© Kathy Suerken

Although this season of advent does also have a religious significance for me, the word ADVENT makes me think of the arrival or beginning of something.  Thus, I am reminded of a message that has always signified the beginning of my TOCfE journey.  It was a written message from a 13 year old student.  The last sentence of it reads:  Thanks for lighting the path on the long journey ahead.”

IMG_1238Nicole left it on my desk at school on Valentine’s Day in February 1993—just a few days before I was to journey to Detroit, Michigan in order to meet a man by the name of Eli Goldratt.    Nicole’s message seemed inexplicable---where did it come from?  Although I did not know what inspired her to write these words, I did know that I needed to reply to her with words that honored such a message.  So I searched through a wealth of quote books until I found just the right one to convey what her message meant to me.

Therefore, this particular quote of Edith Wharton was in my mind (and heart) as I experienced my first encounter with Eli and his Jonahs.     My journey to a Jonah conference was the effect of a phone call from Eli that took during my advent calendar of 1992, just a few days before December 25.   I had written Eli a ‘thank you’ letter earlier that year to share how I was using some concepts in the GOAL with my students.  A consequence of that letter was a scholarship to a Jonah seminar.  Now, Eli was personally calling to encourage me further:  the gift of a grant that he said was not to be used for material things, but to pursue knowledge …such as attending his upcoming Jonah conference.

When asked to give a presentation to 300 business people there on how I was using my new Jonah knowledge with my middle school students, I felt very inadequate and anxious!   Receiving Nicole’s message just before the event though gave me courage and inspiration.  And also the comforting realization that the Intermediate Objective to my fear of failure was to remember that my speech was NOT about me.   I was just a messenger and I needed to focus on the message to this audience which was:   how much children really want to learn and how eagerly they respond ‘in kind’ to actions of good will.

I had a perfect classroom example to convey this heartwarming reality in my presentation.   It consisted of a recent lesson to the children in which I tried to explain the kindness of this wonderful person who so much wanted to give the ‘gift’ of TOC to all children.    Convinced by the Goal to become more Socratic in my teaching, I began with a question: “What could I tell you,” I asked my students, “that would convince you that someone BELIEVES in you.  

They responded with insights such as:

Ø  They could tell you.”

Ø   “They could trust you.”

Ø  “They could help to make you better!”

I had recorded their many responses verbatim on a transparency which I now showed to my Jonah audience-- noting that not one of these 11 and 12 year old children had said, ‘give me candy or treats.’   Looking at my audience with deep conviction, I added:  This is because these children intuitively know that the best things in life are not material things.  Instead, they gave me a list of VALUES. 

Together, my audience and were learning from the children They were teaching us by example… they had become OUR mentors!   The rapt attention of the audience was intense and their verbalized responses throughout the event were overwhelming.    So many of them came to me and said, I never realized TOC could be used with children.   Instead of working on a job related problem during this conference, I want to work on bringing TOC to my school system!”

Although I had to leave the event early to get back to my classes, I felt compelled to express my thoughts about this symbiotic learning curve on human nature.   With Eli’s permission to be ‘heard’ once more, I shared the following words that allowed me to use the quote that I had written to Nicole.  My brief parting message was as follows:

“I have been giving some speeches on school vision to local civic groups where I live, but what I am learning is that VISION is NOT the view from the top of a mountain.  It’s what you learn along the way.  And this is what I’ve learned from you.  Edith Wharton says:  ‘There are two ways to spread LIGHT.  One is to be the candle and the other is to be the mirror that reflects it.’   And therefore:   If I were to hold a mirror in front of you at this moment, THEN you would see that you are holding the candles.”

Two days after my return to Niceville, I was sitting outside my school superintendent’s office to share the news that the Goldratt Institute had decided to donate a dedicated Jonah Program to our school district.    While waiting in her anteroom, I noticed that, in my haste to get to this early 8 AM meeting, the top button of my dress was not fastened.   As I tried to re-button it, I looked up and saw a nearby workman staring down at me from a ladder while repairing an overhead light fixture.  Feeling self-conscious and embarrassed, I got up, left her office and walked toward a long hallway.  Seeking privacy, I took just enough steps away from being viewed by others in the building.   After fixing my button, I looked up at the wall directly in front of me.  Although what I saw there could be seen by everyone in the building, likely my perception of it was very different.  What I was seeing was very symbolic and meaningful and had it not been for my ‘button’ situation, I would never had physically been in this location during my visit to see it.  Was this sequence of events just serendipity?  Or what Eli used to call: ‘Divine Simplicity?” 

I was staring at a picture painted by a nine year old student, displayed there as an entry in an art contest.    It was a painting of a candle in front of a mirror reflecting a candle—the visual depiction of the very words I had spoken two days before to Eli and his Jonahs.

Of course I was quite stunned and, upon returning to the Superintendent’s Office, felt compelled to share my report at the location of the painting so that she too could perhaps experience its significance. She did and, in so doing, said she would personally call the little girl’s parents to get their permission to contact her.  When I was therefore able to ask Rhea why she painted this image, she replied:  We have a candle that sits on a small table in our living room.   I thought to myself: I wonder what it would look like if it were in front of a mirror so I had to imagine how it would look in order to paint it.”   

Rhea and I made a win-win arrangement J and her painting has hung ever since this notable ‘beginning’  as a focal point in our living room at TOCfE headquarters, where it has been viewed by many TOCfE international visitors.   To me, it symbolizes the beginning of a journey that has become OUR JOURNEY because YOU are now lighting the path for others… on this never-ending journey ahead……

Kathy Suerken

Niceville, Florida

December 25, 2015