Next Door likes to push your buttons.

It dangles “push notifications” (which I should learn to turn off but worry I will miss a picture of an armed robber loose on the cul de sac), and sometimes the click bait hooks me against ALL my better instincts.

That’s why today I found myself reading comments in response to some guy named Dan (not his real virtual name) who lives in what Next Door has decided is “my neighborhood” but is really seven or eight miles away. Dan has very strong opinions about COVID and vaccinations, and he apparently has not realized that everyone else does too, or…Dan just likes to stir the pot…provided the pot is far enough away that there’s no chance of anything splashing on him.

I was about to close the whole screen out when I saw Dan’s last post in the stream. “Virus gonna virus,” he wrote, going on to explain that in the first known cases of Omicron variant in the U.S. many of those were people who were vaccinated and boosted. He bootstrapped from there his thesis that vaccinations won’t bring herd immunity; only infections will. Dan’s pretty sure of that. So according to him, we should be fairly satisfied with our state’s low vaccination rate and just “virus on.”

I read the papers. Several different ones. Extensively. So I know better than to challenge the Dans out there on their views, having seen the vitriol on both sides of this issue. And who knows? Maybe Dan’s right about how the virus will eventually learn to live with us. He seems like a smart guy; he used the phrase “confirmation bias” in one of his comments about the media. He’s done well for himself based on where his “next door” home is and the fact that he has time to hang out on a virtual neighborhood discussion stream sharing his opinions freely with anyone who has not asked. In a real neighborhood, Dan would be the guy you see working in the yard and hurry past so you don’t get stuck in a long discussion about politics. On Next Door, you don’t have to pick up your pace; you can just close the screen. I don’t have to listen to Dan in this pretend neighborhood. Our relationship is not real.

But Dan does live in my real community. My real state. My real country. And thus, Dan is, in a sense, my neighbor. And Dan’s actions are his own business, but when he stands on my virtual corner telling all of us what to do, then it’s hard to know whether I should just ignore him. I was raised to speak up when someone is doing something hurtful to others. As a teacher, I know all children are ours. As a parent, I told my kids not to stay silent when their friends did something wrong.

After pausing and counting to 50…something I wish more of us (including me) did more often before “posting” stuff to the world in these days of easy clicking, I decided ultimately not to engage Dan on Next Door (nor the 86 people who were already adding their two cents on various sides of his statement…some of whom I recognize from the dog poop debate). I think by now, most of us have realized we don’t change hearts and minds on this topic by sharing our “truth.” Dan doesn’t care what we think. He’s really sure he’s got the right of it. And Dan and I don’t have a real relationship—much as Next Door would like to make us all feel cozy like we do.

But if I really knew Dan, and we encountered each other in our REAL neighborhood, then I might have the chance to say this to his “virus gonna virus” comment:

In our REAL actual neighborhood, there are a lot of doctors and nurses. I have talked to them on my real, actual walks outside…in the real neighborhood, not the virtual one. And they are absolutely beyond EXHAUSTED, physically and emotionally, from taking care of people who are very sick with the virus right now…people who might not be in the hospital if they had done what they could to mount the best possible personal defense against this common enemy (which does not care who we are or what we think) by getting vaccinated. Sure, Dan, “virus gonna virus” (whatever that slangy little phrase is supposed to convey about your hip street cred), but doctors and nurses must care for the sick—for me, for you, for the people we love, for people we don’t know at all—because that’s what they’ve given their lives to do. I’ll put it in your lingo: “exhausted overtaxed doctors gonna doctor” “fatigued stressed on-back-to-back-shifts-because-there’s-no-one-else nurses gonna nurse”. And they are doing it down at the hospital for hour upon hour while you sit behind your screen telling us we don’t need to help.

You’re plenty smart, Dan, and you’re full of opinions. But you’re selfish. And you’re using your platform to push selfishness and lack of care for our fellow human beings waging war on this virus to save the lives of real people. And there’s nothing smart or admirable or strong or loving about that. That’s not neighborly.

Those of us who aren’t medically trained can’t do much to fight COVID. We can’t administer monoclonal antibodies or steroids or IV drips. We can’t decide whether to intubate or care for someone on a ventilator. We can’t take blood or adjust oxygen masks or change soiled bedsheets or record vitals. We can’t go through the doors of the ER and respond to the people stacked everywhere waiting for quality care who are scared and sick enough to come for help. And we can’t comfort their families when the news is bad.

But we can get ourselves protected enough that we don’t add to the burden. We can do things that are not selfish. We can consider the fact that we don’t know it all. And we can encourage our community to do the same. Every one of us can do that.

I think that’s what real “next door” neighbors would do for each other.

And now for a little dose of reality…

Today’s newspaper contained an op-ed expressing concern about how many states have not spent their emergency relief funds for K-12 education ( For those of you who haven’t read it, here’s the gist from a few key lines from the opening of the article.

“During the pandemic, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education have awarded more than $150 billion in federal funding to state departments of education to reopen K-12 schools and address students’ needs while schools were closed. But new data from the Department of Education show that states have spent less than 6 percent of the emergency funds provided since March 2020.”

“As May 31st, nearly $143 billion remained unspent. That’s enough to provide emergency grants worth more than $5,000 per child to 26 million children from low-income households. States will receive additional funding authorized by the American Rescue Plan later this year.” The author goes on to note that 17 states have not spent a single dollar of their CCRSA ESSER funds. My own state, Indiana, has spent only 8% of the $1.1 billion awarded to it to help schools close learning gaps and operate safely in a pandemic.

The unspent money is not surprising to me. But articles like this and the conclusions they may cause readers to jump to—that educators or state education leaders don’t care enough about kids to spend the money they’ve been given to help them—make me a little crazy. Here’s a dose of reality: it is actually harder than people imagine for schools/state education agencies to suddenly spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in thoughtful and effective ways.

As most of us know, there are only a few ways to put this money to use: people, programs, supplies/equipment, instructional materials, buildings/grounds. Even things like transportation or security or mental health basically break down into people, equipment, materials, and building-related expenses like cleaning products or gas for buses or HVAC. The obvious intent of most of these dollars is safety/health-related expenses or helping close academic gaps/emotional needs due to pandemic learning loss. I am sure people will wonder why schools haven’t jumped at the chance to spend thousands of dollars on kids who are behind. What’s wrong with them?

