Broken Ship in a Box

“That’s a broken ship in a box,” she said, looking past my shoulder at a wooden crate under the window. She tilted her head and looked again. “Broken ship in a box. That’d be a great title for a poem.”

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And while I don’t know that this delightful teacher, so observant and good humored, knew that I’d given over this school year to bring more poetry into my life, professional and otherwise, I applauded her suggestion.

“It could be a collective effort,” she went on, smiling. “We could all write it together.”

The possibilities seemed great.

In education we like metaphors, and at ACMA we like bending those metaphors a bit. Rebuilding our ship at sea is a familiar one, so too thinking outside the box. This object in my office, and my teacher’s noticing it, seemed to marry both in a marvelously unexpected way.

We left it at that, at least then; a bell rang pulling her to greater things (middle school social studies) and I had to run to a classroom observation, but I jotted down the title she’d suggested and snapped a photo of the ship, thinking to myself that we would do something with it. Something. Sometime soon.

That sometime soon happened the following week, during our staff development day.

Before we got to discussions of academics, digital citizenship, intervention, and student wellness, we started the day with something a little unexpected, a quotation by Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath: “We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” How like education, I suggested, and how connected to thinking outside of the box.

I told the story of the teacher and the ship in the box, including the notion we all might work together to write some poetry, and invited them to consider that scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ teacher tells his students:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion …and medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” “Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” 

I acknowledged that though I was a former English teacher, or perhaps because of it, I knew that not 100% of my audience was excited about writing a poem. 

IMG_1638With that in mind, I’d reached out to my art teachers (every good educator knows that the best plans are plans shared and the best lessons aren’t hatched in isolation) and the result was divine.

Three teachers stood in front of the staff and introduced an art lesson that invited them to each work on a square that was a quarter of a ship. They could make it their own, complete with poetry or without, and would then collaborate with three other staff members to build their ship. 

These astounding teachers, who I have seen do such great work with kids year after year, brought that same spirit to the work with adults. They toted in colored pencils, pens, and materials for collage. They circulated around the library where we were working to laugh, encourage, and help the teachers engage with the creative shipbuilding at hand.

IMG_1633It was fantastic.

We saw pirates, and rainbows, and clever comments on education writ large. A science teacher put plastic in the ocean, an English teacher brought in the Greeks, and one intrepid sailor tipped the lesson on its side and built a brigantine from newsprint. One math teacher brought out a protractor, a dance teacher found metallic gold foil, and more than one person burst well off the black rectangle of the mounting paper. Rebuilding ships. Breaking boxes.

IMG_1650A couple of crews even snuck in a little verse.

And we, as a staff, got to create together.

We talked, we considered why we do what we do, and we expressed those ideas in colorful and creative ways.

Too often we adults forget the importance of play and art and connecting with each other in whimsical ways. That morning we did all three.

What then is our mission as educators? Like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society is our aim to inspire? Care? Support? Push our students to be their best?

Believe our art and it could just be all of the above. 

At least at ACMA, where a teacher might notice an antique broken ship in a box, and…

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Like Rick Always Said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shark!

Summer is a season that invites reflection. Hiking through the woods, walking on the beach, watching a ballgame, in each of these is the time and inspiration to slow down and make connections. As a principal, July is a month with a bit more breathing room, a time when the emails don’t pile up quite so fast, and the decisions to be made have implications weeks away more often than in the moment. Summer means renewal, reflection, and (at its best) the improved perspective that only separation from the bustle of the school year can provide.

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So, when I heard this exchange while sitting on a driftwood log on a beach in Lincoln City, I had the room to think: Our school is a little like the beach.

Mom: “People always look so happy when they’re at the beach.”
11 year old boy: “…except in Jaws.”
14 year old sister: “They’re being eaten.”

Our school is a little like the beach. Kids smile a lot, laughter and applause are common, and people seem happy …except when they’re not.

Because as magical as our school is—and don’t get me wrong, it is magical. I’ve been in this business for more than a quarter century and have never been at a place so creative, curious, and accepting—we’re still a part of the real world, a world with stress, struggle, and more than occasional challenge that tests our souls.

