It’s common to talk about our work. Within minutes of making a new acquaintance, someone usually asks, “so what do you do?” What we do is the label that often defines us. I’m a teacher, doctor, mother, etc.
I’m not as concerned about what people do as I am why they do it.
It’s partly my affinity for psychology, but mostly because I like the big picture. I’ve always been more interested in the mission of an organization than in the products or services they produce.
I was recently listening to a TED talk called Start with Why. The premise is simple. If we know what motivates our work, it becomes more meaningful. As we become inspired, we in turn inspire others.
I’ve been thinking about this from the perspective of children, and specifically students.
If we ask students in many American schools today what they do, they can articulate concepts they are learning or how their extracurricular activities are going. Ask them why they are learning and we may get a myriad of responses from passing yet another test to the dreams they inherited from others.
I worry about the labels children develop and how those labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. A child starts out with a developmental delay, but it doesn’t mean that’s the end of their path.
I learned this lesson in a powerful way through my friend, Jim.
Four years ago I moved from Seattle, WA to Spartanburg, SC to become the head of school at Oakbrook Prep, a K3-12 independent school. The search committee found me through a colleague in Atlanta. At first, I had some of the same thoughts that just went through your head – Seattle to Spartanburg? Where is Spartanburg?
The chair of the search committee was a man named Jim Simon. Jim assembled a strong, diverse team of people. The members had different ideas, but they shared a common thread – they all have big hearts for people. They didn’t limit God. They believed anything was possible because they started with why.
When I first visited the group, people were warm and hospitable. The ladies were the epitome of hospitality and the gentlemen oozed southern charm.
And then there was Jim Simon.
Jim sat at the head of the table and didn’t speak throughout the small talk of us getting to know each other. He sat back in his chair with his head tilted slightly forward, studying me through his furrowed brow. I could feel his gaze piercing my soul.
So in my mind, I’m already thinking this was a nice visit. It was good to get away from Seattle for a couple days and see the sun. This man obviously doesn’t like me.
We talked for a couple hours. I met a man named Martin who believed in the ideals of Oakbrook so strongly I could feel his desire to leave a legacy. His humility inspired me.
After I went back to the hotel, I changed into jeans and went to Costco. I had to make sure a South Carolina Costco would meet my needs like the Seattle Costco did.
I walk into the store and the first person I see is Jim Simon. I’m thinking to myself, “oh great, not him.” Here I am in jeans and a t-shirt face to face with the grumpy chair of the search committee.
Jim looked at me and smiled this big, goofy smile. A smile I had yet to see under the stern countenance of an engineer always prepared to fix a problem. We ended up talking for quite a while right there next to the flannel shirts.
He told me all about his family. He shared how they found Oakbrook.
Jim told me about his daughter Stephanie. He shared that she had a developmental delay as a young child. He told me he was sick of people telling him what his daughter couldn’t do. He didn’t want Stephanie to be defined by that. He was looking for a school that would help her discover her God-given gifts. Jim found Oakbrook for Stephanie and Oakbrook found Jim to help establish a legacy.
He told me about the master plan for Oakbrook. Or, I should say, the Master’s plan. I could see the passion light up in Jim’s eye when he talked about the master plan. It felt real and I felt this urge to complete the master plan for Jim and for Martin.
At that moment, I accepted the job in my heart.
Jim’s story inspired me. He knew his why. He made it his mission to help his children, to invest in their school, and in his church. That grumpy, bald-headed engineer it turned out was just a teddy bear with the superpower of making everything better.
Let me tell you a brief story about Jim. I received a call one day in Seattle about the house we were buying in South Carolina. The inspection revealed an issue with the foundation. My wife was devastated. She loved the house. I don’t know much about building, but I know a solid foundation is important. I knew Jim was an engineer, so I called him for a referral.
I left a voice mail message. The next day he called back. Expecting nothing but the name of a structural engineer, Jim – in typical Jim fashion – launched right into the details.
“Adair, I went over to the house and met the owner. She let me into the basement where I studied the wall in question. I went back and did some research. Then I tracked down the builder and questioned him. What he did was consistent with the right way to build that wall,” Jim said. He went on, “Now I’m not a licensed residential builder, so if you still want a referral, I will get you one.”
“No, that will be just fine Jim,” I said, “thanks.” Wow. Talk about above and beyond.
You see, that is Jim. If there was a problem, he found a solution. His child had a need. Jim found a church and a school where his family would excel. He chaired the search committees to bring in a senior pastor and head of school and coordinated the master plans for both facilities.
While it doesn’t make sense on the surface, I took this job, initially, for Jim Simon.
Three years ago when the Lord took Jim Simon home after a fatal car crash, like his family and friends, I wasn’t ready.
What I really wasn’t prepared for was the depression that would come from losing a man I admired. I didn’t talk about it much. I stopped exercising, stopped feeling a little bit, but kept working on making Oakbrook the school the search committee dreamed of and completing the master plan for Jim and Martin.
Recently I have been visiting the church Jim helped build. Since I have been there my oldest son said he desired a closer relationship with Christ and my boys love going to church for the first time since we moved to South Carolina. Jim invited me to that church so many times while he was still alive. He felt I should be there just like he felt I should be at Oakbrook. He was right. Being in the church Jim loved reminds me of my why.
The other day I was talking with Jim’s son Jacob, a carbon copy of Jim. I sat in a class and listened to Jacob present his ideas. I could hear the passion of Jim in Jacob. It warmed my heart to see how a great man raised a boy to become a great man too.
That day I wasn’t sitting in a room observing a class, God gave me a glimpse of sitting with an old friend feeling his presence.
Jim’s daughter Stephanie has grown into a strong woman who is composing beautiful music. She found her gift, her calling. Jim created the conditions and trusted God.
I’ve been at Oakbrook for four years now, but it seems like a lifetime. I am surrounded by teachers and administrators who know their why. It’s not about test scores and sports championships, although we do well in both.
It’s about waking up each day to help children discover and cultivate their true potential. Every day we have a choice. We can choose to see beyond a child’s limitations so they can see the reflection of God’s love in our eyes.
If you are a teacher or a parent, you can learn a valuable lesson from my friend, Jim Simon.
Don’t let a child’s limitations define their path. Every child is Brilliantly Made. Help a child discover their gifts today. I’ve always known that, but Jim reminded me of my why.
One day I hope and pray to raise enough money to complete the master plan Jim developed for Oakbrook.
And someday I will see Jim in heaven and our eyes will meet like they did that day in Costco next to the flannel shirts…and he will smile that big, goofy smile at me again because he knows we left behind a school and a church that loves kids the way God intended for them to be loved.