Sunday, July 2, 2017

Looking Forward. And West

In August of 1987, my mom dropped a high school buddy and me off at Rider Hall at the University of Northern Iowa. We piled out of a Chevy station wagon that looked a lot like this beauty.

That August day was the start of something remarkable. The lessons I learned as a student-athlete shaped me in ways that continue today, sometimes without me realizing it. Those intense five years, however, were only the beginning, Now, almost thirty years later, I'm transitioning to the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I have the tremendous honor of serving as the new department chair.  The excitement of the transition has me reflecting on so many things.

The lump I've had in my throat as I choked my way though multiple farewells this spring reappeared tonight, as I wrote notes to colleagues with whom I've been so deeply honored to serve.

Rather than focusing on the change as a physical separation and an ending, I frame it differently; not as goodbye, but as a thank you for the countless gifts I've received and a way to share what I've learned. Instead of goodbyes, I'm seeking to share lessons from incredible people and allow them to pollinate in a new place. I hope that honors their source.

My coaches taught me perspective and optimism. And about what winning and losing really look like. I got the chance to pay a bit of that back two years ago when Coach Jake asked me to talk with his team about the Panther Family. I told them I wasn't one of the best to have played here and maybe wasn't even the best to have worn my number. But there's no one more proud to have been a Panther.

My colleagues and mentors taught me about schools, the world, and myself. They shared immense creativity, brilliant insight, and deep passion. They taught me how to write and introduced me to vision, compassion and grace. They encouraged my righteous indignation. They revealed the gift of mindfulness. They taught me how to build, how to fail, and how to try again.  They consistently saw more in me than I saw in myself. They helped me to laugh, allowed me to cry, and reminded me to celebrate.

My students never failed to inspire. They've humbled me with skill that far eclipses my own. They allowed me into their heads, their lives, and in some cases, their hearts, as I tried to do for them what so many others have done for me. I hope I have come close.

The reflection process has brought me full-circle, nearly thirty years after my initial arrival in the Caprice. In the end, the gifts have been so caringly given and the lessons so expertly taught, that there is really only one way to honor them and the place of their birth. And that is to look forward, in this case, west. With deep gratitude and genuine enthusiasm for what's next.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Players Make Plays

I've been on a hiatus from blogging for a while now, but that doesn't mean nothing's been on my mind. Quite the contrary. Syria. The election. Police. It's all hard to turn off. But something happened last week that sent me back to the Balcony View. Thankfully, I remembered my password.

Players make plays is probably my favorite sports saying. The line between the joy and despair of athletics is often microscopic. When the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain, someone has to make a play. Coaches talk about players who want the ball in their hands at that moment. They don't fear failure. They just want to make the play.

Paul Jesperson's half court shot that lifted the Panthers over Texas in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament comes to mind.  A player doing what he does. Happy for the opportunity.

I'm not one to confuse sports with more important things in life, but it's true that there are so many parallels.

Our department has had the privilege of hosting a doctoral student from southeast Africa for the last year. We he arrived, it was his first trip outside of his developing country. Everything, and I mean everything was new. Culture, climate, food, currency, technology. Things my department colleagues and I held as assumptions had to be revisited as we worked to host our guest, a tremendously intelligent and well-schooled student intent on earning a doctorate from a respected American university.

My colleagues stepped forward in countless but significant ways, taking him to the grocery store to find food that he could eat. They helped set up his apartment, worked on his hand-me-down TV so he could catch a soccer game and not just QVC. They brought turkey sandwiches, pies, cookies, rice and pineapples. They invited him to their homes for American holidays. They found a bike for him to use. They showed him snow and bought him a coat, hat, and gloves and took him into their homes to meet their families. They helped and welcomed him in ways that transcend lines on a map. They showed that care is care and a smile is a smile. They showed humanity in a world that often feels angry and cold.

Last spring, he needed a surgery that was cost prohibitive for the basic insurance he carries as a student in the USA. Support from  St. Stephens Catholic Student Center and the University helped  make the unexpected trip home possible. He returned this fall to continue his quest to earn his doctorate.

