I Recommend This Neighborhood

In what was a surprise to me, the cinematic highlight of my summer was viewing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”—a biographical film about Fred Rogers, the revered host of the long-running public television show Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

Since I was born too soon to be a childhood viewer of the show (think Howdy Doody instead), the film provided me an introduction to the show and to the person who created it. I knew more about Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, the satirical take-off created by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. Probably because of that admittedly funny but certainly misleading effort by Mr. Murphy, I did not expect much of the film.

The film proved to be one of the most moving I have ever seen, particularly so since I have spent years in school settings surrounded by school children close to my heart. Mister Rogers is one of the most effective teachers I have ever had an opportunity to observe and appreciate. He moved me to tears several times during the film.

The intentional low production value of the show was not only charming; it was also consistent with Mister Rogers’ belief in simply profound core values. The power of those values did not require fancy visual and technological enhancements.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not a nostalgic piece of hagiography. Mister Rogers is certainly depicted lovingly but also very honestly. The film makes clear that Mister Rogers was not only keenly attuned to the feelings and vulnerabilities of children; he was acutely aware of his own humanity and his own weaknesses. This awareness clearly contributed to the effectiveness of his teaching and connection with young people. Similarly, this combination enabled him to help children better understand troubling and tragic events in our society without terrifying them.

While the gentle humor of Mister Rogers was a key to his effectiveness, I think that the most significant factor in his success was that he took children seriously. He understood the importance of social-emotional learning before that term became widely known.

As another school year begins, I recommend a visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to inspire educators and parents.

Until next time,
Leo

The Long Haul

Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Below is the letter I wrote to our 2018 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook.

 

Dear Members of the Class of 2018,

I am happy to have this annual opportunity to share a message with our graduates as they leave our school for their next educational destination. As is the case with every school year, this one has passed incredibly quickly for me. But from your much more youthful perspective, your experience at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School—be it for one year or ten—may seem like it has been a long haul.

I write to extol the virtues of the long haul, whether it be in school or in life. There is something very important and valuable in the “daily-ness” of life. Growth ordinarily comes in very small increments, almost invisibly on any given day, but much more apparent over a longer period of time. In fact, significant success and achievement really only occurs over the long haul.

Our world is impatient with the long haul. I think of this as the “breaking news” phenomenon. I suspect not many of you are patrons of the cable news networks. If you were, you would understand quite well what I mean regarding breaking news. While the term suggests something of utmost urgency and rare occurrence, viewers of these networks know that “breaking news” is commonplace. Very few hours go by without an announcement of such news. This reflects our culture’s infatuation with the right now, the exciting, the immediately important—none of which are characteristic of the long haul.

In my own life, there have been “Aha” moments, but those have occurred very infrequently. Most of what I have learned and how I have grown as a person has happened over the long haul. While “breaking news” is at first glance much more exciting, for most of us most of the time the “long haul” provides the most important and substantive growth in our lives.

While your graduation is a wonderful occasion, it is not breaking news. Rather I see is as an important moment in the long haul of your lives. May that long haul eventually lead each of you to become the wonderful and fully developed person you are meant to be.

With great affection and appreciation,

Leo P. Dressel

Head of School

Facing Retirement, Still Embracing Purpose

Last month I announced to my school community that I would retire at the end of the 2018-19 academic year. Articulating this long-anticipated intention in public fashion elicited a range of responses. Gratitude was at the forefront, but other responses also welled up in me. I was certainly pleased to have the word out in the public forum at last. I started my full-time teaching career in 1971, and my first school administrative assignment began in 1978. Believe me, dear reader, that those dates sound far longer ago to you than they feel to me. I thus had to face the befuddlement many others before me have experienced when confronting some version of this question: How on earth did this happen so swiftly? There was also the companion wistfulness that comes with the approaching cessation of work that I have loved for so many years. Mixed in was a bit of the inevitable anxiety that comes with the unknown elements of my post-retirement life.

Finally, there was relief and encouragement when I remembered the simple truth that one does not have to have a job to have a purpose. Purpose has primacy over occupation. That having been said, I do not discount the challenges in finding the new shape and path of my purposeful life after having had the privilege of serving for so many years in places and positions with awesome purpose built in. Keeping a passion for purpose is the key to a fruitful life no matter one’s circumstances. We must endeavor to find our purpose and not wait for purpose to find us. In schools we are blessed to be immersed in a place and an enterprise saturated by purpose of the noblest kind. I shall miss that blessing when I retire. I know that I don’t want to enter retirement waiting for purpose to find me, but there are many details yet to be determined. Nonetheless, I have one clear commitment no matter what: I shall live a life of purpose until the day that my time on earth ends.

