The View From Above

I work on a college campus, and I love it.

Though my days can be somewhat varied, most of the time there is a carefully plotted out routine to what I do. There are countless committee meetings, reams of email, tons of telephone conversations, numerous one-on-one discussions, lots of small decisions, and large decisions, significant time working with students – faculty – staff on problems, concerns, challenges. . . and the list goes on and on.

It’s normal, average college work and it’s what I do everyday.

As expected, I am generally busy. I come early and stay late.  Sometimes I stop at noon to eat, but more often, I use the lunch hour to catch up on reading, signing things, thinking.  I find my college activities quite interesting.  But, for those on the outside looking in, the picture might not seem so exciting. Instead, it might be viewed as . . . tedious . . . tiring . . . a little too much of the same old – same old, and not enough of the knock your socks off, type stuff.

Admittedly, I spend most days in my office or in conference rooms.  I listen . . . I talk  . . . I read . . . I jot something down . . . I confer with others. I squint my eyes, looking up just in case an answer to whatever problem being discussed floats through my mind. (Rarely happens, but I look anyways.)

Sometimes the day passes without me ever standing up and moving from behind my office desk to the doorway. The two chairs in front of my desk are like seats on a merry-go-round that bring all kinds of folks into my office to chat. Suddenly, I look up and the day is over. I head home. I eat, sleep, wake up and start the process over again. It’s been this way for many years.

Most of the time.

For this is a college, and I know that college life is full of both the expected and . . . the unexpected.

As was the case on December 5th, 2012.

The sun was shining, the weather was perfect, and I was ready.   I slipped out of my regular work attire and into worn-torn jeans, work boots, and a college sweatshirt.  The faculty in the West Building had invited me, and I jumped at the chance.  I was – flat-out – super excited about the opportunity.  It was as if the world leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder for a great, great adventure.

In a few moments, I met my partner-in-crime.  Joe quickly ran through the must-do rules, and I suited up.  One hard hat. Check. One pair of leather gloves. Check.  One cell phone and one camera. Check, check.  And one safety harness with tons of carabiners. Big time check.  And I stood – at the ready – waiting for more instructions.

Joe looked at me and smiled.  He and I both knew that this day wasn’t going to be the usual.  This day wasn’t going to end with me turning out the office lights, shutting the door, and carrying my shoulder bag out to my nearby car.  This day was going to be different.  It was going to be a memory in the making.  This day was going to be one of those crazy-funny college days.

Our campus is a proud one and like other locations, we are becoming more energy-efficient. We have hundreds of geothermal wells throughout campus and several solar panels perched on building rooftops. We recycle everything, drive energy-efficient college cars, collect dead batteries, drink water from the tap, and turn the lights out when we leave our offices. And, most important for this occasion, we have two brand new wind turbines strategically placed on our college farm.

And I was in luck for It was my turn to climb one of those turbines.

The time came, and Joe started to climb first.  Once he was a healthy distance ahead of me, he peered down, motioned for me to connect my safety latch, and begin.  For just a moment, I hesitated.  I was delightfully excited, but from the bottom rung, it looked like a long way up.  I could hear him telling me to take that first step, but my boot seemed glued to the ground.  It was like my mind said go, but my feet said no.

I glanced up and Joe, who was already about fifty feet ahead of me, glanced down.  He smiled and called out my name one more  – and most likely the last – time. And finally, I started to climb.  What I thought I couldn’t do and wouldn’t ever have the opportunity to do, I began to do.  And it was fun – crazy fun.

One step at a time, one foot at a time, rung by rung, I climbed.  I have no idea how long it took me to reach the top.  I only know that it took me longer than it took Joe.  He coached me through the last trap door and onto the top platform enclosure – where there was just enough room for the two of us to stand.

He opened the top hatch, and from that vantage point, the view was stunning.  Farm fields, nearby highways, barns, lakes, silos, the college buildings, athletic fields – the best word to describe it was magnificent.

Oddly enough the only thing that had really changed was that I was no longer at ground level.  I was seeing the same sights I saw everyday – the same farm fields, the same nearby highways, the same barns, the same lakes, etc., and it was like I was seeing something completely different.

I changed my perspective and everything changed.  Everything. Everything.

Today as usual, I sit at my desk with paperwork and people swirling around me, with a routine that feels safe and comfortable, with my shoulder bag waiting to go home right after I click off the office lights at the end of the day.  But I know that if I take the time to look at my world from a slightly different perspective, I will see something totally different  – something very interesting and exciting.  Just depends on where I am standing.

College is crazy-funny that way.

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Things I Have Long Since Forgotten

When I put my mind to it, I realize that I have long since forgotten perhaps more than I remember.

. . . the names of the Shakespearean tragedies  . . . the number of elements on the periodic table . . . the distance from the earth to the sun . . . why humans hiccup . . . the Gettysburg Address . . . the Pythagorean Theorem . . .

