Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the Abundance of Water

“In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.”
--Bob Marley, “Rat Race”

Yesterday I arrived at my office around twenty minutes later than usual because I had to drop my kids somewhere. I also was a bit more dressed up than my typical summer attire because of some important meetings. Right when I sat at my desk, my cell phone rang. My facilities director.

“Mark, are you coming in today?”

“Already here,” I replied.

“Please come down to the lower school.”

A flood. Water covered the floor of the entire lower school and part of the library. In some places the water had puddled nearly an inch deep. Because it’s summer, many of the supplies—including those newly-purchased and recently delivered—were on the floor rather than sorted and put away. Immediately my head filled with questions. First, how?* Natural, but foolish question, because it really didn’t matter right then. Next, what are all the implications? Insurance, amount of damage, in-service schedule, replacing materials, opening of school—once again, natural but at that point foolish. Until the clean up began and the situation was assessed by professionals, I couldn’t do anything about any of those other points.**

What happened next is what slaked my fool’s thirst.

We sent a phone blast to employees to let them know what had happened.*** Within thirty minutes, the building was packed with people who had arrived to help. And not just employees. There were students, from second graders through seventh graders. There were new employees who hadn’t even worked in the school yet. Employees brought family members—spouses, their grown children. Our new second grade teacher had her two younger sisters and her parents there. Our seventh grade science teacher’s massive adult son—a former marine who’s between jobs in Alaska and Antarctica—was tossing around classroom furniture. I saw a parent methodically working a wet-vac.

What were others doing? They were using squee-gees and brooms to push water towards drains. They were figuring out where to move things. They were moving hundreds of things—ranging from tiny boxes to large tables to even a cast iron bathtub—so that the restoration company could get right to work. I saw wisps of little girls with their arms full, toting things to dry rooms. They were assessing what could be saved and documenting what needed replacement. And despite all of the damage and the hard work and the looming questions, they were doing all this with smiles and laughter and optimism.

By around 12:30, we had finished what we could do, and we had to move aside to let the experts take over. I had asked my assistant to order some food for everyone, and people filled one of the workrooms to eat. They had busted their tails, and they thanked me so sincerely for the food; they genuinely believed I didn’t need to do that. It sounds hokey, but I truly was humbled. From my perspective, providing a bunch of quesadillas was the least I could do. They had given so much of themselves that morning. Not just their physical labor, but their hearts and souls.

They reminded me once again about the incredible community of St. John’s Episcopal School. (Plus that evening some parents e-mailed me to say they were ready to organize help for all the teachers.) I can only imagine how glad the new faculty were to see what type of place they had joined, and I imagine people loved to see the new folks already have that same spirit. It’s how they work with kids every day—with the same determination and purposefulness and love. I remembered that great schools depend on the people there.

I’m still worried about all the immediate concerns that filled my brain. But now I don’t feel quite as foolish because of what I re-gained through the day. I recall educational writer Parker Palmer’s oft-quoted line “You teach who you are.” The people of St. John’s Episcopal School are deep wells, from whom we can drink abundantly and fulfillingly.

*In case you’re interested, the plumber theorizes that a valve broke when the city turned the area’s water back on after working on some local mains the evening before. He said when they do so, trash in the pipes can hit the valve with so much force that it breaks it.

**I imagine I also looked quite the fool. I had removed my loafers and socks, and rolled up my slacks. As we worked, my button-down shirt quickly soaked through. I felt pretty gross also. But it made a good opening for my meetings.

***I intentionally leave out names in the following section. I’m afraid I’m going to miss someone, and I am truly grateful for and humbled by what I’m about to relate.

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