“Shut Up He Explained”

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“Shut up he explained.” —-Ring Lardner

Words, words, words.,,they matter, but sometimes we get so caught up in them that we place more meaning and importance on them than they were ever meant to convey. As an English major in college I was privy to a number of academic conversations in which the peers of my chosen field of study derived strange meanings from the writings of noted authors. I recall countless discussions focused on interpretations of what various writers actually meant when they chose certain phrases. Sometimes those discussions devolved into silliness, and I found myself wondering how much of our own thinking is responsible for the meanings that we derive whenever someone says or writes something to which we become privy. Perhaps what we think is being said is not what the originator meant at all.

How many times have you found your statements being misinterpreted? I know that as someone who spent a lifetime speaking publicly in front of countless audiences I often had to explain my intent to people who had ascribed some profoundly insulting meaning that had never even crossed my mind. We bring lifetimes of experience to every situation and often how we hear something is based far more on the kinds of experiences we have had than on any maliciousness from a speaker or an author.

When I write blogs each day I expose myself to constant criticism. Quite often someone will twist my words into contortions that had never occurred to me. Without the ability to immediately correct the misconceptions, I have made an enemy or two. Writing or speaking publicly is risky, but attempting to cloak words in cautious sentences sometimes backfires even more. Honesty is required to be believable, but such willingness to be true to ones’ self has its price, particularly in a world in which people are parsing every single word that is uttered or written down. Anyone who says something deemed to be unacceptable may find themselves losing friends or even jobs. We seem to be in an era that categorizes everyone in one way or another, and woe be the consequences for anyone who chooses to utter the wrong kind of statements regardless of what he/she may have really meant.

A few months back The Atlantic magazine hired conservative writer, Kevin Williamson, to balance out the staff which was mostly composed of liberals. Kevin is a Texan who has a rare gift for writing. He chooses vivid and colorful words and phrases that bring his work to life. I enjoy reading his columns just for the sheer appreciation of his craft in a world where true artistic talent with the written word seems to be quite lacking.

Kevin Williamson has strong points of view. He has had no problem speaking loudly against Donald Trump since before the man was even elected. His critiques of the President have not abated. He has made it quite clear that he sees Trump as a rather ignorant buffoon, thus I suppose that The Atlantic may have seen him as a good candidate for giving the periodical a veneer of diversity of thought. Unfortunately trouble ensued from the moment that Mr. Williamson became a member of the staff, mostly because of his unwavering view that abortion is murder. The reality is that Williamson was adopted as a baby, given up by a mother who did not have the wherewithal to raise him. He has often expressed his thanks that he was given a chance to live a wonderful life rather than being denied that opportunity by experiencing death before he was even born. His comments regarding abortion have angered many people over the years but he has steadfastly stood by them. Once he was hired by The Atlantic a furor arose that resulted in his being fired within days. It was a sad commentary on freedom of thought and speech regardless of what one’s views on abortion may be. More recently we have seen others relieved of their public duties for various and sundry slips of the tongue. Among them is Megan Kelley. 

I have admittedly never been a big fan of Megyn Kelley. She is bright and beautiful and appears to be quite sincere, but I never quite understood the admiration for her journalistic skills that were so prevalent. I suppose that my respect for her grew by leaps and bounds when she was willing to openly criticize then candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential election. I understood how much courage it took for her to voice her concerns given that she worked for Fox News. She stood her ground even as Donald Trump hurled unseemly insults at her, and her popularity among conservatives took a plunge. I was happy for her when NBC hired her to host part of the Today Show lineup. I found her programs to be far more informative than the drivel that most of the morning entertainers provide. She attacked difficult topics with honesty and I slowly came to like her. At the same time I sensed that her coworkers still held it against her that she had at one time worked for Fox. 

While I was off camping last week Ms. Kelley had a segment on Halloween and the idea that some costumes are deemed to be offensive because of cultural appropriation. She had a panel of guests to discuss this rather recent phenomenon. She made the cardinal mistake of insisting that there may actually be times when wearing blackface is not as egregious as it may appear and her guests soundly disagreed with her premises. Admittedly her arguments were thin and I do understand how some may have found them offensive, but after much thought she reversed her thinking and apologized first on Twitter and then on air the following morning. Sadly it was too late for her. The executives at NBC decided to let her go in spite of her mea culpas. She has become yet another pariah in a world that allows no mistakes even knowing that erring is human.

