Monthly Archives: July 2008


(NOTE: As the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals continue to accelerate, more and more US schools will be categorized by the pejorative brand: “Program Improvement School”.  NCLB’s kiss of death.  By 2014 as many as 90% of America’s schools could be categorized as underperforming “Program Improvement” schools.  Perhaps it provides a handy label for politicians to rail on public education in general… but inside our schools, where we know our children’s names and faces, it is a different story.

This is the FOURTH POST IN A SERIES as Mueller Charter School awaits its test results from the 2007-08 school year. Look for the SERIES every Monday as we get our results, assess the trends, and make strategic adjustments for the coming year.)    


It’s mid July in San Diego. The Padres are 13 games out, there are 200,000 bizarre movie characters taking over downtown for Comic Con, and the purest athletic tournament on the planet has just come to an end.  That would be OMBAC’s world renowned Over-the-Line tournament. 

Never heard of it?  Check out the website.  Baseball without bases… you hit line drives for base hits on a field about the width of a milk truck.  Hundreds of three-person teams play in multiple divisions, age groups and genders.  The hot sun on Fiesta Island bakes the sand and near-naked spectators.  The Corona flows…as do the team names that are constantly read over the loud speaker while the tournament organizers manage games on 24 simultaneous courts.  You can’t repeat the names but you can remember them.  They are creative and obscene and it is hard to stop laughing at them.

“Next up on Court 12… Three %$#$# with Hard %$*&^$  versus %$%$, #@#%$# and One Bouncing *$#$^%%^$.”

The names never stop coming and neither do the games.  For two solid weekends.

It’s part of the summer tradition.  And right about the time that Over-the-Line ends Mueller Charter School begins.  And so, as sure as the sun will rise on the now freshly-abandoned back stretch of Fiesta Island—the 2008-09 school year has begun.

In fact, today, nearly 1000 children arrived for the first day of school.  If it seems awfully early to be starting school– it is.  But our students go 200 instructional days instead of 184 and this is when we start.  And we are serious about it.  We will be full “go” by the end of the week and you would think that it was mid-October.  We had some absences today– but no more than we will have the first time it rains hard and parents fear their children will somehow melt if they send them down the street to school. 

I never like to acknowledge that we had a smooth opening.  I’m too superstitious for that.  It’s like mentioning that the starting pitcher is throwing a no-hitter.  I don’t care when you do it or who you are or where you are sitting in the stands– if you mention that the pitcher has a no-hitter going– it is over.  The reason why no-hitters are rare in Major League Baseball isn’t just because the hitters are so good.  It is because there are so many people watching the game in the stadium and on tv and the internet.  It is just a matter of time and odds that some nimrod is going to blurt it out:  “Hey… I just realized… Maddox has a no-hitter going.”  CRACK! A double down the line and into the corner.

Holy smokes.  Don’t they know the rules that govern the baseball universe?

So we opened the school year today and we’ll just say that everything went… ok.  

Except the test results still haven’t come in.  The teachers are dying to see them.  They want to know how we did.  I do too.  But we have to wait.  That’s part of the summer ritual too.  Padres and Comic Con and obscene Over-the-Line team names and opening day and us waiting here and making decisions based on data we haven’t seen.  

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(NOTE: As the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals continue to accelerate, more and more US schools will be categorized by the pejorative brand: “Program Improvement School”.  NCLB’s kiss of death.  By 2014 as many as 90% of America’s schools could be categorized as underperforming “Program Improvement” schools.  Perhaps it provides a handy label for politicians to rail on public education in general… but inside our schools, where we know our children’s names and faces, it is a different story.

This is the THIRD POST IN A SERIES as Mueller Charter School awaits its test results from the 2007-08 school year. Look for the SERIES every Monday as we get our results, assess the trends, and make strategic adjustments for the coming year.)    

Any day now the results will be in.

