‘I Wish You Well’ – 4 Sucky Words in the Education Space

I wish you well. The 4 words that you use when you don’t know what else to say, the 4 words you hate to hear if you’re on the receiving end, the 4 words in education where we pretend that we really care about someone.

This past year, I have come out and shared about the Bipolar disorder that I have been dealing with over the past 25 years. It ain’t easy. Sometimes you’re flying high with no cares in the world; other days it’s hard to get out of bed and wonder if you can survive another day. Yes, I have a cocktail of meds. Yes, I see doctors every month, sometimes on a weekly basis. Yes, I go to a support group and group therapy. Yes, I have had to check into a facility in order to get a ‘reset’ and start fresh. And yes, it sucks. No person with any mental disorder has desires to have it and enjoys living like this.

Unfortunately, another issue with bipolar disorder; we are very sensitive. Sensitive over silly things, sensitive over serious things, sensitive over the smallest of things. Sometimes it invokes tears, other times anger, almost every time leaving one dwelling for hours (sometimes even days or weeks). Such ‘hamster wheeling’ could lead to a downward spiral, which very well could lead to a manic episode.

While I’ve had manic episodes during my teaching career of a decade, the first major full-blown mania happened in 2012. My mania was not being addressed, I stopped taking medicine in December of 2011, and was literally going out of my mind. I don’t remember too much, other than I lost a good amount of weight and felt like I was living a double life. When I resigned, I wanted to reach out to my secretaries to let them know personally. My closest secretary, Debbie, were peas and carrots. She was one of the best secretaries I’ve ever had. Debbie was upset, and rightfully so. We texted a little bit before I checked myself in, and one of the last texts I got from her was “I wish you well”. I didn’t think too much of it, but looking back, I understand. Debbie and I speak on occasion, but the damage was done. My bipolar ended several relationships, ranging from administrators to teachers. I ended up getting a few letters (as in US mail) saying they heard all sorts of things but all hoped I was OK. I was…well… I was on my way to being OK. Better than OK. Back on track. Focused. Medicated, going to therapy, taking of myself.

Moving forward, I ended up taking a K-12 Supervisor position in one of the best school districts in the state with some of the best teachers, administrators, and students. I even got to teach a class of second-semester seniors (which was the equivalent of Kindergarten students I taught, as they were fun, excited, and ready to go into the real world). While my bipolar was in shape, I almost slipped. The position I was hired for was getting merged into another Supervisor position. The lack of job triggered some mania, but at that same time, I began to interview for a position I never thought I would be able to take on: a Superintendent of Schools. Three interviews and 27 reference checks later (you read that right, 27, with each of the 9 board members each calling 3 references), I became the youngest Superintendent in the state. This was both a blessing and a curse with someone who has bipolar disorder.

At 32, being a Superintendent was surreal. I couldn’t even spell ‘Superintendent’ half of the time, and to get a feel of narcissism about a month in. I had it all planned out, I knew all of the answers, I had this following of groupies on Twitter (which was wild within itself, since I was the fat unpopular kid for most of my schooling), and I was going to whatever I want, whenever I want. And I did. Some stuff was needed to be done; other things I did because I was hired to make changes; other times I did it just because I could. By November, I was back to living that double life. Full-blown narcissism, only caring about myself and what I could do to make me shine, sharing it with Twitter, getting all of these followers, likes, and people coming out of the woodwork saying how wonderful I was and wanting to be friends with me or send my playbook. I had to check in twice that year to keep me on task and in check, but managed to pull through year one.

You may be asking how I can remember all of this. Simple; the power of the iPhone. I know this sounds a bit much, but almost every single person I spoke or interacted with since taking the Superintendency in 2013 (and my 2011-12 school year), I kept a file on. I have a couple of hundred notebooks in my garage. For those whom I didn’t keep a file, I had audio recordings. Hundreds of hours of them. And I still have them today. Why? Bipolar folks blackout quite a bit. Keeping dossiers on everyone allowed me to circle back if I forgot about a conversation, topic, etc. Notes, photos, texts, game messages, DMs, pictures, phone calls…you name it, I kept it. To this day, if it’s work-related, I’ll keep a file on it. And this…this is why people are petrified of me and ‘wish me well’ on a daily basis. I have just about everything we ever spoke about recorded, screenshotted, or written down. Most of the time, it’s been a huge help with recall and addressing issues or questions; other times, it’s a list of skeletons in their closet, favors asked, and completed requests. Before you even think it, no, I’m not holding anything over anyone’s head. It’s wildly frustrating to forget things, especially in the role of a Chief Education Officer. My notes, recordings, and everything else kept me on task. It helps me to this day.

The notes kept not only helped me take a district to new levels and national recognition (which may not have been wanted) but put me on a pedestal of unrealistic proportions in year 2. Over these past 2 years, I was being flown around the country to speak and present. I was telling our story on social media and was gettings tons of accolades. I was being hired for consulting gigs and to speak with sales groups about products that the school was using to increase test scores. I spoke in The White House. THE WHITE HOUSE! Again, piece of a potential bipolar mania in the making, but since everything else was in place, it was OK during year 2. That, and we welcomed the two best things in my life into the world, my twins. I was driving 67 miles each way and needed to move closer to home to take care of the girls. I quietly began applying again and found myself as a finalist in multiple districts. I accepted a position in early June for the following school year… and then it began. It, you ask? The “I wish you well” campaign. It began on the night I was appointed as Superintendent of Schools in my second district.

