Fifty cents. Worth it.

I happened upon a decades old ad for the first run of Moon Knight comics last week. It read: “It is a time of turbulence. The city streets are full of violence. Governments flounder. Societies crumble. Civilization itself seems to be one long, agonized scream. It is time for MOON KNIGHT.” Then below the image (a gem by Sienkiewicz) “On sale at newsstands everywhere. Fifty cents. Worth it.” 

While the text is from close to forty years ago, the sentiment feels …relevant.

I became a Moon Knight fan in the early 80s, captivated by the “Fist of Khonshu” and wowed by not only the amazing standout issues (like #26) but by just about every incarnation of this odd, sometimes really odd, I mean really odd, superhero.

That vintage ad reminded me of a couple of truths. Our country has seen chaos and unrest in some way shape or form in every one of its many decades. Sometimes that disorder threatened the core of the country; often it sparked meaningful change. And even as we face uncertainty, battle for a cause, or strive to hold our own against stressors that can feel overwhelming, it’s healthy and human nature to allow ourselves some measure of escape. 

I’m not advocating for abdicating responsibility or throwing up our hands and walking away, but sometimes taking time to listen to music, read a mystery, or step back for a breath of fresh air is more than a little okay.

For some that kind of escape is reality TV, for others romance novels, for some it’s painting, others baking, and for some nerdy folks like me it might even include comic books like Moon Knight.

I like that the world of Moon Knight is complicated, unexpected, and difficult at times. He may face antagonists who can manipulate dreams, turn into werewolves, or summon Cthulhu, but he faces them with an insanity of his own, an insanity different from the world I live in. Escape.

Moon Knight, like the kind of escape I like best, is a combination of edgy and goofy. Good wins, sometimes after a hard slog and sometimes with a quip. Sometimes both. And then I close the book and get back to work.

The point of escape isn’t staying away, but rather allowing ourselves room to take a breath and leave the day’s latest news aside for a little while. Sometimes that’s what we need to feel renewed enough to face the world again. Whether it’s the Great British Bake Off, Beethoven’s Ninth, or a hero in a cape, when it is a time of turbulence, the city streets are full of violence, governments flounder, societies crumble, and civilization itself seems to be one long, agonized scream, it’s okay to allow ourselves a little bit of Moon Knight …whatever that looks like for us.

Um…

As a principal I hear concerns, more now than ever, about education. Most are rooted in some kind of truth and all feel very, very, very real to the student or parent or staff member who is talking with me. Not all, however, are based on fact, or better said, not all the concerns I hear are informed by all the relevant facts. A bit of sleuthing, part of my job, can help find those facts and put them together in a way that makes sense. Sense and concern are an uncomfortable pair.

The latest concern that came my way, this from a parent about a teacher, reminded me of something from my own high school experience, an experience now so far in the past it takes on the sepia tones of nostalgia.

I took a speech class in my senior year of high school. I was not a public speaker or interested in being on the debate team, but I liked the teacher and had friends in the class. Back in the late 80s that was enough. (Maybe it still is.)

Anyway, as the class began we all took our fledgling turns standing in front of the room talking. I can’t remember the topic of my mini-address, but I do remember the teacher stopping me and telling me that I kept pausing with a spoken “um” to punctuate the interruption in my speech. This was not, he assured me, ideal. I must have nodded and marshaled on, but he stopped me again and told me the same thing. I’m sure I shrugged, looking back at photos of who I was in 1987 I look like a kid who shrugged, and tried for a third time. It didn’t get better. 

The teacher stopped me again and asked the class to take out a few sheets of paper. With me still standing in the front of the room, he asked them to ball up those papers and get ready. “Go on,” he told me, smiling. “And every time you say ‘um’ the class will throw paper at you.”

I did. They did. And not that day, or the day after, but by the end of the year I wasn’t saying “um.” 

