Losing Propositions

Football is on my mind these days.  It is hard to avoid that topic in this part of the world since the Valley of the Sun will host this year’s Super Bowl and all its ancillary activities.  However, this year football’s “second season” on both the collegiate and professional level has provided insight that transcends football.  As the eagerly anticipated college football playoff unfolded, I discovered that I may not be as immune from the “winning is the only thing” philosophy whose initial articulation has been attributed (apparently incorrectly) to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.  A similar sentiment was expressed more bluntly by the late Dale Earnhardt: “Second place is just the first loser.”  If true, what does that make the loser of the fill-in-the-blank bowl- or even its winner?  I am not the first to note that the laser-like focus on the college football playoff diminished the interest in and value of all the bowl games not connected to the playoff process.  I readily admit that there are too many bowl games for fans to sustain engagement and frequent changes in corporate sponsorship of games also adds to the confusion and indifference.  Nonetheless certain games with significant and longstanding traditions seemed to have barely penetrated fandom’s awareness this season.  With the exception of a few games in which I had a rooting interest, I remember the results of very few other games except the playoff ones.  So I must confess that I have been captured by the hype.  I am embarrassed as a result because I proclaim healthy and collaborative participation as an ultimately far more important value than the outcome of the games at our school.  Perhaps I have more in common with Vince and Dale than I would like to admit.

As both the college bowl games and NFL playoff games have unfolded, I discovered another unfortunate tendency in myself.  In the games that I watched in which I did not already have a clearly established positive rooting interest, I found myself investing my interest in rooting against one of the teams for one or another reason: perceived ethical lapses, an arrogant or annoying coach, an overbearing fan base, regional biases, etc.  I learned that such negative motivation does not sustain my interest over the long haul.  More importantly the good life lesson reinforced for me is that negativity leads us down an unhappy path in more serious life endeavors.  Rooting against a person or team does not emanate from our better nature.  And, in life’s more serious pursuits and interaction, jealousy and resentment can poison our soul – a losing proposition of utmost significance.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Not The One Thing

At last month’s conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools there were many wonderful moments and events.  While the biennial gathering is always positive, instructive, and inspiring, this year’s conference had an especially celebratory tone as the association proudly and gratefully celebrates its golden anniversary this academic year.  (All Saints’ Episcopal Day School counts itself as a charter member of the organization.)  While there were many highlights, one of the most lasting for me was the talk delivered by noted author and clinical psychologist, Madeline Levine.  Her book The Price of Privilege has had significant influence on Episcopal and independent schools since most of our school communities can rightly be described as privileged (in many ways).  Dr. Levine is not only wise but also very funny, so her cogent insights land fairly lightly into one’s consciousness.

One of her declarations at her NAES talk was that our schools are preparing our students for ambiguity.  I believe she is absolutely correct – most young people neither expect nor want to have one “thing” that they do for the bulk of their adult lives.  However, I have also been reminded since hearing Dr. Levine that there is something in us that resists that ambiguity.  Teachers and parents are constantly searching for the one thing that children need to succeed.  There has been much recent coverage in the press about the increase in the number of college applications being filed by high school students, especially those enrolled in independent schools.  In a recent New York Times article reasons cited for this trend include the advent of the common application, the need to cast a wide net for the most favorable financial package, and perhaps most fundamentally fear that the one right school might be missed if an applicant’s target schools list is too short.  A mere two weeks later, another article in the same newspaper noted that there are still plenty of fine options for talented, accomplished, and motivated students.  Colleges and universities are apparently in no rush to discourage this wave of increased applications since it makes their acceptance rates look ever more impressive – on the theory that the lower the acceptance percentage, the better the school must be.  Sadly, I believe that the theory is probably correct because of our search for the one school that will perfectly fit each student’s needs and aspirations.

Perhaps the one thing is not so tangible as a particular school or a particular occupation or a particular place in which to live.  In her NAES address Dr. Levine also said that she “is over happy, and is now into meaning.  Maybe meaning (or conviction or passion or values or principle, if one prefers) is the one thing – a “thing” that does not lend itself to reduction or confinement to the “one things” which occupy so much of our energy and attention, especially when we ponder what is most important for our young people.  The one thing may indeed not be the one thing for them.”

