Do You Want to be Right, or Do You Want to be Happy?

Boy, did I ever hear that a lot growing up.  As most teens fresh out of puberty, I had plenty of opinions that were Phil - website portraitnon-negotiable.  I was right and that was that.  My parents (and any other adult for that matter) didn’t have a clue and were obviously, hopelessly out of touch.

Then, by the magical humor of the universe, before I knew it I had teenagers of my own.  Now I understand some of what my parents had to deal with, and their gracious patience and understanding.

Fortunately, I also work at Cherokee Creek Boys School and have the advantage of seeing middle school behavior in generous supply.  Our school is a learning environment both in academics and social skills.  I could see what great effect we were having on the lives of our students here at school, and I decided to try some of the same techniques at home.

First, I recognized the division of labor…hey, I really don’t have to do everything AND know everything.  My teens  were developing their independence for the first time … they were supposed to act as if they knew everything.  I remembered that as a young teen, I had just enough years under my belt to feel like I had a handle on all of life’s difficulties.  It wasn’t until I added a couple of decades that I began to realize how much I didn’t know.

So, with my own kids, I changed my approach and my role.  I realized that they were in a transition phase and needed to form their own opinions and reasoning.  I changed from telling them how they were suppose to think to asking them why they thought a certain way, and I tried to help them form more fully their own thoughts.  I was happy to see the openness that developed between us when they were able to express their own thoughts and feelings.

After all, I reasoned, I’m not going to be able to make decisions for my kids their whole life, nor would I want to. So I changed my approach from telling and demanding to asking and listening. My role switched from dictator to mentor and coach.   I realized that they were in a transition phase and needed to form their own opinions and reasoning.  They were trying out new ideas for the first time and developing the ability to express these fledgling ideas to their peers and to adults.

I decided to be happy and enjoy my kids … let them take on the anxiety of being right. It is a rite of passage we, as their wiser parents or teachers, must allow them. It is a rite of passage they, as young warriors, must be allowed as they discover what is Real and True about the world around them!

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All I Really Need to Know About Life, I Learned from Middle School Boys

Learning all I need to know about life with the boys on the CCBS front porch chairs...

Learning all I need to know about life with the boys on the CCBS front porch chairs...

(with a nod to Robert Fulghum, who learned about life through Kindergarteners)

Most of what I really need

To know about how to live

And what to do and how to be

I learned from my middle school boys.

Wisdom was not at the top

Of my doctorate pursuit mountain,

But deep in the red dirt of a therapeutic boys school known as Cherokee Creek.

These are the things I learned:

Share with others, but some things can be just yours.

Play fair. Play often. Be playful.

Don’t hit, kick, punch, throw things, or yell.

Put things away if you want them to be there tomorrow.

Clean up your own mess.

Anything found abandoned is considered fair game – It’s called a “G-Score.”

Say you’re sorry when you’ve finished processing an argument. Don’t say it until you are ready , or it’s not authentic.

Wash your hands, a lot. Especially important after seeing their science fair pitri dish results.

Flush. Twice if necessary. There will be a boy cleaning your restroom.

Cookies, milk, and the occasional gourmet cupcake can make anybody’s day.

Live in balance – pursue Personal Enrichment, Academics, Therapy, and Healthy endeavors.

Learn some and think some

And play and work every day some. Make it outdoors whenever possible.

Forget naps – you might miss something good. You can sleep when you’re dead.

When you go out in the world, keep an eye on whoever’s in your group. They like to hide around corners just to see if you’re paying attention.

Hug them a lot.

Be aware of their individual boy-ness, build a strong relationship in which you show you care about them, and remember, no matter how big or hairy they are, they are still BOYS.

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Reflections on Mentoring

At August Family Seminar, Beth Venable mentors parents on how to develop a village of support before their students return home.

At August Family Seminar, Beth Venable mentors parents on how to develop a village of support before their sons return home.

As I prepare to leave CCBS and take the next step on my career path, I find myself reflecting on all I have learned here and the power of mentors throughout my life.

Mentors are people who help reveal “what is real and true about you and the world around you” by role modeling, teaching, and, as Dan Rather once said are people who” believe in you, who tug and push and lead you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called “Truth.'”