We cry a bit. We feel pressure. We need help, each other’s help.

I mean we’re not getting eaten by sharks, but….

The pre-teen and teenage years are tempestuous at best, both for the kids and the parents too. Few look back and say “I wish I could go back to middle school” and the angst that has been a part of high school since we’ve had high schools is as real today as ever. And we can add to that social media, the pressures of college admissions, navigating the sometimes stormy social waters, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

It’s why it’s so important to support each other, be kind, help.

That’s not just students. Parents, who care so deeply, and teachers and school staff, who have made their profession working with kids feel those pressures too, need care too, and have the potential to be a part of the solution.

It’s easy to feel hopeless or useless when the pressure of the world closes in on us, when people around us (or even we ourselves) make decisions that aren’t the right ones, and when we’re surprised by all it takes to be human. When we aren’t able to change things as quickly as we’d like, or even feel like we may never be able to improve them, for me it helps to remember that line from Dickens: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” 

The very real stress and challenges we face are opportunities to help and graciously accept the help of others. In the best of all worlds that help would come from family and those around us. It would be naive to believe it always does. And… though it may seem aspirational, I believe that is the ideal that should guide our work as a school community.

Being kind, checking in with one another, applauding when we see someone who needs applause, these are the building blocks of a foundation that can support our school.

We will all need that care and kindness at some point this year. We all have the capacity to provide that care and kindness to those in need.

So as we get ready to start school again my challenge to myself and my school community is to find ways to be that person who helps lighten the burden of others. We need each other and can make a profound and positive difference to one another. We need to. This is life. It’s not always a day at the beach.

Commencement Address

In about three weeks our seniors will be graduating. They’ll gather in their black robes and square topped hats, march into the performing arts center (to the tune of a bagpipe, not pomp and circumstance; ACMA is a little less conventional than a more traditional high school), and sit down on stage for a ceremony that is part concert, part celebration, and part performance art.

One of the beautiful anomalies of the afternoon is seeing the whole graduating class, so wildly individual and creative, all together in their unifying commencement garb. Those funny tasseled caps and matching robes present our students in a serious and almost solemn way, beautifully juxtaposed with the spirit of creativity that defines our ceremony and lives within each of them.

There will be a jazz number, maybe two, a piece by our orchestra, and one from vocal music. Next week the seniors will vote on another entertainment for the ceremony that could be music, poetry, dance, or any other expression of art they’d  like to see that day. Those performances are some of the highlights of the ceremony, true reflections of our school and reminders of the power of art.

Our valedictorian will speak and a faculty member chosen by the graduating class. From these august voices the class of 2019 will receive inspiration and advice, and if I know our students and staff, we’ll laugh a bit and see our eyes moisten with emotion.

Two student speakers will take to the podium, stoking memories and offering perspective, giving the audience and their peers a window into the world of a student saying goodbye to a school she has known so intimately. I’m often moved and surprised by the depth of insight the senior speakers offer, heartfelt, honest, real. These speeches, interwoven with the musical performances, make our commencement a work of art.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 7.54.50 AM.pngAnd then…

Tradition dictates that as the principal I say a few words. It’s a job I’ve seen done a whole host of ways, from fatherly or motherly advice to attempts at wit, groaning acrostics, meandering and melodramatic monologues, and rafts of quotations tied together with dramatic pauses. I don’t want to do that.

Any advice I’d offer my graduates have already heard from me. I’ve given them the talk about the unifying and transformational power of art. Heck, they will have just seen it in their classmates’ performances.

If I’ve done my job, they’ve heard me talk about the importance of looking out for one another, taking care of friends and strangers, and making connections with those around them. They’ve listened when I’ve thanked or praised them for good work, both artistic and human. They’ve been told how important they are, how much they’ve meant to our school, and how much we’ll miss them when they leave. We really will.

The ones who need it have already gotten those extra promptings and pushes to realize their potential. Some got paternal talks in my office. Some heard me talk about my own failures along the way; we all stumble, they’ve heard me say, and they have the strength to get back up. I believe in them. I do.

So, my commencement address doesn’t need to be The Principal’s Greatest Hits Album.

And don’t let me quote Dr. Seuss.

