Words Create Worlds

My dad passed away almost 3 months ago. On this Thanksgiving day, I am thankful for a brief moment to reflect on all that has happened. Below are the reflections that I shared about baba at his memorial service. 

September 2, 2017

Over the past week, I have been overwhelmed by a few different emotions. First, shock over how quickly life changes. One week ago, my dad was celebrating poh poh’s 91st birthday. The next day, he was sitting in these pews for church. Afterward, he went home, watched a little bit of TV, enjoyed some dinner, and went to bed. Then, he woke up early the next morning with chest pain, rolled over to find himself in an ambulance speeding toward the hospital while it was still well before sunrise, and then looked up toward my mom’s reassuring face moments before being rushed into an operating room for what a medical resident would later describe to me as a “salvage job.” I was shocked to hear my mom’s voicemail at 6:00 in the morning, letting me know that my dad was in the hospital with a serious condition, a moment that caused me to recall the voicemail I listened to over ten years earlier around this time of the year, when I learned that my brother’s cancer was terminal.

Second, a lot of grief, though this emotion is more difficult to describe right now. I find myself looking around, unable to grasp what happened. Driving from appointment to appointment, making arrangements and finalizing details. I find myself looking around my dad’s personal belongings, unable to recognize that he won’t need these things any longer. There are a few moments each day when I see past the immediate tasks at hand and catch a glimpse of the gravity of what has happened, and for a few moments I feel the fullness of grief’s blunt force.

But, the third, dominant, overwhelmingly pervasive emotion I feel right now is gratitude. There is so much to be thankful for. As painful as this week has been, the care that our friends and family have shown has been ten times greater. So many have offered to cook meals, watch our kids, open up a room, and just talk and listen. Some completely cleared their schedules so they could walk alongside us every single step of the way. Every phone call, flower delivery, meal, hug, email, text, and prayer has delivered the same message to us, that we are not alone, and this message continues to hold us, even in this moment. For me, these things help me to believe that God is near in the face of my unbelief. Thank you all for taking such good care of us.

I feel immense gratitude most of all for my dad. He was a great, honorable, kind, funny, gentle soul who loved my mom, my brother, me, and his two grandkids more than anything else in the world. We knew it because he showed it everyday. Everything he did, he did for our benefit. We ate first; he always ate last. I’m proud of my dad, proud to call him my father, and proud to own the responsibility of carrying his legacy forward.

My dad spent the entirety of his working life as a cashier – first at his sister’s grocery store, then at Richlen’s Mini Mart in the Central District. He worked long hours, sometimes under difficult circumstances, as he endured racist taunts from time to time. He did this for years and years. My dad measured his time at work in decades; by contrast, I still haven’t held the same job for more than six years.

Once, sitting around the dinner table, my bother and I executed a strategy to convince my parents to buy us a new video game console – a Sega Genesis. We started with bargaining and negotiating, and when that didn’t work we resorted to pleading and whining. Fed up, my dad finally asked me, “Do you think we grow money outside?” He asked some variation of this question throughout my child. “How much do you think we have in savings?” I turned to him and said, “I don’t know, at least a million dollars?” To this day, I don’t know how tight finances actually were or were not for my parents growing up, but I am so thankful that somehow my dad made it so that I never had to wonder. I believed in my heart of hearts that my mom and dad could provide everything I would ever want or need. For all I knew, our money did grow in the trees in the backyard, because I never felt like I needed any more.

The things he did did not come easily for him, but he was undaunted. While his formal education ended after high school, he was a lifelong learner. I first realized this about him when I was a young child. I learned some of my first words through a Richard Scarry word book, but when I lost interest in it, my dad actually took it on as his own. He kept it on his nightstand, and he studied and annotated that book like it was a graduate level textbook. I’m not terribly surprised to find that he continued this practice of learning new words all the way to the end of his life. As I looked through some of his things a couple of days ago, I found some loose paper with new vocabulary words written down. Among the words and definitions written neatly on a piece of paper inside his bible were: Brexit, ad blocker, lumbersexual, sharing economy, and selfie. He had an insatiable appetite to learn and grow, even if some of the words he learned were of questionable value.

The words that my dad did know often failed to reflect what was in his heart. He communicated care by asking me about my grades, by lecturing me to get a jacket before leaving the house, or reminding me of my ultimate goal of becoming an engineer or lawyer.  But beyond that, most of our time together was almost entirely silent — in part, because he was so often at work, and in part, because for long stretches of my childhood, we simply didn’t speak that much. I didn’t know how to communicate with him, and he didn’t really know how to communicate with me. At times, we didn’t “need” to talk, and still at other times, we didn’t know “how” to talk.