My parents never heard about the paper pelting. It was a different time and my parents knew very little about my day to day school experience beyond seeing me do homework or getting report cards. Would all this have happened in a class today? If it did, would the principal get a call? Um…

I also played football back in those salad days, and I have another memory that might surprise my parents to hear today. I had a coach who often showed very little respect for his players, belittling us as a way of motivation, speaking cruelly when it pleased him to do so. More than thirty years later I still won’t shed a tear when I hear he’s dead. Maybe he already is. Here’s hoping.

If those last two sentences strike you as much harsher than the usual tone of my posts, they are; the emotions that coach inspired were so powerful in my teenage psyche that they colored the end of my high school experience in a way that I wish they hadn’t.

I’ll pull one silly example, an example that I know today as silly, but that felt then like a big deal to the teenage me. I’d had a good game against a crosstown rival and the local newspaper had named me an “athlete of the week.” That’s not something that shows up on your resume or carries much resonance beyond a week or so (heck, they award it to someone else seven days later), but it meant a lot to me when I was seventeen. Part of the celebration was that the athlete and his or her coach got to go to a breakfast at the newspaper, a little to-do that I was looking forward to. My coach caught me in the hallway the day before, however, to tell me that he didn’t like the way the newspaper had been reporting on our team and he wasn’t going to take me to the breakfast. Period. I remember him walking away and me standing there feeling unheard, unimportant to him, and confused.

My parents didn’t hear about that one either, not because I wasn’t close to my parents, but because school and sports were my world, not theirs. The good, the bad, those were mine to own. I did. I shared my frustrations  with my friends, of course, but I saw part of growing up as being able to deal with what happened when I went to school. I don’t know if that was healthy or right, but it was what it was.

In the greater scheme of things I suppose what happened in that speech classroom might strike some as more important, more embarrassing, more damaging than me missing a breakfast, but it didn’t me then, and it doesn’t me now. You see I liked and respected that speech teacher. He wanted me to improve and thought that an unconventional approach might just do it. There was no cruelty in his choice, and as he read my response to what he was doing he saw where he could reach me. He did. 

Today parents are more connected to school than they’ve ever been. Overall this helps students academically and in this crazy time of pandemic induced remote learning it makes a positive difference. And…

It also feels like everything we do in this world of distance learning is more emotionally charged. The little glimpses of humanity we see in each other can feel out of place sometimes and for every time the cute dog or cat shows up on screen there might be a time when a distraction makes one of the participants feel like they’re being slighted. It’s easy to read volumes into a camera that’s turned off or a response that’s seen as short. More than once this fall I’ve seen tempers flare or feelings bruised by actions on camera that were meant with no malice and might be seen with more objectivity as having little wrong with them. Misinterpretation, particularly when everyone is a little right, is far too easy in the pandemic world of 2020.

Back in 1987 it was the relationship I had with each adult that colored my response to their interactions with me. I respected one and felt heard, but had no respect for the other and knew that he cared for me not at all. It’s like that now as well, but complicated by the reality that students and teachers can only interact through a computer. This is particularly true for students (and parents) who have never met a teacher in person and are striving to build a relationship through an imperfect medium.

Age has taught me, as much as I’ll allow it, to show more grace. More often than not people are doing their best with intentions that aren’t sinister or mean spirited. I know that, even if I still harbor ill will toward an old coach.

So, should we not complain? Should we just accept the things that frustrate us? Um…

Maybe a better approach would be to take the extra time to pause judgement, take the time to ask follow up questions, and make our own positions clear with objectivity and honesty. Without the benefit of quiet conversations after or before classes, the opportunities to interact in a classroom, and the possibility of making connections in person we have to work harder to connect, but those connections make all the difference between playfully thrown paper and a heart turned hard by barking on a playing field.

Connections and common sense, time, trust, and grace, these are things to aspire to, particularly as we’re still doing school so far apart that we can’t be hit by wadded up balls of paper.

