The Tree in the Tempest

FrostI wish the world got spring break.

Last week, sitting at the neighborhood pool on the opening day of baseball season, I found myself reading Robert Frost while my kids swam, splashed, and sprayed water on each other with laughing exuberance. There was, I thought to myself, something overwhelmingly Americana about the whole scene. All I needed was a cowboy hat.

Education in the United States doesn’t get everything right, but one exquisitely correct decision is spring break.

Before the break it felt like the world was in a sour mood. I’d done my best to keep some equilibrium, even as in my role as principal I worked with students, parents, and teachers all trying to stay civil when confronted with situations decidedly frustrating.

I like to consider myself a gentleman, so I won’t chronicle the specifics of these …conversations, but the upshot was that more than a couple of people, and people I like and respect, left my office having been confronted with that difficult word “no.”

Spirits across campus seemed low, for many folks, not just those frustrated friends, and my Friday ended with a flurry of emails setting up meetings to discuss “next steps” (two horrible words in the world of administration) as soon as we got back from the week away.

Fast forward to the pool.

Art, as art so often does, offered perspective. In “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road” Robert Frost wrote:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are”

Yes, I needed some separation, some time to breathe, some space to read a little poetry, and once I had I could more clearly see that those oppositional interactions of the week before weren’t malicious or without reason. Nor, I realized, did they need to be journey ending.

Being forced to articulate my decisions and point of view, whether that articulation was well received or not, makes me a better principal. The more I can see the challenges of my professional life like Frost’s fallen tree, there not to bar passage, but to invite clarity, the more I can focus on finding answers and leaving frustrations behind.

Poetry invites us to avoid pettiness. It encourages reflection and prompts us to be our best selves.

Of course I’m scribbling these lines on a yellow legal pad at a table by that same pool where I read Frost, still days away from those meetings set the Friday before spring break. Those conversations loom, ready to test the optimism and perspective as vibrant today as the kids’ laughter.

It’s easy to have hope on vacation; the true test is to put that spirit into practice when faced with fallen trees.

San Dieguito Principals

There are seventeen of us, eighteen if you count Rizzi, who was principal twice. It’s not a crazy number for eighty years, not when you consider that in that time there have been fourteen US presidents, nine United Nations Secretary Generals, and a dozen Dr. Whos.

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As you’d expect, lining us up in black and white photos you see a mix of serious expressions and dark ties. You notice high foreheads and mostly conservative jackets. Some of us are smiling in our official portraits, though just about everyone looks as if he or she could lay down a detention if bad came to worse.

Being a principal brings doses of joy and stress. My own time in this office, the same office principals have occupied since Arthur Main in 1937, has shown me that I have a unique and wonderful seat from which to watch the parade of youth that marches through the breezeways at San Dieguito. And what a cavalcade it has been for the past eighty years.

photo 2 (5)Watching those students learn and teachers teach, shouldering the responsibility that comes with the job, and managing everything from construction to academics, the company I have the privilege to keep is an interesting bunch.

Arthur Main was the first principal at San Dieguito, opening the school in 1936 in rented tents and a borrowed elementary school. He was followed by Donovan Cartwright, the San Dieguito principal who looked most like Errol Flynn, and Tom Preece, who faced a polio epidemic at San Dieguito that delayed the start of school in 1948. These three faced the challenges of opening a school, and a district, and building the foundation on which the post war growth would build.

William Mace and Matthew Korwin were at the helm in the 1950s, joined by San Dieguito fixture David Davidson, the first San Dieguito superintendent who was not also the high school’s principal. As the scare of communism rose, they saw San Dieguito through challenging political times, a preview of what would happen when sometime a decade later all hell broke loose.

photo 1 (4)Don Crickmore, for whom the current baseball diamond is named, was principal to begin 1960, followed by John Clark, who saw San Dieguito leave the 1950s behind and embrace a spirit of freedom that challenged many and enlivened others. The serious expression Mr. Clark wears in his yearbook portrait was earned through stress both local and national. His ability to navigate the challenges of the job was great.

