The Tale of Four Families

Once upon a time, there were four young men from four nice families. These teenagers were ordinary guys — they were testing limits, looking for a little excitement, but not hardened criminals. One fine day, as they were leaving school, they saw a motorcycle parked along the street leading toward the train station. It looked out of place parked there, just inviting a little mischief. Little did they know that the motorcycle belonged to someone connected to their school, in fact, to the husband of a teacher. To them, it appeared that the bike was an easy target on which to practice mischief of one kind and another; it was just begging to be vandalized. The four boys egged each other on, each doing their creative part to damage the motorcycle. Because these boys were not well versed in the ways of crime, they were not terribly clever with their vandalism, and they were spotted and reported by a neighbor.

So far, the story is much like many days in the life of an international high school, but the developing action of the plot builds in the way each young man and each nice family responded.

The high school principal and the guidance counselor invited the perpetrators and their parents to come to school. They planned to have the families meet with the owner of the motorcycle with the hopes that the boys would learn a valuable lesson about actions and consequences. Boy #1’s parents sat with pained expressions on their faces. They understood that harmony in the community had been broken, and that restitution needed to be made. Boy #2’s mother shed tears of grief, deeply concerned that her son was making bad decisions and desperately seeking the path to growth. With their parents’ guidance, both of these boys offered to work to repay the damages, and later they performed “community service” through doing landscaping for the owner. The motorcycle had been damaged beyond repair, but its owner saw the value in offering the gift of hard work to these boys, even if it could not possibly compensate for the loss of property. You see, someone had offered him the same gift in his youth, and he knew the value of remorse and restitution.

If the story ended here, it would have a happy ending. It did have a happy ending for these two boys. Years later, they would describe the “motorcycle drama” as a turning point in their young lives. Both are now gainfully employed adults, making valuable contributions in their own ways to their churches, communities, and families. But there were two other families involved. These other parents asked the question, “What was the motorcycle doing there, anyway?” They asked, “Was it really so bad? It was an old motorcycle after all.” They argued, bargained, blamed others — even themselves — and tried to manipulate the system. They wanted to protect their sons at all costs and prevent any pain from entering their lives, even the pain caused by their own bad decisions. These two boys did not face any consequences at that time, but their lives have been marked by a whole series of consequences spiraling lower and lower, deeper and deeper into lives of addictions, broken relationships, and sorrow for them and their families.

Obviously the motorcycle incident was not the sole determination of the direction their lives would take, but it gives a hint as to how their parents dealt with the challenges their sons faced then, and would continue to face.

As a parent, I know the anguish of wanting to protect my children from any pain, discomfort, or tough lessons. There are certainly times when I needed to be their advocate, but I have also seen the strong and determined adults they have become through having to learn and grow through consequences, and even through the challenges arising through the chances of life. As a school leader, I am also faced with the option of sometimes allowing the natural consequences of bad behavior or dumb decisions to painfully work their way in students’ lives, while other times offering an alternative way out of the situation. When these choices arise, I try to remember the lessons I learned through this story that happened once upon a time. Grace will always win in the end, but as Anne Lamott so eloquently wrote, “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” Sometimes grace is not taking the easy way out, but rather the tough love that is willing to take the hard way through, and to help our children and students further along in their journey than the place they were before.



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Living in the Layers

It’s been a while since I’ve written, not because nothing has happened or because life is boring. Not because I have nothing to say or because I am overwhelmed. Sometimes it is simply to difficult to put into words the strata of living that make up a day, a week. In his lovely poem “The Layers,” Stanley Kunitz wrote,

In my darkest night

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

‘Live in the layers,

not on the litter.'”

The layers are often what create the nuances, the ambiguity and challenges that fill the days in my office. Some of the layers are still too fresh, too personally connected to people in my community to even write about. Teenagers so often deal with pain beyond what their age and experiences should produce. Sometimes that spills over in tears, sometimes in cuts, sometimes in words spit in anger or frustration. Parents lash out in fear that this child they watched smile her first smile and take his first steps might be walking in the wrong direction. Their fears may or may not be rational, but they feel the burden of them and need to find someone to share the load or to blame for the weight they feel so heavy on their backs.

There are also the layers of what might be. The challenges of taking steps in the direction that will take us where we need to go as a school. Leadership involves seeing possibilities while still being aware of the present. I can’t rush ahead to where I think we could be, yet I can’t dwell in the past where we once were. This involves conversations with others about the future they imagine for the school. It involves community, a living, organic entity, moving and breathing together, following a mission we all believe in, but sometimes need to be reminded about.

The layers of past, present, and future, of tragedy and triumph, of routines and surprises, aren’t always the stuff of great novels or even management textbooks, but they are where I live. I am trying to see the layers as what provide the texture of the days, and what keep me from the litter.