Any magazine or studio has every right to hire and fire whomsoever they want. Still it bothers me that people who disagree with the general thinking of the organization are let go with very little provocation. There seems to be a fear that contrary thoughts and utterances should be quickly excisized rather than allowed. It is as though we are no longer able to accept ideas counter to our own. Rather than debating the merits of one argument or another, we prefer to shun those who do not think like ourselves. Such lack of reasoning is dangerous and we should all be concerned that it is happening more and more frequently both on the left and on the right. There is no room for differences or even for changes of heart. We must march in cadence with a particular group or leave the ranks.

I had not really thought of writing about this until I read a plaintive comment  from a dear friend regarding her sadness that Megyn Kelley had been fired from NBC. She spoke of how much she admired Ms. Kelley and how she would miss her program. My friend is such a sweet and compassionate woman that I began to think of how sad it is that very talented people are being forced to toe the prevailing line rather than being encouraged to think, debate, pose questions, suggest alternatives. We really should not want to become people who think like one of Ring Lardner’s characters, “Shut up he explained.”

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I Found My Purpose

42678886_10217646777023389_6852434799655649280_nI recently had dinner with a group of former students and a teaching colleague. It was incredibly rewarding to see how well the young ladies who were once my pupils have done. One of them, Jennifer, is a teacher who recently earned an advanced degree in educational leadership. Another, Christine, works in the development department of the KIPP Charter Schools and she was recently rewarded with a promotion. The third, Joana, is working on a post graduate degree in Social Work. All three are articulate, hard working and filled with compassion. They have literally become more like peers than pupils. Our gathering was like a reunion of old friends and it was quite exciting to hear their stories of life and work.

While its tempting to take some credit for how well they have turned out, I know that they are fully responsible for their amazing accomplishments that came only with extraordinary dedication and much sacrifice. Talking with them tells me that they continue to work toward exciting goals and that they have fully become exemplary adults of whom I am so very proud.

I also learned at this meeting that my friend, Ann, is still working to educate high school students. She’s a phenomenal educator whose expertise has helped to launch the careers of a host of exceptional people. It’s reassuring to know that someone like her is still out there making a difference in people’s lives. That’s perhaps the most important aspect of being an educator and she is among the best.

There are times when I forget the real rewards of being a teacher. We rarely get paid as much as we should, and our retirement programs are far from being sufficient. I would have done far better financially if I’d had a pathway in business or even if I’d worked for the federal government which offers some of the best pension plans that there are. If I’d held office in Congress for even one term I’d be set for life. With all that said, when I talk with the individuals that I once taught and realize how remarkable they are, I know in my heart that I was actually blessed by being a teacher. There are very few professions that provide such satisfaction.

The frustrations of teachers are legend, but in the cacophony of complaining we sometimes forget to boast of the wonders of being an educator. Much like being a parent we can get caught up in the day to day routines and problems that sometime blind us from seeing the pure joys. It takes a bit of stepping back to gain the perspective that reveals our sense of purpose and meaning.

I know that I did not reach every heart and mind that I attempted to touch. There are probably even those who disliked me for one reason or another. As with anything I have fans and I have detractors, but on the whole I believe that I made some kind of difference in making this world of ours a bit better place to be. The value of that is priceless to me, and I would not be willing to give up even one day of my many years as a teacher for monetary profit.

Each kind of job and each person has value for our society. We really do need everyone and to rank the importance of work would be silly, but an argument might be made that teachers make it possible for the remarkable diversity of skills and talents that bring progress and innovation into our lives. We build the foundations from which all else springs. It is a breathtaking responsibility to consider.

I worry that we are somehow diminishing the importance of teaching these days. All too often I hear people arguing that they would never encourage a bright young individual to participate in such a terrible profession. I hear parents shudder when one of their children expresses an interest in being an educator. They worry that talents will be wasted in a job that lacks respect and a salary commensurate with intellect. They attempt to steer their sons and daughters into more prosperous and promising professions.

It saddens me that I so often find myself defending the occupation to which I devoted so much of my life. I am questioned as to why I didn’t pursue more stimulating and lucrative fields. I sense that some see my choice as a kind of failure to use my talents to their fullest.

