I’m sorry

Posted on May 25, 2010

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As seems to happen on a regular basis, I got my life rearranged for me today. I was going to go to Centerville to help round out some month-end stuff for work. Then I had something come up in Roosevelt and Vernal that needed my attention. Today. Not on the same interstates, so I had to do some juggling. Plan A allowed me to take the kids to Lagoon for the Junior High trip, so I hadn’t paid for the bus pass. Plan B meant they needed to ride the bus.

Last Friday was the last day to sign up for the bus tickets. Fair enough, the school needed time to calculate how many charters to get. However, it seemed rather unlikely that they just happened to have exactly the same number signed up as seats, so I took the kids up in the morning. Long story, and two visits with the school secretary later, they did not have room. “I’m sorry.”

Now, let me describe what I saw as I looked at the bus manifests: empty seats. Several. Could be there was much I didn’t know, like adults who were being fitted in where there were extra seats, the need for some students to have a place for their imaginary friends, or, perhaps, a coordinator with a fear attitude (if you allow one parent to schedule morning of, next year there will be a deluge.) Maybe someone was operating at the edge of her competence, and she was inadequate to handle any variations. Whatever the cause, I’ll admit my nose was tweaked when I explained my work predicament and the secretary synopsized it to: “she was going to drive them up, but then she changed her mind.” Twenty additional seconds looking at the manifests over her shoulder and I was mad.

So we went back to our car and had some decisions to make. I sat there trying to imagine how I was going to juggle it all, and asked the kids. They were quiet and gracious, and said it was okay, they’d go home. I thought for a bit, instead of letting my schedule do my thinking for me, and realized that with some phone calls and a choice to miss the high school graduation tomorrow, I could take them up there and switch today’s work with tomorrow’s. I would have to inconvenience others, but I would still be able to help them all in the end. I did what I needed to do, and off we went. Hy, in a quiet but profoundly grateful voice, said, “Thank you SO MUCH, Mom. This is the highlight of the year.” I loved them for their quiet patience, but I was mad.

While standing pumping gas for what would turn out to be over 260 miles on the road today, I realized that I needed to practice what I preach: do what you do because you choose, and have a good attitude about it. So I sent myself outside to come back in with a better outlook, just as I do them. When I got back in the car, we began a discussion that lasted about 20 miles.

We talked about the great people of the world, people who have tackled irascible problems and found solutions, people who have stood against amazing odds, people who made a difference with a stick of gum and a battery. They NEVER said, “I’m sorry” as some kind of substitute for “I’m too lazy or have too bad an attitude to make an effort.”

“I’m sorry, it’s too hard to figure out a portable shelter for survivors of natural disasters. I’m sorry, if you lose your arm, we really only have hooks or claws for you; you’ll never pick up a pencil or wash your baby’s hair again. I’m sorry, we can’t bring a temple to you because the way we build them is too costly for your tiny nation. I’m sorry, if your baby is born four months early, she’ll die. Oh, that’s too bad.”

How many “I’m sorries” do you hear that are justified by an assumption? (They should have built their building to code; if you were paying attention your arm wouldn’t have gotten caught in the machinery; you are too poor to contribute to a global economy; lots of mothers of low birth weight babies smoke, … did you?) Clearly, my kids needed to ride the bus because I don’t plan well and was shoving the responsibility back on the school.

We discussed customer service and creativity and leadership, and that I am sometimes afraid that public school with its norms and percentiles and standardization is drilling the most useful things out of them. I challenged them to be problem-solvers, all their lives, not “I’m sorriers” or “that’s not my jobbers” or “you probably created your own problemers.”

Let me be very clear, as I was with the kids today: “I don’t want to” is a perfectly acceptable answer. “No, we’re not going to bend the rules” is a perfectly acceptable answer. But “I can’t” needs to genuinely mean, “It is not physically possible for me to do that,” not “I’m saying no to prove something.”

Courage in communication is saying “things as they really are,” without an attitude. Fear is about blame, and courage is about embracing options. I chose, and I’m moving on, because I am not going to be stuck in a battle with the school over their management strategy. I plan to do great things, not create and guard or debate policy for field trips. What I am concerned about is sending my children back to be standardized according to that type of outlook.

That’s unacceptable. I’m not sorry. I don’t want to. And this isn’t the first time I’ve come up against “I’m sorry” from them.

How unfortunate that because we invest in public education, instead of a market-based education solution, we have absolutely nothing to hold providers accountable to. If the experience is shoddy, which it honestly sometimes is even while there are outstanding highlights, we have little recourse other than to teach our kids to hang on and wait for a better experience down the road. I’m not talking about the sham that is NCLB. I’m talking about the simple market truth that if you fail to serve your customers, they will go somewhere else. I’m talking about the investment you have when you pay for something, instead of having it handed to you for free, as education is. I’m wondering how to alter my choices for my children’s education to increase accountability for both sides.

All of a sudden, I realize that if I can rearrange my day to take care of something someone else has too big an attitude to partner in, maybe I can rearrange more than that.

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