Star Wars Nerds

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 6.35.26 PMI met Darth Vader in the lobby of a car dealership in 1978. He strode in, large as life, black cape trailing behind him, uttered a few words to the collected youngsters, and left us each with an autographed picture. It was awesome.

The world has changed around us since the late 1970s and my encounter with the not quite so ominous Sith Lord, something that’s as true in public education as it is in life.

For my own son, just a little older now than I was when I met Darth Vader, Star Wars means Legos, video games, and plastic lightsaber battles with friends on the lawn. Looking back on my simple but sturdy action figures I know that the notion of Star Wars Battlefront or a realistic laser sword that extends when you flick it open would have blown my eight year old mind. For my son those are part of his childhood landscape.

I got a glimpse into his more modern world last month during my son’s 10th birthday party. My wife is the master of kid parties, ice cream cakes, crafts, and favor bags that drop jaws. My minor role ever since we started putting on kidstravaganzas has been scavenger hunts. Drawing on years of Pirate Weeks and Space Weeks, I put together clues and ciphers that led the kids from one place to the next in pursuit of a final prize. At this birthday party, one stop on the hunt involved the boys putting together a puzzle of Poe Dameron, then realizing they needed to flip the completed puzzle over to read the next clue which had been scrawled on the back in Sharpie.

As my son and his friends hunted for pieces and fit them together I overheard them talking. “I’m a Star Wars nerd,” my son said before joining a chum in a detailed juxtaposition of the new trilogy and the original.

What would they think about meeting someone dressed in a Darth Vader costume at a car lot?

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 8.29.55 PM

Like my son and his friend, I’ll confess to being a self identified “Star Wars nerd.” I’m mature enough to not get worked up by the new movies, or even the prequels. I watched Solo in the theater and enjoyed it. I’m forgiving when it comes to Star Wars stories (from the old comic books to the next generation of films) because it seems to me that every step along the way they celebrate imagination.

The power of imagination is something that can transform a Toyota dealership into a viable place to meet a space villain. It can make a scavenger hunt at a birthday party feel like an adventure worthy of Sherlock Holmes. It makes childhood magical, and has the potential to make education relevant, fun, and engaging.

Sometimes I think: maybe school is not enough like Star Wars.

Rediscovering that autographed 8 x 10 back in a dusty box in my parents’ garage prompted the memory of what it felt like to be a kid and to be moved by the unexpected. I realize as an adult that surprises like that don’t happen by accident. My folks had gone out of their way to take me down to the car dealership. Someone had worked hard to make sure that Darth Vader was tall, looked and sounded “real,” and would leave every kid with something they could keep. At our best, we educators do something similar.

We work hard, we plan, and we ask ourselves how we can inspire and engage our students. When we’re successful we see our kids connect to the material and with each other. We see growth and wonder. We leave them with something that matters.

Emphasizing the imagination in our classrooms and at our schools (our students’ and our own) has the potential of improving our kids’ engagement with classes and community. Celebrating the imagination, whether it’s through a class project, a school activity, or an artistic enterprise is a way of helping our students see what is possible, know what they create matters, and understand that they can make a difference. This matters now more than ever.

Increasingly the stress of the world encroaches on our campuses. The news brings word of threats from a thousand directions, and whether it’s student protests or increased incidents of kids contemplating self harm, the reactions from our kids are real.

Recently my son and I watched The Last Jedi, an epic that merged my Star Wars and his. There were Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca. There were Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. And sure nostalgia made me happy when I saw Yoda, that marvelous puppet, on screen, but it was when I heard the wisdom of a new hero that I was most moved.

Intrepid Rose, that splendidly brave soul, after saving fellow hero Finn’s life, reminded him that the way forward was “not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 9.09.08 PM

Words far more relevant than a long time ago or a galaxy far, far away, and how wonderful that they weren’t said by another white male character.

