Department Chair: My Inner Voice Refuses to Explain
[Editor’s Note: All names have been changed to protect the innocent.]
My first inkling of what was up was an encounter at the faculty mailboxes with Don, a longtime faculty member I assumed would be elected Department Chair at the next faculty meeting. He glanced sideways at me.
“So, I hear you’re up for Department Chair. Gonna run against me?” His tightly controlled facial expression let me know the question was not as casual or friendly as it sounded. His eyes focused just beyond my shoulder, then darted to the other shoulder, and his jaw was grimly locked.
I laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. Me? Not even interested. Who would want that job? You don’t get a raise, you have to deal with all the personality conflicts and politics, lose your summer off, and never get a vacation. No, thanks, I can’t figure out why you would want the job, either!”
His clenched jaw muscles relaxed. No competition, then. “Oh, there are perks…lots of changes coming up in the next couple of years. We’ll need strong leadership. Must have been a rumor, if you’re not running.” The same rumor had come up in previous years, but I had always firmly squelched it.
“Good luck!” I said. If no one ran against him, he would be our unanimous pick.
Later that day I learned where the rumor had started. It was a late spring day, and I was heading off to eat my sandwich at the Civic Center fountains, and check over my notes for my afternoon Instructional Design class. Jerry, one of the leaders of our current teacher training program, intercepted me on the front steps of the Education building. He indicated the step. “Have a seat, I want to ask you something.” He sat. I sat, and waited.
“You know there are a lot of changes coming up in our department,” he said. I nodded. I was vaguely aware that every one of the teacher training institutions in the state would soon be required to convert from an undergraduate four-year teacher certification program to a graduate program requiring a fifth-year Masters degree for certification. The implications of the change were enormous, though I had given it little thought up to this point. I knew my courses would remain unchanged—training teachers to use technology in the classroom would be needed at either level. And my Psychology of Instruction and Instructional Design courses were already graduate level.
But Jerry had given it a lot of thought, because Teacher Education was his specialty, just as Computer Technology was mine. He was already at work redesigning the program at the graduate level.
“A bunch of us want you to run for Department Chair,” he said.
I was more shocked than flattered. “Me?” I responded dumbly.
“Yes.” He was firm. “You have the administrative and people skills we’ll need, and you’re creative, open to change and innovation. And you’re tenacious. There are enough of us on board with this to make sure you’re elected.”
Tenacious, I thought, I wonder what he means by that…
“But what about Don?” I said.
“Don’s a dinosaur. We need you for what’s coming.”
“Who would teach my classes?”
He had clearly thought this through. “You could still teach the grad level courses, and Ann in the library could teach the others. We’d move your computer lab out to the library tables.”
The teaching I loved the most, taken over by someone else. No way. It was 1989. I had just installed fifteen new Macintosh computers, another gift from Apple.
“Not interested,” I said, and gathered my things to head for the fountains.
“Please,” he entreated. “Just think about it, sleep on it, let’s talk again.”
I did think about it, but I didn’t sleep on it, because my Inner Voice had some urgent guidance for me, on the drive home. “You must do it,” the whisper in my head repeated.
“But why?” I repeated for the dozenth time, still getting no answer, only repeated urging. My Inner Voice, which I sometimes called Peter if I didn’t feel like owning it, refused to respond to my question. I had never been misled by that Inner Voice.
I wrestled with the guidance all the way in to work the next morning. Once, I pulled over, closed my eyes, got still and asked again, “Should I run for Department Chair?” Then I listened and expected an answer. My guide kept up its Inner Voice, its directive. “You must do it.”
My first stop at work was my friend Carrie’s office. She turned from her desk and grinned when she saw me at her door. “Hey, what’s up? Gonna run for Department Chair?” Her floppy blonde curls belied her long experience and expertise in teacher education.
I dropped into her side chair. “So you’ve heard that, too? I guess I was the last to know.”
“Well, we need you,” she said. “Lots of changes coming up. Don’s not the right person for the job right now.”
“He’s old school, knows too much about traditional teacher education and he’d try to keep things the same. We’ve got a chance now to innovate, a mandate in fact, and we have to grab it!”
I left Carrie’s office, and headed for Jerry’s. He was barely visible behind stacks of books, student papers, curriculum materials, manuals, notebooks and handbooks.
