Shuttering the Apothecary

mug shotCommencement commenced, summer upon us, and a moving truck idling in the driveway, it’s time for me to take a few weeks to make the major life transition from one state to another, one principalship to another, and one comfortable situation to a brand new adventure.

I started this blog for education related thoughts years ago when I was an assistant principal and have cheerfully kept it up as a principal, remembering that my starting point was an understanding that it would be filled with odds and ends, diverse and sometimes personal notions, and the kind of variety suggested by the line from Shakespeare stolen for the title:

I do remember an apothecary…
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter’d, to make up a show.”

But as life takes a huge leap toward the green expanses of Oregon, I know that it would be wise to shutter this apothecary for the summer and focus on making the drive north, settling in at a new school, and preparing for a new collection of “alligators stuff’d, tortoises, and old cakes of roses.” I have enjoyed the opportunity to reflect that this space has provided and relished the comments and engagement so many have offered.

I’ll pick up in the fall with Oregonian tales, and until then wish all my gentle readers a marvelous summer and, for taking time for these modest posts, a heartfelt thank you!

Tunnel of Love

It would be a lie to say I love it, but there is a part of me that will miss San Dieguito’s “tunnel” when it’s gone in a just a few days.

early tunnelThe demolition of two buildings and construction of a new two story science and math building in the center of our campus ushered in my first year as principal at San Dieguito with the crash of a wrecking ball and rumble of heavy machinery. Bulldozers and cranes have been a part of my school ever since it became my school, and with a tight squeeze along a major north/south walkway, construction prompted a creative solution to student safety: building a massive wooden wall with a ceiling to separate students from construction.

It is, I realized, one of the few things about San Dieguito that is entirely mine. There was no “tunnel” (as it came to be called) before I was principal, and the wall will be gone before another principal arrives on campus. In its way, the tunnel captures some of the spirit of my time as principal at San Dieguito.

tunnelI arrived to construction and its attendant challenges, and found that the school, the students and adults who make up the San Dieguito family, are greater than any adversity, particularly that prompted by shovels and jackhammers.

The existence of the tunnel was a necessity; the students’ response was unexpected and beautiful. Seeing wood, they brought out paint.

They started with pictures: a horse, a peace sign, hearts, and even the Death Star.

Soon an art teacher and her painting class brought some cohesion, adding wheels, windows, and the concept of a train. More images appeared: fruit, animals, and a painting of a mountain that looked like it could be framed and put in a gallery.

fine art on plywood

This was a creative solution to an immovable challenge, functional first, but soon a place for students celebrate their diverse artistic voices.

Was everything perfect? No. Life isn’t, but on this imperfect, evolving, and unpredictable canvas our school got to see the kaleidoscopic spirit of our student body.

The tunnel filled with color, originality, and whimsy.

Images grew, vibrant, beautifully silly, and sometimes profound.

They are, by the nature of the tunnel, transitory, “very SDA,” and (soon) gone.

tunnel

Giving a construction tour of our rainbow colored “tunnel” to board members, the SDUHSD Prop AA Citizens’ Oversight Committee, and local press.

Beneath a Rainbow Mustang

Time is funny, and perception funnier still. I realized this as I stood in front of my amazing staff at our last get together, a lunchtime gathering in the second to last week of the year. I made it a point to project the image of a blue Mustang, the SDA mascot, galloping across a rainbow flag. It was the image I’d projected behind me in my opening staff meeting on my first day at San Dieguito, a touchstone for a culture that is inclusive, caring, and filled with creativity.

rainbow

We’d muscled through a few directions for commencement, a review of check out procedures, and the results of the Dorkathalon, and reached a point I knew was inevitable: my time to say goodbye to a school I love.

…and I kept it short.

I had to. If I hadn’t, I know I would have teared up.

So I looked up at the crowd, and found that it felt as if I’d been friends with them for a long, long time. The faces I saw looking back at me were those of people with whom I’d shared coffee, traded places, and done so many things. These were amazing educators who I’d seen work with kids in ways that were creative, caring, and inspiring. Person by person, the smiles I saw, familiar and supportive, were those of kindred spirits with whom I have had the pleasure to strive alongside in this grand adventure that is education.

…and…

With that rainbow Mustang behind me, I had a flash of a feeling of the emotion I’d felt on my first day in front of my new school. And it felt like it had been a week since I had stood there for the first time.

That feeling lasted just a moment, but in that moment I remembered the nervousness I’d experienced, the hope that I could connect, the excitement to be starting something new.

And I thought…

I had connected.

I’m still excited.

The staff clapped and smiled. Some kind souls got me a pirate cake. It was a moment of profound emotion, leaving something to start something new.

