Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Of Legacy and Forests

As a distance runner in high school, I have many fond memories of my school and athletic facilities, especially, of course, the track. When that place was the center of my life, I assumed that the school and the track would always be there. Yet, years later, my high school sold the property and moved to a new building a couple of towns west. Because of some political wrangling, and I guess for financial reasons, the old school stood for years, empty and decaying. Visiting the old school years later when I happened to be home for a visit, I discovered that there is something sad about a boarded up school that once teemed with promise of bright futures. But it was down at the track that I first started to think about the idea of legacy.

The infield of the track, which alternated as a football and soccer field when I went to the school, was completely covered with trees; a forest had reclaimed this territory! The track resembled a lost beach road, covered in sand and aimlessly winding in circles. It seemed that everything that happened there was lost. Years after that, the school property was finally sold and today is the home of a neighborhood of upscale houses. Who will remember?

Those who were impacted by being in this place.

And that’s the point of legacy. I don’t think a plaque on a wall for one’s efforts or a name on a stadium is really a legacy. I think that a true legacy is about the long lasting impact one has had on others. In recent weeks, two of our technology leaders here at Lower Merion announced their retirements. I don’t know if there will be plaques or even a retirement dinner or two, but for me, their respective legacies will be very powerful.

Ginny DiMedio, who headed our technology efforts in the district, took a department from nothing to a powerful force in our students’ lives. She is a woman who dared to enter the halls of boys who stamp their feet, and her disinterest in power made all of the boys who embraced power a little uneasy. She supported anyone who had an idea that would improve our students’ chances of becoming critical thinkers. Surprising at it might seem because everyone in education gives lip service to the idea of getting our students to think critically, few, in my experience, have the ability or even the desire to create programs that improve such; most seem content with the “data-driven” management styles that seem to keep everyone obedient and under control. Ginny the courage to be the opposite. And she was strong enough to allow other professionals to run with ideas that brought hope to students’ lives.

Bill Dolton headed the educational integration efforts in our district. Through his creativity and desire to put technology in the hands of students in a way that meant the improvement of educational programs, Bill brought a wealth of knowledge, energy, and caring to all of the students in this district. Bill created a professional development program that put into the hands of teachers the responsibility to mentor other teachers. He asked his mentor teachers to grow professionally and provided the means for that growth; then he asked those same teachers to share with other teachers and again provided the means for that to happen. It is a unique program that other districts have copied. And as Bill retires, that program has been cut in our district.

I suspect that there will be few plaques noting the contributions of two people who thought way outside the box. That forest of power will reclaim its ground as soon as possible. And just as my old school is now a tract of McMansions, their programs might or might not survive. But one thing is for sure, many professionals will never forget, and will be forever indebted, to both Ginny and Bill. Even more powerful, thousands of students, whether they know it or not, have had their lives improved because of the efforts of these two special people. And that is the truest legacy that anyone can leave.

Good luck Ginny and Bill. Even though you did not shoot for this, you have the admiration and respect of so many people. Even though the forest might reclaim some territory, what has happened in this place will continue to live and grow well into the future.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Johnny Appleseed (Day)

I remember when I was in elementary school and we celebrated days like Johnny Appleseed Day. This day was, for us, a special day on which we remembered the good earth, a kind of fertility celebration. Well, today is Johnny Appleseed Day and I still think of it as a fertility celebration, although today I want to make it a political (and spiritual) point. It takes an entire nation of workers to build a country. It takes the greed of only a few to tear it down. I think it is worth remembering that as we struggle with our economy, and in many cases, struggle to support ourselves and our families.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Talking Fear with My Brothers

Last night, I had the pleasure of discussing fear. Pleasure, you say? Yup. It was an honest discussion with a group of men who meet once a month in an effort to find a deeper spirituality in our lives. We come up with topics and share our experiences, worldly as well as spiritual, as it relates to the topic. And last night it was all about fear.

It got me thinking that one of the addictive elements in my own life is the addiction to a reward/punishment system. It’s easy to become addicted: I create a world in which if I am a good boy, I will be rewarded: work hard, and I will get rich; do good deeds and I will go to heaven, study hard and I will get good grades. Worse, be lazy and I will live in poverty; do bad deeds and I go to hell, neglect my own studies and I will be a failure.

