My dad

phd planIn looking at this cartoon about Ph.D. plan vs. Ph.D. reality, I can probably label each one of those bumps along the road. One might be when I started my new job. One might be my divorce. Another one might be for the medical challenges I faced. But that last one, that big one toward the end, I know exactly what that one is. That one is from last fall, when my dad got sick.

Just before school started I took the day off to go with my parents to see my dad’s orthopedic surgeon. He was supposed to have shoulder replacement surgery, but when they did the MRI, they found something suspicious. The appointment was to determine if he could have surgery or if he had cancer.

He had cancer.

The roller coaster began. It was doctors’ appointments, biopsies, and tests, tests and more tests. I sat with my dad as he staunchly told the nurse he had a DNR. I waited for him as he struggled to breath walking down the hallway, but too proud and stubborn to accept a ride in a wheelchair. I smiled and joked with him trying to help him keep his dignity as I undressed him because he couldn’t do it himself. I listened to what the doctor said. I asked questions. I tried to help my parents understand. i tried to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Then one Friday morning when I was at work, my mom called. Dad had fallen down in the bathroom and they were rushing him to the hospital. I left work. Raced home. Packed a bag. And went to him. I stayed with him in the hospital. They were trying to determine the primary source of the cancer. They were trying to determine how to treat it. They were trying to determine if they could treat it.

They couldn’t.

The next month was crazy. He went from the hospital to a nursing home where we struggled as a family to decide the best course of action, or inaction.

All the while, I brought my laptop and worked on my dissertation. I spent hours at night at the hospital or the nursing home sitting with my dad and typing away. He knew that I was close to finishing my dissertation and he was so proud of me. He had done all of his course work for his Ph.D. but never did the dissertation. I was the first in my family to finish.

At first I worked hard because I thought I could finish it while he was still alive and he could see me graduate. But then I knew he wasn’t going to make it until the spring and I was doubly determined to finish it for him.

Writing was kind of a companion for me late at night. I like to think that while the beeping of the machines he was on kept me company, the clicking of the keys while I typed kept him company. He knew I was there.

At the end of October, just about two months after we found out he had cancer, we brought him home to say good-bye. As he was so fond of saying in the last weeks of his life, he wanted to die surrounded by his loving family, and he did.

I was there with him. We had all been there with him at the end. His loving wife. All six of his children and their spouses. All thirteen of his grandchildren and their significant others, and both of his great grandsons.

But his reach went far beyond his family.

He was a coach. He coached baseball and basketball right up until the month before he got sick. He coached hundreds of kids over the 40+ years he coached. But he didn’t just influence the kids he coached; he changed everyone he came in contact with. Opposing coaches and opposing teams came to his wake to tell us how he impacted their lives through the strength of his character. His entire baseball team, in their uniforms came to the funeral to stand proud for him.

Everyone was special and important to him. He always took the time to talk to anyone he met. As a kid, it drove me crazy that he talked to anyone and everyone, but now it makes me proud to realize the impact he had on people’s lives because he took the time to talk to them. I try to be more like him each day.

I miss him everyday. We all do. I will miss him even more tomorrow, when I walk across the stage and get hooded as the first doctor in my family and he isn’t there to hold me in his arms and tell me he’s proud of me. But he will be there with me in spirit. He will be there in the tears I cry, the shouts of joy, and the sense of pride and accomplishment.

I love you dad. This moment is dedicated to you.

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The other side…

On what should have been the first day of summer vacation I attended the funeral for a 13-year-old little girl. It was for a young girl in a neighboring community.

It wasn’t a student I knew personally, but through her I could see and feel the sorrow of hundreds of middle school children who suffer and are sad. They just can’t see beyond the hurt of today.

I wish she could have seen the church today. Full, no overflowing, with people there to love and remember her. I wish she could have felt the love for her in that church.

It breaks my heart to see so many students and teachers on what should have been the first day of summer, saying good-bye to a classmate.