I’ve tried to describe a bit of the magic of my experiences at San Dieguito in the posts on this modest blog, and know I’ve only captured a sliver of what it’s really like. I know this because at that moment, standing before my friends, remembering the feeling of newness, waves of those memories washed over me and time stood still.

Penny-wise

…I am not crying
on the inside. I am no brave faker
On the contrary, I am a simple laugh
-Donald Hall “The Clown”

I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s It at Powell’s on Valentine’s Day. 1500 miles from my wife, my nerves still jangling after a job interview in Oregon, I spotted the book while browsing in a book shop to try to relax.

As thick as an upended business card, its heft enthralled me. I’d owned a copy before, a paperback with a wonderfully lurid claw reaching up from a storm grate on the cover. Alone in the bookshop, I couldn’t help but plunk down $10, curious to revisit the novel on a rainy Portland night.

The last time I read Stephen King’s 1986 behemoth, a book I can’t think of without remembering a high school friend’s amazement that anyone could write a book so long, I lived in Oregon. I can’t recall the circumstances of that first reading; there was so much pop fiction in my young adulthood. I suppose it was at least in part read alone in a room to the sound of falling rain.

It coverThe differences of more than a quarter century struck me as I read the novel through the eyes of a dad, and husband, and high school principal. …and a fellow who has been away from his home state for a long, long time.

It’s not that I haven’t felt at home throughout my adult life, but seeing Mt. Hood as I drove from the airport to my interview I felt a wave of emotion not unlike Ulysses must have experienced when he stepped back onto Ithaca.

It saw me through the flight back to San Diego, and up and back to a second interview and then a third. As I turned the pages I found that while there was so much I didn’t remember, the story, or better put the stories; It is at its heart a collection of related tales about what it is like to be human, carried with it a feeling of familiarity.

Not unlike the Sunset Highway or the stacks at Powell’s, It felt like something I knew, and at the same time it felt a little surreal.

For any who haven’t cracked the book, It tells the story of a group of friends from the fictional town of Derry, Maine who confront the manifestation of evil, often in the guise of a demonic clown, as kids in the summer of 1958 and again in 1984. In the twenty some years between the two events all but one of the “Losers Club” as they dub themselves leave the state and create adult lives of their own.

Those adults return “home” different than when they left it. The decades between their moving away and coming back, roughly the same amount of time I’ve been away from Oregon, changed them, and they returned altered versions of the selves who had gone away.

This more than struck a chord.

The twenty something teacher I was when I moved to California has been replaced by the forty something principal I have become. Along the way I’ve had experiences good and bad that have matured me, humbled me, and inspired me. As I prepare to return to the Pacific Northwest I do so with a feeling of hope, expectation, and excitement.

Staying in California would have been, to use the old saying, “penny-wise and pound foolish.” My days at San Dieguito, surrounded by gifted educators and blessed to work with so many friends, have been a dream come true, but for life beyond being a principal, my life as a dad, and a husband, Oregon was the choice that was more than a pound wise. Foolish youth, replaced by something akin to maturity.

Stephen King captured the feeling those characters had looking homeward after so much time away, across the miles and years alike, and that understanding of leaving youth and becoming an adult.

It was no big deal; it didn’t go all at once, with a bang. And maybe … that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like on of that clown’s trick balloons … The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you.”

And now the grownup in my mirror, so different from the fellow who filled a U-Haul and drove from Forest Grove to Oakland, is packing boxes and cleaning the garage, preparing to drive back up I-5 in the company of cats and kids who were not yet born when we left Oregon so many years ago.

I’ve got no maniacal clown to fight or promise from youth to fulfill, but like those adults from King’s novel I’m preparing to go home to a place that has not stopped changing in my absence.

Both of us are different than we were, me and the state, and how we will find each other when we meet again in July carries a delightful, if a little unnerving, uncertainty that I’m ready to meet head on.

The spring sun makes it feel all that more real. The boxes piling in our garage, the seemingly endless decisions as to what we keep and what we give away, and the steady stream of work to be done, these realities of moving will end soon and I’ll find myself back in the Willamette Valley preparing for the next stage of life.

Has the kid in me “leaked out” slowly? Maybe some; I certainly see an adult in my mirror. But working with students does much to inspire a spirit of youth. It’s tough to be too adult when every week or so someone invites you to be silly.

So I hope that as I return to Oregon I do so with a little gray hair, a few more wrinkles, and a youthful heart. …and no clowns.

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June

The tipping point is
Senior Awards
When the madcap rush toward graduation
Turns into a
Delightful
Freefall
Not to end until
The parents rush onto the field
To hug their graduates
Cry, take photos, and be proud.

