Bustling Ducks

Spring in Oregon means that it was sunny and 89° when I took my daughter to soccer practice on Thursday afternoon and a rainy 57° when she played in her game on Saturday morning. The blossoms are on the trees, the grass is growing at a rapid rate, and the world around campus feels like it’s speeding up as we rush headlong through April showers and May flowers toward graduation in early June.

It means that students are hurrying to keep (or get) their grades where they want them, teachers are rushing to get in the lessons they want to before the end of the year, and everyone is thinking about what needs to get done before mortarboards take to the air and the bustle of spring is replaced by the quiet drone of a bee in summer.

At an art school like ours, spring also means performances, exhibitions, and celebrations of creativity. In the past four weeks alone, our performing arts center has played host to a musical, a visiting German piano quartet, a story slam, dance recital, jazz and classical performance, and huge art exhibition. We’ll add a choir concert, film night, and another dance show before the month is out, and cap it all off with commencement in June rich in student performances.

But we are a school that likes applause, and as crazy busy as the last few weeks have been, I don’t think there is one of us who would want it any less so.

It was against the backdrop of this frenzied springtime that Mother Nature provided us a moment of pause and reflection. On a warm Thursday morning, ahead of a hot afternoon, I got a call on my radio that I needed to go to the courtyard near the rear of the PAC. I was still on my first cup of coffee, but thought I heard the word “visitors,” which in the nomenclature of school walkie-talkies means trouble as often as it announces welcome guests.

I grabbed my sunglasses (springtime invites optimism) and headed out, hurrying past students who seemed to be drifting eagerly toward the alley between the performing arts center and the Quonset Hut that serves as our cafeteria.

I picked up my pace, doing my best to keep that sense of calm a good principal should as I turned the corner and saw them.

My head custodian had arrived first, so our guest was hissing a him as students watched and a few took video with their phones.

But he kept his cool, gesturing the smiling kids back and whispering loudly to give the mother and her ducklings room to waddle out of the student walkway and onto the neighboring grass.

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For an instant we were, all of us, caught up in the lives of these ducklings. And I thought that no matter what character in this story that we are in the moment: fuzzy youth, hissing mama duck, or shepherding custodian, for us spring is a season of surprises, action, and (as when those ducklings stepped onto the green, green grass) applause.

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“Fare Forward, Voyagers”

I’m thinking about a poem. We’re elbow deep in plans for graduation and a part of most ceremonies is the guy in a tie addressing the class. In my time as a principal, and on the pages of this collection of thoughts (tagged “graduation”), I’ve wrestled with what to say, weighed and reweighed the importance of the event, and relished the approach one deliciously iconoclastic school took to the commencement ceremony. This year, at the helm of a wildly creative school filled with wonderfully curious students, the prospect of a speech, and more specifically what words to offer these artistic souls, is heavy on my mind.

So on an April afternoon when I was reading Eliot’s Four Quartets I found myself moved by a passage that made me think about graduation. Sentimental by nature, and made even more so by the approach of the end of the school year, I found resonance in the lines:

When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.”

Our students are like those passengers on Eliot’s poetic train. They stay suspended in the moment of graduation, separated from their past years at a familiar school and the wide opening of the future before them. In these moments, as they listen to speeches, hear music made by peers, and sit in robes they’ll wear on only this one occasion, they are invited to consider the past and future with “equal mind.”

EliotAs I look out at them from the podium on stage I know I’ll think: “You are not the same people who left the station…” They are, in fact, pure possibility. They are our voyagers, embarking on new adventures, even as they have traveled so far together. They are faring forward.

I’m thinking about a poem.

Emily Dickinson, that poet of slanted light and buzzing flies, in a moment steeped with spring described:

Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—  
Then stepped straight through the Firmament  
And rested on a Beam—  
  
And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—  
Though never yet, in any Port—  
Their coming mentioned—be—  
  
If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—”

How like those butterflies our graduating students are, waltzing, resting, bearing away. As they prepare to step “straight through the Firmament” what more can we do than watch and wonder, hope and celebrate, and see in them the future?

I’m thinking about a poem.

