Rebecca DuFour at work with educators

The “Now What?” Of Life: Celebrating Rebecca DuFour

It was one of those wonderful mid-fall afternoons as I walked to my car, crossing the quad of the university campus. Tree colors were just starting to appear, and the air had that rare “higher temperatures than normal with crispness” smell.

I took off my suit jacket as I approached the car with this intense feeling I had done this very act of taking off my suit jacket and getting into my car, many times before. I had this awareness too that those moments had always left me feeling a bit empty. It was a feeling similar to the one you sense right after spending hours with friends and family, saying goodbye, going on your way, but feeling a bit homesick for them immediately.

Thus, this nostalgia for each of the friends, family, and colleagues was lingering in my brain. You know, that thought of, “Oh just one more moment with them would be nice. Maybe I should send a text telling them I miss them already. Or better yet, send an email letting them know how much they mean to me.”

It is a way of hanging on to the moment. Of feeling like I belong. Like I am connected with them. And yet, there I was, arm out the window and driving away off the campus. Life moves forward.

I could not escape how, similar to other events like this, I was once again left wondering, “Now what?”

Bridge Moments

In reality, this event had that eerily familiar feeling of a wedding or a retirement party or a 50th anniversary celebration. It was similar to an event where family and friends, personal and professional gather together to toast and celebrate the honoree or honorees. There is a reception, and a luncheon maybe, an agenda of speakers using both humor and story to mask feelings of disquiet about next steps once the bridge is crossed and the event is over.

These events bring people together from all walks of life. People who perhaps saw each other yesterday or years ago, but no matter the time gap, hugs go all around. There is not only joy, but also a little bit of caution as bridge moment events like this always cause a stop to the madness of our hectic pace and the stuff of daily life, to take a forced timeout and wonder, “Now what?”

You are getting married, now what?
You are retiring, now what?
You are celebrating 50 years together, now what?
You are graduating high school or college, now what?
You are celebrating the life of a friend, now what?

It seems to me we ask the now what question our entire lives. And the now what is not just for the person or persons being honored at the event, it is for you and me too. Bridge moments in life do that to us. In this 2018–19 school season, we are surrounded by the now what’s of our personal and professional lives, every single day, week, and month, all season long.

And then there are the really big bridge moments. These are the ones that may actually cause you to change the direction of your personal-life course and take action. The event like the one I had just attended was the type that causes a big now what to surface in our brains, and connect more deeply. It is the hope of such an event.

And that is exactly how I was feeling as I took off my suit coat, got into my rental car, and left the beautiful Virginia campus of the University of Lynchburg in the late afternoon of September 29, 2018.

Each of us attending this event were asking ourselves that exact question:

Now what?

Celebrating the Legacy of Becky DuFour

Friends and family, both professional and personal, had gathered together, not for a wedding or a retirement or a 50th anniversary, but for a celebration of life for one of God’s better angels indeed: Rebecca Burnette DuFour.

In the PLC at Work community, Becky was a rock star. In her family life, she was a rock star. In every friendship, she was a rock star. She had a way of leaning into you and demonstrating authentic care for you like no other colleague, friend, or family member you have known. Her grace, her wit, her calm, her commitment, her care, and her confidence were always on display for everyone to receive and to observe.

Becky taught us to see others without judging them. She had this remarkable ability to see inside of each person, listen to their concerns, and provide calm and correct advice about how to move forward. As attested by her Boones Mill teacher colleagues, Becky was an inspiring teacher and principal, and they were the beneficiaries of her grace and commitment to them. She was the type of person in which the residue of her presence in your life was revealed by your desire to respond to her with a commitment to your own personal and positive now what.

Her now what legacy was a legacy to live with a little less worry, a little less anger, a little less self-importance, and a little less pettiness. Perhaps today and every day moving forward, because of Becky DuFour, we will each stand just a bit taller, listen just a bit better, hold off our own judgments of others, and ask for and receive more grace—just as she modeled for us.

Over the past decade, Becky DuFour spoke to over 250,000 educators and engaged them in discussions around the ideals and central tenets of the PLC at Work process. Perhaps, like those in attendance at the celebration of life event for Becky, you were the beneficiary of being able to hear her words, and be moved by her inspiring message and life.

“To Be of Use”

To help you better understand Becky, I want to share with you one of her favorite poems she often shared with others, “To Be of Use,” from the book Circles on the Water (1982) by Marge Piercy:

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into the work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, as an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine and oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I once asked Becky why this poem touched her heart, and she re-read the third stanza to me:

I love people who harness themselves, as an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

She mentioned this was why she and her husband, Rick DuFour were leading the national PLC at Work movement and its positive impact on student learning in our profession. It was the work that was real for them. I immediately taped the poem to a cabinet door in my office. It is still there, a stealthy reminder to me of her. I use it to inspire my work every day.

I have promised myself to use the inspiration of Becky, to better inform my future now what responses.

So, this event represent a more final now what, does it not? What are the lessons we take from the honor of knowing and being in the path of a rock star like Becky Burnette DuFour? When we lose the gift of someone who so easily and positively brought us into a better version of ourselves, it seems to me that the least we can do is to honor her with the way we live the best our lives can offer.

As your 2018–19 school season unfolds, think about the major bridge moments just ahead of you. Some moments you can predict and others you cannot. The ones you cannot predict are always the hardest. None of us wanted to cross that celebration of life bridge without Becky. And yet we have done so. As Becky would remind us, it is not about us, it is about what we do for others and how we do it for them.

Now what, indeed!

Timothy D. Kanold

Timothy D. Kanold, PhD, an award-winning educator, author, and consultant, is former superintendent of Adlai E. Stevenson High School District 125, a model professional learning community district in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

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  1. You are a rock star as well. Thank you for sharing. I walk away from every video I watch and blog I read of yours a bit smarter and a lot inspired. My continued sympathies for the loss of your friend.

  2. Thank you, Tim! AND thank you for your beautiful message at Becky’s Celebration of Life. I am indeed a better person for having known Becky and am certainly glad because of Mathematics that our paths have crossed for some important work moving forward (with massive patience!)