What Can You Make Out Of This?

Sharing Yourself To Lead Others

I have the 1980 disaster film spoof Airplane! to thank for shaping my personality as a teacher and leader. In conversations about earliest memories, my mind always flashes to the time this silly comedy made my stoic, Polish father cry with the kind of unabashed, uncontrollable laughter I would only see a handful of times in my life. It was a watershed moment for my childhood, and while it might only be a blip on my collective experience radar, I’m so thankful that it’s there.

Squished on a very old couch, I remember laying with my dad, but not head-to-head. I liked to pretend I was just as tall by scooching down so my feet were adjacent to his. It was a silly life hack, but that’s just the kind of thing little-boy-me would do.

In the film, an effeminate air traffic controller named Johnny (Steven Stucker) makes several rare but scene-stealing appearances. To this day, he’s one of my favorite cinematic characters. At one point,  Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) is handed a weather bulletin. After studying it for a second, he begins the exchange that reduced my father to tears.

McCroskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this?

Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat, a brooch, or a pterodactyl.

And that was it. The scene spans eleven seconds (I checked), and if you look closely, you can see Stucker grin at his own brilliance. But those eleven seconds were all my brain needed to process that seeing my dad laugh-cry was proof that underneath the unflappable facade, he was human. He was capable of great joy and sadness. He just preferred to keep it to himself.

Former students will tell you that I often shared, probably too much, about my life. To me, being as human as possible was the only way to convince teenagers that what I was teaching them was actually relevant, meaningful, and useful. Instruction was often interrupted by a tangential anecdote or a whimsical memory. I was convinced that if I could make them laugh with me, even at me, it would strengthen our connection and motivate them to do great things. I’d like to think that #formerstudentFriday is proof that it worked.

As a leader, I don’t shy away from the same kind of genuine honesty and self-effacing humor that I used in the classroom. People know, for instance, that my daughter is an IVF baby. They know that I still play baseball eight months a year. They know that I have wicked Imposter Syndrome. They know that my wife and I were set up, despite living in different parts of the country, by her cousin, who was a student in my class at the time.

My failures and hang ups are all on full display. Faithful readers of this blog will remember my Mistakeume, a detailed list of mistakes I’ve made in the first several years of my leadership, which I shared with our staff in my first-ever welcome back letter last summer.  I won’t hold back laughter or tears, and I certainly won’t ask that of my staff. It’s only one leadership style, but it’s mine.

I am convinced that experiencing my dad’s laughing fit with him made me wholly aware, even back then, that we are who we are for a lot of reasons, so it’s up to us to share ourselves, warts and all, with the people we mean to lead.

 

 

Compliment Conundrum

When Complimenting Your Staff Becomes the Norm 

The first time is always met with equal parts shock and delight, a spontaneous combination of reddened cheeks and raised eyebrows. It’s not that it hasn’t happened before; it’s not that it’s disingenuous.

It’s that it’s unexpected.

My name is Brian, and I’m a complimenter. (Choral ResponseHi, Brian!)

The irony of this leadership trait is that I put people in positions with which I am very uncomfortable when in reverse. As a kid, I didn’t know what to make of compliments. Never quite sure if I should thank the complimenter, always a bit skeptical that the compliment was paid as part of some adult handbook on how to relate to kids. As an adult and professional, I recognize that many of us can go for long stretches without anyone telling us something positive about ourselves. And that’s not to say that the older we get the less there is to compliment.

We just choose to stop doing it.

So I’m choosing the opposite.

While putting together the agenda for our most recent staff meeting, I decided to write in a segment called “Triumphs and Tribulations,” which I borrowed from my leadership mentorship program. Essentially, it would act as a prescribed time, at the end of the meeting, during which we would celebrate each other or ask for help, out loud. When the time came to introduce the idea, I explained that I didn’t expect anyone to actually contribute today but that I would go first to model the activity. I spoke about my amazing secretary, Cecilia. Underpaid and overworked, she is one of the kindest, skilled people I know, and because I’ve never worked with a secretary before, I thought it was imperative that she be the first person complimented in front of our staff.

