Monthly Archives: June 2014

There is Treasure Everywhere

I love Bill Watterson, the comic strip writer from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His Calvin and Hobbes, named after John Calvin, a 16th-century French Reformation theologian, and Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English political philosopher, delighted me for many years. Almost each one of his Calvin and Hobbes strips is pure gold, but the one that resonates the most with me is one in which a dirty Calvin is neck deep in a hole digging for treasure. Hobbes approaches him and inquires why he is digging a hole, and Calvin joyfully responds, “I’m looking for buried treasure!” When Hobbes asks what he has found, Calvin shares the list: “A few dirty rocks, a weird root, and some disgusting grubs.” To which Hobbes responds, “On your first try??” And with tremendous joy, Calvin rejoins, “There’s treasure everywhere!”

In our lives, wherever we are, there is treasure. It is our responsibility to find it, to unearth it, to believe that it exists. In my short time at Compass, I saw so much treasure. It wasn’t so much that treasure was in the buildings; rather, the treasure was in the children and their potential. Treasure exists everywhere, and if we have the pioneer spirit, the treasurer-hunter mindset, then we will see it and delight in it.

Something else that delights me are the words from the Athenian Oath. The youth of Athens, before they became young men, took the Ephebic Oath: “We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

It is all our responsibility, always, to transmit our community not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” I hope that I have done that, and, I am confident that I have, for I have had occasion to assist you, children, in being your best selves.




The Readiness is All

This time of year, commencement season, inspires me to share what little wisdom I have, as I know that this time might be the last time that I have to speak to you, students, who are moving forward with your lives. With that in mind, I want to share with you what I think has to be a priority for you at all times: take full advantage of this moment, live in the moment, prepare for your future. There are so many tempting times that you will want to dwell on the past or imagine your future—and it is appropriate to do both—but you will find your success and your happiness in living in the moment.

And, with the weather improving in New England, focusing on the moment grows infinitely easier to do, as we cherish each budding flower, each sea spray, each cool breeze that makes living in the Ocean State such a blessing, such a joy. If you can focus your energy on making the most of this moment, finding joy in this moment, and preparing for the future, you will attain a kind of peace un-afforded to those busily looking longingly backwards or too far forwards.

Now, know that healthy reflection can be instructive. Taking the time to think and reconsider what you have done is not only salubrious, but also helpful. Set aside time in your day—usually at night, before turning in—to consider what has been best about your day and how you might improve. Take those notes, and let them guide you. But don’t hold on to the past too much. If you do, like a cancer, regrets will eat away at you. Let the past go, stop carrying it around with you, as this delightful Zen story reminds us:

Tanzan and Ekido were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.” Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud. Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t do near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?” “I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Let go of the past. Giving it place and space in your mind only takes away room and opportunity to enjoy this moment. And, planning for your future is exceedingly sagacious. Having a one year, five year, ten year, and even 15 yearplan shows wisdom. Be flexible enough, however, to know that present circumstances can alter plans. Create the roadmap—where you will travel and how you plan to arrive there—for yourself, but know that there will be opportunities to take the road not taken—and that will make all the difference.

The best advice, however, is to focus on this moment, live in the now. Give full attention to the person with you, give full self to the experience right now. We are neither promised nor deserve anything in this world, so what we have before us, right now, may be the greatest moment of our lives. Don’t miss it. Another great Zen story illustrates this fact:

When Master Shinran was nine years old, he had already decided to become a monk. He requested Ch’an Master Jichin to tonsure him. Master Jichin asked him, “You are so young. Why do you want to become a monk?” Shinran answered, “Although I am only nine years old, both my parents have already passed away. I do not understand why people must die. Why must I be separated from my parents? I want to become a monk so that I can find the answers to these questions.” Impressed, the Master said, “All right! Now that I know why you want to become a monk, I can take you as my disciple. It is getting late now. Wait until tomorrow morning, and I will tonsure you then.” Shinran disagreed, “Master! Although you have just promised to tonsure me tomorrow morning, I cannot guarantee that my determination to become a monk will last that long. Besides, you are so old now, you cannot guarantee that you will still be alive tomorrow.”

