Thank you Summer

My Timehop has been flooded with all of the things I did in the summer of 2013, the summer of 2014, the summer of 2015. Seems I have a habit of listing all of the miles I drove, all of the attractions I saw, all of the classes I took at the end of the summer season. I account for it all annually, especially this weekend, the last before the start of school.

Well, comparatively, I did nothing this summer. Two years ago, I took three writing classes in three different states, attended a baptism 500 miles away, then a wedding 500 miles in the opposite direction, relandscaped my garden, and wrote a book.

This summer, I – um – rode my scooter a bit past Beachwood Mall every day and took a water arthritis class with 15 older women. And – ah – I had my bathtub reglazed.

I did see Nadia Bolz- Weber in Pittsburgh. That was cool, if you are a seminary dork like I am. I also attended six billion discernment task force meetings at my church.

I went to a retreat in a small town on the Canadian edge of Lake Erie and rang up $110 of international data use.

I saw an old college friend and reunited with an old Ronald McDonald House friend. Went to Columbus to check on retirement and back and forth to Ann Arbor a few times. I visited Mitchell’s ice cream a few times – the cool one down in University Circle. Saw the wacky conflagration of people at the RNC.

Had a getaway weekend in…ah…the city you always think of when you think of getaways, Detroit. I took two daytrips to Amish country to photograph barns and eat some pizza. The highlight was a day spend scootering through Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But, mostly, I went to the pool and exercised.

Friends at work went to Alaska, Ireland, California, Montreal, Maine, New Mexico – exotic locales – and I went to Beachwood, 3.2 miles away. Sugarcreek. Columbus and Detroit.

My friends filled up their summers with classes and second jobs and family reunions. I sat on my porch and waited for Fiona to come over. I took pictures of her cowboy boots, always on the wrong feet. And I drank lemonade while I watched my grass turn brown.

And yet, there is always an “and yet” this was one of the best summers of my life. I felt relaxed all of the time, every single minute of every single day (except for driving home from Columbus in a torrential 5 hour storm).

I declined invitations when I wanted to. I accepted offers when I felt drawn to the activity. I slept when I needed to sleep. I ate the food that whispered in my ear. I did nothing out of obligation. Nothing.

And so, for the first time in the longest time, I was blissfully, selfishly, immeasurably self-pleasing. And that, I would argue is an adult accomplishment. It may not seem it to all of you who equate adulating with responsibility, but I just looked up the etymology of adult and it springs from “maturitatem” which means ripeness. Or “goodness” and “timeliness.”

This was a summer I needed to regain and anchor myself to happiness, to a sense of calm and goodness that eluded me all of last school year. So I let myself ripen, grow heavy on the vine. I did nothing but to seek and fill myself with goodness.

And it worked. I have not been this happy and steady in a long time.

So thank you, Summer of 16. You were slow, soft, simple. Just what I needed. I look forward to seeing you again next year. June 2nd, 2017 will come round soon enough – I have already marked my calendar.

Common App Essay #4

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

What I am about to say will cause me to completely lose the respect of my former students and current colleagues, especially my math buddy, Crystal Hayduk, then – crossing fingers – I will earn it back.

Here goes.

When I opened the BC Calculus AP exam on the spring of 1979, I did not recognize a single thing. I did not know what a second derivative was nor a secant line. I always picture taking the exam in the choir room at the high school (with its auditorium seating) and, once I recognized the predicament I was in, I recall sitting for a long time trying to figure out a way out of the room without everyone seeing me.

Sure I had earned a solid B in class, but that came from incrementally understanding what to do with the numbers and symbols facing me on each particular day. I had no idea how it all worked together, and, in all honesty, I don’t think anyone ever explained why I might need to know the area of the shape formed under a curve.

Later that spring when everyone was sharing AP scores, I was reluctant to share mine. I’d say, “Oh, man, that test was hard.” Or, more vaguely, “Glad that’s over.” I never admitted to my result, which was a score of 1.

I think you get a 1 (on the 1-5 scale for those of you who don’t know) by signing your name and making a few marks on the page. I had done that, but nothing more.

So problem: I wasn’t nearly as smart as I was supposed to be, especially after all of those years of good teachers in a great system with throngs of others equally talented.

