August Opinions and May Truths

I’ll confess to being one of those people who read more than one book at a time. Some books read faster than others, you see, so that collection of Raymond Carver short stories came and went from my nightstand faster than Conan Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown, and a few slim volumes of poetry hurried through April, outpacing a book about John Milton I started back at the end of summer. I picked up that biography this week, opened it to find my page, and discovered that the bookmark was a business card, the same rectangle of card stock on which I’d written the notes for my opening speech at back to school night.

IMG_6921At ACMA we do back to school night on the week before students start classes. It’s an unconventional approach in keeping with the creative spirit of our school. Students are encouraged to join parents and guardians as they meet the teachers and see the classrooms where they’ll learn in the year ahead. It’s earlier than early, and it provides us all with a chance to connect before we start the wild rumpus that is a school year.

The principal’s welcoming remarks to the evening follow right after an ice cream social. “So very ACMA,” some might say. They’d be right.

So naturally I paused from my biography and read through my notes for the welcome speech. I’ve long been a person who would rather speak from the heart than be tethered to a script, but this had been my first speech at ACMA, and I remember scribbling out ideas I didn’t want to miss.

“Happy New Year,” the card read, and “Thanks.”

The start of a school year does warrant that celebratory exclamation, and one can never go wrong opening with an appreciation.

This was especially true for me this August, as I stepped into a school new to me, hoping to earn the respect and live up to the kindness ACMA’s school community had already shown me. In May that “Thanks” is heartfelt, said with real appreciation for an almost completed school year that has been filled with creativity, kindness, and more than a few surprises.

IMG_6918Present too were the to be expected challenges of being a part of something greater than oneself, participating in a community of diverse opinions, powerful perspectives, and creative souls.

“Challenges,” the card read beneath “Renewal” and “Fresh Start,” but “Challenges faced together.” I’ve long held that we should not try to avoid the difficult choice or crucial conversation, we should not hide from what is difficult, but face it collectively. Thinking about the hard work that has been a part of this school year, and of the amazing staff, students, and parents I get to work with, those three words carry a truth I’m proud to be a part of.

“Challenges
Faced Together”

And then a reason why, an articulation on the back of that business card of who we are as a school community. I knew, even in those first nervous notes, that ACMA is here to:

“Support our kids
Artistically
Academically
and as people.”

We do. We have. We will.

I closed that first speech by pointing to the heroes. Back to school nights are not about the principal’s welcome; they are about the professionals who have the greatest impact on our students’ lives: the teachers.

I remember standing there in August, in front of the ACMA community for the first time, and looking out at the parents and students, some still finishing their ice cream, and seeing teachers scattered throughout the crowd wearing their staff shirts, smiling. They were, and are, inspirations to me as much as they are to the kids.

That night I ended my remarks by glancing down at that wrinkled business card, now a bookmark, and saying proudly what I know was the most important part of the night. The teachers, who play a huge role in our students’ lives, are here, I said.

“Tonight you’ll meet them.”

Those teachers, so passionate and purposeful about the work they do with students, are more than just the best part of back to school night. Looking back at my notes scribbled on the back of that card, I recognize that anything I am as a principal is empty without all those truths behind it. The front of my metaphoric business card may be professional, but it matters because of the truths written behind it:

The optimism of “Happy New Year.”
The appreciation of “Thanks.”
The valuing of “Renewal” and “Fresh Starts.”
The acknowledgement that Challenges must be Faced Together.
The focus of Supporting our Kids in all ways.
And the understanding of the importance of those I work with every day.

It feels even truer now than it did in August.

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Customer Service

When we moved back to Oregon one of my first stops, ahead of an overnight fishing trip with my son, was to Bi-Mart. For any who don’t live in the pacific northwest, Bi-Mart is a local employee owned store that sells everything from tents to hard candies, nails to plastic tumblers, flannel shirts to microwave ovens. With cement floors and employees in blue smocks, Bi-Mart was a working man’s Target before any national chain invaded the beaver state.