Master Shinran understands that no moment is promised, so take advantage of what is right here, right now. Finally, I leave you with this fairly western idea that what really counts is today:

Imagine there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400.  It carries over no balance from day to day.  Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day.  What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course!  Each of us has such a bank.  Its name is Time. Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds.  Every night it writes off, as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose.  It carries over no balance.  It allows no overdraft.  Each day it opens a new account for you.  Each night it burns the remains of the day.  If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours.  There is no going back.  There is no drawing against the “tomorrow.”  You must live in the present on today’s deposits.  Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and success!  The clock is running.  Make the most of today.  To realize the value of ONE YEAR, ask a student who failed a grade.  To realize the value of ONE MONTH, ask a mother who gave birth to a premature baby.  To realize the value of ONE WEEK, ask the editor of a weekly newspaper.  To realize the value of ONE HOUR, ask the lovers who are waiting to meet.  To realize the value of ONE MINUTE, ask a person who missed the train.  To realize the value of ONE-SECOND, ask a person who just avoided an accident.  Treasure every moment that you have!  And treasure it more because you shared it with someone special, special enough to spend your time.

Each one of us has the opportunity to live in this moment, drink life to the lees, to enjoy what is with us at this moment, to be prepared for the next delicious moment. As Hamlet opined, “Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” The readiness is all, friends.

Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it

As I consider the Compass School and this Churchill quotation, I am struck by how perfectly these words both describe and embody the spirit of this community. As a School that demands that each child reach his or her highest register, this quotation imagines a child, through adversity (and cleverly taking advantage of its circumstances), achieving. In addition, the image of a kite tussling with the wind, going against it, reminds me of this School as well. The students learn and embrace the idea that questioning allows one to grow; simply put, running against the grain, questioning authority, inquiring incessantly define the Compass experience.

One of my former colleagues at school where I taught for 16 years coached wrestling with me. He was the head coach, and I was his assistant. We prepared our charges for their matches not only physically with rigorous exercises and drills, but also, and equally important, mentally. Steve Ward told the students succinctly, “You can only control two things in a match: your effort and your attitude. You can’t control your opponent—how big he will be, how swift he will be, how experienced or well-prepared he will be—and you can’t control the referees. But can control your effort and your attitude. Give your best effort each day here in practice and in the match, and take the best attitude possible into each match.” I would add to his great advice something similar: one must also have faith, must believe. This story illustrates the third idea:

A great Japanese warrior named Nobunaga decided to attack the enemy although he had only one-tenth the number of men the opposition commanded. He knew that he would win, but his soldiers were in doubt.

On the way he stopped at a Shinto shrine and told his men: “After I visit the shrine I will toss a coin. If heads comes, we will win; if tails, we will lose. Destiny holds us in her hand.”

Nobunaga entered the shrine and offered a silent prayer. He came forth and tossed a coin. Heads appeared. His soldiers were so eager to fight that they won their battle easily.

“No one can change the hand of destiny,” his attendant told him after the battle.

“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, showing a coin which had been doubled, with heads facing either way.

Indeed, we do control our destiny. We do have say in our lives. We have to believe that we can achieve. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot rise, that you cannot reach your highest register. Give a full commitment to each experience in your life, making the right choices, and learn to trust your instincts. You will fall and you will fail, but the true measure of who you are will be measured not by how high you climb, but by how high you rise after you have fallen. One of my favorite proverbs is “all down seven times, stand up eight.” Know you will fall, but trust that you will rise.

Finally, I want to finish these words to you with a quotation from Hamlet. When Polonius sends his son Laertes to France, he plies him with typical fatherly advice, finishing with these poignant words: “To thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not be false to any man.” Trust your instincts, believe in the strong education that you have received here, and look to rise highest against the wind, not with it. You are well prepared to soar.

Dwyane the bathtub: I’m Drowing

Irony can be difficult to explain. I have taught for 26 years, and there were times that I struggled with sharing exactly what irony is. Yesterday, at the school where I am serving as interim Head of School, I received the best example of irony possible.

