Mattering

The best compliment I’ve gotten this summer came from my wife when she saw me with Wes Moore’s book The Work: My Search for a Life that Matters and she said: “Why are you reading that? You already do work that matters.”

the workI’ve been an educator all of my adult life. Beyond unloading trucks at Bi-Mart and sorting broccoli at a cannery the summer before my senior year in high school, teaching (and now being an administrator) is about all I’ve ever done as work.

There are days when I feel like I make a difference, that what I do really does matter, but there are also days I feel tired and a little beaten up. Those tough days are the minority, but they’re real, and I was speaking the truth when I answered my wife’s question of “why?” by answering that I was reading The Work for “inspiration.”

It’s summer and as a principal I’m on the hunt for stories and experiences that renew and replenish hope. The Work is rich with these.

Moore tells his own story of time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, of serving in combat in Afghanistan, and returning to the US to find a path of meaning. Throughout, he weaves in the stories of inspirational people living lives of service and meaning: an entrepreneur, a leader in the Peace Corps, and even a grade school principal.

Each of these individuals saw a purpose greater than themselves and crafted a life that did more than simply earn an income. They’re the direct opposite of the line from Citizen Kane: “It’s no trick to make a lot of money …if all you want is to a lot of money.” The meaningful work Moore describes does more than fill bank accounts.

One example that resonated with me on this score came in Moore’s description of his grandfather’s funeral.

At the time of his death, he had almost no money in his bank account, less than a thousand dollars to leave behind, but hundreds and hundreds of people came out on a rainy day in December to pay their final respects to a man who had devoted a portion of his life to helping them with theirs.”

This ability to impact lives is at the heart of most educators. We get into the business of teaching to help students learn, and stay because we feel like we may be able to help others, our students, live meaningful lives.

Along the way, many of us look for what Moore calls “fellow travelers.” Describing his own rich experiences in the military and at Oxford, two very different places to say the least, he writes about the way the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives led to “an invaluable collateral education.”

A great term, “collateral education” captures the truth that spending time with others who bring real differences to the pursuit of meaningful work not only makes our lives richer, but has the potential to make the work we do more effective.

Yet Moore’s book acknowledges that following one’s calling isn’t always easy, and seldom comes in a straight line. In an insightful recollection of a conversation he had with William Brody, then president of Johns Hopkins, Moore quotes this mentor as having told him:

If you feel the need to go and do something you are not passionate about, for whatever reason, then that is a decision you have to make. But I am going to tell you, the day you feel you have accomplished what you need to accomplish there, leave. Because every day you stay longer than you have to, you become extraordinarily ordinary.”

The profundity of that statement has stuck with me long after I finished The Work. Not every step we make is forward, but keeping our minds set on what matters most, and having the courage to pursue it can make the difference between “extraordinarily ordinary” and extraordinary.

Moore’s book, a thought provoking and emotion stirring narrative, reinforces the value of professions like education. His respect for others and love of learning illuminate every page, and I finished The Work inspired to return to campus this fall and do work that matters.

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Harry Potter and the Kaleidoscopic Academy

CursedThe discussion at the breakfast table today was about Harry Potter. Specifically, the kids were deciding if they knew anyone who would want to go with them to the party at the local bookstore to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Conversation turned to the realization that between the two, my kids really only had one friend who likes the little wizard as much as they do.

What struck me most as I listened to the kids talk was the fact that this independent taste wasn’t a problem for them. They have lots of friends who like baseball or soccer or art, but reading and Harry Potter not so much. And they were okay with that.

In a world so often overrun by groupthink and guided by peer pressure, examples like this one, silly as it may seem, are a welcome reminder of the joy of independent thought and sense of self.

Those qualities can be even tougher to hold onto during the middle and high school years, when peers take on importance of religious proportions and insecurity comes as inevitably as pimples on one’s nose.

As educators, and as schools, it’s important for us to nurture the individualism of our students. There are times and places that convince me of the progress we’ve made on this front; high school today looks a lot less like a John Hughes movie than it did when I was in school, but one needn’t look beyond the internet to see examples that remind us how insecure we all are and how much we’ll compromise to feel that we fit in.

mkBeing adults makes it easier to own our individual tastes, even it they’re nutty or unrefined. I’m okay today saying that I dig Sherlock Holmes, Sammy Davis Jr., and Moon Knight, while in high school it mattered more to me that I had a letterman jacket and didn’t wear embarrassing shoes. As we get older, most of us come to that point where we own who we are, at least more than we did as teenagers.

So the challenge is to take this adult security and help our students see beyond the consistent and ubiquitous pressure to conform and hold on to (or even develop) their individual tastes and passions that are their own. Unapologetically.

