Saturday, June 21, 2014

Recalibrating My GPS

From the Avett Brothers:

"Load the car and write the note
Grab your bag and grab your coat
Tell the ones that need to know
We are headed north"

If you were a regular reader of this blog during the Great Clothes Shopping Moratorium, you'll know that I ended the 6-month experiment musing about happiness, things versus experiences, divestment (of stuff), and other matters more serious than a closet clean-out typically merits. And in the three months since the moratorium ended, I have continued to ponder these bigger and more important issues. What will make me happy? What should make me happy? Like the slices of a specimen we once viewed on slides through our high school biology microscopes, I have spent quite a lot of time staring into an eyepiece aimed at my heart on a glass slide, turning the knob to focus, blur, and focus again, occasionally hearing that sickening sound that occurs when you crush the cover glass with the 40x objective lens.

It's all good, though. I have seen a lot during these sessions, and have learned a lot about the inner workings of my heart. So I'm writing what will be the final entry in this particular blog series to let people know that my examination has led me to do something I didn't think I was brave enough to do: quit my job, pack my belongings and move to Burlington, Vermont to start a new chapter in my life.

About the job I've quit: it's a good one, mostly. Wheaton is a great college community to be part of, and I value the colleagues I've worked closely with for five years. Most of my students have been wonderful, and those who haven't been--well, that's the work of a dean of students, so it's hard to complain too much. I think I was called to this work because I saw, as a student myself, the good that a fair and kind dean could do, and the harm that a self-important and capricious one could do. I tried to be the former (though I confess to days when I was probably more like the latter, but I'll blame that on long winters, some students' overuse of alcohol and the federal government's unreasonable expectations of us). The other day, while cleaning out boxes of long-saved cards and letters in preparation for my move, I came across a long-forgotten hand-written letter, dated April 19, 1984, from one Steve Larson, who was the Associate Dean of Students at Gordon College while I was there. This was the same Steve Larson who had sent me off on vision quests(a.k.a. "suspensions") a couple of times in my Gordon career. He worked in the Center for Student Development (CSD), a place that, not unlike my own offices over the past 20 years, was familiar to both the stars and the miscreants of the campus. I did time as both, sometimes in the same semester. In April of that year, I was an occasional columnist for the Tartan, Gordon's student newspaper, and I must have written something positive about CSD or Steve, to prompt this note:

"Dear Lee,
My wife and I read your article in the Tartan last night, and were very touched and impressed: touched by your generous comments directed to me, and impressed by your level of understanding regarding what the heck we are trying to do here in CSD. You have more insight than most of the faculty and staff who have offered their views lately. Usually, when I bring home reports of campus-wide response to something I've done discipline-wise, my wife is ready to storm the college and start popping people in the nose. But when she read this last night, she was overjoyed to know that at least one student understands the larger picture. I also have a feeling she's thrilled to know that I'm not the ogre of the century here. I'm not particularly worried about that; but these last few weeks have been troublesome for her, especially in that respect. At any rate, thank you, Lee, for your positive, affirming remarks. It made my year. Steve"

I have no recollection of the issue I was writing about, but assume Steve had done something that provoked at least part of the student body to rise up and protest, likely not in the most gracious of ways. If you asked me now where I would probably have been at such a moment, I would have assumed I'd have been at the front of the angry mob (yeah, I know: karma's a bitch). But Steve's letter says otherwise. I was the reasonable one? I saw the larger picture?? I was 'positive and affirming'? Huh. Somewhere between the end of the 1983 academic year, when I was still in full snark as the Tartan's editor, and the end of 1984 when I wrote about Steve, I must have taken the road to Damascus because clearly I'd had some sort of conversion experience. I could attribute it to a normal developmental pattern in people that age--Kegan would say I had moved to a new order of consciousness, Perry would stick a flag in me and declare me a relativist--or I could just say I had the first stirrings of whatever part of my heart would lead me, thirty years later, to be a dean of students at a small college, trying to find the grace and strength of spirit that I remember Steve Larson showing me, even on those days he was ushering me out the door to another disciplinary suspension.

I think I've done that on most occasions: shown some grace, some compassion, to the students in my charge. I've also, like Steve's wife, wanted to pop some in the nose, and not just once. Some have deserved multiple poppings. When I'm asked what is most challenging about my work, I usually respond that it's having to be downstream of things that students have done to others--the bullying, the physical or sexual assaults. Fortunately, those instances are rare. Much more common are the lightbulb moments students have when they figure out a big truth about life, or those instances when they more than rise to the occasion and do something kind, compassionate, creative.

