Why is patience necessary for a school board trustee?

I have been writing about the values listed in lank 6 of my platform. Today the fourth: patience.

An older word for patience is longsuffering. It’s closely related to enduring, or persevering. A common phrase is “hanging in there.” The assumption underlying this word is that everything is not going to go well all the time. There will be problems. There will be setbacks. You might have to face hostility, misunderstanding, anger. You might have to deal with budget shortfalls. But if you know why you are there, and what your values are, and what your aim is, you can be patient. It might be painful. But you will hang in there.

I wonder how many people in Caledonia know that one of the greatest books on leadership was written by a West Michigan man. Leadership Is an Art was written by Max DePree, an executive in one of our office furniture companies. I may talk about Max De Pree another time. Here I will just note that Max De Pree says that an essential task of a leader is to bear pain for others.

To bear pain is to suffer. Patience, passion (as in “passion play”), passivity—these words are all from the same root. Patience is suffering and passivity. We value activity! We want agency. We want to be actors, not sufferers.

And in truth a school board had better be active! There are things to do.

But first there is something to be. Things will happen that will require patience. We need people who will do the patience, or, as we rightly say, who will be patient, people who will “let it be”—tolerate (endure, suffer) inconvenient people, acknowledge (suffer) inconvenient truths, and even accept (suffer) their own self-disappointing selves—and only then, from this place of patience, begin to act.

But this patience, this suffering, is not purely passive, as we understand passivity. Intentional suffering sustains, supports. To bear the pain in a system is to sustain and support the system.

There is pain in our community. There is pain in our school system. You cannot attend school board meetings without seeing the pain. Some of it comes out during the time for public comments, or after the meeting, when a school board member or candidate might be cursed and threatened. Sometimes on the surface pain looks like something other than pain. Sometimes it looks like fear and anger.

No easy action is available to dispel the pain quickly. School board is there to find solutions, to plan actions. But there are limits to what school board can do. School board cannot heal all the ills. School board cannot halt and reverse the course of cultural change in the world, or the changes in the ethnic and religious composition of our population.

School board could try to set up its throne on the beach like old King Canute and command the tide not to come in, but the tide will not listen. School board has jurisdiction only in a small territory, and within that limited territory it oversees only the schools, and only within parameters set by laws that school board does not make and cannot break.

School board cannot overthrow the US Constitution and establish your religion as the basis and norm for policy and instruction in the school district.

Because school board trustee is a local and accessible office, people will try to get elected to it so that they can seize control of the world and make it like they think it was thirty or fifty or a hundred years ago. I don’t think they know what school board can and can’t do. They will be able, they seem to think, to decree the nonexistence of people who they wish did not exist, and ban the knowledge of realities, historical and present, that they would rather not acknowledge!

But this is impatience. It is refusal to bear pain, a preference for passing the pain along to others. It is saying: If someone must bear pain, it’s not going to be me, by God! It’s going to be those other people, those different people! This is not what leaders do. Leaders do not inflict pain, De Pree tells us; they bear pain.

School board cannot control the world or change the world. But schools can change the world by teaching children things that will help them live in a changing and uncontrollable world with patience. Schools can—must—tell children the truth about how things have been and how things are. Children can come to understand that to know the world is to know that you are not the king of it, that you are a wayfarer in it, that you may walk your path in your own way, but that it is neither your responsibility nor your right to command everyone else to walk exactly the same path in exactly the same way.

Public schools are places where children can learn that it is possible, and good, to walk the world with others who are different and who see differently. And schools are places where people who are different in some ways, and who will always retain their differences, can acquire a common body of knowledge. They can learn that for everyone 2 + 2 = 4, the United States declared itself independent in 1776, the moon is a quarter million miles away, and Shakespeare was a great poet.

But as long as anxiety and pain afflict our community, some of our people will lash out, and part of the task of the school board will be to bear pain. Sitting at their table, hearing and considering the needs, aims, and struggles of the district administration and of the whole system of buildings and principals and teachers, staff and students, and not getting up and running from the room, not screaming or shouting, not even speaking hastily, but listening, and listening, and pondering, the school board members practice patience.

I have seen them in their meetings. They don’t always look comfortable. But the stability of their sitting with the questions, and of their faith and hope in waiting for the right answers, for answers that that will be good for everyone, grounds the stability of the district and all its buildings and people. I have seen the entire current school board do this, all seven members plus the superintendent, sitting there together, patiently.

I have heard other people say that when they look at the school board they see indifference, intransigence, arrogance. I have not seen that. I have seen patience. The patience of people who listen and hear the pain and know that there is nothing they can do to make it all go away.

They will produce a plan of action, but first they will sit and listen. We are still here, they will say. We are here for you—for teachers, for parents, for students—to sustain you, to sustain this school system. We will abide your pain even when that means enduring your anger. We are not running away.

Patience is impossible—except in a place of peace irrigated with joy and grounded in love.

The school board is—must be—a patience team.

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