I’m not so foolish as to believe that this won’t feel a bit like punching ocean waves, but the perspective that our own opinions matter, that our tastes help to define who we are, is valuable in the developing health of our kids.

In classrooms this can take a thousand forms. I’ve seen teachers provide students with more freedom to choose some of what they study. Some teachers use project based learning to allow students to apply concepts or methods to a topic of their own.

I once had a student when I taught in rural Oregon impress and surprise his classmates with a presentation on his gingerbread building prowess. In an urban California school I watched as a student talked at length about her grandfather, a boxer in the 1930s who almost knocked out Joe Louis.

Great teachers understand the importance of knowing, really knowing, their students, and they create classroom cultures that are safe and encourage students to tell their stories. Often these teachers model this truth telling themselves, and always they value what students have to say.

Schools can model this culture of acceptance and celebration by encouraging clubs, taking time to honor students’ diverse talents and interests, and presenting the many human faces, student and adult, that make up the school as a whole.

I’m blessed to work at a school that honors and values individuals and individuality, all while celebrating our collective, kaleidoscopic life. Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, a commitment to helping students find, and own, their own voices can be …magic.

Fallow Field

photo 1 (7)…I see the evergreen
looming on the next ridge.
I see them fade south
until they merge
with the morning sky.

-Floyd Skloot, “In the Coast Range”

My first thoughts returning to Oregon after an absence I understand now was far, far too long, was how much things had changed. After four days of hiking in the forests around the Columbia River Gorge I realize that while my initial reaction wasn’t untrue, it was also, like so many first reactions, incomplete.

Sure the area around Powell’s Books has been polished by the gentrifying brush of time, and yes, when my wife and I visited our alma mater they’d picked up and moved the historical chapel where we’d gotten married to make room for a new library, but at its core Powell’s still sells used books and the nostalgia of being on Pacific University’s campus with my wife still quickened my pulse.

Things change, and that’s a truth that we’re wise to accept, but it’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it the complete story.

Because at the same time buildings get fresh paint or even new locations, so very much of the world moves at a different speed. Oregon reminded me of that this week.

photoOn our first day in the Gorge we hiked through the verdant forests near Cascade Locks. I may have been fooling myself, fools like me sometimes do, but I swear I remember some of the same majestic trees and rock formations along the trail, their moss as familiar as it was when my wife and I lived in Hood River two decades ago and hiked these same trails religiously.

In the past twenty years, a geological blip, the landscape seemed to have inhaled once and exhaled once again, but not much more. In that time I’ve become a father, moved from teacher to principal, gained cats, lost hair, and only vaguely resemble the twenty five year old I was when I last hiked here.

Nature sees time differently, on its own terms. Always changing, it appears not to change. Fellows like me, not so.

This lesson in perspective was helpful for me as an educator; mine is a profession where the immediate can present itself as more important than the longer term. As a principal it’s all too easy to see how a simple appeasal might make for a smoother afternoon, though it could mean the mistake of ignoring the compass that will guide us where we need to go.

photo 4 (3)Tromping these trails, a speck beneath the soaring conifers, no more significant to Mt. Hood than a deer, or a squirrel, or a stone, reminded me that the most meaningful realities aren’t realized in a moment, or a day, or a year. Our decisions matter, and matter profoundly, but our strength comes from seeing our work in the broader scope.

For me this means thinking about what’s good for students now, students next year, and our school farther into the future.

It means building programs, nurturing culture, and planting the seeds of ideas with the resources of today and the vision for tomorrow.

The lesson isn’t new, or particular to education.

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Hanging in our living room is a painting by an Oregonian artist, Beverly Hallberg. Titled “Fallow Field,” the image shows a landscape familiar to the rural sensibility of my youth. We bought the painting a lifetime ago, moved by the colors and feeling, and the painting’s ability to capture the spirit of a particular time and place. In that painting is a reminder that wise farmer’s knew that managing their land meant leaving fields fallow for a season, creating the opportunity for a richer harvest in the long term.

Where to plant and where to allow a fallow field is a part of every principal’s work, a lesson brought home by this week of spending so much time in nature. I’ll think about that perspective as I return to my office in the next few days, the memory of hiking amid the trees “looming on the next ridge” fresh in my mind. And in the hurly burly of the school year, I’ll strive to balance the moment’s immediate needs with the greater, grander perspective.

Rogue Pies

photo 1 (6)I began my teaching career at Hood River Valley High School, an embarrassingly fresh faced twenty five year old out to change the world. Hood River was home for two years, before a job offer at the school where I’d student taught lured us out of the Columbia Gorge and on to the next step in a career in education that has ranged from Oregon to the Bay Area to San Diego County. When my wife and I left Hood River we were still in our twenties with no kids, big dreams, and a spirit of adventure.