That day of commencement, a day when I’ll step to the mic and after three or four other speakers, many of whom will have grand advice and relevant anecdotes for the graduates, it will be my turn. Any big ideas or semblance of wisdom I’ve wanted to pass on the students will have already heard.

My “Art unites us” speech? Check.

My “Three things matter in life: to be kind, to be kind, to be kind” speech? They’ve heard it.

My fatherly advice about being safe and looking out for one another? I’ve given them that too.

DickinsonSo I think about what I might add to a ceremony rich with student performances, pomp, and pageantry, and I keep coming back to the brevity, beauty, and power of verse.

I won’t go with TS Eliot, though his voyagers were the ones to first inspire the notion of a poem. I’ll leave Emily Dickinson for them to find on their own when they get to college. But I have something in mind that might just work, a short piece that captures the swell of emotions that typify graduations and offers the sort of advice an older generation should offer the young.

Who knows, maybe it says something right that graduation day sees the principal walk in with a volume of poetry tucked under his arm. We’ll see.

I can almost hear the whisper in my ear: “Not fare well,/ but fare forward, voyagers.”

Octopus

I was having a day. Not a bad day, but a day when it felt like the surprises that were coming brought more challenges than smiles, and a string of opportunities to make a difference left me feeling like a slowly unclenching fist.

As I walked through the counseling department, having safely escorted a couple of students to a person who could help them out, I looked up and spotted one of my amazing teachers sitting at her desk in a common planning room.

She smiled, as she always does, and asked me if I had a minute. Clench. “Sure,” I answered, always attempting to be a gentleman. And then she surprised me.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 1.47.49 PM“I had my kids do this in class,” she said, lifting a pile of manilla folders from her desk and bringing them over to the table where I’d sat down. “It’s about organization.” She sat down next to me. “Here.” She opened the top folder and took out a stack of photographs of sea creatures: a translucent squid, an octopus, an anemone or two.

For the next three or four minutes she led me through a sorting exercise that had us sitting shoulder to shoulder looking at the pictures and answering a series of questions, captured in a table created by a group of students. Does this creature have legs? If so, go to row “C.” If not, go to row “D” etc. etc. At the end of each trail of questions the creature in the picture got a silly name.

My teacher and I laughed. The photos moved from one stack to another. The weight of the day floated away like a brine shrimp on a rising tide.

It was a little thing that wasn’t a little thing.

Here was a teacher who spotted her principal not whistling, brow furrowed, having …a day. Rather than simply think I’m sure glad I’m not him she thought I wonder if I can help?

The truth: she did.

The inspiration that teacher provided went well beyond making my day better. Her small act (that wasn’t a small act) reminded me of the value of looking out for one another, the importance of not just identifying a problem, but rolling up our sleeves and doing something about it, and the profound impact of genuine kindness.

Spring Flowers

Little provides perspective better than spending time with kids. As a principal, I know that my interactions with students tell me more about the health of my school  than just about anything else; as a dad, a spring break road trip that had our family of four sharing hotel rooms and a crowded car was a great grounding experience; and some very precious time with my niece and her family, including a wide eyed three month old, his bouncing seven year old brother, and his clever three year old sister reminded me how important a calling it is to be an educator.

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For each of the kids in my life, those in my immediate family and those in my school family as well, teachers and the other adults who help to form their education have the power to make such a difference on their changing lives. As adults we know that. As kids they feel it.

As I listened to my own kids talk in the back seat of the car, I heard the truth about the way students in our school system see things.

“I’d never want to be a teacher. Kids treat them terribly.” Pause. “Not me, but kids. Particularly boys.” Thoughtful pause. “Mrs. —- doesn’t like kids, so I guess it’s a little okay they treat her badly back.” Pause. “Not me. Mr. —– respects us. They don’t act up for him.”

I heard about school rules and routines, sometimes unable to keep myself out of the conversation. “Before school we have to stay in the cafeteria, and if we’re too loud a lady blows a whistle at us. Sometimes she gets really frustrated, like when one group of kids starts to yell and chant.”

“Chant?” I asked. “Do they chant: ‘Whistle! More! Please!’?”

“No, Dad.”

