Category Archives: integrity

Ode to Gwen B.

I still perspire when I think about how anxious I was as I sat waiting for my first interview after graduating from college. While I waited for the principal to see me, I tried to push back thoughts about not belonging at this predominantly white suburban high school. I tried not to think about how different my background probably was from everyone else who worked here. Who else was black and from the west side of Chicago whose only qualification for the job beyond the college degree was a traumatic student teaching experience at an all-white high school in southern Illinois?

I was sweating out my interview clothes as I sat in a chair with my back to a glass wall separating this office from the hallway. I was facing a long counter behind which at least half a dozen efficient-looking white women were engaged in various activities—at the counter responding to all entrants, typing on typewriters, or working in file cabinets.

I had been in the building for about half an hour and had not seen another black person. As I contemplated this fact—as if on cue—a tall, beautiful, black woman with short red hair cut and shaped beautifully breezed into the area smiling as if she had just heard a joke. She greeted everyone by their first name and inquired about their well-being. Everyone and the entire space seemed to brighten to match this woman’s mood. As a chorus of greetings were returned, I thought I heard my name. This startled me, and then I realized they were addressing “the other Gwen,” a descriptor that would be heard frequently once I was hired. How random that both of us would teach in the English Department. Not only that, but we both married men named Charles.

Gwen B. and I were among the very few black teachers and administrators in this predominantly white suburban high school in the late 1960s that was transitioning to become more racially diverse. There were tensions at every level as the community was adjusting to the change. Lucky for me, Gwen B. was “my person” during these first years of my career. She was friend, counselor, mentor, and coach. She immediately took me under her wing to do what we now call “onboarding.” She helped me understand the context in which we were working as competent teachers whose first responsibility was to our students. She modeled for me that we could be proud that we were black and also get to know and accept people who wanted to be allies. Most of all, she stressed that we didn’t get paid enough not to have fun.

I still marvel at my luck in being “adopted” by Gwen B. because everyone loved her and wanted to be in her presence. Light from her orbit enveloped me and made me feel and be regarded as someone who belonged. The teachers’ lounge was a fun place to be when Gwen B. was there. She loved to tell funny stories and make people laugh at themselves. She would always crack herself up at her own pithy one-liners. She was the party.

Because she was my confidante, I shared embarrassing moments with her, sometimes to my regret since she always found them to be funnier than I thought they should be. One day at school I fell and slid all the way down the stairs on my back. Luckily, there were no witnesses. I proceeded to my classroom and began writing on the board, Hearing some muffled giggling. I turned and asked the students what they were finding so funny. Laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, a student asked, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?” It was funny and I had to laugh. I told Gwen B. about falling, getting dirt on my back, and what happened in the classroom. I lived to regret telling her because she never missed an opportunity to ask me, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?”

Gwen D and Gwen B smiling while sitting on couch togetherGwen B. was not only my mentor, coach, and counselor regarding my job, she was also the kind of friend who kept my spirits up as I planned a wedding. She coerced her husband, Charles, into taking our wedding photos. She persuaded her retired babysitter to take care of one more baby, so I could return to work. There were no major events during the first years of my career in which Gwen B. was not there as a confidante and supporter. I like to think that the supportive friendship was mutual, which is why after many years and much geographical separation, we never lost contact.

Lest someone think that Gwen B. is a natural nurturer offering sweet words of comfort and wisdom, I must correct that image. I always found it fascinating that this woman, laughing all the while, could turn any conversation into a litany of expletives that flowed like a river. I seldom used profanity except after a conversation with Gwen B., and then I could not help myself. Her big personality was infectious, and I wanted to catch some of her joy.

Gwen B. is a rare gemstone, the depths of which are yet to be discovered. Her defining traits that had the greatest imprint on me as a professional are courage and humor. To me, no amount of education and training could have been as effective in supporting my success as having “my person” with whom I could share anything and expect that she would help me discover within myself the strength and courage I needed to help me move forward.

Thank you, Gwen B., for being “my person” when I needed you most.

What’s your personal motto?

On February 25, 2020, CBS hosted Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina for the final debate before Super Tuesday. For the last question, the candidates were asked to share what they thought was the biggest misconception about them and their personal motto. I was most interested in their personal motto:

  • Tom Steyer writes a cross on his hand each day to remind himself to tell the truth and to do what’s right, no matter what.
  • Amy Klobuchar grounds herself by remembering that politics is about improving lives.
  • Joe Biden’s motto is, “When you get knocked down, get up, and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter what or who they are.”
  • Bernie Sanders referenced Nelson Mandela for his motto, “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
  • Elizabeth Warren looks to Matthew 25 for her motto—actions done for the “least of these” have been done unto Jesus.
  • Pete Buttigieg also used a biblical reference, seeking to “live by the teachings that say if you would be a leader, you must first be a servant.”