I have witnessed a lot of those, and consider myself blessed to have done so. I have also been gifted with committed, passionate and patient colleagues here at Wheaton and elsewhere. But like that 5th-year senior in college I once was, I've found myself on a different road, both attitudinally and directionally. Some of that shift is of my own doing, some of it has been thrust upon me. When I came to Wheaton, I was married and ready to settle here in southeastern Massachusetts for the duration of my career, however long that might be (knowing, as my friend Tony said to me recently, "all work is interim"). I knew from personal experience the unpredictable nature of administrative work in higher education, and was prepared to just do my best and hope it worked out. What I didn't expect was a change in my marital status which pretty much unmoored me from what felt like a safe harbor and sent me adrift, sails sagging, into some very scary waters. I'll skip all that and get to the point at which I now find myself, which is why I'm writing this: so those of you who kind of follow my life will know what the heck I'm doing.

On the personal front I am, as I said, moving to Burlington. My motivation for coming to southeastern Massachusetts had a lot to do with the aforementioned marriage, but beyond that, not much ties me to this place. While I love Wheaton (more on that in a minute), this is a difficult place to live alone. Not much goes on, and not many people around here share my interests or inclinations. Burlington seems to hold promise on both counts. More significantly, I have learned in the past two and a half years that I don't like living alone. I am, as I've said to some friends recently, a pack animal, no doubt the result of growing up in a large family that has provided me with an essential part of my identity. I have now the opportunity to build a life in the company of someone who seems pretty darn committed to building that same life--Betsy. Her patience and kindness throughout these very difficult years have been the lighthouse I needed while I was tossed about in big, big waves, and, well, what do you know? She's a harbor herself, and I'm going to tie up here for the foreseeable future.

On the professional front, there's also been an evolution of sorts. First let me say what I have said to my colleagues with all sincerity: serving as the dean of students at Wheaton has been the great honor of my professional life. I will always love Wheaton, and am desperately sad to leave the colleagues I have worked with for these five years. But higher education is a tough business these days, getting tougher by the week, and maybe, just maybe, there's a way I can contribute to the field that I love in a more wide-ranging way. Let me explain.

Each year at Wheaton, I have seen more students coming to campus with significant emotional and learning needs. I know this isn't exclusive to Wheaton, because my dean counterparts at other small colleges and I often sit over beers and tell tales of the challenges we're facing. One particularly vexing group comes to college with diagnoses that place them on the Autism Spectrum (especially those known as Asperger's)--smart, interesting, but organizationally and socially in need of so much more support than we can offer. About a year ago, I became aware of a new program called Mansfield Hall, which had just opened in Burlington. Their mission is to provide residential and academic support to students with these and some other challenges who are enrolled at one of Burlington's several colleges. I was intrigued. What were they figuring out that I could perhaps import to Wheaton to help us help these students? What strategies had they landed upon that gave these students, many of whom have a tremendous amount to offer our society but too often can't get past the obstacles of college, a chance to graduate and take their place in a world that needs their output? So I went to see them. And a few weeks later, I tendered my resignation at Wheaton because the folks at Mansfield Hall basically said, "We don't have it all figured out yet, and we think you can help."

Sometimes the universe hands you an opportunity--a convergence of the personal, the professional, the psychic and spiritual--in a way that is too obvious to ignore. If it were a cartoon image, this would be that moment when every conceivable flashing sign and marker would be pointing me to load the car and write the note and head north while I stand there, bewildered, afraid, as averse to risk-taking as I've been my whole, entire life. A previous Lee would shrug and turn back. But you know what? I don't want to be the previous Lee anymore. I want to say, hopefully many years from now on my deathbed, "I did at least one brave thing in my life." So with a simultaneously heavy heart and light step, I have said goodbye to my colleagues and students at Wheaton, have sold or given away a ton of the stuff accumulated over 26 years of marriage, and on Saturday, June 28, will get behind the wheel of a U-Haul and take what's left to South Burlington to live, to Mansfield Hall to work, to the shores of Lake Champlain to learn to be whole and fully engaged in life and maybe happy once again.

And that, friends, is the closing argument in the trial in which I have been, oddly, both plaintiff and defendant, judge, jury and occasionally bailiff, and even, on the pages of this blog, an expert witness. Next time I write, it will be the opening post of a new blog about a new life and work that I have no doubt will be fascinating. I hope to see you there, or even better, in person in beautiful Burlington should you find yourself with a hankering to travel north yourself. I can offer great cheese, lovely vistas and whatever encouragement you yourself might need to untie from the mooring and set sail into deeper waters.
Boats, as they say, were not built for harbors. Raise the mainsail! Grab the wheel! The wind is strong and the horizon awaits.