Seventieth Birthday Month Reflections, Part 1: Advice from a Student

Circa 1969 during graduate school at the University of Idaho

To pay for my graduate studies at the University of Idaho from 1968-1970, I taught two sections of freshman English Composition each semester. I have very few specific memories of those classes, but I’ve kept a tattered and slightly yellowed piece of composition book paper from one of my students. I have no recollection of what the assignment was, but apparently there were at least four questions. Perhaps it was a course evaluation; perhaps it was a personal reflection on a piece of literature we were studying. I have no idea. This student, a young man who I vaguely remember as being more engaged in class discussions than some others (I think his name was Brad or another name beginning with B), chose to focus on the fourth question, explaining himself this way in the opening paragraph: “This seems to be the most important part of the questions, so I feel I will devote all of the time permitted to it.”

And then he goes on:

The most valuable part of this course is the teacher. You seem to have a unique understanding of respecting another person’s opinion. Although I am only a student, I represent one of the masses you teach. Thus, these masses, to you, must be of great importance. This is why I feel that I, a student, can give you some advice. Never lose your sense of open-mindedness. It has kept me enhanced through the whole semester.

During the last semester, I have come up with some very strange ideas. I related these to you through my writings. Never once have you criticized my ideas, no matter how alien they were to you. You have tried to understand, to realize that as a college freshman many ideas have entered my grasp. If they are right or if they are wrong makes no difference. Only time will tell. You seem to realize that these ideas are the person, himself. If you try and destroy these ideas, you can possibly destroy the person. I feel you have tried to cultivate a program of thinking for oneself throughout the course. This is good.

By respecting my somewhat far-out ideas, you have gained my respect. Thank you.

Wow! The fact that I still have this note says something about how much his comments meant to me. They were high praise and affirmation for someone who was really way too young to be teaching college freshmen and often lacked self-confidence. I had graduated from college at age 20, so I was at most 21 or 22 when I taught this young man. I had very little clue what I was doing.

The year I graduated from college – 1968 – was a tumultuous year in my life and in American life. Two things from my last year (semester) in college stand out in my memory: 1) my crisis of faith as I started questioning much of what I had believed all my life, and 2) the non-renewal of the contract of a favorite young professor who was seen as out of step with the direction of the college. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was escalating and protests against it were increasing, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer was the scene of angry protests and police crackdowns. Recently, when I watched the Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War, I realized all over again what a chaotic year 1968 was. (I should also note, on the less chaotic side of things: 1968 also marked the beginning of my romance with Dale, when I sent a Christmas card from my Idaho outpost to Choma, Zambia, where he was in voluntary service!)

Both my crisis of faith and the turmoil of the larger culture around me made me less confident in black-and-white answers and more inclined to skepticism, which in turn likely contributed to what this student called my “sense of open-mindedness.” I wish I could remember what “alien” ideas he expressed in class or his written assignments; it’s possible he thought they were more alien than I did. But it’s equally possible I did not want to discourage him because I understood at a gut level how important it was to be allowed to express “alien” ideas without fear of ridicule, rejection, or judgment. A wise older professor friend had offered me the same kind of non-judgmentalism in college, and perhaps I wanted to pay it forward.

Reading that student’s comments now, it’s gratifying to see that he saw in me some of the themes that have been important to me in the decades since he was in my class: willingness to consider new and different ideas, respect for the opinions of others, and recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of individuals even if I disagree with their ideas or behaviors. Of course, over the years, I’ve come to believe some things very strongly, and sometimes that could be perceived as close-mindedness or disrespect for those who don’t believe the same things. But at my core, I still value of the kind of open-mindedness the student appreciated, and I think it has served me well in many complex situations throughout my life. I wish I knew what happened to him and could tell him how much his note meant to this very young and inexperienced teacher.

