Director’s opening day remarks, September 4, 2012
Posted September 6
Several years before I moved to Chicago, I answered my office telephone on a Fridayat 5:00 p.m. Looking back on it, I don’t know why I would do such a thing. My office assistant had gone home, and I was ready for the weekend. But the caller ID indicated it was from out of the area, and I hate hearing a phone ring without someone picking it up. Thus began a conversation that led to one of my most memorable events in a career that is now over four decades old.
“Hello. Is this the superintendent of schools?” Figuring it to be a sales call and one that I could easily delegate to someone on the following Monday, I answered in the affirmative and asked how I could help her.
She introduced herself (let’s just call her Rosalind) and said that we had never met, but by the end of our conversation I would know why she was calling. Uh oh! Was this an obscene call? Was this a joke? She indicated that she left one of the high schools that was in my school district many years before this phone call and, after multiple sessions with a therapist, finally had the courage to call someone in charge and seek a way to make things right.
This sounded serious, and my first thought was that either the school district or I (and maybe both) were getting sued. Unfortunately, I had plenty of experience with litigation since many members of the Philadelphia Bar Association were residents of the community in which I served.
But as I listened, it became apparent that she had incurred an injustice and, even though all of those who were responsible for it were long gone, I alone was being given a chance to atone for the past.
Her story began in 1963 when she was a sophomore in high school. Rosalind was a good student and involved in co-curricular school programs. She learned during the spring break that she was pregnant. The father of her child was a senior at the same school, and they had been dating for at least a year. One of her closest friends contacted a teacher who in turn informed the school counselor and administration. On the day following spring break, Rosalind was summoned to the principal’s office and interrogated about her condition. At the conclusion of the questioning, the principal asked her to follow him to her locker. He told her to take her personal belongings from the locker, leave her books behind, and that her mother was waiting for her at the front entrance to the school. She was out - excommunicated so to speak - with no contact, and without the supports that we know exist in many places today.
Rosalind married the father of her child and shortly thereafter had the baby, a daughter who turned out to be her only child. Her marriage lasted just a few years, and she acknowledged that they were both too young to make a real go of it. She began to work in her father’s business doing clerical work in order to pay child-rearing expenses. When she was twenty years old, her father died unexpectedly, and the business was left to Rosalind with the understanding that she would take care of her mother.
She knew enough about the business to keep it going, and soon thereafter began to make changes that she thought would increase the profits - and she was right. While working during the day, she took business related courses at a local community college, chosen because it did not require a high school diploma. After 20 years of managing her family-owned company, she sold it, paid off her daughter’s college education, wedding, and, from what I could gather, she will be very comfortable for the rest of her life.
But in spite of this self-directed turnaround, there was still an important piece of her life that was missing. It was the piece that her school took away from her. So her question for me was, short of taking the GED, what would she have to do in order to receive her high school diploma?
This was a first for me. There was no policy regulating situations like this and, as I was part of a public school that was regulated by legislative and court mandates, I was on my own for this. Rosalind was not a drop out, but she had been gone for nearly 40 years. It all sounded legitimate, but where could I learn, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story?” I had to make a decision, and so I did what any other reasonable person would do and said, “I’ll call you back on Monday.”
On Monday morning, her high school transcript was located, and what she had stated about her performance and school participation was true. At the bottom of the transcript was the notation Withdrawn and the date.
Often, when decisions are difficult, it is because there is a pull between the head and the heart. This was one of them. My head said, take correspondence courses, show competency in specific disciplines, and complete the course requirements that were in place during the early 1960s. My heart said this woman had suffered because of a thoughtless and uncaring act of a school administrator and yet, she overcame the intolerance of a rigid administration and earned more than just a high school diploma. She had passed many tests of life and had earned the respect of everyone who knew her.
