I’m going to be totally honest and let you know I am terrified to write this. I know some will read this and think I am trying to garner attention and sympathy. Some will think I am trying to manipulate emotions and use my struggles to advance myself. I am terrified of the judgment others may have, but more importantly, I am hopeful that my writing this will not only be therapeutic for me but will help others feel seen. I am hopeful that hearing my story will help others embrace a newfound bravery that can save and change their lives.
This story begins on November 15, 2017. It winds back in time three decades and ends with today. Today, a day I had an epic panic attack that resulted in me running through traffic. Today, a day that found me in tears. Today, a day that found me spiraling, anxious, and unable to catch my breath. Today, a day where I have been able to calm down, sit down, and write this.
My growth journey has been one I have shared before, but there are elements that I have not shared with anyone, until today.
On November 15, 2017, three years ago, at 2am, in the dark of the night, I found myself standing on top of a bridge. At the time, I lived in Florida where I worked as a turnaround principal, in a job I loved, and went home each afternoon to an incredible family, yet there I stood. I vividly remember staring at the stars, unable to see the waves crashing below, hearing nothing but my thoughts. I stood debating whether to take a step, to fall into the darkness, and wondered if anyone would even notice. I was a father of four, a principal to five hundred, an author, and a speaker, and I wondered if anyone would even care if I took a step off the edge and disappeared. To be honest, I have no idea what caused me to climb down and walk back to my car, but I am grateful I did as that moment set the rest of my life into motion. But as I said, this story begins in 2017, but winds back long before that.
In 1985 I was a shy, energetic, eight year old third grader. I loved school and loved making my teachers proud. At the end of my third grade year I was presented with an incredible opportunity. I was given the designation of Gifted and granted the chance to skip the fourth grade and go directly to fifth grade, the same grade as my sister. I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment changed the way I saw myself for the next 32 years. Being told I was Gifted meant that I was smart. It meant that I was genetically disposed to having answers. It meant that things were supposed to come naturally to me. It meant I was supposed to be at the top of my class. From fifth grade until graduating with my Bachelors Degree in 1999, school and life were easy. I was Homecoming King. I was Student Council President. I earned scholarship money. School was easy. Life however, real life, life after school, was not so easy, and that made living hard.
From 2000-2017 I struggled. In the moment I didn’t realize it, but looking back now as an almost 43 year old, I can recognize how broken I was. I lived my life in a facade. I was a fake. I was a fraud. I was so worried about anyone ever discovering my weaknesses and struggles that I would do anything in my power to hide them, from the world and from myself.
As a young teacher, I thought I had all the answers. Literally, all the answers. After teaching for only three years, I graduated with my Masters Degree and earned my Administrative Certification. I thought I was ready to run my own school. I thought I was ready to change to world. The problem was, nobody else thought the same way that I did. In the summer of 2003, I went on SIXTEEN job interviews seeking an administrative position and did not receive a single call back. I wish I would have taken that summer as a reflective opportuntity and poured myself into self growth. Instead, I doubled down and decided to prove to myself and the world that I was that same smart boy I had been labeled twenty-five years earlier. I enrolled in law school, just to prove I could get in, to prove to myself that someone accepted me, and began my journey towards a law degree.
Fast forward to 2008, five years later and I found myself entertaining my first official administrative job. I was a father of one, an athletic director, and an assistant principal, working in a school an hour from home. At work, I found myself unable to fully be given responsibility to lead or inspire, so instead of turning my attention to home, I again turned to higher education to provide my own self worth and began pursuing my Doctoratal Degree.
In 2011 I successfully defended my dissertation, graduated with my Doctorate, and was offered my first principalship, a job that brought with it opportunity, expectations, and struggles. Within days of beginning that job, I earned my marching orders from “above” to work on removing some teachers who were no longer “getting results”. As a new leader, eager to prove his worth, I took my directives in stride, developed an overwhelming swagger, and became a wrecking ball more focused on pleasing those above than supporting those below. I spent the next four years desperate for the attention of those I served and often heart broken at their rejection when I accepted the orders from those above. I lost myself in an attempt to please all of the people and craving the support of any who would give it.
In 2015 I accepted a new challenge and moved across the country, from Michigan to Florida, to help transform a school and a community. I had a job I loved, working for a community that was unlike any I had ever been a part of before. I was an unknown entity and was free to be me. I worked tirelessly to change beliefs, to transform minds, and to develop new destinies. At the same time that I was discovering myself professionally, personally I was struggling. My identity was being consumed by who I was professionally. Personally I was a fraud. Personally I was struggling, but to the world, I was happier than I had ever been. Then November 15, 2017 arrived.
On that night, I climbed down and decided it was time to start growing up. The changes did not happen in an instant. They have been hard. I have struggled. But I am growing.
In recent years I have seen therapists. I have been placed on prescriptions. I have opened up and become more transparent, but of all the things I have tried, the only medicine that has ever helped is you.
In my quest for healing, I have found solace, comfort, and healing from realizing the world is not about me. The world is about you. My place in the world is to make you realize your place. My comfort comes from elevating you. When I get to celebrate others, I finally feel whole. When I get the chance to cheer on others, I finally feel like I am winning. But through it all, there are still moments.
Today provided a moment. After spending a day at work, planning how to market myself, how to make sure my peers approved of my endeavors, I found myself completely overwhelmed again. I found myself spiraling into self doubt and crashing back into the person I was, the person who worked all day and all night to win approval as opposed to finding real success.
Writing this is my attempt to change that. I am writing this in a hope that it helps you. I am writing this, because you matter and I want you to know that. I am writing this because I believe that my struggles can lead to your success. I am writing this because I am grateful for you and I want you to know it.
In the coming weeks I will need your continued support. I will find myself struggling again, so please give me reasons to celebrate. Share your successes with me. Allow me to be your champion. Allow me to boost you up. Allow me to sing your praises from the roof top. Let me lift you up. This is what will help me grow up.
Feel free to follow my journey on Twitter or Instagram and please share your triumphs: @daveschmittou