Boxes Before Boats

June. Tomorrow. After the sun and rain and ups and downs of May we enter the final dozen days of the school year with the hurried shamble of a modern cinema zombie. Our seniors, a group of students who have felt profound impact on their education from this COVID experience, are preparing for graduation; our juniors, who tell me that they see a light at the end of this proverbial tunnel (“Next year will be a fresh start!” is a sentiment I’ve heard more than a few times this spring); and most of the rest seem ready to put 2020-2021 to rest and get about whatever the summer is all about. It’s easy to socially distance in a kayak.

But we have a lot packed into these last weeks, including (at our school) literal packing.

Right now everything we own is finding its way into boxes and before the end of June moving trucks will pull up at our temporary home and tote everything from easels to dance floors, books, boxes, and a ridiculously heavy pugger in the ceramics room over to our new campus. 

While all this packing is going on, our students and teachers are pushing hard toward the end of the semester. There are kilns to load, monologues to deliver, essays to write, and paintings to be shared with others. In a normal year this isn’t easy and this is not a normal year.

This year all of us have been physically separated in ways we never imagined before the pandemic. We’ve learned to adjust and adapt, to make do, to make peace, and to make our way in a way that feels strange and sometimes stressful. 

We’ve been learning remotely for more than a year, adding hybrid to the mix a few months ago, and slogging away as best we can. Along the way we still face responsibilities, obligations, and the opportunities to make a difference. Those opportunities aren’t easier in this environment and the results aren’t certain. And we keep going.

We engage, we create, we stumble to engage and create. We work hard, try harder, and sometimes find that our efforts and hard work aren’t quite enough. Sometimes they are, don’t get me wrong, but for many of us the past few months, and the past few weeks in particular have challenged us to the edge of our stress levels.

That’s just real, and the times we show and are shown grace make such a difference.

We can get this done. We’ll finish the school year. We’ll have a commencement ceremony. We’ll finish packing. We’ll move forward (and literally move as well).

And then, of course, we need to breathe.

Summer is a good time to take a breath. With a few fewer deadlines, the opportunity to turn off the alarm clock, and longer days that invite adventure, late June, July, and early August offer the space to move through the world at a different pace. This year more than ever that feels important.

Because in the fall we return to campus, a space new to us all and filled with more possibility than memories. We have a community to reconnect with, a batch of friends to be made or celebrated in person again, and a school year to start with aplomb.

But first, packing, those final projects, and throwing mortar boards into the air …and paddling our kayaks out into the lake.

Seeds Under Earth

“Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.”   ― Alice Walker

We are certainly in a period of growth.

Two years ago our school packed up more than twenty years of memories (and dance costumes, and boxes of clay, and books, so many books, and tubes of paint) and moved across town as bulldozers razed a building we loved to make way for a new campus that was still a dream. Our initial thoughts were tinted with emotion. We wept a bit at the loss of a familiar home and leapt into a future uncertain of what it would feel like to learn somewhere else.

But we’re creative souls and over the first few months at our temporary building we adapted (and then adapted again when a leaky roof at a nearby K-5 school swelled our school with elementary students) and found that we could make art even in unfamiliar climes. Heck, in February we put on a three stage spectacular in the venues we’d made out of a gym converted into a dance studio, a commons made into a music stage, and a black box theater that had hosted the musical Cabaret. It was awesome, and less than a month later we found ourselves learning from home, campus empty as a result of a global pandemic.

We grew again over the months and months and months we were apart. As Alice Walker described it, “Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening.” We didn’t know what was happening, not from month to month, week to week, or sometimes day to day. And yet, like that seed in her description of growth, we pushed upward.

Sometimes the weight of learning (and teaching) alone was crushing. Sometimes we felt “hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical” and even as we looked around for something or someone to give us perspective we found little to reassure us. And yet, like that seed, we pushed upward.

The partial return to school has felt like a sliver of sunlight to some of us. It is not school as we knew it, but it is not school as we have known it for the past year or so. And the next year?

The next year we return to a campus we’ve never been on before. The new building stands on the same ground our school has occupied for as long as we’ve been a school. New construction connects with the established performing arts center that has been a part of our collective experience for more than a decade. Much about the new place will remind and reassure folks that our history and our traditions (and our art too) matter very much. Wainscoting from the old building has been salvaged and installed on the reception desk in the main office and the library circulation desk in the new building. Artwork from our permanent collection, some of which has been in storage for two years, will go back up on walls. Students, staff, and alumni should step into the new building and feel like they’re coming home.

But just as the building has changed, those students, staff, and alumni have changed too. The past two years have seen societal change and personal change in our world and in our hearts. The strange feeling of separation so many of us have felt, only now being chipped away at by coming to campus and seeing each other, well some of each other, again, has made those changes in ourselves and our world feel stranger still. And yet I want to believe Alice Walker when she says: “it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.” 

