Just Wondering

Early in the summer, I was camping in the southern Utah town of Cedar City. After a day of hiking and then napping by the pool at the campground, I ventured out for a short run about town.

Heading south down the main street, from the northern end of town, I came upon a picturesque cemetery. The tall trees, in an otherwise high desert setting, cast shade about the thick, neatly trimmed grass, made a brilliant green by the slant of the evening sun, and upon the roads leading into the cemetery, vacant on this late Sunday afternoon, inviting me in.

At first I focused on my running, feeling fortunate for the quiet roads and cooler venue. Out of respect, I ran as lightly as I could, placing each step without sound upon the pavement. Is this irreverent? I wondered. I’ve run alongside my hometown cemetery, but never through it.

But soon my attention was on the headstones.

There was something perplexing about them. Each marker seemed recently placed – clean and gleaming like new countertops, all with what appeared to be freshly incised lettering. A newer section of the cemetery, I thought, but, with the inscriptions so sharp and mysteriously not timeworn, I could see, easily, that they were diversely aged, many having been situated there more than 50 years.

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How has time not permanently dusted and dulled these markers? Why are the loving inscriptions and vital statistics not worn down, lost to those looking upon them now for the first time? My wondering continued as I ran.

And the decorations! The sites, nearly every one, were adorned with bright bouquets, crisp and new, like the headstones themselves. Deep reds, not one bit faded from the hot western sun, and yellows vibrant as if they had just popped that morning. I saw balloons, aloft of the markers, not drooping in the least, seemingly placed just moments before I arrived. Hats, flags, garden decor. All tidy. Colorful. Nothing out of place. Every grave looking as if it had been attended to that day.

How is this possible? I wondered, looking around, searching for someone, anyone, to inquire if they were noticing what I was noticing, to ask if they knew the secret of this place. It would make sense if it was just past Memorial Day, but the holiday formerly known as Decoration Day was two weeks gone. No one else. No one there to wonder with.

I thought of my running friend, how we’d discuss this if she was here. And my hiking partner; he’d enjoy contemplating these things with me. But mostly I thought of my mom. I remember visiting with her live-in partner one day, remember him saying something about how my mom never says, “I don’t know.” He said that when he asks her a question and she doesn’t know the answer she won’t say, “I don’t know.” She’ll muse about it, toss out some ideas, ask him what he thinks. He didn’t seem to understand why she would do that, why she wouldn’t just say, “I don’t know.”

“Is that bad?” I asked him. “Because I do that, too!” I visualized doing this with my mom; yes, we definitely had thought, together, about things we weren’t sure about, exchanged ideas, furthered our thinking, and often come up with answers or explanations that we wouldn’t have, had we not gone through the process of wondering, together.

I needed my mom, a friend, information about this cemetery, Google, anyone.

After running crisscross up and down all the paved roads in the cemetery, I came upon a newer section toward the back. Here, the roads were gravel. Here, there were no trees, none casting shade anyway. But the markers themselves looked the same–new, recently etched, smartly adorned. An American flag, not faded in the least, flapped in the wind, wind not previously perceived in the more protected confines of the cemetery.

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I ran on.

Now I came upon a small dirt area, red dirt, typical of the southwest. Short sticks and rocks marked the burial sites, presumably those of pets. Twenty graves perhaps. Why just 20? Just 20 beloved pets lost over all these years? Perhaps the pet cemetery concept hadn’t taken off or the idea ruled against. A few weeds grew here. Why are there weeds here and nowhere else? Why haven’t they been pulled?

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Oh, to mull these thoughts over with someone.

Not far from the pet cemetery, I came upon an information board and a map explaining the layout of the cemetery. A bit of information to shape my pondering.

CCC6

What? Not a pet cemetery, but an Indian burial area. More questions. Why just 20 or so Indians? Maybe shortly after Indians were permitted (or chose) to be buried here, they were included in the regular sections, treated equally, with grass instead of weeds, proper markers rather than sticks and stones.

I went back to the little dirt area. Took a closer look. Noticed an etching on one of the sandstone rocks placed there. Tom somebody. This rudimentary carving was not sharp, not legible, not even up close, not even later when I zoomed in on the photo. October 1947? 1941? Space for just one date. Was this the year of birth or death? Probably death. Tom. Lost. Lost to most.

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I continued on through the cemetery, taking each road one more time. Wondering about this place. Wondering about wondering. I could stop by the office the next morning. Ask some questions. Inquire. I could, upon arriving home, do some research on the Internet. Was there another cemetery in Cedar City? An older, more historic, more typical one? Where were most Indians buried, back then and now, too?

