This is one of those things that I learned through failure.
Several years ago, I went through a very dark period in my life. A period during which I was under a lot of stress. Some of it was self-induced and some of it was caused by outside forces. I lost twenty pounds. I began taking medication for anxiety. I fought like Hell to put on a happy face when I was out in public. But by the time I got home I was tired. And I am quite certain that my wife and kids saw a side of me that others did not. I wasn’t mean. I simply was grumpier than I should have been. They deserved better than what they got. I can’t go back and redo those days. I wish I could, but I can’t. But I have today. And right now, that is enough.
One person that helped me tremendously during that time and whenever I have needed him, is Ben Gilpin. I can’t begin to imagine how many voxes Ben must have listened to during those days. Many of them I’m sure were not pleasant. But, he was always there. He was like the wise tree in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Always able to give me what I needed at the right time. When I needed advice. He gave it to me. And when I just needed an ear to listen. He was that ear. And like the tree in the book, Ben gave much more than he received. That is just the type of person that Ben is.
Recently, when I was in the midst of making a big decision and needed advice, I contacted Ben. Up until that point, he and I had communicated through Voxer. But, for something of this magnitude, I wanted to have a live, real-time conversation. So, I typed Ben a message on Voxer. He responded right away with his phone number and told me to call him anytime. The awesome thing is, I know he meant it. I honestly believe that I could call Ben at 3 am, tell him I needed his help and he wouldn’t hang up until he was certain that I was going to be okay.
Ben is what I call an anything-anytime person. The type of person that you can always count on. No matter what the situation. We all have those people in our lives. And they are invaluable. Whenever you ask them for help, they don’t even really listen to what it is that you need help with. They say yes and they find a way.
Now I have never visited Ben at Warner Elementary nor have I spoken to any of his staff members. But I’d be willing to bet that they feel the same way. So, when Ben came on My Bad, the mistake that he shared was powerful and surprising. Surprising because I know Ben now. I didn’t know him then. Let me explain in more detail what I mean by this.
When he came on, Ben admitted that he is a much different leader now than he was when he first began. He didn’t change overnight and he didn’t change without first going through much introspection. But when Ben began, he prided himself in treating everyone the same. He felt that if he could simply treat everyone equally and implement some good programs, that everything would be fine.
But anyone that knows Ben Gilpin, knows that he is not okay with fine. This is a guy who runs ten-milers like it was his part time job. This is a guy swims lakes on his way to work. And this is a guy who prides himself on putting relationships first. So, it took some time. But Ben eventually realized that he was, in a sense, asking his teachers to do something that he himself had not been.
Ben expected his staff to differentiate their instruction and their pedagogy based on each student’s individual needs. All the while, Ben was priding himself on treating each one of his staff members exactly the same. Not anymore. While the change was gradual, Ben recalls when it finally hit him that he had to adjust the way he interacted with each staff member based upon their unique life situations. One of his teachers had recently lost their father.
It was in that moment that Ben realized what he had to do. And he shared with us what he did next.
It was so important for me to be a human being first. And to listen. And to care. And to cry with her. And to support her. She needed to know that I was going to support her through the good and the bad.
And while we’d like to think that we all do this. The truth is that we don’t. Life gets busy. Work gets busy. And it becomes easier and easier to overlook what about our jobs that matters most. And that is the people that we serve. We must never forget that education is what we do, it is not who we are.
Ben coming on and sharing his growth as a leader and as a person couldn’t have been easy. We’d all like to think that where we are now is where we’ve always been. But that’s just not the case. We are each going through our own unique journeys. They are difficult and they are bumpy and they aren’t always pretty. And the more we share them with the people we love and the people we serve, the better they will feel about where they are on their own journey. Much of what we see on social media is everyone’s best and it can be intimidating. Especially when we begin making comparisons.
Ben Gilpin is an amazing individual. Someone that I am honored to call my friend. For him to come on My Bad and share his journey was powerful. And it was an important reminder that none of us are perfect and that we are all of simply works in progress.
I’d like to close this piece with a short exchange between two characters from one of my favorite children’s tales, Winnie the Pooh. In my opinion, this 18 word exchange between Pooh and Piglet is one of the most powerful ever written. It reminds me of Ben and the comfort I have knowing that he will always be there for me.
“Pooh!” whispered Piglet.
“Yes, Piglet?” said Pooh.
“Oh, nothing,” said Piglet.
“I was just making sure of you.”
Here is the link to the Ben’s episode:
*If you would like to read about more educators who were willing to be vulnerable and share their stories take a look at my book My Bad: 24 Educators Who Messed Up, Fessed Up and Grew. I think after reading this short book you are going to feel better about yourself, more importantly, you will realize that you are not alone.
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 The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
 Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne