Gap-Fillers of the World, I Salute You! (A Story from Back-to-School 2018)
You probably don't know this, but it's Gap-Filler Appreciation Day. No, don't panic — no cards or flowers required. Just a quick story from my "Back to School" tour last month.
As I've mentioned before, as an education speaker I always look forward to going on a whirlwind tour of school districts around the country when August rolls around, meeting with teachers and administrators to help them get fired up for the new school year.
This year was no different — I visited school districts from California to New York with plenty of stops in between. In New York I was at three schools in two days: one school was called Friendship, one school had a name I still can't spell or pronounce, and one school had no hotel within 30 miles of it so I stayed in an empty apartment above the local bank.
But this particular memory comes from a place called Braidwood, Illinois, just a scooch south of Joliet. Braidwood is where you'll find Reed-Custer High School (home of the Comets). I was doing that thing I do before a gig, passing out cards with punchlines on them for attendees to stand up and read as part of a bit. And I find it's often easier to get people to participate if someone on the staff helps me pass out the cards ... there's a certain trust factor there.
In this case I was in luck: There was a woman who came right up to me, looked me in the eye and said, "How can I help you? Do you want me to pass out these cards?"
I recognized the personality type immediately: She was what I call a "gap-filler." It's a particular combination of helpfulness and adaptability that's especially valuable in a school, or any other organization for that matter. The person who doesn't get stuck on assigned roles and responsibilities, but just slips into whatever role allows them to be most useful, like water flowing into the available space. No ego, no drama, just "How can I help?"
I admire this attitude so much that I strive to be a gap-filler myself when I can. For instance, the annual "barbecue" at my daughter's school. (The quotation marks are because they don't really barbecue things ... it's actually kind of a potluck.) For this event I don't usually sign up for a specific task, because I know there are always these little tasks that nobody thinks about ahead of time. Instead I just show up and say, "What do you need me to do?"
Last time around they wound up mainly needing someone to carry the hot dogs from the grill to the gymnasium and put them in buns. So I became the Hot Dog Carrier. And at the end of the night I was the Table-Roller, trucking the folding tables back to the school's boiler room for storage.
Needless to say, Hot Dog Carrier and Table-Roller were not on any kind of signup sheet, but they turned to be the best ways I could help that night.
Of course I'm not saying I'm in the same league as the master gap-filler I mentioned above — the one who offered to help me pass out the cards. Because, as I learned just a few minutes later, she was one of the major points of focus at the gathering where I was speaking that day: a beloved assistant principal named Christine Nelson who was retiring and being honored for her 30 years of dedication. A career spent taking on whatever tasks would best help her serve her students and her community. Three much-appreciated decades of gap-filling.
Which is, of course, exactly what so many of the best educators do every single day: figuring out what needs to be done, and then doing it, regardless of whether it's in their job description or not. Gap-fillers of the world, I see you — and I'm your fan.