Today we hear from two Courage & Renewal facilitators, Tara Reynolds and David Henderson, as they offer their reflections on their recent experience presenting at the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools’ (NESA) Fall Leadership Conference.
The attendees included educational leaders from around the Middle East and Southeast Asia who work primarily in private schools serving both Western expatriates’ children and local families in places such as Beirut, Lebanon; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The conference was held in Doha, Qatar and was attended by approximately 500 administrators, board members, and educators.
Tara and David were invited to deliver a keynote and facilitate two three-hour Courage to Lead breakout sessions. As NESA Executive Director, David Chojnacki, stated in a planning call last spring, “These schools are successful at academics; our graduates go to the best universities in the world; we’ve done data. We need to renew our hearts – we need to ask ourselves, ‘To what end?’”
Using the Circle of Trust approach, Tara and David offered some insights into that poignant question and how it may relate to school leadership.
David and Tara Reflect…
This conference took place before the recent US election. Since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented American pandemic of “othering” across many ideological divides. We asked ourselves, “Does discussing this experience in the Middle East and the life-changing impact this had on us even seem relevant compared to what our hearts have felt after November 8th, 2016?”
We have come to understand that what we experienced in Qatar has significant relevance to what we feel now. Ivan Illich said, “At heart, hospitality is a helping across a threshold.” If there is anything America needs today, it is a deep sense of hospitality; the following reflections document a glimpse into the gracious hospitality which invited us across a threshold into the beauty, love, and courage of being human. These experiences on the other side of the world have come to be hyper-relevant in crossing the thresholds of our own broken hearts here at home.
Somewhere in the skies between Iran and Bahrain I noticed the announcements coming in Arabic, then English. I stood up to stretch my legs and realized how quickly—in the course of a single day—one can become foreign. I felt both at home and a part of something larger than myself as I watched the man in the seat in front of us assist a frail woman in a sari, lifting her bag into the overhead compartment. A simple gesture helped me trust that I was on the right path. As men walked by dressed in beautiful thobes of glowing white, I longed to touch the fabric. Instead I rested my gaze, adjusted my scarf over my shoulders, and turned to wonder about how much we can assume about another by the vestments one wears.
Upon arrival in Doha, it became clear that NESA could have written the guidebook to extending welcome. Unaccustomed to this level of attention, I felt a little sheepish as I walked through the lobby and was greeted by the hotel staff with “Good morning, Miss Tara!” I wanted to hug the chambermaid who folded hand towels into the shapes of different animals each morning—instead we exchanged notes of hospitality and gratitude on slips of paper left on the pillows.
The conference got underway and the energy shifted as over 500 people arrived and engaged in a powerful learning environment, every detail thoughtfully taken care of by the NESA staff. I tried to let go of my ‘not enough-ness’ and walk through the space with my head held high.
In reality, the thought crossed my mind more than once: What can you possibly offer these global leaders, Tara, that they don’t already know? Each time I released the thought and practiced the keynote in my head I breathed a little easier. I trusted in my heart that we had something valuable to share.
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The night before the keynote I slept lightly, not sure half the time if I was awake or asleep. I woke groggy and as we made our way down for our sound check in the ballroom I started to get butterflies in my belly. I tried to remember my colleague Holly Wilkinson’s loving words, Shift those butterflies into your heart, radiating your inner light outwards. It helped.
The room looked enormous. We were asked to clear out so that security could do a search of the space with their bomb-sniffing dogs. I wasn’t sure if that was comforting or not. After choking down some breakfast, we were on.
A man named Clay Hensley of The College Board introduced us. I had my back to the room before going on stage in the hopes that it would stop spinning. While David has all the relevant degrees and has taught AP Courses, I was surprised to feel content with Clay’s introduction of me as a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and Co-Founder of WholeHeart, Inc. I felt proud. The time had come and we stepped on to the stage. I looked out over the sea of beautiful faces of people from all over the world, their eyes on us, eager for ways to bring courage and renewal into their own schools.
I approached the microphone, nervous but steady. I was ready. I had practiced. I knew the content was of the highest quality and so I started to speak. With a heart full of gratitude, I started to speak.
Howard Thurman’s words grounded me; Parker and the Mobius Strip gave me confidence. We guided the room through an exercise where they were asked to think of someone in their lives who encouraged them show up as their full, integrated selves. We invited them to speak the name of that person out loud and in that moment I was washed over by a wave of powerful goodness, as reverent voices whispered names of beloved people who made the difference in these leaders’ lives. My eyes filled with tears.
David and I danced gracefully together through the session: his research and stories landed my cultural and philosophical pieces into the classroom. The deep respect we have for one another was evident. My gentle presence mingled with his capacity of heart and humor; my experiential pieces wove well with his stories of teaching and leadership.
