One is Inevitable, One is Optional
I’ve devoted a lot of work over the past three years to insisting on accountability from leaders in education and beyond. So, for balance, I’ve decided it’s time to share some of what I’ve learned about accountability from the side of the one who messes up…
Oh, by the way, I’m human — and I mess up. Let’s just clarify that right at the start.
My earliest, most personal memory came at about 20 years old, when I was living alone for the very first time in my life. I grew up among a big family (7 people in one house), until I ran away from a terrible situation in Massachusetts, at age 18. Then, I spent many years traveling the country, coast to coast, by car. Back then, traveling alone all over this land was not scary. Staying put in one home space was.
So, at 20 years old, I rented this adorable cottage in the redwoods of northern California. I struggled with fear and old memories a lot in that space (for all kinds of context, see my book Can’t Stop the Sunrise: Adventures in Healing, Confronting Corruption & the Journey to Institutional Reform). I was a student at the nearby College of the Redwoods, and had a job far north of town at the Redwood Hostel in the National Park.
It was my required Speech class in junior college. Every student needed to take it to graduate. I worked through the first two speeches in front of the class fairly well. I didn’t hold a huge fear of public speaking (as many do). So, I found my way. But, as the semester was wrapping up, I mismanaged my time. I let my fear get the best of me. I’d probably had a solid B going into the final speech. But, I crumbled.
For the last speech, I tried to prepare and simply couldn’t muster it. I had been overwhelmed with my new job, not yet savvy with healthy living habits or sleep patterns. I stayed up into the wee hours the night before, attempting to ready myself… when I reached a breaking point — I couldn’t do it. So, in terrible defeat, I decided to just not go. I let myself down.
It was the one and only D grade I earned in college. I still graduated, but I’d tasted the lingering sourness of not rising to the occasion. The feeling hung around. It was on me to just be there, just do my best, and I did neither. That visceral sensation of not showing up dampened all of my days for weeks. Eventually, it became its own inverse motivator — I did not want to feel that again.
About eight years later, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the town of Alameda, California. I was wrapping up my Bachelor’s Degree in the Mission District, and would ride the ferry from Alameda over to the city for my adult-oriented Humanities Program. I also worked as a Doula, a professional childbirth assistant, at the time.
I was still fairly new to the field. I was re-certifying with Doulas of North America that year, after attending a few births in my early twenties. I wanted to revive my business, and this process earned me real-life-college-credit toward my degree. The Bay Area was by far the most urban and populated home base I’d chosen, so I had plenty of potential clients to work with. One experience has stayed with me.
I connected with a woman who was preparing to welcome her third child — and wanted to do it “naturally” this time, i.e. no medications. She was beautiful. A soulful, dark-haired woman about 8–10 years older than myself. She seemed to be Italian or Middle Eastern; she had this exotic yet deeply kind air about her. She was also deaf. She and her husband both used American Sign Language, and had read my ad for doula services. I believe it was her mother who first called to arrange for the meeting. She served as the voice behind the initial contact.
Remember, this was before the prominence of cell phones and texting. So, I got an old-fashioned phone call, went to their home to talk about the birth, and soon, I was hired.
I felt this profound sense of honor to be chosen by someone who communicated beyond spoken words. So much of what I valued about being a doula then resided in the communications that happen above and beneath language. This client, for me, was a beautiful opportunity to really practice being ‘in my body’ and staying present for someone at an instinctual level.
I carried an actual beeper, and within two months, I was officially on-call. Staying close to home, and waiting for the message that labor had begun. It was a wonderful time of juggling numerous clients and being a small part of this profound moment for new families. This particular week, I knew the call could come at any time…
I came home from errands one day to find the gate to the back yard swung wide open, and my Great Pyrenees dog missing from the yard.
I went into heightened awareness and action mode. My garden cottage was behind the home of a middle-aged woman, and she must have missed the latch on her way out. She wasn’t home. My polar-bear-sized, gorgeous white beast was gone. I dropped my groceries, grabbed a leash and set out running.
First, I raced over our favorite, often-walked paths on foot (she adored the smell of that Chinese Food dumpster, that mini-park with the giant oak trees). Cars whizzed by in compounded traffic, and my Pyrenees was nowhere in sight. I asked a few people — and nothing. I was growing winded and weary. I ran back to the garden-yard cottage, grabbed my beeper, keys, wallet, and set out in my truck.
Alameda is technically an island with the Webster Street and Posey Tube feeding into the 880 Freeway, smaller street bridges leading away to the east, and Route 61 over water to the south. I reasoned that my dog simply would not have crossed any tunnel or bridge to the East Bay or southbound without someone seriously paying attention — if she ventured to cross at all. I knew she had to be somewhere in the confines of Alameda itself.
I was adrenaline-energized, yet still calm. I started in on a grid pattern of driving, methodically crossing out each street as I went. This was a 100-pound, dazzling white dog — not easy to actually lose in an urban environment. I prayed that she would be easy to avoid in traffic, visually stunning as she was. Drivers would see her coming. Afternoon turned into evening.
I stopped about 2 hours later at a small grocery to get a drink and a burrito for dinner. I’d been asking and asking. I remember trying not to cry because it would mess with my focus. I just had to find her. Sometime after dark, I stopped to find the number to the local animal shelter. It rang and rang. Still carefully criss-crossing the streets for hours to be thorough, I broke down in tears. I was tired. It was getting very late now — after 11 pm — and I had to do something. I made a note of where I left off, and decided to just go to the shelter. Someone had to be around.
I tentatively walked this maze of chain-link and cement buildings at the Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter. I called out “Hello?!” Eventually, a boot-clad man in uniform met me. I told him I’d lost my Great Pyrenees dog, but couldn’t get thorough on the phone. He let me into the paved, outdoor fenced area. There, we walked down rows of tall, chain-link enclosures. The place was awful, penitentiary-style cold. At the end of a long row of darkened kennels, I saw my angel of a dog!
