One Extraordinary Degree



(As we celebrate “Teacher Appreciation Week” I wanted to take a few moments to express my appreciation for a friend and colleague who is a few weeks from a well deserved retirement.)

In science we learn that at 211 degrees, water is hot, but that at 212 degrees it boils, producing steam. Steam that can power a locomotive. Steam that can set off a chain reaction.
We learn that one extra degree makes all the difference.
This lesson transcends science, having applications in all areas of life. One extra degree of effort. One extra degree of courage. One extra degree of perseverance. The extra degree that separates good, from great.
Every so often we cross paths with someone that epitomizes this truth. We are fortunate to work around and alongside someone that consistently gives that one extra degree in every area of their life, and by doing so, leaves an impact that is extraordinary.
For the past twenty-five years, Cindy Zeivel has left an extraordinary imprint on the students, staff members, and families that make up the Frank C. Whiteley School community. Possessing a rare combination of velvet over steel, Cindy has been the heart and soul of helping students and staff members to be extraordinary in their own right.
Along the windows in Cindy’s room are many plaques, diplomas and awards. There is her Golden Apple plaque, and the diploma for her Masters Degree in Teaching. There is a trophy marked “best teacher”; a plaque titled “Most Inspirational Teacher”, and a substantially-sized book labeled “Who’s Who Among American Teachers”.
No doubt she has rightfully earned these awards, and many more, but Cindy has never been one to rest on her laurels. She has never required notoriety to prove her extraordinary value to our school. Her credentials are the constant stream of students that come back to visit her, even several years after graduation, because she has left an indelible stamp on their lives. Because she has helped them experience the extraordinary. They are Cindy’s credentials.
There is a quote emblazoned above her whiteboard; a credo for how Cindy leads her students, her colleagues, and other members of the Whiteley community towards the extraordinary.

“You are stronger than you see, braver than you believe, and smarter than you think.”                    ~ Christopher Robin to Pooh

Through her example and her influence, Cindy empowers us to be stronger. She inspires us to be braver. She enables us to be smarter. She leads us to be extraordinary.
At first glance, Cindy is warmth and joy. This is her velvet side. She greets everyone with a welcoming smile. She hugs her students. In her eyes, everyone is special, and she lets them know it. She cooks with her students, ostensibly teaching math, science and life skills, but also through this breaking of bread, she builds community. She leaves notes in student’s lockers. She loves students, everyday. And these are students who are not in “her” classroom. She just wants them to know how special they are, and how much they are cared for. She serves sick families, tutors former students, and while her car is one of the last to leave each day, she spend her time at home reading journals, grading papers, and writing notes for her students late into each evening.
Beneath this genuinely kind exterior, Cindy has a steel resolve. She gives her extra degree in all she does, and expects the rest of us to do the same. She is committed to making our school extraordinary. Even as she approaches the finish line of an exceptional career, she spends herself completely towards this end. She serves on countless committees. She mentors students in our PBIS program. She volunteers for virtually every activity, from movie nights, to multi-cultural events. She helped lead our “Water for South Sudan” project. She serves on our foundation committee. She came in for several weeks over her summer, crouched on her aging knees, to paint inspirational quotes on the stairway risers. She helps run our annual school spelling bee. She facilitates the yearly national math competition. She was an integral member of a small group of teachers who worked to craft a new vision statement for our school.
Soon, this exceptional teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend, will conclude an amazing career. It is incumbent upon us to savor these moments, and capture the vision, passion, and drive that she embodies. To take a moment to reflect, and express our appreciation for colleagues like Cindy. She is passing the torch, leaving us to see how much stronger, braver and smarter we have been made by this extraordinary leader. Reminding us of perhaps her greatest lesson, that one extra degree makes all the difference.


Swamp Oasis


When we consider places to travel, we are often thinking of beauty, relaxation, or adventure. Our minds and hearts are flooded with imagery of that excites and invigorates us. We think of beaches, lakes, or oceans.

But we typically don’t dream about swamps.

Swamps are the backwoods siblings to our adventures. They are more likely to be listed on places to avoid, than destinations to dream of. But beneath the surface of the swamp, life is teeming. And the swamp is a necessary part of our ecosystem.

Similarly, we all love to be an integral part of a purposeful workplace, where the business that gets accomplished actually leaves a stamp of wellness and compassion on this earth. But we don’t necessarily crave chaos in the place of doing that work.

Inevitably, there are days that your workplace is a swamp. It is comprised by wetlands of creating a dynamic environment where students can grow and explore, while you also navigate how to prepare them for standardized tests. There are muddy paths of dealing with critical parents or equally stressed colleagues, while trying to balance mandated curriculum that doesn’t necessarily serve the best interests of your students. Yet you trudge through the morass, because your in the business of changing lives, showing compassion and grace to those students and staff who may also be swamped with their own private issues or demands, and the overwhelming logistical challenges that accompany them. Indeed, you tread through murky waters.

