Welcome, stranger…

I’ve read more than my fair share of fantasy during this pandemic, Tolkien of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and A Song of Fire and Ice (even though I’m the one person on the planet who hasn’t seen the TV show). I zipped through Three Hearts and Three Lions, a book I hadn’t ever read but had heard about from more than a few people; The Eaters of the Dead, inspiration to pick up Heaney’s translation of Beowulf; and most recently The Dragonbone Chair, which begins with a line that felt written for our present uncertain times: “Welcome, stranger. The paths are treacherous today.”

Around us all are opinions and realities, too often competing with each other and frequently piling wood on the fire of concern (about a host of topics including the pandemic, social justice, and mental health) that has been blazing now for more than a year. All the while we mask up, wait in line for the vaccine, and try to make sensible choices, and while there are days during which it feels like the flames are dying down, enough pops and sparks are coming from our metaphoric bonfire to keep us all feeling a little singed.

If this were a fantasy novel we’d be questing against the great threat. Our swords would flash, arrows would fly, and an elf would make a smart remark. We are, however, profoundly human. 

So we wash our hands and wipe down our shopping carts and there are days that feels pretty heroic. Sometimes.

Except…

It is in our human nature to want grander shades of heroism than any that involve hand sanitizer. We want to strap on that pack, sling a battleaxe over our shoulder, and head into the haunted forest to save the world.

Those fantasy authors understand that desire and package it between embossed covers. Whether it’s Middle Earth, Narnia, or Westeros, the worlds they imagine invite us to join their hero’s journey from the comfort of our own COVID bubble.

But then we close the book, wash our hands again, put on our mask and head out into a very different world. How to be heroic there?

I know the answer looks different to everyone. Sometimes the seemingly small acts of kindness bring more power than a wizard’s spell. Telling a grandparent you love them, helping a parent with dinner, reaching out to a friend who needs to hear your voice, any of those things can pack as profound a wallop as an ogre’s club.

As a principal I get to see both magic and epic challenges every day. I see sweeping emotions, gritty reality, and swashbuckling glee. And that’s just at student lunch.

The teachers, counselors, and staff, these are heroes.

They may not battle goblins (though have you ever seen middle schoolers running to the bus?), they don’t wear chainmail or carry magic swords, they simply bring to their work with students more than a little magic and heroic hearts.

As challenging as I know the final few weeks of the school year will be —and it would be naive to believe that they won’t pack in a dragon or two— as challenging as those weeks will be, because of these professionals I’m as optimistic as a hobbit at second breakfast.

My teachers, counselors, and staff members know that the greatest strength isn’t independence. The truth that they know, as any successful adventurer knows, is that the greatest attribute a hero can have is interdependence.

Frodo needed Sam who needed Aragorn who needed Gandalf who years before needed Bilbo who needed Frodo to pick up the ring and become heroic.

Whether we’re teachers or hobbits (or both) the next few weeks invite us to form a fellowship with those we know, those we love, and those we don’t know …yet. Having been away from our usual life for more than a year we are beginning to return to a wider world, a place still treacherous, but ripe for heroism if we approach it together, both friends and strangers (many of whom will be friends as this adventure continues).

As the road stretches out ahead I encourage us all to straighten our helmets, polish our shields, and look out for one another as if wights were circling the barrow. The day will come when we look back on this adventure and raise a glass with the friends we made through the strife, reminiscing about the dragons we overcame along the way.

Live!

The students were AMAZING, of course, funny, smart, and more creative than any teenager has any right to be. Zany, clever, and (in an unexpected turn) moving, our yearly comedy sketch show ACMA Live, rechristened ACMA (still a)Live this year, streamed into living rooms last week to the wild applause of students, staff, and families.

As the principal I suppose I ought to bring a sense of trepidation to the show; it’s satire after all, and one never knows where the performers will focus their gaze, but this year more than ever I was looking forward to the event, which came at the end of our first week of hybrid instruction.

It didn’t disappoint.

In addition to a witty student perspective on Zoom meetings, breakout rooms, and a year of online learning, the creative team welcomed in some not ready for primetime players in the over 30 age group: staff hams.

It was a delight. 