I like to think that our dreams haven’t diminished and that our spirit is the same, even now after twenty years and a family of our own. Even so, it was plainly clear how much we’d changed since the mid 90s when this summer’s family trip brought us back up the Gorge and we settled in for four days along the Columbia River.

It seems we’ve grown up.

I say that without a scrap of remorse or the faintest hint of regret for lost youth. The truth is that I’m a better person than I was when I left Hood River, more patient, happier, and quicker to be kind. I can still be grouchy when I get hungry and tend to focus on school so much I forget to change the oil in my car, but the accumulation of adventures that have filled the last two decades of my life have taught me the value of listening, the importance of seeing other points of view, and the satisfaction that comes not from being clever, but from treating others well.

I didn’t know who I was when I started teaching, though teaching helped to show me who I was. I look back at photos of my first year in the classroom and wonder at how young I was, how inexperienced, and how passionate about teaching.

Twenty years later I love teaching and have become even more passionate about learning and helping others learn.

photo 2 (5)I wouldn’t be who I have become without Hood River Valley High and my time teaching and coaching in the shadow of Mt. Hood. It was a truth I thought about today as I drove up to the campus with my kids.

How the trees had grown.

Two decades ago HRV was a hive of new construction. Today it has the comfortable look of an established campus, complete with the same amazing views of Mt. Adams to the north and Mt. Hood to the south.

I found the window to my first classroom, but held off peeking inside. My memories of the time spent there are rich and I didn’t want to see someone else’s posters up on the walls.

Instead, I thought about the successes and failures that defined my time at HRV. The wind tunnel I made in my classroom with teaching Pierre Boule’s Planet of the Apes, the nature walks near campus when studying Wordsworth, and the first truly goofy thing I did as a teacher, a confessedly silly thing that set the tone for a career filled with a spirit of play: Goggle Day.

It started as a lark, a way to shake things up in the midst of a long, cold winter. Our English Department, a curious and creative collection of good humored free spirits were kicking around ideas so zany they might be fun. I can’t take credit for any part of the idea that turned out well, though I suppose my name would be the likeliest to deserve blame, particularly when things went decidedly out of control.

We called it Goggle Day. Did we expect things wouldn’t go sideways?

The scheme was simple enough. On a particular day everyone in the department would come to work wearing goggles, ski, swim, what you will. We designated one of my students as “Goggle Boy” and armed him with a coconut cream pie. At some point in the day, completely of his own choosing, he would deliver the pie into an English teacher’s face.

This was a time before everyone had a cell phone; no one expected the event to live on in shaky video or on social media. Goggle Day’s pie would simply be the delicious delivery we’d talk about in the English workroom, something to laugh about together.

But we were not, truth be told, a group of people likely to follow all the rules.

Early in the day, in fact, the swell of cheers from two separate classrooms proved that it was not just Goggle Boy who was delivering creamy splats.

We had rogue pies.

Now I should pause this story long enough to explain that Hood River Valley High was a well run and professional place in 1994, as I’m sure it is today. Our principal was a strong and kind woman, the epitome of professionalism. Her assistant principal was a former head football coach whose scowl could melt concrete. It was a newly remodeled school, clean and orderly, a perfect place to learn.

We had not mentioned Goggle Day to anyone in a position of authority, and had fully expected that one pie could be filed under the heading: HARMLESS FUN.

Another loud cheer next to my classroom told me that we were barreling well past that heading and into the territory of: NOT ON MY WATCH.

It was at this point that I realized that the day was so far beyond my control that the best I could do was simply keep my goggles on and hope for the best. If Goggle Boy opened my classroom door, I’d smile and take it in the face.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Instead, midway through my prep period, as I was sitting at my desk, goggled atop my forehead, the back door of my classroom opened. In leaned a tall young English teacher with a smile on his face and a whip cream pie in his hand.

I did the only sensible thing.

I ran.

Out the front door of my classroom I bolted into the hallway. Behind me I heard the roar of thirty five students, my wild colleague’s class, as they followed him through my classroom and after me. They poured into the hallway, picking up speed. At the head of the smiling mob their begoggled teacher loped forward, holding a pie above his head.

I tore out of the English wing and into the next hallway of the school. They were gaining ground and would catch me soon.

Turning a corner near the art room I could feel the pounding of their feet.

I raced down the main hall and in front of the office felt a hand on my shoulder.

There was no escape.

