Critical Race Theory – A Superintendent and History Teacher’s Perspective

First of all, those of you who read my blog know that I love their use of the word “literally.” But secondly, it’s a perfect parody, because I’m a former history teacher and school district superintendent, and until I started receiving these emails and listening to these public comments, I too had no idea what Critical Race Theory (CRT) was.

Critical Race Theory. It’s something I had never heard of until September of last year. And then, I began getting very angry emails and people started coming to board meetings to demand that we stop teaching it. The questions were very much like ones featured in the first-ever school board meeting parody on Saturday Night Live, where a concerned citizen stands up and says, “Hi. I’m so mad I’m literally shaking right now. Forget COVID. The real threat is Critical Race Theory being taught in our schools. My question is, what is it? And why am I mad about it?” 

In many board meetings around the nation, mostly in more affluent school districts, this scenario has repeated itself. In speaking with many other superintendents and board members from around the country, not a single one of us, prior to all of this, ever had even a single conversation about CRT, much less about whether or not we should be teaching CRT. So why are we all being yelled at about something we are not doing and until last fall, knew nothing about?

Two trends that have occurred in the last two years help us to understand. First, the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 galvanized anti-racism forces around the country. In addition, Asian and Pacific Islander hate incidents increased around the nation, in response to both overt and tacit commentary from national leaders condoning anti-Asian actions, making those anti-racism forces even more comprehensive. In my former district, students, former students, and adults in our community were looking for ways to make our schools better for all students – looking for ways to make schools as free from racism and discrimination as possible.

I have great faith in our youth. I have observed and interacted with thousands of students, and I have watched my own children and how they get along with their peers. I truly believe we have never seen a more open-minded generation of young adults. More than ever, they are fully accepting of persons of all races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more. I think that a big reason for this is that their desire for a discrimination-free America, though renewed, is not new. Brown vs. Board of Education, Title IX, and Special Education laws have been major forces in improving equality in American education. And it’s important to remember that when those changes started having an impact on equality of opportunity in America, then, like now, there was serious backlash. This has never been about everyone being equal – this is about everyone having true equality of opportunity for an excellent education. Our efforts have continued. When I first started teaching in the mid-1980s, we were talking about how to embrace all cultures through multicultural education. And we’ve come a long way since then.

But in spite of that progress, there are still acts of hate that continue to occur in our schools and in our communities. There are racial slurs, anti-Semitic comments, hateful graffiti, and more. I don’t know of any educational leaders who, when confronted by incidents of hate, will accept or ignore those incidents and just say, “Kids will be kids.” That’s why districts like Manhattan Beach and others took an even harder look at what they can proactively do to make schools as hate-free as possible. In Manhattan Beach, this movement kicked into high gear in 2015 when someone firebombed the front door of one of the few black families living in the city. The community rallied around the Clinton family, gathering together for a powerful candlelight vigil to support them. Malissia Clinton’s powerful TED talk on how she was raised, the firebombing, and the aftermath should tell you all you need to know about why this work needs to continue. You can call the firebombing an isolated incident perpetrated by an outlier, but when you start hearing about the common experiences of so many people of color – our students, co-workers, colleagues, and friends – it’s different. I can’t tell you how much it hurt when, at a Board meeting while I was superintendent, I heard from some of our recent graduates about widespread discrimination they experienced while they were in MBUSD. We can and should build better and more inclusive schools.

Enter Christopher Rufo. Wikipedia describes Rufo as an “American Conservative Activist.” He appeared on the Tucker Carlson show in September of 2020 and made the case that Critical Race Theory was an existential threat against our nation. He gave evidence of government trainings on racial sensitivity that were aimed at understanding concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism, and he called on the President of the United States to immediately take action against this threat. Three days later, at the President’s request, Rufo flew to New York to meet on the topic. The President quickly issued memos and even an executive order banning the use of Critical Race Theory in our government. That’s precisely when the emails started, and the board meeting chaos began shortly after.

I’ve received messages stating that by addressing the issues of racism in our community, we are (1) calling our entire community racist, (2) pushing for a Marxist agenda, (3) shaming white students, and (4) being anti-American. All four of those accusations are blatantly false. This is what is happening in districts around the nation, and now states are getting involved. At least seven states have already passed laws making it illegal to teach Critical Race Theory, and 13 more have bills in process. Here’s the problem – I’m a history teacher, and I still have no idea what it means to “not teach critical race theory.”

The least effective history teachers see history as memorizing names, dates, places, and facts. But highly effective history teachers teach students to view the past from different perspectives, to analyze events in terms of who benefited or who suffered from the decisions and actions, and to draw conclusions about why events happened and how they shaped who we are as a nation today. These new laws make teachers question whether or not they can do that. In one Texas school district, teachers were told that if they were going to teach controversial issues, like racism or even the Holocaust, they should present multiple perspectives. A district administrator said, “If you have a book on the Holocaust, [make sure] that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” The district has since then apologized, but come on people! This is what bad laws do.

Like the Holocaust, there are plenty of events in American history which do not, in my opinion, deserve a different perspective. But they do deserve serious inquiry and investigation to see how they occurred, the impact they had, and what we can learn from them. Here’s just a few of them.

  • Slavery
  • The Japanese Internment
  • The My Lai Massacre
  • The rise, resurgences, and continued existence of the KKK
  • The Sand Creek Massacre
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
  • The racist restrictions on immigration in the 1920s
  • The racist Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision and all the Jim Crow laws that were commonplace throughout the South well into the 2nd half of the 20th century.

It’s OK to teach, and not in the least bit anti-American to say, that America has made tragic mistakes in our past. And it is untruthful to teach students that racism no longer exists in our country or in our community. Our students know better. Our students want to learn from multiple perspectives and read from a diverse group of writers, not just white and male perspectives. We should all know that even though our nation is one of the greatest nations ever for providing equality of opportunity, that opportunity is not as universal as we might think.

And by the way, what is Critical Race Theory? I have researched it, because I wanted to understand, and here is what I gather. CRT is an academic premise postulating that, in examining laws in our country, it is helpful to use the lens of racism to better understand how those laws came to be, as well as what impact they had.  To me, it’s similar to techniques of my history teachers in college, who asked us to examine historical events using an economic lens, a political power lens (by far the most common), a social lens, or a technological lens. Adding the lens of racism might also be helpful. And who makes the decision on what the right answer is? The student. The grade is not based on what a student’s conclusion is, rather it is based on how well a student defends their position.

CRT is not an existential threat against the United States. And it certainly is not something infiltrating our schools. But our schools are not and should not be ignoring incidents of racism and discrimination that are continuing to happen. No one will argue that discrimination is far less of a problem in our schools now than it was a century ago. But to say it no longer exists is putting your head in the sand. Teachers and school boards enter their positions to make life for their students, all students, better. Many of them are taking steps to do just that. Without lowering rigorous standards for achievement, educators are learning how to better address these issues in their classrooms.