This is the time of year when California pushes out thousands of boxes filled with green and white test summary pages that serve as verdict on a year’s worth of instruction, effort, and innovation.  A year’s worth of hopes and dreams even when we know good pedagogy cannot thrive on hope.  A year’s worth of teacher meetings, parent conferences, home visits, student counseling, late afternoon training, pre-sunrise prep sessions.  A year’s worth of pouring through data, looking for trends,  making adjustments, researching best practices, assessing our kids again.  And again. A year’s worth of cheerleading, motivating, cajoling, pushing, driving, rebuking, challenging, modeling, observing, coaching, collaborating, whispering. 

When UPS pulls up we will all race to the window with our hands on the glass.  Like Christmas.  “They are here!”

 The boxes will  roll up ominously—if not unceremoniously—on industrial strength cargo carts.  We’ll pry their lids open and take the grade level summaries right off the top.  And in a matter of moments… the verdict will be in.  We know where to look.  We know how to crunch the numbers. We’ve been here before.  Too many times.

At Mueller Charter School our mission is to get 90% of our students to grade level.  To do so requires that we overcome poverty, overcome California’s insistence on testing children in a foreign language (English), overcome family crises, overcome a community’s near collapse from escalating fuel costs and home foreclosures, overcome public policy trends that are indifferent to students’ health care needs, and overcome industry expectations that are based on a conviction that we can’t overcome any of these things. 

We already know that our English language learners are at risk.  Our charter is at risk too as we come perilously close to the “Program Improvement” tattoo.  We won’t likely discover that 90% of our students tested at the Proficient level on the California Standards Test this past year.  So we will have to regroup and find a different path. Like every year.

The students don’t report to their first day of school until Monday  but already we are exhausted as we anticipate the possible outcomes on a test now three months old and an academic year whose destiny we can no longer influence.

Any day now, the results will be in.  

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I stood in line four times last week and each time I wondered why.  Four times.  Once in the morning when the line from Apple wrapped around the corner of Fashion Valley, past a jewelry store that no doubt appreciated the new IPhone roll-out, and all the way down to the entrance of Uno’s.  When I realized the line wasn’t moving I started asking questions of Apple employees in the light blue shirts.

“3… 3 ½ hours…”  That was optimistic.  By the end of the day and the end of the line the AT&T servers had crashed and consumers were left stranded all over the country.  All over the world!

I didn’t want to wait in line for three hours on a summer day so I left.  Later I heard the wait was more like seven hours but after you have waited in a line for three hours—on a summer day—you are invested. You can’t turn back.  So all those people waited.

I came back later in the week.  I figured I trick ‘em and show up 25 minutes before closing.  There were only five people in line this time.  But they had all been told that the line had been “capped” and they weren’t taking anyone else because they were averaging thirty minutes per transaction.  “Well I’m waiting in line anyway,” the first person in the five-person line said.  And the rest agreed.  So they stood in line and the Apple employees—true to their word—didn’t take in any more customers to purchase the new IPhone.  They finished the transactions with the customers in the store, turned off the lights and went home.  And there the five people stood. 

I didn’t wait in that line either.

Eventually I stood in the right line and got into the store and bought a new IPhone.  There were some glitches with AT&T so I had to come back still again to get it right.  This time, however,  I didn’t have to wait in line because the line was for people who hadn’t yet purchased a new IPhone. 

Anyway, I got a phone.  But then I started thinking.

Why would so many people stand in lines that wrap down the mall and all the way to the door at Uno’s for a cell phone?  Why did so many stand in line even through the rumors and misinformation and system failures?  And when they couldn’t get the phone they came for (“ATTENTION EVERYBODY…JUST SO YOU KNOW…WE ARE OUT OF THE BLACK…16Gs.  WE STILL HAVE 8Gs AND PLENTY OF WHITE MODELS…)  they came back the next day and stood in line some more.  Why? 

I was pissed at Apple.  The arrogance.  Why couldn’t they make this phone available at Target and Best Buy and thin out the lines?  The illusion of demand.  Why did they have to spend thirty minutes per customer just to activate the phone it in the store?  The first IPhones were activated at home. Who do they think they are?!!!

Then it occurred to me.  They are Apple.  And that is why so many people stood in line.

