An Exit Interview (Part 1 – The Problems)

(I deeply value my time and experiences with the people with whom I spent the last decade working with and learning from. However, there are some issues that I feel need to be aired on behalf of the teachers who are back in Nashville, and I feel they can’t speak up for fear of retribution. I know because I was one of them only a few weeks ago. I would still love to have a proper exit interview, even if it is done from 9,000 miles away. Part II will address and promote many of the outstanding things that I saw happening in classrooms. It is my hope that through these posts I can affect change and promote the people and initiatives which are changing lives.)

When I left my teaching position there was no exit interview. No survey. No request for feedback from the district.* At the very least I was anticipating an email from H.R. I gave my notice and letter of resignation roughly 115 days ago, and I left my classroom on February 9th. So my departure wasn’t a surprise for anyone. Either they assume to know my professional opinions or they don’t want to hear them. Both are deeply troubling to me as teacher, a tax payer, a voter, and a parent. I’m not sure what kind of leadership doesn’t want feedback, but I’ve never met any great leaders who have insisted that they knew everything. Additionally, this district has difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers, support staff, and bus drivers. Some of that stems from the low pay, and some of it stems from the culture. If I’m a district leader and I can’t do much about the one, I’m sure as heck going to try and improve the other. As a teacher I’ve found that when students don’t care about the feedback I give, it is because they didn’t care about the assignment whether that is an essay or a presentation or a project. I end each semester asking about my teaching practices and how they can better align to student needs. I’m not sure what it says about an institution that doesn’t want feedback from it’s employees, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t good.

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“Who do you think you are? What gives you the right?” One of the best exit interviews of all time.

#ThanksMetro is a phrase I started using a few years ago to express the frustration of working in an organization that often and in many ways works against itself. (Example: The IB scores that were the best in recent memory and by far the highest in the district, were announced by the district’s media team at the same time as they announced finding high levels of lead in the water of some schools. One announcement obviously overshadowed the other.) And this is a tough post to write because for much of my time as teacher, I absolutely loved teaching and coaching and collaborating with students and my peers. Many of the teachers that I was fortunate enough to work with were outstanding professionals and even better human beings. They are people I continue to look up to and be inspired by. Overwhelmingly the experiences I had as a teacher were positive. I had great mentors and leadership who coached and supported me. So why do I harbor so much resentment toward the institution and the profession as a whole? I really hope my four years here in South Africa help to provide distance and assuage the negative feelings because I love teaching. I really do.

Death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s another phrase I’ve used to describe the petty form of treatment (sometimes unintended) that teachers endure. Like the analogy, a single paper cut by itself hurts, but can be overlooked. It can be dismissed. It can be forgiven. But as cuts accumulate, the emotional and psychological toll can be, at best, demoralizing and, at worst, dehumanizing. There are differing severities of cuts too. On one hand you have the daily grind. No matter how great my lessons or interactions with students, I would have an overwhelming number of emails, phone calls, texts, requesting my time and energy addressing “just” one more thing. I’ve come to hate the word to such a degree, I tell my students not to use it in their writing. “Just” shoot me an email. “Just” call a parent. “Just” log it in Support and Intervention. “Just”stop by the meeting. Any phrase that starts with “can you just…” is a paper cut. One task by itself is never a big deal (and that is how we always perceive it, in isolation) but the requester seldom considers their ask in the greater context of all that teachers are expected to do. Amplify that ask times the hundreds of interactions we have daily and suddenly the time I wanted to use to develop relationships with students or co-plan with other teachers or provide effective and timely feedback has been replaced with a hundred “can you just…”

The leaders in the district who protect their teachers’ planning and grading time are loved and respected by their teachers. The other ones (and fortunately for me my time with them was limited) would contribute to the paper cuts by being petty or nickel-and-diming teacher time and energy. I can only imagine that they believe that by demanding more from their teachers they were somehow improving their school. Instead of having a positive effect, I saw them breed resentment and animosity.