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Milestones, Not Millstones

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Dr. Carson and the Advanced Honors Language Arts class celebrate Bow Tie Day with Mr. Dressel.

I have experienced two life events in recent weeks that have had a major positive impact on me.  One was my birthday late last month, my 68th.  That is not usually considered a milestone natal day, but 68 has had significant personal importance for me over the past three decades.  Each of my parents died at age 68 less than one year apart and 30+ years ago.  So for many years birthday 68 has loomed on the horizon as an aspiration and a reminder.  So when I reached that life moment recently, I was grateful for a couple reasons- one for living to see that day and one for having the opportunity to reminisce about my parents that reaching that particular birthday inspired.

Last weekend I attended my 50-year high school reunion in St. Louis, definitely a milestone moment by any measure.  I attended an all-boys Jesuit high school (almost two hundred years old itself, by the way), and there were 212 graduates in my class.  We have been most fortunate in many ways.  Only 14 of our classmates have died over the past 50 years.  Even though many of my confreres served in Vietnam, not one lost his life.  Our alma mater has contact information for 180 surviving members of the Class of 1964, and well more than half of us took part in one or more events on the reunion weekend.  The tone of the gathering was extremely positive since life has been very good for the vast majority of us and also because we have reached the “nothing to prove, but much to celebrate” time in our lives.  Our class is on the leading edge of the baby boom, with almost all of us born in 1946.  For much of our lives my generation has denied our mortality, first by not trusting anyone over 30 (an ancient age in our youth) to deceiving ourselves that 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc.  I joked with some of my classmates that the best we can claim at this point is that 68 is not as old as it was in our parents’ day.  So 68 is the new 68, but 68 nonetheless.  And for me that is a cause for rejoicing.

These events made me poignantly aware of the mystery of time and the important role our perspective plays in our perception of time.  Years ago one aspect of this mystery was brilliantly illustrated by Joni Mitchell in her song “The Circle Game.”  But in addition to its circularity, there is also a clear linear quality to the passage of time as we are reminded by Five for Fighting in their much more recent pop hit “100 years.”

But in the end, no matter where each of us is in relation to life’s circularity and timeline, what each of us has is today- and only today- to live.  And today is thus the most important milestone of all.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

So I Was Wrong

The Valley of the Sun has been in the national weather news recently for something other than triple-digit temperatures.  The unprecedented deluge on Monday, September 8, resulted in cancellation of school for the day.  Our new middle school head Paulsson Rajarigam took a bit of pleasure in reminding me of a comment I had made to him during our middle school head search last year.  In my attempts to convince him to move from the East Coast across the United States to join our school community, I mentioned to him that in Phoenix I would never ever have to make another weather-related decision regarding school closing.  (I thought this remark was a sound recruitment tactic in light of the fact that the East Coast and much of the rest of the country was enduring a particularly brutal and long winter.)  September 8 proved my statement wrong in no uncertain terms.

So I was wrong.  While the storm did have some damaging effects for some people’s property, including some school families’, there was not much at stake for me personally in having been wrong.  In fact my decision to cancel school received much more support than many of my previous weather-related decisions in other locales.  Nonetheless there is something liberating in being able to admit one’s mistake without gloss, something that has not always (and still not always) been comfortable for me to do.  Even though to be human is to be wrong and to make mistakes at times, something in us resists accepting and admitting those moments in straightforward fashion.

There is also something liberating in admitting mistakes without qualifications.  I have in the past attempted to nuance my acknowledgement with “if” clauses along the lines of “If someone was offended by my actions/remarks” or “If my words did not clearly express what I wanted to say.”  In order to become the people we are called to be, we must move to more clarity and directness in acknowledging moments when we are mistaken.  If we are unable to admit errors without qualification about matters such as our inadequate meteorological forecasting, we certainly will find it very difficult to admit mistakes when our words or actions cause substantial impact such as hurt and other unfortunate consequences for people, especially those about whom we care the most.