Last Saturday night, I was watching the Panthers on TV when my email chimed. When I read it, I could no longer hear the TV. He wrote that his son had died after a short illness back home and the burial was scheduled for Monday. My first thought was that he needed to go home but I knew he lacked the resources to go and it was not possible to get there in time anyway. Over the phone, he politely refused my offer to come and sit with him, preferring to be alone.

I shared the news in an email to my colleagues in the Department of Educational Leadership and Postsecondary Education. Because it was Saturday night, I sent a text message asking everyone to check their email. Dr. Sue, who has mentored the student in ways that are ten steps past heartwarming, spoke to him on the phone and asked directly if he wanted to go home. He did and said the burial could be delayed if he could get there. Over the next few hours, the phone calls, text messages and emails rolled in. This is his son. We have to get him home. Unanimous.

St. Stephens Catholic Student Center and its new Priest, Father Nick, again stepped forward to help, as did the Dean of Students. Dr. Sue went to work to look for a ticket for the nearly 10,000 mile trip. The initial costs were north of $4,000, but she was unphazed. This is family. We have to get him home. Her resourcefulness and determination eventually yielded a round-trip ticket for less than half that figure.

The hearts of people I get to work with are truly remarkable. In less than 24 hours, our student was on a flight leaving O'Hare Airport, but not because she found a reasonably priced ticket. He was on the flight because players make plays. And wow, does the group I am so privileged to lead have some players.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Nowhere Else

Nine years ago, I began a role play activity for aspiring principals called A Day in the Office (DITO). I placed aspiring principals in a black box theater with a mock office. One by one, volunteer actors come to see the principals. Most are somewhere between concerned and off-the-chart angry about something. As in the real world, the future principals have to listen, respond, empathize and we hope, deescalate. We don't just throw them to the wolves, though. Among other things, we spend time preparing them with a visit from a police officer who does deescalation training and a theater professor who specializes in professional presence.

The exercise became a hallmark of the way we nurture and develop future principals and grew into my second book, The Principal's Hot Seat:Observing Real-World Dilemmas

Over the years, we've had some memorable encounters. I won't give much away, because DITO IX is slated for this June, but one particular encounter reappeared last week in a really good way.

Last summer, aspiring principal Matt Ohnemus

from Dewitt Central High School was paired with my college teammate, friend, DITO veteran and all-around winner Jonathan Cox.

I won't share the specifics of their exchange, but Jon was a handful, to put it delicately. There was little Matt could say that was helpful. At one particularly memorable point in their exchange, Jon asked Matt in a matter of words if he wanted to get physical.

Last Friday, I was headed to Dewitt Central High School for Matt's portfolio presentation, at which he highlighted the experiences he's had during his 20 months in our principalship program. It struck me that it might be fun to have Jon give Matt a call on his big day. Just like his nine years of DITO volunteering, Jon was all over it and eagerly made the call.

Jon reached Matt at school and they shared some laughs about the firework-filled exchange last summer. Jon congratulated him on nearing completion of his master's in educational leadership. He also told Matt not to take any BS from Dr. Pace during the presentation.

In Dewitt, I got to meet Matt's parents and wife, who attended his presentation. He shared how his entire family knows the story of his DITO experience. He also said Jon's call made his day. Hearing that made mine. Telling Jon what Matt said made his.

Matt, who recently interviewed for a model teacher position asked rhetorically, "Where else does that happen but UNI?"

Nowhere, Matt.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Do You Have Something New?

When I coached high school basketball, I would buy a new tie when district tournaments came along. Unfortunately, I didn't always get to wear it very long, as my teams were eliminated sooner than I would have liked. As a teacher, I often did the same thing--grabbing a new poster or something for the classroom at the start of the year.

As a professor, I do the same thing most years. A few years ago it was a cactus for my office. I figured I could keep a cactus alive, even through my fifth floor window that might or might not have been washed since the first Clinton Administration. More recently, it was a chute of bamboo. Both are struggling today.

A few months ago, I went with my son's club basketball team to Spiece Fieldhouse in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Felt like a basketball Mecca. While there, I took this photo

I'm not a huge Bob Knight fan, but I loved my first trip to Assembly Hall last winter and am a huge fan of this statement. Haven't seen much better.

