Wednesday, July 6, 2016

An Ugly Mirror

Let me be a messed-up old mirror: spotted, dingy, and cracked. 

Clear enough to leave no doubt what you are, but clearly not anyone to talk.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"I Kept It"

I was just talking to our boys about giving at church, and remembered a story my grandfather once told me when I was a kid.

I don't remember now how the story came up, but Grandpa Dominguez told me that when he was a kid, and his mother gave him money to put in the offering at church, he used to pocket the money to use for his own purposes. 

In Grandpa's words, "I kept it."

Frightened at even hearing this story told, let alone pondering the risk involved in Grandpa's boyhood caper, I asked whether he ever got caught. Yes, Grandpa said, he did, and he got in trouble for it, but I don't remember now what exactly happened, or whether Grandpa even elaborated any further.

But still...

Imagining this scene from what would likely have been the early 1930's, somewhere in rural Southern California, and putting myself in my great-grandparents' shoes, I wonder what they thought of their son when they discovered his little scam. Did they worry about his character? Did they second-guess themselves as parents? Did they have trouble trusting him again?

Of course, it's possible the answer is none of the above, as these were poor people, likely more concerned with their children's daily bread than their children's weekly tithe, but I can't help but wonder if, in that moment, Mrs. Dominguez asked herself where she had gone wrong.

I don't know how long my great-grandmother lived, but I hope she lived long enough to see my grandfather become the person I remember, who lived a life of decency and faithfulness, who never earned much money, but never failed to provide for his family. who nearly gave his life for his country but never boasted or scorned others on account of it, and who is mourned today by great-grandsons who have no memory of him, but look forward to meeting him in heaven.

Great-Grandma, three generations now thank you for catching your son pocketing his tithe, and for setting him straight when he needed it.

We just hope you didn't lose too much sleep over it at the time.

When we meet up there someday, can you tell me this story?

Cloudy Sky at the Beach

Let me be a cloudy sky at the beach.

Not the perfection the beautiful seek, but a relief to those who've been burned.

An attraction not to the regulars, but to those who thought they'd never brave it again, to those who had forgotten how good the water feels against their skin, who had made peace with leaving that joy to everyone else.

Better yet, a rain shower right on the sand, each drop making its own splash in the waves, while an unbroken seashell is found by fingers digging blind, an inch underground, the perfect reward for the bravery of returning.


Monday, January 18, 2016

The Question I Hated Most

Have you ever had that friend who always cut through your fluff to the real point you may not have wanted to face? That person who always surprised you with the question you couldn't bluff your way through?

I worked with someone like that for a few really great years, at a pivotal time in my career. This guy had already been where I was and done what I was doing, and now worked in a support role where his mentorship was free for the taking.

This guy had a way of listening to everything from my grievances to my pipe dreams, and then handing it all back to me with full respect, total validation of my feelings, and yet a complete refusal to let me believe any of it belonged to anyone in the world but me.

And I never stopped coming back for more.

Of everything my friend said to me, there is one conversation that haunts me more than any other:  I was deep into my usual routine of imagining something bigger and better in my career, the next step, the next job, whatever my current position was preparing me for.

My friend had heard all this before, but this time replied that, in his mind, no discussion of the "next job" was really fair without asking yourself, "What am I doing with the one I have?"

I had no answer for this question.

Don't get me wrong; I wasn't a poor leader, or doing anything resembling a bad job where I was, and my friend wasn't claiming anything of the sort. But was I actively stretching my capacity in order to prepare for the next step while doing my everyday job? I assumed so, but could I say so with confidence, and defend the claim?

What am I doing with the (fill in the blank) I have? 

I still hate that question, but I find myself learning to accept it, ten-ish years after hearing it posed to me for the first time. There is so much wrapped up in that short question, such a "Parable of the Talents" quality to it, and no one around to hand any of it off to. It belongs to you, no matter what it is you're talking about. 

This question goes nowhere. 

It stops with you.

If you want something better, what are you doing with the something you already have? 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

One Principal's Take on Trump's Pledge

You may have heard Donald Trump's recent campaign speech, in which he pledged to eliminate Gun-Free Zones across America on his first day in office, if elected president.

In the context of the speech, Mr. Trump was speaking mainly about military posts and bases, but at the end, he threw in the word "schools" as well, which got this high school principal thinking:

Do I want guests coming onto my campus, entering the building, conducting their business with my school, meeting with teachers/counselors/administrators, possibly visiting classrooms, while carrying firearms?

No, I do not. 

(For that matter, I don't want my staff armed, either, with the exception of the police officers we are blessed to have on campus, but that is another conversation.)