Dr. Beger, my high school mentor & teacher, taught me that I had a power and purpose that was innately mine. She taught me how to access my courage, even when it was buried near my toes. Jane Condon, my high school’s principal, showed me that leadership can be a class act, that teams of people are happiest when they know why you have picked them. Shelby Hicks, my first boss, taught me about service and gave my my first lessons in business as she taught me to keep the books in a pencil ledger, the same way her father had before her. John Degan, a college professor who became a dear friend, taught me that no man need be an island, that exceptional performance is a rare treasure and that I could work my fanny off and still get a “C.” Ellen Richard, who hired me fresh out of college at the Roundabout Theatre, taught me that all the Southern charm I can muster will have little result if I don’t do my job well. She also taught me, rather painfully, that everyone is replaceable. Suzanne Youngerman, the Program Director at Young Audiences at the time, taught me what program development is and how to do it well. The “Duenas” (my mother’s close girlfriends) taught me how to return to my authentic self, when I had all but lost any thread of her. Jack Wise, with whom I once sunk a boat, taught me about accepting “what is” and moving ahead whether you like it or not. Beth Black, who founded Cherokee Creek Boys School, taught me the value of orienting your business, first and foremost, by its mission and values and about what it really means to put form after function.

Though none of these folks are my immediate family, their impact on my life has been profound. These are some of the greatest mentors I have intersected in my life. Beginning at the age of 13 and continuing on to today, they have presented themselves as catalysts for change throughout the years.

Some of them were great inspirations, others have made me wince with the raw reality of “real life.” All of them were invaluable and changed my life for the better. I would not trade any of these relationships for a life of ease and riches. I believe the most interesting tapestries are the ones with an abundance of colors, a rainbow of stories and even a few knots.

We all need mentors who help us uncover our authentic self and move toward discovering and living out our purpose. I want to express to all parents that your sons have wonderful mentors at CCBS. They will be blessed by their experience here and remember their favorite staff with affection…as will I. Thank you to everyone who has touched my life while at Cherokee Creek…you have added a stitch to the tapestry of my life.

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Earthlore Lessons

Mark Warren determines appropriate bark for making cordage.

Mark Warren determines appropriate bark for making cordage.

Recently, I observed the intense curiosity and active engagement of the boys as they listened to a story about the Cherokee Indians. It was presented by Mark Warren, naturalist, composer, writer and Director of Medicine Bow, A Primitive School of Earthlore in the North Georgia Mountains. Warren showed the boys their unique relationship with nature through the Earthlore (stories from nature) he had accumulated by the Native Americans. After engaging the boys in a discussion of Earthlore and nature, the boys went outdoors to experience hands- on activities that connected them to the spirit of Cherokee Indians who lived and walked the soil where the Cherokee Creek campus now sits. Mark then helped the boys experience nature as a source of food, medicine, craft materials, fire, tools, weaponry, play and shelter. Learning through the patient methods of the American Indians, the boys had an incredible opportunity for academic as well as spiritual growth. They encountered their masculine spirit through the rituals of an Indian Warrior. These rituals included learning how to hand drill a fire from wood, stalk without being seen, and make cordage (rope) from tree bark. For me, the day was a “real and true” demonstration of the living and practical messages of the medicine wheel –the warrior, visionary, healer and teacher. He showed us how our Cherokee ancestors lived in harmony with nature. But the day went beyond Warren’s lessons of Earthlore. It was a poignant demonstration of the power of mentoring. He shared not only skills and knowledge but also the important message for all males, “I am wise, strong, loved, and a man.Jane Barker, LISW, is the Clinical Services Manager at Cherokee Creek Boys School, located in the upstate of South Carolina.

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Turning It Around

Denise Savidge with Sam and "driver" Nick - too cute!

Denise Savidge with Sam and "driver" Nick - too cute!

Next week marks my one year anniversary of joining the Cherokee Creek Boys School staff as Academic Dean. It’s been an amazing journey of growth, self-discovery, and relationship building in what I call fondly, “The Greatest Job Ever.”

There will likely be those who ponder how big a (choose from suck-up, butt-kisser, brown-noser) I am by writing a blog so blatantly complimentary to my colleagues. But you have to know them. When you’re as delighted as I am to come every day and work with these folks, you feel the need to spread the love on a little thick now and then.

