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Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Our kids have tough enough lives. They have enough of negativity and scorn and frowning. Smile. They deserve it.

When I was still new to consistent, everyday Zen practice, I discovered Being Peace (Parallax Press, 1987), Thich Nhat Hanh’s seminal work. Parts of the book blew me away, and I was completely taken by the example of his life and his teaching. Yet he also said some things that struck me as totally hokey. The most memorable of these was his injunction to smile. It reminded me of all the songs we sang in elementary school.

“When you smile, the world smiles with you.”

“When you walk through the storm…” Little Mary Sunshine. Why should I smile? The world was full of suffering. The Buddha knew that. I would sit stern-faced, I would learn to relate differently to my anger, but I didn’t need to smile.

Fast Forward

Fast forward ten years.

I am taking advantage of an early retirement buy-out to leave my job with the New York State Office of Mental Health. I have flown out to California to visit Roshi Bernie Glassman. Am I ready to step from this 100-foot pole? Whatever he said encouraged me. I am going to find out where this Zen Peacemaker path will lead me. Retiring from Brooklyn Children’s Center where I have worked for the past two years, heading up outpatient programs. There is a party for the three of us who are taking the early retirement, when I am confronted by a psychiatrist who I am pretty sure doesn’t like me.

“I am really going to miss you,” she says. Shock. “And you know, the thing I am going to miss the most is that no matter how bad things got, you never stopped smiling.”

Bowled me over. Thich Naht Hanh’s advice echoed. It’s a strange thing, this Zen practice: despite the fact that I thought the intention to smile absurd, here I was ten years later smiling. Even when things got tough, the joy of being alive and awake was present.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but right around that moment Daniel Goleman and his colleagues were reporting on two years of research which described the applicability of what I was discovering for myself to a variety of business contexts.[1]

So now, laughing at my stubbornness, smiling when I think of Thay’s advice, as I walk through our schools, I am always appreciative of the smiling faces of the teachers and the students. The grumpy teacher stands out like a sore thumb.

This is not an accident.

We set out from the beginning to build a team which, in Evelyn’s phrase “plays well in the sandbox.” We are looking for people with positive team experiences behind them, who had felt somewhere in their lives (not necessarily at work) the joy of being on a great team. We are looking for people who would rather collaborate than work alone, who enjoy helping others and who are able to accept help themselves. We are looking for people who other people like to be around. We are looking for people who smile.

Teamwork – real, whole school team work and collaboration between network schools – none of this arises easily. Schools, like all large organizations, are prone to various forms of tribalism. We have worked quickly to address potential antagonism between faculty and support staff and between education and mental health professionals. And we work to address and, when necessary, weed out negativity.

Our kids have tough enough lives. They have enough of negativity and scorn and frowning. Smile. They deserve it.

Schools Full of Smiles

Our schools are full of smiles: Smiling teachers who are happy to be part of our great adventure, demonstrating to the world that integrating students living with disabilities with non-disabled peers (and not just the above average students, not integration for the elite, but integration for all); smiling students who are happy to be accepted, who are proud to be learning. Lots of smiles.

Smile. That doesn’t mean no correction.

Back in College

My college roommate, Peter, arrived at Carleton from the University of Chicago Lab School where they didn’t believe in correcting students for fear of stifling their creativity. Peter had never had his spelling or grammar corrected. Peter’s first college paper was returned emblazoned with the professor’s red pencil hen scratches. As a college freshman, he had to now learn all the spelling and grammar that he had not learned on his own.

To smile doesn’t mean “don’t correct.” In fact, correcting is part of the joy of the shared experience of teaching and learning. A correction is not a sign of failure for teacher or student but an opportunity for growth. “I can grow more as a student by learning this.” “I can grow more as a teacher by learning to teach this better.” Smile.

Sometimes as I walk into the building I realize that I am frowning. We all have struggles in our lives; we all have frustrations and fears and tensions. And sometimes these negativities seem to take over our worlds. Mostly I can feel these dissolve as I am walking into the building. It is amazing that despite the stresses in my life, some personal, some work-related, that we have been able to build these schools.

This year we are serving almost 900 students, with over 200 faculty and staff. Students who no one thought would graduate from high school are graduating and going on to college now, most of them joyfully sharing this educational experience. I smile.

My first Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi talked about waking up in the morning, often with great pain in his knee. “Good morning, pain,” he would say to himself aloud. “This means I am still alive.”


[1] “Primal Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, December 2001.

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