But that’s not fair; Theodor Geisel has provided graduates with advice about the places they’ll go for years, and who am I to imagine that I’ve got the right answers to their unspoken questions.

I graduated up in the 1980s, when quotable advice showed up in movies like Teen Wolf:

There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.”

I’m not sure how that dagger line would go over at graduation. No, I guess I’m pretty sure.

So, no Teen Wolf this year, but there will be a moment in the ceremony where I’ll step to the mic, knowing it’s my turn to say something. People expect it. Tradition.

Last year I read a poem.

I’d taught a few English classes over the course of the year, including some poems by C.P. Cavafy. The experience had moved me deeply and it felt right to offer my graduates “Ithaca” before they set sail on their own journeys.

And… I’m not one to repeat myself, so this year, without Greeks or daggers, Seuss or sagacity, I’ve got it in my head to suggest just one idea, a final nod of advice from an adult who counts himself fortunate to have know this beautiful, creative, and kind senior class.

I’ll say no more right now; I have to have some element of surprise when I get up there to speak. Once the shindig is over, the mortarboards have hit the ground, and the seniors have walked out of the theater to a tune by our jazz band, I’ll reprint the speech here, nothing fancy, and far, far, far shorter than most will expect. My modest contribution to a celebration of our graduates.

Springtime Foursquare

It’s the time of year where sweatshirts and cardigans are collecting on the coat tree in my office. Cold mornings and warm afternoons make wardrobe choice a moving target. Gray skies turning to sunny days mark the advent of Oregon spring. It is glorious.

IMG_1558Almost overnight the students are eating lunch outside again, picnicking on the lawn, lounging in the sun, and playing foursquare in the courtyard.

Yep, I said foursquare.

High schoolers.

Foursquare.

This is also glorious, and while I know that at the magically quirky school where I work one should expect the unexpected, I’ll admit that seeing these teenagers (so poised and passionate when they make art, so purposeful and professional in their academic classes) play, flat out play surprised me in the best possible way.

Our little school has a history of vigorous foursquare dating back to the 1940s when campus was occupied by CE Mason Elementary School. Look at old photos and you’ll see courts painted on the blacktop; today it’s sidewalk chalk that provides the playing space, and 6th-12th graders who provide the oo’s and ah’s of a fast-pitched game.

For any cynics out there who hold to the notion that “kids today” are fundamentally different than they were when Truman was president, or Kennedy, or Nixon, I offer first and second lunch at ACMA as Exhibit A to refute the claim. Students, even (or maybe especially) the most driven students, need the freedom to play.

photo (3)In his splendid book Play, Stuart Brown accurately notes  that “play, by its very nature is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” What better antidote to the sometimes stressful structure of school than a little foursquare?

Uninhibited play, accompanied by laughter -as uninhibited play almost always is- should be a part of the school day. Recess doesn’t need to stop in elementary school, and I’ll suggest that the cost of a couple of red rubber balls may be one of the best investments we’ve made this year.

As we rush into May, with June approaching like a child coasting downhill on a bicycle, there is a tendency to say that kids (and some adults) are getting restless. They are. That’s okay.

And maybe, just maybe, the answer isn’t only in blowing whistles at them or scolding them into straight rows. Maybe, just maybe, what we see as restlessness is really that very, very human need to play.

Sure they need to do math, and English, and science too. Yep, they should be completing their timelines in history class and portfolios in art, and…

IMG_1465Maybe they should have a chance to play foursquare, and shoot baskets, and laugh through a game of Sharks and Minnows. Maybe it’s good for the high schoolers to sneak in a game of wall ball between AP Calculus and Government class. Maybe laughter, and play, and both time and encouragement to be a kid is part of the answer for “kids today.”

The world has changed much since students first played foursquare in the courtyard, and I’m buoyed by the reality that one thing that hasn’t changed is the competitive joy kids throughout the decades have brought to that play. Things can be stressful, things can be gray, but like an Oregon spring, the sun comes out, whispering to us to leave that sweater inside and get out and play.

Fathers and Sons

What Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel Fathers and Sons was doing on my high school English reading list is beyond me. I taught English myself for more than a dozen years and never included that particular Russian, nor even saw Fathers and Sons in the book room of any school where I ever worked.

