“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” says the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. 

We thought we had it all figured out, like avocado toast. Pre-pandemic, we added pumpkin seeds and feta and Mike’s hot honey and slathered it on Mestemacher rye bread. We made guacamole and avocado quinoa bowls. But there was more to this berry, more to discover, and we had a year of a global pandemic to find truths. 

One year later from the start of the March pandemic, we have realized that we never want to be the experts, we want to always be the beginner. The beginner helps us realize that the most exciting part of this year has been the epiphanies. The discoveries. The things we don’t want to go back to and the things we want to hold sacred.

In school leadership and in motherhood, my discovery has been simple: Don’t peel the skin too soon, honor the sacred seed underneath, and the golden ripeness of the buttery flesh of the fruit will be bountiful. 

We all faced the same challenges—surviving the day, getting to end of the week. Bringing others along to get to the end of the week. Then hit restart. My fellow leaders, the lists of challenges go on ad nauseum, none of which will surprise you.

Attendance. Camera policies. Teacher training. Digital platforms—which to choose? Closing the gap on inequities, access to technology, Wi-Fi. Deaths of family members. Trauma of domestic violence, sexual abuse, physical isolation, and being psychologically overwhelmed. Teacher observations. Communication tools. Consent forms. Compliance lists. Desk shields. Credit extensions. Extra batteries for temperature-checking thingmajigs. Lunch and breakfast distribution. Should I have a school-run Tik Tok? Full-day district meetings. Full day of any meeting. Authentic assessments. Mental health support. State exams. Curricula. Team building. Defining flexibility. Anti-Racism and Black Lives Matter commitment. Partnerships (is there even time for this?). Bathroom social distancing plans. Town halls. Another video, another newsletter, another email. Just to name a few. 

In the midst of retrospection and introspection and all the ‘spections and reflections, with all the time we had to investigate all the Google searches we never had time to before, we made real discoveries. 

Yes, there are more types of avocado than just Hass. Yes, we can do more than guacamole. Here are some of my avocado epiphanies, one year into the pandemic as a mother and a school leader:

Avocados Are Self-Pollinating 

My attitude, my energy, my focus, and the way I spread these seeds at the kitchen table in the morning with my children and in my first encounter or meeting of the day, on Zoom or in person, will help to spread seeds. Each day is an opportunity to decide what type of seed I want to spread.

Mom epiphany: It’s okay to have frozen waffles some days, because other days I can make a veggie-filled frittata. I want to model flexibility and gentleness with myself and my children. I want to move away from mom guilt, and accept my son’s words, “you’re already great mom, you don’t need to try so hard.” 

Principal epiphany: Focus on the folks who can spread seeds of positivity and the quality of their seeds. Give them space to spread these seeds. High winds reduce the humidity, dehydrate the flowers, and can affect pollination. Gentle zephyrs only for leaders.

Avocados Take Time to Grow 

Avocados can be propagated by the seed in a process called grafting, taking roughly four to six years to bear fruit, and even up to 10 years. My time, and how I used it pre-pandemic and now, has come into a sharp focus. It’s been a hard lesson to learn, but one I own now. 

Mom epiphany: It’s not okay to miss so many dinners and family events. Pre-pandemic, I worked sometimes till 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. too many nights to count. It’s not okay. My children and this fleeting time with them will never come back. My son only has 365 days to be six years old, and none of those will ever reappear in his or my lifetime again. 

Principal epiphany: It’s okay to not finish everything. Accept the unfinished to-do list. Accept something completed, rather than perfect. Done is better than undone. Be gentle with yourself. No one will remember your legacy based on the pie charts on your Excel sheet or your last memo. 

Avocados Ripen With Bananas 

If you want to ripen an avocado, put it in a paper bag with a banana. There are hundreds of varietals of avocados, and even more so with hybrids. If I bring together unlike people, ideas, things—this is where real innovation thrives. Diversity and representation and shared experiences make the soup richer. 

Mom epiphany: Have I considered who my friends are? Pre-pandemic, who came to our dinner parties? Who do we spend time with? Do they represent different cultures? Perspectives? Gender and sexuality? Inclusive representation of whom you surround yourselves matters. Children learn by showing, not telling. I want to make small shifts to show them about acceptance of all people, always. And it starts with me. 

