A View From 80

 

Recently, I completed my 80th lap around the sun. All those folks who optimistically say, “It’s only a number, has nothing to do with how you are”, are wrong. It has lots to do with “how I am”, especially when I look in the mirror and recognize a close resemblance to how my father looked in his 90’s.

I suppose most of us, upon reaching what is considered an advanced age, look back on our lives and reflect upon those things which were completed and those still undone. Some important things we wanted to accomplish may have been impossible even though we didn’t recognize them at the time. Other things slipped in almost unnoticed and gave us unexpected pleasures, that “serendipity” that my high school English teacher wanted us to know.

This will of course be a rambling discourse not unlike many others I’ve written; there will be some comments that are repetitive from the past but which represent recurring thoughts that seemed to linger in my mind. Please excuse my inserting an occasional note seemingly unrelated to anything else I’m writing. They’re just for fun!

One of the highlights of my long career in education was the opportunity to become involved with extensive evaluations of school programs, many of them in the public school arena but also a few in the Department of Defense global system and some private international schools using American curricula. Regardless of where they fit in the sphere of education, all used the same five criteria toward excellence as established by the organization in which they were members, AdvancEd. Given that consistency, those of us trained in leadership roles as team leaders in visiting schools and school districts were easily able to identify strengths and weaknesses in performance, and make recommendations toward improvement in student outcomes, community interaction, and program and staff development.

My particular assignments were not only in my home state of Wyoming, but also took me to military bases in Japan; South Korea; Ft. Benning Georgia; Germany; and International Schools in Cairo, Egypt. Given the many types and locations of the schools, it’s no wonder that I saw vast differences among them. However, there was one unifying factor that consistently formed the basis for the best schools I saw — in each of the top schools, leadership had been able to create a sense of ownership of the school’s program by the total school staff, regardless of level of involvement by each individual; input was solicited from everyone and actually used in decisions for improvement, notwithstanding the source or role of the contributor.

I realize that there are good schools everywhere; I saw many during my work. But to me, the best elementary school was one of the three on the U.S. Army base at Ft. Benning, Georgia; the best middle school was in Japan, and the best and most comprehensive Special Education program was at the MISR American School in Cairo, Egypt. Each one of these stood out not only for the obvious “team” atmosphere, but also for significant achievements they were able to accomplish often in spite of difficult situations.

Examples include:

  • The fact that at Ft. Benning, there was 70% turnover of students throughout the school year as parents were only at that base temporarily prior to being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other assignment; Children were faced with not only the insecurity of constant change but also with the tragic fact that sometimes the parent wasn’t coming back. And still the school data showed far above average performance of the students and support from parents, an obvious tribute to the totality of school staff interactions.
  • In Japan, after the Tsunami which decimated the eastern coastline and totally disrupted military logistics, a Middle School principal along with her staff stepped in and provided much needed transportation and logistical resources enabling the saving of many lives and supporting temporary structure until military communication and operations could be re-established. And kept the school open and functioning at a high level throughout the crisis.
  • In the Middle East, Special Education is not a commonly recognized need even though there are thousands of children showing all the categories of disability. The far-seeing principal of the MISR (ancient name for Egypt) American Curriculum School in Cairo teamed with Ethel Kennedy Shriver to first, establish Special Olympics in Cairo, then, to create and implement an outstanding special education array of services in an environment not officially recognizing even the existence of disabilities. Every identified child had a one-on-one staff member accompanying the student through a “mainstreaming day”, ending with a last period tutorial reviewing the day’s assignments. We saw Down Syndrome students performing a well-synchronized dance review; developmentally disabled older youngsters weaving baskets and working as a team on a giant loom to create a superb tapestry depicting a cultural theme. Physical therapy tied programs together wherever appropriate.

And I repeat, it’s all about leadership and ownership! It works in corporations too!

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At 80, I no longer worry about lifetime warranties when I buy stuff.

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There are still some “bucket list” items as yet unfulfilled —- I’ve not made it to Australia (although I have enough frequent flyer miles on United, but who wants to take a 15 hour flight on that carrier?).

And I still don’t know all the words to “Mack the Knife”. Actually, I don’t think anyone does, other than Bobby Darin.

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One thing I always try to emphasize when I get into discussions having several sides arguing for a solution, I point out that most decisions are based upon opinions, not the facts from which those opinions were derived. The facts are filtered through the individual’s background of experience, education, and personal attitude. So whenever someone declares “It’s a fact”, step back and see if it really is. In fact!

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­­­­­­­­­­­­I’ve still not found anyone able to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without getting some of it on their fingers. Maybe Guinness should take a look.

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I still recall lots of things from when I was very young, like smells. I enjoyed being sent to the bakery for a loaf of freshly-baked bread, and held the end of the wrapper beneath my nose for the delicious odor to enhance my trip home.

When I grew up, all the public libraries were located in high schools throughout my home towns of Kansas City (both Missouri and Kansas), and all of them had the same smell when one entered. I don’t know why, unless lots of books created that somewhat musty atmosphere, or maybe it was whatever polish was used on the universal oak furnishings in every location.

Then there were all the smells created by streetcars and busses throughout the cities, many belching clouds of black smoke as they went upon their routes.

Churches all smelled the same regardless of denomination, especially church basements like the one where our Boy Scout Troop met.

Even today, an occasional passing odor conjures up visions of a time long ago.

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I distinctly recall a few glimpses of exciting events sprinkled throughout my early years. I remember riding my tricycle up and down the sidewalk in front of our house, in 1944, shouting “The Germans have surrendered” at the top of my little voice. Of course, I didn’t really completely understand it all, I was 5. I did know that ration stamps were necessary when shopping at the grocery store, and I knew that was to provide more food for our army and navy. And there were blackout curtains on the windows.