When selecting freshmen classes at Miami University, the first thing I did was to sign up for an 8 am 5 credit hour calculus class. Monday through Friday, first thing, before most people were even thinking about getting up.

I needed to know if I was as dumb as I felt, and I needed to prove I could do better.

I went every day, sat in the back of the class barely taking notes. I just listened. I tried to see the point and make the connections that had been previously lost on me. I did my some of my homework, but mostly I helped the others on my corridor who were taking calculus for the first time.

I must have gotten it because I had the highest score on every test every time. I broke the curve (a curve whose area I could now measure). I broke it so badly that, at some point, the TA teaching the class decided to drop me off the curve altogether.

One day after class she asked how I knew what I knew especially because I didn’t even seem to need to take notes or hand in homework. I explained what had happened senior year in high school. That I had failed and I needed to know why.

And, that’s pretty much been my modus operandi for all problems. I want to know why and where I went wrong, then I want to fix it. It works for most things: overcooking pork, conquering Google Drive, or repairing friendships.

Other times, that strategy falls flat. Like when you need to make amends to your mother after she has died or want to question hiring practices (especially when you are not the person who has been hired). Then, I find it best to use the completely opposite and equally effective technique: letting it go.

That’s the big point of problem solving, after all, isn’t it? To know and train your response. To build recovery muscles.

There’s no way to live error-free; there is no point in assuming life should or will go smoothly. I needed – when I was very young – to know that I could solve my own way out again, I could always count on me to recalibrate. Except, of course, that year or two or five when I was depressed. Then I needed medicine and a weekly session on the couch.

I have relearned the lesson of self-determination many times. It will get rocky. You will open the day’s docket and it’ll look like goobly gook. You won’t recognize what you are being asked to do and you won’t know how to proceed. Then you will remember that you have the capacity and inclination to figure it out. Instead of needing to know the area under a curve, you will need to know the swerve of the curve – so, you will duck and twist in a new direction and rectify the differential between being lost and certain. It’s a certain kind of calculus, this recovery. The kind of calculus I use every single day.

Common App Essay #3

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This one is easy – you can just ask my current principal.

For some reason, when I was hired for my current job at the very young age of 26, I entered on even ground. My then principal assumed I was a leader, so I lead. My gifted education supervisor assumed I was skilled, so I showed my skills. The assistant superintendent wanted my opinions, so I gave them.

I was treated as an equal by everyone in the institution, as was everyone else. People who did not know each other assumed that every other was good at what he/she did and, when put together, we could solve any problem.

I have worked (and argued) with so many talented people: high school principals, central office administrators, a Harvard professor working with the district, even the superintendent. At one time in my career, I was able to walk into the administration building and be warmly welcomed by everyone even at the highest reaches. About 10-12 years ago, because of the capacity to explain and engage thinking, I was a co-lead in an achievement initiative for the whole district with an adjunct consultant. God, how lucky I have been to have had my talents needed and encouraged, even though I was “just a teacher.”

I know not all teachers have this purview, but I did, and it was incredible. Not because of the informal power that was vested in me, but because of the trust. To have been seen and known and counted on? Well, that’s an ideal professional setting, no matter what the profession.

I especially loved to get in a room with the assistant superintendent to throw down. We would and could debate about nearly everything. When trying to begin a new initiative, we would wrestle with all of the yes-buts and the what-ifs. If I felt strongly about a certain course of action, I would share those feelings (bolstered by reason, of course) and we would maneuver toward or away from the given path to find the best solution. When she needed insight, she would call me. When an established procedure was not working, I would call her. So too with all of the people I worked under. I gave, I took. It was mutual, this grinding. And, I loved it.

One time, the superintendent was thinking about making a big change to an established program, and when he put his idea into the mix on a professional day session he was attended along side the rest of us, I vehemently disagreed and made my opinions clear. I did so assertively, just left of the edge of impropriety. He listened – as did the rest of the room, somewhat shocked by the strength of my tone and argument. He asked more questions. He weighed my input.

