At the Bower Museum

photo 1 (2)Today I looked into the eyes of a two thousand year old man. His expression, serious and enigmatic, looked back at me from across centuries and I couldn’t help but think that in another two millennia I’ll be dust and that terra cotta figure from a Chinese tomb will still be gazing out at museum goers through an inch of protective glass.

The power of art never ceases to astound me. Whether a piece of music, a play, or poem, the products of creativity offer humble humans like us the opportunity to transcend time.

Some works -those chiseled in marble or carved into mountains- offer the illusion that they will outlive any others. Some -sculpted in movement or performed onstage- seem more transitory, their lives lived in those magical moments shared between artist and audience. But art scoffs at these distinctions. Remember “Ozymandias.”

…Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains…”

That recent archaeologists have dug up something they could link to Shelley’s description matters little; it is the words of the poem that people remember, not a statue. Thank art for another good reminder not to pin our ambitions on a single work, no matter how solid, but rather to revel in the act of creating.

The product of this creation matters far less than the action of imagination. A song can be forgotten, a canvas scraped clean to make way for another painter, a statue shattered. The feeling of writing, painting, dancing, or digging fingers into clay, however, stands a chance of being transformative.

What this transformation means could be far ranging: seeing the world through the eyes of another, maybe finding beauty in the unexpected, or inspiration in the struggle of life.

For students there may be no more important kind of lesson than art.

clayEncouraging students to make our, both in their comfort area and beyond it, is a privilege and challenge for all of us who make education our life’s work.

Arguing for science or math education is an easily justified endeavor. Statistics abound that show how a strong course of study in the hard sciences can lead students to careers that make a difference.

The humanities also matter much; good communicators with a sense of history and proportion are not only a vital component to our civil society, but sometimes are the only voices capable of helping us put into perspective the complicated world we live in.

photo 4 (2)Painting? Poetry? Dance?

Without veering into a speech from Dead Poet’s Society, I’ll simply argue that the students who make art create for themselves a richer world.

The same four year old who moves to “The Wheels on the Bus” may find a similar release at fourteen when she choreographs a dance to something by Branford Marsalis. The six year old so proud of his work with crayons and construction paper may find, at sixteen, that through oil on canvas or pen and ink scribblings in a sketchbook he is able to make sense of the strange and wonderful journey into adulthood.

photo-2-2Beyond these very personal relationships with creating art, students benefit from the process of goal setting, the productive struggle of bringing vision into being, and the focus required to make art.

I once worked with a gifted sculpture teacher who called these “soft skills,” though truth be told I don’t see anything soft about them. Successful artists, as well as successful humans, develop a vision, create a plan, and work extraordinarily hard to make this art take shape.

Ballet or ballad, triptych or tragedy, the product these young artists create and the process by which they create it as as important as anything they learn in a lab or a lecture hall.

Why art? Because it matters.

It matters to artists and to audiences.

Art makes a difference in individual lives and in the lives of communities. At its best it transforms spirits and might, just maybe, reach across generations and connect with a stranger, terra cotta eyes inspiring reflection.

Art, Angelic

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise”
John Donne

I sat in the darkened theater listening to the orchestra’s introductory suite, anticipating the actors preparing to step on stage. I’d been over to the theater earlier in the week, returning a wig and glasses those artistic souls had loaned me for my own performance at an assembly, and had seen the opulence of the set: a tree winding its way to the sky, arched windows in a wall of stone, and a throne resembling something out of Henry V.

addamsI’d watched a preview of the musical number that started the show, a witty tune complete with snapping, a light bulb, and a tango interlude. These were outrageously talented students and the evening was young.

Art has a way of elevating our human experience, and working at a school with a thriving artistic heart never ceases to inspire me.

I know that the intellectual underpinnings of what we do at school matter much, and watching a student lead her peers through a difficult math problem, or seeing a young scientist collaborate with others to learn how to do bone repair in a science class brings its own sense of hope for our world. Math, science, history, these all help to form our future; art transforms us.

photo-4-3I see this magical transformation when I walk into the student art gallery on campus and take the time to really look at the paintings and sculpture of our student curated shows. It’s there in the sounds of students playing guitars on the lawn as they make music together, some of it their own. I see the transformative nature of art in every senior tile on campus, a legacy of ceramic squares that reaches back for decades and reinforces to students that each of them contribute to this school and its history.

Just this week a new mural went up on the outside wall of our screen printing shop (itself a realm of wild creativity). Not only is this new piece of student work transformative, but it also transforms. The student artist incorporated living moss along with the painted image; it is a mural that will literally grow over time. How wonderful to know that there are places in this rational world where dreams can become reality, where flights of fancy take to the air, raising our collective spirit with them.

stephanie-rivera-mural

Four centuries ago the British poet John Donne noticed (in verse) that while the globe was round, our human imaginations can transfigure “imagined corners” into something angelic. I see it every day on our campus, and felt it profoundly that night in the theater as trumpets not unlike those described by Donne finished the orchestral introduction, the curtains opened, and the winter musical began.

