Driving Home

In this age of imperfect analogies I offer my own.

Decades before I became a principal, years before I started teaching, back when I was a twenty year old sophomore in college I was driving through Montana on my way home to Oregon after a road trip with a roommate that ended with me dropping him off at his home in Lewistown. Even having grown up in Oregon, a state more rural than urban, Montana’s wide open spaces were of a different scale to me and midway through a particularly long stretch of driving I looked down and saw that my gas needle was on empty.

I had miles to go before the next town. All around me the landscape stretched out, brown rolling hills, a few ramshackle wooden fence posts strung with wire, mountains in the distance. Montana is known as “big sky country” and the enormity of the sky above was equaled only by the length of the two lane highway that stretched out for miles and miles and miles and the sinking feeling in my chest as I looked down at the gauge and wondered how I’d not noticed the gas level back at the last town. 

That town was miles behind me now and in this day before smartphones or google maps I could only look at my odometer and try to puzzle how far I still had to go before I got to the next gas station. A long way, I figured. I looked back at that needle on E.

Alone, still moving at sixty miles an hour, I continued west. I wasn’t sure how far I could drive on empty, but I couldn’t see an alternative (or a town or house or place to make a phone call) so I drove. Half an hour later, my eyes continually drawn down to the gas gauge, I did the only sensible thing, at least in the mind of a foolish twenty year old; I leaned my wallet up on the dashboard so I couldn’t see the needle pointing to empty.

I drove that way for a long time. The map on the passenger seat told me I was headed the right direction, youthful optimism told me all would be well, and the back of my black leather wallet didn’t tell me if the needle could actually slip below E. I kept driving.

Then, like a miracle, the town of Bozeman appeared.

I dropped down into Bozeman, pulled into a gas station, and removed my wallet. Filling the tank it was as if there had never been a threat. I refueled, closed the cap, stretched my legs, and got back into the car. No fuss.

I have remembered that nerve jangling drive vividly for more than half my life.

And this week, as the school where I am principal prepares to welcome students back into classrooms after more than a year away from campus, I thought of that ride again. The stress that so many of us have felt, the frustration in not being able to see students when their cameras are off in Zoom, of not being able to see why they’re struggling or pick them up when they stumble, all those things have made the past year so difficult. We have done our best to make progress, to teach and learn, and to support our students, but other than knowing that we are tired, we are struggling too, and that our tank is close to empty, there is little that some of us are sure of.

What will it be like when the students come back? How will it be to engage in hybrid instruction? How soon can we have everyone back and begin to refuel and continue our journey with confidence? Like that hidden gas gauge, we just don’t know.

I promised that this would be an imperfect analogy, and it is, but it seems to me that we are collectively not unlike that foolish young me who kept pressing on, hoping to make it, knowing I needed to fill my tank and not sure just how empty it was. We are driving in the right direction, keeping hope as best we can, and while we can’t be sure just how much we need to fill our tank we keep moving forward hoping for the relief of seeing the lights of town ahead. I think that relief will come. I believe that as empty as some of us feel right now we will be full again. I know that at the end of this we’ll come home.

To the Ball Game

“Take me out anywhere” would be as apt a hope as going to a baseball game these days. We’ve been sequestered by the pandemic for a long time now (educators like me and our students have been at home since last March 13th) but even as winter looks at us through eyes narrowed by icy winds and brows as furrowed as storm clouds I find my spirit roused by three words, as familiar to old baseball fans everywhere as spring, words whispered from places with palm trees and sunny skies miles from where I’m writing this post: “Pitchers and catchers.”

For anyone coming to this blog for something related to education, I’ll have to invite you to return in a week; once a year I allow myself to shift gears and indulge in an appreciation of something that has filled my soul since I was a little kid: baseball.

I grew up in Oregon, which in the 1970s and 1980s was like Switzerland for sports fans. Sure we had the Trailblazers, a basketball team that dominated the landscape while wearing a red sweatband and hoisting the 1977 NBA World Champions trophy (for the only time in its life), but for those of us who preferred our sports out of doors, we were blessed with a neutrality that allowed my dad to be a Tigers fan, my friend to like the Twins, and me to choose the bums from Los Angeles who kept losing World Series to the Yankees, my LA Dodgers.

My own high school baseball team wore pinstripes like the Bronx Bombers, but that didn’t dampen my own love of playing. As a catcher, I studied the game, scouted opposing teams, and fashioned myself a young Steve Yeager.