Jerry stood up when I came in, and leaned on his file cabinet. “So, you made up your mind yet?”
“Carrie seems pretty insistent,” I said. “Are you the only two people in this campaign?”
He laughed. “You might be surprised how many people support you for Chair.” Clearly, he’d been lobbying other faculty members.
I was silent for a moment. My Inner Voice repeated its mantra: “You must do it.”
I couldn’t believe a majority of the faculty would support me—some of them barely knew me, I’d kept such a low profile. And others seemed to have a lack of respect for me—I imagined that my field of expertise didn’t seem academic enough for them.
My imagination, too often, was the engine of my ego self. What I didn’t realize until years later is that I had a “hot button” too easily triggered. As a child, two years younger and smaller than any of my classmates, I had sometimes been singled out as a scapegoat, target for taunting, humiliation and outright bullying. It wasn’t a conscious memory, but the slightest whiff of derision caused an inner flare of defensiveness and shame.
University faculties are famous for elitism and judgment. The competition for promotion, merit pay, tenure, and time and money for research is fierce, and too often leads to derision and put-downs. My sense of the politics was that some of the faculty would turn on their friends in a flash if it would be to their own advantage. Loyalty was a rare commodity.
But if they didn’t want to elect me, then…problem solved! I sighed and gave in, with a faint feeling of dread and foreboding. I had jumped feet first into unknown territory many times in my career, but this time it felt bigger than usual, with more potential pits to fall into.
“Okay, you’ve convinced me” I said. “I’ll give it a try. But, Jerry—only if you promise me you’ll have my back every step of the way!” Could I count on him? He could be cuttingly sarcastic and critical at times…would he turn on me?
He leaped across a stack of manuals on the floor and grabbed me in a big hug. “You got it! You’ll be so good at this! Thank you!”
I was elected Department Chair. But not unanimously. Those who supported Don were seen by the younger faculty as part of the dinosaur mentality, not open to change, accustomed to teaching their same classes every year with minor revisions. We were an urban university with the largest teacher training program in the state, and our 800 students were mostly part-timers working for years toward a teaching certificate while holding down one or more jobs and raising families. A static, dependable curriculum over the length of their enrollment was important to these students, and to the faculty who taught those courses.
Typically, I figured I would learn on the job, with competent faculty like Jerry and Carrie to do the design work for the new program. I remembered how my predecessor, John, had inhabited that office as a one-year interim chairman, untroubled by problems or concerns beyond maintaining an easy status quo. This job would be a piece of cake. But the faint background feeling of foreboding continued.
My innocence ended my very first day on the job, Fall registration day, 1989. After a summer break, I got to work early to move a few things into my new corner office and greet the longtime department secretary, Rene. She seemed uneasy. Just doesn’t know what to expect from me, I thought. I knew she’d warm up. Anyway, I was headed to the gymnasium to greet students while they waited in line to enroll in classes. I was excited, and happy to see our returning students.
When I arrived at the gym, I was puzzled to see the lines of Education students snaking across the gym floor, out the door, across the lawn and sidewalk, and onto the street. They seemed agitated and angry. One student grabbed my sleeve as I passed. He was red with frustration. “What the hell is going on?” he asked. “We can’t get any of our classes. All sections are already closed.”
“I’ll find out,” I said, and pushed my way through the crowds to the registration desks, where a row of equally frustrated faculty members tried to cope with angry students. Maxine, the faculty member registering students for Health and PE courses, motioned me over. “There’s been a huge mistake,” she said. “The administration has cut way back on the number of sections we can offer for each class.” Other faculty members echoed the chorus all the way down the tables, all yelling at me at the same time. They had been caught off guard themselves. They had noticed their lighter course load, but assumed that adjunct faculty would be hired as they always had been, to teach extra sections as needed. No one seemed to know how or why this had happened. Including me.
I was back at my new secretary’s desk a few minutes later, out of breath. When she saw my face, Rene looked like she wanted to hide. She knew something I didn’t.
“Okay, what’s going on with the limited sections?” I asked her.
She took a deep breath. “John didn’t want me to warn you.”
“Of what, for God’s sake? Fill me in, please. John’s gone, this isn’t a secret you should keep. We have hundreds of students lined up to register, and all the sections are already closed!”
