Posts Tagged ‘Julia Morgan School for Girls’

What the heck, it’s only a meeting: thoughts on a transition

May 21, 2010

This past Monday, I chaired my last board meeting at Julia Morgan.

For those of you who don’t know me that well, I’ve spent the past 13 years intimately involved with a start-up middle school here in Oakland, the Julia Morgan School for Girls.

The school started with about eight parents getting together in a living room in 1996. None of us were teachers, and none had ever run or started a school. I got involved when I heard about the group from my daughter’s day care provider. (Becca was not yet three at the time!)

I figured, “What the heck, I’ll go. It’s only a meeting.”

Famous last words!

Here’s the fast-forward summary since then:

  • 1997: Sitting in another living room, we need to select officers in order to incorporate. Someone asks, “Who wants to be president?” Silence. More silence. People looking at their feet. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it. After all, it’s just a name on the filing papers.” (More famous last words.)
  • 1999: School opens with 35 sixth grade girls
  • 2000: School expands to 91 sixth and seventh graders.

Eighth graders work on a physics project in JMSG's early days / Photo credit: Julia Morgan School for Girls

  • 2003: School moves to a permanent site in a historic building designed by Julia Morgan (the pioneering California architect whom we chose as our namesake) on the campus of Mills College.
  •  2010: School has a $3 million budget, full enrollment of about 180 girls in grades six through eight, full accreditation, and alumni who are just starting to graduate from college.

Along the way, I got interested in the history of all-girl education and quit my job at the Chronicle to write a book about girls’ schools that was published in 2004. I wrote a ton of grants for the school, did countless individual solicitations, and learned a lot about fundraising. I presided over some good times and muddled through some messy times on the board.

And gradually – no one ever taught me, and I truly had no clue what was involved in the role for the first three or four years – I figured out what it meant to be a board chair at a school. (Mostly. There are things that even now I’m still learning.)

Now I’m leaving the board.

I’ve been ready to leave for several years now, but it took until this year for the board to commit to coming up with a successor. There was a very inclusive and deliberative process, and we have a new chair, Jolie Krakauer, who will be terrific. It’s a strong board and I feel like I’m leaving it in good shape.

Julia Morgan students and staff today / Photo credit: Monika Chin, JMSG

So it’s all good. The board and school are secure. I’ll have more time for working on the next stage of my life:  Hacking away at my novel. Figuring out what my next job/career will be. More time for family. (Sam will be happy!) Friends. Getting involved in tikkun olam in new ways.

BUT….

This is a transition. And like all transitions, there is something lost as well as gained.

I haven’t thought about this. I haven’t dealt with the emotional aspects of leaving my board chair role at all until now. But about two weeks ago it hit me. I was talking with Sandra Luna, our head of school, about the board’s annual end-of-year dinner where we say farewell to departing members. I had asked if the administrative staff wanted to come: In some years they had joined us but in other years, burdened by the slew of year-end school functions, they opted out. She said that yes, they definitely wanted to come since I was the one leaving this year.

It hit home for the first time. I am really leaving.

I’ll stay involved with the school in a lesser role, but it’s still a big deal. Julia Morgan has been a major part of my life almost as long as Becca. In some ways, it was my second child: All the time that would have gone into playing with and chauffeuring and worrying about and watching soccer games of child # 2 was instead able to go into JMSG.

It sounds clichéd or pretentious, but I do feel like I’ve gotten more out of the school than I gave. Hey, I got a book out of my involvement with JMSG! A really good book that I’m proud of. I got to feel part of a community. I met some of the people whom I came to respect the most in the world. I’ve gotten to bask in the reflected light of the brilliant teachers who made the school happen – for instance, I’ll meet someone at a party who will start waxing on and on about what wonderful things the school did for his neighbor/daughter/niece, and I get to smile and accept the compliments on behalf of the teachers and staff who worked those wonders.

And I’ve received the great gift of feeling like I made a difference.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned from my JMSG years: You never know how you’re going to make an impact on the world.

Twenty years ago, if someone had asked me how I dreamed of being remembered, I would have said something like “Great novelist. Brilliant writer. Prize-winning reporter.”

Instead what it will probably say in my obituary is “One of the founders of the Julia Morgan School for Girls. Author of Where Girls Come First.”

And that all came about because I said, What the heck, I’ll go. It’s only a meeting.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that leaving JMSG is not only liberating and exciting (all that additional free time!) but scary.

For the past 13 years, when other parts of my life have been frustrating or unstable, I have had the security and status of being a central figure at JMSG. I might have thrown away the prestige of working for a major newspaper, my novel might be stuck in a muddy ditch, my teenage daughter might be giving me the silent treatment, but at least I had Julia Morgan.