Then I go out to dinner with a colleague and three phenomenal young women whom I once taught and I remember again how glorious it felt to go to work each and every day. I know in my heart that mine was a true vocation and that those of us lucky enough to find our true reason for  existence have something that no amount of money or even regard will ever buy. I am and always will be a teacher. I bear that designation proudly and without regret. 

We Can Do Better

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The truth is that there is a price for everything and that is no more apparent than in education. Few parents are able to afford the cost of private schools for their children, so the vast majority of our youngsters attend public schools. The bulk of educational expense lies in teacher salaries and benefits. Budgets are tight because the only flow of income to pay for all of the people and things needed to run a great academic program is found in taxes and a bit of federal money and grants. Parents sometimes chip in with fundraisers for a few extras. On the whole educational funding is a balancing act wrought with so many difficulties. Teachers want and deserve a fair wage commensurate with their education, knowledge, skills and experience. Schools need a certain level of educational resources all of which require additional money. At the same time citizens are only willing to accept so many taxes before they rebel even if it means cutting back on school funding. The tug and the pull is never ending, and a source of great concern both for educators and parents.

One has to be somewhat altruistic to accept teaching as a vocation. It requires not just an initial degree, but continual certifications and retraining, aspects of the job that are necessary and almost always paid for by the teachers themselves rather than the schools. Few classrooms are stocked with all of the materials necessary to keep students learning on the cutting edge, and so almost every teacher that I have ever known spends vast amounts of his/her own money to supplement what is provided. Teachers work longer hours and more days than most people realize, and often do so with little fanfare. It’s a difficult job, and I have witnessed former engineers, accountants and sales people run from its challenges after thinking that changing to a career in education would be a lark.

We see teachers across the country walking out of their classrooms to draw attention to the problems that exist. They are enduring the brunt of insults to insure that the future of public education is assured, because it is certainly true that if the conditions get bad enough the entire system will begin to fail just as it is already doing in certain corners. If we are to provide the best for all of our children, then we must get serious about the kinds of changes that we need. It’s a new world with a new way of doing things and a box of chalk and an eraser won’t cut it anymore. Nor will a salary that borders on insult be sufficient to attract the kind of teachers that our children need and deserve.

In the Houston area and other parts of Texas there are schools where the students are consistently failing. Instead of getting to the heart of the problems inside their walls the suggestions run from shutting them down to turning them over the charter programs. Perhaps thinking out of the box is the way to go, but it will take innovation, dedication from gifted educators, support from parents, time, patience and money. There are many success stories on the educational horizon, but they arose from a willingness to invest heavily in the lives of underserved populations. Drawing upon research and lessons learned there are no doubt answers to the problems, but it will require honesty and a willingness to address the staff, the facilities, the procedures, the role of parents and the students from the ground up. It may even require creating schools within schools whereby the buildings house smaller groups of youngsters who never fall through the cracks because they become part of an educational family. It may also mean providing financial and educational incentives to teachers so that the best of them will be willing to work with the most challenging populations.

It’s fairly well understood that the problems that plague failing schools are complex and include the reality that some children come from environments in which there is little understanding of the value of education. When parents become an integral part of the process the changes are almost magical. The heart of the KIPP Charter Schools lies in the commitment of parents, teachers and students to a daily routine of rigor with a goal of getting to and through college. There are more than just teachers driving the program, including counselors who follow the progress or lack of it from pre-school all the way through earning a college degree. The mantra “Once a KIPPster always a KIPPster.” is very real and every person who works in one of the schools takes the challenge to heart. The schools are kept purposely small so that everyone knows everybody. It is a true team and family atmosphere. The organization also provides opportunities for advancement paid for by the system. The best of the best have the opportunity of being awarded thousands of additional dollars in the form of stipends for excellence. At five year intervals teachers are honored with travel vouchers as well. These may appear to be small things but they drive the enthusiasm and dedication that teachers must have to make it for the long haul.

It’s time that we rethink how we treat our teachers and our students. We need to begin to redesign the way we do things and that doesn’t mean forcing the experience to revolve around standardized testing. It has nothing to do with dismantling the pension programs or simply purchasing a few computers. It will take a willingness to set things aright with funding, hard work and support from all of us, not just those who have children. Our future demands that we do a better job.