 

 

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A Ten-Year Tale of Transformation

Actually, 11 years rather than 10 years separate these two photographs, but that doesn’t make for a nice alliterative title! In the first photo, I am dressed in my Townsend High School uniform, probably just before my brother (in his Hillside School uniform) and I left Macha Mission to travel by train to Bulawayo for school in 1961. In the second photo, taken in the summer of 1972, I’m posing in “hippie” clothes with Dale’s new motorcycle in front of our first apartment in Mechanicsburg. The obvious reason for the difference between the me in the first photo and the me in the second one is the passage of time – from age 13 to age 24, from adolescence to adulthood. As I look at these two photos, however, I see more than the normal passage of time; in fact it feels more like a lifetime. Knowing what I know now about myself, I see the transformation of a young and very shy, awkward, innocent, and naive teenager into a considerably more mature, worldly-wise, and self-confident young woman.

It’s a transformation that didn’t come easily. I’ve told the story before about my “re-entry” into American culture at age 13, and the difficulty of that transition. I came to the U.S. from Africa having spent the previous five years in three different schools – wearing a uniform to school every day, living a relatively regimented and ordered life, not really being allowed to express my own individuality. During school breaks, I was home out in the proverbial boonies on missions stations (three different ones – we moved a lot!), playing with dolls, sewing and knitting doll clothes, reading, playing with my little brother and other missionary kids, riding bike – and largely oblivious to what life was like in the U.S. I was completely unprepared for my introduction to high school in the U.S. Yes, I was prepared academically, but socially I was clueless.

Throughout high school and college, I struggled with self-esteem, and often felt ugly. I tried really hard to fit in, especially in how I looked and dressed, but I had no experience or know-how (and no money), and I was too introverted and embarrassed to ask even my best friends. I learned mostly by watching and imitating. I did not date because no one asked me out, which intensified my feelings of inferiority and rejection. On the positive side, I made friends and did well in school. My parents valued education, and encouraged my school success and pursuit of a career. I made it through high school, college, and graduate school, and got my first full-time job as an English teacher at the high school from which I had graduated only six years before.

Most people would not have had any idea of how much pain I was in emotionally. Sometimes I didn’t recognize it myself. Even when I allowed the pain to rise to the surface, I covered it up and put on a brave front, which I was good at because, after all, I did have some competencies and my mother always modeled stoicism very well!

While I was in graduate school, Dale came into my life. I had known him in college, but the trajectory of my life changed when we started writing to each other while he was in voluntary service in Zambia. Our relationship blossomed over the year and a half  between the time I sent him a Christmas card in December 1968 from my graduate school outpost in Idaho and he returned to the U.S. in August 1970, but I still didn’t know what would happen when he returned and we finally saw each other face to face. Those feelings of self-doubt were very close to the surface as we met awkwardly for the first time as boyfriend and girlfriend (I hoped!) at the old Harrisburg airport. And then the love that had begun in those letters deepened as we spent time together, got engaged, and then married in June 1971.

High school senior picture

That girl in the first photo could never have imagined in 1961 that in a mere 10 years, she would be married and look like the girl in the second photo. My high school senior picture taken two years after “uniform girl” shows the beginning of the transformation, but you can still see the naivety and innocence in my eyes and general demeanor.”Uniform girl” had difficulty blending into American culture in the early 1960s; by the early 1970s, “motorcycle girl” could almost pull it off!

“Motorcycle girl” – in her bell-bottom jeans, sleeveless crop top, and long straight hair – looks like she had almost completely acculturated. Some might think that’s a bad thing – especially those conservative, plainly-dressed folks in my church – but to me it represents an important and positive sea change in how I began to view myself. “Uniform girl” had a generally happy and interesting childhood that I wouldn’t trade for a different one, but I was ill-equipped for the culture into which I was thrown at age 13. I had been sheltered in so many ways. And most significantly and painfully, I felt very much alone. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t know how to talk about what I was feeling, or how to get help. My parents, though I know they cared deeply and understood some of what I was going through, were themselves ill-equipped to help. So I muddled through mostly on my own. A measure of the emotional pain I stifled during those years is how easily I can still feel it. The self-consciousness that was my constant companion then is something I still have to actively work to overcome. I still struggle sometimes with the social anxiety that was so real in those days.