In addition to a fun skit about a teacher discovering Tik Tok and a master class on comedy starring a dance instructor as a teacher who didn’t know he wasn’t muted (two words: Squirrel Mafia), the kids even let the staff star in a Zoom roll call that I can say from experience was as fun to film as it was to watch.

And it was this last sketch, one in which I got to play “cosplay kid” (a good hearted homage to the inspiring ACMA students who were such a delight when we did our Halloween party last fall) that was my first indication that ACMA (still a)Live was going to be a needed balm after such a strange spring and summer and fall and winter and spring again. 

The filming of our roll call was filled with laughter and captured the goofiness that will help us all traverse this pandemic prompted wilderness and return to campus with smiles behind our masks. Laughter, humor, whimsy, all too easy to forget in times of stress, matter much.

ACMA (still a)Live reminded us of this.

As tradition would suggest, the show included some gentle roasting of a handful of neighborhood schools (along with self depreciation about ACMA’s limited skill in the area of sports), but this year added an oddly moving story about a ghost haunting our performing arts center and wondering where all the students went after new construction moved us to a temporary campus last year. Act one of “The PAC Ghost” was that tasty pinch of nostalgia that made the rest of the meal even more delicious.

The show ended with a fantastic “Quarantine” Song, blending music, video, and insight in a celebration of sorts of our school, our artists, and our ability to overcome this crazy year. ACMA is very much still alive, and our students (and staff) still know how to make us laugh.

Good Natured Dread

This has been a crazy year in education, as it has been a crazy year beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. It has been a year when the those schoolhouse walls have expanded to include every kitchen table in town, every student chromebook perched on a stack of pillows, and more than a few garages where a corner between the lawn mower and boxes of holiday decorations has been converted into a place to dance, paint, or play the clarinet.

Now, as the world seems to be turning in a different direction, with some students returning to campus (and a good many other students choosing to remain at home to learn) some of that external craziness is turning into heightened internal emotion. Those feelings, just as confused as the world around us, were described beautifully by one of the seniors at my school who when asked what she and her peers were feeling replied: “Dread. Good natured dread.”

Another adult who was in on the conversation followed up: “Do you mean at school?” She asked, “or in general?” The student paused and then said: “Yeah.”

I loved (and was not surprised by) the way the student phrased things. I work at a ridiculously creative school where iconoclasm is equaled by wit. “Good natured dread” captures both the weariness inspired by the past year or so and the pluck that I know can lift this current generation of students (and the fortunate adults who get to work with them) out of the mire. 

If our school was asked “Which Disney princess are you?” We’d answer “Mononoke.”

And her phrase stuck with me as I thought about how best to approach the final weeks of this unusual school year.

Acknowledge the dread, was my first takeaway. That our students and staff and families are feeling pressure, unprecedented stress, and worry is a real thing, and smiling and pretending that isn’t the case doesn’t do anyone any good. The causes of understandable anxiety are many and varied. Not all of us can understand exactly what it’s like to face them all, but as we begin the climb back up to more solid ground it is important that we recognize that the trauma that has helped to define our past year is real and the way through is long, may be complicated, and is best managed by all of us supporting one another.

That community, that sense of good will, that is what I hear in my student’s other two words. Sure there is a level of despair, but our engagement with those emotions can be on our terms, good natured. I quoted the stoic philosopher Epictetus a few posts back and will echo that again here: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.”

We can and should face the feelings that have grown over the past months, and it seems to me that we’d be wise to do so with the same strength and cheek of the student describing how she was feeling about school and life.

Back to that princess, hardly Disney, I mentioned earlier. In Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke a character named Osa, bandaged head to toe and wracked by leprosy, tells our hero: “Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”

Epictetus, Miyazaki, that ACMA senior, they each have something to teach us. We are not without stress, or justifiable anxiety, or disappointment, and… 

We don’t have to face these alone or without hope. Together it’s natural to bemoan a bit, empathize with one another, and maybe, just maybe, feel good natured dread. I’m convinced that months from now that good natured dread will fuel stories of resilience, shared strength, and the power of our human spirit.

Driving Home

In this age of imperfect analogies I offer my own.