I don’t know whether having a personal motto or a theme one uses to remain personally grounded is a “thing” or not, but the question to the presidential candidates made me think about what my personal motto might be.

Some years ago, when I was up in the mountains of Colorado, I had an epiphany that there was a pattern to my thinking and behavior that could be codified into an anagram that I could easily recall when I needed something to hold on to in order to keep from falling off the tightrope that I often found myself on.

I easily recall my personal motto with the anagram FIRE. While I have changed some of the descriptors to the anagram on occasion, two ideas represented by each letter of the anagram remain constant:

F is for fate and faith

Whether the situation is positive or negative, fate is hard for me to reckon with because my first reaction is to use logic to understand the why and the what of the unexpected circumstances in which I find myself. When I can’t make the connection between cause and effect, I think about life as a crap shoot – sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. On the occasions when fate appears to be negative, I go to the other concept for the “F” in my anagram.

I rely heavily on faith. Because I have so much evidence to support my belief that it has been faith that has kept me in the game, this is not an empty promise or self-righteous bromide for me. Recalling that I have successfully come through other situations that I thought were impossible, and knowing that I will eventually be whole again, is what faith is to me.

I is for initiative and integrity

Initiative has two interconnected meanings for me: it both spurs me to get up and do something and pushes me to make something different, to innovate. Initiative keeps me thinking and creating. While I’ve sometimes thought life and work would be so much easier if I could just leave things as they are and go with the flow, I’ve always wanted to make something better or add something more. More often than not, my initiative / innovation has been on target and helpful. On the occasions when the vision of what could be was not realized, the disappointment never stopped me from having the desire to invent another way to move forward.

In my anagram, the letter “I” also reminds me that integrity is an important value that I want to include in all that I do. I live this value by doing my very best to do what I say I’m going to do, even if it might be as insignificant as being on time for an appointment. My goal is to always “walk the talk.”

R is for reflection and respect

As the theme song from the 1980s and 1990s sitcom “The Golden Girls” goes, reflection is “a pal and confidant.” If anyone is with me for any period of time, that person knows that I get a lot out of reflecting on what has happened and what I might learn from experience. What I write in my blogs are products of my reflections.

The other thought that “R” helps me recall is respect. Reflection and respect are often connected because my reflections are usually about interactions with people and what my role was in the experience. Did I say or do all I could to demonstrate that I had respect for the other person? Was I able to think of our communicative relationship as “I-thou”?

E is for empathy and energy

Empathy comes naturally to some people. I can recall crying as a child just because another child cried. My folks said that when I did this, I was just too sensitive. In addition to a predisposition to feel with others, as a professional counselor, I have a lot of practice in expressing empathy as a team member in work situations. I learned that it was not okay to restrict my empathy for peers and a chosen few. In order to accomplish the goals of the workplace, empathy and understanding had to be a commodity everyone could share.

I call on energy to fuel my initiatives because they are usually a reaction to inertia and resistance to change. In order to get results, one has to be able to press on. I call upon energy, then, when I don’t want to continue in the fight, when I don’t care about the brass ring and just want to settle. I call on energy when I fall down literally and figuratively and have to tell myself as Hercules Mulligan says in the play Hamilton, “When you knock me down, I get the f*** up again!”

Having been encouraged to share my personal motto, I’m changing the title of my blog to “The FIRE This Time” – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s title “The Fire Next Time” – to allow me to expand the breadth of my subject matter and to connect to my personal motto anagram when appropriate.

Writing satisfies a personal yearning, and I’m grateful for the outlet this blog provides. I share my thoughts and experiences because I’ve learned so much about myself from reading about the experiences of others in memoirs, essays, and personal stories.

The last thing I want to do is to come across as if I think I have the answers, or that my experiences give me the wisdom to know how others should be or what others should do with their life. I only know that thinking about the meaning of the words that make up my FIRE anagram helps me go through the dark tunnel that leads to the next checkpoint on my journey, and I am grateful for each of you who joins me on this journey of Faith, Initiative, Reflection, and Empathy.