A year out of college, I found myself driving from Boston to Baltimore on a hot August day straight from waiting table in a Boston fish house to a girls’ boarding school. I had no impressive internships on my resume, no study abroad or teaching experience of any kind. I did have a degree from a fairly decent undergraduate program and a head in urgent need of a dorm resident only two weeks before school started.
I am fairly confident that this career-start would be pretty unlikely today—not just because I wouldn’t get hired but also because my chances of success were so very slim.
But during those first years as a teacher, I was lucky enough to have a school head who made me believe that teaching was something I could actually do. I owe a great deal to the young, feisty school head who did more than take a chance—she showed me how to navigate her world. I owe as much or more to the extraordinary colleagues in the years that followed who guided, befriended, and mentored me at each step along the way of what became a thirty-year career as a teacher, division head, and head of school.
At this past November’s annual conference of the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools, I was lucky enough to hear Liz Murray speak. As Liz will say, “ I’m known as ‘that homeless to Harvard girl.’ ” Liz shared the gifts and challenges as a child of drug-addicted parents. But she talked most powerfully about one important teacher who took a chance on her, “stayed with” her, assumed she was capable of great things, and asked much of her.
At this year’s People of Color Conference, I heard again about the central importance of mentoring—in this case, developing and retaining young teachers of color in independent schools; of the importance of being seen and recognized, listened to and encouraged, and made to believe deep in your bones that you matter and have something of importance to contribute.
This deep “paying attention” doesn’t require a fancy mentoring program or a lot of money—though those may help. It just needs for those of us who are already further down the path to be both generous and humble, to take the time to notice and to listen, to guide and, in some cases, be guided by those who bring new eyes and a fresh view to our ‘old’ world.
Liz Murray urged the Episcopal school teachers and leaders gathered in front of her to be just that. “Tag, you’re it,” she said.
In the school year, December through February can be dark days—the bloom is off the rose, as they say. But in the Jewish and Christian calendars, December reminds us of struggle and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. These are days when light overcomes the dark and love is born fully human. It’s a great time to be that light to others.
As Liz would say, “Tag, you’re it.”