Finally, to those who think that the anti-racism efforts are going too far, I urge you to follow the advice of Steven Covey, and seek first to understand, then be understood. Schools are trying to help our students to think for themselves, and a curriculum that reflects diversity and diverse ideas is essential to that effort. We educators are not aiming to make any student feel shame about who they are. In fact, wasn’t it just a few years ago that many were criticizing schools’ efforts to build students’ self-esteem? We want all students to emerge from our schools prepared for their future, confident about themselves, and caring about all others. And in spite of all of our progress, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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An Ode to Masters Swimming and the Science of Improvement

I remember my first day of swim practice, way back when I was six years old. It was at the Little Rock Boys’ Club and Coach Brooks led the workouts. It was my first experience in a locker room, where I quickly learned that even though I was small enough to do it, you don’t change clothes inside the locker. You just put your stuff in there. That was a good learning moment right there. And I was mostly able to ignore the laughter.

Coach Brooks was a motivator. He did not believe in much rest between laps. He kept one of those fat pencils behind his ear, and if you hung too long on the edge of the pool, he would use that pencil to remind your hand it was supposed to be pulling through the water. I later switched to Coach Miller at a different facility. Mom or Dad would drive me to practice (thanks Mom and Dad!), sometimes very early in the morning, and I improved enough to start placing in a variety of meets. Eventually, I was swimming four hours a day as a ten-year-old, and doing very well.

I remember getting ready for a big meet down in Dallas when I was 11 years old, and I expected to be among the best in my events. My youngest brother Bill chose the week of that meet to annoy me, as only he can. (Yes, I meant to use the present tense.) When we Matthews tell jokes, our strategy is to keep hammering on a funny line until everyone is sick of it, and only then do we really start to lay it on. I’m pretty good at that, but Bill is a Jedi Master. Anyway, I may have tried to convince him to stop tormenting me by hitting him in the head. For those wondering, Bill and his hard head were fine, but I broke my hand! I had to drop out of the meet, and after six weeks in a cast, I quit swimming. I got back into the pool competitively in high school, but I never worked very hard. I could go pretty fast for 50 yards, but after that, I was pretty much exhausted. Sometimes I wonder if I could do it over again, should I have gotten back in the pool after my cast came off and continued that intense focus on swimming. As I was taught by the owl with the Tootsie Pop, the world may never know, and my swim career peaked at the ripe old age of eleven!

Forty years later, I started swimming with a coach again, when I joined my first masters swim group in 2013. They practiced at Loyola Marymount near the LAX airport. Masters swimmers are some of the most positive people I’ve ever been around. Also, a little crazy. We jump into the water early – workouts start at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. We all love our coaches who are there to entertain us, motivate us, and of course make us suffer. There’s way more camaraderie and conversation in swimming than most people would expect. We swimmers joke and laugh, and then push ourselves to keep up with, or edge out, the swimmers in our lane or the ones adjacent. It’s not a competition, but it’s totally a competition. Unfortunately, the LMU workouts closed down with COVID in March of 2020, and still have not restarted. I miss coaches Bonnie and Clay. I miss my lane mates Wayne, Kat, Brian, Bob, Nader, Shauna, and so many others from our workouts, even Jim and Karl.

I’m swimming at a new place now, with Coach Nancy at the helm. On my first day with Coach Nancy, she said, “Your swim techniques tell me you might have been a decent swimmer back in the ‘70s.” Ouch. Just because she’s right doesn’t mean she had to say it. Or did she?

I turn 60 next year, and as anyone who does age group competitions knows, aging into a multiple of 5 means that you move up in age groups. When I do future meets, I’ll swim against people aged 60-64. You’d think I might do pretty well in that age group, except, there are some really fast sexagenarians out there! (At least we’ll all be called sexagenarians.) So … if I want to be faster and more competitive, and if I now have a little more time to work on that, how do I go about it? And by the way, swimming isn’t the only thing I want to improve on – I want to be a better golfer, guitarist, writer, and chef. But let’s focus on swimming, shall we?

When I was taking Dawson out to Colorado, we listened to several podcasts. One that put Dawson to sleep was the Freakonomics podcast on how to get better at anything. It was all based on the research by Anders Ericsson. He’s devoted a good part of his life to this topic, and I read his 2016 book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

What has Ericsson found?

  • Be motivated and have a specific goal. My goal is to be as fast in the 100 freestyle as I was back in high school. I was close to that four years ago, but my recent times have sadly been headed in the wrong direction. It’s almost like I’m getting older or something. Weird.
  • Make yourself uncomfortable. I’m very comfortable swimming with I techniques I learned back with Mr. Brooks and Mr. Miller in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, Coach Nancy is on my ass – telling me to swim with the “new” techniques that have been developed over the last 50 years. Swimming records are being broken all the time because experts have learned what works. And while it still does not feel right to me, I believe in the process and I’m sticking with it. I’m paying money to get this kind of treatment – and I love it.
  • Be persistent. This is the 10,000-hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell gleaned from Ericsson. Bottom line, you have to put the time in and that time cannot be used just to go through the motions. You need to push yourself hard, really hard, and stay at it. As my friend Will says, “You have to suffer now so you won’t suffer later.”
  • Seek feedback from experts. I do best when an expert is reminding me for the thousandth time to keep my fingers close together, as well as to employ all of the other effective techniques that I’ve been told to do but have not yet internalized.

I’m determined to use these approaches to set the bar high, and I know I cannot do it alone – I need the support (and the competition) from my fellow swimmers, as well as the guidance, hard feedback, and encouragement that my coaches will provide. I’m grateful for all of the coaches I’ve had through the years – the ones who cared enough to push me, to overtly identify my shortcomings and to be on my ass about them, and to advise me on how to overcome them. I’m building on what they gave me, and I know I am better for it.

An aside – our most effective classroom teachers embody Ericsson’s ideal and take the role of an effective coach by going far beyond the role of a giver of information.  Sadly, Ericsson believes that most teachers and doctors stop improving after just a few years in their profession, mostly because they stop seeking and using outside expertise to constantly improve.

To all of you who have read this far (and I thank you for that!), I urge you to use Ericsson’s research and commit to improving on something you’re passionate about. It is never too late.

Life is better lived when we are living to get better.

PS – During COVID, after the LMU program closed, I swam for about a year with a great group of Masters swimmers in a lousy pool in Manhattan Beach. I did not swim under coach Steve Hyde’s tutelage long, but I loved all of my time doing it. Steve has coached for about 100 years all over the South Bay. His philosophical and humorous style, including his morning rants, has charmed and pushed thousands of swimmers over the years. He would greet me with, “Are we feeling ferocious today?” Then after some kind of rant or philosophical opining, he would nonchalantly state, “Well, we are all here, so we might as well do 20 100s on the 1:30.” And then, with a little smile before the pain, off we went. Coach Steve is fighting to overcome a stroke he had last month, and my thoughts and prayers, as well as my deepest thanks, go to him and his family.

