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Fallen Leaves

Seasons change slowly and then all of a sudden. Where do our fallen leaves go?

faded autumn leaves piled

I’m not sure how it happened. I think it was overnight; the wind picked up, or maybe it rained a bit. We were all sleeping, tired after a long, active day of school and dance class and dinner, the bedtime battle and then collapse.

The morning sun arrived, signally what we knew was inevitable, it has passed. The height of fall. The leaves swirl on the ground now, once vibrant reds and golds beginning to fade. Soon our steps will trample those that remain free from our efforts to capture and control what we can: lawn bags set to the curb.

My daughter comes down the stairs, iPad in hand, watching her anime show. Last year she watched lego videos. Still looking down, she walks to me, “I’m hungry, can you make me breakfast?”

Fighting the frustration of the interruption, I set down my coffee and walk to the pantry: “Sure, hon, did you have a good night sleep?”As I reach for the Cheerios, my mind reaches ahead to the day in the near future where this height will not be out of her reach, where she will not even think to ask me, where we will not share this seemingly meaningless morning moment.

“Mmm hmmm,” she says, apparently to her iPad.

Meaningless Morning Moments

Yes, indeed, I know all too well. Not just at home but at work too, I am surrounded by such moments. Each child, each interaction—autumn leaves, some clinging, some dropping, some preserved pressed in scrap books, all heavy with potential to shift from meaninglessness to memory. Sometimes, hard to know what it will be.

As a teacher, like all teachers, I face the inevitable: my students grow up. It happens much slower for those kindergarten teachers among us, but for those who teach upperclassmen in the high school it happens quickly. The fresh, new teacher just hired arrives to teacher workshops in the fall, and you realize she looks familiar. Then it hits, “Yes, I taught her first semester junior honors English, she sat in the third row, next to the window. Nice kid.”

For many, you may never see them again.

It’s difficult sometimes to get a sense of the passage of time working in a school. A new group of students arrive in the fall, and others leave in the spring; others return but only for a time. It isn’t until you run into a former student at Target with her new baby in tow that you realize how much time actually passed. In fifteen, sixteen years, lives are lived, choices made, new generations come and go.

My colleague Carol once said that her role is to be part of someone’s past. At first it seemed like such an odd way of looking at it, but that’s, in many ways, the best hope. So often we will forget. I forget them; they forget me. Leaves taken to the curb or integrated back into the soil.

You wonder if you’ve had an impact. You wonder what lessons have they taken with them? You know your own experiences, both good and otherwise, and know how easy it is to leave a mark or a scar. Whose to say which? Whose to know what fallen leaves remain? The slight twitch of the face, a breath, a word misspoken—misconstrued even. These moments linger, spiral around in the wind of the subconscious, yet some cover the ground enough to stop growth. I have my own; I’m sure you do too.

At the Table

As I place the milk back in the refrigerator and sit at the kitchen table, my memory oddly places me in front of that scholarship audition table years ago.

“Oh,” his eyes looked up as he let out a breath. “That’s right, you’re from a small town, right?” He turns to the other assessor in the room sitting at the long table, Diet Coke placed before the stacked papers. His eyes shifted; his head nodded. I guess he knew.

“Yep, “ I smiled and nodded, but I could feel a shift in the room.

My eyes darted, and I reviewed what I had just said: “Band president , drum major, jazz band, choir, swing choir, the musical, speech, dance, cheerleading captain, track, 4-H, Kolacky Queen …” All these things I had been so proud of, had worked so hard for. These activities took my time and energy and missed-sleep and heart, and he discounted so quickly. He knew…and I didn’t.

Here, I thought enough to be proud of this high school body of work. I was told these activities mattered, that they would help for college scholarships. But mostly these activities were how I expressed myself creatively, leading, creating, sharing, working, and encouraging others.

Earlier that fall, I had taught a group of football players how to salsa dance for the musical West Side Story. I studied, experimented, and finally arranged all the dance steps I wanted. I broke it down, wrote it out, and talked it through step-by-step, believing that if these guys can do footwork on the football field, they could do it on the stage floor too. I believed in them. I had to.

I looked back at the long interview table, the scholarship committee scribbling down notes. I felt a twinge of regret. I should have just said theatre and speech.

“We’ll be making our decisions soon, and you’ll hear from us in a couple weeks.”

“Thank you.” I gathered my bag and music and left the room.

Dropping Leaves

Yet part of me never left that room. I see it now, this fallen leaf of my past, a memory unknowingly preserved and pressed. This, too, was simply a meaningless moment to the teacher sitting on the other side of the table. Oh, the power that we as teachers and parents and people hold. In that moment years ago, I stood before the table—a leaf fallen, no, dropped— proud of my accomplishments but, in an instant, sensing I should discount them that I had been foolish for thinking otherwise.

Imposter syndrome, I think they call it now. But that makes it sound like it is something we create ourselves. Each one of us has that moment in our subconscious, the long table of judges whose subtle body language or not so subtle discrediting words have discounted work we have poured our whole selves into. But then again, I remember my friend Lisa in my junior year in college would say to me, “Don’t poo-poo what you do.” She was sensing that I was still stuck in the room.

Bare Branches Extending

As a teacher and mom and a friend, I hope that my words do not lead to someone feeling the way I felt; yet I know they have. The number of words and students and childhood years and moments and life, all leaves falling beyond my control, tell me some must have. But I realize that this edge drives my work here in Lead with Grace. This is the work: the edge of the self-doubt and self-limitation and the encouraging of others in their everyday leadership. We fear that if we are not focused enough or big enough that our actions don’t matter. I see this leaf pressed in the scrapbook of memory, and I scratch out the caption written by another. We choose the meaning of these moments. I choose another meaning for this moment. We are not just the leaves; we are the trees.

I gaze at my daughter gazing at her iPad and then look out the window. It seems to happen overnight, doesn’t it? “I love you, kiddo. Do you want to play in the leaves with me later?”

Yes, these moments, if they matter to us, they matter. My heart and arms, bare branches extending. The wind whips, leaves swirl, my faith grounds and roots me strong as I hear God's whisper: work done in love matters. I pick up the pen, more pages to find.

Download the mini-journal resource below to guide your own reflection along with the podcast episode.

Fallen Leaves Journals
Download PDF • 6.32MB

Lead with Grace, The Podcast celebrates the mosaic of everyday leaders leading right where they are with everything they are. Blending the practical and profound, conversations explore stories of vocation, especially as it intersects with communication, collaboration, connection, and calling.

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