But there it was in 1987, on Mr. Shinkle’s syllabus, tucked in with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Madame Bovary. I loved Kesey, read Flaubert, and never cracked the cover of Turgenev.

F&SOver the years, particularly when I was teaching English, I thought about that.

For a long time as an English teacher I believed that I needed to curate my students’ reading list. I was the one with the college education after all. I had ideas about what books were important, what books mattered.

Sometimes I think I was almost right.

I marshaled my kids through The Odyssey, Hamlet, Huck Finn, all the classics. Frankenstein I came back to year after year, and I had a unit that swung like a gate on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That one took me a long time to get right.

As a more veteran teacher my tastes expanded, and I was happy to add Haruki Murakami, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison to my reading list, but it was still my reading list.

A few more years in I allowed myself to let the kids choose. They did, and what they did broadened my own understanding. We were way past The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter by then, and the kids were excited about what they were reading.

I could still introduce them to Virginia Woolf or John Barth, pull back the curtains on Tennessee Williams or share a plum with William Carlos Williams, but the students were showing me authors I’d never heard of and more important than that they were talking with each other about the literature that brought to life a spark in them.

I’ve been an administrator now long enough that I almost forgot about that.

Then, last week, walking in the hallway outside the library of the school where I’m now the principal I spotted it on the rolling cart of library discards. Fathers and Sons.

The sign on the cart read:

FREE BOOKS
Please take one
Never bring it back to ACMA
If you decide you do not want it, give it to a friend, or leave it somewhere, like a waiting room. Thanks!

The ghost of Mr. Shinkle whispered for me to pick it up. I did.

Over spring break I spent some time with Bazarov, a staunch nihilist I hadn’t really been introduced to when I was seventeen; Arkady, his friend, too nice to be a true misanthrope; Nikolai Petrovich, a patriarch and decent man; and Odintsova, the powerful woman whose charisma wound through so many lives.

IMG_0168Fathers and Sons is a novel with lots of big ideas and contemplation on youth and age. At the risk of sounding like that book report my teenage self never turned in, the novel follows two sons, just out of college and at the start of their adult lives, and two fathers (along with assorted wives, lovers, uncles, and hangers on) who carry with them the scuffs and scars of lives long lived.

It is a book that wrestles with romanticism, questions meaning, and ultimately shows (in a more realistic way than I’d expected) the tension between generations.

Early in the story a son is prompted to take his father’s book of poetry away and replace it with something more sensible. “A couple of days ago I saw him reading Pushkin,” the son remarks. His young friend replies: “Please tell him that’s no good at all. He’s not a child any longer and it’s time he gave up that childish nonsense. Fancy being a romantic at the present day! Give him something worthwhile to read.” So the father allows his book to be replaced with something modern and German. It works as well as a rubber anvil.

That’s not to say nihilism wins in the end; Pushkin looms large throughout the book, and I was pleased to see that those characters who fared best in the end were the ones who had been kindest throughout the narrative. I might have thought that trite a few decades back. I appreciate it all today.

Literature has a way of finding us when we need it. The providence of a falling sparrow Hamlet talked about and all that, another book Mr. Shinkle taught me.

IMG_0169 (1)I’m the father now, not the son, and the book I dodged as a teenager felt different on my nightstand as an adult. Those passages where Turgenev talks about the simultaneous folly and power of youth mean something different to me now than they would have if I’d read them thirty some years ago, when instead I was thinking about the 80s version of what high schoolers still think about today: love, belonging, one’s place in the world …and socializing, eating cheap pizza, and having fun after school.

I’m more patient now as a reader, embracing the tangents and loose focus of the narrative, the familiarity of the author, and the pauses for history lessons. As a fellow approaching fifty, I appreciated Turgenev’s non sequiturs like the line: “It is a well known fact that our provincial towns burn down every five years,” offered without explanation and left behind as quickly as it came up.

I also dug those passages that just felt true: “Arkady was puzzled and watched her in the way that young people watch -that is to say, constantly asking himself what it all meant.”

Heavens, that was me at seventeen.

