What stories have shaped your own leadership journey?
I recently finished reading, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, Tara Westover grew up in a rural Idaho with parents who embraced radical ideologies, including not giving their daughter a birth certificate, not vaccinating her, and not providing her with any formalized education. It wasn’t until she decided she wanted to attend college in her late teens that she began to teach herself so that she could pass the ACT with high enough scores to qualify for entrance.
To her surprise, she made it into college, and her university experience revealed a world of new revleations, including hearing stories of the Holocaust, exposure to classic literature, and the opportunity to study abroad. Eventually, her studies led to her to a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge.
But her formal education came with personal cost. Her relationship with her parents would not survive her newfound freedom nor would they acknowledge the neglect, trauma and abuse she had experienced growing up. Even as her eyes were open to a world of knowledge through education, her ties to her parents crumbled.
As I finished the story, I was struck by Tara Westover’s deep sacrfices. To gain understanding, she also had to reconcile with the brutal realities of her past. And even though much of her childhood involved trauma, there were also moments of beauty and poetry in the rugged landscapes that shaped her youth. I was also touched by the deep loss she experienced.
As I’ve thought about her story over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of how our stories shape us. Do you ever wonder what others would think of your story if it were in ink the way Tara Westover told hers?
What I’ve discovered about most people is that their stories don’t seem unique or novel to them. Their stories are familiar. But when you take time to share your story with others, they find a new perspective that is not their own. At that moment, they have the privilege to see the world through another set of eyes or experience, and that provides perspective.
The truth is that you have a unique story. It may seem familiar or unintersting from your perspective. But to others, it may provide insights into life that help them see their own story better.
8 Stories Shaping My Journey
This week I’ve decided to share a few stories from my own journey. Perhaps it will give you a glimpse of my own past and provide some perspective of the world that may influence your own leadership. Sharing personal stories always comes with a risk of vulnerability or being misunderstood, but we don’t grow without risk, so here it goes:
Story 1: Free and Reduced Lunch Kid
I’m waiting for my bus at the end of the gravel driveway with my older brothers and little sister. A storm had blown over trees by the road, and the twisted roots of a large root has left a large mound of dirt. So we decide whoever stands on that mound will be King of the Hill. I am the youngest boy, so my attempts to be “king” mean I end up on my backside in the wet dirt and grass. That morning Mom packed a lunch for me, including my favorite chocolate oatmeal cookies in a plastic baggie. For some reason, I have decided to carry that baggie in my back pocket. During the bus ride to school, I pull out the baggie and look at the flat, dark, mushy contents. I figure it will still taste good.
The gravel road from my house to the next neighbor kid is about two miles away. And from that house we meander past red barns, grazing cattle, soy bean fields, and long stretches of woods.
By the time we arrive at school, I’ve been staring out the window for 45-minutes. Now the bus is full of other children from the rambling backroads of West Tennessee. Some of them live in brick farm homes. Others in trailer houses. I don’t know it at the time, but most of the children in my school are like me, they qualify for free or reduced lunches – even though I still pack a lunch most days.
Story 2 : Becoming a Writer
I’m standing in my 8th grade Language Arts class. Ms. Owens is a short woman who grew up in Germany and is fluent in both English and German. She has taught me grammar and literature since 6th grade. This day we are filling out schedule requests that will be sent to the high school I’m attending next year.
Ms. Owen walks up to me as I’m ready to leave class.
“William,” she says, “I think you should consider taking Advanced English next year. You’re a strong writer and you enjoy reading. I think the challenge would a good one for you.”
No one has ever given me any indication that I might have strenghts in academics. I have always considered myself an average student at best. But that day a new thought enters my mind. Maybe I could be good at writing and understanding books. It is a small conversation with big implications.
Story 3: Afraid to Talk
I’m standing outside a grocery in Brooklyn, New York. My older brother has gone into the store to pick up food for the apartment where we’re staying with my parents. I’m 15-years old, and this is my first time in a big city. Dad has re-enlisted in the Navy, and his ship is in dry-dock in Brooklyn. He’s been living here the past year, and now we’ve moved to be with him. I’m in a foreign country.