“The state cut our budget. We were supposed to have spent the last year reducing the number of students enrolled in the teacher training program from 800 to 250. John just didn’t have the heart to do it, it was his last year and he hoped it would just blow over. I was the only one who knew he wasn’t working on it, and he made me promise to keep it a secret.” Her shoulders slumped. “I should have told someone. I was afraid this day would come.” She looked up with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
I was in deep shock. John had retired at the end of the school year, showed up for his traditionally laudatory retirement party, and handily skipped town. I’d have cheerfully chased him down and done great damage to his body, but I had to get to the Dean’s office.
The Dean was welcoming, jovial. “Sit down,” he gestured to his office couch. “How’s your first day going?”
By the time I had outlined the registration problem for him his face was chalk white.
“How could you not have known?” I challenged him. “No one on the faculty seems to have known anything about this. Certainly, I hadn’t heard a thing!”
The Dean swallowed hard. “John told me he was dealing with it, and told me we’d be fine. I trusted him.” He got up and walked to his desk. “Obviously, I shouldn’t have.”
“Well, he lied. And now we have hundreds of students lined up for course offerings required for their programs, but limited to 250 students!” I sat back, happy to dump this in the Dean’s lap, where it rightfully belonged, in my opinion. “They’re pissed. And that doesn’t begin to describe the faculty’s attitudes!”
While the Dean began a series of phone calls to university administrators to beg for money for more sections, I went for a walk and a chat with my guide. What have you gotten me into? I asked. How could no one have seen this coming? How could an entire 45-person faculty be so oblivious, so trusting, so uninvolved, so willing to leave the enrollment problem in the lap of the Chair, and not even know he wasn’t dealing with it? Yet, I had been equally oblivious. I had assumed everything would be the same as usual Fall term, while budget cuts would be dealt with over a comfortable two-year transition to the graduate program. Graduation and attrition would gradually reduce student enrollment. My guide only continued to assure me that all was as it should be.
But the die was cast. We got a one-year reprieve from a budget cut. We had to dramatically reduce the number of students enrolled in the undergraduate program, and do it immediately. At the same time, we had to develop the new, graduate level program. And we had to begin to enroll students who had completed an undergraduate degree in their subject area, and needed a fifth year in teacher education so they could be certified under the new rules. And all of it was my job.
For the following two years my office entertained an unending stream of angry and anguished students and faculty. As Chair, I was committed to the new direction—I had to be—the change had been mandated for all seven colleges where teachers were prepared. The time to argue pros and cons of the decisions made at the state level, if in fact that had ever occurred, was long past.
“Old-school” faculty resisted the changes, defended the old program, and advocated for their frustrated students. Students had now been told they had to finish up and graduate quickly, or drop out. New students had to run a gauntlet of rigorous evaluative procedures for the graduate program, and few made it all the way through. Younger faculty welcomed the changes, believing it would improve the quality of teachers we prepared, while older faculty made their lives miserable with accusations and insults. The conflict level was so high that working there was like tiptoeing through a heavily-mined No Man’s Land. Jerry, Carrie, and several others were working hard to develop and put in place the new fifth year program against massive student and faculty opposition. But there was no going back. Opposition was pointless. The budget cuts had been made.
Chaotic as it was, my first two years were made bearable by the constant guidance I heard every morning, and the debriefing on the way home, in my “conversations” with my Inner Voice. My guide urged me to greet every anguished student or faculty member with gentleness and non-judgment, and when I was able to do that, my day went well.
The older faculty was in deep grief for the comfortable curriculum, to be ended forever that first year, and for their students, many of whom were simply not up to completing their program in a timely manner, or could not be admitted under the new program’s higher standards. For a longtime professor dedicated to turning wannabe students into high quality teachers who were well-prepared, practiced, and confident, this was the equivalent of physicians dedicated to saving lives, who have to tell their patients they cannot survive their disease.
One morning in January, 1990, this conversation (from transcriptions of tapes I recorded in the car, typed by my mother) took place as I drove to work:
Judy: “Today I’m meeting with my faculty and I want to discuss their commitment to the new program. Because my own commitment is wearing thin by virtue of just being pressured constantly. What should I say to the faculty? Should I push them to make a commitment? What do they need to hear from me, and what do I need to hear from them?”
Inner Voice: “ They need to hear from you love and encouragement, very gentle encouragement to continue on the path that they’ve already gingerly embarked on. What you need to hear from them is receptivity to that. Let tomorrow be an exchange of love. Not a call to arms. That’s not what’s needed tomorrow. Little hugs, encouragement.”