The truth is that getting any new program (no matter how helpful or well-funded) off the ground takes capacity—something we don’t always have in school districts. Sure, some districts will use the money to buy a computer-tutor program, but even something as simple as assessing a new software product and ensuring the infrastructure exists to install/maintain/integrate it takes more time than strapped one or two-person departments have. These are things that remain on school district to-do lists year after year, getting bumped to the bottom even in the best of times…and these are not the best of times.

In a year like the one we’ve just come through in schools, there’s even less appetite to figure out new projects; people are in survival mode, frantic just trying to staff every classroom in a national teacher shortage and tough employment market for hourly staff like custodians and instructional assistants. It’s taking hundreds of extra hours for schools/districts to comply with rapidly-changing government safety standards, communicate clearly with parents, contact trace staff/students, and quell or at least respond thoughtfully to the local CRT/masking wars. So while it sounds shocking that they haven’t spent this money, I have to admit I’m dubious even about districts that announce they are using it to start massive tutoring initiatives—unless they have such a program in place already that they are just beefing up with the new money.

Think about something that sounds as innocuously good as “a powerful tutoring program to aid students who’ve lost learning—accelerating their growth so they can catch up.” Doesn’t that sound wonderful? What a great use of these funds. Why aren’t ALL the districts doing that? Geesh…kids are behind; what are they waiting for?

Now, think about the execution…and consider that no matter if it’s in a huge urban district with 80 schools and tens of thousands of students or a wealthy suburban enclave with 10 schools and 7500 students, the same steps for execution occur. They may be more challenging in the larger district, but they also have more staff/capacity to throw at the problem. As a former district administrator/school leader, I know from experience that starting any new program has similar decision-making protocols and challenges—no matter where you work.

Let’s just take the tutoring program, for example. The one that sounded so great above. We’ll pair kids up with a caring, intelligent, prepared/organized adult—maybe in really small ratios like 1:2 or 1: 5 even. That person will work with them diligently and patiently for a few hours a week for a whole semester, and they will catch up in reading or math with that extra help and attention. And the government dollars will help us pay for the whole thing! It’s a perfect solution.

To start a “tutoring program” you have to have someone to run point. No problem. The curriculum director or his/her/their team will take that on. They have a lot to do, but they’ll add starting this new program to the list for the 2021 school year. Or maybe the overscheduled Title I coordinator (who may be the same person in a small district). Or the “at risk” coordinator (same person again). Or a principal in the lowest performing school… Or an intern. Doesn’t matter. Someone will add it to an already-full plate. We don’t keep people in schools who have nothing to do. We can’t afford it. Let’s assume someone will take that on and agree to get it off the ground in these late-summer/early-fall months along with everything else involved with getting everyone back to school. We could even use some of the money to pay them a little stipend for being the “program coordinator” which will also mean we can saddle them with the extra hours of documenting all the compliance information and budget specifics they will need for the reporting requirements associated with federal dollars. (I’ve done those reports for Title grants. They make doing your taxes look like a walk in the park.)

So…we’ve got a leader. Now let’s get to the program. Tutoring. Okay…we’ll have to identify kids. Need a protocol. What tests will we use? Have to ensure that the process fairly considers all students. Probably need triangulated data. Should we allow opt-ins, make it required or by invitation? Everyone will have an opinion. We’ll need to talk it through and decide and then field the calls of those who disagreed about whatever plan we had for identification and make some exceptions on a case-by-case basis and document those in case of complaints. And we will need clear, transparent, abundant communication with parents who may not read what we send until the last minute or at all. Some will want to follow up with a call to someone to explain it, so we’ll need to be prepared to set time aside for some meetings or calls with parents about why their child is being considered for extra help…or not…or how this impacts his/her ability to attend volleyball practice.

So we’ve got a pool of kids who need help. What else? Timing: after school, before, or during? Will we take attendance? Will we have some consequence for not coming, or will we risk paying someone to sit in an empty room when kids don’t show? How will we assess progress? We will have to have data to document the program success. Our IT folks or some administrative assistant will need to create groups in our student management system so we can disaggregate demographics and learning data for federal/state reporting as well. As for the testing of progress—what tests will we use and how often? Will we just wait for the annual state test? Use NWEA in fall/winter/spring? Who will administer the extra NWEA if we go that route and where—since those are computer-based and have specific testing protocols? We could use teacher-created tests, but those are less reliable. And who would design them? For elementary kids behind in reading, we can use running records, but we’ll want to be sure we have people who are trained to administer. How will we know the tutoring is working?

Now…let’s get to the main thing: staffing. Who will our tutors be?Teachers are unionized, and, depending on contract agreements, may need their hourly rate—which can be pretty high for experienced teachers, so we need to consider the cost of using licensed staff—provided we can even get them. Many are coaching or doing other after-school activities or second jobs or have families of their own to get to after work ends. We could use non-licensed staff, but it’s hard to find enough of these people whom we can trust to work without supervision with children doing work that requires some skill in both content and instructional strategy. Also, at middle school and above, for math we will specifically need math teachers with enough expertise to help close learning gaps. How do we find enough of them who want to add more hours to already-long days? At one high school, the only guy who might have the expertise to help with geometry is coaching football till November if we go deep enough into the state tournament. No problem, we’ll hire some math-savvy college kids from the local School of Ed…but they can’t get here till 4 PM and school ends at 3:10. And the university wants them to have some staff supervisor for liability reasons. We will likely need to pay someone to watch the kids in study hall till they arrive and stay through till the session ends. We will also need plans for staffing when the tutors don’t show up or resign unexpectedly. Will we cancel? Have a sub?