Throughout my first twelve years of education, rote memorization was a way of life.  If it could be memorized, the good Sisters of Our Lady of Fatima Grade School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School required it.  There wasn’t a week that passed without my brain being stretched in order to set something, usually something I perceived as complicated, to memory.  It seems like I was routinely required to retain and recall all kinds of formulas, poems, definitions, conjugations, lists, songs, instructions, passages, speeches and prayers.

. . . the 44 United States Presidents . . . the Greek alphabet . . . Maslow’s first name . . . the hierarchy of biological classifications . . . the lyrics of almost any song . . . the novels of Mark Twain . . . the Latin roots of the verbs of action . . . the I have a dream speech . . . PI and its uses . . .

When I think back to the laundry list of things I memorized and fast forward to today’s list of thing I have long since forgotten, it’s a little frightening.  In my neck of the woods, what fifth grader didn’t have to recite by heart the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution? What second grader didn’t have their multiplication tables memorized? And what Catholic high school senior couldn’t recite the books of the Bible – New and Old Testament without flaw?   But on some levels, today, I may be hard pressed to ace all that I once knew with ease.

. . . a natural minor scale . . . the names of bones in the human body . . . the rules of probability . . . the expeditions of Ferdinand Magellan . . . the kilometer to mile conversation formula . . . the nations of the United Nations . . . the members of the Dow . . . why there are lunar phases . . .

From 1962 to 1974, my life included many evenings of tough love studying to ensure that not only did I memorized everything aside from the ingredients of the nearby pickle jar, but so, too, did my five siblings.   I can still hear the ‘listen and repeat’ mantra emanating from family and friends – hoping that all that entered my head stayed in my head.

. . . the list of constellations . . . Juliet’s speech from the balcony . . . how to find a square root of anything . . . the NASA astronauts . . . prime numbers up to 100 . . . the periodization list . . .

During my college life and beyond, the time spent memorizing seemed to diminish.  Perhaps I had committed everything that I needed to commit to memory. (It’s a nice thought, but even as I write that one, I doubt it.)  Perhaps higher education was moving me beyond remembering towards understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, or creating.  (That’s a lofty thought.)  Or perhaps I just ran out of time (which is the most likely explanation),  for memorizing cannot be accomplished without a generous allotment of available minutes, hours, days.    I know, however, that time spent on memorizing is time well spent.

As evidenced by what occurred on Friday, May 11th, 2012.

As a lifelong educator, I have attended all kinds of graduation ceremonies; and each ceremony has its own flair of the sun . . . its own flash of sparkle . . . its own best moment.  But in all that I have witnessed, nothing has even come close to May 11, 2012.

The pomp and circumstance of this particular ceremony was in full swing.  The National Anthem had been sung, the faculty awards given, the distinguished alumni honored, and the presidential welcome complete.   Next in line was the speech from the young student trustee.  The graduates were poised for listening, but as always, their hopes were for something short and sweet.

Kiersten took the stage with ease, cap and gown swirling around her.  She strode to the podium, and much like all earlier speakers, her prepared notes were waiting for her.  And she did pause momentarily to open them.  Then, with striking confidence, she gazed out into the audience and began her address.  Within seconds, the audience – which filled the field house beyond capacity – came to the realization that those notes were going to go unused, because she had – in preparation for the occasion – committed her entire speech to memory.

And it was stunning.

No cue cards, no teleprompter, no power point, no reading from notes, no magic tricks . . . just Kiersten delivering a speech for the ages.  And as she finished and left the stage, my mind wandered back to the times and moments that folks asked me to memorize something, anything, everything.  I could hear Sister Mary Vincent loud and clear telling a class of eight year olds that even though I didn’t understand it today, in the future, I would see the power of a speech memorized well.  And it may have taken a long time, but on May 11, 2012, I saw just that.

I am no stranger to great speakers.  It has been my privilege through my type of employment to hear a slew of tremendous folks speak – among those:  President Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, Governor Jeb Bush, Dr. Mark Milliron, Ms. Eva Mozes Kor, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, Ms. Erma Bergmann, Mr. Jim Collins, Ms. Jean Driscoll, Mr. Lou Henken, and many, many more.

From that particular list, I can remember not only the essence of their oration, but their presentation style as well – each one having a different type of appeal, a different type of approach, evoking a different type of emotion.

What was common, however, is my impression that all of them had memorized their entire presentation.  Moment for moment, word for word, they had it memorized.  Some spoke at great length.  Some were humorous.  Some were aided by technology.  Some were asked to speak at the very last moment, but regardless seemed to be totally prepared.  One took my breath away.

Today, I thank my lucky stars on two levels:  one that my life has been filled with opportunities to memorize more than i can ever remember, and two that I was among those in attendance on May 11th, 2012 – where I witnessed excellence.