Then there are also the major paper cuts. These are the one that are infuriating to me as professional and a human being. Want to know one from a parent’s perspective? Last fall we enrolled my five year old in kindergarten. A little less than a year ago we had his immunizations completed. I remember because it was a traumatic day for everyone involved. Immediately after we had the records faxed to his future school. At the open house last summer we were informed they never received them. The next day we asked the doctors office to fax them again. On the first day of school we received a letter saying the school didn’t have them. We checked the fax number. It was correct. We had the doctor stay on the phone while they faxed them again. Three weeks later we recieved a letter photocopied on bright orange paper. Our son would not be allowed back to school if they did not receive the record of those immunizations by Friday. We had the doctor fax them again. This time we also asked them scan and email a pdf to us. We emailed a copy to the main office and copied the principal and my son’s classroom teacher. But on the first day after Labor Day weekend, I was called to the elementary school in middle of my teaching day to pick up my son because the school had no record of his immunizations. I lost count after six attempts at trying to get them what they were asking for. I printed a copy of the PDF and handed it to the office staff. It was the same form that had been sent many times over. We were doing everything that was asked and nothing was working. The communications home came as more and more urgent and demanding. This is by no means an isolated incident. I have experienced this kind of bureaucratic nightmare from within the system as well. Want to go on a field trip? Good luck. Fundraiser? Ha ha ha. I laugh in the face of your optimism. I’m not saying these things are impossible, lord knows there are great people who will help you navigate the forms in triplicate and clear the hurdles. I’m merely pointing out that as a teacher there were many educational experiences and fundraising opportunities that I let go right on by because getting approval on short notice would have been too tedious of an undertaking. Many teachers subscribe to the feign ignorance and apologize later method.

(Note: I did not get fired for taking an unapproved field trip once. I probably should have been. I’m not sure if I wasn’t fired because I was well liked or because firing me would have been (ironically) too much paperwork. Either way, I’m grateful for the pass.)

The countless meetings that could have been an email. The emails that should have been a meeting… I know teachers can be stubborn and not follow directions, but the district should model the behavior it wants teachers to use in the classroom. That kind of leadership was rare my experience. I’m not talking about my school leaders, mind you. I would walk through hell (and many teachers are) with the principals and school based leaders. I’m talking only about the communications or lack there of from central office.

I can also recount literally hundreds of episodes where parents needed help, either with attendance issues or grade change, or in one particularly embarrassing instance for the district, getting a straight A student into an art class so they can graduate. As further personal evidence of this functional breakdown, we are now in South Africa and want our son un-enrolled from his kindergarten class. We called the district office and they told us to call the school. We called the school, and they told us to call the district. He’s been enrolled and attending school here in Pretoria since last Tuesday. But everyday in Africa, as the sun is setting in a blaze of beautiful reds and yellows above the savanna, I get a call from our old district telling me that my son is absent. Paper cut.

From a teacher’s perspective the larger transgressions are far more serious. Lack of communication or respect from central office breads animosity and a culture of mistrust. Schools are not factories. Teachers do not produce students or even graduates. I hate referring to students as future employees. College and career ready. That was not my mission. Life ready? Maybe. Absurdism ready? Yes, there we go. Teachers grow people, and anyone who has ever grown something knows that it takes time and energy and patience. No mandate or initiative (no matter how important or beneficial) can replace the value of the positive interactions between students, teachers, and content. But yet so many top-down priorities took me away from or out of that equation. The worst one, the one that took me the furthest away from my students almost took me out of the profession for good.

In 2012 I was part of a professional development session which provided training in conjunction with the police department. Active shooter training. In my school hallway an officer fired blanks “to help us recognize the sound of gun fire.” In addition we also had to develop a response to our hearing of the shots. Some people were asked to play students. I was asked to be a teacher helping students seek shelter in my classroom. The drill started with shots coming from around the corner of the hall. I ushered as many people into my classroom as possible. I saw the officer come around the corner firing shots at the ground, and I suddenly felt like I was in danger and being chased even though he was clearly walking and meant no physical harm. Because this was a drill we were told not to lock any doors. I closed my door and moved people to the far corner where the lone window was. There was a bottleneck at the window and people panicked when the officer open the door, came into the room, and fired a dozen more rounds. Everyone scattered. Some people screamed. I can still hear the shots. I KNOW they weren’t real, but in the moment my mind didn’t. Thirty minutes after the drill ended everyone in the room was still visibly shaken.