This year, as much as most, it’s easy to feel the pace quicken
The students smiles speaking thoughts
Of summer
College
And the sunny future.

After Senior Awards the days shorten
Emotions lengthen
And that feeling of impermanence
(both real and as fleeting as a dream)
Tints every interaction with a touch of melancholy
Tempered only by the youthful exuberance of
Students
For whom high school feels like it will last forever.

graduation b

The Last Month

photo (4)I am surrounded by boxes. Rows of cardboard holding my family’s life, or at least our pots and pans, toys and games, photo albums and framed art fill our garage, linger in corners, and wait half full, flaps agape, to close over the remaining odds and ends, legos, plates, knickknacks, and books.

Of books, if I’m honest, I’m down to fewer than a half dozen: a biography of Duke Ellington; a paperback mystery I’m saving for the plane ride up to Oregon in June to find a place to live, slim enough to fit in a pocket, just enough pages for two flights and a couple of nights in a hotel; a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, likely to be consumed and left at the library in Encinitas before the end of June; and Crow by Ted Hughes.

In just a few weeks my family and I will be unpacking those books and boxes in Beaverton, a reality still hard to wrap our heads around.

That every time we now do something (go to a Padres game or eat at our favorite burrito spot) is the last or nearly the last time we’ll do so is sobering. So too each of my final days at San Dieguito.

I’ve been to my last SDA games, a pair of lacrosse playoffs. My last coffee with the principal has come and gone, and how hard it was to say goodbye to those familiar and friendly faces, some of whom I’ve known for years. In a week I’ll go to my final play in the Clayton Liggett Theater, Picnic, a midcentury emotional potboiler. This Wednesday is my last Spring Concert. The Friday after that is the last assembly of the year.

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As emotional are the final visits to classrooms, those places where the truly important work happens at a school. Some of my favorite memories at SDA are from classrooms, where students and teachers work together to imagine, create, learn.

Along with these “lasts” come some unique to San Dieguito: our last Student Forum, our final Exhibition Day, and a graduation unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Leaving SDA means saying goodbye to so much, so many friends, so many special experiences, and…

…and after that last “last” event, when the mortarboards land and parents swarm the field to hug their kids, something else will start.

This July I begin life at ACMA, a creative place of new adventures, and there I’m eagerly looking forward to experiencing just as many…

…firsts.

The Hardest Job in Education

Once at the retirement party of long tenured principal, the guest of honor stood up to tell tales of his career and announced without hesitation that the hardest job in education was being a high school assistant principal.

Unforgiving in pace, relentless in stress, and punctuated by emergencies, the job of “AP” means coming to work each day knowing only that a surprise (or six or ten) is waiting for the right moment to make things interesting.

Assistant principals are on the front lines of lives in crisis. It is to them that teachers turn when student behavior becomes too much in class, to them parents go when the indiscretions of youth cross legal lines, and to them the school community looks when emergencies arise. Principals are useful too, but it is in the APs that the strength of the school is made manifest.

For this effort, this patience, and this good work assistant principals are rewarded with expletives shouted at them through telephones, angry emails cc’d to supervisors, and face to face conversations replete with tears, accusations, and sometimes threats.

Sometimes.

…and on other occasions there are parents and students, counselors and teachers, police officers and paramedics who say “thank you.” And they mean it.

They mean it because assistant principals change lives for the better. It is through their important work that students get the help they need. Sometimes disguised as punishment, the consequences that APs use to hold students to meaningful standards help shape behavior, inform choices, and teach students life lessons better learned in high school than when jobs, marriages, and college careers are on the line.

In addition, APs are there when things are at their worst. They keep their cool when injuries or the threat of harm come to kids. They provide strength when parents simply do not know what to do. They provide professionalism tinged with love when the worst of the world haunts the youth they are charged with protecting. It is not an understatement to say that assistant principals save lives.

The best APs, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great ones, build relationships with students and families, support kids and address behaviors, and show through their actions that they care deeply about the lives of their students.

To be an assistant principal is not to revel in glories every day, but to do the hard and important work day in and day out, and receive in occasional and heartfelt outbursts exclamations of appreciation so real as to bruise one’s soul.

APs are scapegoats, villains, workhorses, counselors, confidants, detectives, and heroes. They do what they do with tenacity and deep caring, professionalism and purpose, and even if confidentiality and discretion mean that they do some of their best work in the shadows, from a person who knows the difficulty of that work, my appreciation is real and by them well deserved.

To my APs I offer a sincere “thank you.” You do the hardest job in education and the difference you make is profound.

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