Besides some incredibly talented young ballers, I saw one more thing that caught my eye at Spiece. This 1984 photo of Larry Bird and Julius Erving choking each other in a game at the Boston Garden. That's two great champions who wanna win. Who will fight for their team, their family.

What's new this year? And what will you fight for?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In the Shadow of the Statue of Liberty

I read a story online about how Rich Eychaner has launched a group called 1000 Kids for Iowa, aiming to house and care for some of the refugee children who have arrived at the southern border of the US. I've read about conditions south of the border--the poverty, exploitation, corruption, drug trade, human trafficking. I looked a little more and read stories about the journey across Central America and Mexico--in and on top of railroad cars, on foot, you name it.  I subsequently read about how Honduras is the murder capital of the world. This guy's blog is a great one, if you wanna think a little.

I thought about parents who, unlike me, are not reading about those conditions; they're living them. What must it be like to decide between  risking death and keeping a family together or sending your children cross country for the chance of life in a better place, knowing full well the dangers of the trip and that you may never see them again? What is it like the moment you decide, "Whatever happens, that unknown is better than what is right here?"

It seems like those who post comments to online news stories are often especially skilled at spewing venom. I once wrote a letter to the editor of the Des Moines Register suggesting that Iowa no longer needed 99 county courthouses. No surprise, I got scorched in most of the comments. One guy said I had to be an urban elitist. Not so much, I thought. Hell, I lived in Seymour, IA for a while. That disqualifies me from being an urban snob. Another noted I once wrote a book about gay kids, so I had to be crazy. Another guy said I was probably OK because I used to play basketball. I'm not making this up.

I've known Eychaner for 15 years and admire him and his work. After reading the news story on his plan, against my better judgment, I scrolled down to some of the comments, which were were mostly predictable. Some of them made me nauseous.

We're talking about a plan to care for some of these kids in something other than cages while elected officials on both sides masquerade as leaders who will come up with a plan. That's not a lot to ask, especially here, you know, in a nation of immigrants.

One guy went off about how our soldiers who had put their lives on the line weren't getting the care they deserve back home. Agreed. The VA disaster is an outrage, but those are separate issues. Last time I checked, our brave soldiers had last names like Rodriguez, Schultz, O'Malley, Kovacevich, Najjar, Birdinground and a few thousand others. They are prepared to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the way of life on which this nation of immigrants is built, glorious and imperfect as it may be.

They are brave souls whose ancestors arrived here on foot, in boats, in chains, or were already here.

The way of life for which those brave souls fight and from which I benefit is the same one the families we're talking about seek. That way of life includes this little diddy:

Some of the angriest are especially good at wrapping themselves in the flag and talking American values. I assume that the idea behind the inscription on the Statue of Liberty would be included in their definition, but I wonder. A lot of what I hear sounds more like, "that was then, this is now, so lock the doors since my ancestors made it in." I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, "Upset about illegal immigration? Talk to a Native American."

In a slightly different context, I wrote in that 2009 for school leaders that "if we're only willing to live those statements when we're dealing with white, Christian, middle-class, athletic, compliant, heterosexual students whose parents always come to conferences, we ought to remove the statement, repaint the sign out front, and replace it with what we really mean. What good are the statements if we can only live them when it's easy?" (p. 142)

Surely we're better than the political paralysis we're getting from our "leaders" in this nation of immigrants and the xenophobia from some who aren't bothered by kids locked up in cages in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. We can do better. It's our way of life.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Zach McCabe and Teddy Roosevelt

I was disappointed but not surprised to hear about nimrods on Twitter attacking University of Iowa basketball player Zach McCabe for his performance in a recent game. And Fran McCaffery telling his players to shut down their accounts is understandable, though some have argued that doesn't really address the problem.

It is, however, good to see McCabe getting support from those who get it--his teammates, coaches, family, friends, fans, and others who know what it's like to put everything you have into something, only to lose and take criticism form a world of no-nothings and do-nothings.