When I finished, I started to say something about how next month we could start the tradition. However, I was interrupted by a teacher who said, “Wait, can we just..” and then she started to applaud. Then we all applauded.

Then the compliments poured out. Each followed by a chorus of, you guessed it, applause.

Thank you, _____. Not only have you provided me academic support in math but you’ve taught lessons! I don’t know what I would do without you.

Yeah, Fundations has been fun to teach, but I struggle. ______ has gone way above and beyond to help me.

I love my (grade level) partner. We are so in sync and constantly bounce ideas off each other.

I know this isn’t a revolutionary idea that will land our staff in educational journals for years to come. Still, there’s a profound difference between knowing something exists and making it your own. For just a few minutes at the end of a staff meeting, we shed the red tape, put away the agenda, and celebrated each other.

And we solved the compliment conundrum.

 

Revisionist History

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

This is a particularly special installment.

Garrett Kampf checks several boxes. He’s brilliant, self-aware, civic, and, in full disclosure, my cousin-in-law. Garrett’s mother, Carol, introduced me to her niece, Allison, some thirteen years ago; shortly thereafter, Allison and I were married, and Garrett, and his sister Jackie, went from former students to current family.  Garrett’s piece, like the David Foster Wallace passage that precedes it, is raw and unabashed. My man has come full-circle personally and professionally, and he’s only 27.


The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

-David Foster Wallace, This is Water

I left Rutgers University on fire, determined to tear down systems that I spent the previous four years critiquing.  Accordingly, I set out for Kansas City as a 2013 Teach for America corps member. At best, I was taking part in a movement that would radically expand meaningful educational opportunities to all students regardless of race or class.  At worst, I was motivated by fear to prevent my experience from being reduced to stereotype: the white savior complex. Some probably pejoratively viewed me a social justice warrior. Looking back, my idealism was naïve, but it was pure!

To some extent I feel like a fraud writing this piece.  I never intended to remain a teacher.  Becoming a criminal defense lawyer was always the dream. However, education and the criminal justice system for me have always been inexorably connected.  Failure in the former often leads to entry into the latter. This idea of meritocracy, unconscious but near universally worshipped in the American psyche, is built on the flawed premise that we are masters of our own destiny.  My success was largely contingent on socioeconomic factors entirely outside of my control. Similarly, the criminal justice system is contingent on a corollary principle that is equally flawed: judging human autonomy in a vacuum.  When determining one’s blameworthiness, it is inconvenient to take circumstance into account.

It would be charitable to say that my record as a teacher was mixed.  I was woefully ill-equipped for the job. But what I found invigorating about the profession was all of the many hats I would wear at any given moment: educator, counselor, confidant, advocate.  I learned quickly that I was never going to tear down a system that perpetuates inequality. My more measured approach was finding a way to validate the potential of at least some of my students and invest in them.  Sometimes it was as simple as listening to what was going on in their lives without judgment.

You see, it took a while for this to happen in my own life.  I was an aimless and apathetic high schooler until a 10th grade history teacher saw that I was worth something.  Once my potential was validated, he effectively extracted it.  This investment encouraged me to trudge my chosen career path. There’s something rudimentary human in all of this that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

I am now in my 3rd year of law school at the University of Oregon.  Whether you are a teacher or an attorney, you must work within the confines of the system, implicitly acknowledging the reality that no matter how hard you fight against it, the system isn’t going anywhere.  In many ways I have been forced to trade in my idealism for pragmatism. This isn’t meant to sound like some call for political quietism or surrendering to some nihilistic reality. It’s merely about humility in paying it forward: equipping others with purpose or treating others with dignity, the way it was done for me.  My life’s work as an aspiring public defender in the criminal justice system is fighting to prevent someone from being eaten alive by it.