I arrived at school and checked the humane trap for one of the three woodchucks that we had purposed to catch. On Friday, I had helped an eighth grade student set the humane (and I will continue to use that word, because it is critical to explaining irony) trap with a rind of watermelon tied with twine to the back of the cage. The cagey woodchuck slipped an apple out of the cage the previous day, so this day was to be different: we would trap one of those woodchucks this weekend. We left the trap, but one of my colleagues, let’s call her Amy, was most anxious to catch the critter, but also she has a bleeding heart—or, so it seems. More anon.

Now, Amy’s part in this pageant gave me the best example of irony that I shall ever have: when I spoke with her on Friday, she lamented that the humane trap might catch the woodchuck over the weekend leaving him dehydrated, and that genuinely worried her. So, this is how this all went down: we set the trap on Friday, I arrived on Monday morning to an empty trap, sans watermelon as well, so I visited Amy to learn what might have happened. Apparently, the trapped worked. A student who goes to school on Saturday to feed the chickens, saw the trapped woodchuck and called Amy. Before she left, the student felt bad for the woodchuck sitting in the sun, so she covered it with lids to keep it from the sun. Amy arrived soon after, because she was anxious that the trapped woodchuck–mind you, he’s gnawing away on the watermelon rind–would be dehydrated. In Rhode Island, it is a crime to shoot woodchucks on school property, and it is a crime to catch and release them as well. The only viable option is to drown them. So, Amy, who was so worried about the dehydrated woodchuck who had been stealing from the gardens, picked up the trap, avec woodchuck and watermelon rind, gingerly carried it to the rain barrel, and threw nearly dehydrated woodchuck, the one in the humane trap, in. She then repaired to her classroom to do progress reports.

After an hour, she returned to the rain barrel, convinced that the woodchuck was humanely killed, pulled him out, and left him for dead behind one of the School’s stone walls. Her guilt and her murderous joy were so great that she brought watermelon in for the entire class: she plans to use the rinds to catch the other two woodchucks terrorizing the garden. A trap was set that afternoon.

As she told me this story, I said, “Amy, I cannot imagine a better example of irony: are you telling me that you rushed down here on Saturday, because you were worried that the woodchuck with the watermelon rind would be dehydrated, and you wanted to drown him as quickly as possible to save him from suffering?  Wow! I can imagine no better example of irony!”

A common definition of irony is the following: “a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.” As I listened to Amy’s story, I could not help but feel as if I had been transported back to Athens to watch Medea or Oedipus lachrymose expression of their plight.


Lessons from Thurmond’s Daughter

I published this essay more than a decade ago in the Albany Times Union, but it still feels poignant today, especially on Father’s Day.