I’m Still Not Dead

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There’s a line in one of Willie Nelson’s songs that goes something like this, “I woke up still not dead today.” Willie has a way with words as well as music. I suppose that for someone in his eighties like he is it feels good to see one more day while still wondering when the clock will stop on his run. I’m about fourteen years younger than Willie, but I have to admit that there are times when I feel as though I’m taking a leap of faith when I go to sleep at night. At my age there are no guarantees that I will wake up the next morning. In fact, so many of my contemporaries have already died that I more and more appreciate the fragility of life. I understand that each passing day pushes me just a bit closer to my the ultimate human fate, death. For that reason I find myself trying hard to focus on the aspects of living that are actually the most important, and I am irritated when mundane tasks vie for my attention. Like everyone else I simply have no idea when I will draw my last breath, but at the age of sixty nine I am fairly certain that my days are numbered more so than when I was thirty. That means that it’s really time to pack as much meaning into them as possible.

Family and friends have always been first for me, but I have lately found myself also wanting to pack in as many experiences as possible before my health deteriorates or my income becomes too meager to allow for extravagances. When I think back on my life the moments that I remember always revolve around quiet nights spent with the people that I love and exhilarating moments when I witnessed something extraordinary. Things fall apart and become meaningless, but relationships and adventures are timeless and priceless.

I was watching the movie All The Money In The World last week and it reinforced my thinking that having a great deal of wealth is only as good as what we do with it. If we horde it or become obsessed with it our lives lose meaning. Sadly for some acquiring money becomes an end in itself. Young people are sometimes urged to choose career paths based more on future salaries than passions and talents. All too often adults counsel the young to go for the gold rather than happiness. It worries me that so many young people are being lead down a path that they may one day regret, for in the end there is something about the human spirit that longs for purpose and human contact more than riches.

Don’t get me wrong. Having sufficient economic power is crucial to fulfilling our most basic needs. Having money for nonessentials provides the means for a sense of well being. I don’t advocate living like a pauper, but I have found that it is very possible to lead an exceptional life without bowing to the demands of a lifetime spent chasing the dollar bill rather than fulfilling dreams. As a teacher I enjoyed a rather minimal salary, but it was just enough. The joy that I felt each day that I was at work was far more important to me than a burgeoning bank account. My riches are found in my sense of accomplishing something important and I still managed to enjoy creature comforts without sacrificing my altruistic tendencies.

Each of us is unique. For some there is great excitement in the world of business. For others it is in building things that the most contentment is to be found. If we are lucky we find the niche that helps us to experience the joy factor of life. Even better is when the people around us support our choices.

I used to tease my mother by suggesting that she write a book on parenting, but I was only halfway in jest. The fact is that she somehow managed to raise three children who are so unlike one another. She not only allowed, but encouraged us to follow our individual dreams. When one brother announced at the age of five that he wanted to be a mathematician, she provided him with the tools to develop his interests. He ultimately attended Rice University and worked for a NASA contractor creating the navigation system for the International Space Station. When my other brother revealed that he wanted to be a fire fighter she was just as proud of his accomplishments. He rose through the ranks earning two graduate degrees, running the training academy, and becoming an area chief. While she sometimes imagined that I would become a doctor or a lawyer, she was quite proud of the work that I did as an educator and even helped me to work my way through my earliest days in the profession by providing guidance and understanding. Not once did she ever indicate that one of our professions was better than the other. Nor did she point to the differences in prestige or salary associated by the public with our chosen careers. Instead she boasted that we had each been successful and that more importantly we had actually enjoyed our work.

As time goes by I become more and more convinced that we are making to many attempts to socially engineer our young so that they will become versions of what we want rather than acknowledging the importance of every single job. As I write this carpenters are replacing damaged sheetrock in my home. Given that my husband and I do not possess their skill, I am in total awe of what they are able to do, and appreciate that they chose to offer this service to me. Right now they are as important to me as a scientist or a financial wizard. In other words, we need a variety of people in our world and that even includes a Willie Nelson whose musical genius entertains and comforts us. Where would we be if everyone chose to only focus on the lifestyles that are most likely to bring wealth rather than finding that one thing that makes them feel so alive?

I’m happy each morning that I wake up still not dead. It’s one more day to spend doing things that I enjoy with people that I love. Lucky for me I have few regrets because in the long ago I was able to follow my personal dreams. I recommend that route for anyone who is just starting out.