Eggplant, Biscuits, and Ted Lasso

We have lived in our neighborhood for almost 30 years now. There are so many great parts of living here – the weather is spectacular, the beach is a ten-minute walk from our home (we can’t see it, but we can hear the waves in the morning), and we are right up against the beautiful Santa Monica mountains. But the best thing about where we live is the friendships that we have cultivated over the years. We travel with our neighbors, celebrate weddings, birthdays, and holidays with them, exercise with them, and just hang out. It is special. And in all of those gatherings, there are so many spectacular cooks in our group that we always eat very well.

We invited some friends for dinner last weekend, just because. I made eggplant parmesan, and Jill made a salad.

There’s a history in my family with eggplant parmesan. When Ryan was in third grade, he was famished and ready for a great dinner when I served him this delicious dish. He looked at me like I kicked him in the gut when I put it on the table and asked him to try it. One microbite confirmed that he hated it. Fine. I think he ended up eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese that night and loving each bite.

Later that spring, I went to Ryan’s Open House at his elementary school and visited his classroom. I chatted with his amazing teacher and browsed through some of the student work on his desk. Then I heard some laughter from a group of parents standing by one of the wall displays. I looked over, and they were pointing at me. Malibu is a small town, and I knew almost all of those who were pointing and laughing, so I walked over to the group. The teacher had posted essays students had written about their best day ever. But Ryan, being Ryan, hadn’t wanted to write to that prompt, so his was titled, “My Worst Day Ever.” And what was it about? His dad, who was usually a pretty decent cook, had inexplicably chosen to make eggplant parmesan for dinner. Why not regular old spaghetti? Why not Kraft Mac and Cheese? What kind of father would do that to his son? Ryan has always been a pretty persuasive writer, even at that age, and it seemed the other parents were all in full agreement that I had indeed made a horrible parenting decision by serving eggplant parmesan. Many of them were portrayed as conduits of joy in their children’s best day ever essays, so these parents especially enjoyed laughing at my expense. Thanks, Ryan.

The secret to this eggplant parmesan is the homemade garlic and basil infused breadcrumbs.

Disirregardless of that, I continue to make eggplant parmesan (I have the Ina Garten based recipe in my principalchef.com website) and I still love it. (OK – I know “disirregardless” is not a word, but it’s a word we use in our family as a way of criticizing those who choose the word irregardless, instead of the proper regardless. If you read my blogs, you know that I’m a bit of a grammar snob. Sorry – not sorry. Of course, the English language adapts to misuse, and now if you look in the dictionary under irregardless, you will find that it means the same thing as regardless. As Miriam-Webster states, “Remember that a definition is not an endorsement of a word’s use.” Whatever, Miriam-Webster. If you won’t criticize the misuse, we will, disirregardless of your unwillingness to take a stand!

Anyway, our guests loved the dinner last weekend (take that, Ryan), and then I brought out my TV-inspired dessert.

By modern standards, I’m not very good at watching TV. And I am definitely not very good at the very popular habit of binge watching. I can’t even sit through live sports on TV any more. I record them, then fast forward to get through it faster. I have tried binge watching. My friend Ben insisted that I watch The West Wing, a show I always meant to watch when it was on, but never found the time. I ended up binge watching the seven seasons of The West Wing in . . . seven years. Ben is still disappointed in my lack of TV-watching talent.

But these days I’m actually watching a show that pushed me to binge watch the first season in about 2 months (10 episodes in 8 weeks!), and then we re-binged it at an even faster rate just before Season 2 started. That show is Ted Lasso – and it’s now a part of our Friday night routine. It’s a joyful and positive show that makes us smile and laugh. Jason Sudeikis has created the show, and it’s big. It’s about an American football coach hired to coach a British Premier League football team. I’ll write a future blog on all of the leadership lessons I have learned in watching Ted Lasso, and there’s nothing below that will spoil it for those of you who have not watched it.

One of the fun things Ted does is to start every morning with a “Biscuits with the Boss” appointment, where he barges into the team owner’s office proclaiming, with a mustachioed smile, “It’s Biscuits with the Boss time!” He ignores the scowls of Rebecca, the club owner, along with her protests that she doesn’t have time for these shenanigans, because he knows she loves these biscuits. “Biscuits” in this case is British for shortbread. So, first of all, I love that Ted Lasso insists on making time for small talk and camaraderie in his working day. Truly knowing who you work with, finding time to break bread or biscuits with them, and pausing to talk and laugh about work or non-work topics makes any job a hell of a lot more enjoyable. It’s something I have tried to do in every aspect of my life, and I thank Ted for reminding me about that. Second, I love shortbread, so naturally I sought out the Ted Lasso recipe.

Well, it doesn’t exist. Or does it? Thanks to some super sleuthing by some very observant people with time on their hands (I love the Internet – most of the time), I found a rumored recipe. I tried it, and then, using lessons learned from the first time I made them, I decided to serve Ted Lasso biscuits for dessert that night.  Like the eggplant parmesan, they were a hit, easy to make and super fun. So, I put that recipe on principalchef.com too if you are interested.

And thus, yet another spectacular day with our wonderful neighbors and friends came to an end. To quote Frank the Tank from Old School, “Pretty nice little Saturday really.”

———-

PS – For those of you who don’t want to fork up $5/month for Apple TV, I get it, but purchasing it now, you could get through the 22 episodes of Season 1 and Season 2 in one month (or maybe less!), assuming you’re normal and a far better binge watcher than I.

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Remembrances of 9/11/2001

I love driving by the stunningly beautiful Pepperdine University campus, located on Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the Malibu coast, especially in early fall.  Just 10 miles from my home, I passed it on my commute twice a day, every day, for about 17 years. The university’s close proximity was a key factor in the decision to earn my doctorate from Pepperdine. Regrettably, the day before classes started, I learned that all of my classes would be offered on an annex campus near Los Angeles International Airport, another 30 miles down the road. A little more research on my part would have been helpful. But I have no regrets, as I had a fantastic experience, and since the year 2000 I’ve been a proud graduate representing the orange and blue of the Pepperdine Waves.

Every September, Pepperdine staff and volunteers start their meticulous project of erecting 2,997 flags, one for each victim of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There are flags from every nation that lost a citizen on that fateful day. It’s overwhelming and beautiful, especially when the Pacific Ocean breeze is blowing (which is most of the time), and the flags are all unfurled and waving proudly in the same direction. I’m grateful to Pepperdine for giving us this powerful annual reminder that we should never forget.

Just a few of the thousands of flags at Pepperdine. I felt fortunate to have the time to actually walk amongst the flags late Friday afternoon.