I turned, saw the wide eyed smiles of the students and the crazy glee of my colleague, and watched through my goggles as the pie hit my face.

SPLAT

…and then I heard the assistant principal’s yell.

He had been a head football coach and this was the tone his players must have feared.

With a flick of my hands I cleared my goggles, my face still white with whip cream. I couldn’t see the AP; the class was between us. My colleague’s back was to me.

And once again, I did the only sensible thing.

Without waiting to see what happened next, I stepped into the faculty restroom next to the office and locked the door.

It took a long, long time to wash my face.

When I opened the door again the hallway was empty.

It had been a glorious Goggle Day.

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I didn’t see any of the teachers I worked with so many years ago when I visited campus today. It’s July and any still at HRV who might remember me are off enjoying summer.

The fact is that they’re as alive in my memory today as they were when we said our goodbyes so long ago. Dave, Chauna, Jeff, and so many others helped me to become who I am now. My affection for them has only grown.

Instead, with a head full of memories and heart filled with gratitude, I passed through campus today like a ghost, smiling.

Middle Earth

photo 1 (4)There were snacks and an end in mind, and like Lewis and Clark, my wife and two kids and I plunged into a forest so primeval that the kids were expecting to meet Hobbits.

The day before had been a bust. Well, it had been fantastic for about thirty switch-backing, Cascade Mountain Range tromping minutes before my eight year old son realized that so far this hike had been 100% uphill and the woods were getting darker. Even if his parents were too dim to remember every fairy tale ever, he did, and he was done walking deeper into the forest. So then, were we.

Today, however, was better planned: a snack pouch, a fancy flavored water, the promise of a hidden lake at the end of the walk, and hints (if our trek was successful) of real Hood River huckleberry pie.

photo 5The planning was my wife’s, brilliant as always, and amazingly effective. If I were half as good as a principal as she is as a mom I’d win awards.

I’m just a few days from the end of my summer, and as I begin to start to begin starting to begin to start beginning to plan for what I hope is an great year, I know that the difference between a meltdown and Middle Earth is preparation, a positive attitude, and a clear vision for the goal of the journey.

Snacks help too, and maybe pie at the end.

I won’t draw out the inevitable analogy here; anyone reading this post is clever enough to see how the parallels might go. Instead I’ll admit that the absolute sense of wonder I felt as we hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail was unlike anything I’ve experienced in nature in years.

Towering fir trees.

Mossy stones from time out of mind.

Ripe blackberries, sweeping vistas, and even the surprising appearance of a pair of wild turkey as we neared the lake.

…all with people I love.

I can hardly wait for the school year to begin.

photo 2 (3)

Every Attempt

One of the best things about traveling is getting to see a different perspective on the world (here they eat what we see as pets; here they hold sacred an animal we eat) and to see, in the end, just how similar we really are to one another.

This summer I did not go on an exotic journey to Ulaanbaatar or Istanbul, but instead took a trip “home” to the state I grew up in, Oregon. Even so, it was fun to show my kids the fossils of my young adulthood: the college where my wife and I met, the chapel where we got married, and the first town we lived in together.

It was also a kind of wonderful to see that some of the challenges we face at the sunny Southern California high school where I work aren’t all that different than those that exist in the beaver state, where the attitude toward finding a solution has the down to earth, Oregonian tone that I remember from my youth.

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In the bathroom of a bookshop on Hawthorne Boulevard, in a neighborhood of Portland smelling of boiled wool and (recently legalized) recreational cannabis, a place familiar to neo-hippies and hipsters alike, I spotted a sign that perfectly captured the realistic attitude principals like me might bring to concerns of graffiti or students littering on campus.

Placed above the sink, not far from a garbage can plastered with stickers and paint, the sign read:

Every attempt is being made
to keep this restroom clean.

If you see something that needs attention,
Please contact an employee.

Thank you.

Simple. Honest.

The sign acknowledged hard work and a commitment to addressing the challenge, but didn’t suggest that things wouldn’t go sideways from time to time.

At the beginning of the school year I told my staff that I knew that the year would bring us challenges, every year does, but that I was optimistic because I knew that together we were up to any challenge we would face together.

This sign, in its eloquent, Oregonian way, seemed to say the same. There’s a whisper of resignation in the first line, but a willingness in the second sentence to roll up sleeves and get the job done. There will be challenges, it says, and we’ll do our best to fix them.

And I believed both.

It’s easy to get frustrated when folks complain about the challenging things that happen, though things will, because things do.

I hope that in the work I do with my school community I reflect the same honesty I saw in that bookshop bathroom, and that people can find reassurance in the truth that while we can’t stop all the ills of the world, we’ll always do all we can to put things right.