Decades before I became a principal, years before I started teaching, back when I was a twenty year old sophomore in college I was driving through Montana on my way home to Oregon after a road trip with a roommate that ended with me dropping him off at his home in Lewistown. Even having grown up in Oregon, a state more rural than urban, Montana’s wide open spaces were of a different scale to me and midway through a particularly long stretch of driving I looked down and saw that my gas needle was on empty.

I had miles to go before the next town. All around me the landscape stretched out, brown rolling hills, a few ramshackle wooden fence posts strung with wire, mountains in the distance. Montana is known as “big sky country” and the enormity of the sky above was equaled only by the length of the two lane highway that stretched out for miles and miles and miles and the sinking feeling in my chest as I looked down at the gauge and wondered how I’d not noticed the gas level back at the last town. 

That town was miles behind me now and in this day before smartphones or google maps I could only look at my odometer and try to puzzle how far I still had to go before I got to the next gas station. A long way, I figured. I looked back at that needle on E.

Alone, still moving at sixty miles an hour, I continued west. I wasn’t sure how far I could drive on empty, but I couldn’t see an alternative (or a town or house or place to make a phone call) so I drove. Half an hour later, my eyes continually drawn down to the gas gauge, I did the only sensible thing, at least in the mind of a foolish twenty year old; I leaned my wallet up on the dashboard so I couldn’t see the needle pointing to empty.

I drove that way for a long time. The map on the passenger seat told me I was headed the right direction, youthful optimism told me all would be well, and the back of my black leather wallet didn’t tell me if the needle could actually slip below E. I kept driving.

Then, like a miracle, the town of Bozeman appeared.

I dropped down into Bozeman, pulled into a gas station, and removed my wallet. Filling the tank it was as if there had never been a threat. I refueled, closed the cap, stretched my legs, and got back into the car. No fuss.

I have remembered that nerve jangling drive vividly for more than half my life.

And this week, as the school where I am principal prepares to welcome students back into classrooms after more than a year away from campus, I thought of that ride again. The stress that so many of us have felt, the frustration in not being able to see students when their cameras are off in Zoom, of not being able to see why they’re struggling or pick them up when they stumble, all those things have made the past year so difficult. We have done our best to make progress, to teach and learn, and to support our students, but other than knowing that we are tired, we are struggling too, and that our tank is close to empty, there is little that some of us are sure of.

What will it be like when the students come back? How will it be to engage in hybrid instruction? How soon can we have everyone back and begin to refuel and continue our journey with confidence? Like that hidden gas gauge, we just don’t know.

I promised that this would be an imperfect analogy, and it is, but it seems to me that we are collectively not unlike that foolish young me who kept pressing on, hoping to make it, knowing I needed to fill my tank and not sure just how empty it was. We are driving in the right direction, keeping hope as best we can, and while we can’t be sure just how much we need to fill our tank we keep moving forward hoping for the relief of seeing the lights of town ahead. I think that relief will come. I believe that as empty as some of us feel right now we will be full again. I know that at the end of this we’ll come home.

Growth

One person I know learned how to play the accordion, another began roasting his own coffee beans, another wrote some poetry that looks to be published soon. I’ve heard stories of people building greenhouses, recording songs, and cataloguing vintage oscilloscopes during this time of staying at home during the pandemic.

I have done none of that.

Day to day I’ve simply done my imperfect best to help my school stay connected, my family stay healthy, and myself survive with some level of sanity during these strange, strange days. I’ve read a lot, exercised too little, and avoided growing a pandemic beard.

As we take our first halting steps toward “normal” I hope that those of us who didn’t learn a language or pick up a masters degree in the months of quarantine can allow ourselves to feel no guilt.

We’re okay too.

Next week my school will see the first students back on campus for classes since March 2020. Some folks are nervous, some are excited, some our trying to imagine what it will look like. As the principal, I’m a little bit of all three of those categories, though I have a visual in my office that helps me picture at least a part of what it will might be like: a money tree plant.

