“Who-Luck” and How We Measure the Impact of Our Lives

“A bookstore. That’s what I want to build after retirement, but it’s going to be really hard to leave school.” Liz was ruminating three nights ago over dinner on her career, and upcoming retirement in the next couple years. While I no longer work at the same school as Liz, we’ve stayed in touch, infrequent as it is, and we catch up on schools, marriage, educating and raising children, family, books, TV shows and movies, and future plans when we get together.

Liz is right, of course. It will be hard on her, and it will be hard on her school. We are all replaceable, but the better schools create more than just the professional or the position, and the better teacher and administrator does more than just her job. The person breathes life into the profession, makes it her own, molds it to her style and leadership, her way of being and relating, and defines the job or position in a way that is uniquely hers. When she leaves, the position will be replaced but the person cannot be. What is replaceable is the job, not the person. We miss the person, not the job because the job will be done again and again, just not by the same person or in the same way anymore.

Liz, too, will miss the job and school, but I suspect it’s not the job that will be hard to leave; it’s the relationships and friendships, the ones who’ve cared for her and allowed her to care for them, those who pushed her and also gave her grace, befriended her and shaped her. She has seen many of them leave her school over her two decades, and with each departure of someone good, she has mourned not just their leaving but the gaping hole they leave behind in her community and in her life, irreplaceable by anyone else.

As I come to the end of my tenure at The Children’s School, I wonder about legacy and impact. I wonder about questions like, “How do we measure the impact of a life?” Is it in buildings I’ve built, programs I’ve implemented, or the grants and accolades we’ve received? I’ve never put a lot of emphasis on those tangibles. They are important, but buildings disintegrate, programs end, and yesterday’s news is yesterday’s news. I have left many places and will join others and then leave those too. What continues are the people I leave behind and the ones I take with me, in message and in relationship.

Every transition is an opportunity to contemplate the past, present and future. The choices we make, when we are confronted with a fork in the road, determine and define who we are and who we become. In 1998, I dropped out of the school of engineering, transferred to the liberal arts college, and decided to major in philosophy. In 2001, I chose a middle school humanities job in Dallas over other possibilities like law school or a job on Wall Street. In fall 2004, I postponed graduate school to take on administrative roles, and co-chair the NAIS People of Color Conference. In 2008, I turned down an opportunity and more pay in San Francisco to go to Alexandria, closer to a cousin and family on the east coast. Now in 2020, I’ve turned down several comfortable and familiar options to go home again and try my leadership reach and impact on a bigger platform.

I’m an “impact junkie.” I didn’t know my next move in the spring of 2019. It wasn’t simply about going to a bigger school or bigger budgets. Volume was one piece of the puzzle, but it wasn’t my primary or only motivation. I went into teaching in 2001, against my parents’ judgment and wishes, because of the two years I had spent at a small boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina. I was surrounded by teachers and administrators who took more than a professional interest in their students, and cared deeply for their personal lives and the people we’d become. Other jobs felt like a job, but I saw those teachers live more than a job. I wanted their lifestyle and their impact, so I chose teaching too.

I’ve been fortunate in my career. At 32, I became head of school and, at a time, when less than 5% of heads nationwide were heads of color. Success is a combination of many factors, luck being an important one. As Jim Collins would say, I’ve had incredible “who-luck,” people who placed a bet on me, like Jay who moved me to his honors-level English course in my first year at Asheville School; Shaun and Susie who gave me not one but two leadership roles at 24; Jay and Caroline at NAIS who assigned me to the POCC, SDLC and DLI faculty; Tony who’d call and check in on me regularly; Billy who’d make time mornings, evenings or weekends to guide me during any number of crises; Rich who believed I could do something before I did it; and Ray who listened, prodded and sorted through my jumbled thoughts. The list goes on. They were conscious of my future before I was; they felt my needs and wants before I did. Impact is not unidirectional; it’s measured by my reach, and also by those who took time out to reach me.

I will carry Liz, as I will so many others, to India too. We leave jobs behind when we move; but the people we need come with us.

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