Williamsburg Isn’t Flat

A long hill on South English Street on the way back to the finish line.

Around midday on Wednesday, November 20, I left Richmond.  I was driving east to Williamsburg where I would be  attending the Virginia School Boards Association(VSBA) annual convention.

In October of 2018, I had been selected to fill out a school board term for the Henrico County School Board. This 14 month appointment has zipped by me. Hard to believe that I’m attending my second VSBA convention.

This is a good event for Virginia’s school boards, their superintendents, and an assortment of local school board leaders. The keynote speakers and seminars offered are exceptional. Chances are those in attendance will leave with some practical ideas and solutions.

Even though I had 31 years of experience in working with schools in Virginia, I felt a bit overwhelmed at last year’s convention as a rookie board member. This year, I had a better sense of what to expect, plus I would be representing our board as a delegate at the official business meeting of the VSBA.

The opening session on Wednesday afternoon featured Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent, Ithaca City School District in New York. Dr. Brown focused his remarks on equity, but the highlight for me was the student panel who he interacted with. Five high school students from around Virginia shared their observations related toward equity and other important topics like—safety.

Now a confession here, I missed the presentation of Dr. Tim Hodges on Thursday morning. But, I had an excused absence, I ran in the 16th Annual 5K Walk/Run. 

By the time I got cleaned up and grabbed some breakfast, I was back in time for the two seminars I had charted out to attend. I heard Dr. Billy Haun, Executive Director, of the Virginia High School League, attempt to look into the future of high school athletics during the next five years. I learned that no matter the size and location of our school systems, we are all facing similar athletic challenges.

Next, I attended Transforming A High Poverty School Division:  Our Students Don’t Have Time To Wait. Dr. Zeb Talley, Superintendent for Martinsville City Schools, and key leaders from his staff told their story about moving their schools from being non-accredited to accredited. This seminar was outstanding because the presenters captured the challenges they faced while charting their practical approach for turning a dire situation around.

The business meeting of the VSBA was billed as advertised. Unfortunately, the technology gremlins foiled the voting system, so we had to vote the old fashioned way—we held up hand fans. There was interesting discussion on some of the legislative proposals too.

Friday morning came quick with a nice breakfast from the Virginia Lottery, the VSBA’s new president took over the leadership for this session, and then the keynote, Dr. Steve Constantino, was center stage. Dr. Constantino is the real deal. An experienced educator, and a superb storyteller, Dr. Constantino made us laugh, think, and tear up a bit.

For years, I have been one of those crazy people who enjoys going for an early morning run. So running the 5K on Thursday morning was something I was looking forward to. 

Last year, when I ran this 5K, I was fooled by the course. I thought Williamsburg’s terrain out here on the edge of the coastal plain would be flat. But this course, an out and back one on South English Street had some hills, long hills.

And that is ok, because life isn’t perfectly flat, and neither is the work done on a daily basis by public educators. The work of educators is like those hills— up and down. We have our up moments when everything comes together and a student finds success. And then we have those down moments too, when no matter what we try success is absent.

At this very moment in time, I think public educators are under more scrutiny and pressure than maybe in the history of our profession. We face many challenges and obstacles. We are asked to do more and more for societal issues that our students bring with them. Quite simply, school work is tough work, and there are no easy places to work anymore.

In all of this, I worry about our morale in these challenging times. One difficult situation can consume a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, and a school board. Honestly, a difficult set of circumstances can make an educator question—why am I in this profession?

 That is why it is important for everyone in a school building and a school system to look out for their mental and physical health. I can’t tell you how many times my head was cleared of school clutter by taking an early morning run.

On Thursday morning as I turtled down South English Street, the crisp fall air refreshed me, the quietness of the landscape relaxed me, and the hues of the season colored my mind in wonder.

I’m sure everyone who attended the convention left with takeaways, but as you plot out your return to your school systems be sure to carve out time for yourself. Failure to neglect yourself isn’t acceptable.

As I sat at the breakfast table on Friday morning, pings of conversation caught my attention.

In one hug between two former colleagues, I heard these words about their collaborative work—“we overcame a lot.”

That embrace and the comment was a takeaway moment for me. 

Our challenges in public education hinge on our capacity to build relationships. 

Go ahead, name the issue that robs your sleep, that makes you consume mass quantities of an antacid, and makes your want to hide in your office. 

It doesn’t matter what you named, if you can build a relationship, you just created hope. 