Listening to Essie Mae Washington-Williams share her dramatic story about her relationship with her father, Strom Thurmond, I envied her. It reminded me that I had never really had one with my father.
As a young boy, I remember crying and imploring my mother to change my surname, Obel-Omia, which was my father’s first and last name. When he came to America to study at the University at Albany, he had combined his given name, Obel, and his surname, Omia, to create a new name for the new world.
At least those were the comforting words my mother spoke to me when I cried because of the taunts my odd name prompted. I heard this story from my mother because my father wasn’t there to tell it: He returned to Uganda in 1970, when I was 4 years old, and I never saw him again. In 2000, I learned from a half-brother in Uganda that our father had died in 1996.
With great bravery, Washington-Williams told us, “I don’t need anything from (Strom Thurmond) now in his death. I am only finishing the story that will be told when this chapter in history is written.”
She had a “good relationship” with him, even if it was secretive and distant. She never sought to embarrass him or hurt his political career, because he was her father, and she could not imagine doing that.
I understand her decision, even if the “circumstances of (her) birth were not traditional,” because she at least had a “lifetime of warm and friendly encounters” with her father. Her clandestine relationship was personal, never political, and I respect her for doing whatever she could to keep that relationship special, even if she felt imprisoned by it.
Her struggle to have a relationship differs from my struggle to build a life without a relationship, but her words nevertheless forced my father back into my thoughts. She admired her father; I resented mine.
Many in the African-American community, angry with the segregationist stand that her father rode to fame despite his hypocritically intimate relationship with a black woman, wish that Essie Mae Washington-Williams had come forward while he was alive. Her doing so might have exposed Thurmond’s hypocrisy, forcing him to reposition himself on civil rights long before he did.
Her doing so also might have made many African-Americans in the same position — sons and daughters of miscegenation, which, of course, was illegal in the South — feel less ashamed of their dirty secret. Christine Milton, a woman who lives in Los Angeles, said, “For that woman to be so closed mouth, she should be ashamed of herself, especially for trying to protect him” (“Thurmond story stirs emotions,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 15).
The anger stems from Washington-Williams’ protecting a man who abandoned her, defamed her black heritage with ugly words and powerful legislation, and died without acknowledging her existence in his very public and influential life. Those angry with her should remember that she was a powerless black woman.
Growing up in South Carolina in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, she probably was aware of many blacks who were harassed, tortured and killed for far less than what she was expected to do: Stand up to one of the most influential senators of the late 20th century.
Besides, it was Thurmond’s responsibility to acknowledge her and accept her; he was the adult, the parent in the relationship. Don’t ask her or expect her to do something that should have been done by the one with power in the relationship.
I understand the anger of some, but I choose to admire her, because she nurtured a relationship. Even if it was distant, it existed. Even as she heard him speak scornful words about our people and watched him pass ruinous legislation designed to retard our development and deny us our rights, and felt him deny her publicly, she still nurtured a personal relationship with him.
I never saw my father after he returned to Uganda, and I rarely heard from him. His occasional letters only incited my anger, so I did nothing to make the relationship work, even as I grew into adulthood.
My mother-in-law and the headmaster of the school where I teach both encouraged me to rekindle the relationship. My headmaster even offered to pay for my traveling to Africa to meet my father. But I refused to do so, partly out of my own obstinacy and ignorance, and partly out of respect for my mother: He abandoned her, too, when he left. With more maturity and perspective than I had, Washington-Williams had something that I will never have, and I envy her.
My oldest son is 4 years old — the same age I was when my father left. Seeing him and how vulnerable he is, how much he needs me, only makes me yearn for my father more. I cannot make up for what he did, but I can stay involved in my son’s life and make sure he never needs to write an essay like this one; he will never question how I feel about him, publicly or privately, because I will always be there for him.
Washington-Williams, in acknowledging her relationship to Thurmond, noted, according to The Associated Press, “I feel as though a great weight has been lifted. I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free.”
She proudly states who she is, and she has reclaimed her history, in part, by forgiving the man who trespassed against her. In this holiday season, as we try to figure out what we should give our loved ones, I hope that all fathers refuse to weigh down their children and to shackle them with doubt and instead validate their children, share their history with them and give them the gift of time.

Check Yo’ Self Before You Wreck Yo’ Self

I published this article almost five years ago, but it is making its rounds on Twitter again, thanks to Teen Magazine:

Like many Americans, particularly African-Americans, I followed with great interest Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ arrest by the Cambridge Police.  The facts are simple enough: Dr. Gates, a preeminent scholar and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, returned to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Because his front door refused to budge, he summoned his driver to assist him in opening the door.  The sight of two African American men on the stops of a lovely home in a tony neighborhood of an upscale community triggered suspicion, and a neighbor telephoned the police.  A police officer arrived and demanded entrance to Dr. Gates’ home.  Agitated and feeling harassed, Dr. Gates harangued the officer, questioning his motives and verbally insulting him.  The officer arrested Dr. Gates for disorderly conduct, and in his police report described the scene with Dr. Gates as “chaotic.”

Yet, as simple as the facts are, they raise several puzzling questions.  I have met Dr. Gates and nothing about him threatens.  Even though I have heard him eruditely lecture on a number of topics, perhaps my most enduring image of him is riding his tricycle along the bicycle paths of Martha’s Vineyard.  The quintessential absent-minded professor, he plods along and sweetly greets all who pass him.  That is the Dr. Gates I know and respect.  How could this man contribute to a “chaotic” scene at his own home?”

The incident vexes me, but affirms what I try to teach my children: the police see an African American as a threat and will use any slight for detention.  Even Dr. Gates, one of the least-threatening people I know, wound up arrested at his own home.  He has every right to be agitated, but he should have used everything in his power to defuse the situation.  As an African American, he should have known better.