Also, the kids may need a snack if we keep them till 5 or beyond. When your lunch is at 10:20 AM, you’re pretty hungry by 5 and that’s not optimal for learning. If we have food, that means we’ll need custodial clean-up afterwards in the space, or we’ll have a problem with bugs/rodents eventually. Gotta get with the custodial crew to let them know they’ll need to add a last pass of that area to their schedule or factor it in. And we also need to let the district HVAC guy know that we’ll need some cooling/heating in that space after hours. Most school systems shut off a short time after school ends, and it will get uncomfortably warm fast.

We probably also need materials specific to the tutoring so it is more than just homework help: what kind and how will we differentiate for the multi-grade group we will serve? Where will we store them? Where will we have the program? Do we need to find space in each school or transport kids somewhere central? Will we need computer labs? Will software need to be loaded and groups set up in the software so kids are registered and able to log-in and track progress so the program adjusts for their lesson needs? If it’s after school, how do we transport kids home when they are finished? Late bus drivers will need to run additional routes, and the kids live all over the district, so we have to make sure we have enough buses that it isn’t a longer ride than the session itself, so that requires someone in the transportation department to create routes based on where the kids live once we know who is coming. And we will need to communicate all that to parents so they know when to expect their child. And someone will need to remain at school/district/available by phone till the last bus has dropped off the last child to make sure that a parent can reach someone in the event a child doesn’t show up.

We will probably need individualized tracking and materials (lesson plans, as it were) for the tutoring time each day…oh, and some guidelines/options for the kids who aren’t working with a tutor. MS kids won’t just sit and wait quietly for their turn to learn. Also, we need to be sure we also offer the tutoring to any special education or English-learning student and that we make the tutor aware of their IEP/ILP goals/modifications/needs so they can have the type of instruction that is effective for them. Also, Jimmy’s mom wants him to come because he’s a holy terror after hours at home and nearly set his sister on fire last week. He isn’t technically behind academically due to the pandemic and his disability is oppositional defiant disorder, but legally, we are safest to allow him the opportunity to attend, but he’ll have to have a one-on-one assistant with him or he’ll hurt someone and disrupt the whole thing…so we need to find a special ed IA who will work extra hours, but that puts her into enough hours a week to need healthcare, and that sets a precedent we need to avoid…

You get the idea.

And that might be why the dollars are unspent. Just my two cents.

Not every district or state will struggle in the ways I’ve described. And I know some are already putting some powerful new ideas in place to use these dollars to help students (or to upgrade ancient HVAC systems so they can filter the air in case of future disease outbreaks…also something that needs doing). But in my experience, government aid packages happen as a result of idyllic thinking and school spending happens in the hard realities of…schools and human lives. My own hunch is that unless this money can be spent on new personnel (something that schools hesitate to do with “soft money” because it is hard to bring on new staff and depend on them only to have to fire them when the money to pay them evaporates), cleaning supplies/PPE/buildings and grounds, or a specific buy of some learning or SEL software/data management system they’d already been eyeing, millions of these dollars will be wasted or not spent at all.

Will that be the fault of educators? A failure of their ability, desire, or imagination when it comes to helping kids ?

I don’t think so.

Sent from my iPad

What’s on your list?

I’ve started a new game with myself and the people I talk to regularly. It’s called “What’s On Your List?” I didn’t dare it play it before, but I’m flirting with danger now as the pandemic drags on and allowing myself brief forays into considering wishes. Casual inquiries have shown me that I’m not the only one. Everyone, it seems, has “the list.” We’re all just trying not to talk about it.

You know the list. The one we’re all making (but trying to ignore) in our heads. The one that enumerates things we long for, everything we want to do again “when this is all over.” When we’re back to normal. Living in a time after a world-shifting pandemic. When we emerge, battle-worn and weary, blinking in the bright light of all we once took for granted.

My list was long when COVID started last year. It seemed like there were a lot of things I wanted to do—shop in stores, go on all the trips and adventures I had to cancel, work in schools like usual, resume my volunteering activities, work out at the gym, swim laps at the health club, go to parties and weddings and concerts and plays, eat out with friends, make plans, run errands, get back to the things on the calendar, have the holidays be normal.

Over time, though, as the wait for normal got longer, my list got shorter. I counted blessings a little differently. Spring and summer came, and I celebrated flowers, warmth, getting outside, a driveway drink in socially-distanced chairs with a friend in the sunshine. I was grateful to be outside without a mask walking in the neighborhood and breathing fresh air. Glad to be running into the grocery store on my own in a mask without quite as much anxiety and thankful for shelves that weren’t empty. Happy for virtual get-togethers, holidays we pulled off in altered form that weren’t so bad, and so damn appreciative of the wonders of Zoom. I altered my list as I altered my life.

As we start to see cases decline, vaccination rates rise, and scary curves trending downward, I’m tired of COVID and finding myself daring to dream about life after it’s gone. I purposely have refused to dwell on what I’ve been missing throughout the last 10 months. Wishing doesn’t make things so and wastes energy better directed toward staying happy right now—which is the only place we are. That’s survival 101. But as resistance weakens and hope grows, I have allowed myself to consider my small, still-there, wish list for the “after”…and occasionally to ask other people to share theirs. It’s funny how short most people’s lists are, how concise my own has become.

Something on every list is unique to the person, and I get some delight from what those one-off items reveal about people I love. One friend cannot wait to wander through a store—without a defined purpose or a feeling of fear, idly looking at things, trying on clothes in a dressing room, making up her mind whether to buy something or not. Another wants to watch a movie in a theatre eating warm popcorn and Raisinettes. A third can’t wait to get back to the gym and join a class of people working out together, mask-free. Some, like me, have a special place they dream of seeing again; in my imagination, it’s sunrise off the coast of Maui, and I’m perched on the tubes of a raft boat waiting for a whale to leap out of the sea. My daughter wants to ski. My mom wants to go back to Europe. For some it’s a full stadium at a sporting event. For others, just getting back to a school full of kids.

But most of us also have a few of the same simple things on the list. And I find that everyone I ask describes some version of them.

We want to hug our families.

We want to eat dinner out or in someone’s home with friends and family, talking and laughing.

We want to gather for birthdays, weddings, grieving, and holidays without complex logistics, fear, or masks.

We want to see people smile…with their whole face and not just their eyes…and we want to smile back.

