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.

freedom

in my very first seminary class, i learned that true freedom is not what i think. it is not about personal agency. not about a capacity to choose. it’s not about having a lot of options. nothing about my ability to do whatever i want, whenever i please. freedom actually doesn’t have much to do with me at all.

true freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. this is a far cry from the way most think about freedom, as an individual’s right to act in his or her own self-interest. this is not freedom though, because i am only ever free when i am free for another. freedom is about being bound to God and God’s creation.

this is interesting to me, because i entered seminary with a deeply wounded faith, operating under the assumption that it’s up to me to determine the meaning of my religious identity. still reeling from the trauma of watching my brother die, i needed to unlearn and then relearn what it is to be christian.

i imagined myself to be at a sort of crossroads. one path led to a life with God, the other a life apart. i acted as though my Christian identity required me to exercise my freedom and agency to choose the path toward God, which also meant going to church, praying, and engaging other sacramental practices.

but i quickly learned that there was nothing “free” about choosing a life apart from God. freedom could only ever mean my decision to live life with God.

and then i quickly learned that i was wrong here again.

as i reflect upon the last five 6 years, i can only conclude that my Christian identity  has nothing to do with my choice of anything, but God’s choice for me, God’s decision to be present with me. i could have elected to deny God, but to do so would have meant turning a blind eye toward all that God was doing in my life, all the ways God had been near. it would’ve been to ignore reality, which in the end, was not really a choice at all.

i know i am free for God, free for my family and friends, free for the students that i  continue to mentor. and i know that i am free precisely because of the restraint and those relationships impose upon me. i am free to be with God because God chose to be free for me, because God did not choose to be God without me. i’m coming to understand that true freedom is indeed a freedom for.

now i’ve really done did it

somehow, between my last post, and now, carrie and i made a couple really big decisions.

first, i’m quitting my job. i’ll write more about this very bittersweet decision later.

second, i’m going full-time to seminary in the fall. bhang was right about me after all. of course, i’ll reflect on this a bit more, too.

amazing how fast things can change.

cancer narratives

i used to hate cancer narratives. during dennis’s illness, i avoided them because they usually ended in someone’s death, and i needed all the positive thinking i could get. then in the months that followed his death, i just was not in a place where i was willing to revisit the whole ordeal. i needed distance. plus, the thought that countless others had been marked by an experience with cancer seemed to cheapen my own experience. it was traumatic; and i needed that trauma to stand alone. i feared it’d be trivialized by being dumped in an endless sea of other stories.

but now, they’re an indispensable part of my life.

every time i come across someone’s story, i find myself terribly comforted by how familiar everything is to me: the phone calls and voice messages; the late night emergency room runs; the sounds and smells; the absolutely devastating conversations with doctors (it was never just one doctor); the absolutely devastating conversations with friends and family about the conversations with doctors; the low lighting of the hospital room; the images seared into the folds of my memory; the post-chemotherapy hospital visits; the frozen yogurt and takeout dinners; and the quiet desperation that pervades every corner of life. as i listen, i go through my mental check box, and say yes.

earlier this week at my school’s senior retreat, each student delivered a short proposal for their senior project. one complete pain-in-the-butt student that i absolutely love shared for the first time that a lump was found on his mom’s chest a few years ago. he was scared. he has no other family — no father, no siblings, no one. this loud-mouthed, off-task-all-the-time kid fought back tears as he talked eloquently about how he wants to use his senior project to start a small support group for kids of parents currently fighting cancer.

i am struck by the terrible bond i now share with my student. i’m also moved by how much gospel i see in his senior project. his woundedness will by god’s grace become a source, i hope, of comfort for kids who could use it. i know he will become a better man for it.