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Posting about anything political these days is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. I’ve ventured into the fray tentatively, aware that I it is not wise to use my role as a head of school as a platform for personal politics. But I am still an individual dealing with grief and confusion over the choices my own country has made, though I hope and pray I am wrong about my fears, and strongly desire restoration.

Back in the days of my youth, the Rolling Stones sang:

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

I don’t know if war is actually threatening or not — it feels that way to me, but maybe that is hyperbole and metaphor (I was an English teacher, after all). Literal battles between people with vastly differing points of view and threats to people who are under-represented and disenfranchised  cause many to feel like they desperately need shelter. Our new Commander in Chief is not a calm and measured man.

Back in my little world, far away from inaugurations and senate hearings, other dangers cause the children to cry, “Gimme shelter.” Different kinds of storms and floods threaten their well-being and make them feel vulnerable and exposed. Sometimes the dangers don’t look that scary to the adults in their lives. How scary is a test, a project, a friendship crisis, a break-up, or applying to college, right? My only response to those questions is another question: did you forget what it was like to be 17? Other children struggle with demons inside that truly threaten their fragile psyches and even their lives: depression, anxiety, family trauma, fears of the future — adolescence is a perilous time.

It’s hard to know how to provide shelter to the women, minorities, immigrants, and even school children needing protection in this new era, when I live thousands of miles from where the storms threaten. But I can provide refuge and a sense of belonging to students where I am, who can eventually leave that safe haven to fight for justice long after I am out of the battle.

I read a quote this week from women’s rights icon Gloria Steinem. She said, “Women grow radical with age. One day an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the earth.” With age, I’ve learned that the battle for what is right is not about personal gain or fame, but it’s about the future for my kids, and now my grand-kids. It’s about that growing number of my children-through-education who will inherit this world we adults are messing with. This radical, gray-haired army of women will probably not fight battles in the same way puffy white men do, and each of us will need to learn how to do it in our own way.

My friend Kaye, guidance counselor at my school before she went out and started her own, had a sign over her office door students had scrawled on brown cardboard reading, “Shelter from the Storm.” Students knew they could find a place where they would be accepted when they entered that room, even when they had made mistakes, experienced failure, or were simply fed-up with life.

Providing shelter for the hurting, the exhausted, the questioning, the disconnected, the disillusioned is one way to equip the children who are caught in the storms. It makes my job all the more serious to me. We have so much at stake in the world today. Who will make the changes? Who will fight for truth? Who will hold leaders accountable? I am one of the gray-haired army of women who has the ability to provide the shelter to equip a new generation to go out and change the course of the storm.

“Gimme Shelter”


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Fear Not!

“Mama, mama! Did you know Baby Jesus was born on Christmas?

“Yes, isn’t that awesome?”

“And the Angel Gatorade told them, ‘Fear not!'”

So said my three-year-old granddaughter last week after Sunday School. “Gatorade” really knew something we still need to be reminded about: there is much to cause fear in our world right now.

A little over 1000 kilometers away from my home here in Tokyo, lives a trigger-happy dictator in North Korea, with a very odd haircut and access to nuclear weapons. When I return to my passport country, there is a megalomaniacal president-elect with another very odd haircut who seems to threaten the democratic principles of the country. He also will have access to nuclear weapons. I try not to think about these fear-mongering leaders all that much, but when I do, terror is the response that most naturally rises in my stomach.

Fear is often the easy and logical response to much that we face everyday. Only this week, I have talked with two teenagers who are having difficulties facing the normal stresses of life, actually considering death as an alternative. Meanwhile, a close friend is threatened with death, clinging to life with all she’s got, while her husband stands by to fend off this enemy attacking her brain. These dear people face very legitimate fears, and it is difficult for me to not feel fear on their behalf. How does one go out into the day, knowing that death lurks nearby?

The scary perils do not need to be death and doom. Leading a school is fraught with frightening hazards that can keep me awake at night: staffing, finances, curriculum, accreditation. These all bring such a steep learning curve for me that I often feel like I am scaling the Cliffs of Insanity.

And thousands of miles away, adult children make decisions and live their lives so far from my helpful interference. Will they be safe? Will they find their purpose? Will they find all it is they are searching for?

Into the darkness, into the chasm of icy emptiness, the angels Gabriel and Gatorade still call, “Fear not!” Or as Anne Lamott wrote in a recent post quoting the great Wendell Berry, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…Practice resurrection.” Just another way of saying the words of the angels.