And that’s pretty much it. When I ask people about their lists, that’s what’s on their minds. One unique “bucket” item or two that often involve a return to some beloved setting or activity. And the same simple longing for daily in-person connections with people we care about. We don’t miss restaurants; we miss the laughter and conversation with friends, the intimacy of gathering around a table together to share a meal. We don’t miss full calendars; we miss the sharing of our lives with others in so many different ways that matter. We don’t miss the daily grind, but we miss those we shared it with. What the pandemic has taken from us isn’t just a lot of “events”; it was the chance to be together.

And at the end of it all, we will need to remember that being together was really the only thing we wanted.

Teachable Moment

I had a classroom dream last night. Every teacher knows what I mean. You’re unprepared; you have no materials. Your lesson isn’t working. Students are uncooperative. Oh…and during this massive meltdown, the principal is ALWAYS quietly doing an evaluation of you from a desk in the back of the room. My dream also included a colleague entering with NINE very disruptive students she wanted me to “watch for the rest of this period” and a Spanish class next door that was breaking pinatas, but that’s another story…. Even my school nightmares get a little creative.

I think the reason I had the dream is that I’ve been struggling for days to imagine what or how we can teach our children to prevent anything like the events at our Capitol from happening again. I know the sacred responsibility of educating citizens. I’ve spent my life in schools. I’m happiest among teachers and students, doing the work of learning and growth. Educators have the most critical role in a successful democracy and a stable society. At our best, we can promote peace. Prepare ethical leaders. Raise young men and women ready to be good parents, workers, and voters. Give young people the capacity to hope, dream, rise, and make us all better with their lives. To contemplate the images of the people storming the Capitol last week, filling the airwaves with their fervent belief in conspiracy theories beyond the pale of any basis in reality (a pizza place where federal lawmakers order in code and are brought the blood of babies to eat?)…I cannot help but picture classrooms full of learners and wondering how we failed. I’m heartbroken. And I’m angry. But even more than that, I’m curious. What can we learn from this, and what can we teach?

Being a teacher caused me to see in every child the grown person they might become. It also means I often “reverse engineer” this vision. When I look at an adult life, I cannot help but imagine the child who started it all, the seedling from which it grew. I watched the images of violence and destruction in the seat of our democracy, and I wondered about these people as children. What could we have taught to keep them from becoming what we saw last week? To prevent them from being swept into a thoughtless mob mentality. To equip them with protective skills to remain invulnerable to the insidious call of the conspirator. To heal and strengthen them so their pain did not turn them to darkness and despair and hate. It takes ingenuity and organization to equip people for insurrection and lead them astray; how could we have turned these skills to better purposes?

I know some will say, “Here we go again with the idea that schools are responsible for everything. What about families? Laws? Economics? Inadequate social services? Media? Are they not culpable? Are schools expected to undo every harm they cause? Impossible.” I agree. But I have also seen the power of a classroom firsthand. I know the discussions my colleagues across the country had to face last Thursday morning when the questioning eyes of children turned to them. My heart aches to think of the delicate work they had to do on such short notice, and I prayed they would be strong enough for the job. And I have such confidence in them. There are teachable moments in classrooms that transcend any other. Times when we respond to what the world has put in our students’ way and try to guide them to make meaning of it all. We are powerful beyond words in these moments and in the thoughtful planning and work we do to raise our future citizens.

So what was missing in this event and those that led up to it over the last years? How did so many people let dissatisfaction with their lives and cynicism about our institutions get stoked into a conflagration burning the very scaffolding on which they stand? People who supposedly stood for law and order attacked and killed police officers. Those who claimed to be patriots desecrated the flag and the seat of our nation. Those who felt cheated and lied to conspired to cheat others and spread falsehoods. The same folks who argued that only they could see the fraud being perpetrated on the nation let themselves be duped by a salesman who said from the beginning “you knew I was a snake when you picked me up.” Elected officials voted to decertify the results of the same elections that elected them…without seeing the irony in this. People who knew better played along with fire and gasoline without regard for the combustible nature of these elements. We burned.

In my dream I was frantically redesigning my curriculum in flight—poorly, I might add—but I think that means something. Redesign matters here. It doesn’t matter if we study Shakespeare, poetry, a dystopian novel, a research question, grammar, composition, speaking skills, persuasion, or short stories. Those aren’t the lessons; they are simply the canvas on which we paint…the backdrop for the real work schools do of preparing citizens deserving of the responsibility of living in the longest-running democracy in the world. Putting it back together. And preserving it. Making it better. Strengthening the fabric without ripping it apart.

I’m not sure if this means we double down on teaching and practicing thinking skills, the lessons and outcomes of history we learn or are doomed to repeat (did anyone else think the images of last week looked like the storming of the Bastille?), scientific knowledge and mathematical literacy that help people critically consume new information.

Maybe we work harder to teach and practice skills for democracy. As citizens, we must be able to debate without impasse—acknowledge disagreement without shutting down on each other. Remain uncomfortable but present in the face of people and views we find repugnant, examining the perspectives of others to sharpen and refine our own ideas. Build beliefs on evidence and facts after consideration of multiple views. Listen to those with whom we disagree and allow ourselves to find some common ground? Accept that we really can’t learn much from anyone who already agrees with us on everything. Seek growth over validation. Identify weak arguments, cheap flattery, and easy answers and demand better from each other.

We have already begun to talk more in schools about so-called “soft” skills—helping kids learn to assess motives of those who seek to persuade, collect, or use people for their own purposes; to exercise self-control and patience in moments of frustration or strife; to feel agency for improving their lives; to see beyond short-term outcomes or the promise of easy fixes; to separate truth from lies while remembering we all have bias and perspective; to know what is good; and to love others.

And, no, I don’t think schools alone can do all this; but we can lead. If the last year of parents trying to shoulder some of the work of schools alone has shown us anything, it should be that our educational system is a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure. Far from being ready for replacement by computerized bots, good schools and teachers are vital to this country’s health and future. More now than ever.

