for Tony Hoagland

At a college poetry reading, I got to speak with the late Tony Hoagland. He’s one of my favorite poets, but of that conversation, I remember almost nothing. What I do remember, quite often, is the message he wrote in my copy of Donkey Gospel (epic title).

For Nick, Great wishes of good writing and teaching to you. Be fierce!

He knew I was taking creative writing and was planning on being a teacher, so that makes sense, but be fierce? Like a tiger?

Those who know me, besides some who saw my dark side as a soccer player, would not describe me as fierce. I rarely yell. I often avoid confrontation, and I like to be the voice-of-reason guy whenever possible. In other words, not fierce, which is why Hoagland’s advice has been crucial.

Be fierce! It feels so good to say to yourself, to command yourself. It makes you electric. It gives you tiger blood. It’s like drinking jet fuel. It allows you to cry in front of at least 50 people on a Zoom call!

Flashback to being a leader at an all-boys overnight summer camp, 2008-2013. Our camp director was the best off-the-cuff public speaker I know. Without fail, he’d pump us full of confidence (“not arrogance”) the night before opening day. Without fail, he’d make us feel like we were doing the greatest job on the planet–and that he loved us. He would cry, and he’d say, “If you have a problem with crying, that’s your problem,” and without fail, we would cry. He was a fierce leader, not to mention he wore sweatshorts June through August. Monday through Sunday.

Jump to end-of-year faculty meetings following the COVID spring. We were back on Zoom, and we were talking about what we missed as teachers during the pandemic. I sat and listened to my colleagues share, and I could feel the tightness in my throat. I knew if I unmuted, it was going to get real.

My initial thought: let’s not lose it in front of the entire faculty. All I have to do is keep my mouth shut. Let the moment slip away into the coronavirus fog. No need to pile on for participation points. No need to…in float Tony Hoagland’s menacing Donkey Gospel scribbles with an exclamation on top. Be fierce!

I spoke, and I­. Lost. It.

I never stopped crying. I talked about how hard it was to wake up each day knowing that I wouldn’t be going to work with my students. Knowing instead that I’d be plodding my way through the blurry world of distance learning. As an administrator in student life, that meant more virtual triaging and less time with kids. It meant a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no peanut butter and jelly.

At the same time, I felt like I was seeing a lighthouse after being lost at sea. I remembered what I was fighting for: students and the magic of their learning. Before that moment, none of my school colleagues had seen my cry. It was liberating. My fear of looking weak did not stop me from being real. As a final comfort, my friends thanked me for my words, rather than questioning my ability to lead.

Flash forward a couple of weeks to my camp staff meetings. It’s my 19th consecutive summer, and I’m training on Zoom? Virtual camp is underway, and physical camp is COVIDCANCELED. Different employer, but a similar sense of loss–and Tony’s scribbles.

Again, I was addressing the entire staff, but this time reading a letter from one of my campers 10 years ago. I lost it, again. Like before, I felt lighter, and the response was positive. One friend told me afterward that he was ready to run through a brick wall. It was hard, but it was right. I felt like I was “letting life out of the box, uncapping the bottle to let the effervescence gush through the narrow, usually constricted neck.”

My natural tendency is to avoid crying altogether, especially in public. It’s ironic that Tony’s advice has led me to weep in broad daylight. Yet, vulnerability, which requires fierceness, is essential to good culture and leadership.

The world requires fierceness. Fierceness, not complacency, will defeat injustice. Fierceness, not negativity, will overcome adversity. Fierceness, not submissiveness, will heal wounds. Fierce good will triumph over evil.

I thank Tony Hoagland for his scribbles. I like to think he’d get a good laugh knowing that a random book signing, of all his work, is what moved one of his fans to tears.

May you be fierce in life and love.

Nick is a school/camp administrator, teacher, coach, and the founder of GoodMenders LLC: building better culture for educational equity.

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