My twenty-two-year-old self would be so disappointed in my tacit acceptance of the way things are rather than waging war for the way things ought to be. Put differently, I’m not sure how much of a large-scale difference I make. That doesn’t matter to me much anymore. By working in the pursuit of my own sense of purpose through helping others, my life has meaning.  Today, that surely is sufficient.

Garrett Kampf is a 2019 J.D. Candidate at the University of Oregon School of Law. He graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2013 with a B.A. in Philosophy. He spent 2013-2015 teaching middle school English and Language Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. Garrett lives in Eugene, Oregon where he enjoys exploring the state, playing golf, seeing live music, and quoting the Big Lebowski wherever possible.

Shopping Cart

Taking Risks and Getting Away With It

The plan was simple. The target was unwitting. The execution was flawless.

I stole a shopping cart in broad daylight and got away with it. This is both a confession and a blueprint. How often do you get to conspire with a low-level thief?

Spying the unattended, Shop-Rite cart resting haphazardly against a parking block, I knew it was time to make my move. Enlisting the aid of a driver (my wife) turned out to be paramount because the snatch and flee would have been far more difficult on my own.

Slowly, my wife backed our Jeep Patriot into position. Casually, I approached the cart as if to use it for a shopping trip, as if I were saving it from relative obscurity. Mightily, I lifted the cart into the trunk, the seats of which had already been folded down to maximize my time. Finally, I slammed the trunk shut, returned to the passenger seat, and gave my getaway driver a sly smile. We had done it. We had become the most pathetic Bonnie and Clyde knockoff ever, and it felt so good.


Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, is one of my favorite novels of all time, and its inclusion in my senior English class marked a shift in my career. Set against the backdrop of an unnamed apocalypse, the story follows two characters, named only the Man and the Boy, a father and son trying to “make it south” to survive. The bleakness of the landscape is matched only by the dearth of dialogue, marked by McCarthy’s refusal to use punctuation, and the lack of material possessions at the duo’s disposal. Essentially, they have a lone item.

A shopping cart.

Though I taught the novel to seniors, I knew they would struggle. McCarthy’s style is best described as functionally simple–as I mentioned he considers most punctuation a waste of time–but philosophically complex. After all, the end of the world tends to bring about some pretty heavy issues.

I wanted my students to experience the novel, not just read it, so I had to bring the novel’s desolation to them in a way that made sense. I couldn’t do that without the shopping cart, so I decided to risk my own freedom, and that of my accomplice, to do just that.

When the cart first appeared in my classroom, kids were understandably abuzz. Promising to explain more later, I deflected questions about why it was in my room and, more importantly, how I got it.

“I borrowed it,” was my preferred euphemism.

Finally, I shared the tale of the cart’s heist and its purpose in my room. My kids would consider their impending graduation as their “adolescent apocalypse” and contribute at least one item to the shopping cart with which they were not willing to part in the new world. Then, they had to present on that item to the class and field questions about its inclusion.  It worked like a charm.


So many teachers and leaders are skilled thieves. They know where to look to find great ideas, they recognize that in order to grow they have to beg, borrow, and steal, and they risk their own egos to bring their content to life.

Moreover, the word “risk” has risen to the top of the education cliche leaderboard, but it earned such status for a reason. There’s a distinct difference between telling our students about our content and showing it to them. Without risk, the latter is nearly impossible. SImilarly, as leaders, we constantly challenge our teachers to take risks, but how often do we model such risk? How often do we show our teachers that we are willing to fail forward as leaders?

Whether you’re stealing a shopping cart, presenting at an Edcamp for the first time, or pushing publish on your first-ever blog post, you are in complete control of the risk you are taking and need to be prepared to accept the reaction such risk brings.

After all, sometimes all it takes to level up is commiting a minor misdemeanor.

Can I Kick It?

Creating a Culture of Yes, You Can!