I don’t know the next steps. I’m still thinking about this. For now, I’ll simply emphasize that what happened last week is not something we can look away from. We have to look deep into it no matter how ugly it is and try to see what we can do next. What questions can we ask about teaching and learning that must happen to prevent what got us here? Those of us who’ve spent a life in schools have the great gift of agency to help protect our future. What can we do to strengthen the fabric of our democracy?

Maple Street

Every year, without fail, I introduced my middle school students to a Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” We’d choose parts and read the script like a play, then watch the episode which I had on tape (yeah…tape). After I helped the kids make the paradigm shift that tv used to be all black and white, they’d settle in to watch—complaining now and then about the fact that it should be in color.

The gist of the play is this: a small pleasant group of neighbors suddenly find that the power is randomly going out and flickering on/off in various homes and appliances. Cars are starting on their own. Lawn mowers are stopping and starting for no mechanical reason. Street lights are blinking. Homes go dark. The friendly neighbors are perplexed at first. There is head scratching. Problem-solving. Collaboration on ideas to call authorities or fix things themselves. But next comes anxiety, a creeping unease, fear, frustration, anger, accusation, paranoia, and…finally, even violence. Midway, someone floats a conspiracy theory that there are aliens hiding among them in disguise. By the end of the play, these friends and neighbors have turned on one another in grotesque and scary ways. It’s appalling. It’s ridiculous. It’s…human.

The kids‘ faces were fun to watch as we read aloud. Unlike many stories they’d already heard or seen on tv, this one was so old it was new to them. They would chuckle as the hysterical neighbor lady started accusing people of being from outer space. They would frown as it began to dawn on them that otherwise reasonable people were believing her just because their electricity was acting crazy. They would gasp when the “sound effect” line read “gunshot.” And then…at the end…when the camera pulls back for a view of these normal, nice, friendly people just like us fighting in the middle of Maple Street, they would shake their heads in disbelief. Such silly people. Thank goodness, we aren’t like them.

But the real kicker in the Maple Street story (as with all Twilight Zone episodes) is the coda. The final image as the camera pulls back is of two alien beings watching all this happen from some “overhead” view. The older one says to the newbie, “Understand the procedure now?” and proceeds to explain that you don’t have to invade or attack to capture a country. You simply sow seeds of panic and sit back to let people destroy themselves. The younger alien is a little astonished at how easy it is. “Is the pattern always the same?” The other assures him that it is.

I loved watching the kids puzzle out the cryptic meaning of the narrator’s final words: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children…and the children yet unborn.” Even a seventh grader quickly grasped that they were the children referenced.

We used the text to discuss the thin veneer of civility that keeps us from the edge, the importance of keeping a grip on our humanity, the need to seek what binds us and solve problems together…focus on the real issues, not the scary distractions. I didn’t have to lead the kids to these big ideas. “Maple Street” was a fun text because I could sit back and watch them uncover truths about the fragile nature of decency and compassion and trust—profound ideas they worked out on their own. In thirty years of teaching the story, there were moments that made my heart leap—times when some thoughtful kid would make a connection that was incredible, arguments they worked through that made my heart hope for the future. Such is the work of teaching. Sometimes in a classroom, the clouds part for an instant, and you get a peek at what humanity might become long after you are gone from the earth.

I confess that Maple Street has been on my mind lately as I struggle to comprehend the polarization of my country. We could dissect the causes endlessly, but at the end of the day, America is Maple Street, and we have come close to turning on our neighbors instead of uniting to solve common problems that concern us all. I don’t have answers for what we do next, but I know one of the main truths the kids always used to arrive at after lively discussion: knowing who we are and what we are capable of is the first step to overcoming it. We are stronger united than divided, but we are fragile enough to become our own destruction. We must know that division destroys if we are to stop ourselves from participating in it.

Maple Street needed quiet, resolute voices and strong, brave ones calling people to suspend disbelief and fear and try to trust each other. Those voices didn’t have to be elected leaders. They could be you…and me. The flickering lights are voices insidiously sowing seeds of distrust and doubt. To them, we must reply, “I don’t understand all my neighbors, but that will not make me hate or hurt them.” Suspicion destroys love. Every time. We have to guard against it like the sneaky first wave of attack on our humanity that it is.

Full and honest disclosure: I truly don’t understand all that leads people to feel joy in a MAGA rally. I don’t get it. Our current leader is everything I never wanted my children to learn or be. I’m not enamored with him or many of the policies he supports. But I am trying to accept that there are people who are my American Maple Street neighbors for whom he is inspiring. People who have felt worried, disrespected, powerless, afraid, or something else I don’t understand. Though we disagree, we are not enemies. We each believe with similar vehemence that we possess truth and are on the side of good. And that makes it all the more important not to assume the opposite of each other and not to give in to fear. Will we convince each other? Probably not. So what’s next? Can we find some things we do want to do together and start in? Can we mow the lawn and lend each other tools? Have a potluck and talk about our children? Build a park? Try to get to know each other’s worries?

Democracy is a fragile experiment; our country is vast; and our people represent perhaps the widest variety in any country in the world. Splintered media, fractured institutions, fear of others, and too much “hit and run” on social media have stressed our understanding of one another. But the lights are flickering on and off for us all. We need to focus on why and work together to keep them on for everyone.

Full script of “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” found here:

Back to School

“It’s gorgeous weather up here today,” Mom texted. “We may head up to Saugatuck. I have that ‘back to school’ feeling.”

I knew just what she meant. Earlier in the week as I was walking the dog, I noticed a subtle change in the sun’s angle, a scent on the breeze, the way the light seeped through the trees, the color of the sky. Nothing you could put your finger on. Just a collection of signals that set my “back to school” senses flaring.

Mom retired from teaching middle school nearly twenty years ago, and I waved good-bye to my last group of school buses three years ago in May. But “back to school” is instinct for us both. After decades in the classroom, you find August and September exert a pull on your heart perennial as the tides. Something in the air I’m breathing this week makes me think of crisp stacks of paper, new notebooks and markers, rearranging desks and chairs, decorating my classroom to welcome new kids to love, and standing at the door to greet them. This time of year, I viscerally miss watching awkward adolescents pretending confidence and nervously straightening their carefully-chosen new clothes. I can picture them—darting daring glances at each other, choosing their seats with care, comparing shoes, and eyeing me with skepticism and hope to decide if I’m worth trusting. I can almost feel the exhaustion of these early weeks even though I am not living them—the emotional pull of working to be worthy of their trust, knowing that these early days are critical cornerstones for a year of changing lives and hearts and minds.

