A little over a decade ago, I spent nine months as director of communications for St. Louis Public Schools. I was hired three months into a massive reorganization. The district had hired an outside management firm from New York to essentially take over and close schools, downsize the work force, outsource, consolidate – all those things people in corporations are familiar with. But an urban school district?
The problem was obvious – a school district built to educate 150,000 children was now educating something south of 40,000. I say “something south” because no one really knew; in fact, the number was likely closer to 30,000 than 40,000. And the district was going broke, while all the usual measures of education success also looked close to educational bankruptcy.
My first day on the job, actually, my first 10 minutes on the job, the secretary told me that Channel 4 and Channel 5 has film crews outside waiting for a statement from me.
“A statement?” I asked. “On what?”
“The teachers are protesting the end of being able to bank your sick days,” she said. “They’ve called in sick.”
“Who here can I get information from for a statement?”
She looked embarrassed. “Well, the acting superintendent is at a breakfast. The assistant superintendents left the building. They were afraid you’d ask them to go on camera.”
“So who’s left?” I asked, reality slowly entering my brain. I was half afraid she was going to say –
“Just you,” she said.
I quickly scoured the building for anyone who might be hiding. Then I walked outside to the news media, introduced myself, and gave a statement. Guessing at what the policy would likely be, I made the statement up on the spot. As it turned out, I had gotten it right.
I called that moment God’s grace on Day One of the job. I experienced God’s grace every day, multiple times a day.
We had people working in the central district office who refused to visit the schools, especially the high schools. “It’s not safe,” they would say. “People have been attacked in those schools.” When I pointed out that we sent children into those schools every day, they would glare angrily.
In addition to the reorganizations and school closings, and a lot of community anger and protests, we had the usual problems of an urban school district in serious distress. We had incidents of violence. We had gun incidents. We had schools so fearful of the violence and drugs in surrounding neighborhoods that you had to buzzed through the doors after showing your face on video monitors. We had large protests at school board meetings; the first board meeting I attended had 400 screaming people and three arrests. “It was a good night,” my boss told me. “Only three arrests this time.”
School board meetings were at night, and usually at a middle school with an auditorium large enough to hold 400 people (the yelling and screaming was optional and normal). We are not talking neighborhoods like the one where I lived in a comfortable and highly regarded suburb. We’re talking neighborhoods when you could walk outside the school board meeting and sometimes hear gunshots.
I arrived at one board meeting to find almost 2,000 people in front of the school. That was 2,000 angry people, angry that the auditorium was already filled with 400 equally angry people. I stood my my car in the parking lot, and realized I was going to have to make my way through those 2,000 people to get to the door. And here I was, instantly recognizable to almost every single person in the metropolitan area as the face of St. Louis Public Schools (I was on television news a lot) (I was on television news almost every night of the week for months, and sometimes even weekends).
And the odd thing is, even standing in that parking lot, I can’t remember a single time I experienced fear, not once in the entire nine months. Perhaps I was been naïve or simply didn’t know enough. But I was often in schools in what even the police considered unsafe neighborhoods. I would walk outside the central office into screaming protests. My boss was assaulted in her office right next to mine (by an elected member of the school board), and I was right next door at the time and rushed out when I heard the commotion.
It wasn’t that I was brave or courageous (foolhardy, perhaps, but not courageous). But I never felt fear. And I think I know why.
“The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn’t normally want or choose to do,” writes Francis Chan in The Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit will lead you to the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. “the Holy Spirit of God will; mold you into the person you were made to be. This often incredibly painful process strips you of selfishness, pride, and fear.”
No fear. It is why I had no fear. I knew that, for those nine months, as hard and difficult as the job was, I was where I was supposed to be.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading The Forgotten God. To see more posts on this chapter, “What Are You Afraid Of,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.