I’d like to start this blog by sharing three things with you - one you know for sure, and two you probably didn’t. First, it’s Black History Month. You all know that already. The second thing? To keep my sanity as an educational leader for the last 25 years, I have been an active runner. How those two pieces are connected leads me to the third. My perspective of running was forever changed shortly after 1:00 pm on February 23, 2020, outside the small town of Brunswick, Georgia.
I was blessed to serve in the same high school for fifteen years – twelve as principal, three as assistant principal. I was hired as a super green 26-year-old assistant principal into a large, comprehensive high school in the middle of a massive remodel. To say the school was in disarray was an understatement. After leaving the classroom as a Spanish teacher and soccer coach, I really didn’t fully understand what I had just stepped into – but I was about to find out.
In my first few weeks, I quickly gained experience on how to break up fights, search for drugs, put out a fire set by students in the parking lot, de-escalate violent students, work with construction contractors, occasionally get into a classroom, and keep a straight face when a prominent teacher leader looked me in the eye and said, “I’m not sure why they hired you. We are going to eat you alive.” Let’s just say that my learning curve was both steep and fast-paced. This was the beginning of my administrative career, but also the beginning of my passion for — and need for self-care — through running.
Anyone who has served as a school leader knows the 24/7 stress and anxiety that constantly simmers whether school is in session or not. Principals and assistant principals are not just in charge of running a school; they carry the burden of everyone’s social, emotional, and mental health, physical safety, and hope. And, they carry that burden all the time, no matter where they are. I’m not sure the world totally understands what we’ve placed on our school leaders. That burden weighed heavily on me as a school leader. The only way for me to maintain my own sanity was by running…a lot.
For decades now I’ve been an active runner. Some days I run alone. Some days I run with a group of friends, who I’ve really considered my therapists. When I think back to my days of principaling, I ran to relieve stress and anxiety. I ran as I planned upcoming staff meetings. I ran as I planned school-wide assemblies. I ran when meetings didn’t go well. I ran while navigating how to handle sticky discipline situations. I ran when I knew my school culture didn’t feel right. I ran when I knew I’d be at school for 18 hours until the last student was picked up from the dance. I ran when I needed quiet reflection time.
When I lost students to drunk driving accidents, I ran. When young hopeless students cried in my office, I ran. When the bathroom was covered in blood after “cutting” incidents, I ran. When the changes I wanted to make were blocked by restrictive contract language, I ran. When parents were upset with me over athletic playing time, I ran. When I was dragged through a two-year lawsuit, I ran. When an up-and-coming student leader killed himself, I ran. Running was my relief and my release.
In my current position as the Executive Director of the Association of Washington School Principals, I still run. And, I still run for many of the same reasons. I run for health, stress relief, quiet thinking time, processing how to help our members, conversations with God, planning, and problem-solving. As I travel the state and country in my work, I always pack my running gear. Why wouldn’t I? Because I was ignorant.
Well, during decades of consistent running, I’ve never worried about my safety…no matter the location. I’ve never questioned where I should run, when, or with whom. But that’s the problem. I never worried or thought much differently. Doesn’t everyone enjoy the same freedom? The answer is no. Which is why Black History Month should be a top priority of focus in each and everyone one of our schools.
On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, age 25, went for a run, just like I’ve done for my entire career. Unlike me, Ahmaud never came back. While he was out running, he was marked, targeted, followed, questioned, and ultimately killed, simply because he was black. No other reason. What year was this? That’s right, 2020. Not immediately post-Civil War, not during our history’s Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s, but rather on February 23, 2020…during Black History Month. This was just yet another sad reminder of how much more work we have ahead of us as a society.
So, as you come across people wondering where, how, and when to enter into conversations about Black History Month, maybe a great starting point for a conversation is about Ahmaud or “Maud” as his friends called him. Let his death not be in vain. Why was he killed? Why was he targeted? Why was it dangerous for him to go for a run, but not me in the year 2020? What are we still missing in our educational system that such overt racism still exists across society? How can Ahmaud’s memory and unfathomable murder be used as a constant reminder and spark for continued conversations, learning, and change?
My running has changed since Ahmaud’s death. There isn’t a single early morning run as I lace up my shoes and head out when I’m not thinking about Ahmaud Arbery. I no longer take my privilege for granted, nor his sacrifice. And, with each step, and each mile, in addition to the weight of my thoughts, I wonder what more I could have done as a leader in our system to prevent senseless deaths like Ahmaud’s. I also think critically about what I will continue to do in my leadership role to fight for change across our state and country. I regret my blindness and that I should have been running all these years for Ahmaud. I’m sorry Ahmaud, but I run with you, and for you now, every day. Never forgotten.