Penny-wise

…I am not crying
on the inside. I am no brave faker
On the contrary, I am a simple laugh
-Donald Hall “The Clown”

I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s It at Powell’s on Valentine’s Day. 1500 miles from my wife, my nerves still jangling after a job interview in Oregon, I spotted the book while browsing in a book shop to try to relax.

As thick as an upended business card, its heft enthralled me. I’d owned a copy before, a paperback with a wonderfully lurid claw reaching up from a storm grate on the cover. Alone in the bookshop, I couldn’t help but plunk down $10, curious to revisit the novel on a rainy Portland night.

The last time I read Stephen King’s 1986 behemoth, a book I can’t think of without remembering a high school friend’s amazement that anyone could write a book so long, I lived in Oregon. I can’t recall the circumstances of that first reading; there was so much pop fiction in my young adulthood. I suppose it was at least in part read alone in a room to the sound of falling rain.

It coverThe differences of more than a quarter century struck me as I read the novel through the eyes of a dad, and husband, and high school principal. …and a fellow who has been away from his home state for a long, long time.

It’s not that I haven’t felt at home throughout my adult life, but seeing Mt. Hood as I drove from the airport to my interview I felt a wave of emotion not unlike Ulysses must have experienced when he stepped back onto Ithaca.

It saw me through the flight back to San Diego, and up and back to a second interview and then a third. As I turned the pages I found that while there was so much I didn’t remember, the story, or better put the stories; It is at its heart a collection of related tales about what it is like to be human, carried with it a feeling of familiarity.

Not unlike the Sunset Highway or the stacks at Powell’s, It felt like something I knew, and at the same time it felt a little surreal.

For any who haven’t cracked the book, It tells the story of a group of friends from the fictional town of Derry, Maine who confront the manifestation of evil, often in the guise of a demonic clown, as kids in the summer of 1958 and again in 1984. In the twenty some years between the two events all but one of the “Losers Club” as they dub themselves leave the state and create adult lives of their own.

Those adults return “home” different than when they left it. The decades between their moving away and coming back, roughly the same amount of time I’ve been away from Oregon, changed them, and they returned altered versions of the selves who had gone away.

This more than struck a chord.

The twenty something teacher I was when I moved to California has been replaced by the forty something principal I have become. Along the way I’ve had experiences good and bad that have matured me, humbled me, and inspired me. As I prepare to return to the Pacific Northwest I do so with a feeling of hope, expectation, and excitement.

Staying in California would have been, to use the old saying, “penny-wise and pound foolish.” My days at San Dieguito, surrounded by gifted educators and blessed to work with so many friends, have been a dream come true, but for life beyond being a principal, my life as a dad, and a husband, Oregon was the choice that was more than a pound wise. Foolish youth, replaced by something akin to maturity.

Stephen King captured the feeling those characters had looking homeward after so much time away, across the miles and years alike, and that understanding of leaving youth and becoming an adult.

It was no big deal; it didn’t go all at once, with a bang. And maybe … that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like on of that clown’s trick balloons … The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you.”

And now the grownup in my mirror, so different from the fellow who filled a U-Haul and drove from Forest Grove to Oakland, is packing boxes and cleaning the garage, preparing to drive back up I-5 in the company of cats and kids who were not yet born when we left Oregon so many years ago.

I’ve got no maniacal clown to fight or promise from youth to fulfill, but like those adults from King’s novel I’m preparing to go home to a place that has not stopped changing in my absence.

Both of us are different than we were, me and the state, and how we will find each other when we meet again in July carries a delightful, if a little unnerving, uncertainty that I’m ready to meet head on.

The spring sun makes it feel all that more real. The boxes piling in our garage, the seemingly endless decisions as to what we keep and what we give away, and the steady stream of work to be done, these realities of moving will end soon and I’ll find myself back in the Willamette Valley preparing for the next stage of life.

Has the kid in me “leaked out” slowly? Maybe some; I certainly see an adult in my mirror. But working with students does much to inspire a spirit of youth. It’s tough to be too adult when every week or so someone invites you to be silly.

So I hope that as I return to Oregon I do so with a little gray hair, a few more wrinkles, and a youthful heart. …and no clowns.