No, forget it. I wasn’t going to. To leave here just wondering, that’s what I decided to do.

I recall mentioning to my aunt the conversation I had had about my mother and her wondering, her thinking aloud, her expecting others to build upon her thoughts, her using this approach to try to come to some understanding, some conclusions. I recall my aunt saying, “I didn’t have a mother who wondered. I had a mother who said, ‘I don’t know.’ It was the more appropriate thing to do in her time.” And then, “I missed out on a lot of conversations.”

So here’s to the power of wondering, to thinking aloud. And here’s to my mother for engaging in this behavior, drawing me in, teaching me to wonder, to just wonder.

Assignment: Today (7/14/14)

I realized later that I hadn’t seen the whole post, the entire paragraph. There was a quote, then a line space, and at the bottom…

Assignment:  Today

I love the assignment part I commented on the post, thinking the assignment was one word, to focus on today, to make the most of it.

The person commented back that I could download the app and it would give me a new assignment every day. I took a closer look and saw that the word today was only the first word in a multi-sentence assignment. I wasn’t interested in the entire description of the assignment (hardly read it) or the app, particularly. I had already decided that my assignment was today. Just today.

Today. An optimistic word full of promise. Today. A fleeting notion. Today. Something that definitely needs to be grabbed onto and made the most of.

This wasn’t a new revelation for me, this embracing of the gift of a day. It just reiterated for me how I shouldn’t waste precious time, moments, or–the worst–an entire day.

Earlier that morning, I went hiking with a friend and she told she was thinking about doing a sprint triathlon coming up in September. “I just need to commit. Commit to the training,” she bemoaned.

“I’ll do it with you,” I said. I spit it out, before I could think about it, before I could tell myself no. “I’ll train with you.”

“Really? You will?” she asked, stopping in the trail, ahead of me, and turning back to look at me.

“Yes.” It wouldn’t be my first tri. I’ve done several since I started running about six years ago. Most triathletes have to conquer the swimming portion of a triathlon, already being capable enough of the running and the biking. For me, the swimming is the easiest part and the pedaling isn’t so hard either; it’s the running that kills me. I am a slow runner. And I’m especially slow after swimming, riding my bike, and then attempting to run.

I’d pretty much written off any more triathlons and any serious running training as well, for that matter. In fact, I had just recently decided that I was only going to run, ever again, if I felt like it. I wasn’t going to push myself. I love exercise and I do all sorts of it and I figured it was no big deal if I ever ran again. I wasn’t that good at it anyway, even back a few years ago when I was running a lot.

But, there is this secret inner part of me that still wants to be a runner, that wants to be stronger, that wants to lose the 15 pounds I’ve gained since I quit running on a regular basis. And that secret inner longing was probably what made me spew the words “I’ll do it with you” before my brain could really think about it and override the pact I was about to make.

My friend and I hiked to the high point on the trail–Eagle Wing–where we finalized the commitment to train together and took our official commitment selfie.

Mary Jo and Me

On the way down, we made a training schedule. We decided which mornings we would swim, when we would run trails, and that we’d have to squeeze biking into evenings and weekends.

From now on, starting today, I am in training. I will write a weekly training plan and try to stick with it, taking it one day at a time, focusing on today, doing my best, and then moving on to the next day.

I must admit I’m excited. I didn’t want to be done being a runner (slow as I am, a runner who runs on a fairly regular basis, runs a few races here and there, and enjoys the benefits of a leaner and stronger body) but I was definitely in a slump and developing a negative mindset, thinking I was too old to run and that I was never meant to run anyway.

But today is a new day. And I’ve got a new challenge and a new focus.

Assignment:  Today.

 

Quick Question

Is anyone out there who never had trouble with spam comments now having to deal with them? That is all I am getting and it’s really annoying.

Also, I put up a new post a few days ago, got a few legitimate comments, and now the post is completely gone. At first I thought, “Well, maybe I didn’t really post it. Maybe I imagined it in my Reader.” But, the comments are there in my notifications.

Weird stuff. And it’s really turning me off from blogging. Any similar stories? Ideas?

Thanks, WordPress community!

Manikin Panickin’

“Mom, I got VATted today,” Amy said as she came through the front door. Neither success or defeat was conveyed.

“Oh yeah, how’d it go?” She had told me about some of the other lifeguards getting VATted so I knew what she was talking about.

“I failed. Big time. It was so embarrassing.”

She had been through a weekend of rigorous lifeguard training two months prior and was required to get a certain number of inservice hours each month to ensure her training remained fresh and up-to-date. In addition, she, and the other guards, would occasionally be VATted. This, her first time to experience it, was during her second full week of guarding.