Schools, and the big world they occupy, have plenty of fear to fuel all the neuroses our planet can handle. My family’s credo for some time has been “Fear less, love more.” I think this goes along with practicing resurrection. The evidence may give us abundant reasons to cause us fright and flight, but we do have a choice in the matter. Fear may come naturally, but we can choose love. We can choose to step into the challenge. I am not likely to face the sort of fears Nelson Mandela confronted, yet he said that he had learned that “courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

So I talk to those two teenagers, and to their parents, and try to find them the help they need to choose life. I visit the friend and pray as I leave. I learn as much as I can about the school monsters and keep scaling those cliffs. And soon I will be hugging those big children of mine, and letting them know I choose love over fear.

“Fear not!” from the Angel Gatorade, and Merry Christmas from me .



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When the Earth Shakes

Monday afternoon, I was having my weekly coffee date with my partners in leadership, our elementary and middle school principals. Each Monday afternoon we escape for an hour, take our mutual temperatures, check on each other’s mental health, tell our funny or sad stories, and encourage each other. We always meet in the coffee shop in the train station through with most of our students pass on their commute to and from school. Suddenly the whole building gave two mighty jolts: kaBOOM, kaBOOM. Living on a volatile fault line, our first thought was, “Earthquake!” and we jumped from the table to return to school, 5 minutes away. It wasn’t quite the same as an earthquake feeling though. We get to be experts on the different sorts of tremors–rolling, bouncing, jerking, shaking–and this one didn’t match. As we rounded the corner and saw 2 trains stopped at the crossing, the awful truth dawned: someone had jumped in front of a train right here at our own little station. It was 3:00, and soon our students would be heading right into this trauma. Members of our crisis team met, and we went into action. We kept the students in their respective places until we were certain the aftermath at the station was clear. My mind couldn’t process what would prompt someone to be so desperate as to do such a thing; we only wanted to protect our students from having to experience such devastation at an intensely personal and visceral level. Within the hour, we were able to release them, yet knowing the world we were letting them venture back into is a scary and broken place.

Tuesday morning, the ground shook again, and this time it literally was that volatile fault line. It wasn’t as jarring to me as some have felt, but when the phone rang minutes later, I knew it was worse than I had initially experienced. The levels of awareness peeled away in my mind: magnitude around 7. The epicenter was off the coast of Iwaki. Our school choral ensemble was in Iwaki. They had been evacuated to the top floors of their hotel. Tsunami warnings were in effect. The phone calls began, the emails to these children’s parents written, my hopeful words saying, “Please don’t worry. All are safe.” I prayed they were indeed. Plans about bringing them home by the safest route possible evolved, while I had to move through the day at school with an assembly to run, meetings to lead, people to help. I slogged through the uncertainties until all those in my care returned home.

But the jolts were not over. My dear friend, our elementary art teacher, the wife of our school business manager has just heard the words no one wants to hear: brain tumor. All else pales in comparison, yet the grief and uncertainty are cumulative. How uncertain our world is. The illusions of control fade, and I realize how completely helpless I really am.

The words of old hymns come back to me more than platitudes or philosophy, the words of God in poetry:

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,

My strength all-sufficient shall be thy supply.

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

I don’t have a happy ending yet. I have to still live with hope, trusting that God truly does have my students, my children, my dear friends, and me in the palm of His omnipotent hand. I am weak, but He is strong.

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Hope in the Aftermath

This is supposed to be a blog about educational leadership, but I lead out of who I am, and the person I am is in grief. I need a place to process how to lead others in this world where fear, misunderstanding, and hatred separate us. I am not living in America, but I find myself in the position of being asked to explain America to others, including the students and teachers at my school holding passports from all over the world, as well as to my confused Japanese neighbors.

First off, I have no explanation to offer, only questions and observations. I don’t have the historical, sociological, philosophical or theological background to provide some detailed analysis of the America political process. But this week, I read the posts of my daughters and my nieces, at a loss for the words to explain to their children and the people around them about what happened in America. I have received messages from former students, some who are now teachers themselves, asking: How do I talk to my students about this? How do I talk to my friends who are: conservative, minority, Muslim, LGBT–fill in the blank–who think Christians and Trump are the same thing? My children-through-education are at a loss as to whether or not what I taught them years ago is really true. I told them that Alan Paton had it right in his great novel, Cry the Beloved Country, when Msimangu states, “There is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power” (37). It doesn’t feel like love won this week–but there is still another week ahead of us.

Having worked with children and teenagers and those who teach them for many years now, I know we have to take the long view. We occupy one point on a timeline stretching beyond what we can see. On that dot located in our classrooms, those young people we teach may be contentious, depressed, struggling, or defiant. Yet when we stick around long enough and creep down that timeline, those same young adults are raising families, teaching other contentious children, writing thoughtful prose, being ethical business men and women, healing, feeding, teaching, and trying to make a difference in the corner of the world they occupy.