For Apple.  Not for Steve Jobs, or the kids in the light blue shirts.  Maybe not even as much for the product as for the BRAND!!!  The IPhone is Apple and it is therefore reliable, creative, intuitive, transportable, powerful.  Cool. 

It is worth the wait.  That is the power of a reliable brand.  That is loyalty.

I wondered… at Mueller Charter School… would our customers wait in lines that don’t move, rally back four times hoping to get in, visit morning or night, put up with glitches and system failures, forgive our mistakes and miscommunication, pay any price, and then proudly display the brand name on tee shirts and car windows? 

Would they say our brand was reliable, creative, intuitive, portable, powerful?  Would they say Mueller Charter School was cool?

They will indeed.  If our value to the community is more than just being cool. 

Loyalty comes from our relationships, from the struggle we make together to keep our children whole, from the quality of our service.  Loyalty is when parents perceive that– no matter what happens to their home or their job or their marriage–  the one thing they can count on… the one thing they MUST count on… is “El Milagro”. 

At Apple, they sell the most advanced consumer technology of the day for which loyal consumers will stand in line.  At El Milagro… we simply offer a future with your child’s name on it. 


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Earlier this week my daughter stood in the very tracks of Claude Monet on the outskirts of Paris.  She took one look at the famous lily pond next to his house and declared that if she lived here– she would paint too. 

Do you get it?

My Kira, high school graduate from 21st Century, suburban San Diego, breathed in the air of Monet’s natural muse.  For the rest of her life she will understand who Monet was, and what he painted, and perhaps more importantly…why he painted.

The next time she takes a standardized test and stumbles across a random question about Monet you can bet she’ll get it right.  When she reads an excerpt from a New York Times article about how one of Monet’s rare waterlilly paintings called Le Bassin aux Nympheas fetched $80.4 million at Christie’s, she will hang on every word.  When a class debate rages on whether Monet would have been a better tagger than VanGough… she will weigh in with authority.

There is really no substitute for experiential learning.  Kira learned more in ten days about Monet, French culture, world travel, international politics, economics, and air travel than she learned in 13 years in the K-12 schools in which she otherwise excelled.

Perhaps this is obvious… particularly to those of us who have had similar experiences of real, authentic learning in the world. 

So what about the kids that don’t get to go to France on their summer vacation?  What about the kids whose parents have never heard of Monet and could care less about collecting art pieces because they are too busy providing food for their families in the face of a troubled economy?  What about the kids who don’t have art books at home or any books for that matter?  What about kids who don’t have the resources to Google the Louvre? 

For that matter, what about kids whose teeth are rotting in their heads because they have never seen the dentist or kids who can’t read three words of this post—not because they can’t read—but because they can’t see and have never had their eyes examined? 

What about kids who have simply not had very many authentic learning opportunities?

The  “Achievement Gap “ is not just a gap in school achievement that is measured in outcomes.  It is a gap in school readiness, that can be measured in the assets and risk factors and life experiences that children carry with them into the classroom.

Kira’s pictures from the waterlilies remind me of how schools like El Milagro are obligated to somehow bring Monet to children if not  children to the Louvre.


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(NOTE: As the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals continue to accelerate, more and more US schools will be categorized by the pejorative brand: “Program Improvement School”.  NCLB’s kiss of death.  By 2014 as many as 90% of America’s schools could be categorized as underperforming “Program Improvement” schools.  Perhaps it provides a handy label for politicians to rail on public education in general… but inside our schools, where we know our children’s names and faces, it is a different story.

This is the SECOND POST IN A SERIES as Mueller Charter School awaits its test results from the 2007-08 school year. Look for the SERIES every Monday as we get our results, assess the trends, and make strategic adjustments for the coming year.)    


In “Good to Great” Jim Collins uses the metaphor of a flywheel to describe the buildup of organizational momentum:  the first three, five, fifteen, hundred turns take exceptional effort, but once the flywheel is turning, the momentum makes it easier for each turn to go faster with less effort. This pattern within “fast” organizations creates sustained excellence—  an accumulation of visible results.  People become energized by those results, the flywheel builds momentum, and the process creates its own fuel and its own fire.