“I was guarding the deep end and there were only three people using it. I knew where they all were and none of them were in the water. One was standing on the edge, one was talking to her friend by the hot tub, and the other was walking to the diving board.” Having been to this pool several times, I pictured the scene in my mind. “So, I’m just standing there, keeping an eye on these people, and this little boy comes up behind me and taps on me. Tap, tap, tap. I look down. He’s about six. He says, ‘That man over there threw a baby doll in the water. Aren’t you supposed to get it?’

“OMG,” I said, knowing how she must have felt. To have a little kid see the baby doll go in, to have him know that she’s getting tested, to have him come and tell her she might just want to rescue it.

“Yeah. So, I only have 20 seconds to get the manikin to the surface. It’d probably been down there for over a minute already. Maybe two. So I jump in and go down for it. And I didn’t have enough air. I couldn’t get it. I had to resurface and try again. And that little kid watched me the whole time. Probably the whole place did.”

“I’m sorry, honey.” I thought back to her training stories. She had brought up real live grown men who were hanging out on the bottom of the pool, waiting to be “rescued.” So I knew she could bring the baby up, that she had the skills to do it.

“So what happens if you fail a VAT?” I asked. I invested nearly $400 for her to become a lifeguard, from the training course to the red lifeguard suits and shorts and guard t-shirts and then the expensive Chaco sandals that would provide enough support for standing all day and wouldn’t fall off when she jumped in for a rescue. I hoped she wouldn’t be fired. More important, though, I didn’t want her to fail, to think she wasn’t competent enough. This was her first real job. It demanded a lot of responsibility for a 15-year-old, but I knew she could do it.

I thought back to my lifeguarding days. I remember taking a course that was several weeks long, but after passing that and getting hired by the city where I grew up, I had no further training. And I lifeguarded for three summers.

“Since I didn’t pass, I’ll get VATted a lot over the next two weeks. And if I continue to fail, I’ll get fired.”

“Oh, I think you’ll do okay the next time it happens. You’ll be ready.”

“Me, too.” Now she sounded confident. “I learned a lot today. I’m kind of glad it happened the way it did because I realize I wasn’t scanning the bottom. We were trained to scan the bottom, kind of like scanning your mirrors in driver’s ed. We’re supposed to do it on a schedule. And I wasn’t doing that. I didn’t think it was necessary since I knew where my three people were. But now I know. I have to do it all the time.”

I loved what I was hearing–not only that she realized the VAT was a good learning experience, but she already knew what to take away from it.

Several weeks later, I had my own experience with the VAT manikin. I was swimming laps at the outdoor pool. The big, busy outdoor pool. The lap lanes are in the center of the pool, a calm, quiet oasis between the crowded shallow part of the pool and the hectic deep end with the diving boards. No one who isn’t swimming laps is supposed to be in the lap lanes and no one’s supposed to cut across them to get from one end of the pool to the next.

I was in the far lane, the one next to the deep end. Whenever I front crawled in this lane, I could see how the bottom of the pool dropped off, right under the rope, sloping from about five feet deep beneath me to twelve under the diving boards. At the end of the lane was a lifeguard stand. When I’d stop swimming to take a breather, I’d nonchalantly check out the guard there, to see how engaged he or she was, to see if I could notice elements of the training that my daughter had told me about.

Sometimes the guards used the stand, sometimes they didn’t and instead stood on the edge, or paced back and forth, moving, watching, scanning.

As I approached the wall, doing breast stroke, on the day I think of as my VAT day, I could see the red of a lifeguard standing near the edge of the pool, a watery figure through my goggles as I lifted my head to breathe. Two quick reports of the whistle, the leaping figure, and the giant splash not five feet from me seemed to happen simultaneously, the wake pushing me sideways, even with the rope there to squelch it, and I knew instantaneously what all of this was about.

The lifeguard had jumped in to save someone!

I took one more stroke and was at the wall, turning my body back and toward the deep end. What was going on? I shoved my goggles up on my cap to get a clearer picture.

But I could see no commotion. No victim. All I saw was the guard, a girl, holding her sunglasses in one hand, the rescue tube in the other. She was treading water, looking at nothing in particular, not for a person in distress or at the bottom of the pool. And she was smiling.

Smiling?

Something was wrong with her. She wasn’t thinking straight. She wasn’t rescuing the victim. She had given up and she was just treading water and… smiling.

Some sort of instinct kicked in in me. My old lifeguarding instinct. My mommy instinct. My teacher instinct. My adult instinct. So much experience, so many instincts, all raring to go. I knew I could help. Plus, I had my goggles! I’d be able to see the entire bottom of the pool!