When you’re young, 10 years seems like a long time, but at the age I am now, 10 years doesn’t seem long at all. The 10 years it took me to get through high school, college, the beginning of my professional life, and the beginning of my marriage seemed endless at the time – especially those earlier years when I felt so awkward, self-conscious, and ugly. Now they seem like a drop in the whole bucket of a good life. “Motorcycle girl” and the person I am now owe much to Dale (I probably would never have bought and worn a crop top without his encouragement, for example!), and I’m grateful to him for loving me as I was and as I am and for his part in my “transformation.”

Alternate Universes

I think I’m a reasonable and fair-minded person. I have beliefs and opinions, some of which are deeply held and admittedly would be difficult to change. But I can also usually understand and appreciate how others might see things differently and arrive at conclusions that are the opposite of mine.

I was opposed to Donald Trump’s candidacy from the beginning (having been profoundly offended by his persistence in pursuing the lie that President Obama was not born in the United States, among many other reasons I’ve detailed in previous posts), and I was appalled that such a man would actually be elected president. But in the interests of fairness, I have tried to understand why so many people—including friends and family and others I like and respect—supported Trump’s candidacy, voted for him, and are happy with the way things are going one year into his presidency. In spite of my efforts to understand, however, some days I really feel like I am living in an alternate universe from those who remain steadfast in their support of the president.

This week, the New York Times solicited and then published letters to the editor from Trump supporters on its editorial page. These letters were in general thoughtful, reasonable, well-written, and provided me with some helpful insights. I took notes on the reasons the writers gave for their support for President Trump, and divided those reasons into three categories (the list is not exhaustive, but illustrative):

Reasons that make sense to me (even if I don’t completely agree with all the particulars):

  • Booming economy (stock market setting records, etc., unemployment is down)
  • Tax reform/tax cuts which will stimulate the private sector
  • More conservative judges (especially a new anti-abortion Supreme Court justice)
  • ISIS defeated

Reasons I can understand but don’t agree with:

  • Americans prioritized over illegal immigrants. I understand the premise, and agree that every country has the right and duty to look out for its own interests. However, I don’t like the negative attitudes toward “the other,” especially black and brown people, that is often the subtext of these discussions. Also, I prefer a world where we recognize and celebrate our global interdependence, and work together to make a better world for everyone. I actually like living in a multicultural society and don’t fear immigrants (my ancestors were immigrants after all).
  • De-regulation. I lament weakened environmental and consumer protections. As just two small examples, why would we not want financial advisers to be required to operate in their clients’ best interests, and do we really want mining companies to be free to dump their waste in local streams?
  • Repeal of mandatory insurance coverage and “mortal wounding” of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare. I want everyone to have access to health care, and the ACA was working toward that goal. Why can’t the president and Congress work together to come up with fixes and improvements to what was actually beginning to achieve its goals despite its flaws?
  • Withdrawing from international agreements, such as the Paris climate agreement. Why would we want to be the only nation not to commit ourselves to be part of global efforts to protect the planet we all share?

Reasons that reinforce my sense that we live in alternate universes (the quotation marks indicate direct quotes from the letters):

