"Why Couldn't You Come Talk to Me About This?" by Upper School Head Michael Denning
On the last day of school in December, Class VI delighted us with their rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In this timeless parable, Dickens celebrates themes of community, hope and redemption; through visits by ghosts from the past, present and future, Ebenezer Scrooge’s damaged soul is rehabilitated just in time. I enjoyed Dickens’ classic as a child, but as I get closer in age to A Christmas Carol’s main character, I find that the notion of “ghosts of times past” resonates more powerfully with me, particularly as I consider family holiday traditions and resolutions for this coming new year. It is in this spirit that I offer this story.
I started my independent-school career just over 25 years ago. After four years of college, three years of graduate school, and a bit of experience as a university teaching assistant, I thought I knew a lot about teaching and had lots of wisdom to offer. I did not! And, frankly, I still cannot believe the patience and generosity of my colleagues and students as they indulged and supported me in those early years. Indeed, I have been blessed with many great mentors.
A decade older than I, my first department chair, John, and his wife, Hannah, opened their home to me and became the older siblings I never had but probably always needed. Far away from family and friends, I experienced moments of homesickness during my first years at St. Andrews, but these were often ameliorated by John’s and Hannah’s countless invitations to dinners and holiday celebrations. Inasmuch as John helped me to begin to learn how to teach—and he did—he and Hannah also showed me how to create community and care for colleagues. I was so lucky.
Three years into our tenures together, John became very excited about creating a more interdisciplinary curriculum, and I was right there with him. We spent a lot of time talking about how we might partner with our English department colleagues to expose our students to America’s many peoples, ideas and perspectives. But when the next school year began, John had seemingly moved on without me as I learned that he would be piloting this new course with the chair of the English department.
As I look back on this situation with the luxury of time and a bit more experience, I find myself marveling at my own lack of perspective and understanding of how curricula is developed. But back then, my hurt feelings were very real, so I took to my computer and wrote John a letter. To be honest, I don’t remember much of anything I wrote, but I am quite certain that I sought to couch my hurt feelings in some sacred principle I was certain he had violated. Needless to say, I did not elect to walk into his apartment—the residence two hundred feet away from my own where he and Hannah had welcomed me hundreds of times—to discuss how I was feeling. I wish I had, but instead, I righteously dropped the letter in his mailbox.
After a few hours, John came by to discuss my letter. Treating me with the respect I had not afforded him, John explained why it was important for the two department chairs to pilot this program, offered me a role, and apologized for the fact that summer break had made it impossible for him to give me a head’s up. Then he asked me a question I could not answer: “Why couldn’t you come by to talk about this before writing the letter?” The words were fair enough, but his obvious hurt, care and humility offered an unspoken preamble (in bold): “Given the friendship we have built through working and living together for the past three years, why couldn’t you come by...?”
I wish I had spoken to John about how I was feeling first, but I clearly did not have the courage, wisdom or maturity to grant him the respect he had so earned. In the moment, my emotions had overwhelmed my judgment, causing me to create a lasting, hurtful document.
John and I worked through the hurt I caused with my emotional impulsivity, but it was not easy and made all that much more difficult by the permanence created by a letter. While I might have wanted to forget what I had written, I had to live with knowing that John could return to the letter at any time. Thankfully, this ghost from my past still haunts me, at least enough to keep my fingers off the keyboard in moments when all-too-human feelings of frustration, disappointment, fatigue and intemperance find their ways to me.
So why am I telling you of a lesson I learned the hard way? To be honest, I am quite worried about how we, as a culture, too often communicate (or do not communicate) with each other. We witness intemperate (at best) statements from our country’s leaders on what seems like a daily basis. And in my work at Nobles, I find myself spending a good bit of time these days helping parents, guardians, educators and students work through hurtful communiques. Conflicts and disagreements are a natural element of any community. But texting capabilities, email, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and myriad other forms of electronic communication make it that much easier for all of us to engage with (and even lash out at) others impulsively, damaging important relationships along the way. Too often, I am confronted by situations that remind me of the mistake I made so long ago.
There are times when written communications are necessary, but perhaps we should never write what we can say. Ideas offered with care, empathy, compassion and patience in person-to-person encounters are not just ideas and feelings shared, they are the foundation of dialog, understanding, problem solving and the building of community. So as you consider possible resolutions for the new year and discuss these with your children, perhaps give some thought to the idea that hard conversations should be had in person. The person you are talking to deserves that; you deserve that, too. I wish you a happy new year and a wonderful 2018.