On my morning run, a memory surfaced from conversations I once had with a mentor of mine. After sharing a bit about my leadership journey yesterday with a class that Jessica Johnson is teaching, my mind has been churning over those days and the gift of a career of school leadership experience outside of the idol of a title. Though the time period of leading as a teacher leader is now a dash on my resume, there is so much rich experience there with years of wisdom gained before my name plate told the world I was a school leader. From that time period, I was gifted with some of the best mentors and sponsors of my life. They helped mold and shape me, believed in my ability to lead regardless of my age, and shared abundantly their insights in an effort to reveal what might be lying in wait beyond the veil once I was “behind the desk” so to speak.
Honestly, as I type this, I feel real emotion considering the gift that they were to me and what a wonderful legacy each of them has lived and many continue to live. I know that I have been grateful. Sent them messages throughout the years to express my heart in relation to what they have done for me. And because this is all fresh again, I will most certainly be sure to reach out once again.
But this post today is for one. Because his wisdom was regifted to me this morning, and I know it is my mission in this post to share him with you.
I first met Ron at CESA 11 in an undetermined year to be honest. One of my leadership roles at the tiny school in which I served had me attending Curriculum Coordinator meetings where I learned a great deal about best practices alongside some of the brightest and dedicated educators in our area. Ron was one of those. I would like to think that I spent a lot of time listening to the sages in my presence that time, but I honestly don’t know. As an extravert who loved learning, I bet I talked too much. And I was in the weeds as a new teacher juggling coursework for grades 6-12 on a cart, planning from a tiny office, co-writing a grant for $100,000 Comprehensive School Reform, and then implementing that grant as both a full time classroom teacher and then the School Improvement Facilitator in the fringe hours. In those years, I had no children to distract from the passion for my job, and I spent a hefty amount of time investing in those roles in addition to student council advisor, planning a trip for teens to England (with all the glories of fundraising), and completing my Master’s degree to become licensed as a principal. Life was full.
And Ron could see my passion. Could see my heart. I am speaking for him, but I think he could see himself in me a bit.
My connection with Ron got deeper in 2009 when we worked together to facilitate a course on designing instruction and assessments for technical college instructors as well as K-12 teachers. I had experienced the course the year before when his obligation was my opportunity and I was asked to lead in his place in 2008. The second year, we got to lead it together, and what an experience for me! At lunch, Ron and I would talk about Standards Based Learning at the secondary level and how his district had been working hard to implement starting at the elementary and working their way up. They were doing it right long ago friends. He would share brain based research with me, and we would throw around Wiggins, Stiggins, McTighe, and Marzano. I had completed my principal license two years prior, and our intellectual and pedagogical discussions pressed me. It was a genuine honor to facilitate deep discussions on assessment and learning with a crew of educators alongside Ron, and that experience grew my thinking, my leadership. I could geek out with Ron for hours if allowed.
But that’s just it. Time doesn’t really allow unless we are intentional.
And it wasn’t the academic conversations that surfaced as a gift for me today that had my heart overwhelmed with awe. It was the wisdom and advice couched within the little moments that shot through the fog of my memory today.
I recall vividly the vulnerable conversation we had at lunch on one of those days, even remembering the wistful way he looked off a bit. I can feel my chest tighten a bit at the memorable beauty of the breeze through the trees when I heard his voice catch a bit as he said, “Sarah, don’t make the same mistakes that I did.” This after he shared with me how he and his wife of decades had divorced despite still loving one another. How he had spent a lifetime in his passions as a music teacher and a building administrator and then as a curriculum director, thinking all the while that he had been showing her love in meaningful ways through his acts of service by way of taking care of their family financially. The revelation was that he realized after learning about the Five Languages of Love that what she wanted was Quality Time. And that he hadn’t known how or that he should have done that. He was adamant that as a new mom with a husband of not quite a decade that I learn about this now.