For schools, the force of the flywheel is exactly the same.  Getting to extraordinary academic results is about forward momentum, organizational learning, strategic adjustments, and picking up speed.

At El Milagro we have never missed an AYP goal and our Academic Performance Index has gone up every year. So the flywheel lurches forward and fosters more growth.  

But we also know that our growth is occurring too slow–  too slow to stay ahead of AYP, too slow to reach 90% within this lifetime, too slow for that 3rd grader sitting in his desk with that familiar and bewildered look of a second language learner.  

Every year we grease the flywheel.  We now have standards-based curricula, state of the art technology, a powerful formative assessment system, targeted staff development, shared leadership… and every other “best practice” that has been vetted and launched in schools.  

For all the energy and focused effort that we have collectively applied to that flywheel, you’d think the freakin’ thing would have broken free and gone airborne by now.  But it hasn’t.

So we feed the momentum even if momentum is all we have to show for our efforts.  In two weeks or so… we’ll get our CST results and know what sort of energy we have produced.   

We are prepared, regardless of the outcome, to keep pouring on the gas for all we’re worth.  If we let up—even just long enough to lament the disappointing test results from the year before– the flywheel will begin to lose momentum, and we might never get it back again.  

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I started reading the publication “Fast Company” when my wife brought it home from a business trip 7 or 8 years ago.  She is an executive at Intuit (Quick Books, Turbo Tax, Quicken, etc.) and someone gave her a copy because Intuit was featured in an article that particular month.  “Fast Company” refers to organizations that are agile– that are quick to adjust to new and ever-shifting market realities.  These places change and thrive and grow and make their employees and customers and communities better.  They are FAST.  Like Intuit. And you have to hustle if you want to stay up with them.  

So I decided I wanted to stay up with them.

I decided it would be good for a modestly performing charter school in Chula Vista, California to aspire to be “fast”.    So now I read “Fast Company” and learn about organizational development through their consistent themes of innovation, change, community building, collaboration and leadership  (

There are more similarities than differences between a non-profit, public, charter school and a behemoth for-profit software developer.   At least when it comes to organizational excellence.  

Somewhere I gathered this list of “25 Insights on Leadership” and stored it for an occasion just such as this. Whether you are the principal of a charter school, or the CEO of a company that makes jet ski engines, or the Captain of a US Navy ship, or the director of a health clinic, or the president of your senior class, or a battalion chief out preventing Big Sur from burning to the ground, or the king of some obscenely wealthy oil kingdom… you can learn from the collective wisdom contained in these…


1. Audit Your Company Cultures. “Companies don’t have one culture. They have as many as they have supervisors or managers. You want to build a strong culture? Hold every manager accountable for the culture that he or she builds.” Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths

2. Informed People Don’t Fear Change.  “People are not afraid of change. They fear the unknown.”Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

3. Beware “Aspirational Accounting”.  “Enron has changed things significantly. You used to be able to buy a company, account for it in bizarre ways, and make money on the sale. That world is over.” Nolan Bushnell, founder, chairman, and CEO of uWink Inc.

4. Empower Your People — Turn Them Loose.  “Freedom is the greatest when the ground rules are clear. Chalk out the playing field and say, Within those lines, make any decisions you need.” Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

5. Prevent Erosion of Human Assets.  “We are systematically depreciating our human capital. For most people, the first year with the company is the best. It’s downhill from there.” Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths

6. Be Generous With What You Know. “Knowledge sharing is the basis of everything. Share knowledge with reckless abandon.”Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer at Yahoo

7. Expand Your Roster.  “Think of your team as not just the people you pay, but as the people who pay you as well.” Feargal Quinn, executive chairman of Superquinn

8. Don’t Judge a Man by the Size of His Wallet.  “The only thing wrong with poor people is that they don’t have any money. That’s a curable condition.” Bill Strickland, president and CEO of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center

 9. Harness Your Skills for Good.  “Technology has enormous potential to facilitate public-health problem solving. Marcus Welby needs you guys.” Dr. Irwin Redlener, president and cofounder of the Children’s Health Fund and president of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore

10. Groom Your People for Success.  “Weakness fixing might prevent failure, but strength building leads to excellence. Focus on strength, and manage around weaknesses.”Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths

 11. Promote Brand Awareness Throughout Your Enterprise.  “Everybody throughout the enterprise should know what the brand can and cannot do. There’s an imperative for education.”–Jim Goodwin, vice president of marketing at the Absolut Spirits Co.