Shakespeare to a Screen of Boxes

“I all alone beweep my outcast state”

I’d done the lesson before, a world away, last year. That was back in a simpler time, when we could gather in the same room with students, then, as now, a group of theater kids with the topic on hand of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The opportunity to teach came as a kindness from a generous teacher who knew how much it means to me as a principal to teach every year, the lesson a throwback to my days as an English teacher, a dozen years spent in front of a classroom.

That idea of a front of a classroom, the notion of anything today being a throwback to anything that has come before …that just feels …incorrect. Because teaching today in this first semester of 2020, is different.

Wildly different.

So when I set about teaching this fabulous group of students it wasn’t in a classroom at all, but me in my office and thirty or so students in bedrooms, at kitchen tables, and sipping chai on couches (as one student told me she was doing). We were all connected through screens, an imperfect replacement for the magic of in person teaching.

I’ve written about this connection before, about the alchemy of teaching and learning, the humanity of working with kids, the spark that comes between people in a classroom. But this time…

The teacher started the class with some theater warm-ups, a great way to begin since I hoped they’d read some of the sonnets aloud. To hear him march through stretching and zombie calls, dash trippingly through “cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum, cinnamon-aluminum” and the like was a delight. I scanned the boxes on my screen: icons and names …and a few student faces. It was so strange to see familiar names, but not the kids I know attached to them. I knew this would be an issue; teachers had mentioned the difficulty to students not always turning on cameras, sometimes for very legitimate reasons (technology, mental health) not just in this class, but across the remote learning experience.

And difficult it was.

We started with an introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets, a bit of historical perspective, and a primer on prosody. The students listened …I think. The crossed out red microphone in every box kept those delightful impromptu student responses muted. Painfully muted. Teaching in person allows for reading body language, seeing students eyes, overhearing those unexpected utterances, and moving around the room to help keep students engaged. 

Online my lesson felt decidedly one sided. A voice kept whispering in my head that my song and dance wasn’t even as good as a video the students could just be watching. Sharing my screen only exasperated the challenge; even if I could see more boxes they might be names or icons, not student faces. Four crossed out red microphones or thirty-four crossed out red microphones it still felt like it was just me as I got started. 

Was I reaching them? that whisper asked. All the ways I used to tell were gone to me. That voice of doubt was in my head, not through the computer; everyone in class was still muted and many had their cameras off.

We marshaled through sonnet 118, taking it apart quatrain by quatrain after an intrepid student turned on their camera to read it aloud. When that student turned on their camera and started reciting it was as if the heavens had opened, the clouds parted, and something miraculous had happened.

I spoke more than I should have, but even with a pretty high comfort level for extended wait time that felt like the only way to move forward. My appreciation for the teachers who do this every day, multiple times a day, grew and grew. At its worst this experience was nerve wracking; at its best it was modest in the unexpected joys that kept me teaching for a dozen years. For anyone tempted to be critical of teachers in this world of remote learning I’d say try your own hand at teaching before saying a word. You may find yourself with different words.

In modest nibbles the students began chewing on Shakespeare’s language, offering ideas, often more willing to answer my questions in the chat than with camera or voice. A couple messaged me in the chat that they were having trouble with their cameras, one that her mic didn’t work. These kinds of technical challenges aren’t unique to a handful of students. Every week I talk with parents or students who struggle with connectivity. We’re all doing what we can do. And that’s okay.

I tried breakout rooms, groups of six or seven for each of a quartet of sonnets. The theater teacher went into one group, with the well known sonnet 130, and I visited the others in turn, sonnets 29, 116, and 138. They each had some specific instructions (scanning the poem, looking for unfamiliar words, and reading for meaning) and the charge that when we returned to the main meeting we’d have someone from each group read their poem aloud.