No forests, fields, or rambling creeks. Just concrete, brick buildings, and people – so many people. I’m standing outside because I’m afraid to go in the store. Someone might see me or even say something to me, and I’m convinced if I speak, I will be exposed. My Tennessee accent will betray me as an outsider.
Suddenly, a man stops and looks at me.
“Hey. Do you have the time?” he asks.
I freeze but realize that I’m wearing a wrist watch. In an instant, I raise my arm so he can look at the watch face and read time to himself.
“Thanks,” he says, and walks into the store.
I still haven’t spoken, and when my brother finally comes out with a bag of groceries, I can’t wait to get back to our apartment where I can talk again. I don’t know it then, but this is the first day I begin losing my Tennessee accent.
Story 4: Where is Yale and Harvard?
When I drive into Tulsa, Oklahoma, I’m behind the wheel of the Toyota Corolla I bought the summer of my junior year in high school. Over the summers, I have been going back to Tennessee and working by diving for shells in the Kentucky Lake area. I have saved enough money to buy a car. And after graduating from high school, I’ve loaded it up, and headed to Oklahoma.
As I look for the signs to Oral Roberts University, the college I was attending, I notice exits for Yale Avenue and Harvard Avenue.
“Gee,” I think. “Tulsa is bigger than I thought. Harvard and Yale are here too.”
Because neither of my parents have gone to college, I am not quite sure how long it takes to complete a degree. I remembered hearing something about associates and bachelors degrees, but I can’t figure out if that meant I am committing to two years or four years of school. When I am asked to declare a major, I remember the only subject in school where someone thought I was gifted. “English-Education,” I say. And little do I know I am signing up for my future career.
Story 5: I’m Glad You’re Here!
As I stand in front of my first class of students, I can’t believe they are actually in their seats and looking at me. Somehow it seems miraculous to me that a room full of teenagers would believe I am qualified to teach them. I don’t feel like it, but I fake it anyway. In fact, I say what will become the greeting I will use for the next eleven years.
“Thanks for being here. I’m glad you decided to come to school today.”
One day, several weeks later, a student asks, “Why do you say that each day, Mr. Parker?” I think for a moment.
Then I say, “Well, if you think about it, you actually have more power than I do. You could choose to not come to school. You could choose not to walk in my room. You could choose not to sit and learn. But you do. So I’m thankful you choose to learn, and I’m glad you’re here.”
I can see the tilted heads and looks of curiosity as they tried to figure out if I am being real.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I am attending church when I young man makes his way over to wear I am sitting after service.
“Hi, Mr. Parker,” he said. “My name is Anthony, and I was in your freshman English class a few years ago.”
I stand up. “Hi, Anthony,” I say, “It’s great to see you again.” Like a good teacher, I always act like a remember every student, even though he looks so much older, and it takes me a few seconds to connect the memory.
“I just wanted to tell you thanks. I had you first period, and each morning you’d begin the day by saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ What you didn’t know was how messed up I was. My mom and dad were having a lot of fights then. And one night I had slept outside to get away from it all. When I came to class the next morning, I hadn’t changed clothes. I didn’t want to learn. But you looked at me and said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ I’ve never forgotten that moment and wanted to tell you thanks.”
Story 6: Kicking My Butt
One day as an assistant principal, I have a student in my office. His name is Steve. He lives with his uncle, and whenever he is in trouble, Steve normally loses his temper, makes threats and uses profanity. On this afternoon, he has been sent down by a teacher after refusing to do his work.
Whenever I tell him I’d need to assign him discipline and call his uncle, he says, “If you call my uncle, I’ll have to kick your ass.”
I stand up and close the door to my office. I normally leave it open so my work will be in the earshot of my secrertary. It’s a delicate balance between protecting student confidentiality and making sure you aren’t falsely accused when questioning students. But I weigh the costs of letting his angry words be heard by other students, and I shut the door, and sit back down.
“Steve,” I say “I really wish you hadn’t said that. It makes me realize there must be something going on deeper than just what’s happening at school. You know I have to do my job and hold you accountable to our expectations, but I’m much more concerned about what’s happening in your heart and mind than whether or not you’re following the rules.”