I had a very difficult time sleeping for the next few weeks. I lost my appetite. I was either anxious or angry. My students could sense it. My wife saw it. I was short with people. That was the beginning of my worst year of teaching. I started seeing a therapist about a month after an active shooter drill took place. A shell from one of the blanks landed and stayed on the top of my bookshelf all year long. I couldn’t touch it. The kids couldn’t see it, it was too high, but I could. That professional development was also one of the reasons I left that school and almost left the profession later that year. The district’s health insurance plan did not cover the costs of seeing a psychologist. My then-administrators were evasive when I inquired about a workers’ compensation claim to help with the cost of the therapy (and actually the principal laughed when I spoke to him about it, which made me feel even more embarrassed and ashamed about how I was dealing with my response to that day). I feel I endured a traumatic experience as part of my job, and when I needed help dealing with this, the leadership and district balked. We can debate the merits of active shooter training for teachers. In this day and age, I can’t say that they shouldn’t happen. They certainly shouldn’t happen the way mine did. But what isn’t up for debate is the very apparent lack of emotional and psychological support offered to teachers after events like Sandy Hook or Stoneman Douglas. Ironically, the district health plan is willing to help if you want to quit smoking or lose weight, but if you ask them to help with the stress and anxiety caused by the job, you’ll be out of luck. Over the ten years I spent teaching, I lost half a dozen students to gun violence. I know of others who lost a battle with drug abuse. I’ve seen first hand the effects of generational poverty. I’ve been to the ER with students in the middle of night. I’ve been to funerals and visiting hours. I cried in my classroom after learning about Sandy Hook, Boston, Paris, Orlando, and Las Vegas. Every day teachers need to find the courage to talk about the realities of this world. And everyday there is a cost to teachers’ emotional well-being that is never acknowledged or addressed. The worst kind of paper cut is the one that is never allowed to heal.

In my opinion, I was most successful when my primary role was to provide students with inspiring and relevant challenges and to support their progress towards successfully answering those challenges. In my first five years teaching I feel like I did this a couple time a semester, at most. I wasn’t very good at it because I was always trying to stay on top of all the other parts of the profession. I felt like I was always putting out fires, instead of teaching. I really began to excel when I started teaching 9th grade English. My lessons and units consistently started to produce lively discussions, exemplar assessments, and most importantly, student growth. Instead of a great lesson a month, I was creating them multiple times a week. So what happened? Why the big difference between the fifth and sixth year of teaching?

Leadership. I was given permission from my administration to focus on what was most important, and what I was best at, instruction. In the words of the outstanding Artisan Teacher professional development series (why the district discontinued the use of his workshops is beyond me) founder Mike Rutherford, I was given the time and resources to “focus on and develop my strengths and manage my weaknesses.” I no longer had to do everything that was on my plate at the level that was being demanded. I could be great at stagecraft and planning, and could be acceptable with other asks without being regarded as a failure. I stopped responding immediately to emails. I gave them 24 hours before responding and most resolved themselves without me doing anything. This freed up time to plan more and better. I saw that my great lessons and units happened more frequently. I saw an increase my student achievement results, not only quality but quantity of students succeeding. In short, I was a TVASS level 1 teacher when I carried the burden of doing all the “just one more” things to make people happy. But I became a consistent level 4 and 5 teacher when I became laser focused on good content, good instructional practices, and coaching my students. I learned to abandon what wasn’t helping me to reach students. I need to thank those leaders who gave me the confidence and ability to say no to the curse of “just one more” thing. I also appreciate my peers who kept me focused on the job and not on the slights, both major and minor. My peers, who also became my best friends, often kept me from quitting and probably from being fired.

The major paper cuts were less frequent, but they hurt more. A school board member who endorses and promotes a tweet which disrespects me and the teachers in my school. Learning from the local news about a promised salary increase evaporating. A lack of communication from central office which leaves school leaders and teachers to guess intention and to explain district policy changes to students and parents themselves. These all contributed to the mistrust and dissonance between the district and teachers. These are all evident in #thanksmetro.

Need more evidence of paper cuts? Here is a list that comes immediately to mind.

