Hungry and hurrying, I left my meeting at the district office and made the decision to grab a breakfast burrito on my way back to campus. I ordered egg, potato, and cheese (“No meat,” I told him, and I could almost see the cashier thinking “Vegetarian? Shouldn’t he be thinner?”). Then I filled a container with the hottest, deepest red salsa they had, and headed to my office checking the clock.
Seven minutes was enough to at least start eating at my desk before heading to the construction meeting, so I opened the salsa, unwrapped the burrito, and bit in.
Lots of bacon, tiny bits, a rash of red in the egg and cheese.
Frustrated, I spat the bite out, an impatient mistake.
Theatrically, the burrito splashed into the plastic dish of salsa and sent a crimson rainstorm onto my white shirt and tie.
I didn’t swear so loudly that my secretary heard me. No man is a hero to his valet, as the saying goes, but you should at least try to look professional.
No that I did. Standing, fuming, and dripping onto the carpet, I peeled off my shirt and looked for something to wear. As a high school principal, I have more than a few t-shirts with our school logo. None were in the drawer in my office except a tie-dyed long sleeved extravaganza that I’m not sure I could pull off, even if I told people it was a tribute to Prince.
My secretary, who’d seen my tie fly in an angry arc across my open door called out. “I can try to find you an extra staff shirt,” she offered. “But I think I just have mediums.”
For those who don’t know me, I am not a medium.
“I’m okay,” I lied, digging deeper through the flotsam and jetsam of the drawer, looking for a miracle.
Then, between a bottle of mouthwash and a DVD set of the first season of James Garner’s Maverick, I found my past. It was a shirt from Diegueño Middle School, my first principalship.
Folded and unworn, having arrived after I left to come to San Dieguito, the baseball sleeved shirt reminded me that when we’re surprised by something unpleasant (whether salsa or something more) we can sometimes find comfort in the good we’ve spent a lifetime accumulating.
More often than not this is less literal than a clean shirt, but perspective, if earned honestly, fits better than any piece of clothing and can protect us from stress if we’re willing to pay attention to it.
Which is easier said than done.
It’s this frantic fumbling for perspective that fuels most of the stressful conversations that take place in my office.
Something has gone wrong.
Someone made a mistake.
Somewhere in a conversation a connection didn’t happen.
…and the world no longer feels right.
A dad myself, I get it when a parent feels compelled to stand up for a student. In that moment it feels to them that they must protect and defend, and the passion they bring to the situation dominates their perspective.
Sometimes that passion blinds adults -parents, teachers, administrators like me- to the facts, or even more often to a different way of looking at things.
Asked once by a friend what the most difficult part of mediating high stress conversations was, I answered: “The fact that so often everyone is a little bit right.”
Finding perspective in these situations means being able to slow down, draw on past experiences, and try to help everyone in the room find the word “and.”
Something went wrong, and things will be right again.
Someone made a mistake, and we have an opportunity not to make our response another mistake.
Somewhere in our conversation a connection didn’t happen, and we have another chance to connect.
I hope to remember today’s salsa when I face tomorrow’s challenges. If I can, I’m optimistic that the result can be something better than a ruined shirt.