Still not knowing what I was going to do, I called her and told her that I would like for her to put her story in writing and that we should meet in person to discuss a possible resolution. She replied that she had a letter ready to FAX to me, and could I meet with her the next day. She lived in southern New Jersey and could be at my office in less than an hour. She was totally prepared, and I obviously was not.
The letter arrived within minutes, and it was beautifully written. In it, she elaborated upon the content of our telephone conversations, and I felt my heart overtaking my head. My meeting with her the next day convinced me that awarding her a diploma was the right thing to do, and not only would I make that happen, I suggested that we have a private commencement ceremony to be held in the lobby of the administration building. And so, our planning began.
To avoid it becoming a public spectacle, we picked an early evening in August before the school year was scheduled to begin. Thanks to my wife, the lobby was decorated with flower bouquets, and it was set up with about 20 chairs for Rosalind’s friends and family. Seated in the first row was Rosalind’s mother and, of course, her daughter, her daughter’s husband, and their two children.
On cue, the custodian turned on the CD player to the traditional melody of Pomp and Circumstance, and Rosalind and I walked into the lobby wearing our academic regalia. After a few words of welcome, I introduced the lone graduate as the valedictorian and she gave her speech. It lasted about ten minutes. She said all of the right things and acknowledged those who had helped and motivated her. At the conclusion of her speech, there was not a dry eye in the house. I handed her a diploma with the date that she should have graduated and declared that she was an alumna of her high school. Immediately, the hug fest began, and I found myself right in the middle of it. The cloud of imposed shame and injustice had been lifted.
I rarely tell that story but, in my mind, it is Chapter 6 in the book that I have been thinking about for quite a while and, perhaps someday, it will end up in print. Sharing it on this first day of the new school year is a bit unusual, but it really does have a purpose. In fact, it has more than one.
As I stated in my mid-summer letter to you, we are at one of the most important periods of time in our Schools’ history. And, as most of you know, our Schools’ history has been recently assembled in a brilliant new edition of Experiencing Education. I urge you to read it to gain a sense of the greatness of this place and the impact that it has had not only on thousands of young people who can call it their alma mater but on the field of education, both here in America and around the world.
At the same time as our history is being celebrated with this book’s publication, we are in the final planning stages for increased growth and facility improvements that naturally provoke both anxiety and excitement. Between today and this time next September when we gather at the Early Childhood Campus and inaugurate the 2013-2014 school year, there is much to do. We will be completing the details on how we can best honor our history, maintain traditions, keep the sense that this is one pre-collegiate experience with five schools, develop schedules that enhance the learning environment, and address the future needs of young people whose world is exponentially changing.
But as influential as our history has been and as important as it is to be prepared for future contingencies, I don’t want any of us (and this is a warning to me) to ignore the present. For it is the NOW that matters most to those who send their children to us, and it is the NOW that is most important to the nearly 1,790 students whose excitement will be so evident next Monday morning.
All of us are at our best when we are in the NOW, and my Rosalind story and similar wonderful stories in which you have been a central character remind us that the most meaningful moments in our careers will not happen if we allow ourselves to wallow in the past or obsess with what lies ahead. It must be why John Dewey believed that “education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”
The wonderful news about being in the present is that beginning next Monday and continuing every day throughout this school year, we have the chance to make a difference - and that difference could be life changing. For some of us, it will be with adults, but for most of you, it will be with children. On any given day, you could be the lead character in a story with an outcome that you may not learn about for years down the road. But sometimes that story may not take place because of your advanced and detailed lesson planning, it may not take place because you turned on the metaphorical light bulb with a mathematics equation or through a moving poem written by Robert Frost, and it may not take place because you created a learning environment in which students were free to explore different points of view or were encouraged to think deeply about something without the fear of being wrong.
I have enjoyed speaking with many of our alums during the years that I have been here and have heard so many heart warming stories about their time at Lab. Many times, their stories are about relationships with peers and teachers who helped shape their lives - on the playground, eating lunch together, at an assembly, on a field trip, in an advisory, during a timeout or in a huddle with you as the coach, or during a time like this when we may be called upon to help children grieve after a tragedy that has shaken our community.
