Saturday, April 13, 2019

Derrick Nelson

            When you see news trucks in front of a high school, it’s usually not a good sign. This week at my school, the trucks were out in full force. But there was no school shooting, no acts of violence, no arrests, no protests. There was just a lot of quiet mourning in the halls, classrooms and courtyards of Westfield High School.
            Nearly eight weeks ago, I became aware that something horrible and potentially tragic had taken place during a procedure in which my boss, Dr. Derrick Nelson, was donating bone marrow cells to try and save the life of a boy in France for whom he was a match. The complication resulted in Nelson being in a coma for seven weeks, and he passed away last weekend. Nelson was the principal of Westfield High, a proud Army Reservist, a father, fiancĂ©, son, friend, Delaware State alum, Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, and Plainfield, NJ, native and resident.
            Students and staff have known for weeks that Dr. Nelson was sick, although the specific details were not released to most in order to afford the family the privacy it needed. News of Nelson’s death brought immediate grief, and that grieving will continue for some time. When leaders and selfless givers depart from this world, we are left with holes that don’t fill themselves easily.
            In our school’s journalism program, we discuss and debate the definition of news – what makes a newsworthy story? Is it what the public needs to know, or what it wants to know? Is it informative news? Sensationalism? Partisan politics? Internet-fueled images and videos? While those questions are at the heart of today’s journalism instruction, there are also times when news decisions make themselves, and reporters know instinctively that a story needs to be told.
            That was the case with the death of Derrick Nelson. When the news trucks showed up, they were there for good reason. This man’s story was well worth telling, and his life’s work was well worth sharing. This past week, individuals from throughout the region, country and world have learned about Derrick Nelson. That is a very good thing. There is tragedy, of course, at the heart of why they learned. But to know this man’s story and his unwavering commitment to service is to know something more about the better angels of our nature.
            Dr. Nelson hired me out of the classroom less than a year ago, and I am an assistant principal because, quite simply, he and our superintendent chose me. He asked me, during our midyear review, how I thought he was doing in supporting me. I told him that he was in many ways the perfect boss, because he set clear standards and also gave me the freedom to try my own methods of leadership and learn from them. The Friday before his procedure, he allowed me to give two presentations at a staff in-service day, one on media literacy and the other on social and emotional learning. Before we parted ways for the weekend, he told me who he had chosen for our school’s “Unsung Hero” award, to be presented at a Union County event. A few weeks later, I stood in for him in giving this award to one of our students.
            It was a busy Friday when we parted ways, and as usual the two of us were in the building later than we should have been, getting a bit more work done before leaving. From the moment I learned of his illness, there was a heavy weight associated with carrying a combination of grief, worry, and a desire to support colleagues and students. I’ve done what all of my fellow school leaders have done – worked, worked, then worked some more. I’ve paid attention to the pulse of the building and done what was asked of me as the junior administrator on staff. I would wake up in the night thinking of my mentor and friend, I’d find myself saying his name out loud, and I’d drive up to the hospital to visit. I’d confide in my wife, pastor and fellow assistant principals, but otherwise I just kept at the work, as I know my boss would have wanted.  
            During the week ahead, we will attend the viewing and funeral for our principal. Our students and staff have a week off, and when they return we will continue talking about how we’re doing, how we can support one another, and how we can help his family. The news trucks will be long gone by then, and we’ll have lots to do: state testing makeups, AP exam preparation, end-of-year conferences, class scheduling, final budget orders, and student attendance conferences. More will be added to that list as well; we’ll be busy, as we always are.
            Our school will continue to function, because it has to. Our staff will do its work with a heightened awareness of what our boss would have asked of us. And we will, somehow, keep on going. We will find our way through staff meetings, awards night, prom and graduation without him there, and we will carry his spirit with us in all the ways we can.
            They say that we are the authors of our own life stories, and I agree with this. But sometimes, we are also contributors to others’ life stories. Our own decisions, words, personality or actions slip inside the pages of another’s narrative, and that person’s life is never the same. That’s what has happened this week in Westfield, NJ. I know that Derrick Nelson’s story is now a part of mine, and I will carry that with me always. The students and staff of Westfield High are saying the same. And, thanks to some smart news decisions, so are many others, who have paid attention to his inspiring story and allowed it to resonate.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Parent's Education

