Facilitation 101

Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.


One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).

I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.

He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.

He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”

In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.

My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.

I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.

All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.

He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”

Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?

“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.

Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.

“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”

There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.

“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.

It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”

As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”

I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.

I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.

Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.

The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.

Awake to Possibilities

Young plant

I submitted a piece of my writing for publication. I sent an essay to a literary magazine that was soliciting work on the theme of ‘starting over.’ It was a topic that resonated with me, so, months ago, I sent it in. I haven’t been rejected….yet.

Over the last two years and three months (but who’s counting?) that I have been writing, I have summoned the courage to submit three times. Once to a different literary magazine, once for entry to a writing class, and this most recent time.  The other two times, I was rejected.

One of the lessons I took from my first writing workshop, in July of 2015 (which I wrote about here), was that not all rejections are equal. Our workshop leader said that a rejection that came with a personal comment, beyond the usual form letter, shouldn’t be counted as a rejection. Yes, ultimately it was a rejection, but, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. He also explained that if you were published one out of every ten times you submitted something, consider yourself successful. That helped put things in perspective – and I took his words to heart.

The first piece I submitted, I got an email rejection that said this (I ‘bolded’ the key sentence):

Although we do not have a place for your work in the special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization, we wanted you to know that our readers read your essay closely. 

We received several hundred excellent submissions, from which we are only able to select a handful. We are grateful to everyone who took the time to think, and write, about issues of race, racism, and rationalization and had to reject many very good pieces. We encourage you to consider submitting this piece to other journals. This is not a conversation that should be confined to special issues. 

Thank you for sending us your work

I wasn’t sure how to categorize this. Was this a partial victory? I was tempted to reach out to our workshop leader and ask him to rate it since I had nothing to compare it to.  I didn’t know if everyone got the same encouragement either.  Alas, I didn’t reach out to him. I didn’t submit it elsewhere, at least not yet.

One of the interesting things that I am learning is that to be a published writer, there is another skill set, in addition to writing, that one needs. You need to have the energy and wherewithal to research magazines, editors and publishers. You need to have the energy and wherewithal to network and promote yourself and, in the jargon of the business, ‘build your platform’. I think it is fair to say that I am deficient in this – in fact, I think the same deficiency stunted my career in education policy.

This may sound like one of those flaws that isn’t really meant as a flaw (like saying ‘I’m too modest’). But, it truly is a flaw. I find it very difficult to sustain the enthusiasm and confidence it takes to promote myself. What I want to do is write. But, I do want to be in conversation with others – which means wider exposure. My blog allows me to do that to some extent. So, the question is, do I have the will and the desire to pursue this? Do I have the energy to do the things that might expand the readership of my blog?

This process, of writing, blogging and submitting pieces, has opened my eyes. When I was a child, I harbored so many hopes and dreams. They ranged from aspiring to be an Olympic figure skater (I loved Peggy Fleming!) to curing cancer or finding a way to eliminate air pollution. Early on I realized I didn’t have an affinity for science and my flat feet made skating painful. I moved on to other dreams. I wanted to be Barbara Walters. The idea of being a journalist, someone who interviewed famous people, wasn’t as far-fetched. At some point, though, I stopped thinking about those things. I moved on to an adult life – busy with graduate school or work, children, family, friends, the quotidian chores of life. My ambition was gone. I barely noticed when it left.

When I started writing, something happened. A sense of possibility was reawakened.

In a couple of different instances, I think at a Weight Watcher meeting years ago and then maybe watching an Oprah episode, the question was asked: what are you hoping for? What is a dream you have for yourself? I couldn’t think of anything and it wasn’t because my life was so perfect that I couldn’t imagine more. It was that I had stopped thinking about possibilities. Other than wanting to travel more, which wasn’t really the kind of thing they were getting at, I didn’t have hopes for myself. At the time, I didn’t know what to do about that, or if I was, in fact, missing out. I was just managing my life day-to-day.