  • Trump’s “vision, chutzpah, and testosterone.” What vision? His kind of chutzpah is a good thing? We don’t have enough testosterone ruling the world already?
  • His “respect for the flag and the rule of law.” For the umpteenth time, kneeling at NFL games to protest police brutality against blacks has nothing to do with disrespecting the flag.
  • His “iconoclastic nature, optimism, and unapologetic humanity.” I don’t know what is meant by “unapologetic humanity,” but what I see when Trump incites violence against opponents, bullies people and calls them belittling names, doesn’t show much concern for the plight of refugees, says hateful (racist) things about people from black and brown countries, and never apologizes is not the kind of humanity I respect.
  • Belief that he “ends up being right about the most important things.” What things specifically? There are so many things he’s done that I don’t consider “right.”
  • Before Trump, “we were scared of any volatility….The more chaos there was, the worse we were. Now volatility is our friend. The more chaos, the better!….Good old American problem solving is back!” Personally, I prefer less chaos and more predictability and order. And what does it mean to say that American problem-solving is back—where did it go?
  • The “unscripted Trump feels more authentic to me.” Maybe more authentic at some level, but well below the dignity of the presidency and not the kind of authenticity I want in a president.

Despite the ongoing “alternative universe” feeling, I finished reading the letters with a better understanding of why many continue to support President Trump. I am glad that the New York Times gave Trump supporters this opportunity to articulate their reasons, and I disagree with those who castigated the paper for publishing them.

From the beginning of this administration, I have tried to make a distinction between policy changes and the character of the president. The former is a normal part of the push-and-pull of politics when the party in power changes, while the latter can affect the very nature of our democracy and values as a nation. On character issues, I am profoundly frustrated and disappointed with this president:

  • He appears to have no regard for the truth, repeating hundreds of demonstrably false statements, and it feels like he is trying to gas-light the entire country into agreeing with his version of reality on the apparent theory that if he says it often enough everyone will believe it.
  • He constantly assaults the free press when it tells stories he doesn’t like (“fake news”), and attacks the judiciary when it rules against his administration. He displays authoritarian tendencies, as when he said, “I have absolute right to do what I want with the Department of Justice,” despite the long understanding that the president should not interfere with the judiciary, especially on matters pertaining to him. These feel like fundamental threats to our democracy and the rule of law from which it may take a long time to recover.
  • His personal conduct is far beneath the dignity and basic decorum I expect from someone in his position of leadership, and he engages in behavior most of us wouldn’t even accept from young children: bullying and calling opponents demeaning childish names; bragging about sexual assault; saying things that are at best racially charged and at worst downright racist and bigoted; threatening to get revenge on opponents or prosecute and jail them. He seems incapable of apologizing or otherwise taking responsibility for mistakes, whether big or small, but always casts the blame elsewhere.
  • He is extremely narcissistic, everything is always all about him, and he speaks in ridiculous hyperboles (“I’m the least racist person you will ever meet”).
  • He has no apparent regard for the appearance of numerous financial conflicts of interest for him and family members who work in the White House, and there is much about his business dealings over many years that seems highly questionable.

The list above only scratches the surface of the issues I have with President Trump, from before he was elected to this past year after his inauguration. Hard as I try, even when he does something I can support, I am unable to put aside all the things I find so offensive about his character and personal conduct and simply focus on policy. So much of his character directly contradicts my values, many of which are informed by my Christian faith. And then many of his policies seem to fit his character as well, plus they also contradict my values, which doesn’t help.

The problem with living in alternate universes is that it’s difficult to talk to each other. I started by saying that I think I’m a reasonable and fair-minded person, although I know some might disagree after reading this. Over the past year, I have tried to “give him a chance,” as a friend told me I should soon after the inauguration, but he has made it extremely difficult. Nevertheless, I probably need to try harder and reach out more from my “universe” to the other one. Admittedly, this will be difficult, given how far apart I feel like our universes are, but it’s important to try.

 

Speaking Truth With Words That Give Grace

A smattering of fall at Laurelville

Earlier this week, I spoke at the Anabaptist Communicators Retreat, held at the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, located in the beautiful Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. My assignment was to talk about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work. What follows is a slightly adapted version of what I presented.

My early writings in the context of the church were borne out of my desire to communicate the call of Christ to be peacemakers. I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, one of the historic peace churches, but it wasn’t until young adulthood that I internalized the peacemaking imperative for Christians and developed what has been a decades-long passion for promoting the practice of peace and justice, particularly in the context of the church. In the earlier days of my writing on peace and justice topics, I was probably somewhat preachy and “polemical” as I tried to persuade others of my own convictions.