  • No paid maternity-leave policy beyond using sick -leave. I wrote this opinion on Facebooklast fall… “Here are my problems with a lack of paid maternity leave policy. 1) Having a baby isn’t the same as being sick. Period. Teachers get sick leave because teachers get sick. Often. Starting a family isn’t contagious, it can’t be treated at the minute clinic, and it sure as heck shouldn’t be relegated to the ever evaporating seven week summer break. 2) Almost 80% of the district’s employees are women. Not having this benefit is simply negligent and a flagrant disregard for the health and well-being of the majority of their employees. It reeks of blatantly sexist decision making. 3) The government should be the model employer, but in this (and many other instances) it puts the bottom line above the individual and social benefit. 4) As stated, the district is bleeding teachers. Nationwide, teacher turnover is problem. Currently in Nashville the problem is even worse, especially for teachers with 3-10 years experience, or those in the prime family starting years. A smart person once told me that happy parents raise happy kids. I believe that the same is true with teachers. Happy teachers (and by extension those who feel like their employer is taking care of them) are infinitely better for students than the teachers who feel nickel and dimed and exploited by policy and a system which only looks out for itself. If you want the investment the district makes in teachers to pay dividends, you have to keep teachers in the district more than three years. Start here. Nashville taxpayers and elected officials and school administrators… If you are fair to your teachers, they will be fair to the students and the district and society. That’s transitive leadership. We all know it. But if you are brave enough to be generous with your teachers, they will reward your generosity with loyalty and dedication and the relentless pursuit of helping students succeed, which will in turn pay for itself tenfold. That’s transformative leadership. Don’t get me wrong, providing maternity leave is the expectation. It is not generosity, especially if teachers are having to plead for it. But in providing any benefit, please be generous. Teachers who are proud to work for a responsive community will always outwork those who see the profession as a job. While I still consider twenty days paid leave to be insulting, it’s twenty paid days more than we have now. Read more on my facebook here. Big paper cut.
  • The recent (2015) pay raises to teachers with 1-5 years of experience who DO NOT have a Masters degree, but still nothing in the last ten years for those teachers who have chosen to invest in our profession either by earning another degree or who have stayed in the profession longer than five years. The costs of living in the “It” city has skyrocketed. But with that our property taxes have increased which I think means more money for services. We certainly have enough money for a new baseball stadium, convention center, outdoor concert venue, and transportation plan, and downtown development. We have a booming local and state economy. We have shown we have the money for massive pay raises for central office leadership.  It appears we even have money for rookie teachers (TFA) with one to five years experience. And they are the ones most likely to leave the profession! What we don’t seem to have money for is teacher pay increases for these mid career professionals who are staying in the system. Paper cut.
  • The 3% cost of living pay raise last spring that was, then during Teacher Appreciation Week wasn’t, then somehow was again. It is difficult to have gratitude for something promised when you must fight for it as part of the budget. Paper cut.
  • Teacher Appreciation Week that includes a bridge lighting and a website for “affordable housing” which is actually only a mortgage calculator. (I know this is the Mayor’s thing, but it still counts for me as talking about appreciating teachers without doing anything.) Meanwhile the district hosts a holiday office parties with gift cards and giveaways. It is out of touch with the reality that we face. During a central office appreciation week a few years ago, while teachers were re-entering grades (see next point) central office was having yoga and massages during the week. These rewards are not undeserved. Good people, hard working individuals make up central office. But they are all examples of a district that is being insensitive to the sacrifices teachers are making. Paper cut.
  • In 2015 an IT computer glitch wiped out student grades and S&I information at the end of the grading period. No apology was ever issued from the district. Our school leaders empathized and apologized. But the tone of the email from central office lacked understanding and dodged responsibility. It simply demanded the data be re-entered by the specified time. Paper cut.
  • A new health and wellness center located in the most difficult part of town to reach, but is conveniently located next to the central office. I would like to know how many employees who live in Joelton or Antioch or Bellevue use the facility. Why not YMCA passes for all employees? If the health and well-being of teachers and support staff was truly important, it should be made far more accessible and to more people. Again, this looks like insensitive decision making. Paper cut.
  • Changing from Gradespeed to InfiniteCampus without adequately training or supporting teachers BEFORE the school year started (more on tech use in this district later). Paper cut.
  • Newly minted and mandated I.F.L. assessments (high school literacy units) which do not provide copies of the texts which are to be taught. Essentially what the mandate says is “You will teach this. You will assess this. But you need to supply copies of the texts for your students” Paper cut.
  • The communication regarding the lead in the water which in addition to students dangers, all teachers use for drinking, for making coffee or lunches. Some of these readings are high enough that I’m concerned for all the pregnant women working in schools affected. No apology or empathy. Paper cut.
  • Much has been made of the great eclipse fiasco of 2017, so I don’t need to rehash it here. But this combined with the numerous weather related openings and closings (the “Seriously people” tweet) reflects poorly on all of the professionals working to improve the perception and communication of the district. Paper cut.
  • A school board which has members who have actively attacked and who promote attacking teachers on social media. Paper cut.

This list doesn’t even begin to address the state’s culture of over-testing, politics, and anti-teacher policy. After all this is only an exit interview for the district. Those complaints will have to wait for another time. I want to also find the time to talk about what I saw that was going right. There are SO MANY examples of outstanding outcomes that go under the radar. It is important that even if no one reads this, even if nothing changes, that I speak my mind on these challenges facing teachers. While paper cuts can heal, some can also leave a scar. And the most poignant scar is a memory of a time that we weren’t treated with respect as professionals or as human beings. I urge the people who have some say to evaluate and implement every decision after considering the cost to and the effect on teachers exactly the same way we ask teachers to make every decision with their students best interests in mind.

I have much more to say, but the phone is ringing. My eldest son was absent from school again today.