Judy: “Well, what do I do for encouragement? I am really flagging. Sitting in the leadership team meeting yesterday with the Dean, Associate Dean, and the Chairs of other departments, the stuff just piled on and piled on, just more and more and more stuff and everything has to be done as soon as possible, with unreasonable deadlines and often it’s stuff that I don’t even think is important. What do I do? I can feel the fever I had over Christmas coming back after sitting there for awhile and listening to all that. What do I do? What should I do? What should be my attitude? With the sheer volume and seeming urgency of all the things that have to be done, what do I do now?”
Inner Voice: “When you think about what there is to be done, when you look at the stack of things to be done, when you hear from people that something isn’t done, simply let everything relax. Take a little time out. The Dean has not put pressure on you about deadlines and so on, he’s been very understanding about that. You need not put it on yourself. Go with the flow. Don’t jump out of the raft and start swimming upstream at flood tide. Stay in the raft.”
After the meeting with the faculty, and appointments all day with individuals in my office, this exchange took place on the way home:
Judy: “This day has whizzed by so fast that I had little time to think about things we talked about this morning. But the talking about it apparently had an impact that colored and touched everything I did all day long. Because so many of my interactions with people could have gone either way. There were interactions where we talked about human concerns, hurt feelings, or sadness or upset, and I was able to reach out with gentleness. And thinking back, that’s what I did all day. Reached out with gentleness to people who needed it. And I think I gave some solace to some people, encouragement to others. So thank you for that.
Even though the day is too busy to consciously stop and review and rehash, is it true that, just by our talk in the morning even though it’s quickly set aside and forgotten in the rush of the day, but just having had the talk affects everything I do that day?
Guide: “Having had the conversation, much will be planted in your mind and thoughts that will carry you through the day on a subliminal level. You may not be conscious of it, but it will be operating. It sets things in motion at a cellular level and the things that are set in motion as we talk, affect everything that happens to you that day. You’re more at peace, more in touch with ongoing guidance whether you realize it or not, you’re sensing constantly what you’re hearing not only from those around you but from your inner guidance. And you’re more likely to have a peaceful, gentle day, as you did today.”
Judy: “I really have a sense of having passed the day with much busy-ness, many meetings and interactions, individual and in groups large and small that potentially could have been very negative, but which turned into very positive, or at least very loving interactions.”
But, even with the boost I got from days like this, I was weighed down, literally, by a box of paperwork the size of a small coffin. I took the box everywhere with me on weekends and holidays, trying to make some headway on my “down time.” When our family team of six worked at the Christmas tree farm, I took the box, and worked on it at night.
And there were other days, when I lost my peace and things that could go wrong, did go wrong. If people stopped talking when I entered a room, I remembered being with colleagues in the past when it was “trash the Department Chair” time. Then, it had seemed inconsequential, but now, I was the subject of the discussion, and it pushed my humiliationhot button. My ego imagination worked overtime with childish echoes: “They don’t like you. They’re making fun of you.”
Our librarian, who gossiped regularly with every faculty member, asked me to be her advisor for her doctorate, and I agreed. Sitting in my office one day she remarked to me, “I know this is a tough job right now, but don’t worry, after you hold things together for a couple of years we can get a Chair with real vision and make some real progress.” Her remark fueled my feelings of inadequacy for the job I imagined I’d been hired for. I lacked Vision! I was losing track of the job description for the real assignment I had been so strongly guided to accept.
These feelings were pure ego, and my Higher Self continued to tell me a different truth. But in my fatigue, I felt unable to take it in. My ego’s voice always spoke first and more insistently than the voice of my Higher Self. It took a distinct effort to overcome it, an effort that was more difficult when I was tired.
* * *
I kept a large box of Kleenex on my desk for students who had been denied admission, or who were unable to complete by the deadline. Their appeals for a special waiver were increasingly creative, and anguishing. I couldn’t tell if the stories were true, made up, or merely exaggerated. And it made no difference—the mandate to limit enrollment was in place. I would not overrule the Admissions Committee, and only the Dean could overrule me. He never did. I had to find a way to assuage the rejected students’ despair and encourage them to think about their future in a new way.