Two years ago I was homeless and jobless. Who wouldn’t feel lucky to have a job — any job — given those circumstances? Somewhere close to MLK day 2010, I was packed up and halfway home to Pennsylvania to live in my parents’ basement. That’s the absolute truth. Well okay, the basement is actually unfinished. I probably could have scored my old bedroom. Thanks to the miracle of modern smart phone communication, an email was delivered offering me a job to make just-above-poverty-level in the local school district. It was enough to get by. It was also a foot in the door, and I turned around and drove five hours back to where I’d started.

That fortuitous email was the beginning of a much needed walk in faith and fellowship. The friends and relationships I’ve formed since turning around that day make life before that point look like a scrimmage against myself. I had been losing no matter what, questioning every decision and second guessing every move. It was mental torture I was inflicting upon myself. Does this sound like something our boys have experienced?

Each move I made after my personal decision to turn my car around brought me closer to finding CCBS one year later, where I finally feel at home. Every perceived misstep I took gained me a skill set I’m using daily in a giant montage of job freedom and creativity. It’s good, hard, rewarding work with payoffs every day – always based in being able to witness and be part of the “turn around” the boys do while they’re here. It’s a team effort in which there are no superstars claiming MVP, just team players acknowledging the other guy’s part in the process.

Turning around is a BIG theme here at CCBS. Our boys come to “turn it around.” Our families get to take a new course along with them. And we’ve grown so much as a school since about this time last year. We all manage to grow and change on these healing soils – from the trees to the people to the school itself.

This week, we were told we would again be recommended for accreditation by SACS. We can’t reveal most of the contents of the study until it’s published, but suffice it to say we were showered with some pretty amazing and heartwarming Commendations. To have strangers walk onto your campus and immediately recognize the warmth, camaraderie, cohesion, and respect among students and staff is a pretty big accolade.

Have you ever wondered about our claim to be “The Small School with the Big Heart?” Even first time visitors see it. Next time you’re in the area, turn around for a quick visit with us. It’s always rewarding to see the good work going on around here.

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Way of the Parenting Warrior

A few of of the boys with Nali, one of our canine Trek staff.

A few of of the boys with Nali, one of our canine Trek staff.

I disappointed my daughter today – her birthday, of all days. I’d promised her a dog after she tearfully approached me saying she missed our old dog that mysteriously disappeared in October. So I showed up early at preschool and took her to the local shelter. I’d secretly been doing recon on one certain dog for weeks and was confident he was still available three days since my last visit. Needless to say he wasn’t. I’d blown it. Someone saw him the day before and his sign read “I’m Adopted!!” I was crushed.

I can’t tell you how firmly my heart was set on that beautiful red chow mix. But Grace’s wasn’t – she had never met him. In her joyous, five-year-old exuberance, any old dog would do as long as we took one home then. I halfheartedly took a pretty, white, husky mix out to the dog run to play. Grace had a blast chasing him, while throwing the ball and Frisbee. He played along a little, but was more interested in menacing the puppy in the run next door and twice snapped his head around, annoyed at my daughter for interrupting that mission. Obviously, he didn’t come home with us and Grace was NOT happy. She stomped, cried, and generally made my life miserable all the way home as I attempted to explain we would try again another day. She wasn’t having it.

Upon reflection that evening, I recognized the mistakes I had made and how to fix them next time. First, I failed to set the boundaries of our visit – that we were looking for a dog, but might not take one home that day. Next visit I will remember to define the parameters ahead of time and come out the shining mom I know I am.

Second, I neglected to be consistent in my words and action. I told her she could have a dog for her birthday. That, to a five-year-old, means “dog on birthday,” so I broke my implied promise. Walking the talk is something I’m usually pretty good at when it comes to following up with consequences. I learned I need to be cognizant of saying what I mean and meaning what I say ALL the time.

Third, I forgot to conduct due diligence to see if the dog I picked as the perfect match for our family was still available. A disciplined check on the internet could have helped me avoid the whole situation. I’ve resolved that being busy isn’t an excuse for important information gathering!

This learning path I traveled falls nicely into our new quarter: The Warrior Leadership skills ask us to align our words with actions, be responsible and disciplined, and to respect limits and boundaries. When we disregard doing so, we fail ourselves and others, unintentionally or otherwise.

