The band swung like a gate. Robots circulated through the crowd. Musicians sold popcorn. Artists, actors, and the Japanese Honor Society roamed around the stage. Parents talked with teachers, students, and each other. It was an evening that captured the spirit of San Dieguito High School Academy, and left me whistling “Paper Moon.”
In more than two decades as an educator, I’ve been a part of more than my fair share of Back to School Nights, but last night was something special. With a dash of nuttiness and a little syncopation, the evening captured the flavor of what it’s like to be at SDA, and as principal, I had one of the best seats in the house to watch the show.
Long before I stepped on stage to welcome families to campus, my assistant had put in hours organizing the night. As with so much of what we do at our school, her work, the work of our custodial staff, and the excited preparation of our ASB students, who were on hand to give parents schedules and show them where rooms are, made the event feel easy. Easy only happens with lots of preparatory hard work.
Along with hard work comes generosity, which manifested itself in the big sandwiches our Parent Foundation provided for staff before the night began. I’ve always been a fan of providing dinner for teachers before Back to School Night; I think it helps everyone to break bread before the hustle and bustle of presenting to parents. New teachers seeing veterans’ calm and veterans seeing new teachers’ energy helps us all be our best. That our parents provided the meal made it even better.
The song and dance of the Principal’s Welcome came after sandwiches, and this year I did my best to make it more song and less dance. Our jazz band performed three tunes, including one they threw in for me (mastered in an incredibly short time), Harold Arlen’s “Paper Moon.” For those who notice such things, I play the song in the mix I have going before many of my big meetings. It captures the spirit of being a principal, when a part of my job is making sense out of our Barnam and Bailey World. That our band director and his cats could, and did, pick up the tune brought me a quiet joy.
What followed was the good stuff, parents in classrooms, seeing first hand the folks who bring the magic to education. I did my best to move around campus all night, poking my head into classrooms, seeing teachers smiling and talking with moms and dads, grandparents and guardians. The energy these teachers brought to their work, after a full day of teaching, was astounding. Knowing the quality of our faculty, it was not surprising.
What did surprise me was a handful of unexpected (and “very SDA”) moments lurking just off stage. I saw our counselors talking with parents, not because they had to, but because they had a few moments after their own presentations and parents wanted to talk. I saw ASB students walk parents to classrooms, pointing the way with flashlights, and talking with them as they went. I saw a warmth in the parents who came up to me to tell me how their students’ years were going so far.
And toward the end of the night, as the sun set over the ocean just west of campus, I saw something that captured my heart and attention and struck me as a synecdoche for student life at SDA. Beneath the sliver of a crescent moon, a dozen or so students who were there to provide direction to the parents took advantage of the parents being in classrooms to play catch on the lawn next to our Mosaic Cafe. They laughed, threw, ran, and engaged in the exuberant play we adults have too little of in our own lives. Some wore headlamps, others simply used the light of the setting sun. They were uninhibited, joyful, and truly part of a special community. They were, in a nutshell, SDA.
All this would have been enough to tell me that our school is a special place, but the students had one more surprise. The next morning, as teachers arrived after a late night, the students organized a breakfast, complete with coffee and a solo violinist. With smiles and words of thanks, the students offered a “Teacher Java” to say thank you to us.