Stocking shelves at Bi-Mart had been my first real job back in high school, and I’d returned to unload trucks for a year after I left graduate school …ah the value of a degree in philosophy… before I decided to become a teacher.

BimartA membership store long before Costco, northwesterners have been plunking down $5 for green or yellow card since Eisenhower was in office. After almost twenty years away from my home state, my card was as gone as my misspent youth.

So, when I stepped into Bi-Mart a few weeks ago I approached the front desk with thoughts of buying another card before hunting for the perfect lure for our trip to catch smallmouth bass. That was not what happened.

Standing on the wrong side of the waist-high door just inside the Bi-Mart lobby I explained to the matronly woman in the blue smock that I needed to purchase a new card. I’d been away since 1999, I told her, and didn’t have mine any more.

“No,” she corrected me. “We say lifetime membership and that’s what we mean. What’s your name?” I provided it. She typed into the computer on the desk. “No,” she said after a minute or so. “Not there.”

It wasn’t a problem, I assured her, reaching for my wallet. I’d be happ-

“What store did you first get the card?” She interrupted with a smile.

“What?”

“At which Bi-Mart did you get your first card?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Salem, I guess,” I answered. “I worked there as a kid.” She nodded. “The one on Lancaster Avenue,” I added. “But that was back in the mid-80s, and…”

…and she was back on the phone, a heavy plastic receiver to her ear, one hand held up to let me know I needed to wait. I did, watching her nod into the phone, say a few words, and then repeat: “Yes, Bjorn, B-J-O-R-N. Right.” She shifted in her chair, waiting before finally ending the call with “Oh, thanks” and jotting something on the yellow legal pad in front of her. She put down the phone and smiled at me again. “They had it,” she said, as if the fact weren’t astounding.

“Wow,” I answered. “They keep those records a long time. Do they have a different computer system than here?”

“No,” she said as she wrote her name and a number on a fresh green card. “We keep paper files on the cards we issue.”

I tried to imagine the signature of my sixteen year old self in a drawer in Salem, Oregon. The paper, more than thirty years old, would be yellow with age.

IMG_4014The woman handed me my new card and a pen to sign it. “When we say lifetime, we mean lifetime,” she said again. “Enjoy your shopping, and welcome back.”

As a principal I think a lot about the relationships I build with staff, students, and families. I always try to treat others well and do the right thing to help others. From time to time I like to think that I’m doing a pretty good job, and then, just in time to keep me humble, I’m shown an example of integrity that inspires me to work even harder.

What struck me at that Bi-Mart lobby wasn’t just that a paper record of my card existed or that some legwork was able to turn up the number, though both are astounding in their own way; what really resonated with me was the absolute lack of hesitation on the part of the woman at the front desk. She was ready to go the extra mile and seemed never to doubt that the right answer was just a few steps away. She knew the company’s promise about membership and was committed to a promise printed on every card.

She did this with a smile, taking up the challenge unflinchingly and stressing to me that it was the right thing to do. Never in our interaction did she have to call a manager or ask anyone’s permission; the company’s promise was clear in her mind and she took ownership of making good on that promise.

In a world of mission statements and attempts to capture a collective vision in site plans and on brightly printed posters, this Bi-Mart example of independence and clarity of purpose struck me as profound.

When I’m asked about what we do at my school and why we do it, I want to be as certain and as friendly as the woman in the smock. I want my staff and students to be a able to articulate our “what” and “why” with confidence and a smile.

A corporate someone might call what I experienced at Bi-Mart “customer service.” I believe it’s more than that; treating people well and being committed to doing the right thing is a way of life.

As the school year gets underway I hope to refine our promise to students, our commitment to each other, and our understanding of what matters most. I hope to live my professional life with that same sense of purpose and to empower those at my school to take the same sort of ownership as did the that blue smocked hero at Bi-Mart.

Living this way doesn’t just make a short term difference. Living this way matters for a lifetime.