Until next time,

Leo

Simply Abide

It has been many months since I have posted a blog entry, something about which I am a bit embarrassed. Over that time I have regularly excused myself from this task by buying into the cult of “busyness” in our culture. Being busy is a badge of honor in our society, and I’ve been wearing my badge for many months now. Being engaged in life is certainly a good thing, but I reference the excessive commotion we sometimes embrace. It does damage to our relationships and our sense of self.

I had a conversation with a colleague today about changes I have observed during my decades in education. While there is considerable truth to the adage that kids are kids no matter the time and place, but one change I would suggest is that young people today are much more adept at interactive technologies, but not as highly developed regarding interpersonal and introspective schools. And, among other things, the busyness cult is responsible for some of that. Adults bear considerable responsibility for this phenomenon.

 

The above has been very much on my mind because of something that I read this past weekend: a piece in the Forward Day by Day daily meditation and prayer guide. Saturday’s entry focused on a passage from the Book of Haggai, the work of a so-called minor prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures. The reflection focused on a single old-fashioned and quaint word, abide, and its connotation of stillness and lack of movement. In our abiding, we find the Spirit of God. I am reminded of the inscription that Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung had carved above his door:

Busyness will always find us—and overwhelm us at times. We must consciously choose abiding. In this busy holiday season, I encourage readers to give themselves the gift of abiding and discover the Spirit that abides in that stillness. Or as the late Jesuit poet and activist Daniel Berrigan once put it: Don’t just do something—stand there.

Until next time,

Leo

Serving a World in Need

Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School.  Below is the letter I wrote to our 2017 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook.  I suggest that the circumstances in the world remain as daunting as when this reflection was written.

 

Dear Members of the Class of 2017,

Because of deadlines necessary for publication of our yearbook in a timely fashion, I write this annual message to graduates months before graduation.  In fact, I am composing this letter on a peaceful morning on a quiet campus during the Christmas break on one of the last days of 2016.  I bring that up because of the many expressions I have seen recently on social media that this year cannot end soon enough.  In a sense that is certainly understandable in light of the events of the year: unspeakable violence at home and abroad, an emotionally tumultuous election season, and the deaths of an unusually high number of iconic figures.

2016 will be a memory by the time you read this, and the rest of your lives will await you.  Whether or not you were in the “good riddance” segment of the population when 2016 ended, I urge each of you to resist such a temptation going forward no matter the circumstances of any particular year, month, day, or hour.  We reject the gift of time at our peril, and- may I suggest in light of our mission statement- at the world’s peril.  Especially in light of rather than in spite of the disturbing events in our world, it is all the more important that you embrace our fond hope for you “to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.”  We best not reject or attempt to escape a world in need (which will always be the case until the end of time), but rather we do well to serve that world in any way that is true to our best selves.

So I encourage you to continue to move forward and to love and embrace the world.  Resist the temptation to disengage in the face of challenges, difficulties, and tragic events.  My wish for you is one that Jonathan Swift expressed many years ago:

May you live all the days of your life.

Until next time,
Leo

An Honor Roll for Each of Us

Integrity Last month we celebrated the first Honors Chapel of our school year.  Over the years reactions to such events have become more diverse and complex, with various questions raised: In the case of recognition for good conduct, why do we honor students for things we expect of them as a matter of course?  Do we adults hold ourselves to the same standards for our behavior?  Regarding academic honors, why do we use grades as the sole criteria for recognition?  Does that not leave out some of our grittiest students whose persistence and achievement might not be fully recognized by the numbers?  Good questions indeed, and they usually inspire me to focus on inclusion in my remarks at these chapels.  At last month’s Honors Chapel I noted an “honor roll” available to everyone.  Dictionary.com’s first definition of “honor” reads as follows: honesty, fairness, and integrity in one’s beliefs and actions.

Living a life with honor is attainable for each of us, no matter our “grades.”  However, it is not necessarily an easy thing to do.  In fact, at least in my case, it has been a lifelong journey to live more honorably over time.  What has helped me immensely has been my spiritual practice to thank God each day for the gift of that day and to express my desire to live that day with honor.  At the end of the day, I spend a brief time reflecting prayerfully on whether I have truly lived it with honor.  I have days when my reflection is tinged with regret when I recognize the moments when I could have acted more honorably.  In those moments I pray that I may have the gift of another day on which I can once again commit to living it with honor.