But the saddest part of today is that she couldn’t see beyond her current pain to get help, reach out, or to understand that it will get better.

Every day I work with children and families to try to help them through the middle school years. I don’t have any secrets or magic answers, but I always try to give the kids some perspective and tell them that it does get better.

Adolescence is hard. It was hard when we were kids, but the challenges and pressures that these kids face are so much harder. The media certainly doesn’t help. Nor does the constant access to peers, friends, and total strangers who are all trying to convince them of something different.

teen species

It takes a very strong teenager to stand up to the hype, and not many of them can do that on their own. Then with 2 parents working, or only 1 parent at home and working, the challenges are compounded. The support system is flawed at best and non-existent at worst.

Life is hard. But to all those adolescents out there, it does get better. You will have to work at it to make it better. Surround yourself with people who build you up and care about you. Find activities that make you feel good about yourself. Stand up for yourself and for what you believe in. Be gentle with yourself, mistakes happen, learn from them. And when it feels like you can’t go on, find someone to talk to. When it feels like you are all alone, don’t be. Reach out to someone. There are people out there who care about you. There are people who understand what you are going through, and have made it to the other side.

Starfish

There is a poem about a man walking down the beach throwing individual starfish back into the ocean. A stranger happens upon him and asks him what he’s doing. He says that the starfish will die if left in the sun to dry out so he’s throwing them back. The stranger looks around at the thousands of starfish on the beach and asks what difference it makes, there are too many to save them all. The man picks up a starfish and throws it back in and says, “I made a difference to that one.”

starfish

As a middle school principal I sometimes feel like I’m surrounded by starfish.

Sometimes it is my teachers, who come into my office, shut the door and share with me something that is happening in their life. Whether it’s a divorce, a death in the family, the illness of a family member or themselves, I hold each of these teachers as they share their lives with me. And I try to make a difference to them.

Sometimes it is parents who come to me and tell me the family issues that they are dealing with. The stories of their life that make it a challenge for their child to focus in school. I try to listen to them and help them with their challenges, even if those challenges are the school itself. I try to make a difference with them.

And sometimes it is the students who share their personal struggles. Sometimes they are in tears because of a bad grade in math, and sometimes it is because of the horror they face when they go home. But whatever it is, I try to give them perspective, time, a shoulder to lean on, and in the end I try to make a difference.

Sometimes it can be overwhelming the number of “starfish” out there. I try my best to save each one. But sometimes you can’t save them all.

I have a high school student who has recently made some very poor choices. She did things that she will have to live with the consequences of for the rest of her life. So of course I am trying to figure out why I couldn’t make a difference to her? What could I have done to help her from making those bad decisions? Why didn’t she feel like she could reach out to me, or someone else, to help her? What did I miss?

I know I can’t always save them all. But I will continue to try.

Authority

What is authority and how is it given? Is it conferred with a degree? Granted with certification? Is it an advanced degree, or a title, or a position that determines authority?

I have several degrees, more than a couple certifications, and I have been given the title of principal of a middle school. But with what kind of authority do I have to lead my teachers, my students or my school?

I will admit I am a rule follower and for the majority of my life I didn’t really question authority. I did what was asked of me because a person in authority asked me to do it, and I didn’t really question that.

But now I find myself in an interesting position. I am in a position of authority, but there are also others who have authority over me. I am constantly making decisions based on interactions with others who have authority over me that also influence my interactions those whom I have authority over.

I argue that authority isn’t something that should simply be given or granted, but rather it is something that should be earned. Authority isn’t a power or a right, but instead it is earned because of your experience, and more importantly, your actions.

A quote from something we read in church today challenges us to:

Live honestly, act courageously and to speak from our wisdom.

Maybe that is what authority is all about.

If we can live honestly, anticipate honesty from others, and make honest decisions about why we do things then I think we gain the power and confidence to exercise authority over others.

Authority is also about acting courageously and making difficult decisions. People in authority need to be strong enough to make difficult decisions, and honest enough to defend why they made those decisions.