I would usually spend these weeks memorizing 150 names in two days— Is DJ the one with the mischievous smile and the fade or is that Donnell? Serena is the angry one. Lydia is shy and has the long bangs. And who is Mark? I would read stacks of “Who Am I?” compositions; and respond with encouragement to memoirs about last-second basketball victories, amusement park vacations, friendship, and aching loss as we kicked off writers’ workshop: “That’s it! I love it. Keep going. What happened next?” We would listen to my favorite songs, poems, and stories—introduction to the power of words. We would read our “I Am From” poems to each other and start those first steps toward sharing and being vulnerable. I would begin falling in love and figuring out my quirky new family for the year—starting to see needs and hurts and buried stories to uncover. Just like always.

Back to school looks different this year for teachers and students, but some things never change. Just as Mom and I still scent the air, note the angle of the light, and know it’s time, the hearts of teachers everywhere still recognize “back to school.” Back to school is not a place or even a time; it’s something far more powerful triggered by the rhythms of the year. Your senses call you to the fresh page, the new book, the unwritten story. Back to school is always—and never—the same.

As we greet new faces and build community, back to school remains a sacred space for beginning, year after year after year—and nothing can change that. No mask, virtual platform, desk arrangement, plastic shield, or protocol can alter the importance of beginning. I know so many of my colleagues are grappling with fear as school reopens, or feeling torn and frustrated about how different a start this is. I know I would feel the same, wondering as I greeted kids just what this strange year would hold. I’ll offer this encouragement to all, however. The virus is a dangerous living thing, it’s true, but back to school…we need to keep in mind that it has a special DNA, and in those of us who spend our lives in school and love it, this time of year creates its own powerful life force. If we focus on the same things that have always called us back, year after year, nothing will defeat us.

The Essential Work of Schools

I’ve been reading and listening to people share strong opinions about whether or not we must reopen schools for in-person learning in a few weeks, and I can’t remember a time in my thirty-year education career when so many people had so much to say about the role of teachers and schools.

On one hand, I’m glad the spring shutdown and shift to online or other substitute methods for learning forced people to take stock of the critical functions our schools and teachers serve in the lives of children and communities. On the other, I’ve heard my share of people whose sole conclusion from this reflection time has been that they really had a good babysitting deal from public schools and can’t possibly do their own work without that free childcare. Both things are true. I simply hope those who’ve reached the second realization think hard about the first. Children are not Amazon packages, produce, or a week’s worth of household trash…and the people who deliver learning, nurture their growth with rich and healthy daily experiences, and care for them during your working hours…well those people are a unique breed of “essential workers.” If we learned one thing during the last months, I hope it is that teachers are not fungible, easily replaced by machines and unskilled amateurs, or unimportant.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, I—like many others—found myself grateful and ashamed that I had not realized how dependent I was on the work of delivery people, food supply chain/grocery staff, sanitation workers, and health care providers. I had time to think about the entire team of people who keep an organization like a hospital running—the cleaning crews, the cafeteria staff, the ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, administrators, maintenance, security staff…I know I’ve just scratched the surface. The same was true when I went to the grocery store. I’ve always appreciated cashiers and baggers who help me directly and the folks in the deli and butcher shop prepping food I select. But I found myself so appreciative for the first time of the men and women showing up to work behind the scenes of an industry I don’t work in or understand well: field workers harvesting produce or packing chicken to get it to stores, manufacturers of cleaning products, people who drove the trucks all night, the folks who unloaded it all tirelessly and stocked the shelves while we filled our carts. I’d been rather oblivious to the huge number of people I had depended upon to live. I’m not proud of that. It’s just true.

In the last months, we’ve all been given a chance to ponder just what and who are essential to us. I have appreciated the staff in our senior living facilities—men and women who have masked up and reported for duty with our most vulnerable populations, doing exhausting and dangerous work for not much per hour. When the power went out, I pictured the crews at IPL going in at night to help get things running or the guy up on a telephone pole after a storm restoring service. We’ve all experienced the frustration of waiting from 10-5 for a technician to show up, but I found myself more grateful than ever for people with the complex skills to diagnose and repair a broken refrigerator or HVAC unit or plumbing. These are gifts I don’t have and can’t fake. As a volunteer for the board of a children’s shelter, I’ve listened to stories of police officers showing up to a 911 call in the middle of the night, rescuing kids in dangerous situations, and taking them to the shelter where essential workers never stopped staffing the place during the pandemic and caring for those children. So many people kept working during this time at risk to themselves. Postal workers. Food service workers. Cleaning teams. Researchers. Transportation workers. Utility providers. Firefighters. Military personnel on ships and shores far from home.

That brings me to teachers…and schools.

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the automation of learning. Since early 2000, entire charter enterprises sprang up (and often faded) predicated on computer-driven instruction in online academies or schools that delivered digital lessons with less-skilled aides supervising a lab full of students on laptops and fewer professional teachers. Technology, some said, would make teaching and learning more efficient. Some charter innovators even said computers could be leveraged to replace teachers, and learners would still progress. If the last months taught us anything, however, I hope it is that virtual learning can do some of what a school or a teacher does, but this is a human enterprise, and schools and the people who make them possible are essential.

Schools aren’t perfect. Not every teacher is great. For the most part, however, I hope the current situation helps us appreciate that the schools that meet the needs of 57 million children in our country every day are critical in our society. I’ll say that again: 57 million children attend public schools in the U.S. Over 3 million teachers serve them. Millions more school adults support teachers and learners to ensure they succeed. That means about 1 in 5 people in the United States walk through the doors of a public school every day to work in the field of learning and human development. Schools are massive, complex, essential enterprises…the heartbeat of our democracy, the safety net for our children, and the hope for our future.