Leonard Morris and William Hershey guided San Dieguito through the 1970s, a time of freedom and creativity. Their smiling faces and substantial sideburns speak of a campus that had left the buttoned down 1950s far behind and was looking forward toward an independence of spirit that has never left the school.

photo 3 (4)The 1980s belonged to Sal Ramirez, whose eleven year tenure is the longest of any San Dieguito principal. Described by some as student centered and fair, Mr. Ramirez was an enigma to some, a hero to others, and a frustration to a few. In a word, he was a principal. So often those of us who put on a tie and do our best to lead a school find ourselves in situations that challenge our best decisions. To serve in one position for more than a decade speaks to a talent increasingly rare.

Penny Cooper Francisco followed Mr. Ramirez in 1993, inheriting a staff in need of some uniting. Indefatigable, a colleague told me “she didn’t expect anyone to work any harder than she did, but boy did she work!”  She listened, guided, and cared, and was remembered by staff as a natural-born leader who led with inspiration and a wonderful sense of humor.

Don Rizzi, who had served as an assistant principal at San Diegutio began his first tour of duty as principal in 1995, presiding over the division of the school into San Diegutio High School Academy and the new high school, La Costa Canyon. It wasn’t to be Mr. Rizzi’s last time in the office, nor his longest run as principal.

photo (1)When San Dieguito opened in the fall of 1996, Fran Fenical began her tenure as principal of the newly christened “academy.” With vision and purpose, Ms. Fenical helped to create and inspire the “funky” and inclusive culture that defines San Dieguito to this day. This school year, the 80th anniversary of San Dieguito and 20th anniversary of SDA, I’ve been able to witness first hand the love and respect the founding staff of San Diegtuito Academy have toward Fran. When she spoke to our current current body, wearing a tie dyed “Keep SDA Funky” shirt, she was a star.

Both the 12th and 14th principal at San Dieguito, Don Rizzi returned to the principal’s chair in 2002, bringing with him a smile and sense of good will. He served as principal until 2005 and in that time saw the school blossom, evolve, and continue to grow.

MG2Four of us fill the final dozen years of San Dieguito’s most recent history. Barbara Gauthier, Mike Grove, Tim Hornig, and I each took a turn in the wood paneled office overlooking the front of the school. Ours are memories still too fresh for history to digest, but each of us brought our best selves to the job and left with a bit of San Dieguito pixie dust still clinging to our suits.

Throughout our school’s eighty years San Dieguito has shown that it is greater than any individual, a strong school spirit constant even as the person in the principal’s chair changes. This sense of school is important, sustaining, and promises that whatever the next eighty years bring and whomever the next eighteen principals will be (Rizzi again?), San Dieguito will continue to be the special place so many call home.

“Yo Jay, yo Jay, check this out!”

We ended the drive with the five of us singing “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a swinging tune that sums up at least a part of my swirling emotions as principal at San Dieguito. Four amazing students, creative, funny, and kind, had asked me to shed any administrative dignity I might have and join them for Carpool Karaoke. “Yes” was the right answer, and by the end of the ride the lyrics to that Sinatra song had never been so true.

2Being a principal means being willing to play, participate, and share laughter with students. It also means shouldering responsibility, working hard and sometimes long hours, and bringing as much balance as possible to the job. Keeping students first in my mind helps me do that.

So today, as ASB kids filmed a segment for the spring assembly, I hopped into a car and did my best to destroy a series of marvelous songs.

They’d asked me if I had anything I wanted to sing, and before I answered I thought about it, only to realize that the music I listen to falls into two categories: old, old, old stuff (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, so out of their world as to be unrecognizable) and rock and roll not suitable for a principal to croon (let’s be honest, it simply isn’t appropriate to hear the principal sing almost any song by Prince, The Pogues, or Social Distortion). So I made only one suggestion, an unexpected ditty that I thought would be worth a laugh, and I left the rest of the playlist up to the students.