12. Embrace Imperfection — Fast!.  “Beware of perfect people. They will never propel your enterprise to greatness. They’re too cautious. You’ve got to be fast to be good.”Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

13. Don’t Let the Venture Capitalists Get You Down.  “Revolutionary change is where real value is created. Don’t assume the capital markets know what the hell they’re doing. The VC market is currently in more disarray than most companies.” Nolan Bushnell, founder, chairman, and CEO of uWink Inc.

14. Allow Yourself to Dream.  “Dreams are maps. The ability to think about the future is what drives us all to attain.”Dr. Irwin Redlener, president and cofounder of the Children’s Health Fund and president of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore

15. Increase Your Net Worth.  “Networking is sharing your contacts with others to create value without the expectation of compensation. Your network is your net worth.”Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer at Yahoo

16. Use Every Teachable Moment.  “Every time you give somebody compensation, it’s a great time to give feedback.”Dick Brown, chairman and CEO of EDS

17. Shine Some Hope.  “If you want to work with people who have no hope, you have to look like the solution and not the problem.”Bill Strickland, president and CEO of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center

18. Set a New Standard of Performance.  “We need to get beyond the single bottom line and measure a company’s performance by a triple bottom line. Financial profits alone aren’t enough. The results also need to be good for people and for the environment.” Scott Bedbury, CEO of Brandstream

19. Laugh at Yourself.  “Just when you think the sun shines out of your butt, all you have is an illuminated landing area.” Nolan Bushnell, founder, chairman, and CEO of uWink Inc.

20. Get Up, Stand Up.  “YCDBSOYA: You can’t do business sitting on your armchair.” Feargal Quinn, executive chairman of Superquinn

21. Stop Whining — Start Seeking.  “In these times, it’s important to find the opportunities in the disruptions rather than just to lament the change.” Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks Inc.

22. Leaders: Move It or Lose It.  “Managers consistently delude themselves about how much good they’re doing. The oath for managers should be the same as physicians: First do no harm. ” Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University

23. Be Honest.  “The same thing you want from management is what customers want from you: honest communication. Be honest with your customers; tell them everything you know.”Bonnie Reitz, vice president of sales and distribution at Continental Airlines

24. Don’t Stretch This Rule.  “When you start thinking about growing your brand, be sure not to ignore the Spandex rule: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”Scott Bedbury, CEO of Brandstream

25. What’s Your Bottom Line?.  “People over 65 were asked, ‘If you could live your life over, what would you do differently?’ They said three things: ‘I’d take time to stop and ask the big questions. I’d be more courageous and take more risks in work and love. I’d try to live with purpose — to make a difference.’ You don’t have to be an elder to ask, What’s my own bottom line?”Richard Leider, founding partner of the Inventure Group

So these are the rules. It’s how you get fast.  Growing “El Milagro” depends on learning lessons far away from school. 


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(NOTE: As the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP)  goals continue to accelerate, more and more US schools will be categorized by the pejorative brand: “Program Improvement School”.  NCLB’s kiss of death.  By 2014 as many as 90% of America’s schools could be categorized as underperforming “Program Improvement” schools.  Perhaps it provides a handy label for politicians to rail on public education in general… but inside our schools, where we know our children’s names and faces, it is a different story.

This is the FIRST POST IN A SERIES as Mueller Charter School awaits its test results from the 2007-08 school year.)  


I watched Sport Center last night and the announcer declared that the Yankees beat the Red Sox with  5 runs, on 8 hits and 1 error.  The Red Sox had 4 runs on 7 hits and 1 error.  Game over.  Just like that.  Spectacular drama reduced to a box score.

