“I wanted to let you know because you are on her list.”
The first time I made her list, I was in Boston. I’d spent the day wandering the streets alone, taking in the sights and sounds of a town I never even thought about visiting. But this was the start of my yearlong principal residency, and I–away from my home, my preschool-aged daughters, and my husband for the first time ever–decided that I needed some fresh air. And the air was good–as it typically is when you venture outside after long days of learning about being a principal, are missing the ones you love, and are tired of playing nice with people you don’t know but are forced to share a bathroom with in a town you never even thought about visiting.
Time got away from me, though, and glancing down at my flip phone, the same one that my co-residents laughed at and told me must be abandoned if I planned on being a “real” principal, reminded me that I needed to turn around, get back to the dorm, and get dressed for the mandatory dinner I did not want to attend.
I showered, dressed, and pinned up my newly natural curls before heading out to the event. I sauntered into the dinner, fashionably late and still basking in the glow of my alone time, when Ellen accosted me. As her eyes locked with mine, a scowl crawled across her face, ending whatever conversation she was having, and she beelined my way.
“You’re late!” she announced.
I tried to offer an excuse about cocktail hour, but she was having none of it.
“This is the last time you will ever be late. It is unprofessional.”
I’m sure she had more to say, but my shame was so great that I blocked it out. For the whole evening, all I could think about was how this little old lady had just bawled me out for being “late” to an event that didn’t officially start until half an hour after I had arrived.
She was right, though. I took her words as “feedback” and vowed that would never happen to me again. It made her look bad as my coach, and my interpretation of the invitation didn’t matter. She expected excellence from those she led, and as embarrassed as I was, I figured if it bothered her, it ought to bother me, too.
Three weeks away in Boston resulted in conceiving my son, so the entire school year of my principal residency, I was pregnant. We had schoolwork and the day-to-day work of being a principal, but I also had the “pleasure” of carrying a baby and being a wife and mother. That entire school year, I never took a day off, missed an assignment, or arrived late to class or work. And Ellen noticed.
But she never treated me like a pregnant, working mom. Instead, she pushed me harder and expected more from me than I even thought possible. It seemed like every accomplishment resulted in higher expectations from her. She never coddled me, yet she was honest and nurturing all while convincing me that I could do more and do it expertly.
I passed principal eligibility, turned in all my final assignments a good month before the end of the school year and the due dates, and made my own announcement: “I’m done!” I said. “I am going on maternity leave.” I was exhausted, and having no desire to interview or hunt for a job, I went home and worked on the nursery. Two weeks later, I gave birth to my son. Two weeks after that, I was back at work in a new school as an administrator, helping to turn around an elementary school before the start of the new school year.
I remember saying to Ellen, “You’re my coach for life. Answer the phone when I call you once a week at 6 AM.”
And she did! I told her about my struggles with teachers and parents and students. She gave me advice. I explained my leadership foibles. She empathized and reviewed my strategic plans. I shared my desire to write Christian literature and nonfiction. She sent me articles about getting started. She read stuff I was too afraid to publish and encouraged me to keep writing, convincing me it was so much better than I thought. I told her my hope to eventually leave education to pursue more spiritual endeavors. She encouraged me to look into retirement planning more intentionally. When I told her that I had applied and gotten accepted into seminary, she celebrated me more than she ever has. And when we talked last week about my first few weeks of school, and I confessed how much this pursuit was challenging me, fulfilling me, and bringing me joy, her exuberance was palpable.
“I am so proud of you,” she said over and over again.
For the last ten years, Ellen has coached me through every professional and personal milestone and hurdle I have had. She’s yelled at me, called BS on my foolishness, validated me, and cheered for me. Most of all, though, she loved me–just as much as I loved her.
But tonight my coach, my confidante, my friend has passed away. Just this morning, I left a voicemail message on her machine. “You don’t have to call me back,” I said. “I just wanted you to know that I love you.”
Her best friends both reached out to me today. One left the news in a text message. The other in a voicemail.
“Hi Marilyn…all of her systems are falling…by the time I talk to you, she probably will be passed, but I wanted to let you know because you’re on her list.”
“I made her list again,” I smiled. No shame, no regret this time around!