I got the plant several years ago, a small thing to decorate my office, and have repotted it twice since. I found a photo from when we were at our old campus and saw that at that time, just before we moved to the temporary campus where we’ve been for a little more than a year and a half, the money tree was about as tall as the student sitting next to it as a group of ACMA filmmakers used my office for a short they were working on. (For anyone puzzling at what I was doing in a tie, not my day to day attire, I’m told I was playing a 1950s private eye.) 

Production of that film was interrupted by the pandemic, all our performances relegated to what might have been. But the plant…

Today that plant towers over me, enjoying the sun from a nearby window and growing like a middle schooler over a long summer.

How many of our students may have done the same? I’ve mostly seen the kids from the neck up, Zooming into Open Mic Nights or class meetings. The times I’ve been able to see them in person, picking something up from in front of the school or walking through for one of our socially distanced events, I’ve marveled at how tall some have gotten. Young giraffes into young adults.

But growth isn’t only on the outside. All of our students, and the adults that work with them too, have grown and changed in the months we’ve been apart. Some of this growth has been hard earned, some influenced by stress beyond our control, some experienced with the pain that comes with any transformation.

While we take steps toward returning to campus we are different than we were last March. Some of us have learned a little more about ourselves and our world, some of us have learned to long for or appreciate what we took for granted a year ago, all of us have seen the world we knew changed around us.

And as that old Washington Irving line goes: “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Bruised? Sure. Changed? Yes. Has the last year really been a bumpy stagecoach ride? Seems like it more often than not. And…

Even if you can’t see it on the outside, like that plant in my office we’ve grown. New shoots have stretched from the stalk, reaching toward the sun. If we nurture our growth, care for ourselves, and keep leaning into the light we may just be okay. 

Together, all of us, those who have done great things and those who have done our best to do our best, together we can start again. Changed. Bruised. Better again.

More than a year in…

We passed the one year anniversary of our last day on campus—Friday, March 13th, which feels so very, very, very long ago—remotely, only a few of us in our offices, most teachers working from home, and all students learning through their computers. Last March, when we waved goodbye to the buses pulling away from school, we weren’t sure how long it would be before the kids were back. Two weeks? Some asked. A month? A few daring folks wondered aloud if we’d be back before the start of the school year. 

The first official thought was that we’d need to extend spring break for a week or so, though many with level heads and logical minds doubted the pandemic would disappear that soon.

Then the separation got extended, all learning was pushed online, and the freefall of April through the end of the school year began with all the grace of a first time parachuter being pushed from a small plane.

Summer arrived, muted as it was by stay at home orders and uncertainty about school in the fall, and then August arrived with school still remote, still strange, still stressful.

Teachers innovated, students adapted, and schools like ours worked hard to stay as connected as we could. A few things worked; a few things didn’t. All of us looked forward to the day we’d be back on campus with students.

Vaccines arrived, plans evolved, and hope rose as winter 2020 turned into spring 2021.

And now we find ourselves here. April 2021, the sun shining as a write this post, rain promised off and on for the next few days, all the tumultuousness of spring weather echoes what so many of us are feeling as we start beginning to begin starting to start the beginning of the start of hybrid instruction.

It has some parallels to our move out of our old campus to our temporary home while construction got underway in the summer of 2019. Then, as now, we found ourselves in the midst of a big transition, we were about to start something new, and we were going to be teaching, learning, and making art somewhere other than our familiar home.

Then, as now, we were faced with change and the anxiety that so naturally accompanies a shift from the familiar to the unfamiliar. The move from one campus to another, however, was different from the move from one way of “doing school” to another. All of us had taught at a school building; none of us had taught 100% remotely; none of us has yet taught in the hybrid model we look to move into the week after next.

But we’re planning.

We’re working together to meet this most recent challenge. We’re spending the days we have before we step into this brave new world to ensure that we are as prepared as we can be, and knowing that even as we do our best we will be surprised by factors that we could never have anticipated.

This, I suppose, is normal now, at least normal at a distance wearing a mask over its mouth and nose. A year ago who would have thought it? A year from now what will it be like?

We can’t control a year from now and aren’t rewarded for lamenting a year ago, so what’s left is to band together, support one another, and embrace the idea that struggle and uncertainty are a part of this adventure of life. All will be well, we just don’t know exactly what that looks like right now.