Hope is always worth pursuing because hope positions you to be able to overcome what you face.

Yes, the 5K course on South English Street wasn’t flat. It had hills.

Why was I able to overcome those hills? It was pretty simple—my internal relationship with myself willed me.

Just imagine what you will be able to overcome when you create relationships beyond yourself.

Don’t wait. 

Go build relationships. 

Remember, a student is counting on you.

Thanksgiving Trouble

Last Thanksgiving, my wife and I spent Thanksgiving Day  near Hillsborough, North Carolina at the home of my cousin David and his wife Rhonda. 

This was a Pike family gathering, and the first time in many years that we had been away from Richmond for Thanksgiving.

In my youth, the Pikes always gathered in Greensboro. The family of eleven children started by my grandparents is now down to one 80 year old uncle.

 Sustaining these family gatherings has fallen on the shoulders of my cousins. So far, no one has wavered. 

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July are still on our yearly calendars. I guess our parents instilled in us the importance of gathering, sharing food, and fellowship.

At those Greensboro Thanksgivings, all of the food was homemade. Repeat, all of the food was homemade. That doesn’t always hold true today.

My taste buds still recall that homemade goodness along with all of the tempting aromas in Aunt Evelyn’s kitchen. 

And while I always enjoy pumpkin pie, my favorite Thanksgiving dessert was persimmon pudding. 

It is made with wild, frost bitten, sun ripe persimmons, not the large oriental persimmons found in grocery stores. In the South, any wild fruit can satisfy the taste buds when mixed with large amounts of sugar, eggs, sweet milk, cinnamon, and flour.

But a word of caution about wild grown persimmons, never eat an unripe one. Even Huckleberry Finn knew this. It is an experience your mouth will never forget. Eating an unripe persimmon probably would cure anyone who consistently utters foul language.

Last year, as our Thanksgiving gathering came to a close, my wife and I did something we have never done before—we went shopping. 

Never in my 66 years of living have I been shopping on Thanksgiving afternoon, and I have never been shopping on what we now call Black Friday.

Let me confirm for you, I will never, and I know I should never say never, but I’m going to say it— I will never go shopping again on Thanksgiving.

Perhaps, you are wondering, Bill, why will you never go shopping again on Thanksgiving? 

My answer is very simple—the cashier who checked us out.

In a very pleasant conversation with him, we learned that his Thanksgiving meal would not take place until after the store had closed, and that was still hours away.

It hit me that every employee in the store was probably in the same set of circumstances, and for that matter the same was true for every retail worker across America on Thanksgiving.

This cashier and his fellow employees should be at home, and so should I.

What was I thinking? 

How did I lose my way?

How did I lose my focus?

It was way back in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln established a federal holiday proclaiming:  “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” (Wiki)

 I’m pretty sure there is no way Honest Abe could have predicted that his simple day for giving thanks would become dominated by retailers. 

But, I sadly concede it has.

I wonder if God has conceded this too?

I’m sure God has a team of data miners up in the blue yonder who could chart for him  the starting point and the history of this surge in retail madness.

But, God doesn’t need his data miners to affirm what he can already see.

I would think paradigm shifts like this make God a restless sleeper. 

New wrinkles crop up on his time worn face.

Probably his antacid intake is at an all time high.

His random headaches have become migraines.

Staff meetings with his leadership team are tense.

And conversations with his only son require a box of Kleenex.

In those conversations, God beats himself up—why didn’t I see this trend coming, how could I let this happen, I must be losing my touch, why wasn’t I proactive, why was I so blind?

Enough God—stop beating yourself up— enough.

It is our question to ask, when are we going to say enough to all of those ways that distract us at Thanksgiving, and for that matter Christmas too?

Proverbs 5:21 states:  “For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths.”

Perhaps last Thanksgiving, through the cashier God was nudging me to examine my ways, my paths.

That cashier’s story changed my perspective.

Maybe that tiny conversation with the cashier can change the Thanksgiving thinking of others too.

In your parade, don’t forget to laugh!

Friday, November 1 was a busy day.

At nine that morning, I met Joe Andrews at Trinity UMC for a meeting with a gutter contractor. 

Next, I was scheduled to be at J. R. Tucker High School for a groundbreaking ceremony.

Then back to Trinity for some final preps for a one o’clock funeral. We lost a long time member, and a really sweet lady, Rachel Habel. This prep involved a skirmish with the technology gods to get a slide show to cooperate.