When I have heard people argue that “children are low risk for the virus” as a flippant reason to reopen schools, I think to myself that some of them may have no idea of the part of the adult iceberg beneath the surface of a school—just as I had not really fully considered all the important people who made my grocery store possible. Just to be clear, when we talk about “reopening” schools fully, we are also talking about these millions of essential adult workers:

  • bus drivers and monitors
  • bus mechanics
  • teachers
  • custodians
  • office staff
  • administrators
  • instructional assistants
  • substitute teachers
  • counselors
  • cafeteria staff
  • professors preparing/supervising student teachers
  • department of education staff
  • speech and language pathologists
  • translators
  • security officers
  • home/school and homeless student coordinators
  • technology teams and IT specialists
  • school psychologists
  • social workers
  • behavior/occupational therapists
  • school board members
  • maintenance crews
  • playground and building inspectors
  • safety specialists
  • school nurses and clinic staff
  • treasurers
  • library staff/media specialists
  • college counselors
  • athletic directors
  • coaches
  • community volunteers
  • And more I may have forgotten

Any teacher will tell you he/she would rather be with students in person; that online teaching is grueling to design and deliver, let alone do well; and that returning to work given the case counts in some counties and the conditions in some school buildings is terrifying to some of them. Are they essential workers? Yes. Should we risk their lives if we can provide alternatives until it is safe for them to work? No. We need them well. In case people are unaware, we are already facing a shortage of teachers in this country. So keeping them healthy and able to return when it is safe is important, even if it means hybrid or online learning must continue a while. Are those alternatives as good for kids? No. To say otherwise is to deny the critical and important work that all those people I listed above do for 57 million children every day. I will add that, like many workers in this country, there were some years when, if it hadn’t been for my husband’s income, if I had to teach and pay for childcare for my own kids, I would have netted less than zero for my week’s work. We don’t pay many essential workers anywhere close to their true value to us, and that’s a fact, so if some schools go back but teachers’ children need care, it is a fact that many cannot afford to return to their jobs. I say this fully aware of the ironic paradox that the many essential workers I have grown to appreciate during this time have faced the same problem with their own childcare needs in the past months when schools were closed. Schools provide safe and enriching places children to learn and grow, surrounded by supportive professionals, so parents can do their own jobs with peace of mind and focus. That’s not free babysitting. That’s a critical national asset. It’s time we said so and valued the people who make it possible.

We cannot mandate that all schools reopen fully for in-person classes. Each situation is different; each district (sometimes even each school) has different safety considerations for the children/staff/community, and these will evolve and shift with the conditions as they should, as they do in severe weather or other safety calls we have to make when we are responsible for vulnerable humans. We aren’t delivering packages; we’re caring for people’s most precious treasures, and no school person I’ve ever known takes that responsibility lightly. Hard calls are ahead, and some people will be angry and unsatisfied as those impact their personal situation. Digital substitutes for real school will be imperfect and frustrating. That’s a given. But let’s not lose sight of something more important here.

The more important question I think is this: how will we take care of our nation’s schools and their essential staff now that we have seen how critical they are to us? Will we fund them better? Resource them according to their real needs? Stop talking about how disappointed we are with public education and respect the difficulty of the work and the vastness of the enterprise now that we’ve seen that it isn’t easy to replace or supplant? Most important, will we do a better job in the days ahead of honoring those who choose to do this essential, life-saving work?


On Wednesdays, the Memory Care unit helps patients Facetime their families. They haven’t allowed visitors since March, and my father-in-law probably doesn’t fully grasp that fact. We haven’t made one of our monthly weekend trips to Florida to see him since February. Even to me, February seems a million years ago now.

When your brain no longer makes new memories, the old ones are precious. The people caring for my father-in-law know that, so a few weeks into the lockdown, they tasked a staff person to carry around an ipad a couple days a week helping residents connect virtually with their families. They cannot give us an exact time to expect a call. Caregiver work is unpredictable. Having been in schools all my life, I get that. People are neither a routine process nor a typical product. So much of getting it right means responding to what presents in the moment, deviating from the plan.

So most Wednesdays, at some point in the day, I’ll see a Facetime call coming in, and we drop everything to answer. I say the same words every time as soon as I see his face appear and the caregiver’s hand pulling back from the screen. “HELLO! It’s JENNY!” I prop the iPad in the exact same place at the kitchen table and pull up two chairs. I call the dog. She knows just what to do now and jumps up to gaze at him. As soon as he sees the blue kitchen walls and the dog, he exclaims, “Jenny! And your white dog!” I signal to my husband who is working at his desk downstairs that his dad is on the phone, and he joins me at the table…always sitting to my right, the dog between us. And once my father-in-law sees his son’s face, he beams. The joy is so real you can feel it through the screen.

We don’t talk long. And we have learned it doesn’t matter what we say so much as how we say it. No polite chit chat. No questions like “how are you?” No rapidfire tumble of words about our own lives. We say the same simple things each time. We cue the same old stories…sometimes several times within a ten-minute conversation. We have learned the way to start them: not “do you remember?” but “I was just thinking about…”.

Sometimes the story that worked last week evokes no reaction, so we cycle through the tried and true “I was just thinking…” starters until his eyes light on whichever one gets through today. We retell and help him relive the time he and Tom spilled the big can of white paint on new carpet, the time he bought the Triumph Spitfire without telling Tom’s mom, the golden retriever three dogs ago who liked to pick up all the neighbors’ Sunday newspapers and bring them to the doorstep…the big youth hockey rivalry against a better-equipped, wealthier team…IU football and their chances this year. It doesn’t matter that these are the same stories. What matters is bringing the light to his eyes.

Joy is a powerful tool. It can cut like a knife through loss and sadness. Watching my father-in-law laugh till he nearly cries as we reconstruct the scene of the white paint spilling back in the summer of 1985 makes me glad in a way I can barely explain. Seeing his face light up when his eyes land on my husband never fails to remind me of the powerful reservoir love builds in us.