Do not underestimate the influence that we have outside of the classroom and how we serve as exemplars throughout the day. Our advanced degrees, the maturity gained through experience, and our years of growth through professional development do not trump being fair, showing compassion, and subscribing to a purpose higher than ourselves. It is those characteristics - justice, mercy, and sense of mission - that should be at the cultural base of any great school.
Since 1896, Lab has shared a number of values including experiential learning, reasoned thought, self determinism, and, of course, building a just and compassionate community - but eluding us is a continuing sense of mission that all of us can articulate. While that may sound critical, I don’t mean to be. It is just that John Dewey and the University of Chicago did not ordain our Schools to preserve and protect one given philosophy forever.
To the contrary, our Schools’ development occurred long after Dewey left for New York City, and change was a constant as new ideas, experimentation, and controlled research took place in our classrooms during most of the Twentieth Century. Throughout these 116 years was our deep and constant connection to the University of Chicago. As it has evolved, so too have we.
Beginning this fall and for at least the fourth time in our history, we will revisit the content of our mission statement, and we will be doing so for reasons that go beyond the recommendation of the last ISACS accreditation team that was here several years ago.
Why now? Why at all?
Very simply because it can’t wait until we open the new campus, it can’t wait until our student population increases, and it can’t wait until construction begins on this campus.
Now, let me rephrase my answers in a more positive tone:
First - A sense of mission can be the glue that holds us together in spite of our campuses being physically separated. This summer, Fran Spaltro, Karen Putman, Martha Jannotta, and Illia Mazurek organized a workshop for representative members of the Lab community to consider how we can keep the connection strong after the Early Childhood Campus opens. Out of that workshop came some interesting ideas, and I expect more will be forthcoming in the next couple of years.
Second - A clearly stated mission can sharpen our focus on the right initiatives and decisions for the right reasons. Our current mission statement is rather all encompassing and perhaps even too inclusive. Without reining it in a bit, we run the risk of what is referred to as “mission drift.” If limits or boundaries are not defined, there is an on-going need to clarify who it is we serve, to what ends, and, with what services.
Lastly - A mission statement that can be recalled, even if it is not verbatim, can motivate all of us to become even better at what we do. Not long ago, the author, Daniel Pink, published a book with the title Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. He states that the secrets to high performance and satisfaction as revealed by years of scientific research are the following:
1. Autonomy - the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery - the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
3. Purpose - the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
Those of us at Lab are almost too good at being autonomous. We are getting better at mastery with many new professional development initiatives. But, we have some work to do before we can articulate a common purpose. This is not impossible. I think it is doable and believe that at the end of this school year, we will have a new mission statement that will answer these questions and more:
• What are the core factors that give life and vitality to our schools, without which we would not be the same?
• What is it about Lab that should never change because it is so important to every generation of children who attend here?
So, please hang on to those questions because there will be more in the coming months about the process to be used in which all of you can help shape the next mission statement for our Schools.
The last time that I saw Rosalind was on the day of her graduation, and it’s unlikely that our paths will ever cross again. But I would like to think that her life has been a little more complete since she reached out to me. I would like to think that the penalty of shame that was imposed upon her decades ago was somehow made better because of my decisions. At the very least, I know that on the days leading up to her belated graduation and on that day itself, I had the privilege of making a difference.
And so we start today, the first day of the new school year, with the hope and anticipation that we will have the chance in the next 178 school days to make a difference in someone else’s life. And like you, I know it is not going to happen if we are stuck in the past or too focused on the future. You and I must be in the present, and we must tap into those essential aspects of our professional lives - autonomy, mastery, and commitment to a higher purpose - that will surely motivate us to perform at our highest levels.
All of us in this room have reasons to make this the best year of our careers. Let it be!