Words can bring me to a screeching halt. Yes, of course, spoken words — especially when I’m not expecting them, take issue with their purpose, or with the person who delivers them. But that isn’t what I’m talking about. At least not today.
When I’m reading, a phrase molded in just the right way, or a thought expressed at a particular point in the text begs to be captured and saved for another time — to be marked, or jotted down and saved much like a penny found on a sidewalk. Found coins add up over time.
My frame of mind guides me to these bits of someone else’s thinking — bits buried in much larger and sometimes very forgettable text. The weightiness of the words and their message, not quite in focus, sit on the edges of my life, pushing at me to notice them and to think about what is important. Or better yet, force me to wonder why I haven’t committed myself to pin point their significance. It’s odd to think that words written hastily on a two-inch square note can hover in and around an office, and then a house without becoming lost. Car keys are misplaced, sunglasses left behind, and important papers tossed carelessly aside — but a red sticky note manages to appear here and there over the course of a couple of years, moving from desk, to organizer, to counter and patiently waiting for interpretation, and application
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
I don’t remember where I found the words, or what text they were buried in, or who made reference to them. I read so many different eye-crossing publications then:
Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan;
The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation by Daniel Yankelovich;
Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald A. Heifetz;
Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence by Richard Allington;
Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics by K. Smith & D. Berg;
Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by L. Bossidy & R Charan; and
Learning by Heart by Roland Barth.
Only a fraction of the list. I won’t bore you with the countless publications read on methodology, content, and practice that also filled my brain. But you do have an idea, about why I may not exactly remember where I first saw the words, right? And why I choose not to read such meaty books right now? I’ll understand if you suggest my head is buried in the sand.
What does matter — or at least it used to — is what was happening at the time that I found the words.
I was serving in my first assignment as an administrator at a large elementary school located in an impoverished area just south of our city center. The school was nearly a hundred years old, surviving rebuilding, renaming, and a shift from its original population of immigrant students from Eastern Europe, to that of African American, and then in the past decade, to immigrants from Mexico. The poverty rate was 99%. Over 95% of the children spoke English as a second language. The literacy rate was dismal in both Spanish and English for a majority of them. A unique aspect of the school was that a good portion of the staff had worked there for a long time — many for ten, even more than 20 years. Unusual for an inner-city school. Approximately one-third of the staff was male — also unusual for an elementary school, many of which are completely staffed by females.
For more years than I know, the school had been struggling academically, regardless of its population. At one point, it was designated as one of a group of schools court-mandated by the state to improve and monitor student reading, language, and mathematics progress. For twenty years this went on until it was decided that the initiative largely failed. Nothing had really changed — except the shift of ethnicity of the students.
The school is closed now, but before that happened, emotions amongst staff and local community members ran high. People were angry. Teachers were tired of the expectations thrust upon them with regard to improving their practice. Staff was split between: 1) those who felt they couldn’t possibly work harder than they already were for little or no “measurable” gain in student learning; and 2) those who were viewed as dead weight, and professed to care about the students, but never quite walked the talk. Teachers vacillated between being angry with parents for not providing for their children, and contributing what they could to support family members who often had not been in school themselves.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s words — found and written on that small piece of paper — were apropos, but never quite tacked to the bulletin board over my desk. Instead, they began their drift in and out of presence, catching my eye on just the right day, conjuring a flare of vindication when I most needed it. But upon hesitation, they forced me to think about my role in the tension the school was wrapped in. When you’re the leader, everything is your responsibility, regardless of when you arrived. Regardless of what you know. Regardless of what you believe everyone can join together in doing for the school.
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be…
I couldn’t say the words aloud. If I said them in reference to the seething undercurrent that was our “professional” community, then I believed I would appear to be casting blame. I would be perceived as pointing my finger at the naysayers, exhibiting weakness, behaving as one of our very young students upset to be accused of something he or she didn’t do. I kept the words to myself.
I don’t know that I believe the words at this point, five years later. They suggest that I’m incapacitated unless others pull themselves together. Is that always true?
Isn’t it more true that with each example we set, another follows? Isn’t the effort I make to live my life in the best way I know, something others may emulate?
Am I incapable of being the best that I know how to be if I point fingers at those who I deem as obstacles to my success?
The red square of paper will continue to hover in and around my life prodding me to occasionally wonder about the decisions that could have been made with my staff at the elementary school, but the context is so different now.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…
My small experience seems so inconsequential considering King’s intent, rallying individuals to consider their involvement, or lack thereof, in making a difference, in speaking out and doing something — anything — about what is not just.