And then one day, in the aftermath of a particularly angry fight between me and my brother, my dad did something really weird as I fumed alone in my bedroom: he came up to my room, sat down, and talked to me. In his calm voice, he asked me about what happened, why I was so angry, how the situation could be resolved moving forward – questions that I had never heard from his mouth before. Now, I knew how my dad operated. He knew that I could probably be “reached” through the American parenting tactics he saw on TV. So, just like he had seen countless time on Growing Pains and Full House, he came to talk me through my feelings. Sometimes, when I was upset with my mom, these conversations veered toward mushiness, and he would say things like, “she just wants the best for you.” My dad was a mediator, a peacemaker, and in cases like this, an interpreter. He was intentional, often despite of his comfort levels – and mine.

These types of conversations were rare, but they continued into college. When I broke the news to my parents over the phone that I would not be majoring in engineering, that I had chosen to be an English and Comparative History of Ideas double major instead, my parents simply responded with, “Okay, we just want you to be happy.”

When I moved into my townhouse with my wife, and started work as a teacher, my dad said to me as I prepared to leave, “You know your mom and I are very proud of you.”

And then, for no reason at all, in my parent’s garage as I was leaving their house, my dad looked me square in the eye and said, “I love you.”

I know these things were not easily said. I know that it takes immense courage to speak new words, and I believe that my dad chose to speak these words because he implicitly understood that words create worlds.  But even though I recounted for you almost every instance of my dad saying something explicitly affectionate to me, I know those things have always been true. Those are thoughts and feelings he’s had toward me my entire life. I know that he was always proud of me, even when I got bad grades or acted up. I know that he always loved me and my brother, even when it was hard, even if that meant he had to put in another long workday at a job he didn’t particularly enjoy, even if that meant having to say something that felt really awkward, and even if that meant we ate our noodle soup lunch together in complete silence. He didn’t need to say it for me to already know, but at the same time, at some point, he needed to say it, and I admire him for the fact that he did.

Even when words failed my dad, eventually his big heart always shined through. About five years ago, Carrie and I shared with my parents that she was pregnant with Kyrie while we enjoyed a meal together at Salty’s on Alki. I will never forget looking at my mom as a tear rolled down her cheek, and looking at my dad as he literally threw his napkin down on the table and repeatedly and breathlessly said, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” The only words he had in that moment were words of gratitude. He loved and adored Kyrie and Reese more than anything in the world. He could not help but hug and kiss them, and tell them he loved them. His time with my kids is a picture of who my dad always was, fully embodied and articulated, free and unshackled. In that moment at the restaurant, no other words were necessary to express the joy that erupted inside of him; no other words could more perfectly capture him.

The last time I saw my dad alive was at my belated birthday dinner at Din Tai Fung. As we ate our dinner, he reached over and gave me a firm push on my shoulder. Startled, I looked over at him, and he reached his hand out to me and handed me a fifty dollar bill, and said, “happy birthday” with a smile. This was his last gift to me, the last time he touched me. I am still processing the meaning of that fifty, but I know one thing: the meaning of that fifty, like the paychecks he brought home before, like the long work days, like the times he walked into my room to help me process conflict, like the countless times he wanted to tell me he’s proud of me but couldn’t, is no less a sign of my dad’s heart for me.

My dad was a great, loving, joyful, gentle spirit. He loved to tell jokes. He was funny and kind. He was obsessed with his grandkids. He has left behind a gaping hole in my heart. But like all the other gaps in our life together, it is lined with tenderness, affection, and love that can only be seen when you pay close attention, and sometimes only when you pay close attention in hindsight.

Kyrie speculated that maybe Yah Yah passed away because he wanted to go see Uncle Dennis. I take great comfort in my hope that they’re in fact together, right now.

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“You’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

As I shared in my previous post, my job status with SPS has been in flux. I knew that my position was in danger of being cut for most of the school year. While our team thought that my position would ultimately be salvaged, it has not happened. I accepted a job offer at another district.

I spent the last couple of months of the school year feeling sorry for myself, so I won’t rehash my own personal grieving process in full here. Franklin is special for countless reason, not the least of which is the fact that Dennis went to school there. Working at FHS allowed me to literally retrace his footsteps everyday.

From a professional standpoint, I loved the unique combination of naive idealism and pragmatism that animated our work. The way we imagined our work included the use of lofty language like building “the beloved community” and pursuing a more “diverse and pluralistic society.” For us, Franklin was always a singular instantiation of a much larger vision; we aspired to be a witnessing community. No surprise, given that the conversations we had about the specific functions of our position was peppered with words like “shepherding,” “pastoral,” “sacred,” and “mystical.” But all of these lofty ideals were always grounded in the day-to-day realities of how to turn our vision into things like policy statements and meeting agendas.