I collected baseball cards, of course, not for profit as some would in the late 80s and early 90s, but because I loved baseball. Boxes of them have now found their way into my own garage, some co-opted by my youngest son, and others discovering a second life as bookmarks. Nostalgic? Sure. And I’m okay with that.

Because while I know that the game has changed since I grew up, and seems more like a business now than ever before, I still feel an organic, illogical, and welcome sense of hope returning to thaw winter, at least a little, when spring training starts up in February. 

That first step toward sunnier days begins when pitchers and catchers arrive to camp first, a couple of weeks ahead of the other players, and about a month before the first spring training games. This year “pitchers and catchers” is more welcome than ever.

Outside my window the water in the bird bath has frozen. The clouds are thick and snow is threatening. Well, in Oregon that threat is more that we’ll need to scrape ice off our windshields than shovel our sidewalks. But in states south of here baseballs are coming out of boxes, cleats are being laced up, and the first of the ballplayers are taking the field.

What that means in the greater scheme of things, well, nothing much I suppose. But if this year of COVID-19 has taught me anything it’s to be thankful for the small pleasures that can help to offset the weight of the world. We’re still months away from change, I know; we’re months away from baseball’s opening day as well, but…

With pitchers and catchers we’re on our way.

“If you don’t got Mojo Nixon…”

The earworm in my head today is “Punk Rock Girl” by The Dead Milkmen. It’s a catchy and (in retrospect) hardly punk anthem to young foolish love, tongue firmly, it seems to me, in cheek. Playful, silly, and echoing through my mind, as I get ready to start a day of work I’m humming: “Punk rock girl give me a chance / Punk rock girl let’s go slam dance / We’ll dress like Minnie Pearl.” 

You and me, Punk Rock Girl.

Now I am not advocating jumping on tables and shouting “anarchy” or driving off in cars that are not our own, but that freewheeling spirit that implies that anything can happen doesn’t seem too far off the mark right now.

As we all do our best to navigate the choppy waters of this time of pandemic, remote learning, and ongoing political stress it sometimes feels like every day or two we’re given the challenge of adapting to something new. Smilingly? Well…

It helps me to try to keep some perspective, and sometimes that perspective comes from unexpected sources. Three recent inspirations, other than The Dead Milkmen, that I’ve leaned on lately.

The Hobbit. That old chestnut from Tolkien, more a children’s story than the Lord of the Rings, has long been my favorite read aloud book (and as a dad I’ve had more than one chance to read it at bedtime to my kids). Not long ago I stumbled on an audiobook of the novel and, taken in small bites, it has become a touchstone of comfort to hear it again, temporary comfort anyway, and the inspiration to do my best to be like Bilbo leaving the goblin cave: “Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.” We’re all a little flummoxed from time to time, hearts “a patter and a pitter” and hearing a story we love helps, even if it’s just a little.

Helping more than a little, and more than I could have ever imagined when she joined our family a little more than a year ago, our dog, Luna, is an ongoing force for good in our house. All that unconditional love stuff people with dogs talk about? Yep. And… when she gets muddy and filthy after a walk, she gets a bath. When she gets woken up and reluctantly goes out for morning ablutions, she does what she needs to do and then runs back to bed to make a nest in the covers. She doesn’t love baths or cold mornings, but she handles them more patiently than I do some of the things I don’t love. Inspiration there. Would that I could live up to the example set by my dog. 

Of course I seldom chew up boxes of cookies. 

Seldom.

Watching Studio Ghibli movies with my teenager has helped too. This winter we’ve revisited Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Dreamy, unexpected, and more than occasionally bizarre, these amazing entertainments do for me what great art often does: allow me to see my own world a little differently than I saw it before. As I think about how crazy the last few weeks have been, how easy it is to be justifiably frustrated, and how important it is that I find ways to accept reality and move forward, I’m happy to look toward Miyazaki’s heroes like Sophie, turned from a child to an old woman and launched into an adventure that takes her inside the wheezing, shambling castle of the film’s title. She faces obstacles both sinister and bureaucratic, threatening and as mundane as a messy house, with poise, pluck, and amused curiosity. All this, told through astounding images and a soundtrack so moving it feels like poetry, touched my heart when I needed it to. 

And Princess Mononoke spitting blood, yeah, that too.

Finally, a bonus inspiration, but one I return to. It’s that line from Leonard Cohen: “If you don’t become the ocean you’ll be seasick every day.” With tides rising and falling, waves up over my head, and undercurrents that I can hardly understand it feels like that line ought to be a mantra.

