It’s not distracting to me…

“Moses instructed the People of Israel in all that God commanded him. (Numbers 29:40 MSG)

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I will admit reading Numbers is hard for me, not numbers themselves, but the biblical book of Numbers. All the rules and regulations. The strict guidelines for food. The endless descriptions of the rituals for purification and sacrifice. The day, the time, the trumpet blasts for the festivals. The details are endless.

I don’t follow kosher food guidelines and I’m not very familiar with the various celebrations or the rituals. I’m slightly uncomfortable reading about the animal and blood sacrifices. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know very much about the culture of the people who were surrounding the Israelites during biblical times. I don’t always know why all of these details are important or how the Israelites could relate to them. But, nonetheless, the book of Numbers is still in the bible and I believe that God still wants us to read it and to get something from it.

I was visiting with one of my best friends recently. We both work at a school and in conversation with him and his husband we starting talking about schools, strange things that happen in schools, and the unique rules that we sometimes have. I was retelling them a story that I heard on the news about a female student at a school in Florida being sent to the office because she was not wearing a bra. The teacher deemed that her not wearing a bra was in violation of dress code because it was “distracting” to other students. In the office, the dean asked her to put on a second shirt under her sweat shirt and “move around.” At which point it was determined that her not wearing a bra did in fact violate dress code. She was sent to the nurse’s office to put bandaids over her nipples because they were found to be “distracting to others.” 1

Almost simultaneously, they looked at each other and both commented, “It’s not distracting to me.” We all giggled.

But it got me thinking about all the rules we have in schools. We have policies for everything. We have policies about dress code. We have policies about cell phones. We have policies about homework. We have policies about locker usage. We have policies about attendance. The list goes on and on. We have lots of policies. Being a middle school principal I feel like I battle the dress code policy all the time. I long for cold winter days when students are mostly bundled up, and I cringe at the first signs of spring, which inevitably bring shorter shorts and smaller tops.

We have a semi-formal dance most years and it makes me a little crazy because that is definitely a time when I am fighting dress code. There really aren’t that many dresses out there for young girls that are appropriate for that type of event. There are many different styles and what might look acceptable on one student would definitely not look the same on another student. So I fall back on the rules and say, “It must be in junior high dress code.”

A student at my school also attends my church. She had she on a beautiful dress at our confirmation ceremony a few weeks prior to the semi-formal. When I told her how pretty she looked in it she laughed a little and said she was planning to wear it to the semi-formal but needed a shawl because her shoulders were exposed. “You know how boys get with naked shoulders.” We laughed.

Our dress code rules state that straps must be three fingers wide.

Yes, I do know how crazy that sounds. Honestly, it’s even more crazy to police. I wish my dress code simply stated: dress modestly and appropriately for school. But then we get into the wild and crazy world of interpretation of what modest and appropriate are. So we fall back to straps being three fingers wide and shorts and skirts must be at or below the tip of their thumb when hands are resting by their sides. We actually even had to add to the dress code that rips in jeans must be covered if they are above the thumbs by your side rule.

It does sound crazy, even to me who has made many of these policies and has to police them as well.  But the flip side of it is that we have to make or clarify these policies because they are challenged or tested. If you think about it, why on earth would you want a hole in your jeans (I know, I could stop right there, but for some reason we pay lots of money for someone to pre-rip our jeans – nope, I just don’t get it) that is higher up on your jeans than where you thumb is when your hands are resting by your side. It does get to the point of craziness, but these policies are created for a reason. And then additionally clarified because someone challenged them.

One of the silliest rules we have at our school is that we put up a sign on doors that says: Doors open out. Yup, we actually have signs on our doors that say they open. I mean I thought that was the difference between a wall and a door, one opens, one doesn’t. But the reality is one student wasn’t paying attention to where she was going and another student was also not paying attention and rushing out a door and pushed it hard, hit the first student, and gave her a concussion. It really was bad. So the response was that we put up signs on all the doors.

Some of the crazy rules have a crazy beginning. But the fact remains that rules are there for some reason.

In the New Testament Jesus told his disciples to forgive others. Then he was asked how many times should we forgive? (Matthew 18). Jesus told the his disciples to love their neighbor. Then he was challenged, who is our neighbor? (Luke 10). When given rules we tend to push the limits and challenge the boundaries.

As I read through all of these detailed food restrictions and rituals and purifications and cleanliness and pages and pages of instructions God gives to his people through Moses, it makes me think: Why? What was happening at that time? What were the other cultures doing? What were the challenges that the people of the time were faced with? What was God trying to regulate? What rules were put in place that later had to be clarified? What challenges had to be explained?

All the details – What? When? Where? How? How long? What kind of animal? What kind of flour? Etc. – seem excessive to me in my current time and place. But then I think about the Israelites and their time and place, with the cultures and rituals surrounding them. God must have wanted to give them clear guidelines for what to do and how to do it.

Then it makes me think… what would the book of Numbers look like if it was written today?

 

1-http://www.newsweek.com/florida-student-forced-cover-distracting-nipples-band-aids-organising-882638

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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.