Like my son, I’m a Star Wars nerd, and with him I value the wonder of a child meeting Darth Vader, the imagination of putting together Legos, and the perspective that we live in a complicated world made better when we put our focus on what, and those, we love.

Advertisements

A Difficult Quartet

We are humans. Even working at a school filled with creativity and joy, kindness, laughter, and a healthy sense of fun, it would be foolish or disingenuous to imagine that the professional life of any educator is free from the tragedy, heartbreak, and the fear that is a part of what it means to be alive.

I do my best to use my voice to celebrate the good things, sometimes talking about the hard work it takes to achieve those positive results, sometimes simply marveling at the good in the world. And…

That’s true, but only part of the story.

In addition to the joy that comes from working with students, the path of being an educator leads through some swamps and dark forests as well. This summer, as I’m comforted by the warm weather and long sunshiny days, I’ve made it a goal to finish four books that challenge me to engage with some of the more difficult aspects of my journey as a principal.

To be my best for the students, staff, and families I work with, I need to face the harder truths of being a human and being an educator. For me, bookish by nature, this means opening some volumes that don’t feature a detective in a deerstalker.

Four books in my backpack this summer include a case study on gun violence, a memoir about a brother’s suicide, a novel by one of my former students addressing the impact of domestic violence, and a book by a psychologist on grieving the loss of a child. This is not going to be easy reading; it is instead important reading.

As a principal I see students and families at their best, and I see students and families in their times of their greatest stress. The books on my list speak to that stress, and I hope will give me insight as I work with my school community to be the best support for them I can be. As summer ends I’ll fashion a post or two out of this summer reading and the ideas and implications that inform my own work. For anyone who might want to talk about these topics, and the books on my list, I’ll share titles and authors now.

Rampage CoverI started Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman this winter, prompted by the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School. Thorough and well researched, the book contains a pair of case studies and takes as its ambitious goal answering the question: “Why violence erupts in close-knit communities – and what can be done to stop it.” It’s sobering that this book was published in 2004. That said, there is no call greater than keeping our students safe, and while gun violence is rare in comparison to other dangers our kids face, the reality of life as a building principal has expanded since I got into education to include an understanding of this dark reality of our world.

100 tricks100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, a memoir by Oregon’s Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, carries the subtitle “How My Brother Disappeared.” Through stories and reflections, Stafford details his brother’s death from suicide and the life they shared before that tragic event. Suicide is a reality that frightens parents and educators, a spectre that students hear about, talk about, and sometimes consider. In one of my first years as an administrator I witnessed first hand what happened after a student took his own life, and the impact that had on family, friends, and our school community. Referrals for students with suicidal ideation are not uncommon, and with each I feel a pang of anxiety and a desire to make a difference. Stafford’s memoir has the courage to discuss this difficult topic, not because that discussion doesn’t hurt, but because, as he puts it, “the darkest things hurt more when they are not told.”

towellOregon author Gayle Towell wrestles with those “darkest things” as well in her 2015 novel Broken Parts. I’ve read her harrowing novella Blood Gravity, and through that moving and brutal work was introduced to brothers Jake and Ben, whose abuse at the hands of their father inform a struggle to cope with the past as they move forward, perhaps together. I don’t know exactly what to expect of Broken Parts, but I do know that Towell’s unflinching courage to deal directly with topics that many would hope to avoid promises a novel with lessons I need to learn as a person who works with young people.

lossThe Unspeakable Loss: How do you live after a child dies? by Nisha Zenoff, PhD was given to me by two parents who had found some comfort within its pages. As they explained it to me, The Unspeakable Loss “is a book that has practical tips to support grieving families and children.” The power and purpose I have witnessed in these parents is profound, and my wish is that as I read this book I will gain some understanding about what I can do to help as a principal and as a person.

I’d love never to need the perspective I may glean from these volumes, but I know that being informed and prepared for the most difficult situations is a part of my job, a responsibility of my calling, and a commitment I have to the students, staff, and families around me. This difficult quartet of books offers an opportunity to learn more. I hope to be ready to hear their truth.

