growing a life

growing a life 06.17.14

Last Thursday I attended a retirement party for my father, who has spent most of the last 38 years as the Superintendent of three different public school districts. As I sat with my family at a dinner table watching school board members, principals, and teachers recount the impact he’d had on the district generally and them specifically, I thought back to how he treated me as a parent, and his role in helping me get to where I am today.

I don’t remember my father ever giving me a specific piece of career advice while growing up. Rather than point me towards careers or jobs, he instilled in me a single broader principle: our job – whatever it is – is to give back to others. He often talked about “fighting the good fight” and working “for the greater good.”

Shortly after my mother died of cancer, my father and I stopped having a productive relationship for nearly a decade. Fueled in roughly equal parts by the loss of a woman we both adored, complications in our relationship arising out of my accident just over a year later, and our temperamental disinclination to ever talk about how we felt, I largely disengaged from meaningful contact with him. These phrases that I’d heard so often growing up became punch lines, things to resist.

If I chose to attend law school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I chose my first job out of a combination of desperation – it paid more than any other opportunities I had at the time – and my desire to stick it to my dad. It was, in retrospect, a pretty juvenile approach to career planning: “You want me to do something useful? You want me to help other people? You want me to give back? I’m going to take a job that pays me more than anything else I can find so that I can protect those poor, helpless insurance companies!” It was hard to argue that representing insurers in intellectual property disputes was either fighting the good fight or working for the greater good. And I didn’t even try. I had a job – nothing more.

My anti-paternalistic career plan – not the most well-thought out strategy to begin with – foundered after I lost my leg. Proving a point to my father no longer seemed so important. While I returned to the big law firm, I knew almost immediately that I wouldn’t be spending the rest of my career there. The work I did there truly had no meaning to me.

My next job at a medical malpractice defense firm represented an incremental improvement. I loved preparing doctors and nurses for depositions.  Despite my efforts to resist it, my father’s philosophy – work for the greater good, for others – gave me a sense of purpose. I enjoyed giving people the tools and skills they would need to navigate an unfamiliar and threatening system.

Realizing this and the associated reality that deposition preparation accounted for less than 5% of my time as a practicing attorney, I jumped at the opportunity to co-found a prosthetic facility. For the first time in my professional life, my job and my worldview clicked into alignment. A significant part of every day consisted of talking with amputees, learning from their experiences, and trying to help them get the tools they needed to achieve their goals. I was fighting the good fight, working for the greater good.

Today I work for a publicly-traded company that manufactures prosthetic components. I spend a significant portion of my time educating prosthetists and their staff about how to run their businesses effectively and build productive, positive relationships with their patients. My father’s original guidance plays a larger role in my life now than it ever has.

Happily, he and I stepped back from the estrangement abyss several years ago, primarily because of his efforts and secondarily because I grew up a little bit. All the stuff he told me that sounded pedantic and unrealistic to me 15-20 years ago now forms the foundation of my personal philosophy.

So I sat at a table with my family, my sister and her boyfriend, and my stepmother and father last Thursday night. I watched the accolades roll in for 16 years of service to Scarsdale. I listened to the people who had worked with him describe how he had made them better, how he had made an entire school district better. I looked at Max and Jackson, neither of whom have ever seen my father in a public setting, their jaws slightly agape at the disconnect between my father, the public figure, and the grandfather they’ve always associated with challenging discussions about school that they only partially understand.

My father closed the event with a lengthy speech. As he returned to the table, Caroline got up and gave him a big hug. I’m pretty certain she didn’t understand a lot of what he said, but she knew it was important, both to him and the audience that  was still on its feet, cheering. As he made his way back to his seat he had to walk past me. I followed Caroline’s lead, hugging him and saying, “Great job,” into his ear.

Michael McGill has spent his entire professional life – more than 40 years – fighting for the highest-quality education for his districts’ students. In an era where “teaching to the test” and “the common core” have become the status quo, he has forcefully and passionately stood up for principles that are decidedly less expedient (and popular) politically, but that, I suspect, will prove out in the long run.

He has fought the good fight. He has worked for the greater good. I’m proud to be my father’s son.

So Dad, fittingly only a few days after Father’s Day, let me wish you luck on the next stage of your life. As you’ve said to so many graduating seniors – including me, Cara, and Erin – over the years, as you walk down a new path for the first time since you were 28, Godspeed.


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