It was, despite my accelerated heartbeat, exactly what should happen in a strong institution. Grounded in the belief that we all want to do our very best for our charges and honor the immeasurable trust the community gives us, we should go at it. Disagree until we agree, debate until the waves abate.

And, even now, with my colleagues in my school, I think – I hope – we welcome disagreement. Not the petty kind, of course, but we are willing to wrangle with differences. And doing that? It builds capacity, it cements understanding, it brings out a more resounding quality of thinking.

Now, at the end of my career, that kind of healthy deliberation has become more limited. Maybe it’s because of my age, maybe I have been there too long, maybe because people don’t know about my intellect or don’t jibe with my style. Maybe there has just been a shift in shared decision-making. I’m really not quite sure.

Luke Arthur states that workplace conflict benefits business in five ways: It engages people, gets employees’ attention, improves relationship, morale and ideas. That’s the most important claim: when people trust each other enough to disagree, then the flow of ideas is wider, deeper and stronger. Collectively, the group can refine a good idea to great.

I guess I have always known that instinctively and wish that I could move through the last part of my career with the same fervor I was granted earlier.

At least I have my principal, my favorite debater and co-conspirator. When I drop by for a quick chat, we end up discussing the pluses and minuses of, well, anything, everything really. The rotation of PD days, the use of leadership team time, painting the blacktop. Neither of us would have it any other way. Our relationship is founded on the deep and exercised belief that we can figure it out (it being anything) and, in doing so, we will disagree for the greater good. Sometimes, the conversation walks itself all the way to my car when I am trying to go home. Sometimes, it involves a late night “but maybe” text. I love it, the engagement, this overt display of respect.

So, have I challenged a belief or idea? Yes, every damn day, 185 work days a year. Would I make the same decision? Yes, thank God, always yes, yes, yes. Not because of what I gained but because of my deep held belief that when we fight, we are fighting our way to excellence.

Common App Essay #2

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Failure. I guess that is what I am having trouble with. The word, itself. What it connotes.

I have lost many things. Countless softball games, tennis matches, golf tournaments, so many swimming races I cannot even attempt to log.

I have not been chosen for many things. I did not get into the yearbook committee in high school. The coach passed me over for the softball team, too. I did not get into my top two colleges. I was not picked for organization at Miami that everyone cool got into – what was it called, MUSF? I did not get to attend a Summer Media Institute in film one summer. I was not selected to be Disney Teacher of the Year, nor was I awarded a few OAC individual artist grants (though I did one, yahoo). I was not placed in a district job I thought I had earned. I was not deemed worthy of being a workshop leader. I wrote a book and got eight healthy rejections.

I have not be successful at recipes, especially those involving pork. I tried to be a great dancer in water aerobics class but lacked a certain necessary rhythm. I tried choosing the just right paint color of my dining room for months until I figured it out.

I lost a kid at the zoo during a field trip.

I passed out when getting stitches removed from my face.

I have tried to stop biting my nails for forty years and could only string together a few weeks without crumbling.

I tried loving a person or two and am just now starting to understand the kind of generosity and acceptance that takes.

I once was so sad that I thought about driving off the side of the road. That lasted for a year or two, but, thankfully, I can’t even remember what that feeling felt like.

But failure? I cannot think of a time I failed.

When I looked up the etymology of the word failure, this is what I got: mid 17th century (originally as failer, in the senses ‘nonoccurrence’ and ‘cessation of supply’): from Anglo-Norman French failer for Old French faillir (see fail).

You see, I have not had nonoccurances. So many things have occurred. Nor have I had a cessation of supply. All of the above occurrences were abundant in supply. Not the kind of huge life lessons an admissions board might be looking for, but, as with all events, the above nudged and shaped me in ways, conscious and unconscious.

I keep playing games. I keep trying out for opportunities. I still trust and lean into love. I count all of the heads when I go on field trips now. Twice, I count them twice.

And, I write.

These “failures” are the semantics of stories. These “failures” are ripe with supply. I do not know who I would be if I could have broken one minute in 100 freestyle. I don’t know who I would have been had Ohio University welcomed me into their film class. I do not know how much gentleness might have been stripped from me had I not known depression. But, why wander down that hypothetical parallel universe anyway? It is what it is, as my friend Kathy tells me.