To be continued…

*My executive principal always had an open door policy and I always felt comfortable talking to him about our school. And one of my A.P.’s did ask for feedback on their leadership. I was deeply impressed by this humility and desire to reflect and improve. I will happily answer any questions they have for me. This post is more of a reflection of the district’s operations rather than the leadership of our immediate supervisors.

Here and There

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“People love to say,  ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’ Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say ‘Oh that’s a handout.’ No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.”  Trevor Noah, from his book Born A Crime.

I’ve been wanting to write about what I’ve seen and felt since our arrival here, but haven’t really been able to construct an opinion about the overwhelming contrast of poverty and wealth in this part of the world because my thoughts are so often at odds and never finalized. As soon as I think I have formed a logical opinion, I am witness to something that doesn’t fit within my construct. Two books have been instrumental in helping me to see more clearly the moving parts of South Africa’s racial, economic, and social inequality, but I realize it is still only a partial understanding. Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One and Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime (although it is soon to be released as a motion picture, I beg you to pick a copy and read it. Thank you to the Morgan family back in Nashville for sending me here with a copy. I devoured it.) both get my highest possible recommendations.

I read The Power of One as a high school student. At the time I thought it was just a wonderful coming-of-age story set in an exotic land in a far off time. Coincidentally, as I was reading the book which chronicles the rise of apartheid, the system itself was being dismantled. Also coincidentally, last year I assigned and re-read the book as a summer reading option before knowing about our impending move. The Power of One shows the conditions and rise of apartheid from an outside but still privileged point of view. I think it speaks to the feelings of many South Africans who opposed the segregation and brutality of apartheid, but might have been caught unaware of how quietly and quickly the system of oppression was being implemented and how deep it would infiltrate South African society. As I read about DACA and deportations last summer, the themes of the book and the front page of the newspapers overlapped in striking fashion. Born A Crime examines at the dissolution of and the persistent ramifications of apartheid with personal stories that are both humorous and deeply unsettling. Even with the help of these texts, I struggle to make sense of what I see driving around one of South Africa’s most affluent cities.

You can’t help but notice the economic inequality here. Just go for a drive. The main mode of transportation for white South Africans is automobile. The buses and minibuses, the taxies, the bikes cobbled together from miscellaneous parts, and the pedestrians walking along the muddy shoulders of the road are the primary means of transportation for black South Africans. On every street and corner, there are people standing and waiting. Some are selling sunglasses or phone chargers or straw hats. Some are holding signs with tragic lines like “My wife was kidnapped. I need money for ransom” or “HIV Orphan.” They are heartbreaking. Most people are just standing around passing time. There so many people and yet so few resources and opportunity.

The other day my eldest son tugged at my conscience when we drove past a barely clothed young man who was maybe 10 or 12 at an intersection. I’ve never been so grateful that my son can’t completely read yet. “What did that boy’s sign say, Pop?” I swallowed hard. David, our driver, was sitting right next to me, and I was ashamed to have to lie to my son. “He’s asking for money.” I answered. From the back seat came a resounding positive “We should help him! He needs help, Pop. We are the Bennetts, we help people, that’s what you said Bennetts do. Why are we driving past him if we’re supposed to help people who need it?”

I love the young men of character and integrity that we are raising, but what do you say to that? Do I say we only help when it’s convenient? Or maybe respond with the bitter truth that we only help when the person looks like us and we feel comfortable. Do I answer with the harsh but realistic phrase like we can’t help everyone?

I was at a total loss.

David chimed in. “Drugs. He only wants money for drugs.” Grateful for the out, I explained to my sons about drugs and how not helping by giving money would make it more difficult for the boy to buy more drugs, so in a way were helping by driving past him. The boys accepted this, for now. I wondered what David was thinking about my rationalization. We clearly could have given him a couple of Rand, and it would have meant nothing in the grand scheme of things for us. But I didn’t, and that’s how it happened. In that moment I taught my white affluent sons to use their imaginations to justify not providing help to a human being who is clearly in need. I felt like I was going to throw up. I still do.

Every morning on the four mile drive to their private American school, we pass hundreds if not thousands of people who exist on one or two thousand Rand a year ($100-$200). Over the last four weeks living in hotels, the four of us have spent more than that eating out every week. So what do you do? I’m not and have never been religious, but I do identify and try to live by John Wesley’s moral credo.

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

The guilt and embarrassment I feel is real. And it is only loosely held in check only by my ability to rationalize the limits of compassion. We can’t help everybody. I am responsible for my family, my friends, my students, my immediate community. But when and where I choose to help is so subjective, that I find I’m often disgusted by my own lack of humanity in the choosing. In those moments I feel completely hypocritical.