I pulled the goggles back down over my eyes. And then… then I hesitated.

Maybe I shouldn’t interfere. I didn’t work here. My training was decades old. I could, possibly, make the situation worse.

And then it hit me, why the guard wasn’t trying, and why she was smiling. Why she thought this whole thing was funny.

Her twenty seconds were up.

She had failed. She knew it. And there was nothing to do now but smile and handle it graciously while the crowd looked on.

When I figured it out, I smiled, too. Smiled that I was all raring to save someone.

It was almost a year later, just a few days ago actually, that I went to swim laps at the indoor pool. My daughter was working. Guarding. I watched her for a few minutes. Pacing the edge, scanning, guarding. Really guarding. She was no longer a rookie. She looked good. Impressive. Serious. Professional.

On my way out, in the lobby, I saw this sign explaining about the VAT (Vigilance Awareness Training) manikin. Oh, so that’s what VAT stands for, I thought. The sign was large and it explained why the VAT doll was used, but it was in a corner where, I think, most patrons probably don’t see it.

To me, people need to be told as they enter the pool, need to be made aware, somehow, that the baby doll manikin might be in use. To see someone toss a baby into the deep end or to watch as a guard either does or does not bring the tiny victim up, could result in a brief episode–as it did me–of manikin panickin’!

VAT

 

Breaking Night – A Book Sampling

BreakBreaking Nighting Night by Liz Murray. Fiction.

This is a memoir of survival and forgiveness and journeying from homeless to Harvard.

It is remarkable what some children live through. Lizzy grew up in the Bronx and somehow survived her parents’ drug addiction and what that meant for her – being a caretaker at a young age, constantly being dirty and hungry, and being teased at school about her lice-infested hair. Her family fell apart when she was 13 and she dropped out of school and lived on the streets. It is a miracle she was not raped or mugged or anything worse as she slept at various friends’ houses, in cheap motels and stair landings, and on the subway and rooftops.

The story is quite detailed, almost day-to-day, from preschool to age 20 or so. It provides a good picture of the life of a “clean” homeless teen. Most of the writing is straightforward and not lyrical and flowery. A few passages, toward the end of the story, especially, stuck with me.

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I was inspired by a question that kept repeating itself in my mind:  Could I really change my life? I’d spent so many days, weeks, months, and years thinking about doing things with my life, and now I wanted to know, if I committed to a goal and woke up every single day working at it, could I change my life?

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I had to study while also learning how to study. I wrote an essay… while learning about essay writing, and while learning how to type, all at once. I did so by tapping a single button at a time, frustrating myself with countless mistakes, messing up and starting again and again and again.

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This was the environment in which I finally came to my education, the environment in which I knew I could no longer lie in bed and give up. How could I pull the blanket back over my head when I knew my teachers were waiting for me? When they were willing to work so hard, how could I not do the same?

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It’s not that I never stole again, because truthfully, I did. But that day was the beginning of my never stealing again, and it was the start of a long process of me understanding that I was not, in fact, an island unto myself.

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This author, the person who really lived this life, seems to have no regrets. She’s forgiven her parents, holds no ill will for her neighborhood and how she grew up, and realizes in hindsight that most of her teachers were there for her, in some way or another or often in many ways. She shows us a plane of America with which most readers won’t be familiar, not just the horrible aspects of it, but the good as well.

 

Building Capacity

No, this post is not about how many people are legally allowed in a given space as determined by floor space, number of doors, and room configuration.

This post is about human capacity–the human potential–of each person within an organization. The notion of building capacity and its partner, sustainability, were introduced to me at the Tointon School and Teacher Leadership Academy, which I recently attended in Vail, Colorado.

There was not a particular presentation or session about building capacity; rather, the idea of building human potential, along with sustaining it and, hopefully, its accompanying positive results, was alluded to throughout the three days by every speaker. No single presenter stood up and told us what building capacity meant; I just had to keep inferring and refining my understanding of it as we progressed through the hours and days of learning to cultivate this in our school.

And so here I am trying to write about it, to help me solidify my understanding of this concept of building capacity.

To me, capacity is that which a human being has the potential to become, in the area of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and techniques. Building capacity is about changing, about becoming more, about distinguishing a fixed mindset and nurturing a growth mindset. Capacity can happen accidentally; but, when it is done by design–by intentionally putting into place a culture and supporting structures– it can flourish more readily and within and across a greater number of individuals. I think you’ll agree that capacity is limitless, that it is interminable.

Less concrete, but equally critical human capacities, include self-awareness, attitudes, purpose, ethics, and world views. There is also the larger collective capacity of any organization.

