Executive Perspective

Will's Way

by Paul D. Houston

A few months ago my 6-year-old grandson Will had to have minor surgery. In preparing him for that, his father took him to the children’s hospital for an orientation visit. On the way home Will was very quiet, but his father could tell something was on his mind.

Will then piped up, “Papa, you know — life is hard.” After a couple seconds, he added, “But, it’s good.” With the clarity it seems only children possess, Will laid out a philosophy of life in one sentence that would be a good one for all of us to follow.

It is interesting that 30 years ago, M. Scott Peck, in his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled, laid out part of a similar philosophy. He opens the book with the line, “Life is difficult.” Sadly, he didn’t follow-up with Will’s second line, “but life is good.” He should have consulted a 6-year-old before penning the book, for it is in that balance between the things that are hard and the things that are good that we live our lives.

Constant Hardships
We all have hardships in our lives. Death, illness, broken relationships, financial challenges, children who disappoint, the disappointment we cause others. We face hardships at work — difficult colleagues, recalcitrant workers, unfair boards, mandates without support, conflict and confusion. My grandson, Will, and Scott Peck were both right. Life is hard. Like Will, we sometimes must face those things we would just as soon avoid — having people cut us up literally, as Will was facing, or figuratively, which happens in our lives.

Sometimes the hardships are things we create ourselves. I used to chuckle at President George W. Bush when he talked about the war in Iraq as being hard. Well, yeah. And who decided to bring it on? We make things hard on ourselves by our stubbornness, our insensitivity, our duplicity, our greed or a thousand other things. The folks who laid out the seven deadly sins really undershot the mark. There are probably 7,000 deadly sins if we would care to tally them up. So we make life hard on ourselves.

But hard also makes us stronger. I always have liked the notion that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I am one of these folks who believe part of life’s purpose is to grow. Sometimes we must face down the bear and wrestle it to the ground. In facing these hard things we grow in our capacity but also in our caring.

Every time I go through some tempering event in my own life, I feel I come out the other side not only stronger but better. As the 23rd Psalm reminds us, we can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and not fear. Of course, for people of faith belief in the strength of a higher power eases that journey. But we also gather strength from each other.

Joint Strength
Hard is also softened by the help of others. There are many stories in our culture about this strength in numbers. A favorite involves a bundle of sticks that when bent separately break, but when bundled together withstand even the strongest threat.

We work in a lonely profession at a time when there are people and circumstances that want to break us. One of the best arguments for associations like AASA is that they offer that gathering ground to bundle our own individual strengths into an unbreakable force. As we go through our solitary lives, we have to remember to rely, not just on the kindness of strangers, to quote Blanche DuBois, but the kindness of friends and colleagues. Their kindness allows us to make that which is hard a bit softer.

It has been noted that the absence of tension is not relaxation — it is death. The body needs the challenge of exercise. The brain, to remain alert, needs to be constantly tested and used. Well, I think our souls grow with kindness but they also grow with challenge. So the fact that life is hard is good: It means we are still living.

Over the past 14 years I often have written and spoken about the challenges facing public education and those who lead it. We do have enemies who would destroy the institution. We also have friends who, while professing their support for public schools, undermine their effectiveness with misguided ideas.

For many of the children we serve, their lives are unimaginably hard. They face hardships and challenges most of us cannot conceive of. And when they come to us, bruised and soul weary, our task is to bind them up and give them the tools they need to overcome and prevail. So life is hard, but …

A Departure Laden
Let’s go back to Will’s philosophy. That is only half the story. Life is also good. Life gives us friends and family who love unconditionally. Life gives us sunsets and flowers and beauty all around. Life gives us moments of great euphoria. It makes us laugh and gives us tears of joy.

In our lives as leaders, life offers us a sense of mission and the satisfaction of making a difference. It allows us to solve problems, bring peace to troubled places and help those who need it. We can find comfort and elevate our spirits in the words of comedian Larry David, “pretty, pretty good.”

So life is hard and it is good. As I take leave of my position as executive director of this wonderful organization and go to my next chapter to see what is hard and good about it, I leave with things unbalanced. I leave laden with the gifts of friendship and support, wonderful memories and few regrets. I realize that while life is sometimes hard, it mostly is good. Very good indeed.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.