It is sometimes hard to accept that the days of him taking a deep interest in our lives are past. He cannot process the present, and the future does not concern him now; he is leaving it to us. I realize that, like most parents, he spent decades listening to us, making our stories the focus, rarely offering his own. I don’t think we often paused from our recitation of all the exciting things happening in our lives and updates on our kids, our work, our adventures to ask our parents, “How are you really? Tell me about your life story.” Our role was to tell; theirs was to feed the tale with interested questions and marvel at our responses.

Now it is our turn. We choose the stories he loves to bring what memories we can to the surface from the murky depths. And in the midst of his terrifying journey, we try to bring some light. We evoke laughter. And when we get it right, we unlock joy.

There is so little he needs right now and so much we cannot do. We cannot reverse time nor the ravages of neurons. But joy…that we can help with.

On Leading

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot these days as I’ve watched elected officials and community leaders struggling to meet this moment. The confluence of the pandemic and its economic fallout, racial protests and the action required to dismantle centuries of systemic racism, the collapse of confidence in government, and the stress of so many unknowns about the months to come is a powerful mix of challenges. No leader is super-human, but we do need extraordinary leadership now.

It’s important to note that most people are not leaders. They simply go where they are led—sometimes gratefully, sometimes grumbling every step of the way. Make no mistake, however: the goers and the grumblers cannot lead, no matter what some of them might think. Back-seat drivers can neither see the road nor steer, and they have no stomach for speed or hazardous conditions. Second-guessers were never in the room for the hard stuff, trying to discern a path through complete fog with cliffs on either side. The Monday morning quarterbacks…yeah, they can’t really throw a pass anyone could catch even when they aren’t under pressure. And there is always pressure. This is real life, after all.

So leadership matters. In fact, I think as I consider my lifetime, it has almost never mattered more than it does now. Thus, I think we must consider what we expect from those who lead. You may have your own list, but this is mine: a powerful set of tools I have seen the best leaders in my life use well.

Courage: Leading is not for the faint of heart. Every step into the unknown requires bravery. Courage isn’t hearty, false bravado, though. Some of the most courageous people I know are quiet, steady types who know that putting one foot in front of the other is sometimes the hardest thing to do in complex times. Some say fortune favors the bold, but my experience has taught me it favors the brave…because leading is rarely about leaps. Instead, it is usually about taking steady steps into the unknown and deciding when to reverse or change course. It takes a special brand of bravery to admit the path you championed or chose is no longer the best one. The best leaders I’ve followed were not only brave enough to choose a path among confusion options, but also to say, “We’re going the wrong way” when it was necessary.

Optimism: When you set out for the other side of chaos, and you tell others, “Follow me!” you stake their lives, their hopes, their futures to your own decisions. The thought of what could go wrong can be paralyzing for those who are not inherently optimistic and hopeful. But hope, as one of my colleagues was often fond of reminding us, is not a strategy. Optimism is not blind hope that everything will be ok. Optimism is the belief in our ability to drive for a positive outcome together. It is optimism that yields the confidence to say “we’ll figure it out” and to step forward rather than cowering in the shadows.

Curiosity Mixed with Humility: The best leaders I have ever known were curious people…question askers who listened hard to answers and followed with more questions. They had a deep interest in the talents, knowledge, and skill sets of others—so much that they were constantly asking for help or different perspectives. They saw patterns and possibilities even in the humblest places, could learn something from anybody, never thought their own context so unique and special that they could not find value in the truths and experiences of others. Strong leaders are voracious learners. They devour knowledge and seek new ideas—instead of feeding daily from the same trough that assures continuity and assuages ego. Because they are always learning, they evolve, change their minds, grow. They allow their teams, colleagues, and friends to influence them; and surround themselves with strong people worthy of that impactful role because they value the way that iron sharpens iron. They know they are strong because of the people around them, and this tempers arrogance and keeps pride in the right place. They are ever-mindful that we succeed together more than alone.

Conscience and Vigilance: Leaders don’t sleep well. They toss and turn. They lie awake in the dark hours before morning worrying about how particular decisions may have impacted others, how the course they are setting may result for those who depend upon them, how the random action of any one of their followers may upend everything they have worked for in a moment. They worry about protecting the vulnerable, and they have a moral compass they wrestle with in the midst of chaotic times. Hard decisions stay on their hearts and on their shoulders, so that even when forging ahead, they feel the drag of the wake our actions sometime leave. Strong leaders worry about the what-if’s, the left-behind, the roads not taken, the way the future may diverge from the present. They don’t take long to bask in the comfort of today’s achievement or the status quo, always planning and moving instead to prepare for what lies ahead while others rest a moment. Leaders never forget that people have trusted them to lead. Trust comes with a heavy responsibility. It is both an honor and a burden they can never put down.

Energy for the Tedious Stuff: Some people think leaders do the big stuff and leave the details to others. First lieutenants. Executive assistants. Middle managers. Division heads. Rough drafters. Perhaps that is true of some leaders, but the best I have known are not afraid of weeds, of rolling up sleeves for more than photo ops, of wading through big stacks of information or data or the ugly myriad details of difficult tedious decisions. The best leaders get their hands into the work—not just to show everyone they’re “one of us,” but because they know that leading isn’t the work; the work is the work.

Self-Reflection and Honesty: The best leaders know their own weak spots. They are brutally honest with themselves about failures big and small. They know the person in the mirror well, and they know when that person is being inauthentic. They call themselves out, and they set their own bars high. When sycophantic spin surrounds them, they don’t succumb to its siren song. Instead, they listen for their own voice and speak the truth to themselves even when it isn’t what they want to hear. They don’t need others to be their internet providers or router; they are each their own hot spot. They make time for reflection; it comes as easily as breath. A stumble is not a fall to those who make sense of experience and act on that knowledge. The strongest leaders I’ve ever worked for knew when to say, “We got that wrong. We can do better.” And then we did.

I note that I haven’t listed typical “leadership book” skills: vision, emotional intelligence, communication, team building. I don’t even mention work ethic—although certainly leaders “keep no office hours”. My list of what I hope for in our leaders is short, but—as we have seen all too often—so hard to find. Still, as we look at what this time demands and the complexity of the future we are traveling into together…well, I think we must find leaders with these strengths. We cannot afford to do less.