Those early writings were freelance and expressed my personal beliefs and opinions, but then I took on various writing and editorial positions in the church that gave me the opportunity to combine passion with profession, and I learned that while there is definitely a place for polemical writing, I could be more effective and likely have greater influence over the long term by making the case with more grace and humility.

Before I was given this assignment, however, I had not thought much in any deliberate way about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work, so it’s been an interesting and helpful exercise. I’ve thought about the variety of venues in which I’ve written and edited for more than 40 years:

  • editor of a monthly missionary prayer calendar (my first “official” church position)
  • editor for Shalom! for 36 years (Shalom! is a quarterly Brethren in Christ publication on peace and justice issues)
  • many years of board and committee work—in my denomination, my home congregation, and Mennonite Central Committee—where I was often called on to write and edit board communication pieces
  • two books (one I wrote and one I edited) and numerous articles and presentations
  • a 23-year career as a communications person associated with the PA Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  • current editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society
  • this personal blog

I list all those not to toot my own horn but rather to illustrate the different genres and contexts in which I’ve worked. Throughout it all, I’ve also worked with and edited many writers, most of whom were gracious to me as their editor, and I’ve navigated the challenges of trying to fairly represent many views in the publications I edit while maintaining my own integrity.

As I thought about that body of work and how my faith convictions have informed the way I write and edit, I kept coming back to three New Testament passages: Luke 6:27-31; Romans 12:14-21; Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31-32

Three imperatives from those passages serve as guidelines for how I try to do my work: 1) treat others as you want them to treat you; 2) if it is possible, live at peace with everyone; and 3) speak truth with words that give grace. I’ve collapsed a couple verses into that third guideline, but it seems in keeping with the intent of the passage, and it expresses well what I strive to do. It’s the basis for the title of this presentation: speaking truth with words that give grace.

Living up to those words is a constant challenge. As I said, much of my writing and editing has been on peace and justice-related issues, where there are often strong differences of opinion and convictions, even and perhaps especially among Christians. This has always been true, but seems particularly pointed right now. We’re living in a world where there is so much that seems unjust and just plain wrong, where lies and distortions of truth are some people’s stock-in-trade, and where religious and political divisions often seem impossible to bridge. It’s hard to speak the truth as one sees it in a way that will not further inflame and divide. It’s hard to extend grace to others who see that truth differently. But I believe more than ever that it’s important to try because it’s part of what it means to be a peacemaker.

How does this actually work itself in my writing and editorial practice?

  1. I consider my audience, recognizing that there will be some who read or hear my words who are not at the same place I am, who disagree with me (perhaps vehemently), and so I temper my words. A real-life example: When I used to write promotional announcements for my congregation’s annual Peace Sunday observance, I always visualized an older gentleman who was very conservative and was not always supportive of all the ways we tried to emphasize the church’s commitment to peacemaking. Thinking about him as I wrote helped me frame the announcement in a way that was most likely to appeal to the compassion that I knew was in him and not bias him and others like him against our Peace Sunday efforts from the get-go.
  2. I often acknowledge my own lack of knowledge or understanding and that I could be wrong. While I have strong beliefs and opinions, I don’t see many things as black and white or either/or. Life usually presents itself to me in much more complex and ambiguous ways—in shades of gray rather than in black and white, as both/and rather than either/or. Even those things about which I have strong opinions are not always clear-cut. In my experience, there are not many genuinely easy answers.
  3. I try to be honest and truthful. I fact-check and use reputable sources. I also try to be honest about my own shortcomings, which are many. While I’m pontificating about this or that topic, I am often brought up short by the realization that the hypocrisy, inconsistency, and self-righteousness I’m attributing to others could perhaps be applied to me. I am constantly humbled by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, which in one translation read: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” To paraphrase it personally: Does the way I actually live my life agree with what I write? . . . the answer to which often gives me pause and reminds me that a little humility is a good thing.
  4. I try to be true to myself, and use personal stories to illustrate my point. It’s harder to argue with personal experience. That’s the way I framed an essay called “God Bless the Whole World, No Exception,” that was something of a rebuke of the “America first” mentality.” I told the story of having been integrally connected to three countries from the moment of my birth. I am the daughter of an American mother and a Canadian father, and I was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). That reality has forever affected the way I view the world. Conversely, I recognize that the personal experience of others also affects the way they view the world.
  5. I try to acknowledge other points of view when I can. This is a particular challenge when those points of view feel like anathema to me, or when they contradict the official position of the church for which I’m writing or editing.
  6. As an editor, I believe in doing my best to maintain the writer’s own voice. Sometimes that probably means that I am not as ruthless an editor as some might think I should be, but it is also a gesture of respect for the right of people to express themselves in the words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are comfortable for them. I don’t like it when editors put words in my “mouth” that I would not say but that express what they think I mean, and so I try not to do that to those whose words I edit.