Finally authority comes from speaking from wisdom, our individual, personal wisdom as well as the collective wisdom of those whom we exercise authority over.

I question these traits in the people who have authority over me.

Are they being honest? Are their intentions explicit and straightforward?

Are they acting courageously? Are they willing to make and defend difficult decisions? Are they willing to say no to something that isn’t right? And say yes to something that isn’t easy?

Are they speaking from wisdom, both personal and collective?

And am I doing these things as well?

My teachers should expect honesty in their interactions with me. I try my best to make my intentions honest and straightforward.

I try to act courageously in all things I do. I challenge the status quo when need be. And I push for the difficult things that I think are important.authority

And I spend a great deal of time trying to learn the collective wisdom of my school and speak from that wisdom as my own.

When we listen, care, and respect those whom we have authority over, trust is built, and trust is the foundation for inspiring others to believe in you, and that is when real authority is developed.

Experiences

A recent blog post suggestion asked what would your present self tell your 10 years ago self. 10 years is an interesting timeframe for me as I am 1 year out of a 10-year long marriage. As I look back on the past 10 years, actually on the past 20 years, I would have liked to have been able to spare myself some of the heart ache and pain. I would have liked to tell myself to be smarter and not get involved with this man, or that man. But in the end, who I am today has been shaped by each choice and each decision that I have made. Who I am and where I am is because of the events that have happened in my life. Hopefully some of the wisdom I have gained from those experiences will help me to help others.

Over the past few weeks I have talking to 13-year-old girl about a horrible event that happened to her. She had a bad start to the school year and was acting in a way that I thought was out of character for her. She was being down right mean. I had a few occasions to talk to her, and one of those times she told me in detail about the horrible thing that happened to her last year. And while I thought that no 13-year-old should ever have to go through what she endured, it started to make sense to me as to why she was so angry and mean.

A few of the things we talked about really resonated with me and made me appreciate what I have been through, if only to help this girl.

One of the things we talked about was the meanness of people. She was talking about how mad she would get when people made jokes or comments about her. Many of the kids knew generic, and often incorrect, information about what happened to her, so when they made comments or did things, she overreacted to them because it was so raw and painful. She said to me, “Ms. S. you can’t tell me that when someone is talking about you, you are just going to sit there and take it. You get mad and want to get back at them.”

I told her that people could be mean at any age.

At the end of last year I told my teachers that I would be going back to using my maiden name. I wanted to be sure they knew so that they were not surprised when emails started coming from me with my new last name. Most of the teachers don’t know the details of my divorce, nor do they need to. But I happened to overhear two of them talking about me, snidely commenting on me being divorced, again. It hurt. I didn’t like what they were saying. I didn’t like the judgment they were passing on me because it was such a raw and painful experience for me.

When I told her this story she said, “You could fire them.” I laughed, not for that. But I did still have to work with these teachers professionally. So we talked about taking the high road and knowing that my real friends understood and were there to support me. I also admitted to her that it did hurt. I didn’t like people talking about me. I didn’t like people judging me. But what was more important than what they said and that they were talking about me, was my reaction to them. I couldn’t control them. I could only control me and my reaction to them.

After one of our conversations she told her mom that she told me the whole story. She told her mom that after we talked she felt “lighter.” One of the things I tried to stress to her was that she was not alone. While most other 13-year-olds would not understand or be able to relate to what she had been through, I tried to assure her that she isn’t alone.

She told me later that when I shared with her some of my experiences she felt better. She said it helped to know that someone else understood what she was feeling and that she isn’t alone. I have noticed that she does look lighter. I’ve seen her smile more. I’ve seen her be a little kid again talking about silly junior high stuff. And I’ve seen her smile at me with a warmth that comes from knowing that someone else gets it.