Like all of us who are old enough to recall our lives 20 years ago, I remember where I was that morning. I was getting ready to start my 30-minute commute to my job as principal of Malibu High School when my mother-in-law called. She told me that planes had crashed into each of the twin towers in New York and that I should turn on the TV. Well, we did not have a TV at that time – I was experimenting to see if not having one would improve my life (it did not) – so we turned on the radio instead. I heard the chaos and I knew I had to get to school. I was almost at Malibu High when the radio announcers gasped as they watched the first tower collapse. It was unfathomable, and it took a moment to process what was happening, as the announcers were truly overwhelmed by the horror of the moment. In retrospect, their reaction and loss for words were the only way to truly convey the tragedy of the moment they were witnessing.

When I arrived at school a little after 7 a.m., I called every employee who was on campus to come to an impromptu meeting. All of us were devastated, a few were scared, and many were in tears. The phone was ringing off the hook with parents asking if we would be open or closed. We made the quick decision to stay open, and we let parents know that we would understand if they kept their students at home. We wanted our campus to be a safe harbor for the children. We agreed that there would be no televisions turned on in the classrooms. That was a lesson we learned back in 1993 when fires ravaged through Malibu. Some teachers had their televisions on during that fire, and a few students witnessed their own homes burning or in danger. We needed to reduce, not increase, the trauma that we were all going through. Our teachers and staff were amazing that day. They overcame their own justified fears and concerns, and provided an incredibly caring place for our students that day.

As the school day was starting, I received a call from the office of one of our elementary schools – their principal was not yet there and they were looking for guidance. I told them what we were doing and sent one of our vice principals to support that site. I called the principal at home, and they told me that they were just too upset from all of the events to go to work. After a short discussion, the principal gathered themself up and came to work to do what needed to be done. These are time when calm, strong, and caring leadership matters the most. We don’t always need to have the answers before we go into difficult situations, but when the challenges are the greatest, leaders need to face them head on.

Not much academic work happened that day at Malibu High School, but we all got through it together. And I know that the same thing happened around the country and the world. But on that day, everything completely changed.

My brother Pat is an incredibly talented artist and had his own reaction to 9-11. Pat was in the process of making one of the greatest and most courageous career moves ever, where he would eventually quit his lucrative and successful job as an architect, and with no promises or guarantees of income, devote his career to creating art. He was in the early stages of that move when 9-11 happened. Like all of us, he was overwhelmed by the stories of heroic first responders and their efforts that day. He set out to buy an American flag that day, and found nothing but sold out shelves. So he decided to paint his own, and thus created his first ever American Flag painting. Pat usually paints landscapes, ranging from cypress trees in the Arkansas wetlands to aspen trees in the Rockies. His typical medium is thick oil paints, resulting in highly textured and layered paintings that change every time the light changes. That painting, which he remembers painting while experiencing a mixture of both anger and pride in our country, was named “American Pride.” On a whim, Pat made 1,000 prints of the painting and began to sell them. After he had sold a few hundred, he reserved 343 prints (one for each of the firefighters who died that day), then flew to New York to donate proceeds from the sales, the 343 prints, and the original “American Pride” painting to the firefighter heroes of New York City’s Engine 4, Ladder Company 54, Battalion 9. He still paints those flags. Pat has sold them to persons in every state, and he has donated many to charitable causes to be auctioned off. Every one of these special paintings honors the heroes who defended us that day, as well as those who continue to devote themselves to protecting us today.

Print #950 of American Pride, by Pat Matthews

I appreciate all that I have in my life that honors those who died and those who defended us that on that overwhelming day in September two decades ago. Seeing the steel beams from the Twin Towers that comprise the 9/11 Memorial outside of the Manhattan Beach (California) Fire and Police Station always catches my breath. I have a picture capturing the moment of silence in Malibu High School’s remembrance assembly just a few days after the attacks. I have been proud to display print #950 of American Pride in my office for years, and I have the 2,997 flags at Pepperdine. These and so many other parts of our lives give us pause and a way to honor not only those lives lost twenty years ago, but all of those who strive today to keep us safe. So today, twenty years later to the day, let us all resolve once again to never forget.

I am usually very fearful of student assemblies, as there are a zillion things that can go wrong, but this Day of Remembrance assembly, held in the Malibu High School quad a few days after 9/11, was one of the most powerful moments I ever experienced. Thanks to my friend Carla Bowman-Smith, an extraordinary photographer and teacher, for taking and sharing this picture with me. It has been on my wall for the last 20 years.

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Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It

Pop-tops. Some call them pull tabs. What a lousy invention. But they were everywhere when I was growing up. Today, when you open a soda or beer can, you use a Sta-tab, which is what you find on nearly every can in the world these days. Daniel F. Cudzik was the engineer working at Reynolds Metals who invented the Sta-Tab. His picture should be on environmental flags wherever they wave. But he did not invent those until 1975.

This means that from 1959, just before I was born, until the late 1970s, when I was finishing high school, pop-tops were everywhere. To give you an idea, I saw a stat that said the estimated annual recycling weight of Sta-tabs alone was 4 million tons. And I believe it. Over my childhood years, I bet my siblings and I literally picked up at least 1 million tons of them after every trip! (I know I mis-used literally there – I just want to join almost everyone who does the same. Whenever I hear someone use literally in a sentence, I cringe, waiting for the misuse, then I am pleasantly surprised if it’s used correctly. When in doubt, follow Weird Al’s advice, and don’t commit that word crime!

What is it about free people that they feel entitled, or inclined, to leave trash everywhere? China, Singapore, and Russia have clean streets, but in those countries there’s a harsh penalty for being a litterbug. Does Ron Burgundy, who threw away a half-eaten burrito on a San Diego freeway causing Jack Black to wreck his motorcycle which then caused the near death of his beloved dog Baxter, represent all of us? And why don’t Canadians litter like we do? These are important questions! Ask anyone who’s been a public high school principal about kids leaving trash around campus- none of us can walk by candy wrapper or any piece of paper that we spot on the ground without picking it up and throwing it away. I’m not recommending caning, but come on free people!

Whenever my parents took us to a public place, an act that took great courage on their part, whether it was a campground, a picnic spot, one of the islands at Lake Ouachita (Pronounced Wah-shə-taw – and yes, I am a big fan of the schwa!) in Arkansas where we would spend the weekends water skiing, or anywhere else, we always ended the trip the same way. Our parents would start packing the car, and they would tell us to start cleaning up.  And not only the area we had been using, but the surrounding areas as well. We would each have a bag, or even a box, and we picked up every bit of trash there was.

It wasn’t stuff you noticed until you looked for it. Then it was everywhere. Pieces of paper, pieces of foil, broken glass, some occasional big items, but mostly it was two things: cigarette butts and pop-tops. Don’t get me started on cigarettes – an invention that has brought overwhelming death and misery to humanity. We picked up hundreds of discarded butts every time. But those pop-tops, they were everywhere! No wonder Jimmy Buffet stepped on one! As usual, with tasks forced upon us by our parents, we grumbled about it. But we usually felt a begrudging sense of pride when we finished.