I could see the audience was engaged and intrigued. I could feel the hunger for this work. The moment had arrived and we met it with love.
On our last day in Qatar I insisted on getting out into the desert, and we hired a local man named Nassim to drive us out beyond the dunes. Being there opened me. Something shifted inside—perhaps it is still shifting. I know without question that I am changed.
What was it that called me there in the first place? A new adventure? A new landscape? I wonder about the barren monochromatic vastness that resonates with me around the end of my 16-year marriage.
Nassim said that he knows where the soft sand is and where he can drive. There were roads even where I saw no roads. “Each dune has a name,” he said. There is so much my eyes don’t see, I thought.
Something that surprised me was that the desert was full of trash. I expected to see a pristine paradise of soft white sand and was shocked when Nassim suggested to me to put my shoes back on as he pulled a piece of rusty metal out of the sand two feet from where I stood. “See…it’s not safe. People have no respect.” He was one of the few people we met who was actually from Qatar. He told us that most of the city of Doha used to be desert until about 15-20 years ago. The waters of the Persian Gulf are relatively shallow around the shores of Qatar (about 3 feet deep) which has enabled man-made construction to now extend out into the sea. If you dig in this desert you can find water not far under the sand. For this reason, the desert is also littered with seashells.
I scattered rose petals from Vermont in the wind, a blessing for something new to grow in the arid places of my heart. We bumped along until we came to an inland sea. The water is incredibly salty, warm, a beautiful shade of blue. Nassim brings his 80-year-old father there several times a week. On the other side you can see Saudi Arabia.
I can’t stop weeping when I think about this desert. I think it might be grief for the parts of my life that are ending mixed with joy and wonder for all that is to come. The garbage and the glory. All of it.
There were so many things that remain with me from this experience. I am sure I was channeling Gomer Pyle of Andy Griffith TV fame when I was constantly feeling, “Gaaawwwllly – she-zam – look at that!” But I did my best to look less than the country bumpkin I felt constantly. First of all, Tara would have pretended not to know me, and secondly, the Center and perhaps the US State Department would pretend the same. But from the moment we began to descend into Doha’s stunning airport, new realities bombarded my psyche and I remembered Camus saying everyone needs to experience the “angst of the traveler.” Clearly, Camus had watched Andy Griffith.
While driving the freeways leading from the airport to the area of Doha known as “The Pearl,” I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. We arrived late in the evening and the freeway was lined with hundreds of 75 foot tall light poles covered in small lights that were a variety of changing colors – it was stunning from the air and as we were driven to our hotel. We learned the next day, as we noticed small engraving underneath all the lights on every pole, that the engravings were scripture from the Koran; this was the beginning of several days of intense tutoring in what was an almost non-stop immersion in what cultural humility might mean for me.
I want to share three very brief stories of what this journey meant.
Doha skyline seen through the arches at the Museum of Islamic art
First of all, our keynote was Saturday morning and the Friday evening before the NESA folks (an organizational embodiment of hospitality like I have never experienced) took those of us presenting to the Museum of Islamic Art and afterwards to the Souq, a remarkable Middle Eastern market that seems to wind around endlessly between shop after shop selling everything from Calvin Klein boxer shorts to exotic birds and falcons – my second story is about an experience Tara and I had there a few nights later.
As I entered the Museum I was overcome with what some have suggested was some residual jet lag; whatever it was I was not doing well, so I walked outside to the bridge which carries you across water to the entrance of the Museum. I sat watching the people come and go as they entered the Museum and watched evening descend over Doha. Doha is an international city with Islamic people coming to visit from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
As I sat watching this beautiful array of young, old, families, individuals, enter and leave this monument to the ancient greatness of Islam, I was filled with such love for what I was being privileged to witness; on the plane home I wrote the following:
Sitting Alone in Front of Our Sin
The Museum of Islamic Art is on a man-made island –
a pearl inside a pearl inside Doha.
It rises up reminding one of what
the tower of Babel might have been.
Majestic, beige like the desert,
yet modern – like the city surrounding it
while it houses so many ancient remnants
of Islam’s glory, grandeur, and grace.
The people walking in and out
were unlike me.
Mostly slight of stature;
brown, graceful, erect walkers
gliding – holdovers from antiquity.
A pace akin to a nobleman
approaching a prince –
not lumbering forward
looking for a fight.
They would often cast glimpses my way –
furtive and curious
as if wondering why I chose
to be in their place – their art –
their home of brilliance and light
colors and patterns,
fluid like serpents sliding beauty
across sand and everywhere they glide.