In the first breakout room I visited only one student had his camera on. Yet, the students were encouraging to one another, collaborative voices behind the white names on black backgrounds. I stuck around until they hit a sticking point and together we dove into the lines: 

I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope

There was some resonance in those words, more than 400 years old as they are, and the students, each in their own individual box on the computer, understood what it is to feel a bit “outcast” these days. That said, the couplet at the end of the poem resonates with me as well:

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The second breakout room was quieter yet. One student talked me through what they’d discussed before I arrived, but overall, crickets.

When I entered the third group my heart soared. Every camera was on and the discussion was rich. They noticed discrepancies in the iambic pentameter and were speaking smartly of the poem writ large. This was so much like what school would be in person, and felt like a rare joy in this online world.

When we got back to the main meeting we had time for two awesome students to read their sonnets aloud. When I saw them turn on their cameras the whole world got a little better. 

In this compromised environment that was all it took.

The ones who spoke did marvelously, actors as they were, and many students were able to talk about the poems intelligently, as students do. It was not the experience I’d had with this lesson before, and after I signed off at the end of the lesson I texted the teacher: “THANK YOU! That was strange, but fun.” It was fun. Because…

Today I got to teach. It was not perfect. It was not bad. It was not what I’d always done or how I’d always done it. Truth be told, it was not how I’d like to do it as soon as I’m given another choice.

Remote learning is hard, and while we had to connect through screens and across miles, today we connected. At least a little. Right now, I’ll take that.

Marionette

I have a friend who loves his wife very much and one year, nearly two decades ago, he wanted to surprise her with the perfect gift for her birthday. They hadn’t been married all that long and he wanted something unique and wonderful, like her, and being the researcher he is, he hunted high and low for an idea for something that would be a surprise she’d be delighted by. The result did surprise her. Delight? Well…

“She didn’t know what to say,” he told me and another friend the next week, shaking his head. “I thought I’d nailed it.” We laughed aloud, my other friend and I, and asked him to tell us again about …the marionette.

He explained that he’d found a puppeteer and craftsman who made custom marionettes. He’d commissioned one of his wife, fashioned from her photo, its hair realistic, its clothing similar to hers. “It wasn’t her hair, right?” my friend asked. “No,” my other friend answered. “It wasn’t even human hair.” That was a relief, anyway.

I saw the doll only once, crumpled in the corner of a guest bedroom. It seems to have vanished in the years since. It did look startling like his wife, who despite this perfect gift is still his wife, and it has always held a place in my heart, linked forever with the discrepancy between perception and intent.

Things feel a little like that marionette right now in education. Teachers are working harder than ever to connect to students. They are innovating, putting in long hours, and striving to find ways to help students engage with the material, the class, and each other.

Students are working hard too, and without the comradery that comes from sitting in class with one another, able to lean over and whisper or talk across the table and connect. Separation from those thousand little interactions is profound, and we see the impact it has on kids in big and little ways.

Families are working hard, not just to support the kids, but also to balance the many pressures and obligations, all made more complicated by the pandemic and its impact on our world.

And principals like me are trying to find ways to keep our schools connected. We strive to develop opportunities for students and staff and parents to be active and together, and even as we all put in herculean efforts, lots of time, and all the creativity we can, well…

The results are far from perfect. As much care and craft as we have put in, as much time and thoughtfulness we dedicate to this experience, there are still times when each of us feels like a marionette crumpled in a corner. 


That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t get through this and have a long and happy relationship. Heck, my friend and his wife made it through the perfect gift together. And we will be back on campus together …sometime. Until then, we have our best chance at success, however we define that, if we allow ourselves to pause, take a deep breath (or maybe two or three), and show each other grace. Not every attempt is a success, not every effort yields the results we’d like, but we can do much to support one another, showing kindness even when we’re given a marionette.

One of my attempts at helping my school community stay centered is a series of “Fireside Chats” that I’ve been filming over the past few months. Sure they’re silly, just me and a green screen, but they’re as heartfelt as my friend’s marionette. The story for this post was the topic of my most recent chat, and you can chuckle at my buffoonery here: