Truth

I was up at 2:00 am and then again at 3:30. By 5:05 I was out of bed, and by 5:30 I was standing outside my school marveling at how dark it was with no exterior lights on anywhere. This is my 25th year as an educator, my 13th as a site administrator, and I still can’t sleep before the first day of school.

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Now truth be told, there weren’t many kids on campus today; this “first day of school” for me as a principal is the day my staff comes back from summer. They’re a wildly nice bunch, almost all of whom I’ve worked with now for years, and… and I still couldn’t sleep last night.

It’s not that I was nervous, not exactly. I had confidence that the day we’d put together would be a good one (starting with breakfast and ending with a scavenger hunt), and… it would be a lie to say I was relaxed, or calm, or not nervous. And I think that’s okay.

I write a lot in this collection of posts about what it’s like to be a principal, and about lots of the good stuff that comes with being an educator. That’s all true, and… I hope that for anyone reading who is an administrator or teacher, or heck, a student or parent too, that I don’t give the idea that this is easy. It’s not.

Doing a good job in this important work means being a little nervous, not just in your first year or your second, but in your 25th, and I’m sure 26th, and I’d guess until the last first day of school at the end of your career.

It doesn’t mean that fear has to be a part of the job, or anxiety, or panic. Then what did you have, you’ll ask, healthy insomnia? Well, at least an understanding that it’s okay to care so much about getting off to a good start that waking up a couple of times before that first day is okay, human, a part of this grand adventure. At least for me.

Then, several cups of coffee later… today went well.

My staff was rich with kindness, deep with caring, and light with humor. They smiled generously, participated in our work together willingly, and reminded me as they always do why I’m the luckiest principal in the world.

I hope all of the principals out there, and assistant principals, and teachers, and all of the educators who feel their blood pressure rise a little before the curtain goes up on another year can take a deep breath and believe that as challenging as this whole thing is, they’ll be okay. Sure, you might be a little short on sleep that first day back, but all will be well. Honest.

I’ll bring coffee.

Like Rick Always Said…

Every August as I prepare for the start of the school year (planning the opening staff meeting, making piles of new staff t-shirts, and figuring out what I’ll say when I get to welcome or welcome back the amazing staff and students) the words of one of my former superintendents come back to me: “Happy New Year!”

He started every welcome back administrator meeting with the line, smiling in a way that didn’t insinuate he was trying to be clever, but rang with genuine excitement.

IMG_0689Because every fall is an exciting beginning to a new year. Last year’s struggles have had the summer to slip away. Last year’s mistakes have had a couple of months to turn into something like wisdom, experience at least, and the pain of those errors and missteps have (we hope) transmogrified into cautionary tales.

Gone too are last year’s successes. Those events that went right, those challenges we rose to, those too are beginning to take on the sepia of age. If we’re to make the most of this year, we oughtn’t stay back in the past; those same fields of victory could prove disastrous if we imagine that we can simply repeat what we did before without thinking about it. 

The one exception to this slow fading are the relationships we’ve built. The friendships, the respect, the begrudging acceptance that we forged in the fire of year past are our new starting point in August. These are the faces who know us a little better today than they did last August, the good people who may even smile when we turn to them in the next week or two and say: “Happy New Year!”

So to all of my educator friends, to all my students and parents too, to everyone who, like me, is getting ready to shake the sand from our shoes and put the sunscreen away, I wish you a year of adventure, of connection, and of community. I hope your lessons go as planned, or better yet that they surprise you in wonderful ways when they don’t go as you planned them.

I hope you laugh often and much as you move through the hallways and that your laughter is shared with others. I hope that when you look up in December and then again in June you can say to yourself that the good days outnumbered the tears.

Because there will be tears. They’re a part of the process of being human, and maybe, just maybe, being better humans at the end of the year than we were at the start. Empathy and compassion happen under the direction of stress, and while I can’t wish my friends a year free of hard times, I can hope that I (and others too) will be there to help dry those tears, patch the cuts, and look forward with you at a future bright with possibility.

That promise of something better fills schools in August. It motivates us to develop big plans, imagine great enterprises, and say to each other, with real excitement: “Happy New Year!”

Tempest Tossed

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.” –The Tempest

We hope to be good neighbors. Honest. We see that the homes around our new campus are close. Really close. Like look out your window and nod at the white cat perched in the sill of the townhouse across the way close. 

We know that this neighborhood has never seen the likes of us; a well ordered cavalcade of elementary school students have tromped through the halls of the campus that we’ll call home for the next two years, a very different crowd than our spirited, quirky, iconoclastic teenaged ACMAniacs. And we hope…

We hope that the neighbors will see in us a celebration of creativity. We hope that they will see in us hope, and inspiration, and fun. We hope that the first time a mom or dad pushing a stroller past our home on 118th Avenue sees us they will notice our multicolored hair, unicorn onesie, furry tail, rainbow backpack, fabulous makeup, Cher concert shirt, hooves… and walk down the hill humming the refrain from Prince’s Paisley Park.

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With just a couple of weeks to go before students fill campus with an energy that is difficult to capture in words, I want to whisper those lines from Caliban to our neighbors: “Be not afeard.”

Because while our metaphoric isle is full of noises, ACMA strives to “give delight and hurt not.” Our twanging instruments and sometime voices, our dance and art and film, our poets and potters, actors and animators all strive to bring dreams to life, to share our creative souls with those around us.

Those neighbors that are so close included.