We are in the process of trying to hire a domestic worker. This is euphemistic pun. Domestic means both in-home and locally hired. We are hiring someone to help cook and clean and provide child care. We don’t really need the help. We’ve been able to keep our house running over the years without paid help. With me not teaching, I have what feels like an infinite amount of time each day to make the meals and keep the family in clean clothes and our accommodations in order. Hiring a domestic worker feels wasteful in that I can clearly do this work without paying someone to do it for me. But at the same time by hiring someone, we are providing consistent employment and a paycheck to someone for the next four years. This is where a second issue arises. How much is someone’s time worth? Is it the going rate (which is well below basic living standards)? Is it what we can afford to pay? Because those numbers are so far apart they can’t be put in the same sentence. I hate the negotiations for these reasons. They force me to confront this terrible economic power difference which is so much easier to pretend doesn’t exist. By ignoring it I don’t have feel about it. How selfish is that? Read that again. It is so much easier emotionally to pretend there is no economic power difference than it is recognize it and address it justly.

We have a waitress here at the hotel, and I would like to think that we have become friends. She is wonderful in the mornings with our grumpy kids, and she has a light about her. I know I don’t know her, but she exudes happiness, so I like her. We’ve asked about her family. She has two girls, ages six and eight, who live a day’s travel away. She doesn’t see them often because she stays near the hotel and works six days a week. We were heartbroken to hear this story. Kids need their mom. Always and everywhere. Just this morning a German/European mother and her teen boys were seated at the table next to us. And like us, the mom inquired about the waitress’s family. Upon hearing about the existence of the girls, the women whimiscally said, “You’re so lucky. You have girls.” And the mom looked at her boys. “Girls are so much cleaner than boys.” She signed her check, snapped at her boys, and left without knowing the irony and insensitivity of her words.

It is a scenario I see playing out again and again here. There is so often very little awareness of the tremendous privilege we move through our lives wrapped in. (If you’re reading this, I do not mean to diminish the challenges you are facing. They are real, and they are significant. But being here is changing how I see the factors which shape our lives and our responses to those factors.) I am guilty of too often treating inconveniences as problems. There is a difference. If you have nothing to eat. If you are in fear for your physical safety. If you have no home or family, you have problems. Just about everything else in this life is an inconvenience. And ten days into this adventure I’m realizing just how much of my life has been inconvenient and how few problems I’ve ever really overcome.

Maybe you were expecting this post or maybe you were thinking that I would come here and not be changed. I don’t know what I was expecting. I think I’m well travelled. I think I’ve seen enough of the world to not have much surprise me. I like to think that I have always been aware of the unfairness of our society. But I also know that in America we are so good at dismissing poverty as a result of inaction or ineptitude. Wealth is usually always perceived as “deserved” in America. But here that isn’t the case. Slavery was legal only 25 years ago. Here the most sophisticated form of social oppression was a part of everyday life while I was watching the Barcelona Olympics. Here I’m forced to wrestle with the inequity every moment I’m outside of my hotel room. It is overwhelming and readily apparent and difficult to square with my world view.

In another instance of people being out of touch with the world round them, we witnessed a family (mainly the father) visibly upset at a waiter for an order that was wrong. That waiter might have travelled hours to this job to work for a trivial wage. He might have to risk his life walking on the shoulder of dark roads to get home again. He might have messed up the order, so what? The people dining at this particular restaurant might have problems, I don’t know, but I guarantee that all of them went home with full stomachs to sleep safely in their homes, and awake to a tomorrow that has the potential to be better than today. For so many people here, tomorrow will look exactly the same. Next week and next year and 25 years from now will (if they are lucky) look exactly the same. And here’s the kicker for me, I have only experienced a tiny slice of life in this very affluent part of this city which is a very affluent part of the country. Just 3 miles north of here is the Mamelodi Township. Nearly 400,000 people live there, and even 25 years after the fall of apartheid most residents still do not have the opportunity or resources to see any part of the city beyond the remaining apartheid-established boundaries.

And here I am, at a loss for action because of the overwhelming nature of the problems. There are simply not enough fishing rods.

The Spectacle of Skill

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Late spring in New England.

I went for my first run here in South Africa on Tuesday. As I suffered in the heat and altitude, I thought back to the memorable runs which have come to define this sport for me. I like to think that training is about chasing times, but if you get into any runner’s head, it is often more about chasing a feeling. The run that came to mind is not the most memorable, but it is part of the foundation upon which I have built my love for this sport. It is one that I turn over in my mind often. This run is still in me.

