I made my way down a long school corridor today, trying to find the library. Heading toward me, from the opposite end came Linda, a principal I worked with a decade before. She and I were the only two in the hallway so I know that she must have seen me. But when I got closer, I could see that she was not seeing me. I said hello to her and she looked my way again as if to identify the source of the sound, but she didn’t look up. Then she cut in front of me and scooted through the library door. There, she made a bee-line toward an assistant superintendent, lit up, and fell into fast and familiar conversation.
I had to pause and collect myself for a minute. That was blatant, I said in my mind. Was I invisible? I held my hands in front of me. They looked real enough. She and I had once worked in neighboring schools. I took a seat next to different principal who asked how my day had gone. Well, thank you!
When the meeting kicked in, I looked down at the agenda, talking to myself (in silence, of course). I had experienced this blindness before – where a person can blow right by. I equate it with climbing, with tops and bottoms, the important and dismissed. When people negotiate their position on a food chain, it seems they lose sight, and maybe sound as well. And it hits me that when they get there – to the top – they are nowhere of note – except in their dreams.
Last year, I spent weeks working to turn the tide for one skinny little second grader who had made it her goal to play with two of her classmates. They made sport of rejecting her, giving her cutting feedback on her hair, her shoe color, and her choice of sandwiches. The skinny child came back day after day for a fresh drubbing. I intervened with a truth-telling strategy, naming behaviors and calling each of them out on their parts in it. But, even after I named names, the girls only moved their antics out of my sight.
Then, don’t these kids later turn into a leaders and victims who line the halls of organization and suffer till the last? I remember one director famous for whooshing right by her staff each morning – subordinates after all – without a “hello”. She would look right through people, roll into her glass office, and slam the door. Once, in a meeting, she bumped into her own assistant as she crossed the room to shake hands with an important funder. . “Where did you come from?” she asked and she meant it.
Liberation shows itself in people who give without measure – who see in service to others their essential expression rather than how others are useful to them. I have witnessed searing transformations where leaders, even those once hooked others as a means to an end, break free. The discover the power co-construction over conquest. How poignant the grieving when they look back, see what they’ve missed and clock it to the time remaining! Still, the trade-off gives far more than it gets.
To Linda, I’m still here. Drop by sometime and say hello.