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Sisyphus Redux

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

— Robbie Robertson, “The Weight”

I have often talked of my first retirement, in 2000 after 20 years with the State Office of Mental Health, and the part which my Sisyphus story played. Now, five months into my second retirement, I have a new view of Sisyphus.

The first time I retired, part of my story was that by retiring, I was locking in my pension for Dee. Part was that Morri was less than two years old, and I figured I would need to work another twenty years— I couldn’t possibly do that with OMH. It felt in so many ways like too much.

A big part, I recognized, was that my final two years with the state, spent at Brooklyn Children’s Center had become so Sisyphean. OMH had become such a grinding bureaucracy, so underfunded, so entangled in bureaucratic rules and regulations, facing such a critical human mission of serving many of society’s most vulnerable and neglected that the struggle of the work had taken on this mythical character: Every day I would roll my boulder to the top of the hill, emotionally back-breaking work, and then the next day my boulder would be again at the bottom. I felt guilty about retiring but I was finally sure that this wasn’t the way I wanted to spend the next twenty years of my life.

At the same time, I was hearing another call — If I stepped away from OMH, I opened the possibility of finding out where my Zen Peacemaker path might lead.

Recalling my doctoral dissertation on Max Weber’s theory of authority, a new view of Sisyphus is emerging. For Weber, charismatic authority is always, inevitably unstable, ever-tending towards a normalization which relies either on traditional or rational-legal grounds. I look back on the last twelve years in which we built our network of charter schools from nothing and am struck with the idea that I may have been a charismatic leader. It sounds crazy, grandiose. I let the idea simmer.

Charisma is literally “the gift of grace.” I have never had any idea how that gift might have come to me but I have felt it through the years. When people from the earliest years have congratulated me, “You must be very proud of what you have accomplished,” I responded, “I didn’t do this. I have had the privilege of channeling the energy of the Universe.” (So many people would look at me as if I was a crazy new age freak. I learned to simply say, “Thank you.”)

I am appreciating what Weber is telling me now. Charismatic leadership is inevitably unstable. It is always tending toward the routine, toward the bureaucratic (rational-legal) or toward the traditional. When I was so absorbed in Weber, -- it was fifty years ago, -- although I probably thought of myself as a Marxist, I saw this tendency idealistically. Today, for the first time, I am seeing that tendency, experiencing that tendency toward the “normal”, toward the mediocre, as a much more material force. I realize suddenly that I have been resisting the pressure daily for twelve years, actually for considerably longer. It took us three years to get our first charter.

We are making a difference. Our schools have met a need. As Gregory Bateson said years ago, “If you want to make a difference, you have to be different.” If we did exactly the same thing as the regular public schools, we would get exactly the same results. We would fail the same kids.

We are providing an alternative for the students who are failing in the district schools.

We need to keep pushing the rock up the hill. What I had seen and talked about frequently with the leadership team at ICS and with anyone else who would listen was Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics: all systems tend toward random. The great insight of Bertalanffy, the basis of his general systems theory, was that all systems tend toward entropy and the enormous effort which it takes for living systems to maintain their differentiation and integrity. No wonder Sisyphus is exhausted.

Even the image of Sisyphus doesn’t quite do it. There is no top of the hill. There is no resting point from which the rock will roll back down overnight. The rock is constantly tending downwards. It is only human effort which holds it up. The pressure is continuous. Sisyphus never gets to go to sleep.

I hadn’t seen this.

Our intention in our schools was to do something different and in doing so serve a sector of children whom the regular public schools were failing. We knew there were a lot of students in this sector. New York City is happy with an 80% graduation rate. That means that they are satisfied if one out of five kids fails.

We built our schools on a fully integrated model, with small classes and enriched staffed, with a commitment to a Universal approach to the challenges which our students face. What an effort has been constantly required to preserve these differences. We were always competing for students and particularly for teachers with the far better resourced regular public schools. The pressure, always from the outside and particularly stressful from the inside, was to do what the City is doing. Doing something different was hard.

The City is doing this or that. We have to match it in order to compete. It is relentless pressure. But if we do the same things that the City does, we will be no different than the City. We will fail in exactly the ways that the City fails. We will fail the same students. Why bother? The point is to make a difference.

The leadership challenge is always to resist the regression to the mean, to the lack of differentiation. It is so easy not to make a difference. No wonder Sisyphus is exhausted.

Now, in my second retirement, I am seeing this whole Sisyphus thing in a new light. The problem at Brooklyn Children’s was not simply that OMH was a bad bureaucracy, but that making a difference is exhausting. The difference between the OMH experience and our experience at ICS is that, at least so far at ICS, we have been able to succeed. After twelve years, I am proud to have been part of this, but I can see now so clearly why at the end I was so tired and why five months later I feel that such a load has been taken from me.

At the end of the day, it was my job to say “no” when the pressure mounted to just let the rock roll to the bottom of the hill. Others helped. Some stepped in when I wavered. Members of the Board of Trustees, particularly Nelly Tournaki, stepped up and held the line on class size when a budget crisis in our early years pushed me toward the path of least resistance, to let the rock roll. “My God, the DOE classes are so much larger than ours. We can increase class size and still be better,” I said. Nelly pushed back. We held our classes to 17 or 18 students.

But mostly, it fell on me. Sometimes it meant not firing someone who everyone was angry at. Sometimes it meant letting someone go or demoting someone who was very popular. The pressure toward becoming average, no different from the others, was continuous and intense.

And, well worth it. So many kids have benefitted from a different opportunity, an opportunity not available elsewhere.

And at the same time, it is a great relief to pass the baton of leadership to a younger generation of leaders.

At my final ICS gala , I was singing along with the Wolftones, the wonderful ICS faculty band:

I was retiring but Dee was going to stay on at ICS as Vice President for Mental Health for at least one more year.

Sometimes I find myself wishing that I had left them an easier task. But it is never ending, always relentless, the pressure to become just like everyone else.

What a burden and a blessing to be Sisyphus.

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