Summer in the City

It is summer in the city, and early summer means scrutinizing the year’s successes and failures, challenges and opportunities, missed possibilities and veritable triumphs. If you are not part of school culture it is reasonable to wonder, why all this reflection in the second week of June; and if you dance the dance of education, you know that our inner clock is set to the turning of the seasons where in late May and early June, while farmers plant new crops with hope in the harvest of the fall, we harvest the produce of an academic year based on the hope that was planted 10 months ago. For me, this time of year represents another one of those weird juxtapositions. The liturgy of yearly reflection, framed by dis ease, offers up an accounting ledger of gain and loss, columns of perceived profit overall, but parenthetical red ink spilling all over my personal ledger. Even with a couple of weeks left in the fiscal year, I have a pretty good idea of the forecast with all things pointing to continued negotiation of ALS, like a flipped coin that never seems to land cleanly on one side or the other.

Key to any professional reflection is assessing your own and others’ performance. I don’t believe I have ever enjoyed evaluation meetings as much as I have in the past week. I find myself hanging on to every question, every comment, every conversation in which we share our hopes and goals and dreams and yes, our disappointments. These meetings, so perfunctory in the past, have now taken on sweetness, morsels of shared appreciation, frustration, collective failure and success. I want to say more but the words are muted, inadequate to the privilege I feel working with these bright, talented, passionate, and even curmudgeonly individuals. We seek a toehold on the cliffside of Higher Education v. 2012, and pushing up and out under craggy overhangs, swinging to spaces where the safety of ropes is memory, jamming fingers into minute cracks to hold ourselves onto this wall by the smallest of digits, we dangle our professional existence in a netherworld where terra firma has turned upside down. I look back on my own accomplishments, my failures, and I look forward at what faces us looming large, comforted by the presence of these brilliant people. There have been tears in these meetings. There have been mirthful laughs. But most of all, unspoken, there have been present, holy manifestations of just how special this time is together; at least it is that way for me.

The logistics of Bruce with ALS mean that each passing day presents more and more difficulty just to enter the professional day in the life. Taking stock over the past 12 months, I have departed from dressing myself to requiring home care just to get on my socks. The act of buttoning a shirt has transitioned from the just possible to sleeves and necks and sometimes the whole placard left for someone else. My perfectly knotted tie, once so smoothly executed, is now a clumsy ritual of reliance on others to turn down my collar and center the knot. Breakfast and lunch and dinner are totally dependent on the culinary skills of my one true love or trusted others. Nothing is more illustrative than driving: A year ago, I plopped into a Honda Hybrid with a cane thrown in the back seat; 10 months ago, I traded the Civic with Ev so I could drive her Subaru (higher off the ground, room for the walker, easier to swing in and out of); 7 months ago, I moved into a Rollx van with hand controls, and 8 days ago—I stopped driving. The academic calendar recalls the logistical progression of dis ease’s greatest accomplishments.

And of course, the preparation for professional engagement leaves me exhausted, anticipating the everyday exhilaration as if I had run a marathon, swum miles, biked up a mountain, hiked into town and back on an empty stomach. In these end of year meetings, I float on a self-manufactured cloud of fatigue, thoroughly relishing the shared time together, scrabbling to stay focused when weariness from pre-game liturgies pushes my eyelids downward, misting my peripheral vision, darkening the walls and ceilings, yet illumined by the presence each colleague brings into the room. I never feel so alive as when I am in communion with others, and the intimacy of colleagues engaging the common purpose of educating professional wannabes whose entire raison d’etre is to point a life path for those struggling to find their way, is a sweetness that frames the exhaustion in dappled light like the shade of a tree interrupted by summer sun.

This week, one of my favorite people in the whole world brought his district’s administrative team to our campus for a day of K-12 reflection. He asked me if I would say a few words of welcome—something along the lines of current educational policy or trends reflecting the needs of K-12 and higher ed. I worried that welcome like a loose tooth, and nothing seemed even remotely right. And why should it? The epiphany of dis ease floods my eyesight with the realization that ALS doesn’t allow you to be so flippant as to toss off a few ideas about policy. Instead, I spoke from the naked core of what I know best—failure. I said:

One of the gifts of ALS is recognition. As an educator, and a pretty good one I might add, I recognize great teaching when I see it, and ALS is a great, if unyielding teacher. And what have I learned? The cornerstone of my new knowledge is to accept failure as inevitable. I write about this a lot, because such recognition blesses and curses, confuses and clarifies, fragments yet unifies. You can build faith in failure.

Is it any wonder that I want to keep working? Against the easily documented losses of ALS come the professional accomplishments of so many around me, an opportunity to build a spiritual faith where failure is only the next test and the next. I ended my welcome with this:

Today, as you discuss your successes and failures of the past year, challenge yourself that every child in your sphere will be deeply known, loved, fostered, and cared for by someone in your school. Challenge your systems to face failure in a way that will build strength and capacity so that the next failure and the next will be nothing but a pathway to success. Yes, intervene, improve, tutor, school, teach syllables and numbers and sounds and knowledge and the civil responsibility that defines the difference between the educated and the ignorant. But in that time, do not lose sight of the fact that we are, each one of us, failing; and we have been given a great gift in this insight—the choice to energize our collective failures into the emergence of a beautiful human child educated to be persistent, resilient, squeezing that failure, until it yields, and in the yielding, learning success.

It is summer in the city. “Hot times!” My academic clock insists upon reflecting on a professional life that somehow, squeezed out another year engaged in what I love, that somehow my world of physical breakdown continued to intersect with a world in which failure needs translation for its gifts. The sounds of summer in my city tell me to let the sunshine pour down, that just enough will get through my personal shades, and that faith is in the blessings of failure and life and spring planting and autumn harvests. On the local farms, lettuce and leaves and strawberries are just now beginning to show themselves to the possibilities and threats of the season to come.

And I marvel. I just marvel.


5 thoughts on “Summer in the City

  1. Feels cheap to say that you ARE a marvel….but you ARE a marvel! Thanks for this insight into failure. I like the idea of compressing it until it yields success.

  2. Yes, Bruce, we all know what failure feels like – although it comes in many disguises. As I ready myself for another knee replacement (right one, this time) on July 2, I hope for improvement in my walking ability, but not ‘perfection’ ; but certainly NOT for “failure”. Organists do need their feet as well as their hands! Thanks for your marvelous insight.

  3. And it is that failure so many of us forget to celebrate – to rejoice in its hard teachings. Thanks for the reminder, Bruce. Your writings force me (in the best sense of that word) to reflect on concepts in an entirely new and surprising way.

  4. Bruce,
    Just want to reiterate how much I love and learn from your writings. This one had deep and serious impact for me. I will never look at my annual review in the same way again! Instead of listing the accomplishments and ignoring those efforts that didn’t come to full fruition, I will begin to number the failures, take them as they are and let them be points of resilience.

    Thank you for continuing to devote your energy to these weekly writings. You will forever be one of the greatest of teachers!


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