3We started innocently enough, with a little Bowie. Parking is an ongoing challenge at our school, so we set the narrative of our video as my helping the driver, a senior, find a place to park. There was no more natural soundtrack than us mm-ba-ba-de-de-bum-bum’ing our way through Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

We laughed, anyway.

Next, I revisited my misspent youth with an unexpected riff on Run DMC’s “Son of Byford,” my driver beat boxing as he shook his head that this old man would know the words of any rap song.

The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” did not go so smoothly, but by the time we belted out “The Time of My Life,” a fitting farewell to SDA, we’d both hit our stride.

4Half an hour later, thinking we had enough footage to be cut and spliced into at least 30 seconds of entertainment, we headed back to the front lot. As we did, laughing that there might be no songs that we both knew the words to, we picked up three ASB students who were helping film and edit the video. They piled into the back and I apologized as we pulled away from the curb. “I only know Sinatra songs,” I said, and from the back seat I heard: “Pull over.”

Then, with a quickness that surprised me, my driver found a series of Old Blue Eyes songs on his phone. From the back seat came the suggestion for “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and without hesitation we broke into song.

I don’t know if the cameras were rolling as we drove back to my office, but I do know that those two minutes will remain in my memory as some of the most joyful I’ve had here at San Dieguito.

1I’d thought that my choice of Run DMC would be the biggest surprise of the day, but (as is so true so often at this fabulously funky school) it was the students who surprised me. They were so kind to invite me to join the fun, they put up with my inability to sing, and they even knew a little Sinatra. A delight.

Stairway to…

photo 2The steps got me thinking about construction being done. On Tuesday I walked past, delighted to see wood framing on the dirt hill leading up to San Dieguito’s newest classroom building, a two story structure that will house nine new science labs and another ten classrooms. It will be the tallest building on campus, ready to open in the fall of 2017.

The path from the past to the future, in this case a path from two mid-century bunker like concrete monsters to this modern academic edifice has been long. Permits and permissions delayed the start of the project, and even when the first shovel dug into the ground the scope of the work showed itself as enormous.

boxWhose idea it had been to erect two windowless buildings on a Southern California plot of land with both sea breezes and an ocean view I’ll leave to others to imagine, but the reality was a demolition that was unquestionably the right choice. It was a big job; the buildings were reinforced concrete, tons of it, and the resulting work made the center of campus look like a hurricane had blown through.

As the principal, it was my job to stay centered and help the school community understand that all would be well. Any change has the potential to raise anxiety, and this kind of dramatic undoing of years of the familiar did just that. At first.

This anxiety was exacerbated by the fact that decades of student art was affixed to the walls of the condemned buildings; senior tiles, mosaics, and murals would be destroyed as the buildings came down. We weathered the storm with the help of our art teachers’ reassurance, our students’ kindness, and our alumni’s understanding.

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Every week I met with the construction company and bond team. I articulated school concerns, advocated for SDA, and ensured that everything being done was both sensitive to the fact that construction was taking place on a working school campus and that the decisions we were making would, in the long term, good for kids.

As well as I could, I did my best to distill the construction information and share it with our school community. Emails and regular updates at staff meetings and parent coffees all helped. I even put together a video to show off the initial phases of the work. Communicating what was going on behind the construction fences was my responsibility as certainly as the foreman’s was to make sure progress was on schedule.

photo 1We invited that foreman and the project manager to come to one of our staff meetings. Putting a human face on the work went a long way in helping those of us on the school side of the house understand that it wasn’t just that a building was going up on campus, but that Jesse and Michelle were constructing a building on campus.

Along the way we watched buildings disappear, witnessed an amazing amount of hard work, and saw the new building emerge from the rubble.

As walls went up and a roof peeked over the 1930s era building in our main quad, folks started imagining what this new structure would bring to campus. Science teachers began talking about table tops and chemical storage, math teachers started discussing the merits of desks versus tables, and the whole school looked up and said things like “wow!”

photo 4For me, the guy whose Thursdays were increasingly dominated by construction meetings, the visible milestones (windows installed, stucco applied, scaffolding down) were reassuring. I knew how many people need to work together to create such a building, and what pressure they are under with regard to time, budget, and collaboration.