My dad and I were reminiscing about those days last week, and as I reflected on it, I thought that the “Leave a place better than you found it” adage is a great life rule as well. I recently left my job as Superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. I loved that job. It gave me a great sense of purpose, required all of my leadership skills, helped me to grow as a person, and gave me the opportunity to work with spectacular board members, educators, parents, community members, and students. And in return, I believe I left MBUSD better than I found it. It wasn’t by my efforts alone of course, but it was in coordination with almost everyone there. For those of us rowing together, we should all be proud of what we accomplished over eleven years in terms of curriculum, Advanced Placement success, sustainability (yes – we reduced how much trash we produced!), construction projects, and technology. For a full list click here

As I enter this gap year after 37 years in public education, I am going to keep finding ways to employ the “leave it better than you found it” rule, even though the instrument for that may not be with a job. For the next few months, my focus will be on my health and my home, two aspects of my life that have needed a little more TLC and attention for a while. And then who knows! But I am certain that even without those annoying pull tabs all around me (thanks Mr. Cudzik for doing your part!), there are still all too many cigarette butts, and all of us have many opportunities to leave this world better than we found it.

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Taking My Youngest to College

That was it. Dawson gave each of us a long and hard hug, picked up the last bit of dorm room essentials from our double Target run, turned around, and walked off to his dorm in the Colorado School of Mines. Oredigger Camp – his three-day orientation – starts tomorrow. He is fired up and ready for this new phase of his life.  And we’ll see him again in November when we come back for parents’ weekend.

Jill and I are truly excited for Dawson, but right now, sitting in our room in the Golden Hotel, we are also both so sad. Sniffling and journaling, there is no talking. Kind of pathetic – I know. But we both knew taking this time would help us.

It’s been an amazing journey – 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days, since his birth in the hospital. I still hear about that day. Jill’s water broke around four in the morning, about two weeks before her due date, and she called the doctor who said we should go to the hospital right away. I told Jill I just needed to go to work for about an hour, as I was leading a large professional development session that day and needed to give some notes to those who would now be leading it. She did not like it, but she acquiesced. Not the best call, I know. It was a quick delivery, but a little more painful because of my delay. Mark that as exhibit ZZZ in the case of Mike being an imperfect husband and father. Why does that list keep growing?

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s been 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days – and I’ve loved all of it. Dawson has been a source of joy and inspiration in our home. He has been a remarkably easy-going kid, and as he progressed through high school, he began asking us to relax boundaries we had set for him.  I don’t remember ever saying no – he earned our trust all along the way. Watching Dawson grow and become the man that he is has also been incredibly special. He is known as a super smart science student, a talented gamer and programmer, someone with a wacky sense of humor, a quiet leader, and most of all, a remarkably kind human being. I like to think I helped with some of those attributes, but in reality, he is filled with so much from his mother.

Dawson and I had quite the journey to Colorado. We took four days to drive over 1,500 miles via the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. And of our 23 hours of driving, I think Dawson sat behind the wheel for 18 of them. He wishes he could have driven all of those miles and hours.

Packing up the rental car and posing in front of a smoky Grand Canyon

Jill let us have our time together, then she flew into Denver yesterday. We picked her up and together, we all drove to Dawson’s new home in Golden, Colorado. After a family dinner, Dawson left us to join thirty or so other freshman who had arranged a Meet-up via Discord, a social media app too obscure for most adults. I still haven’t figured out Facebook! He got back to our hotel room long after Jill and I had gone to sleep. It was a great start to his college career.

Today was move-in day. We are so impressed with the Colorado School of Mines. They had volunteers out the kazoo greeting students, carting their room contents into the dorms, smiling, and confirming our belief that Mines is the perfect college for our aspiring computer scientist son. Jill thankfully took over as we helped Dawson set up his room. We unpacked everything, figured out where it all seemed to work best, and determined what else we needed. It’s a good thing Jill was there. If it had been just me, I would have given Dawson a thumbs up after we moved the boxes and duffle bags into his room and said, “You got this!” With Jill leading the effort, his traditional, ordinary, and very non-air-conditioned room ended up looking pretty darn good. The tables, crates, chair, and containers from the Lakewood Super Target fit perfectly, and Dawson’s dorm was nicer than any college room I ever lived in. I told my son that guys can be pretty darn worthless when it comes to making things look like home. And even though he was ready to jump into this without our help, Dawson admitted that once again, he’s better off because of his mom’s help.

Dawson putting together his computer, and Jill making his dorm room into a home

And now he’s settled at Mines, and we fly back to Malibu tomorrow – just the two of us. A week ago, I was ready for this moment. Then, as my youngest son and I drove through the deserts and mountains on our way here, I was reminded of how much I would miss everything about living with Dawson. We laughed at Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, an inane podcast that truly representsour kind of humor. We listened to a lot of pop punk music, much of which I knew, but I did not know until our trip that Dawson knew the words to so many of the songs! We talked about important topics, and about silly ones. It was all sublime. I found myself getting more emotional as we neared Golden. And even writing this, I can barely see through my tears.

I know our relationship, and our friendship, will only grow. That’s what I have experienced with my now-30-year-old son Ryan. But I will miss the daily interactions and joy that dominated this portion of my life with Dawson. I miss it already, and it’s been about an hour.

On to hour number two. Wish me luck.

There he goes . . .

Graduation Speech – June 17, 2021

In my first ten years with with the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, I did not make a commencement speech during our high school graduation. I was honored and grateful when Mira Costa principal asked me to make a speech at the end of my 11th and last year with MBUSD. I took the opportunity to make in an advice speech, and I had a lot to say! I took lessons learned in life and in work, wrote a draft. I then cut half of it out, then cut a little more, and ended up with something that I think is still too long. Given more time, I could have cut it down even more. I had many words of thanks for my words, and I thought I would share it here:

——————–

I have been connected to this class as your superintendent since you entered 2nd grade, back in 2010. We have been through this journey together, and I thank the class of 2021 for all you did to get to this point. It has been an adventure and we all have stories to tell. Here is my advice to all of us, much of which I have learned in the last eleven years with you.