Until next time…

My Best,

Leo

One of One, Not One of 50+

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Eighth Grade Lunch with Mr. Taylor’s Advisory

At the beginning of each school year I enjoy hosting lunches for each of our eighth grade advisory groups so that I can connect with our oldest students in a smaller group setting as they embark on their last year in our school.  At these lunches I ask each group if anyone has any questions or suggestions for me.  At today’s lunch one student asked me how long I have taught.  There were looks of disbelief around the table when I mentioned that my first teaching job started in the fall of 1971.  The looks were understandable since that year is three lifetimes ago for our eighth graders.

Coincidentally, I had recently counted how many school years I have enjoyed as student, teacher, or administrator.  It’s well past 50 years and could be even higher were I to count some years when I had oversight responsibilities for a group of Jesuit high schools in a particular region.  I did not do this tally in order to pat myself on the back for my durability and staying power but rather to savor the gratitude I still felt as I began this year at All Saints’.  I am graced to have spent so many years in environments I love and that I find deeply enriching and engaging.

That in turn led me to reflect on something from that first teaching assignment, which took place at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City.  One of my colleagues there was a jovial Jesuit priest who at that point had been teaching Latin at the school for several decades.  Whenever anyone remarked about something that happened at school on a given day, the priest would chuckle and utter the following: “It happens every year!”  I found myself annoyed by that response, and I finally figured out the reason.  The priest, who clearly had admirable qualities of persistence and commitment, apparently did not embrace the newness- in fact the uniqueness- of every year.  From his perspective he had replicated the same year dozens of time, and in that approach is something unsettling and unsatisfactory.

So ultimately it matters less that this is my fiftieth+ school year than that 2014-15 is the one and only year that each of us at All Saints’ have been gifted.  If I do not embrace this year as precious and unique, I shortchange my eighth grade lunch companions and everyone else at our school.  If “it happens every year” is my default response, then I shall have ignored the special possibilities that this year offers.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Advancing by Retreating

By now most people have heard the joke about the three best things about working in schools: June, July, and August.  For years I have been asked some version of a related question: Do you work during the summer?  What exactly do you do all summer?

There is certainly some truth underlying the above sentiments and questions.  There is an indisputable change of pace at school during the summer.  In my case there are far fewer meetings, far fewer events, and indeed far less excitement. 

The key is for one to embrace that change of pace as an opportunity to re-group, re-vision, and re-focus.  A couple of recent experiences in which I have participated since the end of the 2013-14 school year have heightened my awareness of that opportunity.  The day after our last day of school and graduation, I began a Memorial Day weekend retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center here.  The timing of the retreat was in fact exquisite since the contrast between the peacefulness of the retreat and the end-of-school rush could not have been more dramatic.  The retreat gave me a chance to reflect on what type of person I am at this moment in my life, all within a spiritual and faith-based context.  So the question at the heart of the experience is this: What kind of person have I been during the school year just completed?  What kind of person do I choose to be going forward?  I realize that many (most?) people do not have the ability to spend a weekend on a retreat.  But there is a way for every person to structure a few moments each day in reflecting on questions like the ones cited above.

Earlier this week I attended the June meeting for heads of member schools of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS).  As is the custom with this annual June gathering, the meeting took place at a vacation destination setting- this year in Colorado Springs (no, not the Broadmoor).  The program was of very high quality, but the schedule was more leisurely than at most of our meetings.  The focus shifted from the “being” reflections of the retreat to the “doing” reflections related to my work as a school leader.  The questions that emerged during our meeting were related to practical matters like risk management, donor-centered fundraising, legal issues, and grit and self-control as predictors of success. 

During our afternoon free from any program presentations, I chose to join a group that rode the cog railway to the summit of Pike’s Peak.  There are few things more effective in providing a person a healthy perspective than taking in the panoramic vista from 14,000 feet above sea level- at least in those moments when one is not a bit lightheaded.  My Pike’s Peak experience tied the two experiences together- retreat and meeting- in dramatic fashion.  Being and doing are two important elements in life.  Congruence between who we are and what we do is essential if we are to live lives of integrity and authenticity.  And that mountain peak also reminded me once again not to inflate my role in the grand scheme of things!    