If I could just look at life as a gift, then I think the reward/punishment model would die. Yet I seem so intent on accumulating; accumulating things, grades, successes, and anything that can be accumulated. The more things that I can accumulate, the more evidence I have of the rewards!

Last night I envisioned a world with nothing: no money, no house, no family. It was frightening. But in a strange way, it was liberating. It just went to show me how I had materialized all of those things so that I could control and accumulate. All of that is designed to keep the fear away; yet as with all addictions, the relief is temporary and very false.

I think that was what last weeks’ Christian readings were about. Christ is led into the dessert to be tempted by Satan. If I look at it from the punishment/reward model, I simply say that Jesus has won against temptation, and I now have a model of how to get to heaven (reward). Slip up, and I become the property of Satan (punishment). Yet, if I look at it from the life-as-a-gift model, I realize that the three temptations—temptation to accumulate worldly goods; temptation to accumulate power; temptation to accumulate esteem—are all about the things that will only do one thing: lead me into a life of fear and a life of never being fully satisfied by that last fix of accumulated stuff.

I like thinking about fear because I like exposing it for what it is. Thanks, bothers, for a wonderful discussion last night!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


I really love March, ten inches of snow on the ground from a late winter snow storm notwithstanding. It is a time of hope, you know, with all of that springtime and rebirth stuff. But I have to go on record as saying that with March comes longer days and shorter shadows. I can never discount the power of a sun that rises higher in the sky than during December, January, and February. I feel like a solar panel, suddenly energized because energy stores from last fall are almost gone. March is the time of year where I feel the hope, feel the longer days coming, and feel happier. Yes, winter is over whether the calendar says so or not. If the same snow storm that we had yesterday hit in January, the residue would be around for months, until the middle of March. The residue from yesterday’s storm will be gone in a week or so. March is like that: it may hit hard, but quickly turns to apologize and cleans up that mess. Yup. March is ok in my book.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Twitter, Tweets, and a Snow Day

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve jumped into Twitter. I will go on record as saying that I did not do it because a bunch of politicians could not sit still during the President’s speech last week and began to tweet all over the place. I did it because it seems that those in education who want to remain connected seem to be doing it.

Twitter is great because the people who I follow, send reading recommendations, and I can really keep up with what my fellow professionals are thinking. Yet, I wonder about tweets that say, “I’m at the airport,” or “I cleaned the house today.” This seems to me to be a bit too much information. But I guess that’s the price we pay to be connected.

Which brings me to my fear. Do we always have to be connected in so overt a way? Those who have read my blog know that I care to be connected to my fellow human beings in a deep and spiritual way. But when that connection becomes so obvious and overt, then our connections might boil down to simple logistics and gossip. I think we can do better than that.

So here I am, entering yet another phase of our technological world. Can I live a life that can stand to be out of touch for a bit? Today is a snow day here in eastern Pennsylvania. With a day off from work, I rose this morning at my usual hour, I read a little Thomas Keating, read a little Acts of the Apostles, did a few Sudoku puzzles, had an extra cup of coffee, and then signed onto my computer to check news, tweets, and blogs, and to write in my own blog. I wonder what this says about me. Is there such a thing as a quiet day, a whole day, without technological connectivity? Now I’m not even sure what I am really afraid of: technology taking over my life, or my letting it. Shouldn’t I be out sledding or something?

Friday, February 27, 2009

"A Change Is Gonna Come" - On Listening to Sam Cooke

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it before, especially from teachers. It’s all a bout change, change the way we structure schools, change the way we teach, change the way we ask out students to learn. Yet, I am not seeing a whole lot of change. I still walk down the hallway in my school and see rows of students, preparing for the next test, listening to teachers say things that they probably said twenty years ago. Are students learning? I think they are, but not at the level they should be. I think teachers first are role models. And the very first thing that we must be modeling is learning. And if learning isn’t change, then I don’t know what change means.

Many have gotten kind of comfortable in schools. Many resist any program, duty, or event that lives outside of the pre-existing notions of one’s worldview. Teacher and student arrive each day to dance a strange little dance, a marathon in which only a few will be standing at the end of this contest. Those will be the ones who will be “successful.” Those are the one’s that we teachers will point to as evidence of our own “success.”