And now I won’t.

If JMSG is my second child, this is the moment where that child leaves for college.

If JMSG was my second-job-after-my-paying-job, this is the moment where I take the gold watch and retire.

I’m starting to feel sad.

Not regretful – it is totally the right time to move on.

But sad.

Modeling failure

May 6, 2010

I was at a wine and cheese fundraising reception for the Julia Morgan School for Girls last night, and ran into an old friend who asked me what I was doing. 

“Writing novels,” I said. 

“How’s it going?” he said. 

A year ago, I would have said “GRE-E-A-T,” with a Tony-the-Tiger kind of roar to my voice. And a year ago, things felt great. I had one completed draft of a novel under my belt, and was steadily churning out the initial draft of a second one. Things seemed pretty much on track with the vision I had when I left the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2008: Put the finishing touches on Novel # 1, send it out, start Novel # 2, get a contract for Novel # 1, then polish up # 2 so that once # 1 was published, I had another one ready to go. And do it all within two years.

Of course, things haven’t worked out quite that way. I do have a draft of Novel #1, and have sent it out to a bunch of agents. And last summer I completed a draft of Novel # 2. 

But Novel # 1 hasn’t been cooperating with its part of the plan. The agents all rejected it, offering pretty reasonable criticisms. I’ve been working for the past few months on revising it. It just won’t budge.

I work for days to uproot and replant whole sections of the book, and then realize I have barely trimmed a hedge. Or I make changes, but then put things back the way they were. Or I work and re-work  my notes to a point where I can’t remember why anyone would even want to read about these miserable, spoiled, whiny characters. 

So things are not feeling so Tony-the-Tiger GRE-E-A-T these days. When my friend asked how things were going, I said: 

“Shitty.” 

Now, one of the things I have always loved about writing fiction is that it’s all up to you. Unlike a Hollywood movie, you don’t need a million-dollar production budget. Unlike a rock song, you don’t need any musicians to perform it. You don’t need expensive supplies or a specialized workplace or a travel budget. You just need your brain. Because you get to make everything up.

The wonderful thing about this is that if you create something, it is totally your creation – gold out of straw.

The downside is that if you fail, there is absolutely nothing to blame but your own meager brain.

And it’s possible I may be looking at complete and utter failure here. I’m starting to consider that possibility. Maybe I just can’t do this. That feels pretty awful to think about.

But strangely, there was also something that felt liberating about saying “shitty.”

Sometimes I think I put up an inhumanly bright face to my friends. When they ask how things are, I say “great.” I’m fine. Sam is fine. Becca’s fine. Our cat is fine. And in fact, I do have a wonderful life – health, love, economic security, even some luxuries. But I suspect that people get tired of hearing that. 

It felt refreshingly honest to be able to say that my writing was going shittily. And to put it that crudely – not to tiptoe around with “Well, it could be going better” or “I’m feeling challenged.” Just to say it outright: Shitty.  

And I think it may actually be useful to model failure. 

At Julia Morgan, they try to teach the girls to take risks (the healthy kind!). The teachers and staff model risk-taking by trying new things themselves. And the culture around us tells us endless stories of big risks that lead to brilliant success, from The Blind Side to Bend It Like Beckham.   

We are less likely to acknowledge that risk-taking sometimes leads to failure. A good portion of the time, in fact, it leads to failure. But failure is not the end of the world. 

So perhaps what I am doing is modeling failure. There! I can feel good about myself as a positive role model – middle-aged woman quits good job to pursue a dream, gives it her all, doesn’t manage to pull it off, but is nonetheless alive and happy.

Isn’t that a good spin on a bad situation? 

Still and all, I’d rather publish a novel.

The Power of Half, and a girls’ school connection

March 12, 2010
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The daughter-father team of  Hannah and Kevin Salwen have been making the media rounds recently – TV’s The View, Nicholas Kristof’s column in the Times, the Talk of the Town in The New Yorker

On Thursday evening they spoke at the Julia Morgan School for Girls here in Oakland as part of a tour promoting their book The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.

The Power of Half, by Kevin and Hannah Salwen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

The Salwens tell what is a counter-intuitive, man-bites-dog story in our very materialistic society. In a more ideal world their story would be unexceptional, but in our world it’s news.

The wealthy Atlanta family of four decided to sell their house and donate half the proceeds — $800,000 — to help poor villagers in Ghana.

Their odyssey began in 2006 when Kevin was driving 14-year-old Hannah back from a sleepover, and she noticed a homeless man on one side of the car and a man driving a Mercedes coupe on the other. Her gaze swiveled back and forth. 

“If that man didn’t have such a nice car, that other man could have a meal,” Hannah said. 