Until next time… 

My best,

Leo

May Energy

Last week Ann Mellow, Associate Director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES), visited Episcopal schools in Arizona- including All Saints’.  As part of her visit to All Saints’, she was able to attend CrossWORLDS.  CrossWORLDS is an annual multicultural celebration at our school.  Her experience of the event- and particularly our art show- inspired her latest blog that I am happy to share with readers of this blog.

I was lucky to visit All Saints’ Episcopal Day School in Phoenix, Arizona this past week while the spring art show was on display. As I entered the art studio, I noticed a simple, hand-painted sign which read, “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.”

This sign really made me stop and think. It did not assume eventual bad behavior (such as the “seven deadly sins of the art room” I once saw posted in a middle school art studio). Nor did it invoke creativity, hard work, focus, or any number of other specific attributes. Instead, it simply asked us be mindful and intentional, recognizing that whatever we bring into a room affects not only ourselves, but others.

May is a crazy time of year in schools. Ironically, just when the year is “winding down” we feel more frazzled than ever. Frustration comes easily, and our quotient of mercy can be all used up. Maybe some students have displayed an appalling lack of judgment in the last weeks of school. Perhaps the overload of school events and field trips has worn us thin. Maybe, like the students, we find ourselves counting the days until school is out.

It’s a time to pay extra attention to the energy we bring into our classrooms, schools, homes, and relationships — and to help our colleagues, students, and parents in those moments when the end-of-year-frazzles threaten to get the better of us.

Ann’s reflections resonate strongly with me, and her reference to “our quotient of mercy” is particularly compelling.  That term also put me in mind of a consistent concern addressed by Pope Francis.  He has spoken regularly about the perniciousness of gossip; the language he uses in speaking of the evils of rumor and gossip is uncompromising.  At various times he has spoken of gossip as poison or social murder and urged people to join him in being “conscientious objectors” to gossip.  One of the reasons for the high esteem with which many people of various traditions regard Pope Francis is that he speaks frankly and regularly about real-life issues.  The Pope’s words about the effect of rumor and gossip in a church apply just as much to a school like this one.  Gossip is a real-life issue for our school community, one more distressing in light of the values articulated in The All Saints’ Way to which our community aspires.  As we seek the energy we need in May, perhaps we can commit together to being conscientious objectors to gossip so that our quotient of mercy will not be sadly depleted in damaging ways.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

The Virtue of Single Tasking

Since so many of us pride ourselves on how much work we can accomplish, myself certainly included, I think it time to make the case for the virtue of single tasking as opposed to the limits of multitasking.  Actually I do not have to make the case since multiple research-based cases have been made that multitasking is not all it has been cracked up to be. 

Of course the negative consequences of multitasking vary wildly in term of the damage done.  The most tragic consequence is chillingly and graphically presented in public service announcements urging people to refrain from texting and driving.  The case could not be more compelling, but this phenomenon has not been eliminated in spite of the dire warnings.  

On the other end of the spectrum are those moments of leisure where the stakes are not very high: reading a newspaper while glancing at the television perhaps with headphones sending music in our ears.  Perhaps in that instance we are not really multitasking; we’re escaping from all tasks through sensory overload.  

My concern is about those middle-range activities, important but not necessarily life-changing in and of themselves.  I include items like reading a book, writing a letter, paying bills, having a conversation, doing homework, watching a performance, or writing a blog. 

One can only conclude that we all think we are better at multitasking than the research evidence indicates.  If doing one thing is good, two is better, and on and on.  But we are definitely in the land of diminishing returns.  In fact we are not saving time, the quality of our task performance is diminished, and mistakes are more plentiful.  Nonetheless we resist these realities, perhaps because the menu of options for each of us grows daily.  There is no little irony that the term multitasking was first used to describe computer capabilities.  Alas, we are people, not computers.  (That’s good news, by the way.) 

For me a great aid to single tasking is list making.  Such lists have proven invaluable to me over the years as I have worked to sharpen my focus.  Lists need to be limited.  Otherwise we are sorely tempted to multitask since that is the only way to address (inadequately) a list that is too long.  Lists also need to be prioritized: first things first.  If on a given day, I have not accomplished one or more tasks on the list, it is most likely for one of two reasons.  My list is too long, or I have deferred a challenging task that ought to have been first on my to-do list- not last.  