With gray in my hair, I empathize with a different cast of characters than I would have in 1987. Sure, I can smile at Bazarov’s youthful arrogance and Arkady falling in love, but those are not the fellows I relate to most. Instead, it is in the fathers, not the sons, that I find feelings that resonate.

Midway through the novel, when one young protagonist leaves home, tired of what he considers his tiresome parents and longing to return to a woman he finds interesting and world he sees as his to take, one of the fathers of the title bemoans being “given up” by his son. At eighteen I’m sure I would have identified with that son, headed off to conquer the world; a father now myself, I read this passage, where a wise wife comforts her husband, differently:

There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.”

My wife and I celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary over spring break, taking our kids out for dinner. More mushroom now that falcon, I hear in Turgenev something beautiful and true, something I couldn’t have understood in 1987 …not even if I’d read the Fathers and Sons.

I won’t take the book back to the rolling library cart; I’m enough of a rule follower not to do that. Though Bazarov would, I suppose. Instead, I’ll tuck it on the bookshelf in my office, a reminder that so much of our stories, and how we understand the stories around us, is a matter of perspective. Maybe that was the lesson Mr. Shinkle wanted me to learn.

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Join a Club

I’m not sure how much of this is true. Like any story told by a middle schooler, there is room for imagination, hyperbole, maybe even a stretch or two. And…

Jesus told parables. You’ll find fables in Zen Buddhism. In fact it seems to me that in every tradition pursuing truth, Hindu, Sikh, Islam, you’ll find storytelling as a way of talking about the big issues. So…

This winter, my daughter’s middle school banned cell phones. At first it was explained to the kids as a response to online bullying, but the students pointed out right away that behavior like that was probably as likely to happen outside the school day.

Some adults, hearing of the prohibition, praised the notion that the kids would be forced to interact, make eye contact, find ways to get together that didn’t involve a screen.

“We’ll see how long this lasts,” my daughter said with a shrug. “Kids won’t do it, and they won’t join a club just because they’re forbidden to bring a cell phone to school.” Insert middle school eye roll here.

We’ll find out later that she was wrong.

There was the expected petition. It failed, of course, to change the policy. Appeals to the administration fell short. One boy, she told me, was sent to the office to hand over his earbuds, not because they were attached to his phone, but because they could be attached to his phone.

“We can’t even have them at lunch,” my daughter reported. Tough policy, I thought.

Then today, as we were driving to the grocery store, my daughter gave me an update on how things were going. “A bunch of kids got in big trouble,” she explained. “One boy got suspended for two weeks, maybe more.”

screen shot 2019-01-30 at 10.55.28 am“Over a cell phone?” I asked.

“Well…”

And now the story veers into something straddling the worlds of fable and karma. I have -and I’m more than comfortable with- only second hand reporting. The veracity of the account pales in my mind to the feelings the story inspires. As Ken Kesey told his audience in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” So…

“It was a fight club,” she said matter of factly.

“A fight club?”

“Yeah. This boy organized it and arranged fights between other kids. They had to pay to be in it. People would have to pay $10 to watch. The winner would get some of the money.”

“He’s like Don King.” I offered.

“Who?”

“Never mind. How’d you hear about it?”

“Everybody’s talking. When he got caught, the kid told the principal that since we can’t be on cell phones he had to figure out something else to do.”

Plucky.

Ridiculous, of course.

“No one ever actually fought,” she continued. “They just planned it and the one guy got in trouble for thinking it up.”

In her mind the general idiocy of middle school boys was on par with the cell phone ban alleged to have started it all.

And I thought to myself, these boys, ruffians to borrow a word from a time before cell phones, had certainly misbehaved and were fibbing at least a bit if they claimed it was because they’d lost their devices. But…

Jesus, or Buddha, or Ken Kesey might point out that what they had also done was interact, make eye contact, and get together in a way that didn’t involve a screen.

I’m not sure how long my daughter’s school will ban cell phones, perhaps as long as our parents’ generation prohibited gum or baseball caps or skirts above the knee.

But I do believe that while sensible parameters are important, when we start trying to control kids in ways they find unreasonable, they’ll find a way to prove us wrong, even if it’s by joining a club.