She has talked about moving to a different school next year and I cautioned her that running away isn’t the answer. It might seem easier at times, but this isn’t something to outrun, but rather something to outlive. I encouraged her to think about what would be best for her. And in the end, she has to make decisions for her future, not simply to escape her past.

It’s easy to run. It’s easy to get mad. It’s easy to act like you don’t care. But in the end, what happens to us shapes who we are and who we become.

I was married, and divorced, twice. I have been in abusive and controlling relationships. I have been victimized, but I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

So if everything that I have been through over the past 20 years has helped this little girl know she isn’t alone, then it is all worth it.

If I could, I would tell my younger self that you are stronger than you think and you will have to deal with a lot, but in the end you will help others.

Practice what we preach

I work with middle school students all day long. I spend a lot of time trying to help them to deal with and navigate social situations, especially bullying and cyber bullying. You would like to think I don’t have to deal with adult bullying in my life, and sometimes it is harder to recognize, but that is exactly what my ex-husband is – a bully.

Don’t react – or at least don’t let them see you react

I tell my students that the bully likes the reaction. They thrive on upsetting their victim and seeing the reaction. In junior high one of the hardest things is that the friendships twist and turn so much that the “best of friends” one week are the one who are tormenting each other the next week.

The bigger problem with that is they know each other’s secrets and they know how to hurt each other. It makes the betrayal sting all the more. Someone who you once trusted is now the one using those secrets against you. Which makes it even harder not to react. I often tell my students that the hurt is there and very real, but if you don’t show them that it hurt you, then you take away the power they have over you.

Unfortunately, that is the tactic my ex-husband uses. He is so used to having control over me and being able to manipulate me that he pushes those buttons, hoping they will still work. It does still upset me, but instead of showing him my reaction, I have a few friends I will often text with a random “He’s such an ass” text. They have learned that this is my release for when my ex does something that is upsetting me. I have tried my best to take away the power that he has over me, step by step. First is by not letting him see me react. Soon (I hope), he will stop being able to upset me by the things he says. I’m still working on that.

What about the bully?

But the other part of my job is that I am often in my office with that kid who is being the bully or (more recently) the “mean girl”. And when confronted, they are just scared little kids who are pushing first because they are afraid of being hurt. They will often break down in my office and tell me the terrible things happening in their lives. Sometimes they are facing inexplicable horrors in their own lives. Sometimes an adult is taking advantage of them at home. Sometimes there is no adult who seems to be paying them any attention at home, so they are taking care of younger kids. And sometimes, they just don’t know how to interact with people in a nice way, so they do so in a mean way.

I have tried to remember this when dealing with my ex. He has spent most of his life manipulating and controlling people that he really doesn’t know how to interact in a non-confrontational way. While I can’t be the person to help him learn this skill in his life as I might try to do with my students, I can at least try to understand why he does what he does. He has lost power and control over me and so he lashes out. It doesn’t make it easier when he pushes my buttons, but it does help me later on when I stop and think about what he has in his life and what I have.

Taking back the power

One of the things I struggle with my students with is encouraging them to take back the power from the bully. There were several students being picked on by the same student. I tried to encourage them to realize that they are more powerful as a whole than the kid picking on them. It’s a tough lesson to learn and hard for middle school kids to stand up to someone they perceive as having more power then them. In working with my support staff and teachers, we are trying to show these kids they are the ones who have the power.

And that is what I did a year and a half ago, the first time I told my ex-husband “no” and stuck to it. I took back the power he had over me for years. I’m still fighting to maintain that power and control. I don’t always feel like I have any power, but I know I do. I have broken from his control and I do have the power over him that I once didn’t. I won’t let him know how much he hurts me, but I know that at the end of the day I have power over me and that’s more than he has.

STOP

How do we make it stop?

I’ve lived it. I see it. I hear about it all too often.

But I don’t know how to make it stop.

I’ve lived through two horribly abusive relationships.