I thought of those remarks again this month when I read the news that Dictionary.com had selected “xenophobia” as its Word of the Year: fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.  How sad that this is so, but it also serves as added inspiration to aspire to find a place on the one honor roll that really matters.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Birthdays That End in Zero

Mr. Dressel's Birthday

Last week I celebrated my 70th birthday, a number I once could not have imagined.  I am on the “cutting edge” of the baby boom generation since those of us born in 1946 are considered the first (or oldest, if you prefer) baby boomers.  We clung to the notion not to trust anyone over 30 until we reached that age.  I suspect that baby boomers like myself are responsible for the entire 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc., phenomenon.  I actually saw a suggestion in a magazine that 70 is now the new 50!  That nugget arrived on my radar just in time for my 70th birthday.  I don’t believe it, but I do welcome the notion that attitude and engagement with life makes a huge difference regarding how we choose to live each day.

Some birthdays resonate more than others, and those that end in zero are among them.  Actually, I was provided some helpful perspective years ago by my now-deceased mother.  She sent me a happy 30th birthday card on my 29th birthday (see comment above about not trusting everyone over 30 and the presumed traumatic effect of turning that age for baby boomers).  I had to conclude that it could not be that big a deal if my own mother lost count.  Last year this lesson was reinforced when a friend sent me a happy 70th birthday card a year early.

Nonetheless, there is something when both digits in a person’s age change.  Completion of another decade of life feels like a bit of an accomplishment.  And to me, it feels even more like a blessing.  My birthday was made especially memorable since I was able to spend it in the midst of our students, faculty, and staff.  How many people are lucky enough to be serenaded on one’s birthday by well over 500 people, the vast majority of whom are age 14 and under?  I am still feeling incredibly blessed today, a good reminder that each day can be blessed if we embrace it as the gift it is.  Today is after all in a very real sense the only one we have to embrace.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

P.S. An observation: We first baby boomers seem to love the spotlight and have difficulty leaving the stage.  Two people with whom I share the same birth year have already served as US Presidents, and another is a candidate this year.  That said, I feel supremely grateful that I have the privilege to do the work I do in the community in which I do it!

Letter From Mr. Dressel

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
-Mary Oliver

Dear Members of the Class of 2016,

The words above from award-winning American poet Mary Oliver have served as a particular guidepost for me this year.  Students and educators alike need to add a bit of renewed inspiration and energy every year to make certain that our passion matches the possibilities that await us in school – and in life.

Graduations are traditional moments when graduates can expect (and perhaps dread) advice from their elders.  The words above from the poet follow that structure, and I suggest that her advice can be embraced.  Mary Oliver’s world view is that nature and the ordinary in life provide pathways to profundity, meaning and inspiration.  Implied in her words is her recognition of our tendency to overcomplicate life and to miss the blessings in the everyday.

So I urge you to keep it simple as you move to the next stage of your lives and your education.  Holding fast to those seven unadorned words can work wonders for you.

Pay attention.
Mary Oliver’s words carry much different significance and intent than an identical admonition from a teacher.  Consciously open your senses to the world in which you wake each day, and each day will bring blessing, consolation and opportunity to you.

Be astonished.
Resist the temptation to become jaded, guarded, and – even worse- cynical.  Find joy in the routine, the familiar, the ordinary, the unassuming.  Every day will bring much to savor if we are prepared to be amazed.

Tell about it.
Share your blessings so others can be blessed.  Embrace the world with gratitude and share that gratitude with others.   Don’t be shy about sharing your joy of living with family, friends, and strangers alike.

Keeping things simple can make an amazing positive difference in your life.  Hall of Fame Yankee catcher and accidental philosopher Yogi Berra died early in your eighth grade year.  He was not eloquent in the manner of Mary Oliver, but his nuggets of wisdom echo some of her own.  As Yogi reminded us: You can observe a lot by just watching.

With great affection and appreciation,

Leo P. Dressel
Head of School

Group

All Saints’ Class of 2016

The Wisdom of Bruce Springsteen

Earlier this month I attended the “The River” tour Bruce Springsteen concert date here in Phoenix.  The first Springsteen concert I ever attended was 40+ years ago (yikes): Halloween night, 1975, Paramount Theater, Oakland, California.  I have been a staunch fan ever since.  The 1975 tour followed the release of “Born to Run,” the album that made the Boss a superstar.  He landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek, an amazing achievement in the years long before the Internet when those two magazines had major cultural impact.  Even with this breakthrough, Springsteen still was playing modest-sized venues like the Paramount (capacity 3000 or so).