To everyone out there doing their best to hold on, I offer support, hope, and the notion that maybe we all ought to just dress like Minnie Pearl. As hard as this is, we can do this. You and me, Punk Rock Girl.

Dum-dum-da-de-dum-dum-da-de…

This December I found myself watching Mission: Impossible with my twelve year old and thinking back to a time in my late twenties when a friend and I were over at a third friend’s house playing board games. We’d finished a long game, likely a homemade Star Trek board game that we’d spent years tinkering with together, and had (honestly) polished off nothing stronger than a couple of root beer floats. We’d known each other since college and shared countless meals, cigars, and games (and three decades later still share a friendship that feels close even though we now live in three separate states). That evening I remember that we found three toy guns that shot little plastic discs; I don’t know if they sell such things today, but back at the end of the 20th century they weren’t uncommon.

How we ended up literally running through the house, the theme song to Mission: Impossible blaring on a loop, ducking, rolling, hiding, and shooting each other with plastic discs, I can’t recall, but the laughter, silliness, and joy from that day is something I’ve never forgotten.

Nor have I ever told anyone about that very, very, very silly day.

We were all alleged adults, all teachers, professionals, and I like to imagine respected and respectable. We were also friends, comfortable enough to play.

With this year’s winter break now behind me and the pandemic still keeping us close to home and physically far away from friends, the memory of that Mission: Impossible is particularly dear. It reminds me of the importance of having fun, of allowing ourselves to embrace silliness, and laughing as if life had a jazzy soundtrack from 1960.

That kind of mirth has to look a little different right now, but as the calendar turns to a new year I’m inspired and encouraged to find ways to open the door for fun.

This doesn’t feel like a year for resolutions, but it does strike me as a good time to commit to friends and finding ways to do the equivalent of cranking up the stereo and running laughingly through the house.

What will that look like? Heaven only knows, but remotely, at a safe distance, or (eventually) in person, it’s a mission I choose to accept.

…this post will self-destruct in five seconds…

Fifty cents. Worth it.

I happened upon a decades old ad for the first run of Moon Knight comics last week. It read: “It is a time of turbulence. The city streets are full of violence. Governments flounder. Societies crumble. Civilization itself seems to be one long, agonized scream. It is time for MOON KNIGHT.” Then below the image (a gem by Sienkiewicz) “On sale at newsstands everywhere. Fifty cents. Worth it.” 

While the text is from close to forty years ago, the sentiment feels …relevant.

I became a Moon Knight fan in the early 80s, captivated by the “Fist of Khonshu” and wowed by not only the amazing standout issues (like #26) but by just about every incarnation of this odd, sometimes really odd, I mean really odd, superhero.

That vintage ad reminded me of a couple of truths. Our country has seen chaos and unrest in some way shape or form in every one of its many decades. Sometimes that disorder threatened the core of the country; often it sparked meaningful change. And even as we face uncertainty, battle for a cause, or strive to hold our own against stressors that can feel overwhelming, it’s healthy and human nature to allow ourselves some measure of escape. 

I’m not advocating for abdicating responsibility or throwing up our hands and walking away, but sometimes taking time to listen to music, read a mystery, or step back for a breath of fresh air is more than a little okay.

For some that kind of escape is reality TV, for others romance novels, for some it’s painting, others baking, and for some nerdy folks like me it might even include comic books like Moon Knight.

I like that the world of Moon Knight is complicated, unexpected, and difficult at times. He may face antagonists who can manipulate dreams, turn into werewolves, or summon Cthulhu, but he faces them with an insanity of his own, an insanity different from the world I live in. Escape.

Moon Knight, like the kind of escape I like best, is a combination of edgy and goofy. Good wins, sometimes after a hard slog and sometimes with a quip. Sometimes both. And then I close the book and get back to work.

The point of escape isn’t staying away, but rather allowing ourselves room to take a breath and leave the day’s latest news aside for a little while. Sometimes that’s what we need to feel renewed enough to face the world again. Whether it’s the Great British Bake Off, Beethoven’s Ninth, or a hero in a cape, when it is a time of turbulence, the city streets are full of violence, governments flounder, societies crumble, and civilization itself seems to be one long, agonized scream, it’s okay to allow ourselves a little bit of Moon Knight …whatever that looks like for us.

Marionette

I have a friend who loves his wife very much and one year, nearly two decades ago, he wanted to surprise her with the perfect gift for her birthday. They hadn’t been married all that long and he wanted something unique and wonderful, like her, and being the researcher he is, he hunted high and low for an idea for something that would be a surprise she’d be delighted by. The result did surprise her. Delight? Well…

“She didn’t know what to say,” he told me and another friend the next week, shaking his head. “I thought I’d nailed it.” We laughed aloud, my other friend and I, and asked him to tell us again about …the marionette.

