Empathy and Action

They gathered in the inner courtyard, more than five hundred strong, held hands, and stood silently for seventeen minutes. Some wore shirts expressing their point of view, #NEVERAGAIN or March for Our Lives, others simply looked the part of who they are: students, grades six through twelve, thoughtful, artistic, a little nervous, and more informed than some would expect. In a word, they were inspiring.


The event was one of three student responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida a month ago. The first, one of empathy, was suggested by two seniors who put up a stretch of poster paper where students could record their words of support for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days after the tragedy it provided a place for students to process their own feelings while focusing on others. We’ll roll this up in a few days and send it to the school, our small voice of support in the chorus of the national conversation.

The next response suggested by students came from our student representative to the school board’s Student Advisory Committee. That group discussed what they could do to express what they were thinking and feeling in the wake of what happened in Florida, and how they could have their voices heard on the issue of school safety. The result was the idea of a letter writing campaign by students to elected officials. Our rep got right to work.

At the assembly we held to discuss school safety, our student representative stood in front of the student body and explained the importance of action alongside empathy. She deftly answered questions about the project, and ended with an invitation to join her in writing to members of congress to share their perspectives as young people who come to school every day to learn, feel safe, and become the kind of adults some of us still aspire to be.

IMG_6199There were a great many students near the table that held that letter box on March 14th, and knowing our student body, I’ll wager the perspectives and ideas shared will be as diverse, thoughtful, and articulate as our students.

But for seventeen minutes there was unity in our diversity, those seventeen silent minutes when students stood together, holding hands, thinking their own thoughts about the day, the world, and the future. When the time ended there were hugs, a few tears, and a great gathering up of teens who headed back into the schoolhouse to learn. The orderliness of it all might have astounded some, though those of us who work with students were less surprised.

The students’ poise and purpose was inspiring too, though as a dad and a principal I want to temper my genuine appreciation with a nod to the reality that these are young people who have more on their minds and a wider future than any single issue. That they will make a difference I have no doubt. That they have a vision of the future that is kinder and more inclusive than my own generation’s I believe. That this takes away the collective responsibility of anyone older than twenty I do not accept.

Just as it is unfair to paint teachers as heroes in waiting, pursuing their noble cause with inadequate pay and unreasonable expectations, because they are so selfless …which somehow makes it okay, so too it is unfair to see in our youth saviors who might take away our own responsibility to contribute to making the world what we want it to be.

Teenagers today have done much to bring a message to our national consciousness, and a part of that message seems to me to be an call to engage with our communities. Wherever folks find themselves emotionally and philosophically in the wake of the tragedy in Florida, or in fact the decades in which school names like Sandy Hook and Columbine have become synonymous with violence, I think we can take inspiration from our students today, and hear them when they invite us to put our empathy into action.


Fine Young Cannibals

Art is about taking chances, learning from failure, and being willing to try something unexpected. In those ways it’s a lot like being a principal. The two pursuits converged this week when some intrepid student filmmakers asked me to be in their movie.

They guarded the script like it was a Star Wars film. I got my three pages without more context than I could put together from stage directions like:

The cannibal storms out of the room leaving behind her binder and the therapist grabs them and pulls out the sketches/drawings inside and looks through them, he fans them out and looks at each one until he comes to the last one, he holds it up so the camera can’t see it and it cuts to the next scene.


My two short scenes, two voice overs, and single costume change set me up as the straight man, a mercifully unimportant and plausibly vegetarian character in a film titled Meat (An American Cannibal Film).

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 11.46.47 AM (1)

As they set up the camera and lights in my office. The director, a senior whose easy smile helped put his two actors -me and a student whose artistic focus is drawing and painting- at ease, chatted with his sound man about verisimilitude and budget.

“It’s set in 1996,” he explained. “So I got an almost working answering machine at Goodwill for $9.” “Your budget for this is $9?” “Well, I spent $22 on fake blood.”

