I had the honor of participating in A Principal Experience, which is a program that unites local businesses and community leaders with Madison’s public schools. I was able to serve as a Principal Partner for one day, and had the privilege of spending my day with Mr. Bruce Dahmen, Principal at James Madison Memorial High School.
I graduated from JMM in 1987. Mr. Dahmen was a teacher then, and Mrs. Dahmen was my cheerleading coach. Although I didn’t know him personally very well, I knew what he stood for – kindness, fun, character, integrity, hard work, respect, honesty, leadership – and that’s the short list.
I’m going to share a little bit of my wall of fame, not because I think you care in the least, but to give this story the impact it deserves; to give Mr. Dahmen his due credit for the example he set for me. I left Memorial in 1987 graduating in the top 5% of my class, National Honor Society, the yellow cord around my neck, captain of the cheerleaders, and MVP on the gymnastics team. Looks good on paper, however success is measured by greater standards. I made a few bad choices in high school sprinkled in with all that other good stuff. Nothing that was going to take it away, nor prevent me from going on to accomplish my goals, but things that mattered for other reasons.
I won’t go into detail…because I don’t want to make this about me and there’s nothing wrong with a little mystery…but I realized later in life that it wasn’t so much the bad choice, but how I handled it with Mr. Dahmen. No bloodshed, no visible scars, but it always bothered me. All that good stuff was muddied in my mind.
Fast forward many, many years later. I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of a gym where I’m going to spend the day training fitness professionals to be inspiring teachers because they are not just physically strong, but mentally strong. I’m going to talk to them about their “why” and what it means to truly care about your students. Offer tips and real education on how to behave with integrity, character and positivity the minute they pull into the parking lot. Their brand is beyond how strong their biceps are, how high their side push kick is, or how deep they can go into their Warrior II. Their brand is about being a good person AND a good fitness professional.
More background from that day; I was 38 years old, happily married, 3 awesome kids and working in career I loved that was flourishing. Living my best life…on paper. But, I would think about Mr. Dahmen on occasion and how my handling of that situation with him in high school did not at all represent what I was teaching. Nor was it what I wanted to teach my 3 kids – the lesson of doing the right thing even when it’s really, really hard. So before I went in, I called information, got his phone number and on that Sunday morning I called him. I apologized. Not because it would make any difference in my life as far as “success” but it mattered. It mattered because the gift of Mr. Dahmen is that his force and light are so strong it never stopped shining on me. Glaring might be a better word. I felt the heat rather than the warmth.
I can’t explain exactly why it moved me so much that particular day, but it did. I spoke to both Mr. and Mrs. Dahmen. It had been years. I’m sure they were giving each other a very special look of “I don’t know, now she wants to talk to you!?!?” as they passed the phone from one to the other that morning. I wasn’t asking for forgiveness as much I wanted him to know he was right. He was just. He was good. He lived with high standards. I noticed. I wanted him to know that what he thought of me mattered because of who he was.
My life on the outside didn’t change. I still have 3 kids, an awesome husband and career I love. I can still claim all those things I earned in high school, but I know there are things that matter more. A heart of accountability and honesty is a good heart. I felt better, bigger, and stronger. I’ve never even told anyone about this phone call. It truly wasn’t for anyone but me.
Your environment will organize itself around the standards that you set. Mr. Dahmen lived that. His environment responded to his high standards. It wasn’t about who you were as far as title, grade point, career choice, or family name. It was about, are you a good person? Do you behave with humility, integrity, kindness, fortitude? Do you do it the right way? This is why he attracted and inspired so many. Myself included.
I took pages and pages of notes when we sat down at his conference table to close out A Principal Experience. I searched for them all afternoon to no avail. I have them somewhere, but if you saw my office you would understand the magnitude of this task in 4 hours. However, I do remember the most important thing he said. He commented that Memorial has it’s problems but there are certain destructive behaviors he will not tolerate. He used the phrase, “Not Here.” Not here. I fell in love with that and have used it 100 times since then. What do you tolerate? Is your message loud and clear about what is “Not Here” with you?
So Mr. Dahmen , my heart aches. This has been a hard, hard day. It aches even more for my children. I wanted them to have as much of you as they possibly could. And it aches the most for your family. Your amazing wife and boys. I know your legacy will live on, but I also promise to commit to doing my very best to live like you. To be strong without being an ass. 😉 I mean that with love. You spoke with your actions louder than your words. We hear a lot of noise from people about who they are and how they live, but at the end of the day we believe what they do.
You did. “Not Here” was about how you lived, not what you said.