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The Last Month

photo (4)I am surrounded by boxes. Rows of cardboard holding my family’s life, or at least our pots and pans, toys and games, photo albums and framed art fill our garage, linger in corners, and wait half full, flaps agape, to close over the remaining odds and ends, legos, plates, knickknacks, and books.

Of books, if I’m honest, I’m down to fewer than a half dozen: a biography of Duke Ellington; a paperback mystery I’m saving for the plane ride up to Oregon in June to find a place to live, slim enough to fit in a pocket, just enough pages for two flights and a couple of nights in a hotel; a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, likely to be consumed and left at the library in Encinitas before the end of June; and Crow by Ted Hughes.

In just a few weeks my family and I will be unpacking those books and boxes in Beaverton, a reality still hard to wrap our heads around.

That every time we now do something (go to a Padres game or eat at our favorite burrito spot) is the last or nearly the last time we’ll do so is sobering. So too each of my final days at San Dieguito.

I’ve been to my last SDA games, a pair of lacrosse playoffs. My last coffee with the principal has come and gone, and how hard it was to say goodbye to those familiar and friendly faces, some of whom I’ve known for years. In a week I’ll go to my final play in the Clayton Liggett Theater, Picnic, a midcentury emotional potboiler. This Wednesday is my last Spring Concert. The Friday after that is the last assembly of the year.

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As emotional are the final visits to classrooms, those places where the truly important work happens at a school. Some of my favorite memories at SDA are from classrooms, where students and teachers work together to imagine, create, learn.

Along with these “lasts” come some unique to San Dieguito: our last Student Forum, our final Exhibition Day, and a graduation unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Leaving SDA means saying goodbye to so much, so many friends, so many special experiences, and…

…and after that last “last” event, when the mortarboards land and parents swarm the field to hug their kids, something else will start.

This July I begin life at ACMA, a creative place of new adventures, and there I’m eagerly looking forward to experiencing just as many…

…firsts.

Spring Break

I’m going to read a paperback
John LeCarre
maybe
King or Mankell

roller coaster
Take my kids to Knott’s Berry Farm
and scream
as I rush downward on a rollercoaster
that makes my daughter laugh

I’m hoping to sleep in
exercise
and get some balance back
finding my feet again after a busy winter
as I pause
in the eye of the storm
that is Spring Break
and look forward to a busy May and busier June.

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My kids and I will go to a ballgame
to Grandma and Papa’s
to the beach
maybe get a doughnut

While all the while
I’ll keep a weather eye on Oregon
a count of the boxes accumulating in our garage
and a list of the things to be done
some over this week off
some soon thereafter
all before the last day of June
when the sweet relief of Spring Break
is replaced
by the wild anticipation of July.

Maybe This Year

Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time…”
TS Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

Spring is a time when cold winds warm. Rain remains, reminding us sporadically that summer is still weeks away. In the world of major league baseball, pitchers and catchers have been throwing baseballs since February, but now that all the players have reported to training camp in sunbaked towns with names like Clearwater and Jupiter, Surprise and Goodyear, the sense that winter is ending is becoming real.

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Hope springs eternal and baseball brings out the 10 year old in all of us.

Some would claim that professional baseball is a will-o-the-wisp, an empty distraction from a serious world, and while my rational brain couldn’t disagree, when I pull a ball cap over that same head my heart takes over and I find myself believing what Casey Stengel said so many years ago: “The trick is growing up without growing old.”

Baseball helps me do that.

This is important as an educator, where our work with students is made richer by the ability to think young. I’ll never be accused of being hip, my musical tastes tend toward Sinatra, and I know that my photo appears next to the dictionary entry for “Dad,” but the spirit of optimism and belief in a better future is one that serves me well as a principal. It’s a point of view nurtured by many things, particularly the day to day interactions I share with students, and one reinforced by being a baseball fan.

The last time my team won the world series was 1988.

I still start every spring with the thought: “maybe this year.”

Legend has it that Babe Ruth said: “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

School, a place where mistakes are opportunities and life stretches out before the majority of the people who make up a school, is in many ways the same.

For those of us who make our life’s work education, it’s renewing to know that every February that great American institution, baseball, is there to remind us to be optimistic, to celebrate the potential we see, and to truly believe that this year will be special.

That’s not a distraction; that’s hope.

