Friday, September 11, 2015

Advice to the Dearly Departing

I know how this works.  Seen it before.  Lived through it.

Twelve years of my 30 in education were spent in the role of principal.  It’s a high-profile position in the community of students, parents, faculty, staff and district personnel. 

One of the most interesting parts of the job was learning to accept that all those constituents felt free to comment on my performance, using their own criteria.  Fair enough.  Public servant and all.

Still, there were times when I felt shackled by the “polite protocol.”  It seemed that almost everyone had an opinion to impart about me, my school, my students, my teachers, my parking lot, my standings in the football league, my school food, my quad, my litter…  And they all held license to “share” those judgments with me – sometimes with their outside voices – whether we were in my office, at the game, at Mary’s Pizza Shack, or in the produce department of Trader Joe’s

Yes!  Free to express themselves, they expressed!  My charge was to remain circumspect.  Maybe all those years of repression carry the fault for my pontificating now!

To be sure, I heard many good suggestions and tried to implement them all.  Sundry acrimonious complaints also found their way to my ears accompanied by no recommendations for remedy.  Some folks felt righteous indignation about their issue and demanded that I figure “it” out and fix it.

Disclaimer:  NONE of that outweighed the sheer joy of working with young people every day. 

Because of that frequent and dependable sense of exhilaration, I rarely missed a day on the front.  It ennobled the struggle to give those kids a leg up.

It’s not hard to understand how a person in that position begins to think of her legacy.  Was I helping?  Did I make a difference? 

People told me I did, but being on the ground there, at the epicenter, I couldn’t always see the ripples.

When I retired, each those groups did truly nice things for me, showering me with gifts, parties, notes and hugs. 

E.g.:  A happy-go-lucky senior said, “Mrs. Plath, you’re the Randy Johnson of principals!”  Wow – in the same sentence with the Big Unit!

A Latino girl who lived below the poverty line shyly asked to keep a windbreaker with my name embroidered on it, to remember me by – and probably to keep warm.

A young Indian student came to my office and touched my feet.  A gesture of reverence and respect, he said.  Thinking of it still brings me to tears.

But also, at the very moment I announced my retirement, a disheartening conversation began repeating itself.  With group after group, it went like this:

Me:  I’m retiring effective the end of this school year.
Them:  Who’s taking your place?

Talk about an ego deflator!

No time for nostalgia!  The Queen is dead.  Long live the Queen!

I had to acknowledge that I would be forgotten.  In about four years, the cycle of students through a high school, the institutional memory of me, me, me would have faded. 

Teaching staffs turn over.  Fewer and fewer remain at that site to remember what fun we had, what lives we touched and touched us. 

Now, five years out, my contributions have merged into the fabric of the way things have always been.  Or, maybe a few stand in contrast to what the new guy has done.  That’s about it.

I have yearbooks from all those years; the students’ inscriptions call the good parts back to mind.  I confess to going there now and then.  Pull one off the shelf in the guest room closet.  Sit on the corner of the bed and leaf through.  Ah!  2010!  That was a very good year!

But when I sing along with Bruce Springsteen about my glory days, it’s a solo performance based on my own revisionist history.  And, that’s the only way to go:  Wipe out, as best you can, the cranky insults tossed from the sidelines by second-guessers.

Elevate and expand the myriad, if small, instances of soul-building positivity.  I had a great run.

That’s my counsel.  It’s an editor’s job, after all – making the best of the good, the bad and the unprintable.

Best wishes to you, Marc Ethier.

Fare Thee well!