I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York. My father is a funeral director there, a position of civic leadership about which many do not seem to know much. I liken being a small town funeral director’s child to being the child of a mayor. My mother, the daughter of a preacher, expresses the same sentiments. My father’s position as the person to bury the town’s dead taught me early about the facets of leadership.
My brother and I were public servants of my father’s brand of core values. Our everyday interactions with people in the community were the constant reflections of my family’s business. There were two other funeral directors in town and we needed to present as the family one would be most likely to trust. This meant attending various civic functions, playing nicely with the other children, and relatively clean hair cuts. As my brother and I grew up, we understood the importance of being involved in organizations as an extension of the family brand. My brother became involved in student government in high school; I started in 7th grade. We became officers in different student clubs during our time in our hometown, mirroring our father and fulfilling his unspoken expectations.
In college, my views of leadership changed. I could take on causes for which I felt passionately, as opposed to what was expected of my former Catholic self. I realized at the heart of my desire to lead was compassion and the need for expression. Advocacy became crux to the fire that fueled me through the obstacle course of realizing my adult self in the university setting. I became much more aware of injustices and became pissed off. After the initial anger and shock to realizing the world outside my town, I decided to do take some action. I became involved in organizations that brought advocacy and awareness to the public on different levels for varied causes. I like to believe it is when I fully discovered my Libran self, aiming to balance the scales and refusing to stop thinking about and learning how to do that. I learned something through every interaction, every experience a mini-education not afforded to me in a classroom. I continue to believe in this, that in every word exchanged with another, we are building some kind of connection—positive, negative, perhaps even neutral—that will sway another’s idea, if for only a split second.
I saw this most clearly in my time as a New York City Teaching Fellow. I taught between 33 and 36 7th grade students in what I believe is the one of the most turbulent physiological and socio-emotional years one experiences. The development of self in each of them popped up at varied times; it was like a Whack-A-Mole game of puberty. Every interaction the students had with each other, every interaction I had with each student, every day in the classroom, somebody was learning how to be a leader. I learned about the need to understand where somebody is coming from. My students learned how to navigate the vulnerability of their peers. In departmental and all-staff meetings, we learned the value of solidarity while retaining microcosms of individuality in our classrooms, tight-rope walking between standardized expecations and gauging our students’ energies and needs.
As I transition to higher education, I consider the intersection between the classroom and citizenry. Who/what is right? How do we teach what is right? Can diametrically-opposed ideas come together and achieve? I question how to merge each individual’s brand of core values into one fluid mission. How do we help others realize each interaction is learning? How do we measure what is gained through our Little Acts of Leadership? Will the product/service model create a society of people who do not value that which has no perceived or predicted outcome? Who will fund human interaction? What leads us to leadership?