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.

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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.

What People Don’t Know

I’d had a day. Not a bad one, not exactly. Some really good things had happened that day: half a dozen great kids helped with a project to celebrate our school’s history, we played a song to start the day performed by a current student which was an unexpected delight, and an alum visited campus and gave me an exquisite two panel oil painting of a dead rat. But it was also a day when I got to meet some very nice paramedics, had a staff meeting with lots of honesty and an unexpected and gut-punching turn, and ended the evening with a couple of concerned emails from folks who had been given inaccurate information that led them to feeling more than a little frustrated. All in all, by the time I got home I felt a little like that rat.

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Sleep eluded me, and I found myself at my desk very, very, very early the next morning preparing what needed to be done for the day. Once the emails were returned, a plan was set for some work with students, and the day’s to-do list whittled down to items that couldn’t be accomplished alone in a predawn schoolhouse, I spotted a stack of papers from a turn I’d taken in a 6th grade classroom.

I do my best to teach a bit every year, mostly English (my bread and butter for a dozen years) or art (another subject I taught a bit), and to start this week I had an opportunity to step in front of a Wellness class in our 6th grade wheel. My usual topic with this group is community and kindness, and I led with those topics, but as the 90 minutes progressed, I wanted to get the kids thinking about our upcoming move (as the school is razed and rebuilt) and the things that they love about our school and want to be sure we work hard to keep alive, even as we’re off site for a couple of years.

For this part of the lesson I asked them to warm up by listing three words that describe our school.

Kind-Happy-Inspiring

Weird-Wonderful-Accepting

Artsy-Welcoming-Unique

Slow-Lunch-Line

The responses were wonderful.

…and not too unexpected.

I asked what students wanted to be sure to remember about our current building, a structure that was built as an elementary school in 1949 and has been the home to our school since its opening in 1992.

The beautiful artwork on the walls. It inspires me!

The cafeteria, because it’s a fun space.

The light up hallway. I don’t know why, but the strings of lights always make me joyful.

The library. Because, library.

I showed them some of the posters we’ve been making of the murals, talked about working with a couple of the original muralists to get new work, and the ways we were planning to keep that student art alive in our hallways. We discussed the things we could bring with us, and have again when we got back: the lights, the library, the hanging art.

An idea for a quilt of sorts came up, and by the end of the day we started the planning for it.

But as I sat at my desk, a cup of coffee (and a long day) in front of me, what caught my attention was the top sheet of paper and the student’s answer to my question: “What do people not know about your school?”

Written on an index card, this student had captured beautifully why we do what we do.

“What people don’t know about my school is that everyone is so nice to you. Instead of thinking of people as classmates or teachers, I think of them as family.”

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Family: imperfect, forgiving, kind, and worth working hard for.

The stressful meeting, the emails, the challenges to be overcome, those all eased a bit as I read her card. With a lot of stress in the world, there are times when “nice” is harder to come by than others, but like a family we do want the best for each other and are willing to invest the energy, emotion, and work into making it so.

I started reading through the other papers.

What people don’t know about my school is that there are counselors that help you.

What people don’t know about my school is that there are quite a few people here who are LGBTQ+ and they get treated like perfectly normal human beings.

What people don’t know about my school is that we have math every OTHER day.

What people don’t know about my school is that you can talk to anyone and feel liked by random strangers.

The list went on, and I found myself moved by the honesty and unexpected perspectives on our little school. We are not perfect; no place is, but we care deeply, we allow ourselves to feel emotions (good and bad), and in our hearts (and large those hearts are) we are committed to supporting one another as best we can.

What do people not know about my school? That we’re family.

No Problem

Board games, homemade pretzels, and a couple of good books, Winter Break, that oasis in the middle of the year of public education, is winding down, and as it does I look back over the mounds of crinkled wrapping paper, the soot in the fireplace, and more holiday dishes than anyone should ever have to wash up, and I’m overcome with gratitude.

…and…

Cleaning the garage, taking the elderly cat to the vet, and the car to the shop, Winter Break is more than just hot chocolate and gingerbread. These two weeks away from work offer the obligations of life a chance to get resolved. They’re an opportunity to go to the gym, catch up on laundry, and whittle away at the to do list that has spent the fall growing from a seedling into a stout tree.

Both relaxing and getting work done is a balance as tough to find (for me anyway) as the missing bulb in a string of lights, and it’s something to strive for during these short days and cold nights. For the kids, the freedom from homework, the luxury of late wake ups, and ample time to go to the movies or read a novel for fun have made the two weeks heaven. For us over forty crowd, just having time to connect, whether going for a walk around the lake or covertly wrapping presents in the bedroom, is time to be savored.

This year my folks visited us here in Oregon. In their eighties, they brought a very grounded energy to the house. While the rain fell and a fire popped and flickered in the fireplace, we played King in the Corner (a card game my own grandma had taught me), watched the cats explore new laps, and listened to music.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.01.13 PMOn this winter’s playlist was No Problem, a 1980 album by the Chet Baker Quartet. Listening to Baker’s horn, Norman Fearrington’s deft drumming, Duke Jordan’s piano, and the heartbeat of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen’s bass is a lesson in cool. No Problem is no Kind of Blue or Take Five, but the album’s easy sound felt perfect this December.

As comfortable as the quartet sounded together, I know that to make music that swings with such a relaxed gate doesn’t happen easily. Their work in the practice room, the years of experience each musician brought to the sessions, and the confidence that comes from knowing that preparations are complete are the ingredients needed for such a success.

To sound as relaxed as No Problem only happens after hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) of anything but relaxed preparation. Gold from sweat, that sort of thing. Kind of like being an educator.

I hope my fellow teachers, counselors, administrators, and staff are preparing to return to school renewed and rested, ready to embrace the opportunities that 2019 will offer. What those will be is anybody’s guess.