Not to worry, Gracie will get her dog, I will get over my disappointment, and the Husky may get another chance without distractions. Who knows? I may name him Warrior.

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In 2012 I Resolve…

A photo from our annual December retreat last week

A photo from our annual December staff retreat last week

Very often it is the wisdom of others that is the most inspiring. My list of resolutions for the New Year sound like an echo from last year..”lose a few pounds, get organized, exercise more.” I genuinely aspire to these life improvement challenges, but they are personal commitments and not terribly inspiring.

When my good friend Jack Levine – founder of the 4Generations Institute (www.4Gen.org ) and a professional advocate for children and families – shared his  “real and true” resolutions I said, “Wow, now that’s inspiring!” His pledges, if kept, would make the world a better place. A much grander plan!

With his permission, I share them with you. I hope you have had wonderful holidays and that these resolutions inspire you to begin the New Year with hope and optimism for the blessings to be discovered in 2012!


As we prepare to launch into the New Year, please reflect with me for a few minutes on who we are and where we hope to go in the 12-months ahead.

2011 was a year of changes, challenges and new responsibilities.  Life is about transitions, and as an incurable optimist, I believe the year ahead will open new doors and present valuable opportunities for all of us. I hope you agree…..

15 NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR 2012
In 2012 I resolve….

— To appreciate my family, friends, and colleagues for who they are, what they mean to me and others, and to gracefully overlook some things they do (or don’t do!).  None of us is perfect and accepting that reality helps relationships flourish.

— To act upon wrongs that need righting, crass statements that require correction, and offenses that demand just responses.  We set a positive example by not accepting negativity in others.

— To be a valuable teammate and to trust others to do their best.  Each of us should know what position we play, and regularly practice our skills to be our personal best.

— To actively listen to the voices of children and elders. Accepting the wisdom of innocence and experience is both free and priceless.

— To accept that I don’t know everything. By collaborating with others who know much more, together we can create a great brain trust and blend expertise.

— To pleasantly surprise someone every day with a genuine smile and unexpected kindness in word and deed.  Life’s subtle gifts of compassion and concern are cherished.

— To respect and celebrate the diversity of faiths, feelings, and fashions. Differences are natural and honoring each others’ perspectives creates mutual admiration.

— To exercise artistic expression for its intrinsic value. The vitality of the instrumental, literary, dance, visual or vocal arts fuels the soul and expands the mind to new possibilities.

— To invest a thoughtful minute before I speak or act.  Regret is often preventable. Reversing harm is one of life’s most vexing challenges.

— To honor those who courageously sacrifice for us at home and abroad, care for our health, educate, protect us and perform the healing and helping arts so that our quality of life is improved.

— To share even if I think I don’t have enough. Setting an example by giving to others in need is one of the best lessons for children to observe.

— To protect, defend and advocate for people who rely on me. Give special attention to the needs of others of every stage of life who may not know how to find their own voice.

— To preserve natural environments for their beauty and bounty. Natural settings are home to plant-life and species which are too often victims of our wants, not our needs.

— To never give up on a person or a cause, despite the challenges we face. Perseverance is an attitude that exemplifies leadership, attracts allies, and creates meaningful change.

— To speak truth to power, but to be both polite and persistent. There’s a fine line between persistence and pestilence. Resist aggressiveness, but advocate with assertion, confidence and commitment to the cause.  Advocating for prevention policies and programs that keep bad things from happening is the most important of all investments.

Happy New Year!

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Powering Down

Academic Dean Denise Savidge

Academic Dean Denise Savidge

“You aren’t depressed; our brains just aren’t equipped for 21st-century life.” This quote comes from esteemed health expert Andrew Weil, M.D. from his new book Spontaneous Happiness. And since we really have no choice in which century we’re destined to exist, that statement sounds like it could be a major bummer … sending us all into a tailspin spiral of, well, DEPRESSION.

But wait, there’s more. “In my experience, the more people have the less likely they are to be contented. Indeed there is abundant evidence that depression is a ‘disease of affluence’,” he adds.  To which I breathe a huge sigh of relief, because everybody knows teachers don’t typically drive Maseratis and earn salaries in six-figure range. However, the population that does still has an out … specifically the outdoors.