My job, your job dare I say, is to accept every single thing that put you here. In this place, in your skin, with all of its wrinkles and bruises. Grace is sometimes disguised as failure. So, appreciate each of your days, take it all in – maybe even as gift.

Common Application Essay #1

Last year on this day, I heard some bad news and my reaction (healthy as it was) was to start writing again. I did, wholeheartedly, expecting to be “picked up” by Huffington Post or “snatched up” by a small press. Something to affirm my talents.

But that’s not a reason to write. Needing to write is a reason to write. Having good ideas to share with good people is a reason to write. Hence, no picking up, no snatching.

I’d like to say the pain of last year’s rejection has worn off. It hasn’t, especially as people I know have started traveling to IB schools and leading IB workshops. I wish them all well; they are amazing people. It’s just that I am amazing too.

Last night I ran into Brian and his mom at Target. We talked about applying for colleges and eventually wound our way around to University of Chicago’s essay questions and Common App essay prompts. I decided, right then and there near the self check-out, that that’s where I would begin writing again. They say youth is wasted on the young. Well, I think these good writing prompts are wasted on them too. I can’t imagine what my 15 year-old high school junior would say, but I know what I want to tell you as an end-of-career, 54 year old.

This is the first in a series of College App essays. Here is Common Application essay prompt #1:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

I want to tell you about my marble collection. I have a jar in every room of my house, even the bathrooms. Most of them come from an antique store in Berlin, Ohio which, most days, exists as a tourist trap for those wanting to see the Amish. I like being in Amish Country, but it’s not for their food (too bland) or way of living. Honestly, I have been so many times, I have gotten used to the things that charm others: buggies outside of a bulk foods store, black hand-sewn pants, bowl haircuts on little boys, picturesque laundry drying on the line. I go to Amish country for the rolling farms way off the beaten track. The jungle-like impatiens in a thriving garden. The nods I get from the buggy drivers because I pass slowly and carefully. And I go for marbles.

When my first girlfriend and I first went to Amish Country on the weekend before school started, I impulsively bought a jar of antique marbles for an ungodly amount of money. Forty dollars. As soon as we got to the hotel, I rolled them all out onto the white bedcover. “Look,” I said, “at these colors.” These were not like the cheap sparkled marbles you can get at Walmart. They were clearer. The glass seemed more pure. I could almost feel the hands that had held them up to the light.

That was fourteen years ago. Now there are marbles all around me. Most are antiques, but my favorites are from a company in Reno, Ohio, called Jabo. I like them, not because they are rare, but because they remind me of the earth. One batch made me think of Utah – crusty orange, sky blue and sunset gold. One run reminds me of the waters at the head of the Mississippi. Silty brown, green-blue stream color, undergrowth moss.

You might be thinking that I’m an expert in playing marbles. I am not. I think the big ones are called shooters but I have no idea what they are shooting at or why they might be shooting. There is a circle, I think. Made of string?

I collect marbles because each has its own beauty. And you have to look at each carefully, closely. Now, I know you are expecting me to pivot this essay to a metaphor: how I think each person is uniquely wondrous and we must look closely to know and understand each person. That’s what I would have done when I was 15 and I needed a college to like me and like what I have written. I don’t think about metaphors when I am looking at my marbles. I just look at the marbles. The same way that I look at the barns when I drive through Kidron or Walnut Creek. Or the way I look at leaves flipping over before a storm. Or the way I look at kindergarten print with its sloping slant and confident capital letters.

It is enough, sometimes – oft times – to just stop. Look. Appreciate. There is ample time for metaphor, turning one thing into another, connecting like ideas to experiences. There is time, and sometimes not enough time, to tend to your daily living. The rush of grocery carts, online logging in, Netflix and making beds.

And there is time to just be still. Too love colors, shapes. For you, it might be a walk in the Forest Hill Park, seeing fox on the ridge of the trail. For him, it might be a trip to the Packard Museum in Warren, running his hand across the chrome of a 1953 Clipper.

For me, it’s marbles. Untwisting the Ball Jar lid, clinking them onto the floor. Holding them up to the light, to see the way the glass seems swirled. Swirled just for me.