Some, I’m sure, will conform to that old Edison quotation: “opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls looking like hard work.” The peace that comes from Winter Break may just provide the space I need to welcome that overall clad possibility when it walks into my office.

Other opportunities will, I hope, come from some of the seeds planted this fall, as the fruits of early labors begin to appear in the spring thaw. Good friends and creative colleagues, students, and families will present other opportunities, and I’ve been in the business long enough to know that these personal invitations to make a difference often matter the most. A few may come about out of tension and stress; these opportunities to solve a problem or turn something around are often the hardest and most rewarding.

Like a good jazz album, for any results to be positive I understand that I need to bring the right mindset to my work, an openness to improvisation, and a willingness to work hard. This isn’t easy, not always, but …Winter Break.

I return to school in a different mental space than I when left campus a couple of weeks ago. Will the second half of the year be without challenges or heartbreak? I’d be foolish to promise as much. Will the new year bring stress, and tears, and lots of hard work? Almost certainly so. But looking ahead, to the start of a new semester, a spring of unexpected adventures, and on to graduation in June, I feel buoyed by Winter Break and ready for what is to come.

And my answer to those inevitable difficulties, that hard work, and the surprises that don’t bring good news, I hope will be delivered with the ease and optimism that comes only after lots of preparation and the right state of mind, the kind of practice that Chet Baker et al. brought to the album of my season. I enter the year with confidence (but as little hubris as I can muster) and my answer to those challenges of 2019, said with hope, a belief in good, and quiet determination will be: no problem.

Movement

The elf is not on the shelf. He was a minute ago, but my son moved him. Earlier this morning the elf was hanging from the light above the kitchen table, around lunch I spotted him in a ceramic container in the living room, and I just tucked him into the nerf basketball hoop that hangs on the inside of the door out to the garage.

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There was a time that my wife and I joined the ranks of so many parents, swearing quietly on the nights we were snug in bed and had forgotten to hide the scrappy little doll our kids expected to magically move from one place in the house to another overnight.

Truth be told, I think moving the elf was always my job. Perhaps that speaks to the dynamics of our relationship. But one way or another, my kids bought in to the notion that this red clad embodiment of holiday surveillance was in the house from December 1st through Christmas Eve. They’d find him in the mornings, not touch him (that was one of the rules), and see him show up in a new location the next day.

Magic. For them. And some cold nights a pain in our parental figgy pudding.

I hope not to sound too curmudgeonly when I say that this went on for years. Yes, it was magical to have two youngsters who believed in, or at least allowed us to think they believed in Santa, elves, and the whole festive shooting match. I’d be fibbing if I didn’t admit that those Christmas mornings when the kids’ eyes were wide with amazement at what was under the tree weren’t some of the happiest of my life, and…

About a week ago we realized that the elf was moving.

My clever hiding places weren’t enough. He was getting some help from my son.

At first my wife thought this intrepid ten year old was prompting us to be sure we moved the elf; I’ll admit that not every night did I remember to move the damned thing, but then we realized that my son was having a ball.

There was a certain life altering delight in the notion that he could pick up the elf. He could find a spot that he wanted to see those beady eyes looking out of, and he could tuck that elf there for us to find.

As an educator that struck a chord.

I taught high school English for a dozen years before becoming a principal, and I saw that same gleam in my students’ eyes that I saw this December in my son’s when they realized that they could have some control over what they were learning. It could be as simple as letting them pick the book they wanted to read, or as daring as asking them to take responsibility for teaching lessons to their peers. It was in those moments when I asked the class what direction they wanted to take that they came most alive.

How much like placing an elf was my choosing to teach Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. Fun for me, sure, but not for every student. (Former students reading this, please don’t bombard me with “Yes The Sea Wolf sucked emails; it really is a kooky and delightful adventure!)

I think that maybe there was a time when my control over the process was appropriate and could lead to positive results. I’m convinced that some of my students wouldn’t have found Haruki Murakami, CP Cavafy, or Zora Neale Hurston on their own, but I’m also convinced that if I had always continued to insist that I was the only one who knew where the magic was hidden I would have deprived them of a magic all its own.

The power to take life in our own hands, and for students to take learning in theirs just as my son made the decision to pick up that elf and walk across the room, is or should be an important part of education.

It also gets easier the more we allow our students to do it. The first time I gave up control in my classroom, allowing students more voice in what they were studying wasn’t easy for all of them, nor was is particularly easy for me. So too, when she saw her brother moving the elf this week, my teenage daughter confessed that when she was little she once moved the elf herself and them moved it back where it had been, so no one would notice and she could see what would happen.

A step toward independence, I’d argue is what happened, accompanied by a pinch of rebellion and delight.

In a classroom there is a certain approval that goes along with being the master that disappears when students take the wheel. This can be tough, particularly for those of us who want so much to make sure things “go well,” and it’s something I know I’ve felt as a principal too.

Just before winter break I came to my staff with a decision to be made about when to deliver several lessons (as part of Erin’s Law) to our students. I had an idea of how to do this, and opened up discussion for others to share their thoughts. We discussed our plan for a bit, and afterward used a survey to get a sense of where people were landing. My idea came in second from last.

The result will be a decision that is better for my school than if I’d made it myself. Like a classroom teacher who gives the gift of decision making to her students, I know that listening to my staff’s voice benefits us all. The road ahead isn’t mine alone to navigate; I’m with good company, fellow travelers I’m wise to trust.

In addition to the community building that shared choice contributes to in a classroom, there is also a feeling of freedom and sense of adventure that comes with watching students take ownership.

I understood today that this student ownership brings the same mix of pride and surprise, acceptance and delight that I felt when I realized that the elf was no longer on the shelf.