The police have stopped me several times, most often when I am driving.  Oftentimes, I am rightfully stopped for speeding, and I always defer to and placate the police officer.  The police officer usually responds to my calmness with respect, and the encounter ends peaceably.  On occasion, however, there is no reason for my being pulled over, but I still use everything in my power to respond without anger.  When I was younger, I challenged the officers, frustrated for the real behind my being detained: DWB—Driving While Black.  Now that I am older, with three children depending on me, I maintain my cool, respond with too many, “Yes, Sir’s, “No, Sir’s, “I’m sorry, Sir’s” and “Thank you, Sir’s” and hope that my politeness will allow me to continue on my way.  Dr. Gates knows this rule, but it can be hard to respond deferentially, especially when the incident occurs in one’s own home.

My real frustration with this situation, which resolved well with beers at the White House, is that very few have the political clout of Dr. Gates, so most of us have to recognize the potential for being tested every time we exit our house.  Although it is the job of the police officer to defuse potentially dangerous situations, our teens, regardless of color, need to be prepared for these scenarios.  Being detained by a police office is an inherently anxiety-producing situation, like being called into the principal’s office.  My job as a father is to prepare my children to respond with the patience of adulthood and suppress their adolescent impulses.

 I recommend that parents speak candidly with their newly minted teenage drivers, reminding them that they should respond with respect, patience, and calm in every encounter with a police officer.  Remind your children that they have the most to lose in this situation—their license, freedom, and time—so it’s best that they listen and respond politely.  The consequences of not doing so are too unsettling to contemplate.    

Touching Eternity

“If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people”

A few years ago, I attended a screening of Waiting for Superman, the documentary by Davis Guggenheim that chronicles the sorry state of affairs concerning public education.  Watching the film, I was left potentially disheartened, because the film shared only a tiny, flickering, glimmer of hope: charter schools that routinely see 10-20 applications for each spot were held up as the solution.  It is humbling to think that charter schools are perceived to be such an integral part of the solution, but charter schools, all schools, really, can only be that: a part of the solution.  Education must begin in the home and blossom everywhere.  As adults, it is our responsibility to inculcate in children a passion for learning everywhere, always.

This crisis has persisted for decades, but I am convinced that we can, will, give our children the kind of education that they need for their futures and that they deserve.  We’ll do so, because I believe in children, and I that the men and women who educate them will do everything possible to assist the children in reaching their highest register.

Thinking about solutions for this chronic problem can whelm, but I choose to believe that we can solve it one child at a time.  On my bookshelves is an allegory, L’homme qui plantait des arbres, The Man Who Planted Trees, which shares the story of one shepherd’s long and successful effort to reforest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps near Provence in the early 20th century.  The story opens with the narrator finding himself lost in an arid, barren valley in Provence and nearly suffering from dehydration.  He remarks how uninviting and dispiriting the area is, and he notes how angry, self-involved, and cruel the very few people living there are.  From a distance he glimpses “a small, black silhouette, upright,” that turns out to be a shepherd tending his flock.  The shepherd, quietly, but warmly, welcomes our narrator, provides water, food, shelter, and company.  While in the cabin with the shepherd, the narrator observes him setting “aside a large enough pile of good acorns…count[ing] them out by tens…When he had thus selected one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and went to bed.”  The following day our nameless narrator watched as the shepherd planted one hundred acorns, silently determined to repopulate the land with life-sustaining trees.  The shepherd did this every day for more than three decades, ignoring two devastating wars that occurred during that time and completely reforesting this valley in Provence.  His efforts led to the repopulating of the area with young, vibrant, caring people, who worked to make the land better.  All that renewal occurred simply because one man, quietly and determinedly, planted seeds daily and believed that they would grow into healthy trees that would better his world.

The allegorical significance is so clear that I am chagrined to write these words, but I think that it is important for us to understand that working with each child, each day is how we will improve education in our world.  As we plan for a year, we plant rice, and as we plan for a decade, we plant trees, but we educators, planning for a lifetime, we work hard to educate children. We spend each day working to nurture and challenge the seedlings before us, expecting that the love and care that we share will help the boys and girls grow into global citizens who will be active, caring, mindful members of their chosen communities.  Our work is sometimes as solitary as the shepherd’s is, and it is sometimes as exhausting, but it is always worthwhile.  One child at a time we will improve our world.