Outdoor Dance

I never wrote about the time
the parent called me
a punk ass bitch.

For the most part
my scribblings aim at a higher purpose
celebrating this or that
pondering thus and such
trying to make sense
cheer on hope
or notice something small and splendid
in the greater world.

But it’s been time enough now
since that night
when the woman in the bathrobe
holding a flashlight
in one hand
pointing with the other
feet wide apart, for balance,
breath rich with spirits
stood at the top of the steps
just outside the main office
staring at me with eyes
gone wild.

I was
ridiculously
wearing a cowboy hat
relieved that the western themed outdoor dance was over
the kids streaming down the stairs
heading home
laughing, still so young, and filled
with the music they’d been moving to
for hours now, dusk until dark.

At first I thought she was joking
appearing at a school
dressed for breakfast
smelling of happy hour
toting that flashlight like she was on a campout.

But she made it clear
that she was deadly serious
about how loud the music sounded
waving an arm toward the courtyard behind her
silent now
kids cleaning up
a few bales of straw, some streamers,
parent volunteers heading home
and while she did not live in the house
across the street
tonight she was staying there
sensibly, I thought

and because of us she could not sleep.

Students in cowboy hats
slid behind her and down the stairs
like rolling desert hills
outside a moving stagecoach.
My assistant principal
took up a position behind me
a security guard
nervous of the woman’s drunkenness
joined him
a posse of sorts.

I watched her tortured eyes
narrow
as she screamed
teeth showing
as she heard me
say nothing
giving time for the students to leave.

We stayed like that until
my silence was not enough
and the woman lurched forward
brought her palm hard against
the brim of my hat
causing the security guard to flinch
and my eyes to widen
and my assistant principal to swallow a laugh
as she found the words
she was looking for
spitting as best she could:
“Punk ass bitch.”

The kids were mostly gone by then
and our conversation seemed at a natural end
so, adjusting my hat
and understanding that she would probably not
accept the offer
I invited my date
to meet for coffee
in my office on Monday morning.

IMG_4242

Twain’s Undertaker

Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up, right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait- you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry- just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the pow-wow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then, in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided, and glided, around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.”

-from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There’s a spot in Huck Finn when the undertaker drifts out a funeral and takes care of a loud noise. When he returns he makes the marvelous choice to share what happened, information appreciated by our young protagonist and the rest of the assembled mourners.

As a principal, I do my best to emulate that thoughtful undertaker.

The information I have and the perspective my position affords me are precious, and I never take that for granted. If I’m able to communicate something, I do, and from time to time I’m told by students, parents, and staff that they appreciate it. Who doesn’t like to know? But there are times when the nature of what’s going on requires greater discretion and the tight lips of a sailor committed to keeping his navy afloat. There are times I can’t say anything.

undertakerIt’s in these times that the imperfect best I can muster is to listen to concerns, both the heartfelt and the accusatory, acknowledge the person across the table from me, say what I can, and hope that they can get from me some modest understanding that despite the silence, we share a vision for the best school ours can be, and a desire to support every student.

Sometimes that doesn’t come through.

There are those willing to say their point of view and then suspend disbelief long enough for me to do my quiet job behind the scenes. There are other times I take some punches.

It means that as a principal I need to have a clear vision of what’s right and a dedication to all students that guides all my work.

Like a compass in a tempest, clarity of purpose and commitment to kids can help weather the waves of emotion and lightning strikes of anger and frustration. The journey of a school, and every principal’s voyage too, isn’t measured by the outcome of an hour, but is judged by progress over time.

I trust that if I do what’s right by kids and strive to work toward a school that knows compassion, caring, and the value of hard work, then all will be well …even if there are times I can’t say everything about it.

