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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Making Meaning of Moment

Making Meaning of Moment

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

St. Paddy’s Day Parade weekend for years brought to the Donlan household an annual yard ritual.  In the first thaw of early spring in mid-Michigan, I has my perennial opportunity to grab a canine scoop and clear out a winter’s worth of “Weimaraner” from the back yard. 

It wasn’t the most scenic of jobs, yet it was actually a momentary stay against confusion, a nice respite from life’s professional challenges.

As I picked up one dropping at a time amidst hundreds, I enjoyed the moment and the pause in calendar that the day allowed.

As I often share: Let’s not wish away the present.  As when we are done with this college degree, this professional position, or in a larger context … this chapter of our lives, what’s next?  For many of us, we’ll be greeted by growing children who will consider us as more ATM’s than those to ask advice.  We’ll all be a tick-tock or two closer to our demise.  Yet that’s ok.

I write today to implore K-12 educators to pause, prioritize, and make meaning of moment, while asking ourselves, “How are we spending the gift of current circumstance?”  A presentation last week to a great bunch of school leaders got me thinking,  Are we running the risk of minimalizing the moments of today, brokered instead with too much a focus on the future? 

Examples would include:

Hoping that this troublesome group of students will graduate so that we will be done dealing with their parents.
Awaiting faculty members’ retirement so that we can have some more young energy in those classrooms.
Yearning to get beyond this principalship into a superintendency.
Spending our evenings doing tomorrow’s deskwork, rather than with families.

One day, I’m betting that we will look back upon the lives we led this school year, both professionally and personally, with one of two metaphorical constructs crossing our minds – Gold or October.  Consider the following:

Looking through our mind’s eye with Gold, we might someday reflect on the words of Robert Frost (Latham, 1972) in Nothing Gold Can Stay (1923), as did S. E. Hinton’s characters Johnny and Ponyboy in The Outsiders (1967 book and 1983 film adaptation) about the temporality of life circumstance, especially that which is dear to us. 

Consider Frost’s words:

Nature's first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf's a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay.

Since Gold is so temporary and fleeting … since it can’t stay, as Frost noted … wouldn’t it be sad if we didn’t even pause to savor present circumstance that we are now experiencing? 

Our children wanting a bit of our time.
Our dog wagging for that mid-evening walk.
A call to our parents, who are long-into retirement.

How will we feel, upon reflection, if have not made meaning of moment, if we have not tended to the those things in life right now that are calling our name … asking for our time …  such as faith, family, or the fabric of our community that exists outside school. 

Are we making meaning of moment this year, as we live our professional calendars?

Another way we might look back upon our lives, someday, is through the mind’s eye of October, which can provide a glimpse of how we might feel if we DO make meaning of moment.

We’ll still experience a degree of sadness, possibly, as we reflect upon times gone by, yet through October, we are better able to look backward with a sense of satisfaction. Through October, we’ll be able to look forward with hope.

Consider lyrics written by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow in When October Goes (1984). 

And when October goes

The snow begins to fly

Above the smoky roofs

I watch the planes go by
The children running home
beneath a twilight sky

Oh, for the fun of them

When I was one of them

And when October goes

The same old dream appears

And you are in my arms

To share the happy years
I turn my head away
 to hide the helpless tears

Oh, how I hate
 to see October go

I should be over it now I know

It doesn't matter much how old I grow

I hate to see October go

The watching of planes, the memories of children playing, and the thinking back upon someone who was once in our arms – memories that provide us comfort, albeit with a chapter of our lives that has gone the way of October. 

Two things about October serve as harbingers of life’s gifts: [The 1st] – the fact that we made meaning of moment while life was presenting itself, thus creating those positive memories; [The 2nd] – that fact that the seasonal nature of October presupposes a spring and summer prior, AND one that visits us perennially. 

That’s the hope. 

As K-12 educators, not only do we have the opportunity to make meaning of moment over and over again throughout our lives, we have the obligation of teaching those with whom we work and learn the same. 

Nothing is gone for any of us, ad-infinitum, just because we let something slip by unattended.  There’s still hope for us, no matter life’s resume.

A friend and colleague, a K-12 superintendent, recently asked leaders in his school district to spend a weekend at home, rather than [as they often did] working in their offices at school.  His expectation, as well, was that work would not be taken home. 

I applaud strong leadership that models and encourages making meaning of moment.  Through such, we’re saving lives.


Latham, E., & Thompson, L. (Eds.). (1972). The Robert Frost reader: Poetry and prose. New York, NY: Owl Books.

Manilow, B., & Mercer, J. H. (1984). When October goes. Universal Music Publishing Group & The Johnny Mercer Foundation.


Dr. Ryan Donlan strives to make meaning of the moment, with better grades given for effort than for performance.  If anything he has written piques your interests or spurs reflection, please feel free to contact him at (989) 450-0272 or at


  1. so, we should consider leadership as a 'moment' rather than a job

  2. Well... "a part" of our moment, anyway.

  3. It's true. I just moved into a new position and in the back of my mind I'm thinking of where I'm going next and how I need to position myself for that move. I'm not letting it take away from my work, but I believe it is robbing me of fully embracing this wonderful opportunity that I have. When you're a young administrator, early 30's, you realize that you will probably still work for longer than you've been alive and you start trying to figure out what you need to do and where you want to be still and maybe lose some focus on where you actually are.