Everybody, everybody wants to know,
Where you going to,
What you running from,
What you going through,
Where you coming from,
What you going through,
Where you coming from.-Ms. Lauryn Hill
After years of anticipation, the Oracle of East Orange has finally spoken. Ms. Lauryn Hill has once again tapped into that timeless space where “Hip-Hop meets Scripture” with the aptly titled “Guarding the Gates” from the Queen and Slim Soundtrack. The opening lines convey the litany of questions posed to those who are perpetually seeking greater. The song’s title suggests that there are things of great value just beyond the gates, hence the need for them to be guarded. Shortly after I accepted my first assistant principalship in Washington State, I was in a 4th floor office looking out over the city of Tacoma having a conversation with the deputy superintendent. He asked me, “So, you are coming here from Georgia. The question is, are you running from something or running to something?” As I listened to Lauryn’s words, she brought me back to this conversation and about how movement evokes questions.
Guarding the Gates is an anthem of self-discovery and self-preservation. In another sense, it can be included in the playlist of those of us looking to guard the gates of our professions from those entering with the wrong intentions, bias, and misperceptions about the purpose of our work. In 2013, I was invited to speak with a gymnasium filled with new teachers in the Richmond County School System. The title of my talk was “The Flight to Success”. I didn’t want to read a speech with dry quotes sprinkled with educational jargon. I wanted to find a way to connect the anxiety of entering the profession with the feelings that we have as we embark on a flight. I compared their arrival into this profession with arriving at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta filled with travelers scrambling to get to different destinations. Upon arrival at the counter, they’d be asked these questions:
- May I see your ID?
- What’s your destination?
- Do you have any baggage you’d like to check?
- Has anyone placed anything in your bags without your knowledge?
Each of the questions speaks to knowing who you are, where you are going, checking unnecessary baggage, and guarding your gates from negativity or destructive thinking. It was an analogy that connected well with the audience. They laughed as I gave examples of travelers carrying excessive baggage and incurring additional charges. It was a light-hearted story, but there was a layer of truth beneath the humor. A fear of flying can keep many travelers from their destinations. They become obsessed with all that could possibly go wrong. What if the plane crashes or runs out of fuel? A fear of flying can keep you from making a departure at the right time. Knowing when to leave an organization is another form of guarding the gates. If the direction of the district, non-profit, or corporation is moving steadily away from your core values, stepping away is always the best option to stay true to who you are and where you are planning to go.
Approaching the Gates: Vulnerability
Long before gaining access to the boarding gates, all travelers are subjected to a screening. You are asked to remove items from your pockets. You are reminded to remove your shoes. Your bags are thoroughly scanned. Some of the most unlucky of us are even subjected to a search by TSA agents. Vulnerability and leadership go hand in hand. Courageous leaders find the right moments to be vulnerable and pull back the veil of their own areas of growth. In the Forbes article Could a Little Vulnerability Be the Key to Better Leadership, Carley Sime writes,
“Vulnerable leaders are ideally motivated to use and share their vulnerability to develop and grow into better leaders, to model the power of vulnerability and courage and create an environment where the workforce is able to do the same. Overarching this is hopefully a desire to progress and develop the organization and workforce.”
Arrivals and Departures
Elise Jonas is an award winning educator credited with opening two schools, turning them around and contributing to the national discussion about urban schools and school reform. In aligning herself with a nationally known non-profit, she saw the opportunity to extend her work to other communities to impact urban schools and develop leaders. Into the work, she brought her light, her passion, and her colorful take on all that vibrant school communities could potentially become. She painted in vivid colors and added varnish where it was needed to bring out the texture and translucence of leadership styles that had yet to be seen. Her gates were open to the grassroots approach to partnering with school districts and supporting cohorts of leaders. She felt the subtle yet nagging need to guard the gates as the priorities of the organization shifted away from deep and rich relationships to a more objective, consultant/client approach. Guarding the gates means sensing when the tides are changing and determining next steps. Leaders of organizations have to be careful to not lose their best employees by building restrictive gates around the innovation and autonomy of creatives.
Lauryn Hill, with her arrivals into and departures from the public eye on her own schedule, is the embodiment of artistic freedom. Her movements remind us of our own responsibility to guard ourselves from becoming pawns of organizations, school districts, or companies whose priorities are aligned to their strategic plans and not in tune with our own eclectic rhythms and syncopation. Rather than becoming preoccupied with others’ interpretations of her movements, she writes:
“What you say to me, I don’t mind at all, What you say to me, I don’t really care at all, ‘Cause I’m in love, Tryna fix myself for society, Trying to mix myself for society, But can you tell me where is love in anxiety”
The metaphor of gates as barriers to movement can be found in other songs. Whether on the inside of the gates in our safe spaces, or outside the gates hoping to break through the barriers obstructing our path, we have to make decisions and maintain momentum. Guarding the gates means staying true to who I am as a writer, educator, entrepreneur, and school leader. It means never allowing those aspects of my personality to be locked outside of my work. In the second verse of Goodie Mob’s Cell Therapy, the creatively uncaged Cee-Lo Green ends his verse questioning the real purpose of the gates in his housing project:
“But every now and then, I wonder if the gate was put up to keep crime out or keep our ass in.”