I'm a recovering social studies teacher, which partially explains my affinity for quotes. All this reminds me of a hellagood one from Teddy Roosevelt. I had it hanging in my classroom when I was a high school basketball coach trying to build a new, positive winning culture in our basketball program. The sign was many years before Twitter, but TR's wisdom holds true today.

In a 1910 speech in France, Roosevelt said,

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best in the end knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Well said, Ted.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Jolt and the Blessings

A little before 10:00 a.m. on December 6, I was working on some important stuff--feedback on student projects. I was working away, a little distracted by the weather, impending holidays, paying for our kids' college, wondering when the Panthers would play with more consistency. That's when my wife called.

She was with our son (15) at his sports physical, 366 days after the previous one. The doctor wanted an ultrasound done because he didn't like the feel of one of our son's testicles during that part of the exam. I was swamped, but didn't mind running across town to wait with them while we confirmed that we had nothing except a thorough doctor.

After the ultrasound, the lab called the doctor, who then called me. Not knowing I was already with my wife and son at the lab, he asked if I could meet them in his office. I asked if we could run our son back to school first. He said, "No, why don't all three of you come."

Pause. That's when you realize you're not being invited to be told the ultrasound looks great and to have a good weekend. That's when the  projects, weather, college tuition and Panthers evaporate from your mind while it races to anticipate what is about to enter that space.

Our excellent doctor is a straight shooter. After a little foggy small talk, he said, "I want you to see this as your lucky day." Then he looked at our son and said he had testicular cancer. He had no pain, symptoms or history. The lucky part, he said, was that he had found it early and that TC is one for which there are clear and effective ways forward. Cures in most cases.

Or something like that, as near as I can remember. I will admit to the room spinning a bit. Light-headed and a little nauseous, I tried to ask some intelligent questions and process his answers. At the risk of turning this post into one that is far too long, I'm compelled to share a few thoughts.

The same afternoon, he had a CT Scan that showed no evidence of any cancer anywhere else. He got back to school in time to play (and play well) in his basketball game and told his buddies openly what was up. I would have wanted to play, but I doubt I would have played well. And I might have said there was something wrong with my knee. We're all justifiably proud of our kids, but that's a helluva combination of grace, honesty and toughness in my book.

We've learned so much since then, such as:
  • how testicular cancer is quite rare, with only approximately 8,000 cases a year in the US;
  • but that it is the most common form of cancer in males ages 13-35;
  • and that it is 95% or so curable, when caught early;
  • but that many men (and a stunning number of doctors) don't give it any attention, causing many cases to advance quickly.
We've also learned how breathtakingly caring so many people are. Work colleagues, our son's teachers, coaches and classmates have been incredible. People we only know casually have brought movie tickets, candy, magazines, cookies, cards, sent texts and of course, good wishes and prayers. Parents who've experienced the same thing have shared their stories and fears. Guys I haven't heard from in 25 years have called. A signed photo with a message from Mike Krzyzewski showed up in the mail. And every last bit of it helps one navigate, more than I could have imagined, a surreal road.

He is back at school and basketball now. We've reviewed the options with our excellent team of doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and have opted for surveillance, given that he has a 70% chance of being cured at this point. We will deal with anything else that might be necessary if it becomes so.

Meantime, some free advice from a guy who was working on a bunch of important stuff on December 6.

  • Tell the young men in your life to get familiar with themselves and to do an easy monthly self-exam. Tell the same young men to expect their doctors to do that part of a routine physical. The Wendy's Drive-Thru takes longer and the exam is better for you. To blow if off is somewhere between medical malpractice and negligence.  
  • Tether yourself to important things...core values, family, true friends, your faith. We know the world is full of crazy, scary stuff, but let's face it. Most of it happens to someone else. Until it's not someone else. 
  • Count your blessings. Twice, but not in a way that says, "Wow, I'm glad I don't have to deal with that." Rather, count them in a way that gives thanks but also acknowledges that blessings also take the form of caring friends, family and people who are damn good at what they do--including some you'll never meet and others you never want to but who show up big at game time.  
  • Breathe in this life and be one of those blessings to someone when you have the chance.