Another category of grieving students was those whom Jerry had told they would never be a teacher, that they were unsuited by temperament, intelligence, or preparation for such a demanding job. He based his decisions on his intuition, and on his extensive classroom experience with the student. One student Jerry had thus calmly eliminated arrived in my office already in tears. I closed the door. My desk was against the wall, so that I wouldn’t be distracted by hallway traffic, but I could turn my chair to face visitors. She sank into a comfortable chair.
“I have to finish the program! I have to be certified! My husband fell off the roof and a hatchet landed on his head and split his skull open and now he’s a vegetable and I have five kids to support!” I pushed the box of Kleenex to the edge of my desk. She pulled several, and mopped her face.
I knew the reasons Jerry had judged her to be unsuitable for teaching—she had been unable to complete a major lesson planning project. In class she was (perhaps understandably) distracted and emotional. I trusted his evaluation. Besides, to overrule him would have created an unacceptable precedent and a firestorm about faculty autonomy. In a time when so many otherwise acceptable students were being turned down for admission because they weren’t the “cream of the crop” I couldn’t give her a pass. There were hundreds of students in similar situations. Maybe not the hatchet part. But I’d heard even more creative reasons, and had to uphold the judgment of the Admissions Committee and their grueling process for evaluating students. Somebody needed to do it, and the Committee had agreed to set the criteria and make the judgments. The one criterion that wasn’t quantifiable was Jerry’s intuition. His intuition nearly always proved impeccable, but such decisions were sometimes difficult for me to defend. Nevertheless, I trusted his intuition, and backed him up. He relied on his own Inner Voice, no doubt. Jerry meant a lot to me—in a crunch, I could always depend on him to back me up. He was the brains and creativity and leadership behind the new high-quality graduate program.
I was gentle with the student, but firm. My daily guidance coached me constantly about how to deal with troubled and troublesome people and situations: with neutrality, non-judgment, and compassion, all qualities of unconditional love. Often, I succeeded. Sometimes, it felt dry and ineffective.
“I’m so sorry about your husband and the burden that places on you,” I said. “I know this seems like an impossible situation, but have you considered other ways you might be able to make a living and support your children? What other options do you have? Maybe something that doesn’t require another year of training?”
She wailed. “There are no alternatives! This is it! I have to do this! You have to give me a waiver!”
“I can’t give you a waiver, as difficult as your circumstances are. Our quota is already filled. But I can help you sort out your options. There have to be alternatives you’ve considered and rejected; how can you reconsider them in light of this situation?”
We talked for another fifteen minutes, considering options, until my eyes landed on the toy a wise faculty friend had given me: a mother monkey, with a small monkey on her back.
“Everyone who comes into your office has a monkey on her back,” she told me. “Your job is to take the monkey and hold it in your lap. They hope you will keep it there. But at the end of no more than 30 minutes, you must gently place the monkey on the back where it belongs and usher them out of the office.”
I couldn’t fix the student’s problem, but at least she was now considering alternatives. I gently placed her “monkey” back where it belonged and stood to usher her out.
* * *
Part of my job was to decide which faculty members to fire. For once, I had the full and grateful support of the Dean and higher administration to fire the wife of an important public official. Faculty and students regularly came to me with complaints about her meanness, rigidity, and unfairness. But the Dean, for political reasons, couldn’t fire her. I could. And did, giving her a year’s notice. Though she was not on a tenure track, not having a doctorate, her husband’s position had given her de facto tenure for many years. And she did have friends on the faculty who supported her.
The fired teacher launched a vitriolic campaign against me. Some of my best friends on the faculty went to her defense against the Department Chair—me. Three women colleagues invited me to a lunchtime meeting, and when I arrived with my takeout lunch, I found that they were there to demand that I reconsider. My longtime friend, Carrie, gave me a gift during the tense meeting—an adorable cuddly toy lamb—and what she seemed to think was a humorous greeting card. On the front of the card was a sweet fluffy lamb, with menacing ammo belts criss-crossed on her chest. Inside, a simple message that cut to the quick: “LAMBO.” I couldn’t laugh.
Once again I found myself in the position of not backing down from a decision that would not be reversed. The only alternative would be to fire another non-tenured teacher who had glowing ratings from students and faculty. Someone had to go. And I had to decide whom it would be. Perhaps the greeting card was accurate, and portrayed me in a way I had never wanted to see myself.