By 12:25, I was scrambling out of Trinity heading to the other side of the county for another groundbreaking ceremony at Highland Springs High School.

Once this ceremony was over, I hustled back to Trinity. When the funeral reception was finished in the Welcome Center, we had to make sure the Sanctuary and Welcome Center were ready for a 4:30 wedding rehearsal.

With the help of the ushers from the funeral, and Trinity office manager, Paula Cadden, both areas were put back in shape.

My school board hat was put on again for my next Friday afternoon assignment, the Douglas Freeman High School Homecoming Parade.

If you know me at all, being in the limelight is not my comfort zone. Riding in a convertible, waving and smiling at strangers, while occasionally tossing candy toward children along the route is not my strong suit. But, there I was.

Our neighbor’s, Dan and Nancy Heller, had kindly agreed to let their maroon Mustang convertible be my ride for the event. Around 4:50, Dan drove me over to the staging area in the parking lot of the newly renovated Tuckahoe Middle School. We picked up the sign for the car, secured it to the passenger side, and positioned the car into our #4 slot.

Now, the last time I was in a homecoming parade was on October 9, 1970 in my hometown, Burlington, North Carolina.

My best friend, John Huffman, was escorting our classmate, Maggie Runyon, for some organization at Walter Williams High School. Maggie secured a  Cadillac convertible for me to drive down Main Street. The Caddie was like a battleship. I’m thankful no parallel parking was required.

Now, here comes the confession. I was a senior in high school. But, I had not completed all of the requirements for having an official North Carolina driver’s license.

I drove that Caddie down Main Street past countless police officers. Luckily for me, there were no opportunities for a fender bender. But, there was one challenge near the end of the parade route.

My mother who happened to work in one of the office buildings along Main Street had stepped outside for a few minutes with co-workers to watch the parade. When my mother saw me behind the wheel, I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head.  

Thankfully, when I arrived home, my mother and father did not kill me. Clearly, they would have been within their rights to do so. 

This can be verified in the trusted manual,  the Parental Guide For Attempting To Raise Teenagers, Chapter 42, page 3,499, section 220, citation 27 states: “Parents do have permission to harm a teenage son who drives a convertible Cadillac in a homecoming parade without the proper driving credentials from the state of residence.”

Now, in truth during my ride along the parade route on Three Chopt Road on this beautiful November afternoon, I was nervous. 

I could envision a police car from Burlington pulling in behind the Mustang with its blue lights flashing. Headlines scanned through my brain—School Board Member Apprehended In Homecoming Parade—North Carolina Police Officers Serve A 49 Year Old Warrant.

Luckily that didn’t happen, but I reckon if Bernard P. Fife was still around, I would have reason to keep looking over my shoulder.

I suspect the only people who might have been upset with me in the homecoming parade were the parents of young children. 

I gently tossed  pieces of candy toward them. I’m sure this was a big hit with the parents since Halloween had been the night before. But, I could reason an alternate take with the candy tossing— it might render future business for local dentists.

Well, the parade route gradually came to an end. 

We were directed into the parking lot beside the high school. A nice lady clipped the sign off the passenger side door. Dan parked the Mustang in an adjoining lot. We walked over to Three Chopt Road and watched the remainder of the parade.

We found our wives. They had been joined by our son, Andrew his wife, Kathryn, and my little Miss Mess, their daughter, Josie.

The parade ended. I had been lucky. Even though there had been 49 years between my parade appearances, the fall weather was perfect. As we know, this parade we are in everyday—called life isn’t always perfect.

Scan the headlines from your preferred news feed for a few seconds, and you will find an abundance of our imperfections. Most of those headlines worry me and hurt my old heart.

In the fall of 1979, I was an English teacher at Hermitage High School. I had lots of prep to do everyday to be ready for my parade of sophomore and junior students. The American literature book for the junior students contained some of the work of writer James Thurber.

Mr. Thurber was a gifted writer—he made me laugh.

I always loved this quote from Mr. Thurber:  “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

In the emotional chaos of your parade of life, I encourage you to find those moments of tranquility, find that humor, and laugh.

Laugh at your parade for a few seconds. Go ahead, your heart will appreciate it.

After all, Ecclesiastes 3:4 granted authorization: “a time to laugh.”

Perhaps, that is why God is still around—in all of his emotional chaos, I suspect sometimes— He laughs.