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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Making Time for the Central Coast

Leaving at four in the morning meant avoiding LA traffic and settling in for a cup of coffee in Santa Barbara when the cafe opened at seven. It was a difficult trundling of kids into the car, but well worth it when we had Los Angeles in our rear view mirror and the sun was still new in the sky.

photo-2-3A holiday road trip took us to the Bay Area this December, a trip that had us choose highway 101 and a jaunt to Morro Bay along the way rather than push up Interstate 5 to make it one one long day. It wasn’t the most efficient decision, but it was the right one, as we were surprised with weather warm enough for a picnic, a visit to a favorite book shop, and the sight of a Christmas Tree made out of crab nets and fishing gear.

As a high school principal I’m often faced with choices and tempted to use efficiency as a major factor in the decisions I make. Sometimes this is a wise move; sometimes I’d do better to consider a detour.

Recently new construction has given me an opportunity to balance the end result and the process of getting there. Much as I knew we’d spend Christmas with my niece, I know that by the time we end our first semester in January we need to order furniture for the new science and math building, and by spring break we need to have plans for our next building, an arts and humanities extravaganza, to the Department of State Architects.

As simply as we might have driven straight through from San Diego to Oakland, I know I could have talked with the architect, the furniture vendor, and our district bond team and in an afternoon we could have had a viable plan. Done and done. And not done right. Viable and right are not always the same.

Instead, our architect, furniture vendor, bond team, and I met with teachers. Science teachers tested tabletops, scorching circles into the surfaces to see if they could hold up to a chemistry class. Math teachers sampled desks and student work stations to see what worked for them. Our ceramics teacher visited other schools and came back with photos, drawings, and big ideas. Our other art instructors thought about everything from venting to light to where they could store still life subjects from surfboards to bicycles.

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Meeting after meeting over the course of the first term we talked, strategized, dreamed, faced reality together, tested the patience of our architect and the creativity of our furniture guy, and made decisions that were good for kids.

It wasn’t always easy. The building that was designed four years ago would have benefited from being two rooms larger. Getting everyone to agree on tables and desks was trickier than you’d expect. And putting three art teachers, two bond guys, an architect, and a principal in the same room has the coherency of Chaucer’s House of Fame.

Still, just as getting up before dawn on our road trip wasn’t pleasant, the results promises to be. We’ll end our journey where we belong, and we’ll look back at the way we got there with an appreciation for the longer path we would never have chosen if we’d made the decision based only on efficiency.

Every day I’m reminded of how much being a principal is like being a dad. They’re both challenging and wonderful, fraught with pitfalls and prone to spark strong emotion, and when all is said and done they’re both worth all the stress.

Listening to those around me helps me avoid the many of the mistakes I know I’d make if left to my own devices. My wife makes me a better husband; my teachers and my admin team make me a better principal.

photo-3I most certainly don’t always get things right. Emphatically not. But I hope I can always surround myself with people willing and able to look me in the eye as I’m about to make an efficient decision, a decision that might be so much better if I went a different way, and ask: “What do you think about going to Morro Bay?”

Mud and Sand

stafford“It was all the clods at once become
Precious…”
-William Stafford

My kids don’t know about dirt clods.

The realization hit me this weekend as I read Learning to Live in the World, a posthumous collection from the Oregonian poet William Stafford. So many of Stafford’s poems brought me back to the untamed acre at the edge of the urban growth boundary where I grew up.

Mine was a childhood of mud and tansy ragwort, of blackberries and tree sap. I remember a lot of digging as a boy, often with my hands, an upbringing that would appear feral to my own kids.

Careful not to sentimentalize, or at least not overly much, I made myself put the volume of Stafford down long enough to consider the opportunities my kids have that I didn’t.

My kids go to a great school, where they can learn coding, recreate “Gold Rush Days,” and go on field trips to museums. When I was in elementary school, student enrichment meant going to the music room once a week to sing “The Streets of Laredo.” We live ten minutes from the beach, and have weather that allows them to put on swimsuits almost all year round. Growing up in Oregon meant that when my folks said we were going to “the coast” I sensibly grabbed a sweater.

My kids know sand, but they don’t know dirt clods.

They don’t understand the unfettered joy of mud.

“The coast” is something they see in Irish movies, and rain is an anticipated event, not the moist reality of October through April.

…and maybe that’s overwhelming okay.

They are not me. Their lives are their own. Their childhood memories, so different from mine, are theirs, as mine are different from my mother’s Minnesotan youth or my dad’s childhood in Los Angeles.

It’s a reality that I’m wise to understand as a high school principal; these amazing students at my school are constructing their own high school experiences, independent of their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences. Or mine.

Every generation, every graduating class, has its own personality, its own memories, and its own impact on the world. The schools they return to visit on class reunions aren’t the same as the schools they attended, even if some of the buildings, or even teachers, haven’t changed.

704The world around us is constantly in flux, altering in little ways and large, at different rates and with differing results. I might return to a driveway where at ten I’d written my name in wet cement and find my initials still there but the house and yard around it changed past understanding.

Our memories may be able to hold a constancy, albeit romanticized, but time has no soft heart.

Still, I do.

And Stafford’s precious clods are my own, those moist, crumbling handfuls of childhood. That they do not belong to my kids sobers me, and challenges me to embrace that for them the most precious memories are their own.