A few months from now my school will be in a new building, our third in four years, and while I don’t know what COVID restrictions will look like in the fall I imagine that as the months stretch on we’ll see more and more of each other. Performances will resume in person. Classes will be filled with students. Laughter will echo in the hallways and the piano in our commons will bring music back to the masses.

But Depeche Mode references aside, this growth has been confusing and frustrating and hard. And… we are strongest when we are here for one another. We are best able to grow and change for the better when we are each other’s support. As a school, as a community, as human beings, we can come out of these two years of change stronger, kinder, and more filled with hope. 

Put another way… “Hang on Little Tomato” by Pink Martini.

Hope Springs Eternal

The sun is shining today. In Oregon in spring that’s something.

For more than a decade I lived in a state where summer weather stayed year round. After having grown up in the Pacific Northwest it never felt entirely right that a day in February could see sun, shorts, and the potential for a trip to the beach. Wildfire season never ended, paddle boards never needed to be put away, and the few times it rained were novelties. As bucolic as that was, it never quite felt real. 

When a few years ago my family moved back to Oregon, leaving the land of the Lotus Eaters to the south, I was reminded of the value of seasons in my life. Summer is beautiful, hot, and filled with the whispers of a cold river. In the fall fields flood, you can see your breath, and there’s uncertainty whether it will rain on the trick or treaters. Winter chills. Fireplaces mean something in Oregon and January reminds us all of the importance of a good pair of boots. And then… spring.

The sun is shining today. It wasn’t last week and may not be in another day or two, but that same sun that is warming me through the window now will be back for a longer visit soon. 

For me each season compliments the next. Winter’s gray and spring’s green, summer’s gold and fall’s red leaves all help me appreciate the movement of time and the ebb and flow of life around me.

And it struck me today, as I looked up from a busy day at work juggling the demands of “hybrid instruction” at a school that is strongest when we can all be together making art, making friends, and making community, that same sun I see on this May day will smile down on my school through the move back to our permanent campus, the planning of a fall that will look different than school this spring, and the opening of a school year (still months away) that will be filled with hope and expectation and more than little joy.

This same sun that is seeing us struggle to navigate a world of pandemic and imperfection will be there after we’ve taken a deep breath of summer air and readied ourselves for the year to come. Today we’re muddling through; tomorrow we’ll be striding forward.

I’m an optimist. I don’t know what the fall will bring, not exactly anyway, but on this sunny day I can picture something to look forward to. That hope, it seems to me, is what spring is all about.

May the 4th

I heard R2 beeping before he rolled around the corner of my office followed close behind by the laughter of my bookkeeper, a counselor, and the custodian who was piloting the little robot. A few feet away in the main office, beneath a life sized inflatable stormtrooper and a cardboard cutout of Princess Leia a few students laughed with my receptionist and head secretary, hardly noticing the plexiglass that rose between them or the masks we all wore, focusing instead on the inflatable lightsabers and giant plush Yoda on the counter. We all needed that laughter.

Seeing our students on campus, all of our students, feels like it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

We laughed a lot together before the pandemic drove us off campus, applauded more than you’d expect, and were inclined to nuttiness. For a few months all three of those things have felt a little on hold. And today, May 4th, we got a glimpse of what it will be like again.

Throughout the months since we left campus we’ve tried to keep out students and staff connected beyond just academics. Early on we organized Zoom lunches, kept Open Mic Nights alive (as online Open Mic Mornings), and even put on a staff revue to entertain the kids (and, truth be told, ourselves).

As the weeks turned into months we found ways to see our students, at least from the masks up. A drive through senior celebration, a walkthrough ACMA Day, and then on Halloween a dress up party that was legitimately fun.

In late April some students returned to campus, just over half of our student body divided into two attendance groups that came in every other day. They’re dancing and sculpting, singing, reading, writing, and making art on campus again, and yet…

We still need that laughter, that fun, that sense of whimsy that inspires spontaneous applause.

So as a school, both students and staff, we thought about what we might do this spring to just have fun (and maybe imagine ourselves in a galaxy different than our own for a while) and we came back with the two word answer: Star Wars.

The sensible choice for a date for the party was May the 4th, of course, so we planned, prepared, and ordered inflatable lightsabers. We dug the life sized cutouts of Leia and Darth Vader out of storage (we’re a school with such things in storage) and got about the business of good clean fun.

The morning of I sent a couple of photos to my staff from the day a few years back when we decided that it would be a good idea to hit each other with pool noodles made to look like lightsabers. The email prompted some revisionist history as to who won, more than a few happy responses, and the notion of a rematch between a couple of my intrepid Jedi.

Throughout the day I heard more laughter than I had any reason to suspect on a Tuesday in May during hybrid learning. 

