Q and A with Principal Mark Jackson

Peter Treyz recently sat down with Principal Mark Jackson to ask him about his beliefs, regrets, fears, and motivations, as part of Peter’s contribution to a group project–a final magazine called Desire, for Journalistic Writing. The magazine explores what drives human beings.

Peter: What is a core belief you hold? Can you tell a story that shows how it shapes your life?

Mark Jackson: A core professional belief I hold is that public schools have the ability to improve the life chances of children. If you didn’t come into the world with much, schools are a way you can get a leg up. I’ve worked the last 38 years in schools, and I’ve tried to make good on that principle.

Peter: What is something you have strongly desired in your life? Did you get it? If so, how?

Mark Jackson: When I was your age I was still convinced I was going to be a professional athlete. That dissipated the older I got. Soon you figure out the Yankees aren’t gonna come knocking. Other than that, I wanted to be married, to be a parent. I’ve been married 21 years, but I didn’t get married until I was 40, so I had some doubts about whether or not it would happen. I didn’t have a child until 44.

Peter: If you had to sum up the most important thing in your life what would it be?

Mark Jackson: I’m a lucky guy. Growing up, I had a great set of parents. There’s family instability all over the world, and I didn’t have that. I had family stability. My father died two years ago; my mother just turned 83. I was lucky to have them together, and I’m lucky to still have my mother. We have a big family and we get along reasonably well, so just from the family side, I’m really ahead of the game, and I know that. I appreciate it, and I’m very thankful for it.

Peter: What is something you wanted badly that passed you by in life?

Mark Jackson: I wish I had traveled more. I lived in Mexico for a year, and I was really close to going to Central America, and I didn’t go. I lived in Israel for a year, and I was close to going to Egypt, but I didn’t go. In a lot of ways, my fears got the best of me. I wanted to take the next step and go to Peru, Guatemala, but I didn’t. I wish I had taken more risks.

Peter: What is something you believed in that you no longer believe? Explain.

Mark Jackson: I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school through seventh grade. In Catholic school, there was a way to be Catholic, and only one way to be Catholic. Fifty years later, I still consider myself to be Catholic, but a lot of the rules such as “you can’t eat meat, only fish [on Fridays], etc.” left me. I am still religiously faithful, but not religiously observant.

Peter: Is there anything else in your life that has shaped you or been important to you?

A: Religion has been a big part of my life. But it’s also my age. When I was a senior in high school, there were three things raging around the planet: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and Watergate. So I was 18, and these were the defining events in my life. The war ended in January, my senior year, so I just missed it. We got lucky, but in terms of shaping a worldview, that era is what made an impression on me. You read about them in a textbook, but this was day to day life in 1972. That was one variable that contributed to shaping my life.

Peter: What is something or someone you have lost and what did it teach you?

Mark Jackson: It’s a hard one for me to talk about. There are eight of us, eight brothers and sisters. I’m the second, and my brother was the fifth child, six years younger than me. He died in 2009 of cancer; he fought cancer for 20 years. So I was his big brother, but as we came into adulthood, that kind of goes away and you become peers. He was the guy that when he came into the room you knew it was gonna get good, funny as hell. He was a big-hearted guy. So when he died, it left a big void in me and left a big void in my family. Even though I was six years older than him, in a lot of ways I looked up to him. He’s been gone eight years, but it still feels like it was yesterday.

Peter: Did you ever have a desire that was unhealthy for you, or held you back in life?

Mark Jackson: I don’t have many vices. I didn’t drink in college, I didn’t have my first beer until I was twenty-five. I’ve never been high, never wanted to be high. Those are not roads that I chose to go down. There are people in my family who are alcoholics, but I was never challenged by those things.

Peter: What gets you up in the morning?

Mark Jackson: I wake up at 4 a.m., and I get here at 4:30 so I can have a couple of hours of quiet before all you guys get here and the place is a nuthouse. I’ve never had a lousy job. Even in high school, when I was washing dishes and working on a golf course, the grunt jobs you have in high school, I loved those. I’ve worked at many schools with great people. I’m lucky to have found a profession that creates meaning in my life.

Peter: What do you fear?

Mark Jackson: I’m not crazy about heights; I don’t like to fly. I do it, but I don’t like it. I don’t like feeling out of control. I like to have the microphone in my hand. I’d rather be laying out where we’re going than have somebody tell me where we’re going. It all comes from the same place of wanting to maintain control over my life. But I have the fear that I will send us in the wrong direction one time, and that someone might go over a cliff.

Peter: How do you cope with having one of the most stressful jobs on Earth?

Mark Jackson: There are many jobs more stressful than mine. If you’re a soldier in Afghanistan, I’m sure your levels of stress are incredibly high, or a cop patrolling the streets. This is a busy job but not stressful like those ones are. I don’t have many hobbies. Some people knit, or sing in a choir. I don’t have any of that. If I go home, I want to read the paper, spend time with my family, and then I go to bed. The best thing I can do to re-center myself for the next day is make sure I get six hours of sleep at night. My wife keeps telling me I should join a choir or take up painting, but that’s not me.

Peter: What makes you happy?

Mark Jackson: If you’re an educator, you’re exhausted by this time of year, but going to graduation makes it all worthwhile. [Seeing that growth] is ultimately what sustains educators. They put up with all the day to day challenges to help people go on the the next phase of their lives. That’s deeply satisfying.