Summer Memories

photo (5)This summer we’re not taking a big vacation. After last year’s move from California to Oregon, a chaotic few weeks of loading up cats, kids, and boxes of books, driving, driving, and driving, and unloading a houseful of life while reacclimating, and helping acclimate two kids, to the Pacific Northwest it’s nice to know that we won’t go farther than the coast in these sunny days of July. That said, for the past few years I’ve always done a “Notes From the Road” series of posts, and I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane with three thoughts from summers past.

A trip to the Bay Area, winding up the coast on an extended car trip, led me to consider the importance of students participating actively in their education Prompted by my own kids enjoying Waffles in Pismo Beach, and my wise wife making the lesson clear to me, I was reminded that “students want to do, to actively participate in their own learning.”

Visiting the school where I had my first teaching job 25 years ago was both surreal and sentimental. Recounting “Goggle Day,” perhaps the first kooky thing I did as an educator, made me thankful for the experiences and people who have helped shaped me as a professional and for the sense of fun that is a part of what happens at the best schools.

It was in a Canadian forest that I spotted a traffic sign that summed up being a principal: Two Way Traffic / One Lane Road, just another instance of how getting out of our usual routine, opening our eyes to the world around us, and embracing new places and ideas can help to inform the work we do at our schools and in our professional lives.

For all my friends in education, I wish you a marvelous summer filled with adventures, new experiences, renewal, and some ideas to take back to school in the fall.

Summer Dinosaurs

Summer here, it’s time for some must needed renewal. Even for those of us who love what we do, education is a profession that demands energy. To do it well means not scrimping on engagement, taking time to do things right, and giving of ourselves in the service of something great. The pace, never slack, seems to pick up as the school year rolls on, bursting into an outright sprint by the time April turns into May.

This wild rumpus is amazing, filled with adventure and often the unexpected. But sometimes, as emotions run high and the rush of the world makes it difficult to keep perspective, those adventures take us to places where the opportunities to make a difference feel more like climbing a mountain than walking on the beach.

Lost WorldSummer means beaches.

For me, in addition to the literal visit to the coast, renewal comes from familiar quarters. Family. Good books. Time in nature.

A recent trip to Lincoln City provided just that renewal. Poking around a little used bookstore I happened upon a book that had dodged my reading life for decades. I’m a confessed Sherlock Holmes fanatic; from my easy chair I’ve enjoyed hours on the moors with Arthur Conan Doyle tracking the footprints of a gigantic hound, but I realized that I’d never formally met Professor Challenger, the hero of his 1912 potboiler about a plateau in South America where the Jurassic Period never ended, The Lost World.

It was time to chase some dinosaurs.

Now pterodactyl pursuit is not an activity for the school year. Too many pulls on time and real life stresses vie for attention. The real world gets in the way of many a ripping good yarn.

Being a principal means finding a way to display fortitude while discovering renewal in little gulps. The long days and daily responsibilities, as positive as they can be and as filled with possibility as they often are, demand attention, and the reality of knowing that at any minute the phone might ring with news from campus or our school community. This could cut short a night out, or turn a weekend into a workday.

But, ah, summer.

Summer is a time for dinosaurs.

So I put aside planning for a long afternoon, left off the work that I’ll be better able to tackle with the fresh perspective that comes from a little time away, and left the bookstore with a paperback of The Lost World.

Back on the beach I read Doyle’s epigraph:

I have wrought my simple plan
    If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
    Or the man who’s half a boy.”

How important it is for those of us who work with kids to allow ourselves to revisit the feeling of youth. Taking care of ourselves is not always something we educators do best, though to be our best selves it’s something we need to do.

Sometimes that’s time with family, a hike, or paddling a kayak. Sometimes it’s allowing ourselves to follow footprints in the sand that might belong to a gigantic hound …or maybe a dinosaur.