Just before school let out our volunteer students gathered in their May the Fourth Be With You t-shirts and, accompanied by a stormtrooper or two, they hatched plans for the day. It looked like a friendlier version of that scene before the rebels go blow up the Death Star.

Two of those stormtroopers, whose blasters had been replaced with enormous flowers (much more in keeping with our school spirit) faced each other from across the main hall. Looking from one to another, their flowers speaking of romance, it appeared that the two might be our own Romeo and Juliet. The palpable longing of those two stormtroopers whispered a narrative of unrequited love. So very ACMA.

And then, after school, the party…

A constellation of activity stations spread out (socially distanced as they should be) across the lawn outside our building where young Jedi could pick up a lightsaber, visit a trading post, and get the training any youngling needs. Photos on the Millennium Falcon? You bet. Space age dance music? Sure. Time to laugh? You bet your sweet Jawa.

Some just wanted to play on the big grassy area, swinging their lightsabers or just walking and talking. Some wanted to try their hands at designing a paper spaceship. Some couldn’t stop smiling seeing their teachers dressed up like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and Princess Leia. 

Students did a nice job of following the COVID protocols in place. Everyone wore a mask, not only Darth Vader. They danced and laughed and did their best to stay at least one lightsaber apart. And while it all felt different than some of our prior pre-COVID spring celebrations, this May the 4th was a delight in its own way. 

So while some of us might be a little short to be a stormtrooper, we do know how to have fun, and in a world so thick with stress it helps a lot to hear the beep of R2D2.

Welcome, stranger…

I’ve read more than my fair share of fantasy during this pandemic, Tolkien of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and A Song of Fire and Ice (even though I’m the one person on the planet who hasn’t seen the TV show). I zipped through Three Hearts and Three Lions, a book I hadn’t ever read but had heard about from more than a few people; The Eaters of the Dead, inspiration to pick up Heaney’s translation of Beowulf; and most recently The Dragonbone Chair, which begins with a line that felt written for our present uncertain times: “Welcome, stranger. The paths are treacherous today.”

Around us all are opinions and realities, too often competing with each other and frequently piling wood on the fire of concern (about a host of topics including the pandemic, social justice, and mental health) that has been blazing now for more than a year. All the while we mask up, wait in line for the vaccine, and try to make sensible choices, and while there are days during which it feels like the flames are dying down, enough pops and sparks are coming from our metaphoric bonfire to keep us all feeling a little singed.

If this were a fantasy novel we’d be questing against the great threat. Our swords would flash, arrows would fly, and an elf would make a smart remark. We are, however, profoundly human. 

So we wash our hands and wipe down our shopping carts and there are days that feels pretty heroic. Sometimes.

Except…

It is in our human nature to want grander shades of heroism than any that involve hand sanitizer. We want to strap on that pack, sling a battleaxe over our shoulder, and head into the haunted forest to save the world.

Those fantasy authors understand that desire and package it between embossed covers. Whether it’s Middle Earth, Narnia, or Westeros, the worlds they imagine invite us to join their hero’s journey from the comfort of our own COVID bubble.

But then we close the book, wash our hands again, put on our mask and head out into a very different world. How to be heroic there?

I know the answer looks different to everyone. Sometimes the seemingly small acts of kindness bring more power than a wizard’s spell. Telling a grandparent you love them, helping a parent with dinner, reaching out to a friend who needs to hear your voice, any of those things can pack as profound a wallop as an ogre’s club.

As a principal I get to see both magic and epic challenges every day. I see sweeping emotions, gritty reality, and swashbuckling glee. And that’s just at student lunch.

The teachers, counselors, and staff, these are heroes.

They may not battle goblins (though have you ever seen middle schoolers running to the bus?), they don’t wear chainmail or carry magic swords, they simply bring to their work with students more than a little magic and heroic hearts.

As challenging as I know the final few weeks of the school year will be —and it would be naive to believe that they won’t pack in a dragon or two— as challenging as those weeks will be, because of these professionals I’m as optimistic as a hobbit at second breakfast.

My teachers, counselors, and staff members know that the greatest strength isn’t independence. The truth that they know, as any successful adventurer knows, is that the greatest attribute a hero can have is interdependence.

Frodo needed Sam who needed Aragorn who needed Gandalf who years before needed Bilbo who needed Frodo to pick up the ring and become heroic.

Whether we’re teachers or hobbits (or both) the next few weeks invite us to form a fellowship with those we know, those we love, and those we don’t know …yet. Having been away from our usual life for more than a year we are beginning to return to a wider world, a place still treacherous, but ripe for heroism if we approach it together, both friends and strangers (many of whom will be friends as this adventure continues).

As the road stretches out ahead I encourage us all to straighten our helmets, polish our shields, and look out for one another as if wights were circling the barrow. The day will come when we look back on this adventure and raise a glass with the friends we made through the strife, reminiscing about the dragons we overcame along the way.