I remember standing outside Churchgate Station in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, waiting to meet a friend. It was 1986. I had just graduated from college and was beginning my training in special education. I was new to Bombay – a BIG city teeming with life. Perhaps being on my own for the first time made the city seem bigger, but maybe not! I stood opposite Churchgate, facing it and watching a sea of human beings cross the road. I don’t remember if there was a light for pedestrians – if there was one, it would have quickly become meaningless. A pair of police officers stood on either side of the road, creatively tackling the challenge of holding pedestrians back and allowing traffic to flow on the road. Every few minutes, they would drop a long rope they were holding up, and hundreds of people would cross the road. I watched, mesmerized by the repetitive pattern of their actions. At intervals they would blow a whistle and raise a long rope and pedestrians actually stopped on the sidewalk… filling it up until you couldn’t see the concrete any more (here’s a recent picture of the area outside Churchgate that I found on the web). There was no pushing or shoving. Just an orderly wave of people on their way to work in a busy city, stopping and surging forward as the rope dropped! At first I smiled, thinking how creative the cops were. They had found a different solution to dealing with traffic in an area congested with vehicles and people. Was there a better alternative? Who cared! This was working pretty well. I stood there and the minutes ticked by. There is nothing like watching hundreds of people walk by in the span of minutes to realize how insignificant one is in this vast world. The realization was unnerving at first. Until then, my world had revolved around me – the things Subha had done… the places Subha had visited… the people Subha knew… and then there was the sidewalk outside Churchgate reminding me that there was more to the world than I had imagined. I was looking at the world a little differently.
Such moments have crept up on me at intervals – moments when I realized something about myself and felt puzzled about the world we live in. Three years ago, working at a high poverty school in Indianapolis, I noticed that in the cafeteria there was hardly any wastage of food. Kids ate and drank everything that was on their trays. I soon learned that these were probably the only meals each day for some students. One incident stands out in my memory – a child writhing in pain in the nurse’s clinic a few minutes after school had started, clutching his stomach and crying unbearably. We called for his mother and she took him to a nearby hospital. We were surprised when he returned a short while later. The diagnosis – hunger pangs. I told my family this story at dinner time that night and all three of us cried. Sometime later, before a long weekend, as I attempted to calm a student who had been acting out, a wise teacher called me to the side and let me know that this child (and others) had difficulty coping with upcoming vacations. School provided a semblance of stability in their young lives filled with stresses I could not imagine. She asked the child if he would like to join her in her classroom to help her little kids and he quickly calmed down and left with her. Her kindness and thoughtfulness is an indelible memory, but I wondered how I was to ever understand the experiences of my students. I didn’t have a reference point. Poverty at this school was not something one could point to as kids walked down the hallways -unlike in India where poor kids often had no clothes, food, shelter, bathrooms or clean water to drink. My husband often says, “The worst that can happen to you and me is better than the best that can happen to 90% of the world.” This is one of my favorite quotes. I am glad that he shared this thought with me. He is someone with an admirable ability of looking at the world just a little differently while somehow always remaining objective. I haven’t mastered this like he has, but he has been around consistently and unconditionally, to keep me grounded! When I remember it, this quote shakes me out of the rut of wallowing in problems, and allows me to focus on important things. Would keeping my eyes open to the different ways of the world allow me to notice things that I must act to change?
How fortunate we are as educators, that we can attempt to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Dr. Michael Dantley, one of my professors at MU, guided our conversations about different types of leadership always pushing us to think about issues in a deeper way. He invited his wife, Carol Dantley, to our class one day to talk about her leadership at her school. I will never forget her words: “Take what you have and make it what you need.” As school leaders we often juggle various needs tied to resources – people, money and things. It is so easy to think about all that we do not have, and if only we had it, what a difference we could make! It is so much harder to look at what we already have and think about using it differently to maximize our work. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is something I try to do. It allows me to deal with challenges at work positively and flexibly when resources are tight. I can sweat and whine about all that is out of my reach, or work with a creative team to do the most with what we have. I continue to learn to view the world differently and thank her for her concise and incredibly powerful message.
Dr. Raymond Terrell, an incredible educator and mentor always gave a big grin when our cohort of aspiring principals asked him how we could resolve issues. He simply repeated a refrain that we would have to figure it out ourselves by wrestling with ideas. At that time we were not happy with his response… we felt he was holding back. Today, I realize he was teaching us the most important thing we need to do as leaders – reflect and wrestle with ideas to get to the point where we can jump in and do what we believe is right and necessary. He often said, “It’s not a better way, it’s a different way.” And he’s right! If we knew something was the ‘better’ thing to do, none of us would shirk from doing it, would we? However, decisions don’t come with labels like ‘better way’ or ‘not a great thing to do’. So, we must have the courage to notice and name things that exist in our world, that may be different from what we know, understand, experience and believe. We also have to rise to the challenge of doing things differently if in doing so we are tackling something that needs reworking.
Leadership takes some guts, a lot of creativity and a willingness to open our eyes and see our world as it is, and all that it can be if we are willing to act! May we always have the strength and courage to look for ‘a different way’!