Dr. Weil goes on to discuss the overload of information and stimulation present in the age of the Internet. Very few of us these days are far removed from our email, mobile phones, texts, televisions or tweets [information surfeit]. Meanwhile we’re missing out on very important time spent outdoors [Richard Louv has coined it “nature deficit”]. The combination is causing us problems. He further explains, “This kind life simply was not an option throughout most of human history,” and therefore the brains we’ve developed just aren’t equipped to handle all this chaos we’ve created.

Weil’s solution? Since throwing away the communication links would make it difficult for most of us to keep our jobs, he offers five Tips for Modern Life. Paraphrased, they are:

1) Bring more of your awareness to the present moment and train your mind and concentration on one thing.

2) Sleep in complete darkness. Try to be out in bright light during the day.

3) Reach out to others. Be social.

4) Avoid disturbing sounds. Try to cultivate silence.

5) Set limits on the amount of time you spend with modern technology.

His advice reminds me of the Cherokee Creek Medicine Wheel and many of our underlying philosophies for helping boys reach a state of good health. On campus one will often hear, “Be present in the moment.” We arrange outdoor activity for our boys numerous times during the day, including PE before class to prepare our learners to learn and even off campus wilderness Treks on the weekends. We live in social “packs” and advocate community-cooperation. And we severely limit television, video games, and internet usage. Using Weil’s standards, our therapeutic program is the perfect storm toward curing depression.

As adults, it’s important to remember that modern technology is a little like, “too much of a good thing,” kind of like a goose laying a golden egg every minute and a half instead of once a day. Soon we will be spending our time gathering the eggs and find we have no time left to enjoy the rest of our life! And that’s depressing.

In what area could you let go of a few eggs? And might there be platinum or rare jewels awaiting you in the outdoors?

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Plan Q Ain’t So Bad

Oconee State Park is one of my sacred spaces. There is nothing fancy about it, in fact, quite the contrary. It is plain and purposeful with living history at every bend in the trail. Perhaps it is the history that feels like a warm blanket and serves as a reminder that this special place has seen generations of families pass through its gates.

A few Saturdays ago I walked into the meeting room at Oconee to prep our most recent Family Trek. I took a moment to inhale the scent of wood smoke, antiques and Murphy’s Oil Soap. I thought about the Family Trek 2 years ago that challenged every fiber of my Type A being over the course of 4 days, taking my “Plan A” on a journey to “Plan Q.” In November 2009, our Family Trek was intersected with the remnants of Hurricane Ida and the Swine Flu. The rain came down unabated, the river rose to flood stages and a few folks found themselves isolated in their 80 year old cabins sans internet, TV or phone connection to the outside world.

Plan A was quickly discarded for Plan B, and so on, as our team of staff adapted to the changes in weather and circumstances. Plans B through G were out too and continued problem solving down the alphabet until we arrived at a very creative Plan Q!

Personally, few experiences have offered more growth in such a limited amount of time. The lesson? “Be open to outcome,” the same lesson we study every fall in our Learning Community at Cherokee Creek. Learning how to let go of the things you cannot control and becoming more flexible, trusting and resilient. Our Family Trek is designed to offer opportunities for these lessons to be experienced.

I can’t deny that it feels great to end on Plan A, because it feels awesome! There is an incredible sense of power when it all comes together exactly the way you envisioned it. However, being faced with adversity and meeting it with resilience is different – it is empowerment. And it is through resilience and empowerment (and quite a bit of flexibility) that we learn about equanimity and balance to grow the strong roots that see us through the storms.

It is my most sincere hope that each of our participating families discover the real and true depth of their resilience, their flexibility and feel empowered as they discover the new plan.

I look forward to seeing some of you in May! Until then, enjoy the slideshow below of the last Family Trek at the beginning of this month:

httpv://youtube.com/watch?v=tZFIDP2N3Zc

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Serendipity Part 2

As promised, here is the video students wrote and helped produce during the first nine weeks. For the first installment of this blog click: Where Serendipity Meets Design.

As I said before, it’s a wonderful thing when serendipity and design come together to create beautiful and meaningful outcome.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SwVI0LZSFg

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