Executive Perspective

Cleaning Out Our Closets

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

Arecent best-selling song by rap artist Eminem called “Cleaning Out My Closet” had resonated for me. At least the title did. While his song was a paean of pain and anger, on a much less dramatic note I can testify that cleaning out your closets can be painful and will surely stir many emotions in you. But sometimes it is something you just have to do.

For a variety of reasons, this past year has found me cleaning out closets at home, at work and even in places I don’t live. I have found the process arduous and liberating, and I recommend it to you. The act of cleaning out your closet will stir up a lot of emotions, but it will also set you free.

It is amazing what we keep in our closets. I have found things for which I cannot even imagine a use. I found unmatched socks and unremembered correspondence. I found little plastic “things” that must be part of some other major plastic thing with some important but forgotten use. I found I have enough clothes to dress a small village somewhere. In fact, maybe I should write a book and call it, “It takes a village to wear my clothes.” I have found stuff I didn’t remember having and stuff I am not even sure belongs to me. And of course, I found all kinds of memorabilia for which I have no memory and lots of stuff I had kept in case I needed it later. It’s later. I haven’t. But amidst all the clutter what I found were some lessons for all of us.

Retaining Vestiges
• Our closets are full of memories.
Like the ancient towns in the Middle East, our lives are built upon the ruins and remains of what went on before. We are a summary of our past. For that reason, it is good to remember our past and to keep some vestiges of it around to remind us of how far we have come and to challenge us on how far we have yet to go.

Living in Washington, I get to be close to a lot of the nation’s closets. We have the Smithsonian, which in many ways is literally the nation’s closet, and the various memorials and monuments that are reminders of what we are as a nation. It is good to revisit these things so we know what we should be about as a nation and to be able to bring the present into perspective. We are a nation built on hope, dreams and ideals. Public education is about those same hopes. We should never throw those out when we are trying to tidy things up.

• Our closets are cluttered with stuff we don’t need.
Whether it is clothing that would embarrass our children or papers that no longer have meaning, a lot of stuff resides there that we could get rid of. Likewise, we hold onto beliefs and prejudices from a bygone past that are as outdated as a polyester leisure suit. For leaders this can be a dangerous practice. Some things are eternal. Most things are ephemeral. It is crucial that we can tell the difference.

As I was cleaning out stuff I had to constantly remind myself that while one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, most of what we have is trash in some stage of development. Furthermore, no matter how important it felt to me, I wasn’t going to be taking any of it to my final destination. I have yet to see a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer.

It is interesting how much we can get frozen in time. For some of us that means we have the same haircut we sported in high school (if we still have hair). For others it is still sporting ideas that may be as outdated as a Beatles shag. On the other hand, it is interesting to note how some things come back. Polyester is out. Polynostic is in. Crew cuts were in, then they were out, now they are in again.

Educational ideas sometimes recycle as well. It is important to know why they went out, how the new ideas may be just a shade different from the old ones, as well as why that shade could be critical. We once had teacher-proof materials. Now we have leader-proof school reform. The first idea didn’t work, and neither will the more recent.

Emotional Baggage
• Some of what we keep in our closets can be embarrassing.
I didn’t find any skeletons in my closet so there weren’t any big embarrassments, but the mere existence of some things made me wonder. For instance, how many baseball caps do I really need? I have only one head but many, many hats to put on it. How many shirts and shoes are really necessary? Do I really need to save every book I ever read?

As educators and leaders we have stuff in our closets we don’t really need anymore. And a lot of it is just so much emotional baggage. They may be hurt feelings and past slights. They may be judgments and conclusions we reached about someone or something. One tool for cleaning out our emotional closet is to embrace the concept of forgiveness. We can’t get past the past without giving up some of it up.

A big part of the major clutter in our lives centers on the hurts and pains of the past that we hold onto. Carrying that stuff around is toxic to our emotional and physical health and does not allow us as leaders to move to a new and better place. And as long as we are burdened by this excess baggage, we are cluttering up our organizations.

Once we can clean out the junk from our closets we can feel the sense of accomplishment and clarity that comes from having some room in our lives. We can breathe and stretch out a bit. And we can start a whole new collection of junk. Life really is just one long process of recycling.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.