But in some swamps, there can exist an oasis of beauty. A respite place. A refuge from the annoying bugs and the pungent odors. Your spirit and your smile can provide a respite for those that enter your building, and your classroom. Your kindness and compassion touch the hearts of those that muddle through the muck and mire of their own journey. Outwardly, you give a high-five at the doorway, a star on their paper, or perhaps provide the only encouraging words they may hear all day; but inwardly, you provide a reason to smile while they are parked in your presence. You provide the empathy that those swamp-travelers might not see in their own homes. You provide a friend that says, “I’m with you on this journey. I’m with you in this swamp.”

Thank you friends, for making the swamp a lovely place to travel through, especially for those that would rather not be there. Thank you for your grace under pressure. You shine like a star in the darkness, giving light, and hope in an otherwise gloomy environment.

All the Time in the World


Sitting in the local Starbucks doing schoolwork, and I noticed a gentlemen who just pulled into the parking lot, lifting a large wheelchair from his trunk. He has my attention. Within minutes, he wheels in an elderly woman who I guess must be his mother. He is playful and kind in spirit, filled with respect and patience as he suggests possible menu items for her to consider. Listening to their conversation is priceless. I’m guessing she has some form of dementia, since much of her chatter is difficult to parse out. She is mostly apologizing for eating so slowly, but he is so gentle and reassuring that they have all the time in the world. What a precious moment to behold, and a beautiful sentiment to dwell in.

All the time in the world.

To connect. To enjoy. To be together. I was the lucky fly on the wall, sitting at the table behind them.

Earlier this morning, I was on a different wall. Instead of coffeehouse colleagues, I was surrounded by followers of faith, in our local congregation. While listening to the pastor’s sermon, I was scribbling several thoughts. I’m always struck by the counter-intuitiveness of the scriptures. How death to self leads to life. How walking into our weakness leads to strength. How faith is forged through blindness. He also discussed various illusions of control we can have in our lives, how we can trust in God with our eternity, but not necessarily trust him with our future. So true.

As usual, my mind also wandered to word play. As the pastor delved into the topic of our faith, I was rolling around various contexts of leaping, and the joy I feel in this simple, childlike gesture. As a trail runner, I love leaping in the forest, whether it is over tree roots, streams, logs, or bounding up and down hills. I love leaping over the mud, wondering if I can clear the muck without sliding, or at least spraying my legs and shoes with splotches of black goo. I relish the challenge of jumping, hoping my leaps will reach far enough, or high enough, to clear obstacles. Or looking for new areas to leap into, sometimes blindly turning to head down new paths in hopes of a fresh adventure. And on my longer runs, I enjoy stopping frequently, to jump repeatedly on to a bench, a log, a small wall, or some other perch, in an effort to strengthen my core. There is a masochistic pleasure in testing my stamina, concentrating on coercing my tired, shaking legs, successfully over the hurdle each time.

Lastly my thoughts reflected on the many layers we all have. I recalled a message from years ago, when the pastor revealed that when he wants to know how someone is doing, he makes sure to ask multiple times.

“How are you?” To which the person usually responds, “I’m doing good.”

“How are you, really?” Now the person pauses, but usually answers similarly “Overall, I’m ok.”

“Really, how are you?” Here the person stops and reflects, trusting that the person asking has a genuine concern to know beyond a merely superficial answer.

Because when we really want to know how someone is doing, we need to make the time to communicate and connect. We want to assure them that we are ready to leap into the mire with them, or gently listen while they collect their scattered thoughts. We want to assure them that all of their layers are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that for them, we have “all the time in the world.”



Finish Line

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That was the best way for me to sum up running. Freedom from the stress of my college courses. Freedom from the expectations of fraternity brothers. Freedom to just be.

Running under glistening stars in the dark of night was an escape, as well as an opportunity for self-discovery. Mile after mile, I observed the sights and sounds around me. I considered relationships past, present, and future, creating the visions for the man I would become.

While in college, I also wrote extensively, if you call term papers and reports writing. There was research and analysis, summarizing and paraphrasing. But there was little creation. Little reflection. Little freedom. Little of me.

It was only years later that I was able to discover the joys of writing. Without deadlines and expectations, writing became more like running. Instead of plodding through focused on accomplishing tasks and fulfilling assignment, I was freed to become an observer. Freed to listen and look. Freed to reflect and consider. Page after page, I was freed to create, and discover, the world around me, as well the person within.

Over the past several years, I run thousands of miles of roads and trails, and written thousands of lines of reflections and stories. I’ve stood behind several starting lines, and crossed dozens of finish lines.

