“Here I am…”

JustinI visited a friend this spring, Justin. Before I moved to Encinitas, he and I served two years together as assistant principals in the bay area. He’s a middle school principal now, and a good one. I stayed at his house over a weekend, and after two days of talking shop (to the curious head tilting of his understanding wife), I had an opportunity to visit his school before I flew home on Monday morning. Here I was reminded of how important it is to have friends who are heroes.

Justin’s school is about the size of my own, tucked in a neighborhood as Diegueño is, and filled with a spirit of opportunity. Their school mascot is the Scorpions, and a measure of Justin’s kindness and patience was his chuckle when I suggested (knowing the swirl of emotions middle school students are subject to) he might change the alma mater to “Rock You Like A Hurricane.” No, he told me patiently; the students don’t know that flavor of rock and roll, but he was looking for a font that would remind teachers of the band as he was designing that year’s staff shirts.

Yearly shirts were the first step he took before the school year began to reinforce community at his school. Next came the important work of collaborating with teachers to develop a climate of caring and rigor, made manifest in everything from the ubiquitous college pennants to the placement of technology near every quad on campus. From what they wore to what they did together, the adults at his school supported student success.

But beyond the infrastructure it was Justin’s infectious optimism and passion for helping that made my morning so inspiring. As I followed him around campus, his face lit up when he talked about specific student stories: here’s where his ASB students painted a mural. Here’s where his 8th graders organized a charity basketball game. Here’s where he saw a student start a campaign against bullying.

I’d always known him to be the administrator who knew his students’ names, and even more their stories, and as I walked with Justin around the school, seeing him so enthusiastic about the work he and his staff were doing, I found myself getting more and more excited about the start of school. More than trying to be a hero to anyone himself, Justin saw heroism in his kids. By keeping a vision of his students filled with potential, he set them up for great things. In education we talk about “growth mindsets” (and we should); in Justin I saw that talk realized: he knows his students can do great things, and he’s there to support them and cheer them on.

A few weeks later, on the eve of 8th grade promotion, Justin texted me a video. It showed his 8th grade class practicing an elaborate wave (side to side, front to back, back to front) in their seats, and I could picture how much fun their promotion ceremony would be. Their smiling faces suggested that they knew they’d do well in high school, and they knew their principal was proud of them. He was.

As we move through life it’s vital that we choose our friends wisely, and seek to inspire them as they inspire us. My visit with Justin, and especially the tour of his school reminded me of the importance of surrounding ourselves with people we respect and can learn from, people who love what they do and make us better. As we prepare for the fall and the start of school, I look forward to that feeling of excitement that I saw in Justin’s face. I’ve ordered the staff shirts. I’ve talked with teachers. I look forward to getting to know my students’ names, to watching them try new things and make the memories I’ll tell Justin about when I get to show him Diegueño. And I hope he’ll feel as inspired as I did, rocked, like a hurricane.

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