Taking One For The Team

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A little food for thought… A group of twelve wolves:  The three in front are old and sick, they walk in front to set the pace of the running group lest they get left behind. The next five are the strongest and best, they are tasked to protect the front side if there is an attack. The pack in the middle are always protected from any attack. The five behind them are also among the strongest and best; they are tasked to protect the back side if there is an attack. The last one is the LEADER. He ensures that no one is left behind. He keeps the pack unified and on the same path. He is always ready to run in any direction to protect and serves as the body guard to the entire group. Just in case anyone wanted to know what it means to be a leader, it’s not about being out front. It means taking care of the team. —-Ivan Ginsberg

The best bosses that I ever had were quiet leaders. Sometimes it was not until they had gone that those of us who worked for them understood the full extent of their greatness. They were the kind of men and women who rarely tooted their own horns, but rather proudly shined the limelight on their employees instead. They sometimes took the heat in our defense without mentioning the troubles that they were willing to endure for us. They were low key but ferociously loyal to the team. The success that they sought centered on finding and developing the individual strengths of each member of the group. Often their guidance helped us to find talents within ourselves that we didn’t even know we had.

In particular I recall working in a school that had a less than sterling reputation. It was one of those places where people were reluctant to go. The employees were thought to be mediocre to bad. Public opinion of the place was abysmal. A new principal infused life into the place without hiring a single new person. His secret was quite simple. He made a point of providing each individual with special responsibilities based on their particular skills. He turned followers into leaders. He made former weaklings feel strong. Before long people were flocking to the school from all over town to see what miraculous things were happening, when in fact the only real change had been in how the system was run. The talent had always been there and this man was able to make it work.

There is a current trend to see the brash and boastful as the sort who should lead us. We tend to favor those who sling the most hurtful insults or fire the most people. We view arrogance as power, when the truth is that such individuals are actually harmful. They are the sorts who will leave us stranded and responsible for our own safety when danger lurks. They mouth caring platitudes, but when push comes to shove they are all in for themselves and toss us to our enemies.

Years ago my husband worked in a start up company created by a man who literally sucked the air out of any room that he entered. His focus was more on his own needs than those of the business and its employees. At the grand opening party I met his mother. She was a sweet lady who was nervous about the impression that she was making. She did not want to ruin the event for her son who was doing his best to avoid her. She confessed to me that he had only asked her to attend for the optics, otherwise she felt that she was somehow an embarrassment to him. At one point he walked over to her and stealthily suggested that she had been there long enough and needed to just go home before she messed up his big moment.

I remember thinking that he was a horrible man for treating his mother so poorly and I silently worried about my husband working for him. My forebodings were right on target. Within months the organization began to fall apart as the man slashed and burned the cohesion of the team. Eventually there was almost rebellion among the employees and my husband was among those who left in complete frustration. For all of his fanfare the arrogant boss ended up being all hat and no cattle. There was nothing behind his words other than his own insecurities which ultimately led to the business failing rather quickly.

Loyalty is rarely produced by intimidation. A great leader understands the importance of seeking a common purpose and using individual talents in that pursuit. When there is an atmosphere of respect and gratitude for each contribution people are eager to work for the cause whatever that may be. When we feel safe we are able to ascend to higher and higher levels of actualization. When we see that each person is valued we are willing to take risks to become more and more accomplished.

The downfall of organizations or governments can be traced again and again to a kind of megalomania that pits one person against another, breeding paranoia and unhinged competition. Enron had been a good place to work until Jeff Skilling unleashed an atmosphere of winning at all costs that lead to cut throat tactics and deceit. The mentality of firing the bottom fifth of producers each year created a chaos that encouraged lawlessness. In the end the employees were left for slaughter.

One of my former students has started a very successful business. I have noticed with pleasure how often he gives credit to his employees and demonstrates his gratitude for their hard work. He understands that his job is to be the leader by following behind and taking care of the team.

There are entire educational programs designed to teach individuals how to to manage organizations. A great deal of social science has been dedicated to researching teamwork and leadership. The one thing that all conclusions have in common is the realization that working together in a spirit of mutual respect is critical, and it is the leader who makes or breaks the system. If we want to drain the swamp of any group that is not working, we must first find a leader who is willing to work with the group.