I have pictures from my first marriage. I have pictures of the bruises he left behind. I have pictures of the hole he punched in the wall an inch from my infant son’s head. I have pictures of the welts left on my arm from where he shoved me up against the wooden edge of the bed. I have pictures of an actual footprint on my leg where he kicked me. The physical bruises heal. The emotional scars don’t.

When people saw the bruises they felt bad. They said it was awful. They understood why I left. Physical abuse is horrible to live through. It is terrifying. It is debilitating. It is demoralizing. But in some ways it is easier than emotional abuse, because it can be seen. It can be defined. And it is not tolerated.

My second marriage was also abusive, but it was emotionally abusive. An emotionally abusive and controlling relationship is hard. It’s harder to identify. It’s harder to recognize. It’s harder to explain. It builds up over time. It is a series of doubts, manipulations, and incidents that sneak up on you.

It is hard to realize what is happening, identify it, name it, and get out of it. It feels weak to say, “He’s mean.” There is no bruise to say, “Look what he did.” In the end, it is the realization that it is bad, unhealthy, and wrong. I have scars from my second marriage. I have scars of fear, of self-doubt, of intimidation. I have scars from the emotional abuse.

I’ve lived through it. Both the physical and the emotional abuse. I’ve heard about it from other women. I’ve heard stories of intimidation, stalking, and manipulation. I’ve heard stores of lies, deceit, and falsehood. I’ve heard from other women who have experienced similar types of abuse. I’m surprised saddened by the sheer number of women who have experienced some type of emotional abuse.

Working in a middle school, I see it in our young girls. I’ve witnessed the terrors of young girls who are already getting themselves into abusive relationships. I’ve witnessed these girls believing it is their fault. I’ve witnessed them being taken advantage of for being kind, compassionate, and wanting to fit in. I’ve witnessed the extremes they go through to feel “loved” and “accepted.”

I see, I listen, and I cry. Sometimes with them, always after they’ve left. I cry for the innocence lost. I cry for the wanting. I cry for the pain and desperation in their eyes.

What I don’t know how to do is make it stop.

Little things

little things

A recent post from a blog I follow made me think about the little things we do for others and how big a deal those things can be.

I’m a principal of a middle school. And as much as we try to prepare the new 7th graders for middle school, it is always a challenge.

They go from an elementary school where they have two main teachers all day, are walked to all of their classes as a group, and even go to the bathroom as a class most of the time, to a middle school where they have 6 teachers throughout the course of their schedule, they have lockers (with combinations), they are responsible for walking to their classes on their own, in general they have a tremendous amount of independence that they have never had before.

Things happen and sometimes kids get lost. On the first day of school I was working with one of my 8th grade teachers to deploy iPads to students and a 7th grade student walked into his classroom by mistake.

Rather than simply tell the child they were in the wrong room and point him in the right direction, the teacher stopped what he was doing and said, “Wow, you did all the right things, and followed your schedule great. Sometimes there are mistakes and we end up in the wrong place.” Then the teacher walked with the student to the right class, never once making him feel like he had done anything wrong.

Later on, in that same teacher’s class, that same student wandered into the class asking for help. He didn’t have the teacher; he was just lost, again. Once more during the day, the student asked the same teacher for student. The student was in 7th grade and the teacher was an 8th grade teacher so the teacher never had this teacher on his schedule, yet he kept coming to this teacher for help.

During lunch on the second day of school I asked the student if he had any problems on the first day. He said he got lost a few times, but there was a history teacher who helped him.

I asked, “Was he one of your teachers?”

He replied with a grin, “No, but he was so nice to me the first time I got lost in his room, I decided that he would probably help me when I got lost again.”

And he was right. Taking the time to validate the student for trying and not making him feel bad about being lost, this teacher not only helped him find his way on the first day of school but he also helped him feel confident about asking for help.

Effort not an excuse

photoA friend of mine recently shared with me her new favorite quote “When someone truly cares about you they make an effort, not an excuse.”

This is something that I have learned a lot about over the past year. When you are going through hard times in your personal life you learn who your friends are. But I think it goes beyond just friendships. I think that this quote is also about the way in each people approach life.

