Later this week I will be participating in NEERO 2021 – the 52nd annual conference of the New England Educational Research Organization. This will be my 30th NEERO conference. Starting with the first time I made the trip to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and the Sheraton Harborside Hotel in April 1989, NEERO became a special part of my life. More than a small band of dedicated volunteers pulling together an annual conference, NEERO is family and attending the conference each year is coming home.
I cannot recall how I first heard about NEERO, but my guess is that I received a flyer in the mail announcing the call for proposals. That guess is based on my own experience a decade later when I became NEERO vice-president and conference chair. One of my first duties was to call AERA and ask them to send me mailing labels for all AERA members in New England, New York, and the NYC/New Jersey metro area. I used those labels to send a hard copy announcement of the call for proposals to everyone from Buffalo, NY to Bayonne, NJ, and everywhere in between. Times have changed.
Like so many others attending NEERO this year, and each year, my first time at NEEERO I presented a paper based on my doctoral dissertation – an initial dry run for my dissertation defense later that year. Some will come on their own, like me. Others will be the latest in a long line of grad students their advisor has brought to NEERO.
For some, the 2021 conference will be their only trip to NEERO. At the other end of the continuum, some will return to NEERO regularly until one day they arrive with their own grad students in tow. And then there are those few who will eventually become the new core of the NEERO Board and its officers. The NEERO circle of life.
I missed a couple of conferences in the 1990s as I got, lost, and left various jobs. However, from the time I was elected to the NEERO Board as Maine/New Hampshire/Vermont representative in spring 1997 until I stepped down as NEERO Historian after the 2019 conference, NEERO has been a constant in my life. The annual conference is a spring staple, on equal footing with Opening Day for the Red Sox and Opening Night at the Boston Pops.
As the years passed and 10 years became 20 and then 30 there were lots of changes to the conference and to the organization, as there should be, but important things remained the same. Even after 30 years I knew that each spring I would reconnect with the person who was conference chair at my first NEERO conference in 1989, the person who brought me onto the Board in 1997, and others who have been there with me for most of the past three decades. That includes the person who has become one of my closest friends. He was there for me when my Mom passed away a few years ago and he has been by my side, counting every step of my journey to regain some degree of physical fitness.
And there is the extended NEERO family. The staff at the Sheraton Portsmouth, which quickly became NEERO’s home after it opened in the late 1980s – they know the conference as well as anyone on the Board. And there is my promo guy, the person I have relied on for more than 20 years for the highly anticipated NEERO mints, NEERO hand sanitizer, and other NEERO-branded trinkets that adorn the registration table. Everybody should have their own promo guy and a NEERO credit card bottle opener in their wallet.
Although I cherish the continuity and connection to the past, it is the constant rebirth and renewal that has made NEERO so special to me. For the past decade or so, I claimed the registration table as my primary responsibility at the conference (age, seniority, and a wife willing to let you store piles of NEERO materials in your basement has its privileges).
It was at the registration table that we quite literally set out to ensure that NEERO was a place where everybody (or at least somebody) knew your name, adopting Cooper 36-point bold font for the first names on the name badges so that names would be legible at a non-awkward distance.
With up to 50% newcomers at each conference, we strove to accompany those initial moments searching for their name badge with a warm welcome, useful information, various ribbons (e.g., first-time attendee, graduate student), the aforementioned swag, and directions to the snack table.
Spending much of the conference at the registration table also afforded me the opportunity during the down time to chat, catching up with old board members, talking about NEERO and life outside of NEERO with current board members, and meeting potential new board members, all in two-hour shifts – as well as sharing institutional “wisdom” and NEERO history while learning of their plans for the future of NEERO.
Truth be told, I haven’t seen too many NEERO conference presentations in recent years. Most of my recent NEERO memories involve moments like
- seeing a mother and daughter presenting at the same conference,
- watching three “academic generations” of researchers pose for a picture at the dessert reception following the Opening Session,
- taking the official photo of the smiling graduate student who just learned they won the John Schmitt Award at the Awards Luncheon,
- witnessing the sheer exuberance from the five lucky graduate students who each won a $50 bill during “Frank’s $50 for Five” at that same luncheon,
- greeting the ever-gracious Irv Seidman as he even more graciously returned to NEERO each year to offer his half-day workshop on Interviewing as Qualitative Research,
- welcoming the young researcher I first met as a graduate student at her first NEERO conference, who has now won pretty much every award NEERO has to offer, published a book, and established herself in an academic career, as she returns to NEERO each year, now with her own students.
- or telling proud parents, “No, of course you don’t have to register for the conference if you are just here to see your daughter make her first presentation. Enjoy!”
And my most treasured memories are those of watching successive cohorts of NEERO leadership, including the current one, make the commitment, usually of at least 10 years when all is said and done, to serve the organization and move it safely and securely forward. They are special people for a special organization.
So, I welcome the opportunity to participate in the virtual NEERO 2021 conference this week, and look forward to being able to gather together in person with my NEERO family once again in spring 2022.