IMG_7092

Internment

“Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of immigrant children wait in a series of cages…” -Associated Press, June 18, 2018

One of the most powerful conversations I ever had as a principal was with Tak Sugimoto, an alumnus of a high school where I worked, who had been interned as a boy in the 1940s. His family was of Japanese descent, and in the height of post Pearl Harbor fear they were taken from their homes in Encinitas, California and placed in custody in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. He described what education was like there: a makeshift school, students under terrific stress, and a system that punished families for simply being of a non-white heritage deemed threatening by the government.

Poston

A hearty nonagenarian, Tak brought a profound wisdom to the telling of his story, and an unexpected sense of peace that was decades in the making. The corrupt nature of Japanese internment, the systemic racism, and the nation’s cruelty had wounded him, but not broken him; he lived now a strong, balanced man. Experiences like those he described had destroyed other families, ruined childhoods, and been a high water mark for intolerance and governmental cruelty. When I talked with him two years ago, he was optimistic that his country had learned from those mistakes.

As Tak spoke, I thought back to my friend Doug Kamon, whose parents met in a different internment camp, The Gila River War Relocation Center in the middle of another Arizona desert. At the end of every year we worked together Doug would present his family’s story, providing our students his own familiar face, making the details of this tragic time even more immediate to them. As Doug talked about his young parents and his grandparents, not all of whom survived the camps, students sat silently, listening to this man they knew so well and his connection to a past some would choose to forget. Many students found it hard to believe that Poston or Gila River could really have happened in the United States. More than a few considered themselves lucky that they didn’t live in times like those.

Both Tak and Doug’s parents were interned with their families. They struggled under harsh conditions and did their best to survive a system that marginalized them for no reason other than their ethnicity. In school in the camps the kids from the Sugimoto and Kamon families did their best in an environment filled with stress and anxiety, and went home to parents who could hold them tight and reassure them that they had the strength to persevere. These were terrible times, but they were together.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about these stories, and imagined what it might be like for the kids who don’t have parents to comfort them in times of duress. As an educator I know the importance of supporting every student, both academically and when it comes to mental health. It’s common knowledge that students face very real challenges, wrestle with complicated emotions, and struggle to stay healthy in US schools. Most of these students have adults to go home to and a greater sense of certainty than those kids whose home life is so uncertain. For kids who are deprived of that support, the risk of both short and long term harm is profound.

There are times when I feel helpless in effecting change beyond the walls of my own school. Here I can get to know kids and families, I can encourage kindness, build systems that promote care, and potentially make a difference. Even with all that, sometimes it’s really difficult.

In the greater world, where I am a participant, not a leader, I feel even more challenged when faced with situations that put kids in harm’s way. I am not a lawmaker, and as much as I write them, I struggle sometimes to believe that my voice matters. I do my best to stay optimistic, but seeing tragedy rise unexpectedly and impact kids keeps me up at night. Literally.

Willa Cather captured my anxiety when she wrote:

When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.”

“When kindness has left people…” What a terrible phrase. “When it has left a place where we have always found it…”

I want so much to believe that kindness can return, where we can all feel secure and not “drop into something malevolent and bottomless.”

Then I remember Tak and I hope.

I hope, and I wonder. Seventy years from now, who will be the alumnus who talks with a principal about her experience with internment? Will she have Tak’s wisdom or perspective? Will she share his strength? What will her story say about the the country that imagines itself to be a place where one can always find kindness?

A lack of kindness underscores the stories of Japanese internment that I know. There was a time when heartlessness toward others, describing them as something less than human, informed our country’s willingness to lock away the innocent. Tak was a kid, not a spy. Doug’s parents weren’t threats; they were people doing their best.

As an educator I need to believe that we learn, we all can learn, from our mistakes. I need to hold hope as a value, and live as if kindness is stronger than cruelty. In those shipwreck days I’m wise to look to survivors for inspiration, focus on nurturing kindness in every way I can, and be willing to reflect on what more can be done to help.

Reality is powerful. Optimists sometimes doubt. Internment of children is internment of children. Hope will win the day.

I hope.