More even than rules and misbehavior, from my niece I heard about the power of a teacher and administrator to make things better. At an IEP meeting, when the teacher and principal spoke about strategies and supports, their reassurance and commitment was both real and appreciated. Parents want to know that the school cares for their students, and it’s a trust that is earned over time. When I heard “…and maybe with this new principal it will be better,” my first thought was that I want to be that honest school leader my students, parents, and teachers can believe in.

Belief and hope are the building blocks of learning, a truth a marvelous three year old reminded me of as she presented a drawing of spring flowers and was able to tell me the name of the color of each one.

IMG_6439“Blue,” she said, pointing. “Orange,” she added with pride. “Red,” she said with the confidence of a preschooler whose mom has been working with her around the kitchen table. Her eyes sparkled and I saw in them the potential so many parents (and grandparents, and uncles, and aunts, and caregivers) see in their own kids. I want the pride she feels now to always be a part of her education.

I don’t want anyone blowing a whistle at her.

But the truth is that I don’t have control over their education. I can love them and advocate for them. I can try to encourage in them resiliency and courage, and the confidence to make themselves heard, but I need others to take the time to listen.

At my own school I can do my best as a principal to nurture a culture that is caring and accepting, a safe place for everyone. (This is harder work than it sounds like in a sentence as short as that last one, but work worth doing.)

I might even hope that someone in education reading the little scribbles I post every week might take from my words the notion that being kind and caring, and even a little silly, can be a good thing.

Yet beyond anything I say or do, it seems to me that the understanding of how things are and how things should be will come to me, and to all of us who make schools our line of work, if we simply put down our whistles and listen. 

Spring Soccer

Reading TS Eliot outside
beneath a bright translucent sky
the April wind against my face
blows dark clouds and certain rain
toward the folding chair where I read
tall grass dancing around me
my daughter’s soccer team kicking and
laughing nearby
a thermos of tea
now brewed too dark
for a sunny day
but just about right for today’s storm
rests on the damp ground beside me
an umbrella
no match for the wind
beside it, and my son
sleeping in the warm car
just on the other side of the chain link fence.

Tom (and like so many I believe, honestly believe,
that my English degree qualifies me to call Eliot by his first name)
tells me that Midwinter Spring
is its own season
and as the drops begin
to hit my yellow legal pad
the ink melting beneath the rain
seems to prove his point.

This will be a good Oregon deluge
a fine day for soccer
a day made for poetry
and deep, dark, bitter tea.

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A Little World Made Cunningly

April, with with his shoures soote, is National Poetry Month, and in this increasingly complicated world that’s as good an excuse as any to spend some time away from the prose of contemporary events in the company of a little verse.

Whether it’s Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Ginsberg’s Howl, or Dickinson’s Final Harvest, there is room for everyone in the house of poetry, Plath and Hughes, Bishop, Pope, and even some Leonard Cohen.

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That 18th century philosopher (that some kids today know only as Mary Shelley’s mom) Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically.”

How I hope that isn’t true.

…but if it is, how nice that April, to some the cruelest month, has arrived with the inspiration to pick up a sonnet or ballad, a daring sestina or bit of free verse.

Across the US, librarians are sharing poems this month, English teachers are reciting poetry aloud, and a few of us who no longer fit either of these categories are making the time to dip into volumes of Stafford, Sexton, Rumi, and Walker. Some of us are looking for a new quotation from Mary Oliver, hoping for a little inspiration, or allowing ourselves an afternoon with old friends like Keats, Atwood, or Borges.

IMG_6437As a fellow who has made a professional life out of working with young people, I know the possibilities that exist if we can get past the prosaic hang ups of everyday life and, to steal a line from Blake, break free of our mind-forged manacles to see the world as it is, infinite. Young students can do this, particularly before they’ve been conditioned to “do school” adeptly, leaving learning as a kind of bonus.

So as April encourages each of us to wander lonely as a cloud, I hope that in addition to finding some poetry we might enjoy reading (Leaves of Grass, Nine Horses, or Where the Sidewalk Ends), we might also try our own hands at jotting out some well chosen words on a page. This doesn’t have to be Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queen; maybe it’s a haiku, one of those little ditties just three lines long.

Just five-seven-five
a haiku is as easy
as tapping out words”

…at least a simple one.