He explained that he’d found a puppeteer and craftsman who made custom marionettes. He’d commissioned one of his wife, fashioned from her photo, its hair realistic, its clothing similar to hers. “It wasn’t her hair, right?” my friend asked. “No,” my other friend answered. “It wasn’t even human hair.” That was a relief, anyway.

I saw the doll only once, crumpled in the corner of a guest bedroom. It seems to have vanished in the years since. It did look startling like his wife, who despite this perfect gift is still his wife, and it has always held a place in my heart, linked forever with the discrepancy between perception and intent.

Things feel a little like that marionette right now in education. Teachers are working harder than ever to connect to students. They are innovating, putting in long hours, and striving to find ways to help students engage with the material, the class, and each other.

Students are working hard too, and without the comradery that comes from sitting in class with one another, able to lean over and whisper or talk across the table and connect. Separation from those thousand little interactions is profound, and we see the impact it has on kids in big and little ways.

Families are working hard, not just to support the kids, but also to balance the many pressures and obligations, all made more complicated by the pandemic and its impact on our world.

And principals like me are trying to find ways to keep our schools connected. We strive to develop opportunities for students and staff and parents to be active and together, and even as we all put in herculean efforts, lots of time, and all the creativity we can, well…

The results are far from perfect. As much care and craft as we have put in, as much time and thoughtfulness we dedicate to this experience, there are still times when each of us feels like a marionette crumpled in a corner. 


That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t get through this and have a long and happy relationship. Heck, my friend and his wife made it through the perfect gift together. And we will be back on campus together …sometime. Until then, we have our best chance at success, however we define that, if we allow ourselves to pause, take a deep breath (or maybe two or three), and show each other grace. Not every attempt is a success, not every effort yields the results we’d like, but we can do much to support one another, showing kindness even when we’re given a marionette.

One of my attempts at helping my school community stay centered is a series of “Fireside Chats” that I’ve been filming over the past few months. Sure they’re silly, just me and a green screen, but they’re as heartfelt as my friend’s marionette. The story for this post was the topic of my most recent chat, and you can chuckle at my buffoonery here:

Weird

Spring was weird. Leaving school on Friday the 13th of March and scrambling with students gone for the rest of the year was an exercise in collective crisis management. We marshaled through classes and a graduation of sorts, but that spring of 2020, separated by the pandemic and uncertain of the future, was strange to say the least.

The start of school was weird. No matter how effective our drive through events were, or how well we mastered Zoom for classes and events like Open Mic Night, a school building without students just doesn’t feel right.

Halloween was weird. We made the most of it to be sure, with a walk through Fall Fest that was filled with the wild imaginations and positivity of our students, but even so it wasn’t the amazing energy of Halloween in the halls of ACMA, where creative kids and an excuse to dress up even more leads to magic.

And this week, Thanksgiving. With the governor’s latest order to pause all gatherings and cut back even being at work, COVID-19 cases on the rise, and a swirl of uncertainty all around, Thanksgiving promises to be…

…more important than ever.

Because being thankful, particularly at this time, is so important.

This isn’t to gloss over the difficulties, the stress, or the heartbreak; life, if we’re being honest, reminds us of all that every day. What it is to day is that taking time to appreciate those around us, say thanks for the big and little kindnesses, and strive to share some kindness ourselves, all this can help to make a difference in how we understand the world around us.

This year, more than ani I can remember, I’m thankful for my family and our pets, who I get to see every day, and the friends I can’t see in person as often as I’d like. I’m thankful for the passionate, kind, and caring educators I get to work with, the students I look forward to seeing in person again sometime (and sometime we will get to see each other outside of a computer screen), and the ACMA families who so often show me such kindness.

I’m thankful for the little things that feel so big and so good: running into a student and her family when I’m out on a walk, seeing a parent I know at the grocery store, getting to talk with the handful of staff who come to campus when I’m there.

I’m also thankful for the nurses and doctors and extraordinarily caring CNAs who have made a difference in my own family’s life this year. For the people who help people, the people who care so much, and the people who give of themselves to others who are in need.

I know that the stresses of the world are many and that they can feel overwhelming at times, but this week isn’t a time to catalogue woes, rather it’s a time to appreciate all that’s right. 

Anything else would be weird.