No Clue

I remember the professor as a bespectacled man with a mustache and the colonel as someone pushing well past middle age. Frumpiness was something Mrs. Peacock aspired to, and Miss Scarlet, well…

These memories, so firm in my mind, were the reason that this weekend, when my kids and I removed the cellophane from the new Clue game, I took one look at the cast of characters on the cards and wondered (almost aloud) Who in heaven’s name are they?

newclueIt was an overcast day, my son complained of feeling sick, and with my wife at a conference out of town I knew that the day would be spent mostly indoors. We were about to leave the store, our emergency run for bar soap and cat food complete, when we passed the toy aisle and saw a row of board games marked down 50%. A quick mental inventory told me that we didn’t have a copy of Clue at home. It had been one of my favorites from a childhood of rainy winters, so I scooped up the box and we headed home.

There, sitting at the dining room table with my curious daughter and son, I did my best to keep disgust from my face as I saw that the people on the suspect cards looked like the bratty grandchildren of the group I remembered. Almost at terms with that, I saw they’d changed the layout of the mansion.

Ye gads. It was like comparing Sinatra and Taylor Swift.

But then again, I stopped myself, people like Taylor Swift. Who am I to be a hater gonna hate?

So I took it as a good lesson for me as a principal, specifically as the principal of a school celebrating its 80th anniversary. The feeling I got when I opened that box and found the …modern surprise inside isn’t unlike the emotion that some alumni feel when they visit campus and see that things have changed.

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Construction has been a constant at San Dieguito since FDR was in office, and the addition of our latest building is one of the largest. Opening this fall, our two story math and science building will bring our labs into the twenty-first century, a dramatic shift from a science wing built when Einstein was still alive.

New tennis courts sit beside an updated athletic field. The campus has wireless throughout. In a year we’ll break ground on another classroom building that will replace the portables dropped decades ago in the old agriculture corner of campus. They’re all changes that make sense for our students and by 2020 our school will be a beautiful blend of old and new, ready to serve students for the next 80 years and beyond.

Still…

Earlier this fall I heard an alum who had come on campus for a reunion look up at the new building rising from the ground between the historic 70s wing and the Mosaic Cafe, turn to me, shake his head, and say “the hell?”

We talked a bit about what was old and what was new, his memories and our construction, and finally arrived at an understanding that while many things had changed, not everything was different. And maybe that was okay.

Every generation of Mustangs has their own campus at San Dieguito, with some constants (the principal’s office, the central quad, the bell tower -after 1960) and some differences. Like me looking at the Clue board and wondering where the conservatory went, or when they added a garage, graduates are sometimes thrown by the additions or subtractions to the school. That’s natural, and…

clue-oldPlaying the game with my kids, I realized after a couple of rounds that while Clue isn’t exactly the same, it was just as fun as I remembered, particularly when I looked around the table at the company I got to enjoy.

Mrs. White wasn’t wearing a maid’s uniform, but she was just as capable of wielding a lead pipe in the dining room. Recognizing that our world, and our schools, are dynamic helps me keep perspective. The memories I have are no less sweet, even if Mr. Green can no longer visit the study. Likewise the memories of our alumni are as rich and wonderful as they ever were, and they’re no less meaningful than the memories our current students are creating. Those grandchildren of the original Clue gang, as young as they are, have a place beside my own mutton chopped Colonel Mustard.

Baseball Caps

As a lifelong Dodgers fan who lived in the Bay Area for a decade I know a little about getting along with people who don’t share my point of view. During my time in a town that worshiped the Giants I worked as an assistant principal at a school that had to impose a strict dress code in response to gang activity. One of the forbidden items: blue LA Dodgers caps. Thanks, Sureños.

photo-3I saw the Dodgers play live in San Francisco on more than a few occasions, grimacing each time Barry Bonds hit another home run and everyone around me raised their voices to the sky. Once, after the coldest game I’d ever seen, a Dodger loss at AT&T Park, I shivered my way across the bay on the ferry trying not to explode at the toxic, and a little bit drunken, celebrating of the Giants fans heading home. It was so cold. I was so tired. Like it or not, I remember that night as if it was last weekend, not more than ten years ago.

That I would not give up an allegiance to a team that I’d followed since I was a kid in Oregon listening to Vin Scully describing the heroics of Garvey, Cey, Lopes, and Yeager, and that those around me would not surrender their own affection for the team of Willie Mays and Bobby Thompson meant that we all had to figure out a way to get along.