Or if that isn’t your answer, I’d challenge anyone still reading this post about poetry to defy the marvelous Mary Wollstonecraft and choose to use this month when “proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim/ Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing” as a catalyst to see and feel poetically.

One of my favorite Oregonian poets (not born here, but damp and moss covered in spirit …in a good way!) Floyd Skloot wrote:

Without speaking, moving together,
we power ourselves out of the calmer dark
and stroke hard for the water’s bright center
where the spring tide will carry us back upriver.”

Like the kayakers in Skloot’s poem, many of us leave winter a little downstream of where we’d like to be, and it is with April’s emerging sun, celebrated in the chorus of poets from across the ages, that we can dip our proverbial paddles into the water and find that magical balance and sense of hope that so often comes with spring.

…but…

I was returning from my successful search to find a student who had gone “wandering” on his way to the bathroom, hurrying back to my office to make a quick parent call and grab my coat before afternoon bus duty, when one of my middle schoolers passed me in the hallway and in return to my “hello” asked me: “Is it hard to be the principal?”

“No,” I answered. Huh? I thought. “It’s fun,” I told her, and she nodded and continued down the hall.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 3.40.13 PMThat exchange has stuck with me for a few days. I wish I’d have stopped to ask why she’d asked. Had I looked stressed out? It had been the afternoon of the Friday before spring break, so… Had she been holding on to the question for a while, or was it a spur of the moment kind of thing? I know that what I do is a bit of a mystery for some kids. Heck, I couldn’t have told you what my principal did when I was a student.

As I got back to the main office, I thought about my answer, unrehearsed and unfiltered, and felt good. Even if it isn’t quite true.

It is fun to be a principal. I love my work with and for the kids. I love supporting and celebrating teachers, and the opportunities I have to make a difference in the lives of those around me. I love the energy of a school, the feel of a classroom when learning is in full swing, and even the jostling of a busy hallway. At ACMA, I love that we start each day with music, have a lunchtime where students eat in the halls, play basketball at our single hoop outside, and are quick to burst into applause as they sit in groups laughing and talking with each other.

…but…

It is hard.

Principaling, to make it a verb, isn’t easy and shouldn’t be.

Poet Billy Collins captured the truth of it when, speaking of poetry, which is more like principaling than some might suspect, said: “There are interesting forms of difficulty, and there are unprofitable forms of difficulty.” Being a principal is certainly interesting.

The hard conversations, the problems to be solved, the opportunities to be meaningful, these aren’t easy or simple or fun. The nights out add up, and while I enjoy everything I get to attend (seriously, when I’m there I dig talking with kids and parents and seeing my students act, sing, dance, and show their true passions), more often than not those nights are nights I’m away from my wife and kids.

Being a principal means more time away, more stress, and more independence. It means the ability to help to chart the course you and your school will travel, and the time, stress, and responsibility are simply the cost of that journey.

To steal part of that line from Collins, being a principal is difficult in a way that is not unprofitable. It is a difficult that is worth it.

And like poetry, being a principal takes balance. Wearing a tie (or not, as the school demands) doesn’t require strict adherence to some artificial structure, but invites creativity; there are times to write a sonnet and times to live in free verse. Knowing when to do each, as a poet or a principal, matters much.

IMG_6359Years ago that necktie was a requirement for a principal, usually accompanied by a jacket and frown. The trappings of the office helped reinforce roles and responsibilities. Who could you lean on? The guy in the tie. Today that artificiality isn’t the case.

Knowing students, staff, and parents matters today in an indispensable way. We’re past road maps in this wildwood of education and need to lean on compasses. It’s in the care we show our schools, the respect we give those around us, and the relationships we grow that we can make a difference, particularly when the road ahead has so many corkscrew turns.

To return to Collins, whose thoughts on poetry might be stretched to cover the principal’s office:

The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it’s tone that establishes the poet’s authority. The first few lines keep giving birth to more and more lines. Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.”

I love that notion of discovery as it applies to my job as much as a poet’s and I work hard believing that I might, through my actions, my attempts, and tone help to create line by line “something of value.”

So I lie when I’m asked if it’s hard to be a principal, and I work hard to make a difference, and that’s the truth.