Meeting Matt at Powell’s

It’s amazing how much places can change over time, and how much friendships can stay the same. On our first day of a family trip to Oregon, the state my wife and I both grew up in before moving to the Bay Area in 1999, we met a friend I’ve known since he and I were in seventh grade.

Back in 1981, we ran the 4×100 relay on a cinder track at Parrish Junior High, and over the years we forged a friendship rich with pizza, fun, and Monty Python. He played classical guitar at my wedding twenty five years ago, and was one of the first friends to visit us when we were in Oakland. And…

photo 1 (3)I’m old enough now to understand the sad reality that it’s easy to let far, far too much time pass between visits with good friends, and as I tallied up the years I realized that an embarrassingly large number separated today from the last time we’d seen each other.

The truth is that with raising kids and building careers, my wife and I hadn’t visited Oregon for more than a decade and our kids, eight and eleven, had never seen the state.

When we got on a plane to Portland this summer, I was prepared for there to be differences; what surprised me was that those differences were largely cosmetic and that the heart of my memories and friendships remained so much the same.

Matt and I agreed to meet at Powell’s Books, a holy site of my undergraduate years, in downtown Portland. We’d met there a hundred times before; in the 1990s Powell’s was a great place to kill an hour or two …or a full day, amid the towering stacks of used books that made up the dimly lit labyrinth that stretched out over a full city block. It was like something out of a Borges story.

Driving up on the west side of the store, a place that had been a grimy industrial Valhalla a lifetime ago, I didn’t recognize Powell’s.

There, where the seedy car repair shop had been was an Anthropologie. A formally abandoned warehouse was now a towering glass apartment building. The streets were clean and the windows of the surrounding buildings unbroken.

Kitty corner to what had been Powell’s front entrance a pizza place still stood, but it’s changes were as great as the bookshop itself. It had become a place I couldn’t imagine having a grease fire.

I know that there is nothing wrong with any of these changes. Who wants broken windows or grease fires? There’s nothing inherently wrong with boutique clothiers or an urban Noodles and Co. It’s just that after all my time away, this didn’t feel exactly like my Powell’s or my Portland.

This was clean and inviting. This wasn’t an undiscovered or uncut gem. Not any more. My wife helped me be at peace with it. Something about the value of memories that don’t have to change. She has always been far, far wiser than me.

photo 3And it was my wife who poked me in the ribs as we stepped inside and pointed as she spotted my friend across the clean, well lit lobby of Powell’s.

He looked up as we called his name.

We hugged, had lunch …at a brewpub that hadn’t existed when I’d left Oregon, but was a thoroughly wonderful addition to the city… and by the time we were halfway through our quinoa burgers it felt as if we hadn’t seen each other for about a month, not a decade and a half. Sure we were both a little different, with a collection of individual experiences and a larger foreheads than when we’d seen each other last, but the friendship we’d shared since the time we were in junior high felt just as easy and unforced as it ever had. The laughter we shared made my angsty reaction to a gentrified section of Portland feel insignificant.

I thought about this a lot on the flight back to San Diego. I’m coming back to a campus under major construction in the same year we’re celebrating our school’s 80th anniversary. This year we’re hoping to invite lots of alumni back to campus to celebrate the rich history of San Dieguito, and I know that parts of the school many remember exist now only in their memories.

Alumni returning this year will see a track and performing arts center new to anyone older than thirty. Those who graduated before the 1990s will be awed by the abundance of student artwork, including years of senior tiles, and even our most recent graduates will have their world jolted by the enormous construction of a two story science and math building in the center of campus.

photo 2That the result of the construction will be good for students won’t necessarily cushion the shock of seeing cranes and bulldozers crawling across the places where they formally ate lunch.

Before my trip to Oregon this caused me some anxiety. I love San Dieguito and understand my role as steward to this special place of spirit and traditions. Even as we make the changes that will provide current and future students with the campus they need in a rapidly changing world, I want to be sure to honor the history and memories of the thousands of students who have called San Dieguito home since 1936.

What helped me was the realization, there in the unfamiliar bookstore I’d spent so much time in so very long ago, as I talked with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, that what matters most isn’t necessarily where any particular building is or whether there is now a tree or a walkway in the spot where I created memories with my friends. What really counts in the bigger picture are those friends and those memories.

I’m not saying I wasn’t disappointed when I realized that my dim, cluttered Powell’s no longer exists as it had in my memory, and I know that some of the changes on San Dieguito’s campus may hit some in the same way, but I hope that just as they did for me in Portland, memory and friendship overshadow new paint and new buildings. Places change over time, but the things that matter most, those things that live in our hearts, are timeless.