All of the human emotion and energy was drained from the page and forever deposited into the timeless vaults of Major League Baseball.  All that was left behind were shelled peanuts and Bronx beer cups and a lost binocular case: the predictable debris of 55,000 spectators and a national television audience.   Soon all that would be swept away too.  But not the box score.  

 So where in this infinite compression of events does the box score reflect that an  outfielder played the game of his young career or that an old veteran pinch-hit in the  8th and struck out—leaving two runners stranded and causing management to question his future in the game.   Or that a maple bat shattered on a foul ball and flew into the stands just missing an eight year old girl who had turned to look for the vendor selling cotton candy. Or that the pitchers in the bullpen spit sunflower seeds on each other and flirted with the girls in Section 107 and that one of them got a date. Or that an umpire made an embarrassingly bad call on a routine play at second only to stumble as he jogged back out to his position beyond the infield grass.  The fans who were jeering him hesitated long enough to laugh as he nearly face planted within view of a momentarily hostile world. 

55,000 fans left with new memories forever fixed.  “Remember that game we saw at Yankee Stadium just before they tore it down?  When was that… 2007?… 08”    Lives were enriched,  But not the box scores. 

And yes there is a point here.

At Mueller Charter School we await the return of our students’ test scores– now just weeks away. A year’s worth of collaboration, energy, focused effort, commitment, heartbreak, tears, momentary triumphs, wins and losses—will all be reduced to a few lines. A box score. 

“Did you meet your AYP goals?”   

“Did you make significant gains on the Academic Performance Index?”

“Did you go into Program Improvement?”

“Did you prove your worth on the planet as a charter school?”

And we will answer:  “But what about the lives we touched?  The lives we SAVED?  The families we successfully linked with health care insurance… the kids that climbed out of the basement referred to as Far Below Basic… the kids who we sheltered while their father was sent to prison in Central California… the teacher who was ready to quit until she found salvation in her extraordinary students… the strides we made in utilizing formative data to make strategic adjustments…  the hundreds of students who now have enough of a foundation in English to compete academically—even if it wasn’t soon enough to benefit this year’s box score…”

“What about the community of teachers and learners and families who will declare last year a tremendous success, who will return from summer vacation energized regardless of what shows up in the box scores?  What about our indomitable spirit– the “this is our year”, the no quit, no excuses, no turning back– the community invested in the success of their kids?”

Who knows.  When we get our results back at the end of July we may conclude that we have finally overcome the adverse effects of poverty and the economy and family mobility and the challenges of learning English as a second language and that we actually met the AYP and API and PI expectations.  The data may authenticate the most productive year in the 15-year history of Mueller as a charter school.  The Board and media and world community may then suddenly sit up and take notice:  “Wow.  How about that Mueller Charter School.  How did they do it?”  Or not.

In either case we know for certain that a single box score out of context cannot predict whether the Yankees or the Red Sox will win the American League East.  Just as we know that the complex drama of teaching and learning and human relationships and keeping children whole– cannot be meaningfully reduced to a box score. 


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It’s the Fourth of July and while so many otherwise respectable people are arguing over whether a $2 flag pin shoved awkwardly into the thin breast panel of a Tommy Bahama shirt before the barbecue is really an act of patriotism… I wanted to shine the light on an AUTHENTIC act of patriotism.  Below is an excerpt from my book that was originally written to provide an illustration of what “intrinsic motivation” looks like.  Now I am relying on readers to process the metaphor and apply it to teaching.  It may be a leap for some.  But the story of Pat Tillman’s sacrifice trumps your lapel pin and should give pause when you bow your head this afternoon and ask God’s blessing on the carne asada.

CORPORAL TILLMAN (From “The Lights of El Milagro”)

I had taken a personal business day on the morning of September 11, 2001. Anne woke me up and told me to turn on the news and I did so, right as the first tower fell. There was fire and smoke and for a moment it was hard to see the building through the grainy debris. Then we could see nothing at all.

We had just returned from New York City a few weeks earlier. In August, we had taken a family trip to the East Coast to introduce Keenan and Kira to the wonders of Washington, DC, and the big city. Later, when our children were trying to process the horrific television footage shown over and over and over again—they kept coming back to the people whom they had met in the South Tower.