I confess that many many times over the years I have struggled with “speaking truth.” I hate conflict, and I’m an introvert, so I would just as soon run the other way as confront the conflict. I have remained silent when I should have spoken up (or written something). I have also struggled with the grace part, as I feel anything but full of grace for those whose words and actions I abhor or cannot support. Nevertheless, despite my failures, speaking truth with words that give grace remains a goal for the way I want to approach my writing and editorial life, as well as the rest of my life.

The Summer of My Discontent

For three months ten years ago during the summer of 2007, I held a position with a title that sounds sort of prestigious: acting director of the Pennsylvania CASSP* Training and Technical Assistance Institute. The reality, however, is that it was one of the hardest jobs I ever had.

Backtracking to March 2007: Shortly before Dale and I left for vacation, a friend and colleague at the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS), the entity that provided the grant to fund the training institute, informed me confidentially that there was a plan in the works to close the institute and use the funding to begin a new statewide training initiative. She further told me that while everyone else would lose their jobs, I would be able to retain a position with OMHSAS. So I left for vacation with this difficult reality hanging over my head. While I was gone, the rest of the staff was informed.

From March until June, we carried on with our regular duties, trying to remain professional even though we were all strenuously opposed to the decision to close the institute and tried to plead our case with various higher authorities. I even remember having a brief conversation at a restaurant with my state representative, who happened to be a high school classmate of mine from way back. As staff, we were particularly upset that we had no input prior to the decision, and no one had given us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and meet the desire for a new kind of training. We continued to offer statewide continuing education to children’ mental health professionals, and in April we conducted a highly successful conference (celebrating the conference’s 20th anniversary) for about 1,000 mental health professionals, child-serving system partners, youth, and family members. We also amused ourselves and relieved our stress with gallows humor that was probably not always fair to those we felt were responsible for our demise.

We were scheduled to close as of September 30, 2007, but by the end of June, our small staff of seven had shrunk to five, as two people found new jobs. One of those who left was our director, meaning that we needed someone in charge to oversee all the details associated with closing down shop after 14 years. That someone was me, likely chosen because I was continuing with OMHSAS after September 30 and I had been at institute longer than anyone else. Being acting director meant I was responsible for the following:

