In the spring of 2021, as I was grading quizzes in my fourth-grade classroom, my phone vibrated with an alert. It was an email from my head of school, Stanley Winston, consisting only of a subject line: Are you free at the moment?
Here’s what I didn’t know: Somebody had hacked into our school’s computer system, and at that exact moment, every member of the faculty received that email. I learned later that some colleagues went by the head’s office, asking his secretary if he wanted to discuss some urgent matter. Others dialed his extension, leaving confused voicemails asking where to find him. I did something even better.
I knew at that moment, the head was in a closed-door meeting in the room next to my classroom with the director of the Middle School, Chip Mitchell. A few minutes earlier, I had glanced through the window of Chip’s door, and I could tell by the solemn looks on their faces that they were discussing a troubling issue of great seriousness.
“Oh,” I thought to myself. “They must want me in the meeting!” I felt honored to have been invited to contribute to an important discussion with such powerful and influential colleagues as they were grappling with a serious matter. I stood up from my desk, dusted off my blazer, and straightened my tie. Then, with all the aplomb I could muster, I walked into Chip’s office, closed the door behind me, and took a seat at the table between the two esteemed administrators.
What is remarkable in retrospect is that neither of them commented on my unannounced presence in a closed-door meeting I wasn’t supposed to be in. They simply continued their conversation as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Chip must have assumed Stanley had invited me. Stanley must have assumed Chip had invited me. I assumed they had both invited me. But nobody in that room actually understood what was going on.
They continued their conversation, which was about how to counsel out one of my students, who had severe conduct issues, while avoiding a possible lawsuit from his litigious mother. As I looked back and forth from Chip to Stanley, considering their insights into this thorny situation, I began to feel uneasy about the fact that I had not yet said anything. “Elliott,” I said to myself. “They invited you here for a reason. They value your input. Just start talking!”
So, blithely unaware of the fact that all my advice was utterly unsolicited, I began to opine on this major challenge facing the school. I also asked questions: Had we documented what disciplinary actions the school had taken? What alternatives short of expulsion were still viable? Had we sought our attorney’s input about the legal exposure that different courses of action exposed us to? Listening closely, Chip and Stanley began to respond thoughtfully to my concerns, and then my follow-up questions. I had not been invited to this meeting, but I was now running it. When we adjourned, Stanley and Chip both shook my hand and thanked me for my contributions.
Later that afternoon, my colleague Mark, the director of our music department, made an offhand comment to me about “that weird email from Stanley everyone received.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, beginning to tighten.
“You know, that email that said ‘Are you free at the moment?’ Everyone got that. It caused a lot of confusion. I even went by Stanley’s office!”
The realization came over me in waves. I felt humiliated as I replayed the sequence of events in my mind: Assuming I had been invited to that meeting, walking so confidently into the room, sitting at the table, and speaking at length where I had not even belonged.
Tracking My Growth
This tendency to second-guess myself is the result of my personality; I am rather shy and reserved. I tend to worry excessively about how my communications and aspirations will be received by others.
But, on this day, after my initial wave of embarrassment subsided, I realized I had learned something by unintentionally being incredibly bold. Despite my self-doubt and reserved nature, I learned I could in fact step beyond the role I was currently in, taking part in a high-stakes conversation with my school’s leaders, and thrive by making a substantial contribution.
We often grow and learn more about ourselves when we act with courage. My courage that day was accidental, but nonetheless, I learned a valuable lesson. I had not been invited to sit down at that table, but I saw how much I could contribute, and how appreciated I could be, when I boldly claimed my own place at the table of leadership.