By nature I am a quiet person, an introvert who prefers to travel through life unnoticed. Rocking the boat is uncomfortable to me and yet I am unable to simply sit back silently ignoring injustices that I see unfolding around me. For whatever reason I often find myself in situations in which I feel compelled to speak out for some individual or cause that appears to need my voice. The people that I most admire are those who are willing to go against the grain when situations require courage. My heroes are invariably the ones who were willing to sacrifice for the issues that they deemed more important than their own safety and comfort.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke of such souls in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage, an homage to those who do what they believe to be right and just even as the consequences for themselves are difficult. My grandfather guided me with his own stories of strong individuals that he had encountered during his long lifetime of over a hundred years. As I entered high school he gave me the gift of a book entitled Great Lives, Great Deeds that recounted the bravery of historical figures who bucked the thinking of their times by seeking justice for the downtrodden. I suppose that my own need to do the right thing incubated over time as I witnessed extraordinary acts from ordinary people and realized how even small examples of kindness have the power to change lives.
When I was in high school my classmates elected me as their representative on the Student Council. I was admittedly so shy that I did little more than attend the meetings and rubber stamp the decisions that more confident students suggested. Back then I was more of an observer than an activist. It was not until I was twenty years old and I found myself responsible for the health and safety of my mother and brothers that I develop the backbone and the grit to speak my mind. I was essentially forced to be the spokesperson for my family when my mother had her first terrifying break from reality due to her bipolar disorder. In the space of mere days I had to overcome my many fears.
What I learned from my first foray into adulthood is that I indeed had a forceful voice that I could use to get things done. I drew on the example of the strongest people that I knew and would be forever inspired by the sacrifices and compassion of my mother’s best friend, Edith, who was one of the few people willing to stand by my side and help me to get the medical care that my mother needed even though it meant straining her once strong relationship with my mother. She taught me firsthand how powerful love can be.
Somehow I became more and more aware of all of the troubles that abound in our world and I began to take small steps to right what I perceived as wrongs. Most of the time such attempts caused few problems for me, but now again I had to face tyrants and irrational situations that left me wounded and scarred. I learned that taking the risk of speaking out was not without consequence but ultimately left me satisfied that I had a purpose.
I once worked at a school that was quite lovely mostly because of the gifted leader who guided the faculty. I had some of my happiest moments as an educator while working for her and she was so accomplished at protecting all of us that I hardly noticed that she was many times fighting battles for our welfare and making enemies in the process.
There eventually came a time when the school board questioned her policies and held a closed door meeting to determine her fate as our principal. I joined forces with a handful of hearty colleagues to show support for her. We went to the meeting hoping to be allowed to speak in her behalf but we were denied access so instead we decided to stay just outside of the conference room until her destiny had been decided. The discussion went on for hours and from time to time members of the committee emerged for a break saying nothing as they took note of our vigil. After what seemed like an eternity they finally voted to keep our beloved administrator and one of the spokesperson came out to tell us that our refusal to leave had swayed their thinking. They realized that anyone capable of engendering such faithfulness was worth keeping in the school.
Sadly the controversy took its toll on our principal and a couple of years later she chose to retire. The board found a new woman to run the campus who ruled with an iron hand and a tendency toward harsh criticism of the faculty that was not balanced with efforts to find positivity in anyone. The very air was heavy with dread and working there became a bitter chore so I decided that I had to do something to foment change.
I attempted to diplomatically speak out for my peers and for my students. I couched my comments in language that was intended to sound helpful. I carefully crafted a kind of history of our experiences at the school along with a polite set of concerns. I had thought that the new leader might benefit from my willingness to help her to see the discontent that was running through the school like a virus. Instead she was furious with me.
She called me to her office and grilled me mercilessly for over six hours without a bathroom break or even a drink of water. She demanded to know the names of teachers who had complained to me and accused me of fomenting rebellion. She filled a legal pad with notes as she grilled me as though I were a suspected felon. It was only when the school day ended that she finally chose to allow me to leave with a stern warning that I needed to mind my own business and let her make decisions as to what was best for the school.
I was devastated and alone. Other teachers attempted to comfort me but expressed their fear of crossing the woman who had treated me like a criminal. I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake in attempting to help. I eventually brokered a deal with the principal that I would agree to depart at the end of the semester if she would essentially leave me alone. I had said my piece and there would be no further need for me to provide her with insight into the feelings of the faculty. I refused to give her even one name of the many who had come to me with their concerns.
I left the school with a heavy heart and sense of utter failure. Over time things fell apart there just as I feared they would. Ultimately members of the school board called me to ask for my help in providing grounds for firing the principal. She had run the campus into the ground with a massive turnover of teachers and students, not to mention creating chaos with the budget. What had once been a premier campus was now a hot mess.
Speaking out is not without its rewards and personal satisfaction but sometimes it can be heartbreaking and fraught with trouble. I learned how to do things better from that encounter but I also realized the satisfaction of knowing that I had in truth done what needed to be done. The board told me that my situation had not gone unnoticed and it began a movement to set things right in the school once again. It also led me to a new school where I spent some of the best years of my career. Mostly it allowed me to look at myself in the mirror and provided me with the ability to sleep at night.