  • Functioning as “supervisor” for colleagues whose jobs were ending with no new prospects in sight. Not surprisingly, one or two of them took advantage of unused sick days even when they likely weren’t really sick. I asked them to let me know when they wouldn’t be coming to work, but that didn’t always happen. Being put in a quasi-supervisory role while also wanting us all to continue as equal partners at the Institute created significant internal tension for me.
  • Making decisions about how to dispose of everything we had produced: curriculum on a wide variety of topics (youth suicide prevention, writing effective treatment plans, writing psychological evaluations, working with children with autism, mental health and juvenile justice, etc.), a set of core competencies for children’s mental health professionals, and so on. All of a sudden all these products into which we had poured so much professional skill and emotional energy in a desire to help improve the system of care for children and adolescents and their families seemed devalued. Throwing stuff away often felt like throwing parts of ourselves away.
  • Keeping track of the institute’s financial status and making sure that there would be enough money to pay all our expenses. This included staying in touch with people at Penn State’s University Park campus, which administered the grant from OMHSAS that funded the institute. (Technically, we were all Penn State employees.) Not being a finance person, my head often spun as I examined financial reports and tried to make sense of them.
  • Being a member of the committee that reviewed the applications for the grant for the training institute that was going to replace us. This was perhaps one of the more bizarre duties I had. On the one hand, it made sense since I was continuing with OMHSAS and would likely be working with the new entity and I already had experience with one training institute. On the other hand, it felt like some kind of cruel and tone-deaf joke to be asked to participate in the cause of our demise. To make matters worse, one of the meetings of the committee was even held in our conference room. I pre-warned the rest of the staff so they could plan to take one of their sick days on the day of the meeting!
  • Packing up a suite of offices (seven staff offices, a conference room, common areas and work space, etc.) and figuring out what to do with all our stuff. Think conference tables and chairs, multiple office desks and filing cabinets, computer equipment, book shelves and books, a significant stash of office supplies (boxes of binders, copy paper, etc.). There were only five of us to do all this packing, and we were on the third floor of an office building on Front Street in Harrisburg with a tiny and slow elevator. Besides, we continued throughout the summer with regular work in keeping with our mission. Everything ultimately belonged to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we were bound by our lease to be out of the office suite by September 30. But how and where to move everything? I kept asking OMHSAS for direction, and I kept being put off along with vague assurances that it would all be cared for in the end. Well into September, I still didn’t know who was going to do the moving, where the stuff was going, or any specifics for how we should prepare for the move. Eventually, and just in the nick of time, arrangements were made with the PA Department of General Services to move everything to an unused building on the grounds of the former Harrisburg State Hospital.

I have no idea what ultimately happened to all that stuff. Later, after the institute closed, I went with some staff from OMHSAS to help retrieve some things for their use, and saw how the movers had just dumped everything with no attempt at any semblance of organization. At the time, I felt somewhat responsible for not having made sure the unloading happened in a more systematic way, but also frustrated because I felt like we had so little support from the powers-that-be for what seemed like an impossible task.

My anxiety level was extremely high that summer. Those three months were awful in the ways I’ve described above, plus even though I was keeping my job (unlike the other four remaining staff who would be unemployed and thus were dealing with their own stress), the contract arrangements moved slowly and I wasn’t sure until the last minute that my employment status would be uninterrupted – something critical to maintaining my health benefits. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility but very little control – a sure recipe for psychological distress. That May, I had joined Weight Watchers and managed to stay on target with my weight loss goals throughout this very stressful time. Many mornings during the summer I took a break and went for a walk alone along Front Street, mostly for the exercise that was part of my weight loss regimen but also as a stress reliever. By the end of 2007, I had achieved my weight loss goal, and I credit at least part of my success to the fact that weight loss was something I could control when I had very little control over what was happening at work.

Ten years later, I can acknowledge that there have been good developments in Pennsylvania children’s behavioral health system of care as a result of the training institute that took our place. I can also honestly say that the final eight years (five full-time, and three more in semi-retirement part-time mode) of my work with OMHSAS were good ones during which I learned much and enjoyed new professional challenges and opportunities. Yet I still remember clearly the difficulty of that summer, and I believe that the institute’s closing resulted in losses to the system and there could have been a healthier process by which the fate of the institute was decided. And I never ever want to be an acting director again.

 

*CASSP is an acronym for the Child and Adolescent Service System Program, envisioned in 1982 as a comprehensive system of care for children and adolescents with mental health needs and their families.