Their ball club was the winner, the home team, the local favorite. It was up to me, and a few fellow Dodgers fans, to navigate a world where our own choice wasn’t the majority voice. Comfortable? No. Reality? Yes.

So.

So I wasn’t a jerk, even on the few occasions when my bums bested their rivals. A history teacher who shared my point of view and I serenaded our classes with the 1962 Danny Kaye song “D-O-D-G-E-R-S,” but we did so with a smile and a touch of self deprecation. Neither of us could really carry a tune, so that last bit was easy.

I treated the Giants fans I knew well, seldom mentioning that incident with Juan Marichal and the bat, and letting Barry Bonds swell into a home run champion* without adding my voice to the conversation. That his fortune would implode was obvious to all but the truest believers; I needed only to wait for reality to catch up for some cold comfort.

Sometimes the Giants won. Sometimes they do.

I found, however, that the longer the San Francisco fans and I showed each other respect, acknowledged that baseball was only one of many, many ways we define ourselves, and were willing to see the faces underneath the ball caps, the less likely any of us were to resort to rudeness, envy, or gloating.

With time and familiarity we became more human.

The ill feelings between Giants and Dodgers fans date back to the 1880s. Some years they’re worse than others. From time to time the rivalry becomes ugly, violent, disheartening. In recent years aggression has reached out of the ballpark and caused destruction that makes fans on both sides of the rivalry cringe.

I believe that better days are ahead.

Years ago it was McCovey and Valenzuela, today Kershaw and Bumgarner, tomorrow players not yet old enough to hold a bat.

I can disagree with my friends wearing Giants gear, and even know that they’re wrong, at least in their choice of teams, but that doesn’t mean I have to treat them poorly or can’t enjoy a meal with them, a conversation, or maybe even a ballgame.

We’re all human, no matter what cap we choose to wear.

Hope

photo-1-4On the day Carrie Fisher died I took my son to see the newest Star Wars movie. We were seven days into a road trip, tired from a week of hotel hopping, and worn out after a day that ended with an hour of LA traffic. He’d been sick, a flu that arrived on the 24th of December and had my wife and I spending part of Christmas deep in a discussion about the best way to remove vomit from a hotel carpet.

As we lugged our bags into the final room of the trip, my son, recently recovered, looked at his coughing mom and sister whose own eyes had the glassy redness of a youthful fever, and asked if we could go see Rogue One. It seemed like a really good idea.

So in an unfamiliar town, we left two sleeping loved ones and headed for the movies, our hopes set on some sort of relief from a rough patch of travel and sickness.

2016 has had a touch of that same feeling to it. Carrie Fisher’s death reminded me of the long line of artists and inspirations we’ve lost over the past calendar year: Leonard Cohen, Prince, Sharon Jones, and David Bowie. My favorite living novelist, Umberto Eco, living no longer, passed away the day after Harper Lee. Election season was rough on many of us, and even for a confessed optimist, I’ll admit that there have been days I’ve felt the spiritual equivalent of a long drive on the 210.

As an educator, however, I know how important it is to nurture that little bird that Emily Dickinson claimed “perches in the soul.” In our work with students, and teacher too, that we maintain a spirit of hope that Dickinson explains “sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.”

My students often remind me that even when things feel bleak in the alleged adult world, from the eyes of someone with so much life ahead of them the promise of the future more than outweighs any transitory struggles of the immediate present.

I wonder, did my generation give the same perspective to my parents the year they lost John Wayne, or Lucille Ball, or Wallace Stegner?

Whatever the case, it was my eight year old who coaxed me out of a comfortable hotel room, the tragic news of Princess Leia still new. His smile as we sat in the theater and saw those familiar words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” brought to mind the importance of seeing a perspective beyond our own.

I enjoyed Rogue One, an action movie in the Star Wars universe, through my son’s eyes, eyes that invited me to see a world of possibility. He in turn saw a diverse group of characters working together to make a difference, and doing so not because of their individual strength, but because they cared deeply, worked together, and never gave up.

How fitting that the final scene of the movie provided a familiar face, a young Princess Leia, smiling at the camera and talking about “hope.”

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