I’ve seen the slow and powerful changes that happen over time, and I have to make the choice to live with hope. This week I feel let down by democracy. People made choices, as they are allowed and encouraged to do, and I am struggling to understand the choices they made. In his book, Good News about Injustice: A witness of Courage in a Hurting World, Gary Haugen writes, “When falling into the well of doubt about why God permits injustice on the earth, I scrape my way out by standing first on the limits of my human knowledge. I grab on to the character of the compassionate God revealed on the cross. I step up to the mysterious foothold offered by the terrible gift of free will, and lunge up to the dusty ground onto the hope of eternity. Brushing myself off, I finally get to my feet and face the task before me…” (118). I am trying to follow his example.

I know I cannot do the job God gives me to do without the power of community, yet ironically, according to Henri Nouwen, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” Our communities are more complete when they allow room for people who think in ways that are different than the way we think, and I need to understand people who thought it was OK to tolerate Donald Trump’s racism, misogyny, and bullying for some higher cause. Right now I am having trouble grasping that higher cause, but if I only see these people as caricatures then I build a wall within my community.

I know that there are so many issues to be concerned about in our broken world, and that each of us has certain ways we prioritize the issues we care deeply about. Nevertheless, I hope each of us is able to make a choice to see people even more clearly than we see party platforms. Scripture is vague about so many problems we face in the 21st century, but it is unambiguous about the fact that we are called to care for single mothers, children, refugees, prisoners, and the poor (James 1:27; Isaiah 58:7, 61:1; Deuteronomy 24:15; Zechariah 7:10; Luke 11:41 among many references). I am limited in the ways I can be involved in the branches of government operating in the US, especially living far away from the centers of power. Social media seemed like a way to share a voice, but it has ended up magnifying misunderstanding and providing more fuel to arguments.

So I come back to my role as a school leader. I can continue to provide opportunities for students to learn that building bridges is far more powerful than building walls. I can expose them to the problems in the world while equipping them with problem-solving strategies. I can give them chances to value language as a tool to bring reconciliation and give hope. I can teach them to look for evidence. I can help them apply the words of Jesus to whatever they are learning and doing, so that they understand that following Him is far more than a political agenda. I can encourage teachers to help their students reflect about their choices, their progress, and their goals to help them become lifelong learners who will make well-informed decisions. I can also provide safe havens for people, young and old, who feel vulnerable, separated, and lost. I can love those who are different from me.

I do not mean to imply that people who voted differently from me do not have these same goals and intentions, but there is much to attend to right now. Women, minorities, immigrants, refugees – those we are commanded to care for – are living in fear. It seems like the rest of us are at odds with each other. But I choose to live with hope, that “thing with feathers,” fragile, elusive, but oh so beautiful. I live with hope because this timeline speck is not the whole package. I live with hope because “though the wrong is oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” I live with hope because as Anne Lamott says, “In the long haul, grace will win out over everything” but we just aren’t there yet.

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Community from the Center

I’ve been thinking a lot about community this year. Earlier in the year, I wondered how we would weather the storm of a major transition putting me at the helm at my school. Instead, I have been so impressed that in a healthy community, even if the designated leader changes, the mission of the school continues, the culture remains intact, and things do not need to significantly vary for the people we are primarily here to serve: the students.

In the meantime, I’ve had several random conversations with friends going through much more painful transitions in a variety of institutions – churches, other schools, businesses and NPOs – where things fall apart. William Butler Yeats described this happening when “the centre cannot hold” and when “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” This is when things truly do fall apart. But when the center (or centre) does hold, when we share a common core, then we are bound together.

I’ve been picturing the image of an atom, with the nucleus holding stable while the electrons whirl around the outside. It is packed with power and energy, but the center holds it all together. This can be a little scary; it’s hard to really see how it works. It’s a little bit science and a little bit magic. When we don’t understand, then we get anxious, and it seems like our human nature motivates us to build fences, frameworks, and cages around the tiny particles we deal with to keep them holding to the familiar shape. We do this in communities too. We don’t necessarily trust that our center will hold us, so we want to create more rules, more structures, more systems to keep things working

At my school, our common faith in the God who made us and who promises to hold all things together unites us, but we do not need to look far to be very aware that even people who believe the same doctrine are not necessarily living in a thriving, cohesive community. We need to connect our faith and values to the way we work together, following a shared mission that directs everything we do from the inside out.

Of course, we need to create flexible boundaries that provide security for our community, but if our unity comes from our nucleus, we will need to see multiple directions our orbits might run. When we are revolving around our core, we have freedom and energy, but when we are caged in by layers and levels of laws we keep creating to keep everyone moving in the right directions, our vigor is depleted and we lose the joy that brought us together in the first place.

Community is a powerful force. It’s a little funny looking sometimes, and not very predictable, but I’d rather live in a community than a cage any day!



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