“Yeah,” her father responded, “if we didn’t have such a nice car, that man could have a meal.” 

The discussion continued at home, with Hannah harping on how the family – already active community volunteers – could be doing more. Her mother, in a fit of frustration, said, “What do you want to do, sell our house?” 

And Hannah said yes. 

Hannah and Kevin were a delightful pair of speakers, at ease with the audience and playing off each other like a pair of longtime vaudevillians. They described “rattling around” in their old 6,000-square-foot house — with an elevator in Hannah’s bedroom! — and how downsizing in fact made the family both physically and emotionally closer. 

Kevin and Hannah Salwen

(They love ping pong, but the ping-pong table used to sit neglected in a wing of its own in the old house; when they downsized, it had to go in the center of  everything and so they are now constantly playing pick-up games together.)

Their decision-making process also made them closer: The parents accepted the two teenagers as equal partners in determining what to do with the house-sale proceeds, and the family held meetings every Sunday morning for a year to thrash out their values and social-change strategy. 

Ultimately, they decided to partner with a group called The Hunger Project that assists African villagers in planning and improving their communities – financing things like a $6000 mill for grinding corn. 

“The girls (in that village) used to walk six miles to mill corn, but now they can go to school,” said Hannah, who visited the town two summers ago. “It cost $6000, the same as my brother’s braces. I was astounded. In our country, we pay for tooth beauty, while they just want their kids to go to school.” 

The Salwens’ story is profoundly unsettling in that it challenges those of us here in America to look at just how much stuff we have – and what a difference giving up some of our stuff could make for people in poverty. 

In some ways, it opens a bottomless chasm. No matter how much we give away, we can always give away more. How do you know when to stop? Even if you move to a smaller house, you are still 1,000 times better off than those African villagers. Do you give up your house entirely? Move to a one-room apartment? Take your kids out of private school, give away their college fund, sell your car, forego orthodenture and prom dresses and ski trips? Are you a hypocrite or coward if you stop short of becoming a possession-less monk? 

That’s partly my case. Yes, Sam and I tend to volunteer like maniacs and give to a lot of causes. But when I was in my late teens, I was faced with a choice of whether to move to a kibbutz. I never seriously considered it. There were a lot of reasons – I felt at home in America, I wanted to go to college, I couldn’t face the daunting prospect of trying to become a writer in a country where I didn’t speak the language – but partly I was terrified of having to give over all my possessions to the common pot of the kibbutz. I was 18 and I didn’t have much, but it was still scary to think of giving it all away. 

The Salwens, though, deny that it should be such an all-or-nothing choice. 

They never committed to give everything away – just half. Of their real estate proceeds. 

And when they talk to audiences, they don’t browbeat people into sacrificing everything — just half of something or other. If you watch TV for six hours a week, they said, cut that in half and spend the extra three hours volunteering at a  cancer clinic. If you buy coffee every day, buy half as much and donate the savings to a group that fights addiction.

“We never pledged to be Mother Teresa,” Kevin said. “We pledged to do one thing. And it’s felt great.” 

“There’s an endorphin release when you give,” he continued. “Some people refer to it as a ‘giver’s high.’ You know the saying, ‘Give till it hurts?’ We don’t believe in that at all. Guilt is not a sustaining state of mind. We believe you should give till it’s joyful.” 

Meanwhile, you may ask: What about the girls’ school connection that I mentioned up top? 

The Salwens sign books for Julia Morgan students and parents. Credit: Monika Chin, JMSG.

Hannah is a junior at the Atlanta Girls’ School, a new independent girls’ school founded around the same time as Julia Morgan. (It’s one of the schools I visited when researching Where Girls Come First.) 

She started there in 7th grade – but only because her parents forced her. 

“I fought it and fought it and fought it,” she said. “I wanted that typical high school experience with stuff like an awesome prom. I think it was freshman year that I realized that I loved it. I changed, and the people around me changed, and I realized it was an awesome school.” 

She credits the Atlanta Girls’ School with helping give her confidence to push her family into their Power of Half journey.

Many of the places she’s been speaking on the book tour are girls’ schools – such as Julia Morgan in Oakland, the Marymount School in New York, and the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco.

“If I was still at (my previous) big coed private school, I don’t think I’d have been so eager to get the project going and keep nagging my parents about it,” she said.

P.S. Sandra Luna, our head of school at Julia Morgan, told me that three students came up to her on Friday morning and said they had decided to make changes in their lives after hearing the Salwens. Two girls had decided to give away half their clothes. The third said that her mother had decided to sell half their cars. “How do you feel about that?” Sandra asked.

“I guess a little scared,” the girl said.

And grinned.