Great actors can elevate comedy into emotional resonance, and these students did. Songs soared, laughter burst from the audience, and for a couple of hours every soul in the theater was allowed to be a visitor to a world of artistic inspiration.

Our education system values facts and formulas and figuring things out, and it should. But just as we want our students to be able to navigate the globe, so too how important it is that they can find their way through art to the earth’s imagined corners.

The Girl in the Garden

I’m a bit of researcher. I love learning about things, cracking open history books, going exploring around my own school’s campus in search of stories, and talking with folks who were there then and are willing to share. And…

Sometimes the pinch of magic that comes from ambiguity is okay too.

It’s like that for me with regard to the girl in the garden. I noticed her during my first summer at San Dieguito, looking out from a corner of campus designated as the “SDHS Natural Habitat” by a wooden sign that looks like it came from decades ago. She is smiling, and looking off as high school students do toward a future only she can see.

photo-4Over time I’ve seen her move. No. I’ve seen her in different parts of the garden. Most often after such a relocation she stays for a bit. Still smiling. Watching our current students move from class to class as the seasons turn from fall to winter to spring to summer.

A little research could probably tell me where she came from. A conversation with our ceramics teacher, perhaps, would let me know the student who created her or the year of her birth. I’m not sure I want to know.

Because I see in the girl in the garden the embodiment of San Dieguito.

She is quiet, but independent. Her very presence, and the fact that in all my time at San Dieguito she has never been damaged or toppled, speaks to the hundreds and hundreds of current students who see this fragile thing and choose to enjoy it, respect it, occasionally move it, and not make mischief.

She speaks to the desire to exist creatively. The garden was there before she was, but at some point a student artist looked at the space and thought: it needs her. Like Wallace Stevens “Jar in Tennessee” this piece of art sees the garden grow around her. She is the human drive for art manifested, not ostentatiously, but with a subtle smile.

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The girl in the garden moves me because I, like so many of us here at San Dieguito, embrace the spirit of creativity and the transformational quality of art. We are part of a school family that takes pleasure in the little kindnesses we see and contribute to the community of acceptance and unexpected generosity. That any of us are capable of being the genesis of the girl in the garden makes me thankful for the true artist and appreciative of the ambiguity that surrounds her creation.

This summer will see new construction in the part of San Dieguito where the garden is now. The girl in the garden will need a new home while bulldozers plow through and cranes build a structure that will house new art studios, ready to provide another generations of artists with the tools they need to create. That she will be back when the new building opens in 2019 I have no doubt. Ambiguity in her origin is a delight, as is certainty in the longevity of her inspiration.

Switch-a-Roo

As educators, we talk a lot about taking chances, attempting the unexpected, and stepping out of our comfort zones. Polite, students listen, the boldest of them following our advice, others holding back and waiting to see how things turn out for those who take a chance. There’s no fault in that. Sensible, I suppose some would say.

Here at San Dieguito, we have seldom been accused of being sensible.

What we have been called, and proudly own up to being, is student centered, a little iconoclastic, and game to try something new.

Enter Cartooning.

photo 1 (1)When I became a principal I made the promise to myself that I would teach every year. It’s important, I think, for students (and teachers too) to see me as more than a bureaucrat; I got into this business to teach, and I think it’s healthy that kids at my school see me (at least a little bit) as a teacher. This week, I had the opportunity to step into an art class and in a marvelous San Dieguito twist, Jeremy Wright, our cartooning teacher, put on a tie and jacket and set up shop behind my desk.

This was a stretch for both of us, and one that taught us as many lessons as we taught the students.

I asked Jeremy about his day in the big chair and he penned a few paragraphs more eloquent than anything I could retell. He wrote:

Today I got out of my comfort zone.  I put on a suit and tie.

Earlier this school year, our principal Bjorn Paige, who was new to our school this year, and I had a discussion about doing a switch-a-roo with our usual roles.  He had taught cartooning lessons back when he was a teacher before becoming a principal, and I, well…, have never principal’ed before.  So today was the day Mr. Paige put on an apron and a fedora and took over my cartooning class for a period, and I put on a suit and tie.

I was not about to make parent phone calls, meet with lawyers,  discuss new campus construction, or have lunch with district office board members – or whatever principals do.  I was going to take this short time as interim principal and reflect back on a story that I heard about of a principal doing something unusual.  I do not know his name or what school, but the story of his simple gesture impressed me.  One at a time, he called in the students who were labeled the “trouble-makers”, “rough kids”, and “squirrels”.  He  sat them down, let them pick out a donut from the box of donuts, poured them a glass of milk, and simply asked them, “how are you doing?”  