  • Have stories and tell them often. Try not to repeat yourself too much.
  • Strive to be happy. Life is better when we are happy. It’s our choice, and we can’t give that power to anyone else. People will try to take away your happiness, and enjoy doing it. Don’t let them. With the exception of country and western songwriters (Sorry Dr. Dale), most of us love happy stories.
  • Be grateful. A Benedictine monk said something that guides me – “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” There’s an old saying about keeping up with the Jones’s. Let the Jones’s win. Their story isn’t as perfect as you think it is.
  • Focus on the present. I know I’m over simplifying it, but I do believe thinking too much about what’s next makes us more anxious, and dwelling on the tough moments in the past can be depressing. This moment that we are in right now is particularly beautiful. There is a lot of love and pride in this stadium right now. Let’s do our best to feel it and enjoy it. Today is a keeper story for the rest of our lives.
  • Make time for friends. Keeping a few good friends for years and years, and doing the work it takes to maintain those friendships, will matter. Friends will listen to your stories. And if they are really good friends, they won’t let you get away with anything without giving you a hard time for it.
  • And when it comes to work, strive to be a part of amazing teams. Successful teams argue when they disagree, and support each other in difficult times. The Lego Movie was right. Everything IS cool when you’re part of a team.
  • Share stories and laugh with others as often as you can.
  • Have passions. Be interesting, especially to yourself. Don’t be one dimensional. Find a BUNCH of things you love to do:  Dancing, Cooking, Surfing, Music, Nature Loving, Reading, Creating Art – Find and pursue your passions.
  • Treat people with kindness. Everyone goes through something brutal at some time, and your kindness may be the thing that helps them out. Spread your kindness through charity. Be on the side of good in the world.
  • Learn how to deal with mean people. It’s an angrier world today than it was when I left high school. I have been called many names this year and throughout my career. As best as you can, let it slide off you like water off a duck’s back. I have little patience for mean people and I move on from their negative energy as soon as I can.
  • Dream Big. If someone is not occasionally telling you that you’re crazy, you’re not dreaming big enough. And if you don’t occasionally fail, you need to dream bigger.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave what is comfortable. In fact, embrace it. I’m leaving a job I love, and I don’t know what’s next. I cannot wait for the next story.
  • Be a lifelong learner. Sharpen the saw. Read. Watch Movies. Listen and learn from the stories of others.
  • Don’t watch useless TV and be careful with social media. It’s full of stories that don’t matter.
  • Have adventures. Try not to overschedule your vacations or your free time. Do something and just see what happens. Those adventures, even when they are failures, may lead to your best stories.

And there’s not much better than one more good story in our lives.

Thank you for all the stories we have created over the last eleven years, and best of luck to the class of 2021 and the entire MBUSD community!

After graduation, here is a picture of this awesome leadership team that I have been so proud to work with.

  • Mike

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#10, Mothers Day, May 10, 2020)

Unconditional love. If I could give every person on this planet one gift, it would be the promise that throughout your life, you will be loved, unconditionally. Such a love gives one strength and perseverance. It does not guarantee success, as that depends on our own efforts, our decisions, some luck, and a million other things. But it is a foundation that makes everything in life a little easier. I wish we all felt it. Today is Mother’s Day, a days that reminds me that in my life, I have been twice blessed with unconditional love.

We all need it. I know I do. These COVID-19 times are stressful for all of us. For me, it seems like all of the decisions we are making are pleasing just about half of the people that I serve. And believe me, I hear it when people are not happy. People ask me how I am able to handle criticism, and I give them two reasons: First, I know in my heart that I make the best decisions I can after listening to people from all sides and researching as time allows. Second, I know that no matter what slings and arrows I endure in those times, I will be going home to my wife Jill, who loves me unconditionally. Such love gives me incredible strength. I will be OK because I have the power of unconditional love behind me. Jill and I have been married for almost 19 years. She is Dawson’s mom and Ryan’s’ step mom, and she loves us all fiercely, beautifully, and unconditionally. The three of us all know we are extraordinarily fortunate to have such a life-long gift in our lives.

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Jill and Dawson on the Little Red River in Arkansas (2007)

I’ve been the beneficiary of this gift of unconditional love all of my life from my mother. My mom is beautiful and healthy at the ripe old age of 49. I know. It’s a bit odd and practically a miracle that my 49-year-old mom could be the mother of a 58-year-old son. But mothers achieve miracles all the time. The two of us laugh about this Einsteinian miracle of time, as I regularly remind her of how our unique age disparity. How old you are in your own head is one of the Jedi mind tricks that define how you lead your life. My 29-year-old son Ryan always gives me a hard time for me thinking I’m still in my late 30s. Actually, he loves it and we both agree it’s the only way to live. My mom will always be young and beautiful.

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Mom with Pat and me (1964)

But when people ask me about my mom, her eternal youth and beauty are not the first things I comment on. The first thing I always say is, “My mom is the definition of unconditional love.” My friends hear that and say to me, “It’s a good thing, because only a mom like that could love you.” Hilarious. But it’s true. All four of her children would say the same thing. And even though I’m clearly her favorite, the other three falsely believe that they are. And we all worship our mother.

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Martha, Mike, Mom, Bill, and Pat (1974)

My mom has inspired me my whole life. She was the valedictorian of her high school class, but was not encouraged to go to college. She went to a two-year college, became a secretary, met my dad, got married, and gave birth to me when she was 21. Pat, Martha, and Bill were all born in the next four years. Four unruly children a little more 5 years apart. She was a stay-at-home mom, and took care of everything – the house, our sports, keeping track of our school, hearing from teachers about our misbehaviors, fixing our injuries (including taking me to the doctor after my friend Kenny threw a bamboo spear through my ear), and doing her best to discipline us. Her best weapon was, “Don’t make me tell your father.” But she did once wash my mouth out with soap, using a bar of soap and a toothbrush, for a verbal indiscretion I allegedly used. (She feels guilty about it now, so I bring it up whenever I can.) On top of all of that, she is a spectacular cook. We ate wonderful food in our home, and she is the source of and inspiration for my love of cooking today.

When I was in high school, my mom decided she wanted to get a college degree. She enrolled in UALR (University of Arkansas Little Rock) and studied to be a music major. Through my high school years, she was my study buddy at night. We did our homework together. As I watched all that my mom did, taking care of everyone, practicing piano, reading and completing her homework assignments, studying German, and going to class, I felt a little less sorry for myself. She was actually choosing to do this! How did I show my appreciation? This will show you what a classy son I was. Quite a few times, when we were both studying as the midnight hour approached, I would let her overhear me complaining about having to type out my essay, bemoaning my own slow typing speed. She would look up, and say, “Let me type that for you Michael!” And she, with her still super speedy typing skills, would whip out that paper in no time, without the ugliness from the rolls of correction tape I would have used, and smile as she gave the pristine pages to me. She was dog tired, and she did that with a smile and then a goodnight kiss.

I watched her finish all of her classes, practice her piano music for thousands of hours, then overcome her nervousness to perform a stunning senior recital. All of us beamed with pride as we watched her graduate from UALR, summa cum laude. Just like she did in high school, she finished at the top of her class. It was inspirational then, and it still is today.

She’s not perfect. She may be a bit gullible. OK, she’s really, really gullible, and my siblings and I got away with a few things in high school because she would believe almost any story we gave her. Now, when we all get together, we will tell her stories about things we did that she did not know about, and she will say, “What? But you said . . .” We laugh and say, “Yeah mom . . . Sorry about that.” She shakes her head and laughs. We all survived and it worked out.

My mom lives back in Arkansas still, and we talk every week. I was planning to visit back in April, but like all of us, those travel plans have been delayed. So, we just keep talking. We talk about her piano playing, which she still does, volunteering to play at senior centers. She sends me photos of her beautiful garden that she still tends. I bug her about the daily walks that I ask her to do, and she tells me how she just can’t find the time in her day to fit those in. We laugh and discuss the challenges that we face each week. She’s very proud of her teacher-principal-superintendent-husband-father son, but she’d be proud of me no matter what. What I do is far less important than the simple fact that she loves her son.