Spring 2021

We didn’t travel far over spring break, just a quick trip to the coast where we could walk the dog under marvelously sunny skies. I got a few projects done, small ones anyway, and when the rain reminded me that I live in Oregon that same dog and I sat on the couch and visited Westeros and Madripoor, stopped in at the Diogenes Club, and spent some time in Montaigne’s study, where the old philosopher inscribed that line from Epictetus into a wooden beam: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.”

After a winter filled with “things that happen” it struck me, as I looked out over the Pacific on one of those walks on the sand, sun on the water, a few fishing boats just offshore, that spring really is coming and with it brighter days.

Confining my reflections to my work as a principal, those brighter days include seeing students back on campus later this month. Even in a hybrid model with just some students on site for a few days each week, seeing kids in person is a huge part of why I (and so many of us in education) do the work. I look forward to welcoming them as they arrive to school, seeing them in the hallways, and talking with them at lunch, all those little interactions that have been so absent for so long.

I’m excited too about having my staff back on campus. It’s not a simple or easy joy; some of my staff have situations that complicate their return and may need to take leaves of absence if they can’t return safely or have reliable childcare for their own kids. They will be missed with a deep stab to our collective hearts. And… for those of us in the building, working together to help students I hope for some sense of that collective efficacy that defines our staff. Plus, they’re a really fun bunch to be around, even socially distanced and masked.

I’m looking forward to seeing our artists make art again. They’ve been doing it, of course, for months, painting in garages, doing ceramics on kitchen tables, and printmaking on porches, but to see sculptors back at wheels, dancers in studio, and filmmakers traipsing around campus cameras in hand are things that I’ve been missing for more than a year. Zoom is not enough.

We have a few events planned too, the biggest an outdoor walkthrough Star Wars themed party on May the 4th. There are far, far, far more Star Wars fans at our little school than you might imagine and I’ve already heard talk of costumes, games, and a green screen video set up that some of our filmmakers are going to use to edit together a short that makes it look like scores of us are dancing together. 

The pandemic has been a time of sorrow, of loss for many of us, and a punishing grind for students and teachers still trying to do school. As we begin to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, a light that at my school may just be a blue lightsaber, I’m using the renewal I feel after a week away to embrace Montaigne’s perspective that my opinion of the things that happen, something in my control (at least when I’m rested and renewed) can help to erase some of the feelings I’ve allowed to pile up over the past few months.

Stepping out of winter I choose to look at the possibilities that fill my “to do” list and the people I will get to check off items from that list alongside. In my heart I can still feel that breeze from the ocean, cool in March, warming as we move toward June, and I know that spring is coming.

Break, not Broken

I tell myself that I don’t always limp into spring break, but I think that may be a lie.

The exhaustion of winter clings to March like the winter clouds that haven’t yet given up the fight with spring. I feel it, I hear it in the voices of so many I interact with, young and not so young, and as an educator (now circling the calendar in remote learning) feeling tired, as familiar as it has become, feels different this year. Maybe it’s that I don’t quite believe that I’ll return to start April renewed. Maybe.

But pessimism doesn’t help a thing, and a wise co-worker once reminded me that the attitude I project as a leader has more impact that I know, so instead of focusing on those clouds that are dropping rain on this March day I think it’s wise to suppose that while I may be limping now (emotionally, physically, as a principal, and as a human) by the end of this week away from work I may have found my stride again.

It’s a good story and I’m sticking to it.

And while I don’t have any pithy insight right now (I am limping after all), a story comes to mind from just a few days ago.

I was wearing my ACMA Carnival shirt, the red one with a circus tent above our school’s name, as I checked out at the grocery store early in the morning. I’d stopped there, sleepy eyed, to pick up something unhealthy and sweet before my first Zoom of the day. The cashier spotted my shirt and asked “What’s that?” I looked down. “Oh, a school,” I told her. “Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. It’s a magical place and this is from an event we did a while back, a spring party that…” I saw disappointment in her eyes, even as she seemed to smile behind her mask. “I thought it was from a carnival,” she said conspiratorially. “I haven’t been to something like that since I worked in the circus.”