So that’s what I did today.  

Five young men came through the principal’s door today on my watch – one at a time.  I only knew one of them as a previous student, but the others I did not.  In the short ten minutes that I had with each of them, we talked about everything from road trips and traveling abroad, girlfriends and marriage, skateboarding and friends, and passions or lack thereof.  Yes, maybe I said something that was wise and profound – passing on wisdom like an old sage, but today, this simple gesture from an unknown principal taught me a lesson.  Slow down, sit down, and listen.  

I was humbled and little embarrassed that I do not do this more often with my students.  I do ask my students everyday how they are doing and genuinely care for them, but usually it is in passing while I am carrying a box of clay or next to them while we clean brushes.  It is easy for all of us to get swept away in our usual roles.  I play the teacher, they play the student.  But how powerful it was today to change up our usual roles and be just two people sharing a glass of milk and a donut.”

12764477_852430308216166_3935090668140446905_o“Slow down, sit down, and listen.”

…and enjoy a doughnut.

Powerful advice that I’d be wise to follow. How different would education be if we all took that thoughtful approach even a few times more each week than we are prone to do?

On the other side of campus, in the studio I shared with my budding cartoonists, the renewing energy of interacting with students buzzed through the room. Just as Jeremy had taken on the administrative uniform of coat and tie, I borrowed a paint smeared apron and dug a chapeau out of my closet.

It’s too easy as a principal to get consumed by the rattle and hum of the duties and obligations that fill our days. Just as Jeremy recognized the value of consciously putting ourselves in the moment, teaching reminded me of what really matters in education. Initiatives are great. Programs can make a difference. Missions matter. But it’s kids who are at the heart of all we do.

Laughing, learning, and connecting with students as their teacher was a reminder I wish every principal could have. As I told Jeremy later that afternoon, teaching that cartooning class this week will make me a better principal, and probably a better human.

Whistling my way back to my office when the lesson was done, I thought about that scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ character stands on his desk and invites his prep school students to see the world from a different perspective, telling them “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” 

FullSizeRenderToday we did. Me. Jeremy. The art students. The students who got a doughnut with the (very) interim principal.

I know that I’ll continue to look for opportunities to switch up my perspective and show students the value of taking chances and looking at the world from a new or different point of view. Showing, not just telling, might be the difference that moves us beyond sensible and into the realm of transformational.

“Stand by Me”

Inspiration can come in unlikely places, and at last night’s winter formal, billed as “Fly Me to the Moon” (though the DJ never played Sinatra), I had one of those moments that reminds me why I believe in the promise of the next generation.photo 2 (6)

We do things a little differently at San Dieguito High School Academy, so along with the dance floor and chocolate fountain, past the photo booth and caricature artists, an outdoor patio provided an intimate stage showcasing student singer songwriters.

With the San Diego skyline stretched out behind them, five ridiculously talented musicians performed, in turn, from the start of the dance to the end. The music our students remember from winter formal will be from them.

I’d heard these students perform before, and I’ll buy their music years from now when I can tell friends that I knew them when… Last night, I simply made a point to drift out to the patio as often as I could, and it was during one of these visits that I witnessed a moment sublime.

It was midway through the evening and the student performing moved from one of her own songs to a familiar tune she knew her audience would love. With confidence and grace, she played her guitar and began a rendition of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me.

Some of the students, in suits and dresses, began to sway. Couples formed, dancing against each other as their grandparents might have in 1961. A group next to me quietly sang along.

As I looked out over the scene, a quiet, confessedly sentimental principal seeing his students just being themselves, I wished that every parent could have been standing with me under the stars.

This is what we want for our kids. These are the moments of joy that sneak into the lives of those on the cusp of adulthood, unexpected and forever remembered.

Will their lives get more complicated? Of course. Will they face pressure, disappointment, and broken hearts? This was a high school dance; I’d be naive to imagine that everyone made it through the night without some tears.

But none of that filled the moment, the span of that song, as the students swayed to the beautiful voice of their friend and sang along:

If the sky, that we look upon
Should tumble and fall,
Or the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry,
No I won’t shed a tear,
Just as long as you stand, stand by me…”

And then there was a thump. The microphone arced away from the singer. A student gasped.

Someone close to the stage had tripped on a cord and toppled the mic stand.

For an instant it looked like the microphone would hit the ground.

A teenager in a tuxedo caught it.

photo 4 (4)The singer laughed, her smile inspiring the crowd.

“That was close.”

The audience let their shoulders relax.

She began singing again.

“Stand by me.”

They had.

They would.

All was so very well with the world, at least this corner of it, and the future filled with promise.

