Parents, Guardians & Staff,
We learn a lot from our moms. A fairer statement would be that we learn a lot from our parents. As one reads this, we are halfway between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. For me, while my dad taught me skills...how to play the saxophone, how to throw a baseball, how to fix my bike...my mom taught me attributes, particularly, how to care, how to love, how to keep calm, how to communicate. And if I gained any wisdom early in life, I’m sure much came from her.
One of my early lessons my mom taught me came while in grade school. I wasn’t a popular kid. I was very average in everything, not athletic, not good looking, not extremely smart. In fact, at one time, my mom told me, “Tommy, you’re not the smartest kid in America...But remember, you’re not the dumbest.” The lesson? Well, I have vivid memories of coming home very sad one day when I was about 8-years-old, and telling my mom how hurt I was that the other “cool kids” did not want me to be in their circle. She sat me down and explained to me that real friends would come and probably when I wasn’t seeking them; I needed to learn to be happy with myself. When alone, I needed to find joy in reading a book, riding my bike, writing in a journal, making a meal, taking a walk, playing a musical instrument. That while friends were important, they would come...focus on what you can control. Don’t let your happiness be dependent on others.
Afterward, she told me to get a rubber ball and baseball mitt, go outside and just start throwing it against a brick wall to see what happens. About 15 minutes later, one, then two other guys showed up and we all started playing catch.
What my mom taught me was to get comfortable with being alone. And that when we seek something, is when it is often most elusive.
My mom died in 2003. At the time, I was the principal of a high school of 3,200 students in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. That summer after her death, I decided to take one full week to be all alone. I knew of a Trappist Abbey (Catholic monks who take a vow of silence) in the hills of Kentucky and decided a week of quiet, solitude and reflection would be good for my being. Every year since, I have tried to find at least a weekend, to get back to this special quiet place, void of the internet, cell phone coverage, traffic, sounds of a city and daily interruptions…just the sounds of nature, thousands of acres of trails, simple food and silence. I read, I journal, I reflect on the past year...And I come away refreshed, and hopefully a little wiser.
Mr. Rogers shared this love of silence. In an interview, he shared: “There’s noise everywhere. There are some places we can’t even escape it. Television and radio are probably the worst culprits. They are very seductive. It’s so tempting for some people to turn on the television set or the radio when they first walk into a room or get in the car...to fill any space with noise. I wonder what some people are afraid might happen in the silence. Some of us must have forgotten how nourishing silence can be. That kind of solitude goes by many names. It may be called 'meditation' or 'deep relaxation,' 'quiet time' or 'downtime.' In some circles, it may even be criticized as 'daydreaming.' Whatever it’s called, it’s a time away from outside stimulation, during which inner turbulence can settle, and we have a chance to become more familiar with ourselves.”
I believe what Mr. Rogers (and earlier in my life, my mom) are trying to teach us is that we need time and silence to be reflective. And being reflective is critical to our well-being. The key, as Mr. Rogers eloquently stated, is that when we are reflective...“we have a chance to become more familiar with ourselves.”
One technique used in schools to help children learn to be reflective is journaling. There are many research-supported benefits of journaling and reflection from dropping blood pressure and improving sleep to strengthening self-discipline, gaining clarity, and prioritizing problems, fears, and concerns. Journaling can also help to practice gratitude, track news and to maintain a productive routine.
Westlake High School English classes have been journaling in Google Classroom throughout the quarantine, and the WHS Speaker Series has provided presentations reinforcing the importance of journaling to manage stress and self-care: "Managing Stress and Anxiety during the Quarantine" and "Self-Care and Self Compassion."
Reflection, whether in a journal, a once-a-year retreat or a daily ritual, can truly help us better understand ourselves. By reflecting upon and understanding our innate fears and anxieties, and those things that trigger our insecurities, we are able to develop the strategies to navigate future situations.
Many who know me know that I often listen to a podcast called OnBeing. OnBeing is the project of Krista Tippett, author of the New York Time’s bestseller, “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” Ms. Tippett interviews many extremely notable and interesting people in her podcasts. In 2011, for Mother’s Day, she wanted to interview a wise person on parenting. She probably could have chosen many, but she decided upon Sylvia Boorstein. Ms. Boorstein’s biographic description says that even though she is a scholar, author, teacher and psychotherapist, she describes herself first as a “wife, mother, grandmother.” And later in the interview notes that of all that she has accomplished in life that she is most proud of having raised several healthy children and grandchildren.
In this Mother’s Day podcast Krista Tippett re-released this past Mother’s Day, Ms. Boorstein tells several stories connected to parenting. One of her main points is stated in this quote that I have used in all of my State of the District presentations this year.
Children learn from watching their parents. When my mom was lonely, I would watch her sing and play the piano. I watched her show love by cooking a meal for her family. To this day, I still reflect on those lessons. And while we are sheltering safely, sometimes with imposed isolation, I find strength in tapping down my anxieties and navigating the uncertainties.
Right now, I think the world has changed so much, so quickly that we all feel a bit lost. It is difficult not to doubt some things we have always taken for granted, not unusual to have some fear and some anxieties. We can, on Tuesday’s Green Glasses Day, recognize the value in being reflective to nourish and strengthen our ability to be resilient.
The full podcast is here https://onbeing.org/programs/
I leave you with one final story illustrating this point from one of the many stories Ms. Boorstein uses as a teaching tool in her interview. “I think our children learn to speak in a tone that we speak in or to hold people kindly if we do. I had in my mind I wanted to tell this...I was thinking about the GPS in my car. It never gets annoyed at me. If I make a mistake, it says, 'Recalculating.' And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back. I thought to myself, you know, I should write a book and call it 'Recalculating' because I think that that’s what we’re doing all the time, that something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad, you could go home, you could make some phone calls, you could tell a few people you can’t believe what this person said or that person said.
"Indignation is tremendously seductive, you know, and to share with other people on the telephone and all that. So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of what you said before, wise effort to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There’s a fork in the road here. I could become indignant; I could flame up this flame of negativity; or I could say, 'Recalculating.' I’ll just go back here.”
This is truly a time for reflection...reflection utilized to strengthen our resiliency. While I am unsure what new realities we might face in the summer and fall, I do know we will need to be resilient. And as things go wrong, and they always do...And as we experience some failures, and we always will...Staying calm, being reflective will allow us to “recalculate” and be better prepared to support one another...no matter what lies ahead.
Be safe, stay well,