Principal epiphany: Start with vulnerability. Let others teach you, and thank them for teaching you and taking the lead. This past year, I had folks on my staff who were much more versed in the work, studies, and research of anti-racism than I was. I stepped aside and became a listener and learner. They led the workshops, and I attended. You don’t need to be at the helm of all knowledge vertices. 

Avocados Can Be Sous Vide 

We can go beyond the guacamole, not that there’s anything wrong with guacamole! We can take culinary expeditions, we can take risk, and we can let go of what we can’t control for the sake of what’s to come. We can confit avocados in bacon fat, smoke and roast it. Serve it with Challerhocker cheese sauce and shaved Perigord truffles. 

Mom epiphany: Dessert for breakfast is okay sometimes. Learning to play video games or watching Fuller House (the remake) because your kids enjoy it, and it gives you time to connect with them, is your culinary risk of the day. Pat yourself on the back, and give Brawl Stars a whirl. You will be grateful when you see their delight. 

Principal epiphany: Sometimes I wonder how many times I will use the same eyeroll emoji reaction to a new policy or speech from a policymaker above us making decisions that made me wonder: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do you see our students and teachers? How can I get you to look into the paper bag and check on the avocados, care about each one, without damaging the flesh inside the skin? We don’t need expeditions with our emotional well-being. We need to feel cared for, we need you (district folks) to remove the extraneous weeds, so we can take care of those in our care. 

Avocados Divide Into Two Halves 

We are a nation divided. A people divided. 2020 brought our differences to light in a way that felt old and new again. Some of us are Choquettes, which has smooth, glossy skin with watery flesh that often leaks when the fruit is cut. Some of us are Lulas, which peak during the summertime and have fewer oils. Yet we all have a responsibility for what we do, especially when it involves other people, good intentions or not. 

Mom epiphany: It’s okay to take care of myself, my body, my health. It’s okay to make time to do yoga and take a run. I will be a better mother if I have strength of body and mind. I don’t have to compare my outer skin to yours. Mine may be purplish and pebbly, but the richness of my fruit is on the inside. I want to focus on feeding my whole self. I can be two selves, or four or six if I choose. 

Principal epiphany: We don’t need to bring everyone to our side. We can have differences in opinions, except when it comes to race and inclusivity. We need to continue daily the work of building inclusive cultures while allowing everyone to arrive to the farm at their own pace, using tools that make sense for them. Our work is to keep the momentum going, just not full-day meetings. No one has the attention span for any professional development, no matter how great, for eight and a half hours. Refrain. Ah, the beloved berry, from a flowering plant with its anti-inflammatory goodness, the nutty, creamy flesh, its healing powers—from face masks to hair oils, the possibilities are boundless for the avocado, if you stay a beginner. The variety grows slowly, but the trees bear a lot of fruit.

6 Comments

  • Awesome piece, thanks for sharing this. So personal, so universal, all at once. You captured all of what my principalship felt like before I retired a few years ago. I wrote irregularly but furiously like this, a whirlwind of thoughts coalescing all at once. Much love to you and your home family and school family. You helped me remember again what those times felt like. We were in a pandemic of a different sort–starting a new STEM school in a 95% free lunch high school. Great kids and parents and great teachers for the most part. I figured out that you might as well operate as though everyone is great and will do their best….it helps, even though it may not be completely true, I thought, until I realized, maybe I’m not so great, but I sure appreciate when someone acts like I am. Mutual hero-worship goes a long way. Thanks again for a truly memorable slice of your life.

    • Virginia, I love that: operate as though everyone is great and will do their best, and most times- they will meet you there. Thanks for this kind note, I’m glad it resonated, and hope it does for others too.

  • Martin Geoghegan says:

    Thank you, Allison. This was a tremendous article. I love the analogies; so dead on with each of them. Thank you again, Allison. Great Post!

  • Beautiful and poignant reflect from an incredibly strong and compassionate school leader. Thanks for sharing.
    PS-You have time for partnerships, yes. : )

  • jennifer Leigh forgy says:

    I just love this.

  • Alison, This is a remarkable piece filled with provocative thoughts, genuine feelings and inspiring words. I am proud to count you among the Distinguished Cahn Fellows Alumni. Thank you for who you are, for what you do and for what you teach us all.

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