I get the arguments about being able to shoot back at an attacker, and no, I don't have any statistics to argue with you about them. (Though I do have doubts about that perfect scenario.) I'm not likely to say anything that hasn't already been said, one way or the other, about guns in general.

But I might have a perspective about the operation of schools that could be relevant here.

In my 20 years in public education, I have served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal, at 8 different schools in 3 different school districts. These campuses have run the gamut in terms of size, student population, demographics, etc. Across those schools and over those years, the vast majority of the parents I have dealt with have been supportive people who worked well with school staff, even when the situation was difficult. 

However, there has always been a portion of the parent population, many educators would say a growing portion, that has presented significant challenges to the orderliness and even safety of the school environment.

I want to emphasize that these stories represent a sampling of the smallest proportion of my dealings with parents, but over my career, I have seen or dealt with the aftermath of:

*Parents loudly, sometimes with profanity, disrupting the school environment;

*Parents, either in person, in writing, or over the phone, threatening school staff with physical harm;

*Parents refusing to comply with, and making a scene over, common campus procedures;

*Parents attempting to use physical size and proximity to intimidate school staff;

*Parents refusing to leave an extracurricular event when dismissed for misconduct, necessitating police involvement;

*Parents encouraging their children to defy the authority of school staff;

*Parents engaging in such unreasonable and recurring patterns of contact to teachers, that in any other context, the behavior would be deemed harassment;

*Parents attempting to confront other people's children, on the (sometimes false) belief those children were engaged in bullying their child;

*In one disturbing case, a parent having to be physically restrained after beating up his teenage niece, of whom he was guardian, in the front office during a conference with an administrator;

*And in another awful case, a parent punching a student he did not know, giving the student a concussion, in response to a false report from his child that she was the victim of bullying.

It's easy to assume these must have been unusual people, or unusual circumstances, and to some degree that's undeniable, but it's also important to point out that, of the people who have been involved in these incidents, not one of them was clinically insane, a terrorist, or any kind of known menace to the community. 

These were seemingly ordinary people, just like you and me, one of them in particular standing out in my memory for wearing the uniform of the US Army while telling his child he was going to "slap the sh*t" out of one of my assistant principals.

Why does this happen?

To some degree, it happens because some people just make bad choices, but on a deeper level, this happens in schools when it doesn't typically happen at the gym, the bank, or the grocery store, because in schools, our business involves our customers' most intimately treasured relation, or in some people's mindset, "possession": their child. 

Some of the most ordinary people have the capacity to become extraordinarily nasty when they believe their child is being wronged in some way. We sometimes speak fondly of "Mama Bear", but the reality is, some parents act first and ask questions later when their baby is involved. 

The last thing we need in a school is for that "act" to have greater potential to involve a firearm.

And it's not always a matter of what people's intentions are when they first arrive on a scene. Many of the incidents I cited above were not the beginning of the interaction with the parent, but the culmination of an encounter in which the parents did not get their way, or were displeased with the outcome, and reacted with emotional violence, if not physical violence. I shudder to imagine those scenarios playing out with guns added to the mix.

In the school setting, with a segment of the parent population, there is always the possibility of situations turning volatile with little or no warning.

When I hear Donald Trump and others scoff at the very concept of a "Gun-Free Zone", I am reminded that, of all the crazy things some parents have done on campus during my career, one thing I have never (knock on wood) had a report of a parent doing is bringing a gun onto school property. I'm not claiming it has never happened, or that it never will, but I have never received a report of a parent bringing a gun to school, not even a hint or rumor of it, in 20 years, at 8 different schools, in 3 different districts.

Of all the parents I referenced above, only one did I later learn had a prior violent criminal record, meaning he was the very person who should have, by all conventional wisdom, disregarded the "Gun-Free Zone" and brought a firearm to school, because violent criminals don't obey gun laws.

But even he did not do so.

This principal believes from these experiences that allowing guns to be brought to school by parents or other visitors would be far more likely to result in unplanned violence carried out by a hotheaded visitor, than to result in a visitor averting a school shooting by being in just the right place, at just the right time, with the moral compass of The Lone Ranger and the aim of Doc Holliday. 

If you're reading this, I'm sure you trust yourself with a gun, anywhere, anytime, with any company, and I won't argue with you about whether you are worthy of that trust.

But not everyone out there is like you.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Wrong Stories

"Well, David, after some of the stories you've told, I'm not sure I think Christians belong in the public schools."


Stunned, I could not believe I had just heard this statement.

Worse than that, I couldn't believe the statement had been inspired by my own words.

