Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Beaten-Up Book

Let me be a book you can't give away,

Marked up from saying things that meant something to you,

Carried everywhere you went for a season,

Pulled in and out of your bag a thousand times,

Wet from the beach,

Wrinkled from the sun drying me out,

Sand somehow still stuck inside,

Reminding you of good things, giving you hope and an advance on sweet memories to come,

Making you glad you really knew me, and didn't just download the Kindle version.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Running from Nothing

"What's the worst that could happen?"

When's the last time you asked this?

For me, this is how I wrestle with a decision of whether to do something risky, or a challenge to convince someone else that a risk is worth taking.

But after reading this story, and dwelling on our new American normal of constant fear of violent death, this question is starting to mean something else. It's hard to fathom a stampede of terrified people trampling an old couple in mass desperation to get away from...nothing.

Yes, it's easy for me to say. No, I wasn't there. No, I didn't hear the noise or the rumors of a shooter. No, I can't say for sure how I would have reacted.

But...really?

This is what we have become?

Are we really so afraid of losing this earthly life?

Is a violent death really the worst thing that could happen to us? Falling from a cliff? Going down in a plane crash? Drowning? Being burned alive? Buried alive? Being beheaded with a knife by a jihadi? Shot by a sagging-britches gang member who was aiming for someone else? Caught without your trusty gun, and choked to death by an intruder?

Losing your loved ones to such horrors?

Public humiliation, career suicide, financial ruin? Dire illness, betrayal?

Being stripped of everything we hold dear in this life?

What do you really consider to be the worst thing that could ever happen to you?

And when was the last time you considered these words:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or sword? Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

How easy is it to read these words and still never consider actually facing the painful fates listed by Paul, who knew suffering better than we ever will? How easy is it to forget that many of our ancestors in the faith have met a dreadful end to this earthly life? (Hebrews 11:35-38)

Pain, suffering, tragedy, injustice, and terror are not the worst things that could ever happen to you.

The worst thing that could ever happen to you would be to live this life apart from Christ, grasping hold of this vapor like it's all you'll ever have, clawing back at everything that hurts or scares you, and then dying anyway, only to have Jesus tell you He never knew you.

No, your time on earth is not a cheap thing to be foolishly risked or thrown away for no reason. But it's also not the whole story.

Don't spend it running from nothing.

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.