Friday, May 27, 2016

Michael Phelps and Me (I'm swimming better than ever!)

In my last blog I talked about spending summers on the farm in Bunker Hill, KS. One can learn many great life lessons working on a farm.  But the downside of farm life is swimming lessons are not in the curriculum.  Water safety training consisted of stern warnings about falling in the Smokey River (which had water at the time) or a stock pond. "Don't go down to the creek (pronounced crick)" was a constant warning whenever it rained. Although we often ignored the warnings, we never learned to swim.

I've written before about my failed first attempt at running a marathon, but after successfully completing a few, I was looking for a new challenge. The triathlon beckoned- I can run, been riding a bike since I was 5, but...  So at age 40, I decided it was time to learn to swim.  

It helps that my sister married a former high school swimmer and their kids all swim like fish.  Even better, she was good enough to have put in a backyard pool so my panicked floundering wouldn't be open to public view.  Thanks to the efforts of a patient niece, I was finally able to get from one end of the pool to the other with stopping.  While I never put a watch to it, that trip took well over a couple of minutes in a 25-foot pool.  Michael Phelps began to sweat at the prospect.

In time, I practiced and learned more technique and practiced some more.  This might be a good opportunity to apologize to my fellow early morning swimmers at the Emporia State pool and late afternoon lap swimmers at Emporia Rec.  I wasn't trying to aggravate you by clogging the lane; I was swimming as fast as I could. In time, I got to the point of being able to swim a lap in an Olympic pool in a couple of minutes.  Real swimmers will know that is incredibly slow, but it showed improvement.

I finished my first triathlon and even did a few more, when a cocky school administrator and former college swimmer challenged me to a tri race.  Since this fella has tiny short legs, I knew I could best him in the run, and since he is the tightest man since Ebenezer Scrooge, I knew he would be riding his Schwinn stingray from grade school.  Those two events were in the bag.  But the swim?  I had to get better.  I rededicated myself to the cause, read books, watched videos, and got a little better.  A minute thirty seconds for a lap was my best pre-race time.  

Not long after the race, tragedy struck.   Age caught up with me and shoulder surgery cost me a shot at the 2008 Olympics.  I can still get in the pool and crank out a minute thirty lap, so a graph of my progress would look like this:

If I want to brag, I can probably say I'm swimming as well as I ever have.  I could boast that over the past 15 years my swim times improved 85%, or an even bolder (and more misleading) number would be an average 5.6% increase per year. 

But if I want to be honest, the truth is that over the past five to seven years, my swim times have flat-lined.  The improvement I showed from start until a few years ago is flat or has declined. 

Now let’s look at another graph:

An inversion of my swim graph, this shows that total school spending has increased over the past 18 years. One could fudge a bit and say it’s at an all-time high (unadjusted for inflation) or that it has increased about 3% a year.  But just like my swim times, that would only tell half the story.  The truth school boards are dealing with is that spending has gone down and then flat-lined in recent years. 

If my swimming had continued to progress at my early rate, a trip to Rio might have been in my future.  If school’s are expected to progress in an ever competitive world, resources need to go back to their earlier rate of improvement.

Oh, and that cocky school administrator? He was out of the water before I cleared the dock, but I caught him and passed him in the last 100 yards of the run. The good guys always win.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Readers may be tiring of my life on the farm stories, especially since I was only a gentleman farmer as a youth.  My parents concocted this scam on my sister, brother, and I that going to live on our grandparents’ farm from the last day of school to the first day of school would be great fun. As an adult I realize just how great it was for THEM! (OK, I admit, it was great for us kids too.)

One of the best memories of those summers is lunch (or dinner, as it is referred to west of 81.)  In the late 1960’s and early 70’s dinner at the farm in Bunker Hill was a major production.  While my grandparents’ farm was small, especially by today’s standards, the dinner table was full at noon Monday-Saturday.

Bernadine helped my grandmother with the household duties, sometimes assisted by her daughter LauraDawn. Jerry and Bobby were two high school kids who helped with farm and home duties.  There was always a collection of ne’er-do-well farmhands who drank too much and taught us kid’s life-lessons that were not necessarily positive.  Bernadine’s son Bradley was there on a regular basis along with the three of us Heim kids, and rounding out the table was the occasional hanger-on. There were at least a dozen folks and usually more around the table, all pitching in to get the work done.

Fast forward 45 years to the same home place in Bunker Hill.  A couple of octogenarians run that same farm operation.  Anyone who has ever worked with or for Max Heim knows that this isn’t exactly a fair comparison, because he can work any two twenty-year-olds into the ground, but still, what happened?

Obviously, a lot of the farm work is contracted out now, and automation has created efficiencies we couldn’t have dreamed of in 1970.  No-till means that my job of cleaning the bindweed out of the one-way disks is over.  Round bales are God’s gift to sore backs.  I could go on.

Technology and science have created vast efficiencies in the modern world and eliminated many jobs at the same time.  Jobs that any knuckleheaded 15-year-old Heim kid with a strong back could do no longer pay a living wage, if they exist at all.  Schools, too, have changed and we have to keep changing to keep up.  It is impossible to know what jobs and industry a 15-year-old knucklehead will be reflecting nostalgically upon because they don’t exist in 2062.  It is possible to know that things will be different.

Our jobs as school leaders require that we prepare our students for a world that doesn’t exist.  It is a tough job because it requires us to have a foot in the present and one in the future.  But we cannot shy from the task. We have to be prepared to be different.  We have to look beyond getting by for another year and look to a better future for our kids and Kansas.  It’s tough, but believe me it’s better than cleaning bindweed out of a one-way.