Opening Farewell

In the early summer of 2000, I had wrapped up my second year of college. I was fit and looking forward to spending a summer on familiar roads training and adventuring. It was May, and that time of year always feels like rebirth on the coast of Maine. The days finally last past dinner and the temperatures flirt with comfortable. Near the end of the month I traveled with my good friend Zach from our home town on the coast to the Mountain towns of western Massachusetts. He was headed on a cross country road trip with a group of his college athlete buddies. I was dropping him off at the rendezvous point and bringing his car back to Yarmouth.

The drive was filled with plans and goals and dreams of what the summer might hold. We cranked the radio and opened all the windows as we bombed through the small New England towns. Finally we stuffed the Delorme Gazetteer between the seats and pulled into the driveway of an older farm house painted golden by the sunlight of the late afternoon. After driving for most of the day we exited the car with the giddiness of caged animals, and as the sun sank slowly, we laced up our shoes on the tailgate of the old Volvo for one last run before we parted ways for the summer. Behind the farmhouse stretched a half mile wide field of thigh high grass and golden rod. Not being familiar with the local roads, we opted to follow the worn parallel tire tracks which stretched off across the field. To start, our strides were short and our form was tight from the hours spent in the car, but we soon found that old familiar rhythm.

The warm sun was descending in front of us as we each took one of single tracks flattened by years of tractor and baler wheels. A few minutes of easy conversation passed as we crossed from the field to edge of the forest. Here the path turned away from the openness of field and dipped under the canopy of the budding trees. Making a slight right turn, we followed the covered trail up an imperceptible incline and mirrored the erosion a small brook on our left. While we were definitely climbing, the gradual slope was never taxing, and our conversation only ebbed at the steeper angles.

The trail stretched onward west ahead of us as the day light faded over the hill. After half an hour and the loss of direct sunlight, we decided that we should turn and head back to the farm house. We didn’t realize just how high we had climbed as we started back down. Our suddenly pace quickened encouraged by gravity and the knowledge of the limited time remaining. Our conversation trailed off like the last of the daylight through the trees. The sound of exhalation and foot strikes on last year’s leaves filled the space around us as we moved towards our tomorrow.

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With an ever quickening pace we ran stride for stride. Our acceleration wasn’t intentional, it was just what felt right. We weren’t racing, we weren’t even being competitive with each other. We knew there would be another time for that. No, we were flexing our abilities for our own sake, wielding what it meant to be young and strong and full of potential. We felt our breath change to the familiar lung searing sensation as we banked left to see the end of the forest trail and the beginning of the field ahead. Finding another gear, but by no means our last, we burst out from under the canopy like Roman Candles into the darkening twilight sending the early season fireflies scattering. In sensing the immediacy of the moment, our strides lengthened again and our hearts pounded out the tribal beat familiar to runners across human existence. We were playing, like children do, with all of our being present. With matching strides we chased each other and ourselves across that field. And in the that moment, devoid of distraction we were our truest selves. The moment could not have last more than a minute or two, but in that time I found something eternal.

The rest of the group that was headed west with Zach was waiting for us when we eased back on our internal throttles and slowed to a walk next to the barn. Some applauded and cheered and laughed, recognizing as only athletes can when passion is personified. Our heart rates slowed and dusk settled over us as comfortable as an old cotton sweatshirt, heavy and familiar. We slapped hands and smiled but said nothing to each other about what had just happened. Some understandings don’t require words. We  knew all that needed to be expressed.

Someone pointed out the creek from the woods crossed the property on the far side of the road. We spent the last ray of that day’s sunlight dunking our heads in the cold western Massachusetts mountain water as it spilled over the rocks. The purity of that moment spent striding across the field with our lives in front of us stems not from the absence of time, but rather from the timelessness of it. In that instant we were the purest manifestation of ourselves. And on runs such as that one we were truly capable of transcending ourselves.

 

Same, Same, But Different

My youngest came home from preschool a few months ago talking about a book his class read. Same, Same, But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw is a wonderful little text that  acknowledges our similarities while still appreciating cultural differences. It has become a phrase our family uses often as we notice how South Africa operates in different ways than America but reaches similar ends. Some of these are trivial (square toilet seats or steering wheel placement) and some are significant (inequality and poverty), but it’s nice to have a phrase with which we can point out differences without passing judgment.

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Another excellent sunset over the Silver Lakes golf course.

A major cultural difference is the philosophy of Ubuntu which consistently catches the goal-oriented American in me off guard. Time in America is synonymous with money and if you take someone’s time, you are stealing from them all the potential value of that time. We fill our days with words like hustle and grind and struggle, trying to get ahead of the next guy. Anything or anyone who slows us down is worthy of our contempt. How many times do we see the people around us as a means to an end rather than a human being with dreams and faults and a life of their own? I’m guilty of this many times over. If I was focused on achieving and you couldn’t help me get somewhere or obtain something, you were an obstacle to be overcome. For many years my wife was an attorney in private practice and her time was literally billable. The threat of her dividing her time being a mother and a lawyer was great enough that the firm built a nursery next to her office. While this benefitted us as parents, it also kept her working long days for their profit.