Change. It might be nice to think about what that means, today.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

James Baldwin and Me

I do have a special place in my literary pantheon for James Baldwin. I think it is mostly because he was a searcher, and understood the concept of love better than any contemporary literary figure of which I am aware. In his work during the civil rights era of the 50's and 60's he challenged all, letting no one off the hook for a society that was just plain ugly with racism. His solution was pretty simple: Love. This meant acceptance and letting go of ignorance.

He was once asked why there was so much time between his novels and his reply was, "That's the kind of writer that I am."

I find comfort in that response, if others do not. I find it necessary to periodically head for the desert, to listen, to observe the not-so-obvious, what William Least Heat Moon once wrote about in an essay called, "A List of Nothing in Particular." I come back a new man, energized and willing to speak once again.

Perhaps that attitude is not suited to writing a blog. Sorry to those who were wondering while I was wandering. Rest assured we were all thinking the same thing: Where is that guy? In the future, I will alert you of my wanderings before I go. Have a great day!


No, No... The Inner Me!

The first time I remember it, I was in first grade. Sister James Matthew said something that seemed garbled to me. Before I knew it, students were taking turns announcing something; what, I did not know. It seemed to me as each of my classmates announced things like, “Candy!”, “TV!”, “Dessert!”, that we were announcing our favorite things in the world. When it came to my turn, I proudly said, “Baseball cards!” Then we moved on to another lesson.

At recess, a classmate asked me how I was going to give up baseball cards.

“Why would I give up baseball cards; they’re my favorite thing?”

“You said that you would give them up for Lent,” my friend replied.

My friend explained to me that this is what we had been doing earlier in the day, announcing what we were going to give up for Lent. “No way,” I said. “I’m not giving up baseball cards; I didn’t know that’s what we were doing. What is Lent, anyway?”

“You have to give them up because you said you would. If you go back on what you said, you’re going to Hell.”

And this was my introduction to Lent. I remember years later, my father thought it would be a great idea at dinner one night if each member of the family announced what he or she would be giving up for Lent. Remembering my first-grade terror, I slyly announced something that sounded great but did not require much of an investment in my time or energy.

To this day, my non-Catholic friends will ask me with a chuckle what I plan on giving up for Lent. At least today with these friends I can explain how the concept of fasting and alms giving are connected. I tell them that I give up coffee, calculate how much money I save, and write a check to a charity for that amount. This tends to impress them, but it is still pretty shallow in my book, not much different than the roll calls of my childhood and youth.

I have found that there are many ways to approach fasting, but I do know that I would hate to skip the opportunity to fast during Lent by simply “giving something up for Lent,” even if I am writing a check. The reason to fast for Lent is far more important. I often turn to the example of St. Francis for my own inspiration. And if I need words, I do not need to go much further than St. Paul.

Fasting is not an endurance contest, something I would never win, anyway. It is a turning out to the desert, a wandering even. St. Francis tended to reject much of the surface of this world, and his trust in God was so great, he found great joy in his wanderings, in other words, in his own inner life. What St. Francis teaches me is that fasting, temporarily turning away from the worldly, directs me inward. And looking inward is where the real challenge is.

To be aware of the interior life is not the romantic image of quiet prayer and solitude, nothing of the world entering in. The reality of the Incarnation teaches me that we are both Internal and External. I often only think about the external because it is easy to see. The internal is messy; it is the home of all the things that make me feel uncomfortable. It is so much easier to give into the external and just stay there. But I’m more likely to find God in the internal.

Jesus hung out with the outcasts of society, all of the people who made society messy. Fasting allows me to face that messy part of myself, to dine with all of those parts of myself that make me feel like an outcast. It is there that I spend time with Jesus, man and Savior. When I know that God loves me regardless of the messiness I find inside, I find the outside becomes truer, more honest. And that is what I look for in fasting: balance.

I have found that Lent and fasting give me that balance in my life. It is the internal that needs work to balance with the external. Without balance I am not whole (or holy). St. Paul reminds me of this: “I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:12-13). God just makes sense of the whole me.

Fasting is a joyful time because I know that Jesus has come to the table to dine with me, in all of my imperfections. Fasting is not only giving something up. It is a time to look at the whole person. It is a time to balance; a time to remember that Jesus was both man and God. Fasting is a gift that brings me closer to Him.