Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your Place in the Race

A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they're capable of understanding.
Steve Prefontaine

It wasn't that long ago that women were denied entry into distance running races.  Despite records of women having completed marathons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prior to 1968 women were not allowed to compete.  Many believed that females simply weren't fit for such athletic feats.  And so, decade after decade, officials declared that women had no place in the race.

This didn't stop women from running, of course.  There's an almost primal drive that compels some humans to move, to push, and to explore.  Despite my love for my comfy chair, blankets, and lap dog, I feel that drive.  I run to think, to quiet my thinking, to let out stress, to see the world, to appreciate nature, to feel alive.  I race myself, I cheer on others, and I love going further than I've ever gone before.  I simply can't fathom being told I'm not cut out for the challenge.

Just nine years before I was born, a determined young woman decided to show the world that despite policy, her place was not on the sidelines.  On April 19, 1967, Kathrine Switzer entered the all-male Boston Marathon, having signed up with just her initials.  That cold, rainy morning, with three male friends at her side and significant training under her belt, she stepped onto the starting line.  Off they went.  Word spread quickly that a woman had infiltrated, and though fellow runners supported her effort, race director Jock Semple made it his goal to remove her.

Boston, April 19, 1967,  photo courtesy of AP/Wideworld Photo via www.kathrineswitzer.com
Several miles into the race, having caught up on a truck, Semple lunged for Switzer, attempting to pull her off the course and yelling, "Get the hell out of my race and give me that race number."  Fortunately, two things occurred: Switzer's friends sprang into action, and a photographer captured the scene.  While one of Kathrine's friends struggled to loosen Semple's grip, Kathrine's 235-pound boyfriend, Tom, channeled his inner hockey player and cross-checked the old man.  Semple went flying.  Momentarily concerned for his well-being, Tom looked to Kathrine and said but three words: "Run like hell."  And that she did.

Kathrine finished the Boston Marathon.  She completed the distance in four hours and twenty minutes.  And yet her finish was just the beginning.  Her efforts, and the media attention from that race, helped compel the running community to officially recognize women as endurance athletes and welcome their participation.  Kathrine went on to run 35 marathons, winning the women's division of New York in 1974, and achieving a personal best of 2:51 in Boston the following year.  Two hours and fifty one minutes.  Were I to quit my job, train full time, tie on roller skates and a jet pack, I couldn't touch that time.  It's that good.

Thankfully, I've never experienced the kind of discrimination Switzer and her contemporaries did.  Though a few years ago, I did encounter an older gentleman who saw me on the starting line of a long-distance winter trail race and asked me if I was in the wrong location.  The short course began on the other side of the hill.  I told him I was indeed in the right place and smiled quietly as I passed him at the halfway mark.  He never caught up.  I did applaud him as he crossed the finish line, though the hot chocolate I was holding made it difficult.

I share Switzer's story with my students each year, as there are too many life lessons from it not to.  I ask them to ponder the courage it took Switzer and other pioneers to challenge the status quo.  I ask them to think about what might have happened if the photographer had not captured the interaction between Semple, Switzer, and her peers.  I ask them if such photos were captured and published today, how the Web would likely affect policy change.  I ask them if anyone has ever conveyed to them, directly or indirectly, that for some event or activity, they were better suited for the sidelines.

I wish I could be there to cross-check anything that attempts to hold my students back.  But I know I can't.  So instead I hope to help them discover how determination, hard work, and a good team of supporters can get them through just about anything in life.  And I hope they come to know that no matter what "race" their passion drives them to, nobody can tell them that they don't belong.  I want every one of my students to know that from now on I've got her back, and I'll be that little voice in her heart telling her to run like hell.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Follow Me

Image embedded from Life.com
Sixty nine years ago today, my great great uncle received word of the attack on Pearl Harbor from a place that would change the course of history -- he was at his desk as Superintendent of West Point, the United States Military Academy.  His journey as a leader had just taken a pivotal turn, and the students and educators whom he was leading were about to face a challenge as profound and real as they come.  Others in his position might have issued orders, articulated objectives, conveyed words of inspiration, and returned to their desk.  Uncle Bob, however, chose instead to say, "Follow me."
Image embedded from Life.com
In the aftermath of the attack, Robert Eichelberger left for the Pacific and took command of the 8th Army. He led men into battle, digging into the trenches with them, and insisting that those around him call him by his first name.  "I'd just as soon you called me Bob," Time Magazine reported him saying to an aide.  Respect was never lost, and in fact, lives may have been saved, as an audible "General" could have drawn additional fire from the enemy.

Eichelberger's leadership produced extraordinary results.  His men seized the first Allied victory in the Pacific theatre at the Battle of Buna.  Though he was never one to accept praise, Uncle Bob went on to make the cover of Time Magazine, ascended to become second in command to General Douglas MacArthur, and ended up retiring as a four-star general.  Throughout his journey, he continued to lead others in learning, training, and advancement and attributed every accolade to those around him.

This humility originated from the little boy he once was, the youngest of four brothers, who was often labelled an "underdog" and whose own father doubted his capacity to be accepted by West Point as a cadet.  "I doubt you'll get in," he was told.  Imagine if he had heeded those words.

Try as I may, I can never fully wrap my mind around the experience of my relative both as an academic leader and as a military strategist.  That so many lives depended on him, that he led by example, developed other leaders so well, and was the first to face fire inspires me.  Time described his students recalling him as "full of discipline with good humor, given to stopping cadets for chats on the walks, endowed with the name-memory of a hotel clerk.  Behind his back they (like his staff) called him 'Uncle Bob.'" (Time Magazine, September 10, 1945)

I often think, especially as the Pearl Harbor anniversary returns, that if I can emulate in my own environment a minute fraction of my uncle's leadership capability, I will be thrilled.  To move beyond doubt and cynicism, to rise to challenges, to lead by example, to build trust and earn respect, to connect with those in your care with humor and humanity, to honor everyone who contributes to your team's progress, is to have learned from his example.

I will return to school tomorrow, and while it is a vastly different era and context from 1941, I will take to heart and put into action my uncle's lessons.  Whatever "battles" I face, whatever challenges cross my desk, I will rise to the occasion with conviction and if ever I feel inclined to tell others what they ought to be doing, I will reflect on my own actions and invite those who are willing to follow my lead.

Uncle Bob can be seen by General MacArthur at the 10-second mark