Readers of this blog are well aware of my affinity for the 1990s Seattle sound. And while my listening preference often leans toward the grunge and alternative end of the dial, I dabble in all kinds of genres.

Enter A Tribe Called Quest.

The New York based hip hop foursome revolutionized the scene with its 1991 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The group’s sound, which they would pioneer, was dubbed “alternative hip hop,” and was highlighted by the 1992 single, “Scenario.”

Recently, I re-acquainted myself with the crew and had “Can I Kick It?” on repeat as I started my journey as a K-5 principal. The song, which features a heavy sample of Lou Reed’s classic, “Walk on the Wild Side,” is catchy, upbeat, and includes an answer to the titular title, “yes, you can!”

My first month as the proud leader of a small elementary school in New Jersey was marked by a careful combination of anxiety and excitement, one often fueling the other. I shook hands, offered high fives, met with kindergarten parents, and hosted my first ever staff meeting. By all accounts, it was a positive, collaborative opening and one on which I will look back with pride.

But something curious happened more times that I can count during that first month. Teachers and students alike kept approaching me with a familiar refrain, “Can I…?”

As a hallmark of my leadership, I want to say yes more than I want to say no. In his outstanding work, Lead With Culture, Jay Billy reminds us that having a “sure, why not” approach to leadership fosters risk and empowerment. Such risk and empowerment cannot happen without the right question. For me, “Can I?” starts the bidding.

Can I change that bulletin board so it looks like a Harry Potter house but with kindness messages? Yes, you can!

Can I change my schedule so math isn’t always the last thing we do? I think the kids need it. Yes, you can!

Can I start Feel Good Friday during which we all wear kindness shirts and invite the kids to do the same? We can even play music as the kids come in! Yes, you can!

Can I use my prep to go visit a teacher during Workshop? I think I need to see her in action. Yes. you can!

Can I start a Girls’ Group at lunch to work on some of the drama I’m seeing between our 5th grade girls? Yes, you can!

Ultimately, creating a “Yes, you can!” culture is more about letting go than it is about giving in. Too often, leaders are reluctant toward anything new for fear that it undermines their authority or flies in the face of “what we’ve always done.” Or worse, some leaders need to feel like every idea has to be their own rather than stepping back and allowing their teachers to take ownership over the building and its culture.

So whether you’re just starting your leadership journey or you recognize that your leadership needs a shot of hip hop, start with a simple question: Can I?

Yes, you can!

 

Busy Is Not An Affliction

In the canon of small talk, few responses to the age-tested question, “how you doin’?” will ever rival “good.” The word is so vague, so generic and yet so powerfully sufficient. It doesn’t have to be true, it doesn’t require creativity, and it never, ever commands a follow up question about the state of being good.

However, a new response to the most common pleasantry has announced its intention to unseat the incumbent in a way that is so brash, so self-important, and so woebegotten that it might just have a chance.

Busy.”

Never has the world seen so versatile a response. Witness the myriad ways the word can function in common conversation.

~Hey, man, how you doin?

Yeah, you know, busy. The kids are both in sports, I’m working on my MBA online, and my wife just launched a website.

~Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen you in so long! How have you been?

Ugh, busy! I’m on this diet, so I’m constantly meal prepping, I just got engaged, and my parents are getting divorced, so that’s a nightmare. Just busy.”

~We’re heading out for happy hour. You in?

Thanks, but I’m so busy. I have to finish up these financials for the new quarter, my mother needs me to set up her new phone, and I have to get to the gym.

In each scenario, we have to assume the first speaker didn’t intend to receive a busyness resume as part of the response. In the first, our old stalwart “good” would have sufficed because the pleasantry had been asked and answered. In the second, because of the reference to time elapsed in between seeing each other, “good” would suffice but would necessitate a brief qualifier. In the final, most egregious, example, an alternative would be “I can’t” or “Sorry. Maybe next time.