Championed by both the great Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu feels like a breath of fresh air after the demands of American life. The competitive capitalistic attitudes are considered rude and a social faux pas in place where the expression and valuing of social relationships reigns. How you treat other people is more important than what they can do for you. Ubuntu literally means humanness. More specifically it means that an individual can only be known through others. I am who I am because you are who you are. Ubuntu recognizes that everyone has different skills and strengths; but that people are not isolated, and that only through a mutual affirmation of our humanness can we help each other to reach our fullest potential. Handshakes and genuine concern about how the day is going or how people are feeling takes precedent over outcomes. Time here feels more abundant and if you spend fifteen minutes talking (and listening) to someone about their family, it is not time lost or wasted, but rather invested. Ubuntu. I am because you are. South Africa should export this stuff.

Yesterday we celebrated our oldest son’s sixth birthday. The Menlyn Mall is quickly becoming a favorite hangout spot for our family. In addition to more shopping than anyone could ever want, there is a massive arcade and bowling alley adjacent to the food court. We spent a wonderful afternoon playing video games and cheering each other on to personal best scores

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I didn’t even use bumpers.

before witnessing another spectacular sunset last night. Yesterday we also set up our first bank accounts and hope to get cell phones later today. I wouldn’t say that we are fully adjusted to the time change yet (the boys slept till 8:30AM), but we are making progress. I hope that once this vacation ends, South Africa and Ubuntu continue to change us for the better. Same, same, but different is right. Be good and keep in touch.

 

 

First Writing Since…

Forgive me if this post seems to start in the middle of our adventure. It is almost 10AM here in Pretoria, but our circadian rhythms are still on Central Standard Time. The flight yesterday was shorter than expected, coming in at just under 15 hours. img_1530.jpg

The boys were amazing travelers and were well supported by Erin, who I don’t think moved from her seat between them for the entire flight. Her strength and capability to endure physical discomfort and exhaustion is a testament to her love for our kids and an inspiration to me as a parent.

While stressful, customs and baggage claim were uneventful, even with our 11 checked bags. Our transfer to Silver Lakes Golf Estate took about an hour. On the way we passed Erin’s new offices and got to experience her evening commute. The infamous Joberg traffic was heavy but moving. It certainly is an improvement on Nashville’s 40/24/65 PM parking lot.

Pretoria Sunset

Our room here is modern and clean with all the amenities of an American golf resort, but lacking the finer points. What’s the saying, the one about how nothing beats German engineering, Japanese design, and American luxury? Holding true. The birds, loud and exotic looking, are up very early. Erin and I had trouble sleeping, so today we are trying to be extra patient with each other and the boys. While the flight felt easier, the recovery so far has been more difficult than on our housing trip last month.

Our apartment for the next six weeks overlooks the tennis courts and is conveniently located next to the restaurant and golf club. I’m writing now from our little covered porch. It is overcast and 20C. Yes, we are working on our conversions. At noon today our driver, Aaron, will pick us up and we will take the boys out to lunch and pick up some groceries. After my second cup of coffee (stronger and more bitter than American) I’m starting to feel up to the task of getting cell phones and necessities.

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Building a life is hard. It took years in Nashville to reach what I consider the apex of happiness. Personally and professionally there was a lot to learn, and it took time and mentoring and support. But I did so with only an idea in my mind of what success would look like. In some ways, I think rebuilding might be more difficult because I have a memory of what was, and while I loved the fruit of my time and relationships in Nashville, I want something else for this experience. I don’t want to relive what I’ve already done. The purpose of this great adventure was to get out of our routines and to dedicate more time to what we love, namely each other and our passions. The last few years I’ve tried to improve upon the year before in my teaching and parenting and relationships often only repeating what I did previously with minor adjustments. I feel I was polishing a process rather than experimenting. In a little over a year I turn 40. I’m not ready to resign myself to living the same year over and over again with only minor adjustments. Four years in South Africa is just enough time to build something new before starting again.

It is raining. The Italians who were playing tennis have run for cover. The birds have been subdued by the sound of big drops on little leaves. The boys want to build legos, and it seems like a fitting place to stop. We are good. Tired for sure, but we are optimistic about this new page. We appreciate all the support and love from family and friends near and far. Be good and keep in touch.