BruceMuch has changed for the Boss on that score, and much has changed for me on many levels over these 40 years.  In 1975 I was a second-year student at Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley preparing for ordination to the priesthood.  For the 2016 concert our delegation represented three generations, which I found most consoling.  Our granddaughters have little knowledge of Springsteen’s career so I was excited to experience their introduction to his music with them.  I was also proud since—as a self-described Springsteen disciple—I take a bit of credit for encouraging and supporting their father’s allegiance to the Boss.

“The River” was released 35 years ago, and Springsteen has released a new boxed set to celebrate that milestone.  The current tour has the same playlist for most of each concert.  Springsteen plays every song on “The River” in the order each appeared on the album.  Among those songs is one of my all-time favorites, “Hungry Heart.”  The song is so familiar to Springsteen fans that Bruce has the custom of having his audience sing the first verse without him before he circles back to begin again.  The song is quite typical of an approach Springsteen employs: revelation of an important life lesson presented by a narrator who fails to take the lesson to heart.  In “Hungry Heart” the narrator states very clearly that each person has a need, a hunger, for meaning—especially in relationship(s).  That core message is most clearly articulated (in spite of the badly fractured grammar) in the third verse:

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone

In the previous two verses the song’s narrator vividly illustrates how not to satisfy that hunger.  In that he is not alone.  Most of us have spent some time searching on the wrong path(s) at times in our quest to satisfy our hungers; for some that wrong path can have catastrophic impact.  For others, the hunger is so ravenous that it is never satisfied.  For many of us, the path to the right destination is circuitous and complex.  For me, just such a complicated path has led me to a marvelous place for which I am very grateful.  As the Boss and the E Street Band played for 3+ hours, I listened rejoicing in the reality that I have a place to rest, I have a home, and I am loved and far from alone.

Thanks again for the reminder, Bruce.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Mind Games

Last month I had a delightful lunch date with three boys in our third grade, a “Hangin’ with the Head” opportunity offered as an auction item at our parent association fundraiser.  I thoroughly enjoyed observing their interaction and conversation—and the insights it provided me about the world of contemporary third graders.  Gaming was the most frequent topic of conversation, with Minecraft taking center stage.  The most memorable quotation that emerged from the gaming conversation was this: “Minecraft is just too complicated for adults.”  I think there is definitely truth in that statement, especially for this adult.  There is no doubt that every one of our ten grandchildren is more adept at manipulating electronic devices than I.  They are digital natives one and all.  I am clearly a digital dinosaur in terms of chronology, evidence of which is that I was a mid-
20s adult when the game Pong was introduced.  No first grader in our school can read better than I or solve math problems better than I, etc.  However, I am quite certain that most—if not all of them—could easily eclipse me in iPad manipulation skill.  That represents a huge paradigm shift for educators.  The tables (tablets?) have been turned.
Hand of Asian girl playing Tablet.This development can be good news for children and adults, but there is an ever growing number of cautionary tales.  Not a week goes by that I do not see an article in professional literature about the perils of excessive screen time for young people.  This is of particular concern for me as head of a school with a 1-to-1 iPad program in our middle school and a commitment to the incorporation of other new technologies into our PK-8 educational program.  One of the harmful side effects of excessive screen time is the deleterious effect if has on the development of social-emotional skills in students (and all of us, for that matter).  This has risen to the level of a public health issue as demonstrated by the guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  This is particularly worrisome for me as head of an Episcopal school that puts a high value on development of such social-emotional skills in our students.

This is not intended as a diatribe against new technologies.  These ever-changing and ever-advancing tools can provide many benefits, and they are not going away.  Minecraft provides a brilliant array of options for learning and problem-solving.  I myself have been exhilarated by the ways in which I have grown as a learner through contemporary technology.  We adults need to help our young people to manage their use of technology; they can figure out the manipulation piece on their own.  To provide that assistance, we need to model what we desire.  We need to get off our devices more often and model genuine healthy personal interaction at home and at school.

I sincerely believe that children’s brains are changing in new ways because of new technology.  My hope is that this will be an evolutionary moment in human development- not a devolutionary one.  I also firmly believe that we adults can be very influential in influencing that outcome.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo