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No laughing matter

As a school superintendent for the last two-plus decades, I have on occasion run into people who view me as "humorless." This is not their term, but it captures the sentiment. Naturally, I don't view myself that way, though in our now emotionally...

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As a school superintendent for the last two-plus decades, I have on occasion run into people who view me as "humorless." This is not their term, but it captures the sentiment. Naturally, I don't view myself that way, though in our now emotionally overhyped culture, I do sometimes yearn for the old Roman virtue of gravitas.

But this does not mean I'm lacking in humor. I actually find in whimsy a necessary escape from daily stresses and even the anomie that comes from the modern world. Admittedly, some of my humor is quite dark, but it is humor nonetheless. I even have a favorite joke. (I'll spare you that.) I used to enjoy lawyer jokes, but then my brother passed the bar, and so now, of course, I love lawyer jokes.

But I also love that narrow category of jokes about school superintendents. Here's my favorite: How can you tell the difference between a skunk and a school superintendent run down on the road? There's a skid mark in front of the skunk.

More to the point is the one about the superintendent introducing himself to a stranger. He tells him that he and his wife have 15 children.

"Wow, 15 children," says the stranger. "So what school district do you work for?"

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And the superintendent says, "Any district I want."

That having children of one's own to bring to a school district you are about to lead is a plus is certainly true but not just because it improves enrollment. It gives you a vested interest to do the very best you can by your school because the education of your own child, as well as that of all the other children in the district, depends upon it.

Which is why it pains me to say that this year, for the first time in 22 years, I have none of my children enrolled in my own school district. My youngest graduated from MHS last year and is off to pursue a music education degree at USD. The nest, she is empty.

So does this mean I have lost some of my edge, that my motivation will be dialed down just a bit, that I'll be coasting on occasion or resting on my laurels (to the extent there are any)?

I assure you that is not the case. And that is because of the way I think about the Mitchell School District 17-2. To get right to the point, I love this school district. I love, in fact, pretty much everything about it. It's beauty marks and its warts. It's virtues and its vices. Even, to quote the song writer, it's perfect imperfections.

And I do because, again, of the ways I think about it. Allow me to elaborate as briefly as possible. I think about the Mitchell schools the way the alchemist thought about the bezoar, that gastrointestinal mass found in goats and other ruminants. To the medieval medical community, it was seen as a panacea for curing diseases. (To you Harry Potter fans out there, you'll remember this oddity from the sixth book when Harry uses a bezoar from potions class to save Ron Weasley from death by poison.) This must have made diagnoses pretty simple back then. Whatever the symptoms, just ram a bezoar down the patient's throat or mix a bit of one into a hot beverage and - voila! - an instant cure.

All kidding aside, I view education as an almost-panacea. It's the cure for ignorance, the ticket to economic success, the route to much earthly happiness, and even the solution for the seven deadly sins: greed, envy, wrath, sloth, gluttony, lust and pride.

While education's track record is less than perfect at consistently achieving such results, I have personally witnessed the salutary effects of education in the pursuit of all these cures. When done well, the enlightenment that comes with schooling can make an enormous difference for individuals, communities, cultures and the world. Education is too important for me or anyone else to "phone it in." It would be the basest form of malpractice for me not to give it my all.

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I also think about the Mitchell School District the way the sculptor did in the old story. A master craftsman, it seems, was carving a beautiful and majestic sculpture of a religious figure to be placed atop a large cathedral spire several hundred feet in the air. He had worked on this masterpiece for years and was still carefully engraving the finest details into the figure's face and even the hem of its robes moments before it was to be carried aloft. Having witnessed this going on for such a long time, a somewhat impertinent workman approached the sculptor.

"Master, your sculpture is incredibly beautiful. But why spend so much time on these final tiny details when no one will ever see them anyway once it is raised to its intended location?"

Finishing a minute etching and blowing the resulting dust from his work, the sculptor responded,

"God will see them."

I never cease to be amazed in my conversations with children, our students, about what they see that we often think no one sees. They tune into the actions and body language and words of their teachers and aides and administrators and coaches, even down to the smallest actions and inactions, words and silences, and they engage or fail to engage with these educators as a result of these.

When we give less than our best in all things, great and small, vital and seemingly trivial, our students lose something important. When you teach a classroom filled with 20 children, 40 watching eyes are upon you and, like Argus, these eyes never blink. We are the difference in our schools.

This list, already too long, could go on and on. But the common thread of the entire roll is simple. Education matters, and it succeeds to the extent that we give every child our very best every day in all things. This is an enormous and weighty burden. It is also one of the highest of callings.

And that is no laughing matter.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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