Waiting to hear if a piece I submitted is accepted is nerve wracking, but exciting too. I am awake to the possibilities. It seems there is always that tradeoff in life. If you love, you risk loss. If you try, you risk failure. If you hope, you risk disappointment.

For many years I thought that the absence of my ambition didn’t have downside. It hadn’t been a conscious decision to give up on accomplishing more. The need, the desire, was just gone. I’m not sure that it is back, but I’m considering the possibilities.

A Remembrance

I stood at the foot of the hospital bed, playing solitaire on the tray table.  With each turn of a card, I looked up to see my father’s large blue-gray eyes staring at me.  Memorizing my face?  Asking for something?

He was beyond speech; four years into his illness.  Chronic lymphocytic leukemia was supposed to be relatively benign.  “You can live with this for twenty years and likely die of something else,” said the doctor at the time.   Four years later, aged 72, he was diapered and speechless in a hospice bed. I didn’t understand how he had gotten to this point. Even though I saw the disease rob my father of himself, bit by bit, it was still a shock.

When I was growing up, he was often mistaken for a wrestler or football player.  Such was my father’s presence.  A deep, resonant voice, broad shoulders, with a bald head and prominent nose – he was the perfect dean of a New York City high school.

He was also the perfect social studies teacher.  A voracious reader; he consumed biographies of Jefferson, Lincoln, Russian histories, westerns by Louis L’Amour, and any and all novels about the mob.  All with equal gusto.

I continued playing solitaire.  The slap of the cards on the laminate was a familiar sound to him.  I would hear that sound as I came down the stairs in my own house, when my parents visited, and see him at my kitchen table, playing solitaire while waiting for the rest of us to be ready to go – wherever it was we were going, Dad was always ready early.

I kept looking up at his eyes.

My flight was 5:45 a.m. the next day, Sunday, March 13, 2005.  That flight would get me home in time to see Leah’s final dance recital (she was a senior in high school and would be going on to college in the fall) and to celebrate Daniel’s 16th birthday.  I took my leave, giving him a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze of his diminished arm. My mom and my brother Mark were with him and that comforted me.

He died that next day, on my son’s birthday, during my daughter’s dance recital.

I still see his eyes looking at me.


Who Decides?



His skin is mottled,

He is 94.

He stands erect,

He walks with assurance.

He says, I feel the same as I always feel.


Right now, I think.

He can’t imagine feeling different,

He doesn’t remember.


Months before, winter of 2016, hospitalized 5 times or more in Florida,

Weakened by persistent diarrhea and congestive heart failure.

We see his mortality as he lay in a hospital bed,

Grateful to have his ‘son the doctor’ by his side.

He felt his vulnerability – then, not now.


Summer of 2017, Saugerties, NY.

They have a full-time aide,

Living ten minutes from their daughters.

Close to their sons.

In an apartment, furnished with familiar things,

In a new community, in an unfamiliar place.


I arrive to take him to his doctor’s appointment,

We leave his wife, many years into Alzheimer’s, with the aide.

We step outside into the light so bright, he shields his eyes til they adjust.

He walks with purpose to the car.

Fall is in the air, he says.

Almost time to go back to Florida, he tells me


I start the car and drive,

I don’t respond to his comment about Florida.

What to say?


When was the last time he drove?

He would not be able to navigate the roads to the doctor’s office,

Or the paperwork,

Or explain his complex medical history.


He might understand the doctor’s instructions,

He is a compliant patient.

He has an iron will,

Which may explain his 94 years.


His long life brought him from the woods in Poland

Where he fought with the partisans against the Nazis,

To fight in the Russian army,

To survive by any means necessary.

To a displaced persons’ camp,

To immigrate to the United States,

To build a life.

To outlive friends and family, still bound to Paula, his children and his faith.


Should he and Paula go to Florida?

What is the right balance between their quality of life and their safety?

What is the right balance between David’s wishes and the peace of mind of his children?

Who decides?