So while the context may change, what remains constant is a growing cult of folks who kneel at the altar of busy. For some, being busy is just how they operate. They thrive on stress and deadlines, they don’t understand how the rest of the world can be so utterly relaxed, and they often wear their busyness like a badge to be shined every so often. For others, being busy is more a state of mind, a way to combat the often mundane, task-oriented days which lead one to the next.

And then there’s the true cult of personality: the busyness is my affliction group.

As if being busy is something that is perpetually happening to them, the cult of busy can often be seen wearing ostentatious buttons that read: Ask me about my busy! Harried and often out of breath, the afflicted seek out opportunities to remind the world how busy they are and dare us to compete, task-for-task, with their busyness.

But busy is not an affliction.

It didn’t befall us unawares, and we aren’t unwitting accomplices to its crimes. Busy doesn’t sneak up on us, tap us on the shoulder, and whisper, “you’re it!” We don’t inherit busy, we don’t live with busy, and we don’t survive busy. There aren’t 5K walks devoted to busy. Busy won’t present with a rash and a low-grade fever.

Be mindful that a busyness arm-wrestling contest only serves to diminish the importance of each other’s versions of busy. In any conversation, the busyness scoreboard should read 0 to 0.  

Because busy is not an affliction.

 

7-Hour Prep

I mean isn’t it just, like, a seven hour prep?

I guess.

I remember having this conversation about educational leadership with a dear friend and mentor over lunch in 2008. It was a cool five years before either of us would join a leadership team. Ironically, he was the first to make the transition, from high school history teacher to middle school vice principal; I left my position as a high school English teacher the very next year. We both taught at our alma mater.

To be fair, our conversation wasn’t full of derision and mockery. Rather, we were talking about the difference between management and leadership. In our school at that time, the former ruled, morale was slumping with each passing reference to properly leveled window blinds and locked classroom doors, and we couldn’t help but wonder what the largely spectral administrative team did all day.

Okay, maybe there was a hint of derision.

Still, this conversation happens every day in staff lounges and parking lots, over drinks and through group texts. In far too many schools, those in which management trumps leadership, administrators are viewed as foremen, barking orders through a megaphone from a perch high above his minions below.

Now that I am on the other side of that conversation’s table, as the principal of a K-5 building, I can confirm that leadership, at least for me, is, in fact, a seven hour prep. Actually, it’s more like ten hours, but who’s counting?

I am prepping for a difficult conversation with a family whose child I have to recommend be moved to a self-contained room in a different school.

I am prepping for an active shooter drill, which terrifies me despite my demeanor to the contrary.

I am prepping for a slew of meetings I have to hold because folks at the state told me I have to.

I am prepping for my “Monday Message,” which is scrawled on a light-up dialogue bubble outside my office.

I am prepping for the impending death of one of our parents; his twin, kindergarten daughters wholly unaware.  

I am prepping for our Book Fair, Week of Respect, Ice Cream Social, and QSAC monitoring, all happening this week.

I am prepping for my daily walkthrough, ever mindful that I see everyone as often as I can.

I am prepping for an upcoming Twitter chat which I’ll moderate. I’ll get to that after I catch up on my Voxes.

I am prepping for our first I&RS meeting in reference to kids whose names I’m still learning.

I am prepping for my response to parents when the bus is late again.

I am prepping for weather disruptions to recess, skinned knees and bruised (fragile) egos, and a diabetes monitor to go haywire.

I am prepping for that which I can’t possibly be prepared.

So, yes, I guess my friend was right. Leadership is a seven-hour prep.

 

Spectacular Failure

Professional Growth Through Abject Failure 

Before a snooping investigative journalist blows the whistle on my deepest professional secret, I’ll go ahead and share it. I failed my first pre-service teaching exam in spectacular fashion. I failed that Practicum I, blue book, short-answer only exam so badly that I considered changing my major, altering a career path I had decided upon as a freshman in high school.

