Head of School Blog

Backyard Lessons

Jill Singleton
As the assigned “storyteller” in our Community Time Assembly this week, I shared this anecdote from my own childhood on the topic of service-oriented leadership. All parents are invited to our Mid-Month Gathering on Tuesday, November 12, 8:30am in the church.

Growing up in Hoboken, I spent a lot of time playing with the 55 children who lived “on the block.” While various games and activities came and went, the intensity with which we each played did not; it was as though we were all wired to become “expert” at a given task and then boredom would set in and we’d need to take on a new challenge. Active play rotations included Ringalario, Johnny on a Pony, Hopscotch, roller skating, Kick the Can, and Double Dutch jump rope. And then there were the hand-eye coordination games, which included bottle caps, yoyos, tops, and marbles. For a brief time one especially hot summer, however, the play moved to the back of the houses, where the shade of the yards shielded us from the hot sun. It was that summer that I learned an important lesson about leadership, and one that I would hearken back to for important insights about parenting.

Our backyards, though small and separated by a series of mismatched fences, were secretly connected through holes and other flaws in the structures that were designed to keep us apart. Most of the yards had sheds which had outlived their function, and had become a storage place for garden tools, childhood toys, or other bric a brac. The yards also contained a colony of stray cats that roamed throughout the urban wilderness, scavenging for scraps of food, water, or shelter from the elements. That summer our family’s shed became a sort of club house to my friends and me. We’d go in there to escape the heat of the sun, being careful not to upset the gigantic spider that had made her web in the Concord grape vines that virtually encased the doorway. Shortly after we began inhabiting the place, the cats started to come around, attracted by the morsels of food and attention we offered. Before we knew it, my friends and I were running an ad hoc animal shelter for cats. The way we saw it, they needed us. Some were injured or malnourished, others were barely old enough to be on their own, and several were old and near the end of their time. At night we could hear them screaming and fighting over territory in the yards, and we’d lie awake in our beds wondering which one might be injured and need us more than ever in the morning.

Without planning it, a system of organization emerged between us. Someone brought cat food, a handful of dry dog food they scooped out of their pet’s dish, or a can of tuna fish their parents wouldn’t notice missing from the cupboard. Someone would invariably brings snacks for us, of course – cookies and iced tea, or, if we were really lucky, a bit of candy or a cold bottle of Coca Cola. This is where my story really begins. In the same way that I was fully enthused about yoyos or bottle caps, I got really invested in our backyard animal shelter. I didn’t want it to come and go like bottle caps, so I created a system in which each person was tasked with bringing a different food item each day to ensure the cats had what they needed. Sometimes my friends would bring in the wrong thing, and I’d be sure to correct them and remind them of what they were supposed to be doing. As their self-elected leader, I took on the responsibility of making sure they understood the system and their place within it. After all, the well being and survival of our cats hung in the balance.

As you can imagine, my friends stopped coming, and eventually so did the cats. One day I waited in the shed with a handful of hand-picked grapes for my friends, but they didn’t come. I called to the cats, but they didn’t come either. All that was left was the monster spider and me. At some point I heard voices sailing across the yards on the wind, and I realized that my friends had move their play down to a neighbor’s shed. Of course it took some time, but eventually I realized that my friends wanted to play in a world that was not overly structured or governed by my unnecessary rules. They wanted to engage in play that did not require external controls, but rather thrives on its own internal structure and control. I learned that leadership is not always about being the one in charge, but is rather about recognizing the gifts that each person brings to the table; if a leader does not take the needs and desires of the group into account, and is blinded by his/her own personal vision, there just might not be anyone signed on to the job of following.

Thoughts? Comments? Ideas? I’ve love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com