“What about the security guard that told us how to find the elevator?”

“We don’t know, Kira…he may have taken the day off….like I did.”

“What about the lady that sold the Statue of Liberty bears on the ground floor…do you think she made it out okay?”

“We don’t know about her either. We don’t know what time she comes to work.”

“Remember the police officer who sat next to us in the deli? Wouldn’t he have run straight to the building? He was so cool. Didn’t he say he lived in San Diego when he was doing his Marine Corps training?”

“We’ll try to find out, guys. There may be a way to track him down.” (There was, by the way. During lunch I had taken his picture. When Anne went to New York on a business trip a year after 9-11, she returned the deli where we had met this burly Port Authority officer. Anne asked at the counter and they recognized his picture. He was alive and well and working at the Smithsonian in Battery Park.)

We remember what we are equipped to remember.

Impossible questions. Impossible confusion that only a child could capture in elegant questions about the welfare of others.

Like you, I watched for the next few days, and weeks, and months, and even years…the smoke-filled city, the ashen horror. I have visited Ground Zero. I have touched the very spot of earth that has become our nation’s holiest shrine. I have prayed there. But I have yet to find closure.

The heroic stories that emerged on that fateful morning will frame our history books for as long as we exist as a nation. Perhaps Chapter 23 will be called something like The Dawn of a New Millennium. There will be small shaded boxes amidst the crystal clear photographs of a Wall Street fireball. The boxes will memorialize everyday working citizens, in the right place at the wrong time, driven by sheer terror and a will to live and help others live too. They will forever be heroes, somehow symbolizing what we want generations of children to internalize as the American Spirit.

And one shaded box will be reserved for one of the boldest among the 9-11 heroes. Corporal Pat Tillman was not in New York that day. He contributed later in the subsequent war to rout the Taliban out of the mountains and caves of Afghanistan. After weeks of helplessly watching television’s account of an attack on America, Corporal Tillman felt compelled to serve.

He could have just donated money to the cause and that would have been sufficient. After all, he was a multimillionaire and there was plenty more where that came from. He could have volunteered to help train some army rangers. After all, as a free safety in the National Football League he was among the strongest, the fastest, the most athletic, and the most fit young men in the history of civilization. He could have just popped in to visit on a USO tour. After all, he was famous, photogenic, and tremendously marketable. He could have just joined the National Guard or Knights of Columbus or Big Brothers or United Way, for God’s sake. After all, that too is real service.

 Instead, Pat Tillman resigned his position with the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL and  joined the Army Rangers to avenge the attack on America that took place on 9-11.  He didn’t need or ask for anything in return. He refused all media interviews and  requested that the Army conceal his whereabouts. His brother, a professional  baseball player, joined him in the same unit. While the NFL went on playing Sunday  football games, Corporal Tillman, on a soldier’s wages, followed his sense of   mission to Afghanistan and the general public lost track of him.

I didn’t though. I wondered what would drive someone to trade all the fame, fortune, adulation, and rare lifestyle of a professional American athlete to join the army and crawl through caves looking for shadows.

One night my family was enjoying ice cream at Ghirardelli in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. I was two spoons into a small sundae when Anne asked, “Did you hear about the football player that was killed in Afghanistan today?”

“What football player? I didn’t hear any news today.”

“I heard a report that a former NFL football player was killed in a battle in Afghanistan.” And I felt the strangest chill. A cold wind on the back of my neck. A whisper of snow that falls from a tree branch and is trapped inside your collar.

“Please tell me that’s not true.”

Keenan picked up his cell phone and checked the news. “The soldier’s name was Patrick Tillman.”

For the next ten minutes I quietly finished my ice cream. I was numb. My tears filled the bowl. I could not look up and I could not speak. As my children sat quietly and finished their ice cream too, I felt their tiny hands on my back. “It’s okay, Dad.”

I wept even as I wrote this. Intrinsic motivation ought not to cost so much. But it often does.

Happy Fourth of July.  Now let’s bring our troops home to Teach for America!


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