For all of these reasons, landing the AP position at Franklin was the dream job. I continue to try and make sense of why I am no longer there. I have some emerging ideas about this.

First, I am rediscovering my voice as a leader. I was a vocal, outspoken, highly opinionated, arrogant leader as a college student. I was humbled along the way, but in the process, my voice became timid and quiet. I am uncertain about the value of my perspective and I question whether or not I have earned the seat I have at the table. Moving from an admin team of four to a team of two will challenge me to trust myself and learn who I am as a leader.

Second, as an aspiring principal, I am now forced to think with more intentional focus on how to create a mission-driven organization. At Franklin, it was already built. That won’t necessarily be the case moving forward.

Third, I am reminded of the sage advice I heard over and over again during my time at Danforth: “You’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.” Education leaders, I find, are always evoking the spiritual and metaphysical. For whatever reason, I was supposed to get a taste at Franklin, and then move on. I don’t fully understand why, but I need to proceed in faith that I am in fact where I’m supposed to be.

I am thankful for the opportunity to continue working as an assistant principal, working under someone who seems like a phenomenal leader, and in support of a diverse student body and tight-knit group of teachers. Slowly, my heart is catching up to what my head already knows is a good situation for me.

On Mission

Here we are now. Spring Break – much has happened since my last post over Winter Break. Among them are:

  • Had my first taste of Power, Justice, Freedom – Franklin’s annual student conference on social justice. We hosted a deeply encouraging day of learning – workshops for students facilitated primarily by leaders of local organizations, a keynote message from a local scholar at UW (who happened to teach my senior seminar class when I was an undergrad), a challenging (though much too brief) professional development with the aforementioned local scholar, and a community lecture from Dr. James Peterson. A powerful day for us. It’s hard for me to imagine ever leading a school where something similar does not happen.
  • Shaun King came and taught a history lesson for a city-wide event. Nikkita Oliver shared a spoken word piece on the day she announced her candidacy for mayor. The opportunity for King to speak at our school came out of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon, and by Wednesday afternoon, we had a massive line of people making their way into our gym. My boss tells me this is the kind of serendipitous stuff that happens at Franklin.
  • My employment status for next year continues to be in flux. While our district as a whole is in a much better place financially than we were during winter break, there are still many question marks, and I probably won’t have many answers until summer.
  • Still, recognizing my job as fundamentally pastoral in nature has prepared me to continue moving forward unencumbered by fear or anxiety. I am on mission. I am buoyed by my sense of calling to this community at this time. I have no reason to believe I am not doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing right now, nor do I have any reason to believe that I won’t be doing exactly what I should be doing at this point next year. It was this conviction that gave me irrational confidence during the job hunt last spring, that compelled me to only apply for the few jobs available that I could do with fire, that has me doing the same thing again this spring.

There is not much time left in this school year. Just a couple of short months. We are already engaged in some end-of-year routines and about waist-deep in planning for next school year. Already, my mind is collecting and sorting the dozens of experiences I’ve had this school year where, if given another opportunity, I would respond differently. I am eager to know where I will get to apply all that I’ve learned this year.

I’m Not a Businessman

It has been an emotional and challenging rookie year, but I made it to my first winter break as a high school Assistant Principal.

Among my many notable experiences so far:

  • a gaffe that landed us some unwanted local and national media attention, and elicited painful accusations of racism
  • a post-election community event that included about a dozen community organizations, a dozen immigration and civil rights lawyers, and a few city leaders
  • a handful of uncomfortable conversations with colleagues around performance
  • struggling to gain traction with our school’s intervention team
  • learning about our district’s $74 million projected budget shortfall and the tenuous employment status of the district’s many new employees, including my own

I am savoring this opportunity to reflect on the ups-and-downs of the still new school year, because there are so few opportunities to stop and think. Leaders in public education often preach the value of reflection and its invaluable role in improving practice system wide, but I have found it nearly impossible to put their advice to practice during the normal ebb and flow of the regular school day. Thankfully, winter break affords everyone the elusive chance to reflect.

Of particular interest to me right now is how I understand the nature of my job. There are some who believe the school leader should model their work after business executives, who maintain a results-oriented culture. Others find the school-leader-as-doctor model more compelling, particularly for the emphasis it places on promoting healing and wellness.

While both capture important and often overlooked functions of the role, I don’t think either capture what I aspire to in my work. My vocation is to shepherd, to lead and guide, and provide care. I fight for a more just world, and do everything I can to ensure that everyone within my fold – students and staff alike – have what they need to thrive. My job is to help people believe that a better future is possible, and to know how to wield the tools to make it so.