I work with people all day long. I’m a principal of a middle school. I’ve been in education for a long time. I have dealt with students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff and community members. When things get tough people tend to do one of two things: they either make an excuse or they make an effort.

Those who make an excuse, tend to blame others for things that have gone wrong. They find an excuse for why it isn’t their fault. They try to place the blame on someone else, anyone else.  Quite often they try to place that blame on me for being the one who called them out on their behavior.

On the other hand, those who make an effort accept responsibility for their actions and try to figure out how to make a change. Some people, when being called out for doing something they shouldn’t, will apologize and try to learn from their actions. They make an effort to improve or change their behaviors.

I can usually tell the way in which a student will react by how their parents react when I call them. If I call a parent and they try to deflect the blame, the student will usually also try to deflect the blame and make an excuse for why their behavior is wrong. But when the parent accepts responsibility for their child and makes an effort to improve or at least address that behavior, the child will also usually make an effort to learn from it as well.

Teachers react much the same way by either making an excuse or an effort. When confronted about a situation that happened either in their classroom or with a student some teachers will make an excuse: the kids behaved differently in their class because I was in there, the students aren’t capable of doing what the we expect them to do, the parents aren’t supportive enough, I wasn’t supportive enough, and the excuses go on and on.

But other teachers reflect and think about what they can do to make things go better the next time. They make the effort. They take responsibility and want to make it better next time. I find that those teachers who take responsibility doesn’t even need me there to call them on something, they make the effort right away reflecting on what is happening in their classroom.
Clearly working with people who make an effort is easier than working with those who make excuses. In my role as an administrator I am continually put in a position where I work with people to get beyond the excuses and put forth the effort. I listen to the excuses, and then I try to help the individual get beyond those excuses and help them to see the part they played in the situation and focus on the effort they can put in to improve the situation. It is definitely a lot of work, but when you can get someone to see beyond the excuses and begin to make an effort, it is definitely worthwhile.

The importance of the words we speak

Over the past few weeks, in several different ways, the importance of what we say to others has been a recurrent theme. I’m sure if you thought about it for a few minutes, you would remember something that someone said to you that made a difference for you. Sometimes it is the compliment that someone gives you that sticks with you, but just as often, the insult or cruel comment is the one you remember most.

Last week when I was at a principal’s conference, one of the speakers talked about the way in which we, as education professionals, talk to students and how it impacts their belief about what they can do. Children are full of hopes and dreams, and sometimes the comments we make can either spark those dreams or squash them. We need to think about how we can help them to grow simply with the words we use.

 Again this week, another administrator and I were having a conversation about optimism and being positive around students. Not the kind of Pollyanna positivity that is fake, because kids can see through that. But it is also important to not be a negative Nancy where everything is a downer. It is important for us as the adults to stay positive and try our best to help support the students we work with.

Even closer to home I had a conversation with my son the other night about hurtful words that a family member said. It wasn’t so much a direct comment made to him, but it was more of a feeling he got that he disappointed them. It was a side comment that was made that was hurtful. I know and understand that feeling. We tend to be a very sarcastic family and there is a fine line between humorous and hurtful. Sometimes it is a snarky comment that goes too far.

Or sometimes it is what is left unsaid that can be hurtful. By not telling people how you really feel and what you really think, you run the risk of them not knowing. As a parent I try to tell my boys every day how much I love them. To the point where my younger son says “I know mom, you tell me all the time.” I would rather him know and be sick of hearing me say it, then him not know, or have to guess. I try to tell them when I am proud of them and when they have done something great. I also try to tell them when I am upset or hurt by something they do. I try to do that in private so as not to hurt or embarrass them.

So today I challenge you to tell your friends, family members, spouse, or someone important to you how you feel. Tell them they are important to you. Tell them you are proud of them. Tell them they are special. Tell them what they mean to you. And know that the words you speak are important to them.