I wept in immense relief. I’d raised this dog from a new puppy and she had moved with me over a few regions at that point. She was a soul companion. There she was. She looked scared, but then so happy at our reunion. I’d found her. The man obviously believed this was my animal, and began to work through his ring of keys to release the metal door. We all watched in excited (me, weepy) anticipation. He worked through each one.
Then, we faced the newest challenge upon us. The damn door wouldn’t open. It was after midnight now, and he was not comfortable waking anyone to come and try their set of keys. I longed for my dog to be with me. He embarrassedly apologized and stumbled, until it was clear we would not be able to release her that night.
He told me someone new came in at 5 am. I could go home, rest a bit, and meet them there in a few hours.
Of course, I didn’t want to go, but I knew my dog was at least safe and secure. I promised her I’d be back right away — and went home. It was too strangely dark and quiet there without her. It felt wrong to be snuggled into my cottage while my precious creature stood there in cold concrete. I slept just a little. I ate small meals. I paced. Mostly, I just awaited 4:45 am, so I could go back and meet someone to set her free.
Getting my giant dog back was a bone-level relief. They told me they’d tried calling the number on her tag, but somehow got a wrong number. Yet another foible of fate. Returning home, I got to check in with my landlady before she left for work. She’d been so worried and apologetic about the gate (she also loved the dog — and had admittedly been in a rush on her way out the day before). So, all were relieved. I went to just one class in the city that day. But, it was a blur. That evening, I released into the deep safety of stone-still sleep.
The next morning I woke, groggy and late for me, at nearly 10 am. That always happens the night after an all-nighter — epic, timeless sleep. Only, I went from the sweet ease of my dog being home to absolute dread. I had missed the call from my hearing-impaired doula client. She’d gone into labor at about 11:30 pm the night before, and I’d slept right through.
It was a voicemail from this unique technology where a computerized voice would dictate a short message (typed in by the hearing-impaired person). It was not a number you could call back. You can’t call someone who is deaf — or, you couldn’t in 2007. She’d been in labor for at least 10 hours. I had no idea what was happening now. This being her third baby, there was a good chance (given her medical history) that I’d missed it.
The bright sun, already high in the sky was its own nagging reminder. My beautiful client and her family had been at the hospital since the night before — and I had not. Yet, I had to go. Even if I’d missed the birth, I had to do my best and simply see where she was in the process. I drove the 20 or so minutes out to their chosen hospital. In my gut, I sensed it was too late. I had a profound heaviness all around me as I parked. I felt the reality of the situation crushing in on me, on all of my hopes and positive feelings for attending this birth.
There was only a slight fluttering of the urge to resist. Yet, it was not an option. I stepped out with my bag of supplies, knowing very well they may not be useful at all. I moved quickly, even as my body dragged my feet. I was walking with the sadness of letting her down. It was that old weight of messing up. I got to the third floor where I told them who I was. I was frantic and quick-moving, yet embarrassed. The receptionist pointed me toward the room.
Going down the hall, I encountered what clearly must have been extended family members I hadn’t met yet — the resemblance was clear. They recognized my (supposed-to-be) role in the situation. I remember one even mumbled in warm appreciation, “Oh, it’s a mother here to help the mother…” This actually made my aching worse. I carried this persistent doubt then about my ability to truly assist a woman in childbirth, having not gone through the experience myself in my late twenties. Another female relative, hearing this comment and seeing my speed, actually laughed at me. She must have known what I was about to discover.
Wow, being laughed at (even when one tries to respectfully stifle the noise) is a unique kind of isolation, especially when you’re feeling down about an obvious mistake.
There was such discord in me as I moved toward the door to her room. I had to move through that situation in a way I would never have imagined— knowing I hadn’t done what I’d agreed to do. It was so out of line with who I thought I was: responsible, considerate, attentive. Yet, it had happened. So, I had to walk through that door with every one of those truths squeezing through the door frame with me.
I opened and entered. There, in an elevated hospital bed lay my client, luminous, with a new baby boy in her arms. Ohhh, I gestured and expressed in my face. Then, we had to get out the tiny notebook and pen. What a fool I felt like. It didn’t matter that I failed to be there because of a chance-dog-escape, and not some poor choice I’d made. All that mattered was she had birthed her baby and I had missed it.
I wrote, “Is there anything I can do for you?”. She read it and gestured toward her baby with a hand, as if to say, “Well, he’s here, so…”. You could almost hear the sound “pfft”. Sigh. Massive, disappointing, ‘this is not who I want to be’ sigh.
I apologized, but made sure to not be overly dramatic or demonstrative. I didn’t need her to soften my guilt. I just needed to face the moment. To face her. To be there and show up amidst my obvious failure to act how I would have liked to act. It stung. It was acutely painful. I lingered only long enough to communicate respect for her process and the moment (she had managed to birth without medication — so, that was an independent triumph for her). I turned from all of that new baby energy and walked out the door.
It was so much quieter in my heart and soul as I walked back down the stairs with my unused bag of supplies. That was the truth of it. I got in my truck, still aching somewhat, but surprisingly clear. I’d shown up. I felt in my body that — given all the details surrounding that moment — being present to the person I’d let down was the very best I could do. No defensiveness. No story or excuses (truly, she did not need to hear about my dog getting out, nor did it matter). Just being there to face her and the truth of what was.
Everything looked clear, transparent, and undisturbed. I was someone who’d messed up. I was also someone who had then shown up. The sour feeling did not stick around. I drove away with all of myself — my strengths, my weaknesses, my faults, and my newfound resolve — firmly intact. I could live with that.