And I bought the book that summer. Took the inventory. Read it cover to cover.
And still made similar mistakes to be honest. After sixteen years working on it. Reading the text through the lens of my daughter’s love languages and how seeing this applied in our leadership roles is impactful. Until now, I had forgotten where the seed for learning about this had been deeply rooted.
And I honor Ron for gifting me with this wisdom so long ago.
Then we met again that following year after I had been interviewing for principal jobs and still not getting anyone to “take a chance on me”. He shared he was retiring and that I should look at his job. He would give me resources. Binders of them. Books upon books of information. Ron was such a coach to me. I honestly don’t even remember if I applied for that job, but that district was long a dream job of mine because of Ron.
We met at a restaurant for a meal only one time after that 2009 summer after promising ourselves to stay in touch. He shared with me his fears of retirement.
At the age of 63, all he had known was working. Leading. Serving. Learning. To use his terms, “He was nervous and excited about what was beyond the curtain.”
We communicated briefly here and there over the course of a few months, him referencing coming to my hometown for “Chocolate Fest” which I didn’t even know existed and a promise to connect when he was in town. It never happened.
What Ron and I didn’t know at our last meeting was what lay beyond that curtain he referenced was a cancer diagnosis. One I didn’t even know about until months later after hearing it at a meeting at CESA.
In April 2011, I interviewed for a principal job, and it was the closest I had come to getting a position. I could feel it that night, and I was afraid. It was a K-12 position in a town 45 minutes from my home. I had a toddler turning two that month and a baby on the way that I was afraid to reveal. Mostly because we had lost two already. Could I accept a huge job like that and have a baby in October? No way. I didn’t get that job, but it did feed my passion once again to keep refining my leadership. I needed advice and mentorship. I called Ron.
And a woman answered his phone. His daughter.
Ron had passed away that morning.
My heart bursts open with sadness reliving that moment, but there are so many lessons when I think of it and know that is why I was to share the experience again.
I had our second daughter that fall.
And with the rush of life, the pace of raising two daughters, working full time, and striving, I somehow forgot Ron’s advice. His wisdom. Honestly, his life message for far too long.
In the fall of 2012l, I did move into that district who had not hired me for K-12 position, but they opened it back to a two principal structure. And I took the elementary job, bringing with me all the passion that a person who has been reaching a life long goal contains.
Fast forward through six years of titled leadership experience, full of trials, triumphs, life gains and losses, beautiful moments all sewn together into the timeline of now.
And God’s gift to me this morning was the reminder of my friend Ron. How he had been placed in my life then and how his memory surfaced now.
As I sit on the cusp of a new school year with a bit of uncertainty once again in terms of what the upcoming year will bring, I am blessed with the reinforcement of what a year of interrupting the disruption has meant for me. For my marriage. For our children. For my leadership and influence in new spaces.
None of us know what is beyond that curtain.
But we can be intentional about what is in front of us. And live now the way we want to be remembered.
I remember Ron’s laugh. His smile. His incredible intellect. His love for his children. Music. Service to school. To church. To educators. His faith. I remember his love of learning. Of chocolate. His strong stature. I sit here in awe of the fact that he would pour energies and belief into building my leadership through absolutely no gain of his own. How an unlikely friendship of a man in his sixties and a young woman in her twenties could yield wisdom. Influence. And a regift to anyone reading this message today.
I remember Ron learned to give quality time to others.
May we all be so willing to learn, live, and love in such ways that our light will pop back up in a legacy long after we are gone.
I challenge you to reach out to the mentors in your own life and thank them for the simple and complex ways in which they have influenced you. And to be more like Ron. Mentor someone along the way, The wisdom you share may impact them now or nearly a decade from now. You may never even know where this mission in your own message lands. Timing matters little in the scheme of our lives. Our lives are meant to be legacy lived.
What will yours be? I know much about mine and am honored to share with you today a bit of awe from Ron’s.