This was sounding increasingly like something I might regret more than my turn at Carpool Karaoke or the time I dressed up as one of the Blues Brothers and sang in front of the student body. Still…

These were great students. This mattered to them. My scene was relatively tame, a therapist and his patient. All that, along with some gentle reassurance from my film teacher who had seen the rough cuts, let me stay true to one of the tenets of my philosophy of being a principal: When students ask me to participate in something that is meaningful to them, even (or especially) if it is nutty, I do my best to say “yes.”

We shot after school on a Friday, a three person crew, the actor playing the cannibal, and me, filling my office for an hour or so, laughing, talking about art, and books, and movies between takes. That conversation, that opportunity to connect with some fantastic young people, was worth any embarrassment about my clunky acting abilities.

Because it isn’t really about my acting; it’s about being present for my students, participating in what is important to them, and allowing myself to play (and sometimes play the fool) in service of a spirit of fun that is important at a school, and indeed in life.

Our schools are stronger, safer, and better for all when students and adults are able to learn, laugh, and play together.

A willingness to start with “yes” has led to some of my favorite experiences and most meaningful connections with students, and I firmly believe that nurturing this more playful side helps to make me a better principal when the stressful realities of the work require gravitas, a clear head, and a commitment to doing right. Silly, serious, sanguine, it’s about making students the priority.

So my first entry in IMDB will read “Dr. Monroe” in Meat (An American Cannibal Film). It may turn out to be this generation’s Night of the Living Dead or a silly footnote to the illustrious director’s future fame, but whatever shows up on screen I’ll carry with me fond memories of a great afternoon shared with artists and creative souls, fine young cannibals.


The Horse, of Course

The horse did it?

In an increasingly complicated and logic defying world, there is something magical and more than a little healing about the acts of teaching and learning.

Over the past couple of weeks some kind and welcoming English teachers have been generous enough to allow me to step into the classrooms they share with students and teach. It’s the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself when I became a principal: I would make a point to teach every year.

Teaching allows me to connect to my students in a way beyond being just a guy in a tie. It puts me in the position of seeing first hand the challenges and rewards of being n instructor at my school and helps to keep me grounded in the reality that what really matters at a school is what happens in the classroom. I once worked with a superintendent who liked to say: “There are two kinds of people in a school, teachers and people who support teachers.” I’m proud to be the latter, and thankful when I get to step back into the former category.

IMG_5918This winter, as the news of the day read like something out of Orwell or Huxley, I traveled with scores of sixth and seventh grade sleuths across the heath of Dartmoor in search of the “first favourite for the Wessex Cup,” the distinguished Silver Blaze. It was amazing.

I’ve long held that there is no feeling to compare with the give and take of a classroom discussion, and my time with these curious young scholars proved that point to me again. Talking about the way clues in a mystery are like the details readers might find in a close reading of any text, discussing Sherlock Holmes and our short story of the day, and being in their company when the students realized that the equine title character had committed the murder of a despicable man (in self defense, no less) was as renewing as it was delightful.

This isn’t to say that The Adventure of Silver Blaze was chosen only as literature of escape; I’m proud of the Holmes lesson I used (and adapted as I got better at teaching it from period to period) and felt like we ended each class having discovered a thing or two, including that an author from more than a century ago could still wallop them with a surprise ending.

Literature has the power to inspire, delight, and provide perspective. I felt that truth every day that I taught English and am reminded of the fact when I get to visit classes (and even teach them myself). The Adventure of Silver Blaze not only gave students an instance of good coming out on top, a bully being humbled, and cleverness overcoming evil, it also set the stage for students to work together to solve a problem, practice critical thinking, and talk with peers about their methods of thinking about literature.

Sure, having the principal teach was a novelty (though I hope over time and with repetition it feels increasingly less so), but ultimately the lessons were something as simple as they are commonplace in education: humans coming together to make sense of the world, talking, looking back over old stories, and connecting with each other.

…well, and shaking our collective head when the bad guy gets kicked in the head by a horse.