I've given my entire adult life to the public schools, and have no plans of ever doing otherwise. The passion I feel for my mission as a public school educator, as a leader of teachers, is fervent and self-sustaining; if you were to ask me for the top three things I would want a stranger to know about me, this mission would make the list.

And my devotion to Jesus finds itself not stifled, but beautifully channeled toward countless hearts in this arena in which I learn and lead and make an imprint I am usually unaware I am making.

To quote one of my early career mentors, "There is so much more good than bad" about working with students in the public school setting, and I would never want anyone to think differently, especially as a result of talking with me.

But there it was.

I, as a public school principal, had led a heart to conclude the public schools were no place for a Christian.

How could this have happened?

It happened because I had chosen to hold the attention of loved ones at holiday gatherings by regaling them with horror stories and battle scars, tales of mayhem and depravity, chronicles of incidents that represented only the smallest proportion of my dealings, but created the bug-eyed response that is so validating to create in others.

Instead of impressing upon the audience my faith in my students' future, which drives me daily but takes forever to yield fruit, and which I can barely explain without tears, I chose quick shock value instead, dime novel drama over the fulfillment of a classic story.

I never meant to lead my listeners to the place they went, but I did nonetheless.

I think almost everyone does what I did.

Of course, some people honestly hate what they do for a living, and that is tragic. I insist on believing, however, that most have at least the potential for joy in their work. But how many people do you know, who work in fields you have little or no knowledge about, whose stories about their work always seem to come from this same sliver of negative experiences with rotten people?

Why do we do this?

Why do we, especially those of us who dearly love our work, so often represent it to others as more trouble than joy, tangled with aggravation, and stressful beyond measure? Why do we give this impression to people who have no context in which to place the horror stories in perspective?

Am I saying we shouldn't vent our frustrations?

No.

I am saying we are telling the wrong stories to the wrong people.

My fellow principals and I have most of the same challenging experiences, and we should share these with one another, encourage one another, and develop the camaraderie that will make these hard times easier to work through. I should share these difficult stories with these individuals, and they with me, because we instinctively understand that these stories are not the real story, but diversions from it, not the dominant characteristic of our work, but critical moments that exercise our leadership and make us stronger, placing into sharper focus the joys we work for every day.

Lots of other folks just don't have a way of making that distinction.

On the other hand, how many of my non-educator friends, acquaintances, and family members have no real familiarity with the forces that drove me into this field and continue to drive me today? No personal knowledge of the mission story I take for granted and assume everyone knows about me? No awareness of the daily joys, big and small, that lift this principal's spirits, renew his faith, and fill his heart?

How many have never heard?

And more to the point:  How many have not heard these things, but have heard dramatic tales of woe, even from me?

Why are you doing what you're doing with your precious life? What is the story? Does it move you? Could it move others? I pray it does, and I'm confident it can. And if it doesn't move you, or not anymore, I pray God will open a different door, and you'll have the faith to step through it.

Tell the story. The real story, even if you can't control your emotions. We want to hear it! Tell us what it's really all about, so we'll know whatever war stories we might hear later on are just part of a larger picture that's more than worth the momentary trouble to you.

We're telling the wrong stories to the wrong people, and it's time we got it right.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Simple Kind of Life

Too busy.

Too messy.

Too fast.

Too complex.

Many of us would describe our lives this way, while admitting this isn't what we wanted, right? Who hasn't felt some of the most basic wishes of life have gotten lost in the shuffle of work and Wal-Mart, traffic and time?

Some of the most haunting lyrics I've ever heard come from No Doubt's "Simple Kind of Life", a lament over a lost love and a lost time:

Now all these simple things are simply too complicated for my life;
How'd I get so faithful to my freedom, a selfish kind of life?
When all I ever wanted was the simple things,
A simple kind of life?

And, centuries earlier, one of the most haunting responses from Jesus:

"You are not far from the kingdom of God."
Mark 12:34

For a long time, I read this response as a rare compliment from Jesus toward His constant questioners among the religious elite, and it certainly is an acknowledgement that this particular "teacher of the law" was on the right track when he agreed with Jesus that loving God and loving neighbor outweigh all burnt offerings and sacrifices. 

However, Jesus does not tell this man, "You are thriving within the kingdom of God." He tells him he's close. 

How can this be? How can someone identify the very simple priorities of Jesus, and yet only be "close"? 

Well, most of us can probably relate, and would probably say it's...complicated.

These simple things are often simply too complicated for our lives, aren't they? Or, if we are to be honest with ourselves, our lives are simply too complicated for these simple things.

Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind and with all your strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

What needs to give, what needs to be diminished, what needs to go away, to give these simple priorities the time, space, soil, sunshine and rain they need to flourish and fill us up?

Jesus doesn't think it's complicated.