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Mom and Ryan playing and singing together

When I give her a hard time for something, she will still say, “You know. I can still take you over my knee for saying such things.” I know, Mom. I can still taste that soap. (She will feel guilty when she reads that – mission accomplished!) But way more than that, I feel the gift and the strength of her unconditional love every day. It’s in my soul and helps me face every day with positive energy and a desire to make a difference each and every day. I am eternally grateful for that gift.

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Thanksgiving (2017)

Happy Mother’s Day and thank you to my mom, to Jill, and to all of the amazing moms who give give all of us the powerful and life-changing gift of unconditional love.

Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#9, Ladybugs and Dogs, April 25, 2020)

It may have been the most thoughtless senior prank I ever experienced.

As a former high school principal, I don’t love senior pranks. Usually, very little thought goes into them, and they end up being destructive, damaging, or time consuming. Occasionally though — and I mean very occasionally —  a group of seniors pulls off a truly clever idea that is not at all destructive, damaging, or time consuming. A few years ago, seniors brought their pets to school. It brought a lot of smiles to campus, and some students declared it the best day ever. My mistake was not saying it was a one-time only event, which I had to say when the next year’s students tried to do the same thing. Clever one year, and inconvenient after that. I know that with my cat allergies, I would not like Bring Your Cat to School Day. But we all know the cats wouldn’t like it either.

During my time as a high school principal, the second-best senior prank was when some students, with inside help, moved my entire office, desk, chairs, bookshelves, everything, into the quad. I “had to” work outside the whole day, holding meetings in the bright sun, and making a spectacle of it all.

But the best prank was when a group of seniors spent months deconstructing a Volkswagen Beetle and then one night rebuilt and secured it around the flagpole in the quad. When I came to work, students and employees were admiring a VW Bug in Malibu High School colors with the campus flagpole rising through the middle of it. It was awesome, and I let it stay there for a week. And when I asked the students to take it down and leave the quad in perfect condition, they did just that. Spectacular.

Back to the thoughtless prank. Some seniors at Santa Monica High School had released about 200,000 ladybugs on campus. I’m not sure that was the number, but that was the rumor. It was a lot. Ladybugs blanketed several hallways and just didn’t know what to do. I’m sure there were rose bushes all around town that would have loved them, and local aphids should have been fearful, but instead the ladybugs were just clogging up the hallways, getting stepped on by people trying to leave the building, and eventually being removed by custodians. It was a needless loss of life for some beautiful and extremely useful creatures, and I hated it. In the course of helping to deal with the prank, I mentioned to one of the office assistants that my then-five-year-old son loved ladybugs, and he would have hated to see this. As I was leaving, the assistant gave me an emptied plastic liter bottle, punched with air holes, containing about 50 ladybugs to give to Dawson. Her unsolicited act of kindness gave me the only smile I had that afternoon, and I am still grateful.

When I came home, Dawson came outside to greet me and I gave him the bottle-o-bugs. He looked at it with big eyes, then looked at me and said these now famous words: “Thanks, Dad. I finally have a pet.

Oh boy.

Dawson had been bugging us for a while for a dog, but he’s such an easy-going kid, that he figured lady bugs must be the next best thing. I turned to Jill and said, “It’s time to get a dog.”

That weekend we went to the local animal shelter and spotted a Pekingese that someone had dropped off at the pound’s front gate. We saw her as she was being taken out of her cage for the first time and walked around. There’s a Kenny Chesney song about his adopted dog, where he sings, “Lying there like a lost string of pearls.”  It’s a perfect line for a beautiful abandoned dog. Dawson and Jill fell in love, I quickly gave up any hope of looking the least bit masculine as I walked this white fluff ball through the neighborhood, and Penelope (Penny) was ours. That was October 18, 2008.

Last Saturday, exactly 11 and one half years later, our Penny died of old age in our arms.

Those of you who have lost beloved pets know that in these deaths you lose a family member and a friend. It hurts.

But it was a great run.

There’s a touching book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The movie is OK, but the book is special. It features the relationship between the main character, Denny, and his dog Enzo. Their close friendship is almost human in nature, and the dog understands emotions, illness, auto racing, and the meaning of the universe. I don’t think Penny understood any of those things, but she was still a wonderful dog. More from Enzo later.

Pets have been a great source of companionship during this COVID-19 era. There are plenty of Facebook posts about dogs tired of walks and belly rubs, of happy dogs, or dogs imploring their humans to go back to work. I Zoom regularly with two colleagues, one of whom has a dog always begging to get picked up so he can co-Zoom from her lap, and another who has a cat who lurks behind her, ready to attack, like Cato in the Pink Panther movies.  Our pets and companions, intelligent, loving, or diabolically crazy, make our lives so much more full, which is particularly reassuring while we are spending so much time at home with plenty to worry about.

YoungPenny

We adopted Penny when she was four or five, when Dawson was also four or five. They grew up together. She slept at the foot of Dawson’s bed, they played together in their younger years, and when they were older, you could usually find her lying on a soft pillow next to Dawson as he sat at the computer. She didn’t need much: a little food, occasionally with some cheese mixed in, clean water, access to the back yard, and short bursts of companionship. She spent most of her time just looking for a soft place to sit, close to us, but not too close. We called her a cat-dog. She liked us, but didn’t need us, except when she did. We loved her in spite of or because of all of that.

OldPenny

“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault really.” I found that quote from Agnes Turnbull, and I couldn’t agree more.

I have never spent more time at home than in the past few weeks. Never. One of the gifts of that time was getting to spend so much time with Penny in what turned out to be her final weeks with us. All of us being with her at 3 a.m. when she breathed her last breath was powerful and emotional. She knew she was loved, and though I was not ready, I believe she was.

Back to our dog philosopher hero Enzo, who philosophized, as only dogs can do, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, … to separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.

I am convinced that many of us, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, are our own worst enemies. We humans overthink things, and the more leisure time we have, the more we overthink our lives. We should learn from our dogs.

One last quote from Enzo the wise sage/dog: “That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

We are living in the midst a very challenging time. If we can take the time to step back from our challenges, feel the joy of life, and seek to improve the moods of those around us, that’s good stuff.

Thank you, Penny, for making our moods better every day of your 12 years with us.

May all of your animal friends, dogs, cats, horses, and even ladybugs, past, present, and future, ease your burdens and bring smiles to your faces throughout your lives.

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Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#8, On Writing, April 18, 2020)

“I have raised an illiterate son.”

