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Make Your Life Your Message

By Jonah Rosenfield
Make Your Life Your Message

I feel very lucky to have had the same best friend since I was in Kindergarten, 40 years ago this September. And even though he decided to devote his life to writing sitcoms for cable television, I’ve always appreciated him for a quote that he put on his 8th-grade yearbook page. I can’t remember the author, but the quote was “If I could be anyone in the world, I would be myself, because then all my clothes would fit.”
I’m not sure why this quote has stayed with me all these years, other than to say that I find myself often wondering who exactly I am and what I believe in. Who are we, really, at any given moment? And doesn’t that change from day to day, month to month, year to year? It’s hard to be yourself. And even when you think you know yourself, you can still be tricked.
Case in point: about 10 years ago, a senior in high school wanted to use my classroom to film and interview another student about how special needs students should be treated with more respect. Both kids were committed to this project and both were those model students we all know: mature, wise, progressive, and caring. At the end of the interview, the student filming said, “Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. I’ll piece all this together and show you the final cut before the presentation.” Without missing a beat, the other student replied, “Great, just, when you are editing, don’t make me look retarded.” We all carry hidden biases, assumptions, and prejudices, unknown to even ourselves. So how do we stay true to ourselves—our real selves?
One way: have something that constantly points you in the direction you think you want to follow. I had the honor of working for a director by the name of Paul Chmelik who had been Director at ISKL before coming to my school, The American Embassy School, in New Delhi. A few months after arriving, Paul found himself in the middle of a serious diplomatic situation, and after two years in Delhi, his contract was not renewed despite the fact that he was doing an incredible job and was beloved by just about every teacher in the school.
As a faculty representative, I met with Paul just after he arrived in Delhi and noticed on the wall of his office a picture of Abraham Lincoln, hung in the area where he regularly met with people. My son, who was in elementary school at the time and was just learning about Lincoln, asked Paul once, “Why do you have that picture there?” His response was something along the lines of, “Abe keeps me honest.”
To paraphrase Paul, “When talking to people or making a decision, I always make sure to have people involved who disagree with me; it helps me to better know who I am and what I believe in so I can keep my eye on where we are headed and what I value most.”
In the three years he was in Delhi, during times of political strife both between two countries and within the school, Paul never once let up on his primary responsibility of keeping us all focused on student learning. I like to think that he used this picture of Abraham Lincoln as his North Star, to keep himself on track.
The world we live in now can be very confusing. Our values and our commitments to ideals are being tested to the limit. Globally, there is no longer a “there” or a “them” that does not impact our lives and our future. All of us here, by virtue of simply being in the field of international education, are implicitly saying that we welcome the challenge of being leaders in this time of change, of becoming more deeply connected to many disparate stakeholder groups with competing interests and agendas. Everything and everyone, now, is interconnected.
At the Principal Training Center’s (PTC’s) Effective Principal course this past summer, I met an educator from Turkey named Koray. I wrote him after learning about the bombings at the airport to make sure he was OK. He replied that he’d been in the Istanbul airport the day before the explosions, and then he wrote, “When the world is full of this much hate, good people should stick together more than they ever have.”
So, surround yourself with good people—whoever they are, whatever they do, wherever they come from. And while you’re at it, surround yourself with good things, good pictures, good quotes—symbols that remind you of who you want to be. We are all going to be stretched in a million different directions as we dive deeper into these leadership roles we pursue. Choose things that will keep you grounded in who you are.
In my own classroom back in Argentina, I have a rock on my desk given to by my former principal in Delhi that says “Breathe,” a picture of my family, and a tower of Legos made by my children. Around my neck I’ve worn a bead from Mexico now for 25 years, and in my wallet I keep two one-dollar bills a friend gave me seven years ago in case I ever got into trouble while traveling. Hanging on the wall behind my desk is something Gandhi said when asked what the message of his life was. To this question he answered, “My life is my message.”
So speak your truth, challenge your ideas, change your mind, but don’t ever let that North Star or Southern Cross out of your sight. As long as you do this—as long as you make your life your message—you’ll know that whatever happens, or after whatever decision you may make, when you wake up the next morning and put your clothes on, they will always fit. l
Jonah Rosenfield teaches at The Lincoln School in Buenos Aires.

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10/12/2016 - AES Cartoonist and History Teacher
Great article. I worked with both the author and Paul Chmelik in Delhi so the message rings especially true. Though both have moved on they are remembered and missed.

I'll spend some time thinking about my true North today. Cheers Jonas.
10/07/2016 - Zimm
Great quote about the clothes. Thanks for writing your essay--much appreciated!
10/06/2016 - Chris
Keep the writing going Jonah !



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