I scored a 44.

Out of 100.

On my first meaningful education exam.

As a sophomore at Rowan University In the fall of 1995, I waltzed into Dr. Blohm’s Practicum I course ready to demonstrate my brilliance. If nothing else, I would set myself apart from these other jokers with whom I’d be competing for jobs in a few short years. I would make cogent points about lesson design, I would model mini-lessons to the envy of my peers, and I would write thoughtful answers in response to the most pressing issues facing pre-service teachers.

So when I received back that menacing blue book, nary ⅓ of the pages filled with my surface level responses, with a slightly left leaning 44 scrawled in red pen in the upper left hand corner, I think I blacked out. Now, I don’t mean I literally experienced a psychotic episode during which I couldn’t be responsible for my behavior. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of that class session.

When class ended, I just sort of roamed around campus. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a purpose. I was lost. If there were a soundtrack to my life, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would have been playing.

As I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a teacher shortly after my 14th birthday, so from that time forward, nothing got in my way. In fact, there’s power in such certainty because with the next seven or eight years mapped out, I didn’t experience the stress of not knowing what I wanted to do.

Until the 44.

When I finally arrived back at Chestnut Hall, I remember sitting on my bed and cycling through my options as I saw them.

  • Drop out and become a street performer.
  • Speak to my advisor about changing majors to “undeclared” until I drop out and become a street performer.
  • Request a meeting with Dr. Blohm to figure out what had just happened, thank her, and then drop out to become a street performer.

I ended up choosing the latter, though what once was a waltz into her classroom morphed into a tail-between-the-legs shuffle into her office.

“It’s really quite simple,” she started. “Your answers aren’t wrong; they’re just not right enough.”

As we leafed through the blue book, she referred me to her comments, which read like the dialogue of a marital spat.

“And?”

“So?”

“I need more.”

My answers weren’t wrong, I repeated to myself, they just weren’t right enough. For whatever reason, I didn’t demonstrate the kind of depth I would eventually expect of my students.

At the end of the meeting, Dr. Blohm thanked me for coming in and admitted that students rarely seek her out after a score like this. Instead, she suggested, that first exam was all part of a “weeding out” process she had to go through at the beginning of each semester. When the semester ended, I wrote her a note thanking her for pushing me to want to be better and insisting that I would be back for more advice.

As it turned out, I most certainly did fail that first education exam with a 44, but I passed Dr. Blohm’s first test with a side order of humble pie.

Spectacular failure, which could be the name of my grunge revival band, is a necessary part of our growth as teachers and as leaders. We should expect it, embrace it, and refer to it as a signpost on our path.

Now, if I could only remove this silly “44” tattoo from my chest.

 

Arms Folded

The Power of Silent Communication 

A particular curse befalls most English teachers. You know the one.

We see the world through a constantly shifting mosaic of overanalysis, empathy, and symbolism. To us, everything means something. Nothing is an accident. We are convinced that every writer of every piece of literature chose to take pen to paper in an attempt to provide the world with the foundation for a profound lecture, a thoughtful writing prompt, an eventual film adaptation.

Our students sit obediently as we pontificate on the importance of the green light in The Great Gatsby, the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s lack of punctuation, the beauty of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18. Basking in our own analytical glow, we convince ourselves that, yes, everything does mean something.

During a routine walkthrough, I stop in on several teachers without a clipboard, without a cell phone, without a laptop.  For me, walkthroughs are as much about getting out of my office as they are about seeing our talented staff work. Doing so without the pretense of an evaluation signals to teachers that I support them and am happy to provide, usually ultra positive, feedback on any given lesson.

Last year, at the end of the day after such a walkthrough, a math teacher stopped into my office, a bit sheepishly, to ask if everything was alright. Did I see something, she wondered, that upset me. Dumbfounded, I told her I didn’t know what she meant and that I didn’t yet get a chance to send my thanks-for-letting-me-pop-in email.