The fired teacher sued the University for wrongful discharge. The lawsuit was later dismissed, but while it was still pending, I had another talk with my guide:
Judy: “Explain to me, please, why I had to sign on for this job? I’m the projection screen for every angry disgruntled student and faculty member—and they’re all angry and disgruntled! Explain, please.”
Inner Voice: “It was the right decision, at the right time, and you are not only the right person, you are the only person that could have taken this on. You will be shown why. You’re too close to it right now. Watch for demonstrations that it was the right decision—and please, ignore your tendency to seize evidence that might demonstrate the opposite.”
* * *
A state property tax limitation passed in 1991, and when the 1991-92 school year began, we had to reduce student enrollment yet again, by half, to 125.
On top of that, it was time for the new graduate program to be evaluated in the spring, a three-day visitation by the state Teachers Standards and Practices Commission, followed closely by an even more rigorous every-five-years accreditation by the national accreditation council. Without such accreditation from both state and national agencies, we would no longer be allowed to prepare teachers for certification.
Associate Dean Richards, who was still on the faculty in my department, was in charge of the huge responsibility of preparing for both evaluations. Under this pressure, he could be rigid, demanding, judgmental, and merciless. He set very high standards, and did not suffer fools gladly.
At a faculty meeting early in the preparation process, Dr. Richards sat with me at the table in the front of the room. I had asked him to give a report and schedule for preparing for the evaluation visits. He exhaustively reviewed everyone’s assigned responsibilities. Finally he looked across at me. “If we fail…it will be a catastrophe. It will be up to Dr. Allen to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Now that the faculty knew who to blame if we failed, they relaxed. Once again, I felt completely inadequate to the task of documenting the new program in a 100-page detailed report. I had spent my time for the past two years in my office doing grief counseling and conflict resolution. It was often satisfying work, but had little to do with actual program design, curriculum development, or admissions. It had little to do with Vision.
The nightly respite of a talk with my guide on the drive home always gave me comfort and answers I would never have thought of in my ego mind. When I got home, Jack continued to comfort and listen. He had been an administrator in education for years, and had a broader perspective than mine. His tangible support and faith in me renewed my strength nightly.
Every morning, as soon as the “problem of the day” surfaced in my mind, I would deliver it to my guide, and listen for an answer. Here’s a small sample, a session related to the weekly and daily deadlines set by Dr. Richards for the upcoming evaluations:
Judy: “What can I do about my feeling of borderline panic at deadlines?—even at just the thought that I might have some deadlines soon?”
Guide: “If you stay completely in the present moment, you will never be uncomfortable about deadlines. Deadlines are set in the past and ‘come due’ in the future. Neither is present now. Simply begin the task and become engrossed in what you are doing and the fear will fall away. When you allow yourself to feel worry or tension about a deadline, you are draining and limiting your energy for the task itself. Simply do the task! Just start! Above all, be sure to do it with pleasure and joy.”
Judy: “But what if some of the fear is that I can’t do the task, or can’t do it well enough, because I don’t have the knowledge or skills?”
Guide: “Start the task, and if you find you need help, ask for help. [My sense was that my guide meant from colleagues as well as my guidance.] You are surrounded with more help, there is more help instantly available to you at all times, than you can ever possibly imagine. But you have to ask.”
Judy: “Okay, so stay in the Now. Exactly how can I do that, when my mind is whirling with a dozen things that must be done to meet deadlines? How do I stay in the Now and enjoy? How can I ‘get organized’ to do that?”
Guide: “You already have a method that works pretty well. Just use it. Make a list, order the list by priorities, put the list aside and start working on the top priority. You waste a lot of time and deplete your energy by looking at the list and feeling sick and fearful at the number or magnitude or difficulty of the tasks. You underestimate yourself and you overestimate the number and magnitude and difficulty of the tasks.
“How many times have you missed an important deadline, and what penalty have you paid?”
Judy: “Well…I guess I’ve never missed a deadline that really mattered, or even suffered because of missing one. But I’ve suffered plenty worrying about them, and feeling explosive as I worked frantically on one.”
Guide: “Use the evidence to decide what you will worry about. The evidence is that most deadlines are not really deadlines at all, or that there is no penalty for missing them. And if it is really important, you simply do it. You always have.”