Perhaps the most fascinating strategy that stuck with me is asking questions rather than providing answers. If a teacher inquires about something, a school leader might ask several questions of her in return, to get her ideas and opinions, to build upon what she thinks. Then, if necessary, the leader may contribute her own perspective (note that it is not her opinion or her answer), intentionally implying that she does not have all the answers.

Likewise, the same technique can be used with students. If a student asks a question, the teacher responds by encouraging the student to talk more and formulate a response. This approach builds capacity in all members of an organization by making them feel respected and equally important and valuable.

Having permission to be innovative and autonomous – to work with purpose – also builds capacity by unleashing human potential. Teachers need opportunities for instructional inquiry (what effect will it have on achievement if I change this or implement that?) so they can improve their instructional practice.

Educators need plenty of opportunity for self-reflection as well as the time and expectation to reflect upon their teaching. Collaboration and peer coaching are highly effective means of building capacity. Teachers should know their own strengths and potential areas for growth. The latter–potential areas for growth–should not be seen as a weakness but instead as an opportunity to not only develop capacity but to experience the process and thrill of building capacity. Again, this is true with students as well.

It will probably come as no surprise that when I Googled building capacity, I came upon capacity building in nonprofit organizations and non-government organizations, capacity building in communities, how it’s defined and used in substance abuse prevention programs, and a whole host of other applications. Because trust and collaboration are two of its biggest pillars, capacity building has me thinking not only of my professional relationships and the relationships I have with students, but of my various personal relationships, too, and what I can do differently to give the gift of capacity to the people in my life.

I think you’ll agree that being mindful of capacity, and how it is developed, and how we, as individuals, can be instrumental in building it in others, is quite powerful. What have you heard of building capacity or, now that you know what it is, what does it have you thinking about?

 

Building Capacity

I must give credit to the 2014 Tointon: Institute for Educational Change for providing the opportunity for me and the rest of the leadership team at the school at which I teach, as well as the leadership teams of 11 other Colorado schools, to participate in the 2014 School and Teacher Leadership Academy. Bob and Betty Tointon donated an initial $3,000,000 to start the institute and an additional 25 other individuals and organizations complemented that with gifts of at least $250,000. It warms my heart to know that someone out there, a whole lot of someones, really do care about education.

From the Tointon webpage: “The Tointon Institute seeks to create effective schools through effective leadership at all levels.  Our program gives school leaders additional leadership skills to function successfully in a rapidly changing school environment while also giving them the opportunity to work with other colleagues and to gain from their experiences and expertise.  All Tointon academies provide participants with an academic and stimulating learning environment where they can reflect on their current contexts, move leadership decisions to a more conscious level and focus actions and strategies on critical issues related to school effectiveness and ultimately, to increased student achievement.  Finally, the Tointon Institute for Educational Change develops a formal and informal state networking apparatus for school leaders that has and continues to foster a sustained exchange of ideas as well as a forum in which to explore the dilemmas facing today’s school leaders.

The Road – A Book Sampling

The Road

The Road by Cormac  McCarthy. Fiction.

This is a postapocalyptic love story between a father and his son. The two walk alone through a burned-up America, always on the lookout and hiding from the bad people, the people who eat other humans because everyone is starving.

The story is written quite simply, with minimal conversation, so minimal that no quotations marks are needed. But each spoken word holds great import.

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Will you tell him goodbye?

No. I will not.

Just wait till morning. Please.

I have to go. She had already stood up.

For the love of God, woman. What am I to tell him?

I can’t help you.

Where are you going to go? You can’t even see.

I don’t have to.

He stood up. I’m begging you, he said.

No. I will not. I cannot.

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The boy stood up and got his broom and put it over his shoulder. He looked at his father. What are our long term goals? he said.

What?

Our long term goals.

Where did you hear that?

I don’t know.

No. Where did you?

You said it.

When?

A long time ago.

What was the answer?

I don’t know.

Well. I don’t either. Come on. It’s getting dark.

——————–

When he woke the fire had burned down and it was very cold. The boy was sitting up wrapped in his blanket.

What is it?

Nothing. I had a bad dream.

What did you dream about?

Nothing.

Are you okay?

No.

He put his arms around him and held him. It’s okay, he said.

I was crying. But you didn’t wake up.

I’m sorry. I was just so tired.

I meant in the dream.

——————–

Scene after scene in this book is the same. Walking down the road, looking for something–anything save other human beings–to eat. Trying to stay warm. Dry. Hidden. Always on the move. The relationship between father and son the only hope in the novel, the only thing keeping either of them from lying down to just die. The story is despairing, tragic, hopeless, haunting, yet impossible to stop reading. What will become of these two good souls left to survive in a now horrible world?

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