And as we begin our year it is incumbent upon us to reach out to the homes around us and introduce ourselves. We are the colorful people whose hair on one side is swept back, a wild conglomeration of poetic spirits who are finding ourselves and our place in the world, and who for two years will be plop in the middle of a lovely neighborhood of orderly houses, wide sidewalks, and people walking dogs.

We will sometimes make more noise than an elementary school. We will host big performances that fill our parking lot with the cars of audience members. We will have student drivers.

And…

We welcome you to come see a concert, watch a play, marvel at a dance performance. We’d love to have you come to Art is My Voice or February’s ACMA Spectacular. If you do, we can promise to give you the best art we’re capable of, something that might just inspire you to believe that our world does contain magic, and the future of our planet is in good hands with the youth of today.

Then, two years from now, we’ll be gone like a dream.

When Blossoms Do

Actually seeing it disappear, transform into kindling and rubble, feels surreal. To see the inside of Ms. Metz’s ceramics studio piled chest high with debris, the roof gone, the windows gaping open like a mouth caught in the middle of a gasp, is difficult to take in. Those familiar hallways, now made strange by engines of destruction, are melting into the earth. In a few days all of the original CE Mason Elementary building will be down, our familiar campus living on only in memories (and a pretty cool virtual walkthrough).

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For an emotional school, as we confessedly are, saying goodbye is like watching an old friend walk out of our life. It is hard not to turn away from the images of demolition, and just as hard not to watch. Some of the most artistic spectators seemed to bring the most positive perspective to the enterprise, Ms. Metz saying (upon seeing her studio falling under heavy machinery) “Hey, that’s the ceramics room! Well, it was for many years …but it’s time to knock it down and start over again.”

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Knowing that ACMA will be back on Center Street in the fall of 2021 helps, and knowing that the new campus, built for ACMA and meant to be an art school helps too. And as hard as it is to see the old campus going away, when I was able to visit last week my heart bounced when I turned a corner in the PAC and saw wood from the original wainscoting stacked up, ready to be used to make the circulation desk in the new library.

That visit reminded me of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a bit of 1866 verse ostensibly about spring.

When they come back — if Blossoms do —
I always feel a doubt
If Blossoms can be born again
When once the Art is out —

When they begin, if Robins may,
I always had a fear
I did not tell, it was their last Experiment
Last Year,

When it is May, if May return,
Had nobody a pang
Lest in a Face so beautiful
He might not look again?

If I am there — One does not know
What Party — One may be
Tomorrow, but if I am there
I take back all I say —

Right now, today, “Art is out” on Center Street. Sure, it has really just migrated eleven minutes up the road to where it’s hiding as robins do in winter, but those of us prone to sentimentality feel the collective pang.

IMG_0605Will ACMA, like Dickinson’s May flowers, return? Will we be there after all, not knowing what one’s party may be tomorrow?

Yes.

Like spring, and robins, and the blossoms that brighten the world, artists and actors, musicians and poets, creative spirits and our always experimenting ACMA community will be back home soon.

When we do, in a building designed to celebrate and encourage that ACMA spirit, those feelings (our autumn rain and winter chill) can disappear, kindling and rubble replaced by the blossoms of art.

Main Entry

Emperors and New Clothes

When I was a youngster, just three or four, I met Governor Tom McCall. Oregonians know McCall as a legendary state political figure responsible for the bottle bill, major environmental legislature, and ensuring the public ownership of Oregon beaches. When I met him, I called him “Big Tom.” I don’t know the logistics of that meeting, but have a vague memory of waiting in the outer office before being ushered into the governor’s office to present him with a drawing I’d made. What I do remember is that during my wait I’d accidentally ripped the paper and when I got to Big Tom I told him that he could fix the rip with a little scotch tape.

photo 4Chutzpah. 

Or maybe it was just the naive perspective of a kid. I figured he’d want to keep the drawing, of course, and knew I was the young fellow who could offer him advice on how to curate this art for his collection. He smiled, nodded, and probably patted me on the head. I left happy.

I happened on a photograph of that meeting this summer and it made me think of the wonderful ability kids have of cutting through bureaucracy and the trappings of office to speak honestly about what’s on their mind. Often it’s the youngest who can offer advice without fear to the authority figures we learn, over time, to defer to. What a marvelous thing.

As a principal I see this deference sometimes, and truth be told it doesn’t make me a better leader. What does help me serve my school community well is when those around me are honest and straightforward and are willing to tell me the truth.

I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by strong voices in my main office and within the ranks of my staff. Not all, but more than a few of my teachers seem to feel comfortable approaching me with concerns in time that we can do something about them. Those closest to me are kind, but clear, when the offer me advice about how one of my wilder schemes is not a good idea.

“Bjorn, the whole school can’t really tie-dye t-shirts in a way that doesn’t make a colossal mess and cause headaches for everyone.” That sort of thing.

Students are awesome about this too, and some of my favorite memories of student voice have happened when individuals or groups of kids come to my office to talk about what’s on their mind. It’s not always that I can fix what’s bothering them, but I can listen and make efforts to move toward a better situation.

The fearlessness of these students reminds me of that little boy and Big Tom. They are sure that they have an answer to the question at hand, and for that certainty I applaud them, even if the adult reality makes those answers hard to bring about.

In the end, it’s these challenging ideas and the change they can prompt that help to make our school better. Whether it’s the day to day procedures that impact students every day or the broader policies and practices that we can improve to make the student experience better, inviting student voice is an important part of being a school leader. I need to know when the emperor has no clothes, preferably before I walk out in front of the parade.

As a principal I can’t fix everything as quickly as I wish I could, but by listening to others sometimes I can. It just takes paying attention …and a little scotch tape.