My brother John, nine years older than I, collected live snakes which he kept in cages he’d made, in the garage. At one point, he had eleven different species; occasionally he’d take one of the snakes to his high school biology class. One time, he had a 5-foot long Pilot Black Snake in a cloth fishing rod sack, and the snake got loose on the streetcar on his way to school. Now that’s exciting!

On another occasion, he and my dad had been out collecting snakes, and had come home with a specimen that they put in a large Lay’s Potato Chip can they left in the living room. I was an observer of the next scene, as I was dealing with strep throat while lying on the couch. My mom came in and asked what was in the can? “Copperhead!” was the proud reply. “You take it back where you got it before you two get any dinner!” was her shouted rejoinder. More excitement!

My play group used to come watch the black snakes devour eggs and deformed chicks; in these pre-TV days these were the most violent things available for us to watch.

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In those long ago days and in the infancy of television, all the people on the news shows had easily known and pronounceable names. Over the years, it became important for persons to become believable if they had a British accent; some of that lingers today but is being thrust aside by persons having names which not only totally violate all rules of English spelling, but when spoken sound like something somewhere between a belch and a sneeze. Having spent two years teaching in West Africa, I can usually have no big issues with this, but woe betides everyone not having that background.

Another change I’ve noticed, and which I applaud, is the seeming majority of women in charge of many television news programming. And related to that, I’m glad to see more women in major roles in government; my opinion is that women are more likely to solve major issues through negotiation and consensus while men tend to turn to uses of force and confrontation, creating more problems. And not only our current President.

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Some things I like:

Spice drops, chocolate, Google, Amazon Prime, Rachel Maddow, Smart phones, my Jaguar, my friends, breakfasts, sincerity, college basketball –and lots more!

About 20 years ago, I’d grown a beard. People said it made me look old, so I shaved it off. Now that I am old, should I grow it again?

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Health is always a big concern. As I’ve mentioned before, I suspect that when people say “You’re looking great!”, that’s really a code phrase for “Gee, I’m surprised you’re still upright!”. Age became an issue when I noticed that my social calendar had become merely a place to schedule doctor’s visits. I try to fight off the impending withdrawal from some of the activities I enjoy, by struggling around the golf course in good weather, and continuing thrice-weekly small workouts at the rehab center’s health club. Various permanent conditions in my back and legs prevent me from anything requiring running or jumping; I really miss playing basketball which I was able to do until my late 60’s. All that’s really left is dribbling a ball and pushing it against a wall, irritating other folks in their own workout sessions. They think I should stick to only the rowing machine.

The big and continuing health issue is in the area of teeth. This became a concern when I found out that Medicare doesn’t cover dentistry, and I remember my dad’s approach.

He refused to have his teeth fixed when he began having problems with them when he was in his 70’s; his rationale to the dentist was that “I’m old enough that I may not have much time left, so just pull the tooth instead of spending all that money on teeth”. When he was 95, I took him to his favorite barbecue place in Kansas City, and asked him how was he able to eat having only two teeth left, one upper and one lower. He said the only thing he had trouble with was corn on the cob; he could only do one kernel at a time.

Recalling that conversation, I’ve spent a good portion of my retirement nest egg (quail sized) on teeth, and have five implants along with numerous crown replacements. Medicare fails us in this area of concern. But I can still smile.

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Who am I? I think I still spend a lot of moments trying to get some closure. I’ve accepted the fact that in most things, I was never outstanding through any efforts of my own. Yes, I was easily the best speller in our large high school, but that was a genetic blessing rather than any energy I devoted to it. (From my half century working in education, I don’t believe you can teach someone to be a great speller, only an adequate one. At the same time I wonder who thought it was a good idea to end the teaching of cursive writing in elementary schools? And why?) I have a semi-photographic memory, and was able to avoid much homework in high school and college by picturing pages of notes and books in my mind, and “reading the answer”.

I’m basically lazy, much unlike my wife and two sons, all of them having an extra-strong work ethic and a desire for near perfection. I’ve generally always been better-than-average in most things, but laziness kept me from going beyond. In some respects it was a big help; I believe I was a good school administrator because I was able to identify highly capable persons to carry out new ideas, and to get them to work together productively with others; in that way I didn’t have to do the work. In one of those personality/performance style tests, I was abstract-sequential indicating I could come up with the ideas and develop a plan of action. It didn’t say I had to do the job.

Another helpful characteristic was that I’ve been interested in just about everything although generally only superficially. It helped me understand and empathize with the variety of staff members with whom I worked; I knew enough to help them but not enough to get in their way.

I’ve never done anything important in depth; having been a special education director during the latter years of my career I became well-acquainted with ADHD, and think I have many of its characteristics. Unfortunately that puts me in the same category with our current President, for whom I have absolutely no respect. (He’s also not a good speller).

Probably my most in-depth and non-productive activity  was shooting 3-point baskets in the days before it was initiated; I was accurate about 60% out to 30 feet. And I believe I can teach anyone having a reasonable degree of athletic ability to become an 80% free throw shooter.

I think I was really good at teaching beginning golf, my students all hit the ball into the air and straight. I cured slices and hooks, and taught them the words to use when they made bad shots. (I learned them myself from people I played with).

I’ve come to grips with Faith, and have a strong belief in a Spiritual Something that created this Universe in which we live, and to which we will remain a part of, as we move to the next level of existence. To me, prayer is an inwardly-looking event that helps to summon more of the individual’s resources and strengths to the surface in times of need; it’s not relying on an outside spirit to resolve secular issues. And I’m comfortable with that. I’ll continue to try and follow the creeds and commandments by which I was raised, seemingly almost universal throughout the world as they provide a structure for the positive interactions between and among people everywhere.

And enjoy whatever years I have left!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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