Judy: “I guess one worry is that I will get (or already have) a reputation for always being late getting things done.”
Guide: “What other people think of you is none of your business. Mind your own business.”
I applied for a sabbatical, to begin as soon as the two evaluations were completed, at the end of Spring term, 1992.
* * *
We passed both evaluations with high praise, thanks to my colleagues who bailed me out in getting the reports ready, and Jerry’s vision and leadership in designing and implementing the new program. Dr. Richards gave me none of the credit, nor did I feel I deserved it. I imagined I felt his derision.
The Dean, however, called me in and gave me a raise funded from two different sources, promising another one as soon as the Legislature released more funds. He told me it was the highest raise he had ever given anyone, because I had kept the faculty from imploding during three years of crisis, and had managed somehow to soothe angry, upset students. He told me that students often remarked that after talking with me, they felt better about the changes, even when they had been denied admission. He praised my leadership. I had never applied that term to my time as Department Chair.
Jerry came to see me and plopped into the comfortable chair. “What is it about you,” he said, “that makes people want to touch the hem of your garment?”
I kidded him—“I’m the Christ, didn’t you know that?”
He shook his head. “Well, whatever it is, it’s been sorely needed around here.”
Some of the time I was able to believe my guide, that I had been the right person, in the right place at the right time.
* * *
When I began my sabbatical, it took only two weeks to realize I could never go back. I submitted my early retirement, and never returned to campus. No one offered the traditional retirement party, nor did I give anyone the opportunity. My childish guardedness surfaced and convinced me that it was a silly ritual, one I didn’t want and wouldn’t accept. I remembered with disgust the big celebratory retirement party the faculty had given John, at the end of the school year before I took his place and had to clean up his mess.
Without a farewell party of my own, there was no opportunity to talk with my colleagues, or share good memories. Instead, I had memories of heartbroken students and faculty, betrayal, anger and attack. I could forgive, but not forget. I could love, but still feel hurt. It was if I had simply evaporated from PSU. I felt used, used up, thrown away and forgotten.
My Inner Voice offered solace and contradiction to these feelings, reminding me of the many demonstrations that my time as Department Chair had been healing and necessary.
For the time being, I chose to ignore those reminders, instead recalling evidence that demonstrated the opposite. Anyway, I had great plans for the rest of my life, and turned my attention in a new direction—I was going to write books, and form my own publishing company.
Later, I wondered if one reason I was guided to take the job was so that I’d be worn out, disillusioned, and ready to retire early, and thus be available for the family emergencies that began soon after.
It was twenty years before my feelings about my experience as Department Chair were healed.
* * *
The voice on the phone was faintly familiar. When she identified herself, I had to sort back through a jumble of former friends, colleagues, employees, even relatives to dredge up a faint image of a tiny, vibrant woman with the body and energy of an athlete and the face of an angel. Dede! One of the Health and PE group leaders for the graduate teacher education program.
“Dede! What…why…how…did you even find me?” She had tracked me down in Manzanita, where I now lived. It had been twenty years since I had had any connection with my colleagues at PSU. I had ignored invitations to department reunions and parties and annual get-togethers.
Dede’s voice was as chirpy as ever. “I asked everyone I knew, and Maxine had your phone number.”
“It’s so good to talk to you—it’s been awhile,” I said.
After exchanging pleasantries, Dede got to the point of her call. “Jerry is having a private retirement party—no spouses—at McCormick and Schmick’s, and the first person he wanted me to invite was you!”
I was taken aback. “Me? Why?”
“He adores you! But of course you knew that. We all do.”
Bewildered, I quickly changed the subject. “So tell me about the party,” I said. “Who is invited?”
“He has a short list, and you’re at the top. Teacher education faculty, past and present, but not all of them. No Deans, past or present. But he’s invited the Associate Dean, remember him?”
Dr. Richards. Did I remember him! He was a major source of my feelings of inadequacy.
Dede was waiting for my response. “So, can you come? April 28, six p.m.?”
My Inner Voice urged me to accept, with considerable insistence.
“I’ll be there,” I replied. If only to learn why Jerry had me at the top of his list. It was the first PSU-related social event for which I had accepted an invitation.