Vertebrae

“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”           -Iris Murdoch

I saw a theatrical performance this fall that almost made me cry. Student actors, passionate in their craft, led the audience up and down the scale of emotion, transmuting laughter into heartbreak with a turn of the head and the subtle motion of a hand. I’ll remember the performance for a long time, in the same way I can recall singers and songs from decades ago as clearly as if they’d just walked off the stage. It’s the magic of art, an ability to change lives, alter perspectives, and touch us to our core.

That the set has been struck or the musician has long since left the building doesn’t diminish the memory of the art that was created. Much as a painting or sculpture, both less transient pieces of art, music, theater, and dance all have the potential to resonate with an observer and remain as real in that person’s mind as the Elgin Marbles …if the observer is willing and able to engage with the art.

photo 1I saw such engagement this afternoon, real, honest, and profound.

It was sparked by destruction.

The construction of a new classroom building on campus has meant that as a school we need to say goodbye to two classroom buildings, their walls decorated with student artwork. For a couple of decades, mosaics and murals on these walls have celebrated everything from theater to sea life. Square senior tiles reach to the eaves, clay faces peer out from planters, and the ceramic bones of a life sized dinosaur stretch across the back of one of the buildings.

Removing the artwork wasn’t possible; sturdy, mid century adhesive had seen to that. Justifiable sadness spread about losing the work.

I talked with students about the art, attempting the analogy of performance I used to start this post. It almost sounded plausible. Art teachers weighed in about the fact that it was really okay; the world changes, and those changes are part of growing up.

photo 4 (1)And then, today, as I walked up to a group of students chipping away at a giant seahorse, I was struck by the sheer power and unapologetic magic of art. One student used a hammer and crowbar to pry at a seahorse, doing his best to remove the work without damaging it too much. That it was an impossible task didn’t seem to matter; he was uninstalling it, just as years ago a person about his age had put it onto the wall. He was focused and serious about his work. He knew that seahorse more closely than anyone since it had been created.

Two students nearby paused to point at a small detail in the wall, appreciating the craftsmanship of a teenager (who would now be old enough to be their parent). “I never really looked at this before,” one said. “See!” She pointed. From across the decades, the detail of a simple starfish brought two teenagers into communion with an artist who they may never meet, but with whom they share the bond of art and our school. They tapped at the starfish with hammer and chisel, more successful in their scrutiny than its removal.

The sentiment echoed and was amplified when I walked across the court to where some seniors were looking at the senior tiles of students old enough to be my age. They ran fingers over the smooth white surfaces, reading the words -really pausing to read them- and laughing, commenting to each other, and making connections to their own lives.

photo 2 (1)I could almost hear Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society behind us whispering “Carpe Diem.”

I hope that these same students will bring this attention to the mass of student art that continues to fill our campus. The art lost in this courtyard is a small percentage of what we have all over San Dieguito, all of it with the same potential to inspire.

I hope they will create their own.

Our photography classes have taken some high resolution pictures of the murals and mosaics, and we’ll use these images to make posters for our new science and math building. We’re also looking to reinstall the metal Mustang from the 1980s that once held dominion over the front of the school in the expanded courtyard that will open for students in 2017. These nods to the past are meant to honor those artists who have contributed a verse to the poem that is San Dieguito High School Academy. They’re the actions of adults aware of the limits of holding on to the past.

My heart was stirred today by the youth uninhibited by such limits.

photo 5 (1)I hope that the photos will capture the spirit of the art that time and hammers are taking away. The more ephemeral magic, however, and something that I will remember forever and wouldn’t dream of trying to recreate, was today’s interaction between the art and the students.

This, I thought, is what art does when it is at its best.

The individual tiles and pieces of clay that were a part of our campus will be gone by the time I post these words, words themselves that are as temporary as a dream, but the experience our students engaged in today will last as long as they are alive. The spark that passed between the active observers and the art they interacted with is truly inspiration.

To see this artwork’s last act be to deeply connect with students, students who would have been the distant future to the artists who created the mosaics, struck me as profound.

photo 3 (1)As I walked away from the court a student called my name. Jogging up to me he smiled and said: “Mr. Paige, I’d like you to have this.” In his outstretched hand was a perfectly shaped brown vertebrae. “It’s from the dinosaur,” he said.

I have no object more precious from San Dieguito in my office.

We can’t change the flow of time, but we can change the world and ourselves. We can’t prevent the destruction of things, not always, but we can make art, and pause long enough to appreciate it.

One of my favorite authors said that “art is the light by which human things can be mended.” I saw that today, as clay crumbled, tiles chipped, and anxiety about losing something seemed to mend, at least a little. 

Today art, the backbone of our school, reached across the decades to bring people together. It did so spontaneously, genuinely, and unexpectedly. I was lucky enough to leave with a vertebrae.

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