As you can see, I was truly having a great time at Graduation 2012! Many thanks to all who made it so . . . memorable!

Gotta Love Winter Break

I love winter break.

And, I am happy to report that I have had a winter break every year of my life since I was in kindergarten.  Really – what’s not to love about it –  ten days off each winter from sometime before December 25th to sometime after January 1st.  A brilliant idea in any world.  It can be called winter break or winter holiday or semester break or just plain vacation; regardless of the name, it is still grand.

Winter break is one of the joys of the United States educational system.  Everyone and everything stops – halts – pauses for a holiday.  No one misses anything because there is absolutely nothing happening to miss . . . for ten days . . . at the end of one year and the beginning of the next.  There are no classes scheduled, no meetings to attend, no educational dilemmas to solve.  The phones may ring and email may be received, but all of it waits until the holiday ends and the next semester begins.

Winter break is one heck of an educational tradition.  Sports-metaphorically, it’s halftime for folks on both sides of the classroom.  Officially, we claim that its purpose is to re-invigorate ourselves, recharge our brains, and prepare ourselves for what follows in January.  Of course, those reasons are all true; however, behind the scenes, winter break is also a time to simply goof around during what can be the gloomiest time of year – in particular for those living in the colder and snowier climates.  Some say why, while those in education say . . . why not take a break.

Not only is winter break an educational tradition, but so, too, is spring break, and fall break, and of course, summer break – with the last being the longest and strongest both in tradition and duration.  Obviously, education isn’t shy about its official pauses.  It’s a glorious schedule . . . work a little, rest a little, work a little, rest a little, work a little, rest a lot.

There are serious challenges to working in education, (and I will leave those issues for discussion by someone else at some other time); but, taking and enjoying break time isn’t one of them.  How to holiday is an art form that has been heartily practiced and universally adored by students, faculty, staff, and administration throughout all education.

This winter break, I have noticed two distinct reactions by folks outside of education.  The first I take as a compliment – although it generally comes in the form of questions with twists of sarcasm:  When do you work?   Are you still off?  When do you go back?  Is anyone manning the ship while the students are away? Who is paying for all of this?

And, truly, from the outside, it must look like education is break-happy beyond belief.  In fact, I am careful not to contact my dad too much during winter break, as he is old-school.  Prior to his retirement, he worked from dawn until dusk without even as much as a fifteen minute break.  Lunch was on the fly and a vacation was earned and given during the summer months only.   So, regardless of sarcasm, this reaction to winter break is well understood and well deserved.

The second reaction I also take as a compliment, but it is much more quizzical to me:  I wonder why I am not off?  Why isn’t everything closed for a winter holiday?  Shouldn’t it be a part of world tradition to take scheduled breaks? 

Here I can only empathize and whole-heartedly agree.  These questions seem to be directed more internally towards those who are not partaking in break time rather than externally towards those who are.  Yes, everyone should pause.  Yes, everyone should re-invigorate, recharge, and prepare.  And yes, everyone should have a length of time in the middle of the winter to goof around.  The only challenge is convincing the entire non-educational world to institute the winter break system immediately each and every year.  A possibility?  Yes.  A probability?  Hmmm . . .

My itinerary this winter break was typical for me, I think.  I spent time with family and friends near and far; I completed household projects put on hold throughout the fall; I caught up on day-to-day tasks, wrote thank you cards, worked out at the gym, cleaned closets and cars, read my backed-up reading list, wrote a new bucket list, watched basketball games, went to the movies, ate too much, and slept too little.   In reality, the list of my winter break accomplishments is a lot of nothing plus a little of everything that could have been postponed if it weren’t for the great winter pause.

Yet, I love winter break.

Regardless of how mundane and inane my accomplishments have been during break, it is crazy fun.  It is crazy fun to rejuvenate and recalibrate in any way, even in ways small and silly –  especially when facing the dark days of winter.

Interestingly, one part of my winter break activities included being in a car during the early morning hours on December 25th. From my bird’s-eye view, most – if not all – folks appeared to be on break at least for the day. All businesses were closed and a true winter break seemed to be in full swing. The roads were quiet and calm with no traffic in sight and no sounds to be heard.  Everyone was on pause.  For me, it was a surreal moment thinking that more than just the education population was taking a winter break . . . together.

My take-away? As a nation, we should seriously strive for the winter break concept.  Take what happens in the halls of academia and generalize it, so that those whose fortune hasn’t led them to work in education are able to experience the true meaning of holiday.  I have no clue as to whether I am a more productive and/or effective educational employee because of winter break.  It is hard to measure as there is no control group inside education to use for comparison!

However, it is easy for me to know that winter break is just a plain good idea.  So, here’s hoping that we all pause for ten days next December/January . . . together.

It doesn’t hurt to hope!

This photo was taken moments before the official start to winter break!