On April 28th I scanned my wardrobe, complexion and hair. My hair apparently had developed several new cowlicks in unwanted places. A fluorescent cold sore bloomed on my upper lip. I had gained twenty pounds in twenty years. And I had nothing to wear. Finally, I gave up even trying to be anything but myself, a useless endeavor in any case, and wore what I would wear to any Portland restaurant. Used gel on my hair, and tried to ignore the cold sore. What the heck—many people there had never met me, and the others probably didn’t like me anyway. The old childish ego-dialogues resurfaced.
Lipstick helped. And dangly earrings.
When I arrived at the restaurant at 6:30, the hors d’ouevres were on the buffet table and the room was filled with people I had not met, or barely remembered, and a few I remembered all too well.
Jerry bounded to meet me at the door, enveloping me in a huge bear hug, dancing me around the room. “I’m so glad you came! I so wanted to see you!” he crowed. Jerry, who had sometimes been irascible with me, sometimes warm and cuddly, was now only warm and cuddly.
He was interrupted by others who lined up for hugs and kisses—with me! I was escorted like royalty to a table by a professor I had hired to lead the Math and Science group of the new program, just before I left. I knew no one at the table, but they all knew of me. The all had stories to tell, about me. Apparently the faculty had remembered and retold only the good stuff, and no one had retained any of the resentments or conflicts.
Finishing my dessert in a warm glow, I glanced up to see Dr. Richards had dragged over a chair to sit close to me. Leaning forward, he said, “I have told most of these people, but I want to tell you of something you said years ago in a faculty meeting that changed my life.”
I stopped with a spoonful of chocolate mousse halfway to my mouth.
“Whaaa…what?” I stammered.
“It was toward the end of that difficult two years of conversion to the new program. You told about walking on campus and passing a young man digging bottles and cans out of the dumpster, carefully wiping them off with a rag, and stowing them in his backpack for the deposit. He didn’t ask for spare change, but did glance up and smile.” Dr. Richards had everyone’s attention now. I was embarrassed. I barely remembered the incident, and why would I have told about it in a faculty meeting, of all things!
He went on. “After passing him, something told you [I remembered now, my Inner Voice] to go back and give him some money. You handed him $20.”
Dr. Richards cleared his throat. “And he thanked you with tears in his eyes. He said it was the kindest thing anyone had ever done for him.”
Telling me this, his own blue eyes filled with tears, and he had to stop speaking for a moment. “Do you remember telling us that? From then on, I never missed an opportunity to be kind!” This, from my cold-hearted nemesis!
“It changed me permanently,” he said.
I remembered the faculty meeting, then. Everyone was so tense, and students so on edge, that I told the story to start the faculty meeting. “Be kind,” I had said. “Everyone needs it. Now, more than ever. You may never know how a simple kindness might make a person’s life easier.” No one had spoken, though a few had shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I had interpreted that as, “There she goes again, with her ‘everybody-has-to-love-everybody’ bullshit.”
Now the others at the dining table chimed in with similar stories they had heard about me from older faculty, including the dinosaurs. Twenty years of hurt slipped away in an instant. I had been so wrong. My own feelings of inadequacy were fueled by the problems and conflicts inherent in massive and sudden change, and I had never been able to retain a new perspective. Until now.
On my way out, Jerry came to give me another hug. “You’ll never know how you saved us all as Department Chair,” he said. “Faculty would go into your office so riled up they were ready to kill someone, and they’d come out…” He crossed his hands over his heart. “They’d come out saying, ‘I feel so much better. She really understands me!’” His familiar sardonic grin flickered. “And I’d be thinking, ‘Yeah, well, I wonder if she understands what an asshole you are’.”
There were no assholes, just a lot of sad, disappointed people, and a lot of creative, forward thinkers, like Jerry. I was remembering how I had seen it twenty years ago, most of the time. But not always.
He hugged me again. “You were exactly what we needed at that time. We were lucky.”
I’d just had another session of the course in Psychology and Design of Instruction—how wrong we can be about what we’ve learned and remember about what has happened in our life.
I had to leave quickly, to mop my tears, and start a whole new dialogue with my neglected Inner Voice.
* * *
How often we give love freely, to so many people, but we don’t recognize the vastness of the love that is coming back. Why does it take a serious illness or a devastating loss to finally see that we have been surrounded by great love all the time we were imagining “I’m invisible,” or “They don’t like me.” What if we began to trust that Love is all around us, in every moment, whether or not it’s being spoken or demonstrated? How would our lives change?