Starting lines buzz with excitement and energy, but they also can carry the pressures of worry and self doubt. Lining up next to other runners can be a recipe for mutual celebration, but also an unhealthy opportunity for comparison. The open page offers similar experiences. The excitement of endless possibilities. Hundreds of different directions, or a plethora of new characters to create and explore. But the same can be said of pressures. The worries of not being able to weave your thoughts together. The haunting voice in your ear that attempts to diminish the voice of your heart.

The starting line is all about starting. Moving. Letting the race come to you. Letting the ideas flow. Trusting your training. Trusting your voice. While putting in miles along side of friends and colleagues, this is not time for comparison. It’s about running your own race. Being true to the story, and to our own voice. Being the best version of yourself in that moment.

Finish lines are glorious, when we cross them without the burden of expectations. My goal in every race is to finish. Give my best effort, and rejoice in the journey. Learn the lessons of the road.

Today, we cross the finish line of a blogging challenge. We ran many of these miles together, making new friends, and cheering each other on along the journey. We gained perspectives on this amazing thing we call life, as well as gaining new insights about ourselves. We cross the line together, building new relationships as colleagues and friends. We also cross it as individuals, with a growing sense of confidence in our voice, our training, and our direction.
Kudos to each of you on crossing the finish line! I look forward to seeing you soon, and hearing your stories out on the roads, or at the next starting line.



Precious Gift


It was a simple box, small in nature. Not much larger than the expanse of my hand.

But oh what a precious gift!

My daughter had spent the last 3 months in Israel, taking part in a study abroad class. Touring many famous historical sights, and documenting her journey in words and photos posted on social media, it had been obvious that Israel was wrapped around her heart.

After arriving home, she asked if we could gather as a family, in order to share some gifts that she had brought home for us. She beamed with joy, telling us stories about new friendships forged, lessons learned, and places traveled.

My Rachel loves to travel.

As children finish their teen years, they are naturally eager to leave the nest. Sometimes this passion takes form as a desire to see all the world has to offer. Sometimes the reason to leave is stated simply as a need to get as far away from home as possible. The thirst to be anywhere but home. I have heard each of these yearnings in all of their glory. Or fury.
Opening the box, I saw pebbles, rocks, leaves, shells, and other artifacts from the places she had visited. She labeled each one, often with the date she had been there.

Memories flooded me as I cradled each one slowly, remembering the pictures she had posted on social media on the days she visited each site.
Little did I know know, each of those days, she was collecting these little items for me.

Not only was her heart set on Israel, but I was always on her heart.

What more could a father ask for?

Thousands of miles away, we were still as close as a memory, or a pebble, or a leaf. Items that she held in her hand, to share with her family that she held in her heart. A precious string of memories given by my precious gift of a daughter.


The Perfect Tool


A six year old boy

Left alone in the basement
Toys strewn everywhere
As well as a multitude of games
But these are meant for kids to play with
And I’m feeling adventurous
All down her by myself

So I search through Dad’s tools
Some are for banging
Some are for turning
Some are for pulling
Some are for grasping
All are for fixing, or building,
Or breaking.

But one in particular
Catches my attention
Shiny, with a crank
Resembling an eggbeater
But with a point at the end
That rotates with the crank

So I take Dad’s tool
Over to Mom’s couch
A keepsake sofa
An heirloom of sorts
With long wooden armrests
Shining brightly in the basement light.

Resting the tool’s point on the wood
I turn the crank
And experience the delightful sensation
Of feeling the tool pierce the wood
As I continually turn the crank
Drilling hole after hole
One after another
Until each armrest is is no longer whole

The tool is powerful
And by proxy, so am I
Enabled to completely alter the heirloom
To a ramshackle mess in a matter of moments

I loved that little hand drill
But perhaps not nearly as much
As my mom loved that couch
Fortunately, she loved me slightly more

A few weeks later, the couch was removed
Donated to a local charity
But Dad’s perfect tool remained
As did Mom’s perfect love.




What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here—that life exists, and identity; That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
                                                                                                                                  ~ Walt Whitman

Writing is a very personal endeavor. It is reflective, creative, and intensive. Though the product or writing may be selfless, the process of writing is self-absorbed.

Close the door. Leave me alone. Let me be. I’m writing.

Upon further examination though, I realize that I’m not truly alone. My thoughts are often continuations of ideas posited by friends. My ruminations are often ignited by queries asked by other thinkers. My written musings have their origins in speeches and sermons, discussions and deliberations, orations and observations.

I’m really more of a co-author, than an author.

My writings are often more a part of a greater dialogue, than they are a monologue, because the thoughts continue on, for comment, rebuttal, or further contemplation. If a dear friend sparks an idea, I carry it further in writing. If a family member comments on a heart issue, I dig through the matter to understand them better. If a colleague inspires a new direction, I delve into that, and put my thoughts into words and actions.

I write, often on the wings of others.

If no man is an island, then perhaps no piece of writing is a solo performance. I’m just grateful to contribute a verse.