Until next time… 

My best,

Leo

The Longest Month

I am relieved that I am writing this entry in March.  February has the fewest days of any month in the year, but do not tell people who attend or teach school that it is the shortest month.  In fact it feels to many (most?) people in schools that it is the longest month of the year.  I have thought of that anomaly especially this year as much of our country has endured the most severe winter weather in many years.  We know that some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder during the winter months. 

For many years I attributed the February doldrums in schools to the season of the year, but I have lately come to the conclusion that is not the case.  Climate does not explain it since I believe the doldrums set in here in Phoenix also even though February marks the beginning of perhaps the most glorious weather of our year.  As a result I have pondered what might be another explanation for the ennui that seems to set in for many of us in schools.     

I would suggest that there may be “school affective disorder” that afflicts us during the longest month of February.  What might be the causes? Christmas break is fading into a memory, and spring break is still too far away.  Our oldest students begin to learn their next educational destination, which understandably prompts them to wonder why their teachers keep teaching and keep expecting them to learn.  Adults and students fall into patterns and exhibit behaviors that annoy by virtue of their familiarity and predictability.  Even Valentine’s Day does not does not do much to counter the lack of sizzle in February.  

What might be the remedies?  First of all, we might allow ourselves to embrace the inevitability of the sluggishness of the season, take a deep breath, and not inflate the significance of the lethargy we may feel.  For Christian believers the beginning of Lent can give a spiritual focus to our reflection during this arid season.  (Alas, this year February did not even provide that re-start opportunity since Lent just began on March 5!)  And we ought not to dismiss the days of February too readily.  After all any given day is the only day we have to live, and we can choose happiness and hope even in February.  As Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  Making up our minds to be happy may be especially important in February.  But for those who are not ready to take Honest Abe’s advice: Beware, without fail the longest season will soon enough morph into frenzied activity as we all prepare to complete the school year energetically, positively and completely.  And in those times we may be longing for a bit of lethargy. 

Until next time… 

My best,

Leo

Tethered

It is still amazing to me how tethered we have become to electronic devices that were unknown not very many years ago.  Evidence surrounds us:  Last-minute texting in a movie theater as the clever video about no texting plays on the screen, restaurants where everybody in a dinner party is on a device, gyms where people cling to their phones while on treadmills or stationary bikes, airport conversations about unpleasant bosses and unreasonable customers that are almost impossible not to overhear, and professional conferences where some attendees are incapable of staying put for an hour without heading to the hallway to check one’s phone.  A more personal example occurred this week.  Our youngest grandchild and his family are visiting this week, and practically the first words out of his mouth early in his first morning with us were these: “Where’s my iPad?”

This is not a diatribe against technology.  Being tethered to a device can certainly have undeniable benefits.  It can keep us connected to people we love, can get us back on track when we are lost, provide ready access to abundant information, and is invaluable especially for those who are in professions that require immediate response to critical situations. 

I am sure that most of us were tethered to something(s) long before the invention of smart phones, tablets, and other devices.  And being untethered suggests to me floating aimlessly through life.  But to be tethered can be confining and limiting so there must be some slack and give in the tether. 

Ultimately the essential question is this:  Are we tethered to the right things?  At yesterday morning’s annual National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony at our school, I suggested that the occasion encouraged us to tether ourselves to things that have substance and value, including those items that we noted in honoring our inductees: scholarship (lifelong learning), service (“to serve a world in need” in the words of our school mission statement), leadership (making a positive difference each day), citizenship (staying healthily connected to all the communities of which we are members- from families to schools to neighborhoods to congregations to cities to countries to the world), and character (the bedrock of all the others, deepening each day the core values and principles that will stand us in good stead no matter what circumstances we face in our lives). 

Finally, we are called to tether ourselves to a higher and transcendent purpose, which for me means being tethered to a loving God.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

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Congratulations to our 29 newest members of the All Saints’ Episcopal Day School Chapter of the National Junior Honor Society. These new members are are now responsible for kindling the flame of scholarship, service, leadership, citizenship, and character.