That’s why I find it most helpful to think of my work as pastoral.

grace

i found out my brother was going to die in the middle of an intervarsity meeting. as with every new school year, the leadership team gathered to catch up with one another and to prepare for the work ahead. we broke off into small groups to share about our summers, and when it was my turn, i started off by talking about the joy of going on a month-long missions project to china and some of what i learned. but i spent most of my time describing how i found out dennis was sick in the hospital the day we returned, and how in the weeks that followed i would watch the baffled doctors misdiagnose dennis over and over again, until one day, during a procedure to install a shunt, the doctors found a massive tumor on his spine.

i kept my composure during this time well enough. i was deeply touched by the compassion and empathy of my friends and co-leaders. they calmly listened as i shared, and communicated so much care and love through their eyes. one friend struggled to recall what exactly he did over the summer because he could not get past what it would feel like if one of his brothers were to become ill. it seems strange to say this, but the severity of the situation did not sink in until he said that.

we took a break. some people got up to use the bathroom; others engaged in small talk. i took a glance at my phone and saw that i had a missed call and voice mail. it was my mom. i will never, ever forget how it felt when the absolute, bottomless pit of hell opened inside of my chest when i heard her say: “hi jeffrey, i have bad news. the cancer is terminal. okay, bye bye.”

i dropped my phone, gasped, mumbled a bit.  then i collapsed into a flood of uncontrollable tears and wailing. the words “its terminal… its terminal…”  slipped out of my mouth. i never experienced more despair, more hopelessness, than in that very moment, and i hope i never experience that again.

I remember dave wrapped his arms tightly around me on the floor. my friends put their hands on me, some prayed quietly. they all held me up,

it’s been almost seven years since that day, and it’s taken me about seven years to see the ways in which God’s grace was present to me even in that moment.

well i didn’t see this coming

well, it’s all but official at this point. i’m expecting a call from hr at any moment now to finalize my return to teaching at hs3.

this is not at all what i expected to happen after leaving teaching just a year before. that decision, made after many prayers and conversations with trusted friends, felt like an enormous step for me that signified a total change in career, and a willingness to take a step into the unknown world of academia. the original hope was that i would continue through  seminary on a full time basis and work toward building up my application for a phd program in theology. this has been a dream of mine for so very long, and it felt amazing to take a bold step forward in pursuing that dream.

but before my first full-time year in seminary could even start, carrie and i received the incredible news that we were pregnant. carrie bought a home pregnancy test at the tail end of our big road trip. inside a little hotel in medford, oregon, it was made clear to us that we would soon be parents.

this didn’t come as a total surprise since we had been trying to get pregnant for some time by that point, but in the months that followed, carrie’s growing belly became an increasingly disruptive force in our lives. suddenly carrie and i were both confronted with major questions concerning our future calling and vocation: should one of us stay home? if so, would we have enough income? most pressing for me was the question of whether or not i could see see us raising our baby on the east coast.

the unfortunate reality is that there is no phd program for theology in washington state. the dream would require a move. for most, this wouldn’t be a big deal. people move all the time. it is far more unusual to find someone like me who is a lifelong resident of a city. but what makes the prospect of moving so unpalatable is the fact that i would be leaving my parents. dennis is gone. and if i were to successfully complete a phd, there is no guarantee at all that i’d be able to return to seattle: i’ve been reminded often that the job market for theologians is weak and its outlook is not promising. i promised dennis that i would take care of my parents in his absence, and i’m not sure i’m willing to renege on that commitment.

so, the dream is on hold. i am thankful for me year in seminary, and i’m glad that i will be able to continue on a part time basis. the flexible schedule that i was afforded this year made the transition to parenthood as smooth as a transition to parenthood could be. i don’t know what the future looks like, but i’m certainly excited to return to the classroom. as painful and difficult as teaching can be, it is pretty fun, too.

happy birthday, dennis

it was a really special, first mother’s day weekend for our young family. my mom’s mom got to play with baby for the first time, and i was able to give my own mom a baby picture book we made. i knew she’d appreciate it, but i didn’t expect her to be as thrilled as she was. can’t imagine her being more excited about another gift.

as i watched my mom’s  smile grow bigger and bigger with each page turned, i had in the back of my mind the reality that this mother’s day happened to also be dennis’s birthday. dennis would’ve turned 35 (i wonder what he would be doing right now if he were still alive). we celebrated his birthday by visiting the cemetery with a bunch of his close friends. he’s been gone for over six years now, but we’d never gathered together like that before. of course, kyrie was there, too, visiting his uncle dennis for the fist time.

i know that the enormity of my mom’s delight was not far at all from some feelings of despair. i’m reminded this weekend that true joy and unimaginable sorrow are often heartbreakingly pressed into one another.