             I removed all of the tiny screws that held together the base of her Chromebook. When I had taken them out, I used a small flathead screwdriver to pry the keyboard up from the base, revealing the guts of the modest computer. I unfastened the battery’s connection to the motherboard, performed a few more functions that a YouTube video told me to do, then refastened the battery, keyboard and screws. I pressed the power button, and my daughter’s computer was up and running again.
            She is 17 years old, and is in the midst of her first major research paper. It’s a rite of passage at her school, the junior research paper. She loves her topic, because it’s related to health care and she wants to be a nurse. She’s approaching the finish line, and her teacher has applauded her enthusiasm. Perhaps the most valuable part of this experience, however, has been the fact that she’s done it all herself. Her dad, the educator and writer, has not seen a word of this paper. My job is to fix the Chromebook, not to concern myself with the words that the computer produces when used.
            She is 17 years old, and she needs to know that she can get a lot done without parental involvement. She is driving her own car now, joining her own gym, and occasionally making her own dinner. As she visits colleges, she prefers to go with my wife, and my role is to help research the schools and make reservations for visits. I miss the experience of checking out colleges, but understand her need to sort through this decision without too much advice.
            Of course, there are times when she reaches out for help with difficult situations that produce anxiety and stress. My wife and I respond to those requests with whatever level of parental assistance seems necessary. We may have been “helicopter” parents at one time, but that level of involvement is not helpful anymore. Our instincts hold us back from being “snowplow” parents, as we want her to find her own way through the struggles in life. When asked by the school if we wanted to drop a course that she was struggling with earlier in the year, we said no; with independence comes a need for resilience.
            Her research paper is about the current public health crisis stemming from unvaccinated Americans, and the ways in which the internet has fueled opposition to vaccines. We’ve talked about the topic, and I’ve shared with her articles that I’ve found on the topic. It’s hard to read through a paper without stumbling upon another article on this topic, so I’ve shared them and she’s thanked me. But when I’ve asked if she wanted any parental proofreading, she has respectfully declined. This is a grade she wants to earn through her own efforts, and no one else’s.
            My wife and I know that our assistance is still needed; we have a number of parenting experiences and decisions ahead of us with this young adult. But our education right now is one of adjusting to the job description of parent, and stepping back in important ways. It’s not always easy to recognize that this is needed. But we’re trying. And in the quiet of our kitchen late at night, I carefully turn the screws on the kid’s computer, finding my new role and hoping it can help her punch those keys on her own.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Looking Toward the Light

            With so many concerns affecting our nation, world and planet, it can be tempting to lose hope. An overload of vitriol, vendettas and violence threatens to establish volatility as the status quo. In times like this, it takes a deeply concerted effort to stem the tide of negativity.
            So often, we turn to education and the arts in search of solutions to the stresses. We begin by looking for a window into what ails us, through investigation, perspective and reflection. We welcome a reason to breathe deeply, think different, and find a way forward.
Many Americans have turned to podcasts in recent years as trusted sources of information. The 60 Minutes of podcasts remains This American Life, which for more than 20 years has been producing weekly stories based around a single theme. Many of the show’s episodes in recent months have focused on how our government operates today, and many others have looked deeply into immigration. Tomorrow, the show will release a new episode on border walls around the world. I know that I will be listening and learning.
Documentaries are in a golden age right now, as so many filmmakers are experimenting with different ways of crafting nonfiction movies, and streaming services such as Netflix offer new ways for viewers to access these films. Last week, my brother Eric, who writes about documentaries for many publications and also serves as film curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, introduced me to a 10-part documentary series that appeared on Starz last year. It’s called America to Me, and it chronicles a year in the life of an Illinois high school. The series, which was created by Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), is a stunning look into the ways in which teens and teachers learn about one another, society at large, and themselves in the world of American public education.
Young adult books have never been more popular, and agents and publishers have worked diligently to find authors who specialize in connecting with younger readers. Jacqueline Woodson is about as good as it gets in young-adult fiction these days, and her recent book Harbor Me follows a half-dozen students whose teacher gives them a chance to meet, once a week, by themselves in a classroom to talk. They call it the ARTT room (“A Room to Talk”) and in that space, these six students make connections that allow them to gain some amazing degrees of understanding, empathy and compassion. I’m not a young adult anymore, but I couldn’t put the book down.
History books line the bestseller lists today, many of them trying to help us make sense of the chaos in our country and world. Perhaps the most-praised history book in recent months is These Truths by Jill Lepore, an ambitious, 800-page text that chronicles the entire history of the United States. In doing so, the book asks if “these truths” that the Declaration declared to be “self-evident” – political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people – have indeed been met in these past two and a half centuries. I just started the book, and I know it will take awhile for me to get through it. But I’m committed to reading, reflecting and reconsidering my own assumptions and biases.
Teenagers are always pointing a way forward for those of us paying attention. This weekend, I’m helping to chaperone a Model United Nations conference, in which 200 of my school’s students and hundreds more are gathering in a Pennsylvania hotel to present papers, resolutions and amendments in a mini-UN filled with delegations, chairpersons and a down-to-the-minute itinerary. It’s the kind of stuff that takes your breath away and leads you to believe that, if we don’t scar them first, these young people can help us all find a path toward understanding, collaboration and fellowship. I just watched two delegations debating education and refugee issues, and while there was no universal agreement, there was a ton of listening, learning, and respecting.
Most of the educational programs and arts initiatives in this world are beyond my knowledge, so these few examples are just the tip of the iceberg. But they are a reminder, to me, of where I want to spend my energies when considering a way out of the darkness in today’s world. When I learn from these students, artists and journalists, I have one job: To think about the ways in which the stories I’m seeing and hearing can be channeled into my own interactions with the world around me. One person, one step, one day at a time: That’s the most we can ask, but it’s our responsibility to pay attention and look toward the light.