Gracious Voices

Scott RobisonI mentioned in a message during January’s parade of school cancellation notices that I used to referee a lot of basketball around the Midwest in high schools and small or medium sized colleges.  This post is about one of the most meaningful happenings among many interesting ones across those years.

First though, a shout out to six middle and high school students who spoke to nearly 50 parents last evening in session three of our “growing up digital” series. These disarmingly smart young people made many profound utterances, not the least of which was a phrase I had not heard articulated as a digital faux pas —though I have seen it a lot. A student talked about mistakes people make with digital tools when they have “keyboard courage.” These are people who let their fingers fly when angry/emotional—and they toss civility aside while being emboldened by the relative anonymity (or at least facelessness) of email or social media. The phenomenon is obviously not unique to youth.

Early this week I got another trickle of “keyboard courageous” messages about the impact of weather related issues. This is not all that remarkable, but both anonymously emboldened folks referenced what an idiot I am for what they assumed would be the solution for snow make-up days. The particulars of these forgettable blasts of ugliness are irrelevant, especially in light of the preponderance of genuinely helpful thoughts, suggestions, and sincere questions so common in this place. The School Messenger Alert in which this blog post was referenced (2-14-2014) shared the current thinking and planning regarding make-up days.

Just as during the early onslaught of Polar Vortex I, my email and phone lit up with angry voice about why I made this decision or that—and why we wouldn’t go to school with leaking pipes and buses locked in the storm’s frozen drifts.  Honestly, it reminded me of the opposing fans who scream at basketball games. One parent chastised and threatened because of not going to school and the next admonished and threatened because snow is slippery—someone might fall.

In my twenty years as a basketball referee, I heard this same kind of equally passionate, diametrically opposed voice many times.

“It was a block, you idiot.”

“That was a charge, you [expletive].”

Soon after the early days of January, Page Two came about when I had more to share about a seemingly simple thing (school cancellation decision-making) that actually involves a lot of important nuance and responsibility.  Page Two yielded some, “Oh, I see!” responses. Some folks offered gentler criticisms and genuinely helpful questions that informed my next Page Two sharing.  The logical, supportive voice of hundreds of parents who contacted me with calm, often very funny comments (and snow pictures!) after Page Two began reminded me of this favorite of my old refereeing stories…

Situation: Two very talented basketball teams somewhere in the Virginia winter—both small college teams in their league’s annual tournament. The game was tight and the lead changed hands at least thirty times. The game was nearly over with the score tied when I called a foul that was, well, weak. But since basketball referees in that day were in complete denial and not afforded the luxury of replays, I marched to the center of the floor and “sold” the call that put the potentially winning foul shots in the hands of a star player.

My turn away from the Scorer’s bench to cross the floor seemed to take forever, and I noticed that the loud screaming so common throughout the game had quieted.  I glanced up in the middle of the home crowd and the distinguished college administrator who had greeted me before the game stood and cupped his hands over his mouth, and I knew he was about to give me what for!

Bracing myself for it (and knowing that I deserved it), the man spoke in his booming baritone.

“It’s okay, Ref.  We’re a Christian college.  We’re pretty big on forgiveness!”

The clear and brief utterance diffused the tension of the home crowd, and just about everyone in the gym laughed a lot. I smiled in humble acknowledgement of my humanness, and the home team ended up losing* in overtime.

I am certain that the emotion of my come-uppance in that public moment seared the event in my memory, but I remember it not for having messed up publicly.  I remember it for the unexpected voice of graciousness that really was delivered as a leader’s effort to bring perspective.

Fortunately, the “Page Two” explanations I offered with delay and cancellation notices in January seemed to bring out kinder, gentler ZCS voices.  There were hundreds of parents, employees, and students who just took a breath, even in the heat of emotion about carved up home and work schedules—not to mention cabin fever.  Now each time I get the anonymous post card of fact-free ugliness or the screaming voicemail about suing ZCS for, yes, “…a billion dollars…” because it was very cold last Monday and we didn’t have a delay, I am reminded of the college administrator who was big on forgiveness.  And I think of hundreds of people from ZCS who took each aspect of this winter’s Polar Vortex in stride. Parents who modeled this calm—this aplomb—taught valuable perspective to their children who were surely watching.

Daily I am reminded of the goodness of this community’s people.            SR

*The free-throw shooter missed the front-end of the one-and-one he got from my phantom foul call. The game dragged on through an overtime period when the same player hit the winning basket at the buzzer.  The home team college administrator (I believe he was the Dean) visited with my refereeing partner and me after the game as we gathered our things to travel westward.  He made just one comment about the game—that it had been a very competitive, pressure-filled atmosphere and that he was grateful for our composure throughout.  He wished us safe travels, and I never saw him again—but I will never forget his graceful leadership in the heat of that memorable moment.

Scott Robison
Superintendent of Schools

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