I wondered more than they
how did I come to be here
sitting on a bridge to beauty antiquified
in my sandals made for fly-fishing.
But they never moved with mistrust –
just wonder, turning to wonder,
“Why is he here?”
I helped two lads from India
photograph themselves –
we exchanged handshakes, smiles,
“Nice to meet you, suh.”
I was humbled by their generosity
of smile and spirit;
their willingness to meet me on a bridge
to their collective glory.
But then a 5 year old lad
clad in their life
ran by fleeing his mother –
she calling a reprimand in
Farsi or Arabic but just as
fierce as, “Boy, you get back here now!”
I smiled in reverie of our communion
of love and frustration.
While here in Doha,
I smelled fragrant air,
heard ancient songs sung by young voices
from white faces;
and a sad song carried across a lake
made with western machines
floating an ancient eastern dream
as the sun set over the Pearl
and the Persian Gulf
was beauty, glittering boats,
and I knew I had it all wrong
and we had it all wrong
and blue-green eyes
piercing me from behind the sliver of a masked face
were beyond beauty –
a dream of what is beautiful –
a thin veil separating
me and Heaven.
My second story happened two evenings later when Tara and I were sitting in an outdoor café having dinner in the middle of the Souq. We were literally surrounded by international women, men, and families dressed in all sorts of variations of Islamic wear enjoying the Friday evening having dinner, tea and smoking hookahs. Pretty typical evening for me – very similar to anything you might experience in every town across Montana.
As we finished our meal, there was a large, dignified, young Arab man sitting at the table next to us, alone, smoking his hookah. Presently, a young Middle Eastern family came walking by – Dad dressed in western style jeans and shirt trying to corral a lively 5 year old lad, Mom in a full burqa pushing a stroller with what appeared to be a 3 year old girl; a lovely family.
Tara and I both saw the little girl looking intensely at the large Arab gentleman sitting next to us; he was imposing – he looked like he would have no trouble playing linebacker in the NFL. Suddenly the little girl with serious disdain, stuck her tongue out at him; Tara and I both looked at him wondering what would come next. He looked at us and knew we knew what this little angel had just done and he started laughing heartily – we did too; it was priceless. This might be the Souq in the heart of the Middle East, but it could have been a mall in Bozeman, Montana too. What it was for me was a lovely reminder of how similar we are – how beautifully connected we are; a little girl’s brash tongue-sticking-out became a hospitality threshold.
My final story has to do with our first Courage to Lead session on Saturday morning right after our joint keynote; we were wondering if anyone would show up for the session. We were hoping for 25, possibly 30 (I had optimistically made 35 copies of the third things we planned to use). As the break following the keynote ended and folks started arriving for our session, our circle of 35 chairs was overflowing – everyone quickly started helping expand the circle until finally it held 64 folks. I was stunned and since Tara was lead for this session, wondering how this new facilitator would navigate something neither of us expected.
Here’s where I need to offer some kudos to John Fenner, Debbie Stanley, Parker Palmer, and Marcy Jackson for their obvious well done training of Tara’s facilitator cohort – she was masterful as she opened the circle and invited us into a wonderful three hour reflection and sharing using Parker’s Habits of the Heart as a framework for healthy schooling.
Not only did she hold the space with grace, the circle was filled with an international gathering of folks from quite literally all over the world. I was so proud of how she invited these folks to explore what showing up wholehearted might mean for school leaders. Later, some of the NESA folks expressed to us that normally 30 folks at a session is a good turnout; they said the keynote had clearly resonated with this gathering – we recognized another hospitality threshold – matters of the heart resonate across borders that in many ways are illusions.
There are other stories I might share but this is enough; I left there with my heart full.
What does this invite me into given our recent November? It invites me to explore how my heart has humbly helped some across my thresholds and how it has too often not invited others across the threshold of my heart. I cannot stop being a “helping across a threshold”; there is a little girl with her tongue out reminding me how lovely we are; there is a woman in a burqa looking up at me thanking me for the story I shared in our keynote about my Dad in Memphis, Tennessee and how it helped her understand her Dad better; these people are beautiful reminders of what a gift we can be to each other if we refuse to close the threshold of our heart.
Tara Reynolds is a community organizer with a passion for building trust in relationships and organizations. She is a graduate of Haverford College and an alumnae of the Vermont Leadership Institute. She finds joy in the wisdom of children, the beauty of the natural world, and the power of a good open and honest question.
David Henderson currently teaches Educational Leadership at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, and facilitates Courage to Teach, Courage to Lead and Circles of Trust retreats. He has been involved in pre-K-12 education for over 20 years. He continues to study and research the intersection of the inner life of leaders with their practice of leadership grounded in a heart striving for integrity and authenticity.