We talked for a long time. I accepts the discpline I’ve assigned him, but it doesn’t seem like anything I’m saying to him is really making any difference.
Story 7: Watching Prom
I’m standing at the back of room watching the school prom. Having a daughter who is a senior, however, also adds a new perspective to the experience.
It had been a stressful week so I am not sure if prom was going to add to the stress or not. The evening begins like most others: girls in beautiful gowns and boys in tuxes; lots of finger foods, soda and bottled water; loud music and lights. But one aspect is much different this year: we have a fantastic DJ who not only picks great music, but he loves to dance.
Suddenly, he is down from the stage onto the dance floor, microphone in hand and teaching the students a line dance or some new moves. He’s back on stage now, alternating genres and artists. There is so much laughter, fun, and singing. The atmosphere is contagious. Our teachers join in the fun.
I’ve been walking around taking photo, but I finally decide to just pull up a chair, sit back and take it all in: Here is a room full of students from different backgrounds, income-levels and interests all mingling together in one big group: couples dancing, groups of girls holding hands, students circling around single dancers showing off his moves.
At one point, I see our senior class president make his way over to a girl who is one of our special-needs students dancing alone. He asks her dance. From my perspective, they are both beaming as they move beneath the cascading colors of purple, blue, and gold showering the room from the spinning disco-ball overhead.
I take in the scene, and suddenly I begin to have the same feeling I have when watching my own children play: an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I smile. This is why we do it, I think. These amazing young people make the hard work of being an educator so worth it.
Story 8: I Resented You
It is an emotional day when I send the email to my teachers that I am resigning as principal. After twenty-four years as an educator, the opportunity has opened for me to support the work of school leaders. The moment is bittersweet as I love my school, but I also look forward to new challenges.
That evening I receive a Facebook message from an old student. “You probably won’t remember me,” he begins, “but my name is Steve, and I was in your school about ten years ago.”
He tells me how he is now a father of two small children. He explains how as a student, he had resented me and tried as hard as he could to show me he didn’t care. But the whole time, he said, he was listening to me after all. He has carried those lessons with him into his adult life.
“Just in case I never get the chance to tell you,” he says, “Your words made a difference.”
Let’s Wrap This Up
Reading the book Educated reminded me that all stories, even the ones with good endings, are tinged with the pain that comes from suffering and struggle. There are seldom neat or tidy endings to true stories. I could have told you more stories of my own that don’t wrap up with happy endings. And the life of an educator is filled with all those kinds of stories. We see the moments of hope, the despair in a child’s eyes, and brokenness that seems beyond our help.
At the same time, hearing one another’s stories also reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles, disappointments and joys.
8 Takeaways for Your Journey
As I’ve given you eight small snap-shots into my past, perhaps you have some new perspectives on your own journey. Maybe you can relate to the takeaways I found in my own stories. Here are 8 lessons to think about:
- Show empathy for students from all backgrounds, especially those for whom formal education is not a family tradition.
- Realize your words have power. When you recognize a gift or potential in someone else, they deserve to know it, and you have no idea the impact it may make on their lives and choices.
- Sympathize or empathize with teenage anxiety and try to remember when you were afraid to speak or take action.
- Try not to assume everyone has the same context or information when making life decisions – like how long it takes to finish college, or where famous colleges are really located.
- Remember the power of simple phrases like, “I’m glad you’re here.”
- Anticipate some people will disappoint you and may not give you any sign that your input makes a difference. But you still can’t give up on them.
- Take time to appreciate the moments you are in, to look for the beauty and goodness in those you are serving.
- Remind yourself that it is often years later (and sometimes not in this lifetime) when you receive validation for trying to help others. Those moments make all the tough times easier to bear.
Now It’s Your Turn
This week, will you take time to think about your own story? How are your stories shaping the way you see your role and responsibilities as a leader? What are the moments that keep you motivated and inspired to serve others?
Also, would you be bold enough to share them with others? I’d love to hear your story – even if it’s just a few lines! Email me at email@example.com and tell me one story that helps shape they way you think about your role as an educator or school leader. I can’t wait to hear from you!
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