I was in a hurry. I was tired. There was someone behind me in line. I foolishly did not ask a follow up question. She worked in the circus! I walked out of the store a thousand questions in my head, all left unasked.

And I have been thinking about that interaction for days.

Over the next week I hope to allow my thoughts to step off the mental trapeze they’ve been swinging on for the past few months. I’d like to go for a walk, not cram into a clown car or be shot from a cannon, both of which I feel I’ve experienced some days. And when I step back under the bigtop, playing ringmaster for a few more sunny weeks, I hope to bring with it a sense of joy, engagement, and wonder …something I know some people haven’t felt since they worked in the circus.

Donning and Doffing

Before today the only thing I can ever remember doffing was my cap.

As a reminder that we live in a world of uncertainty and occasional chaos, I looked up from my work preparing for our return to campus in a hybrid model to see my school nurse standing in the doorway of my office and asking me if I was ready to be tested on “donning and doffing PPE.” The answer, of course, needed to be yes.

So I put aside the work that I’d need to hurry back to, ahead of another Zoom in half an hour, a tour of our new campus later in the afternoon, and a pair of Zooms after that, and followed her over to what will be our “Isolation Room” when students return to campus.

Fortunately, I passed my test.

There is much that we don’t know and more decisions to be made than we have answers to right now. Anxiety is high and stress higher. The questions coming in about hybrid learning from all quarters, on top of planning and preparing for next year, and for our school organizing a move from one campus to another this summer, can feel overwhelming at times, and they are all as relevant, important, and necessary as they are overwhelming.

So we marshal on.

The challenge, it seems, is keeping our collective heads as we face a daunting pile of work, a long list of difficult questions, and an ocean of uncertainty. We can’t solve every problem today, but if we breathe, work together, and believe we can find the best way forward we can at least address the problem nearest at hand. Then the next. Then the next. Then the next.

And like the clickety-clack of a train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next we may just move forward. I think we will.

Yes, we will be interrupted to don and doff this and that. We will be thrown unexpected surprises. The track will not be straight and may feel like more than one person is tied down on it by a person in a black cape twisting his mustache. …and we can handle this. Not without frustration, but we can handle this.

A long time back I was asked during a job interview what the hardest part of being a principal was. “Disappointing people I respect,” was the answer I gave. Sometimes the options we have are limited, sometimes the decisions that need to be made aren’t popular (or even “right” from a particular point of view), and sometimes what I have to communicate is going to let people down. The truth does on occasion. But just because we are disappointed doesn’t mean we don’t stay on that train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next and move in the direction of what’s best.

Are we ready to be tested on donning and doffing PPE (or whatever is next on that list of challenges)? The answer, of course, is yes.

A Rat Question

I have a painting of a dead rat. It’s vivid and vigorous, well, as vigorous as a dead rat can be, painted in oil (blue, black, and of course red). The artist, a charming and wildly creative student who graduated a couple of years back, gave it to me after I noticed the painting at a big student art show. She went off to study forensic pathology and left me with a two panel painting that I like far more than one ought to like a painting of a deceased vermin …and I have no idea what to do with it.

You probably saw that dilemma coming. What does one do with six feet of oil painted dead rat? 

Technically and emotionally the painting is strong and hits me the way some art just does, visceral, raw. And…

My wife is not going to say to me: “That dead rat diptych would look great above the fireplace.”

If I hung it in my office at work I could see the subject matter raising eyebrows, and while I’m not opposed to raising eyebrows, it seems to me that the principal’s office ought to at least strive for some sense of calm; the meetings that fill the room are sometimes dramatic enough without having stressed out people look up to see the reclining corpse of an artistic rodent.

I thought about hanging it in the science wing of our new campus. They dissect rats and such, but then I remembered the living rats we keep in our middle school science labs and it feels ghoulish to put this reminder of their mortality so close to those furry young lives.

So…

Whither the dead rat painting?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I welcome suggestions. I really do want to figure out a place to display this awesome oddity and I have until June before we move into the new building, which means less than half a year to find the right home. 

Main office? Maybe not. Teacher lunch room? Just kidding. There’s an answer, I believe that, but what it is… maybe that’s an answer for a future post.