“Oh, ok. It’s just that you stood off to the side with your arms folded the whole time. I thought maybe something was wrong,” she said. “I’m just not used to seeing you stand like that. Usually you get involved in the lesson.”

She was right. I did stand off to the side with my arms folded the whole time. For me, it was just the preferred posture for that brief moment in time. For her, it was tacit disapproval of something I saw. It was a disappointed father of a girl who missed curfew, a harrumphing customer in a too long line at Target.

On one hand, the fact that the teacher, any teacher, is “used to seeing me” is a positive sign that I’m seen enough to have a typical, or in this case, atypical pose.

But on the other hand, and much more importantly, that teacher’s reaction to me standing with my arms folded provided confirmation that, English teacher curse or not, everything does mean something. It just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Since then, I have been uber mindful of my body language, voice inflection, and eye contact. The subtle ways in which I communicate often speak more loudly than does my voice. Ask yourself how you communicate with the world when you’re not speaking. As teachers, do we bend down when consulting with a student? As leaders, do we wear an expression that belies or supports what we’re thinking? As parents, do we indicate that we are proud of our kids without having to say so?

Unfold your arms. Wipe away that pesky RBF/RDF (you can investigate these on your own). Smile more often than you don’t.

Because everything means something.

 

Specks of Significance

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

That stinkin’ piece of dirt followed me everywhere for days. Its resilience impressive, its ingenuity unparalleled, its resolve intimidating. Three days, three pairs of shoes, three completely separate but equal segments of my life lived with the same piece of dirt.  

To chart its course would be impossible, but if I had to guess, the dirt first entered my life during my weekly baseball game. Likely, I acquired it while playing, it glommed onto my sock, transfered from my cleats to my slides, and came home with me that Sunday. Once it had successfully infiltrated my home, it lied in wait until it could make yet another move, this time to my comfy slippers, which I wear ad nauseum. Once inside, that sucker set up shop, making itself known intermittently, mocking me mercilessly.

Now, the layperson might ask, “why not just shake it out of your slipper? Why live with such a menacing presence when you were wholly capable of removing it?” Good questions indeed, but here’s the thing: I didn’t always know it was there. The brilliance of the dirt was that it made itself known when it felt like it, at odd times when I’d be in the middle of something else. Like a song lyric or childhood memory that arrives and leaves fleetingly, so you can’t remember what it was minutes later. That was my dirt companion. So while I could have easily shaken it out any number of times, for some reason, I didn’t. Maybe I grew to accept the dirt as part of my life. Maybe I subconsciously began to need the dirt like some demented Stockholm Syndrome sufferer. Maybe I live in such a perpetual state of doing that the thought of stopping to remove the dirt terrified me.

Finally, after three days, the Biblical implication of which is not lost on me, I finally bid the dirt farewell. No speeches. No pomp and circumstance. No vigil. Just an upside down Ugg shaken loosely in the middle of my kitchen. I often think of that piece of dirt and wonder where it is now. Does it like its new home? Does it miss me?


As educators, we have the ability to become the pieces of dirt for our kids and for each other. While that may not be the most glamorous analogy, think about something you said to a student, in public or in confidence, that will always stay with them. Think about how, to extend the analogy, as students travel through their lives, the impact you had on them transfers from shoe to shoe, life event to life event. Like so many granules of dirt, we may not consider ourselves special, we may not understand how we function as part of a larger collection of dirt, and we may not purposely attach ourselves to the bottom of feet, but that doesn’t make any of those things less true.

In fact, it’s often the insignificance that is significant. I can’t tell you how many times a former student has referred to something I said or something we shared as being momentous, something she’ll “never forget.” 

Because for us, there are millions of those moments, those pieces of dirt, so it would be impossible for us to keep up. But for them, what they’re referencing is their experience, their unshakable nuisance, their piece of dirt.

And maybe they don’t want to get rid of it just yet.