I was voted in 5-yes, 4-no, which in essence could be career suicide. I did not know of this until the night of the meeting. Had I known this vote, I would have never accepted the position. I turned down a powerhouse school district (13 members, with the district consisting of two high schools feeding from +/- 10 wealthy, progressive school districts) back in North Jersey where I’m from. I chose the southern NJ location (conservative, blue-collar) because it was 10 miles from my home and we just had twins (I mention the socioeconomics because prior to my first Superintendency, I spent my entire career in affluent, progressive districts. To call the district’s apples and oranges (North Jersey vs South Jersey or affluent vs. blue-collar) is I was interviewing for a new Superintendency for the sole purpose of cutting down transportation time (I was driving about 80 minutes each way). After a polarizing run, it took a toll. I was loved and loathed at the same time. I spent a lot of time trying to work over those who didn’t like me but made a modicum of headway. I found myself only telling certain board members about my own life and long-term plans for the district. I told only those who liked me about my upcoming weight loss surgery. I was in spot where while the turbulence was there, I was able to handle, despite how ridiculous it got. In one of my last meetings, I was blamed, on record, for potholes in the parking lot. Follow the logic: Superintendent places the entire afterschool program in one spot at a request to all parents; more traffic is generated at the school where the program is; therefore, there is more ingress and egress, causing potholes; therefore, Superintendent is responsible for potholes. No joke. I sat in awe and holding my lip back from an explosion of laughter. Even one of the members of the local union (whom I sparred with) gave me a look of part laughter and perplexity simultaneously.

The weight loss surgery was a blessing and a curse. I lost 141 pounds, which was literally a lifesaver. The curse: my meds were not adjusted and my therapy doctor appointments were at a ground-stop. About 2 months after the surgery, I was beyond depressed, couldn’t get out of bed, had trouble playing with my kids, eating, and conversing with my wife. I was completely laid out. There was that piece of online persona I was thinking about and didn’t want to lose it. So I hired a ghostwriter to take over everything I did online. That was possibly one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.

Ghostwriters give you two choices: you can be somebody completely different (instead of a Supt in NJ, I could be a cook in New Mexico, a piot in Deleware, a plumber in Canada, etc) or can write along the lines of what you do. I signed up to keep me in the education spotlight. The ghostwriter everything online. After I signed up, I took a hiatus, checked myself back in once I was able to get out of bed, and stayed for about 3 months. Not even 24 hours after being out, I got a text from a reporter asking me if I worked for the United States Department of Education. I remember texting her back so perplexed, I didn’t know where to start. I tried calling, but no pick-up. I eventually got a text back saying to look at my blog. My blog? I haven’t blogged for… oh no… that’s when it hit me. I looked at what the ghostwriter was posting, and one of the biggest pits in my stomach ever occurred. I don’t even know

The “I wish you well” notes came pouring in hard and fast. My LinkedIn blew up with folks whom I thought were my friends, and all of the other curious folk (side-note – do you have a LinkedIn? I always find it fascinating who is checking out your profile). There were quite a few people who were Twitter buddies who unfollowed me. I was upset at first… but I get it to an extent. You need to ‘protect yourself’ — but really? It’s Twitter. It’s the wild west. But anyway… those ‘I wish you well’ messages hurt. These are people who asked for letters of recommendation, for connections, for JOBS! And now…poof. Gone.

You learn who your real friends are really quick when something negative happens. You see the superficial, the phonies, and those who just pretended to be your friend for all advancement and networking purposes. Terrible. But… that’s life. So is the “I wish you well”. It took me a good couple of months to get over this. The bipolar in me hamster-wheeled over this for way too long. I had to come to terms that all of these people were not important in my life… and I finally did.

I landed my next job and many of the folks who dismissed me started to come around again. I just had to laugh at all of those who wished me well. Did they really mean to…were they sincere? Some did, some weren’t. Again, you learn who your friends are really quick. Albeit this job was taken for interim purposes and was ‘at will’, and it was a short assignment, some came around, some didn’t. But, this was when something new came along. A troll. A troll in education. A troll that I would soon learn that would wait with bated breath for every keystroke, respond to every tweet I made, all naturally behind a fake name. This person is terrified of me. This person was hurt by me. At first, I was sympathetic (I’m assuming I fired them, gave them a poor review, etc.) but then it got out of control. Sharing where my kids when to school (pics of them getting dropped off), reaching out to anyone who associated with me on twitter and either shaming them for talking to me or join the hashtag. Applying for jobs with fake resumes, or finding out where I applied to raise holy hell with the community to block me from employment. This went hard from November 2017 – June 2019. Due to the account and their harassment, intimidation, and bullying (ironic, don’t you think), the ‘I Wish You Wells’ came flying in, en mass, due to being afraid of being shamed. From donations to pictures, the name attacked all of it. My haters love it, my mom and other families weep over it, but it is what it is. Thankfully, the account made a mistake, and since their actions cross state lines, there are ‘crimes & misdemeanors’ to be had. Again, I can’t stress this enough – if you want to hate on me, my policies, my experiences, and everything else – that’s fine…its’ your 1st Amendment right. Stalking and shaming others who affiliate with me? Kinda sad, especially since it’s under fake names, but OK, 1st Amendment. Pics of my family, house, license plates, SSN numbers, and everything else. That’s a line crossed, and I wish THEM well.

Moving onward, I hope that everyone that uses the phrase ‘I Wish You Well’ is mindful of how powerful a message it sends. It’s almost better not to say it at all. Ghosting and canceling are much easier to take instead of those 4 words. Until the next time, I wish you well… and I mean it.

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