Those were the words my dad spoke to me as a 17-year-old, as I was filling out my Harvard application. Harvard required that we list all the books we had read during high school, and left plenty of room on the paper application to fill in lots and lots of books. I only really had the books I had been required to read in school, and there were acres of space left on that part of the application. I didn’t think Harvard wanted to hear about Great Linebackers of the NFL, and Great Quarterbacks of the AFL, or even Strange But True Football Stories. So, I left a lot of blank space and disappointed my Dad. Apparently, Harvard wasn’t impressed either. Oh well. I left high school as a decent reader and writer, and since then, I have tried continuously to get better. I still don’t read as much as my dad does, but I know my dad considers me to be at least semi-literate now, and every week we discuss books and recommend new finds to each other. Jill wonders if my dad’s comment is the reason I keep an annotated bibliography now. Maybe.

I think I have written more in the past five weeks than at any time since I finished my dissertation. But I’ve actually enjoyed this writing. It’s allowed me to reflect on how I evolved from my high school writing self to the writer I am today. I did not get here alone. I had mentors who inspired and guided me along the way.

I’ll begin with my father. If I had a nickel for every time he said, “I wish people in this world could just write a simple, clear, declarative sentence,” I’d have a hundred bucks at least. And I could at least do that when I left high school. But he was also a writing model for me. When I went to college, and phone calls were too expensive to make, I could count on getting a letter every day from my dad. Every day. Sometimes typed, often written in his left-handed scrawl. It was great either way. I did not write back as often as he would have liked. One time, he sent me a typed letter with fill-in-the-blank spaces, and asked me to fill it out, put it in the stamped addressed envelope, and mail it back to him. The letter went:

Dear Dad,

I am doing ____________.

The weather here is ____________.

One thing I did today was __________________.

Love,

Mike

Hilarious.

In December of every year, my dad sends all of his children a summary of quotes from his favorite books and articles that he read during the year. He’s still a role model and a writing mentor.

The first teacher in my life who truly took an interest in my writing and served as a writing mentor was my advisor in college, Dr. Alexander George. I’ve mentioned him before. As an International Relations major, I felt fortunate to take two classes on the Soviet Union from Professor George. He was the first person to pull me into his office solely to discuss my writing. He called me “a diamond in the rough” in terms of my writing. For those of you familiar with the Disney version of Aladdin, the person who was called a “diamond in the rough” in that movie was also called a “street rat.” Coincidence? He worked with me on going beyond the simple, declarative sentence and actually varying my sentence structure, and he asked me to work to interest my reader. He was one of the foremost researchers in the world, and he took time to help out a street rat. I was fortunate to have his honest and kind mentorship.

My next mentor did not come around for a few decades after that. I call her a Person Who Has Never Applied for a Job. I also call her one of my closest friends. I met Pat Cairns in 1993 when I became principal at Malibu High School. She was an English teacher, and she was really good at her job. So I made her quit it. I hired her as a Vice Principal (without interviewing her) and we worked together for years. She and I also team taught an AP US History/AP English 11 course, and we were quite the team. She later became an elementary principal (again without applying for the job), and that’s when she started to mentor me in writing. She wrote weekly letters to her elementary parents, and I read them faithfully. They were funny, touching, personal, insightful, and perfectly written stories for her community. They were self-deprecating, and they often bared her soul. They were courageous, as good writing often is. You put things out there that most people would keep private. It takes more time than you possibly have, and you always wish you had more. I know how busy she was as a principal, yet she found the time. She remains one of my greatest mentors, and I value all the conversations we had about her weekly letters and about life. By the way, she is also Dawson’s godmother, and she has lived next door to us since 2001. Her house burned down in last year’s fires, and she has not yet moved back. The lemon tree that stood between our houses stopped her burning, collapsing wall from hitting our house, saving our home from total destruction. I still steal lemons from that tree regularly, and when I enjoy those lemons, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my friend and mentor, and it pains me still that I can’t walk over and visit her or even just wave at her as she tends to her beautiful roses. One day soon I hope.

I’ve never met my next mentor. I write him emails every once in a while, as I think we have a lot in common. He probably thinks of me as a creepy and annoying fan. Maybe he’s right. Chris Erskine is a columnist for the LA Times. The LA Times is a real newspaper, doing its best to stay alive. I’m a subscriber, and if you live in LA and you’ve read this far, you should be too. Click here to do just that. Chris Erskine represents the common family man in LA, and he writes about the beauty, humor, sadness, and craziness of his family, the Dodgers, good friends, and the Los Angeles community. Like Pat Cairns, he bares his soul. He recently shared the crushing losses of his older son and his beloved wife. I can’t tell you how many times I have laughed out loud or actually cried reading his columns. And he is the king of having at least one perfect sentence in every column, one that reminds you of what writers aspire to be. His courage, wit, humor, and appreciation of every aspect of daily life inspire me, and he’s a mentor without even knowing it. I feel like I know him and that he’s a friend. (That’s me being creepy again, isn’t it?) I’m not as courageous as he is. I have started a list of topics to write about, but I’m nowhere near courageous enough to write about them yet. It’s like Derek Zoolander’s Magnum look – I shouldn’t even be talking about it. I’m nowhere near ready.

Finally, I have mentors who care enough about me to take the time to review what I write. My best friends and closest colleagues aren’t much into sugar coating. They tell it like it is, and I thrive on that. As a school superintendent, I send out a lot of writing. Pressing the “send” button on an email going to 10,000 people is always a nerve-wracking experience. I’ve seen a meme of a sweating finger lingering over a “Send” button, and that’s how I feel every time I send out a bulk email or publish a blog post. I feel fortunate to have people in my life very willing to closely read what I have written and correct and critique it before I push that Send button. They will never get me to overcome my fear of the semi-colon, but they are an incredible resource for me. I value their friendship, and I have become a better writer through their critiques.

So what does all this have to do with COVID-19? This stay-at-home era leaves us more time than ever for reflection, and there is no better way to force yourself to reflect than to have to clarify your thoughts through writing. Writing these blog posts has helped me to better understand what I’m feeling in these days. On top of that, there is so much that I can’t do in this era, so to have something new that I’m motivated to work on is energizing. I wake up early in the morning on a day where I know I’m going to write, and I jump out of bed eager to start. (Yes – I am a jump-out-of-bed person, no apologies.) Writing also creates an opportunity to appreciate and express gratitude for all that we have and for all of the people who have helped us along the way. I hope you have had mentors in your life who helped you with one skill or another. Writing even a quick email or note to them (my Dad would be happy to make a template for you!) could be a wonderful thing for both of you. And finally, what better legacy can you leave in life than actually being a mentor yourself? It’s not easy. My main job as a teacher was using history as a means of coaching and mentoring students to be better writers. However you mentor, it requires finding time that you don’t have. It means sometimes stopping, slowing down, and giving your undivided attention to helping someone else. It’s a good time to be a mentor. Now more than ever, it’s the personal connections that matter the most.

Note on October 26, 2020 – Thanks to reader Bob L. for pointing out that some of the links need updating. And sadly, Chris Erskine no longer works for the LA Times, but happily, he’s still writing and you can find his musings at https://chriserskinela.com.