Then, late in the fall, as work moved inside the new building even more than outside, everyone watching was left to wonder: “What’s going on in there?”

Using photos snapped by the foreman, I shared glimpses into the labs and classrooms, and waited with the others for a chance to walk inside.

One February day we saw the lights go on, not the portable lighting drywallers use, but the classroom overheads. Progress!

The hardscape around the building began to take shape. Some of the wooden fences were replaced by chain link, and the final pieces of the roof went up, perfectly matching construction from 1937. As our superintendent said on one visit: “It looks like it just belongs here.”

photo 5It does.

And Tuesday, when I walked past that framing, I thought: “We’re getting closer.”

Wednesday the stairs were poured.

I thought: “We’re almost there.”

To see the end of a project coming close is a feeling as sweet as the road there is rough.

Looking up those stairs I see a future bright for students, a haven for learning, experimenting, and solving problems. I can imagine generations of students walking up those steps (and the countless skateboarders coming down them) and there on that hill I see possibility.

Construction is never easy and seldom without challenges, but seeing the results and knowing how positive those results can be for students and teachers helps to put into perspective the effort needed to achieve it.

It’s just about time to walk up those stairs.

construction cartoon

Spring in the Air

photo-3-1There’s a shift in the school year when the time comes around for kids to start playing ball. Those gray days of winter still lurk nearby, and we all worry that water is pooling too much on the infield, but as the March sun punches through February’s clouds, drying the dirt and bringing life to the birds, there’s a palpable feeling that spring is in the air and summer is around the corner just waiting to be summoned with those two magical words: “Play ball!”

Spring sports at a high school are a high water mark for student participation. In addition to softball and baseball, lacrosse begins, the boys are playing tennis, golf and volleyball start up, and the largest team most schools ever see begins to jump, run, and shot put around the track and field.

513Those student athletes know that the difficult hours of practice they put in during the cool weather of March will pay off under the May sun, and their seasons starting up remind us all that graduation is closer than we think.

As a principal, this time of year is busy with preparation: for next year’s master schedule, giving tours to prospective students and families, and making sure that our ducks are in the proverbial row for state testing, senior activities, and ultimately that final day when mortarboards take to the air. Along the way there are retirements to commemorate, student awards to celebrate, and teachers to hire.

But this can also be a “tired time” as my former superintendent used to call it, a long stretch between winter and spring break. It’s a part of the year where we do well to try to be more patient with each other, smile a little more, and allow those around us, and ourselves, a little more room to breathe.

photo 1 (2)This is a time to embrace the efforts of others to keep our spirits up: ASB’s Spring Spirit Week, the math department’s “Pi Day,” and (here at SDA) the Dorkathalon.

Cheering on those spring athletes, the embodiment of youth, and spring, and hope, can be inspiring too. Today, if the rain holds off,  I’m going to head out and watch a softball game, and I know that the time spent in the stands promises renewal. Kids playing under the sun has a way of helping put life into perspective.

A Pie in the Face

I went into my 12:30 parent meeting with the smell of Readi Whip in my hair. I’d been sensible enough to bring a change of clothes; when students throw pies at their principals, part of the joy gets taken away if the target in question is covered in a garbage bag and shower cap, but when I lurched back to my office after the pies had flown, whip cream dripping into my eyes, my hair a blur of white and gray, I knew the smell would stick around.

PiePart of being a principal is being willing to play the fool, to dance at an assembly, to join in at a Comedy Sportz performance, and to say “yes” when the students ask you to play.

But those are the fun parts.

Another element of being the guy in the tie is being able to pivot on a dime, transitioning from a classroom observation to a construction meeting, from lunchtime supervision to a school board presentation, from taking a pie in the face to a high stress parent meeting.

Both sides are vital to helping a school thrive, and while the juxtaposition of whimsy and seriousness may seem dramatic, they’re two faces of one job.

The principal needs to be ready for anything.

Today’s Pi Day activities came sandwiched between discussions with parents on how best to help students make healthy decisions to avoid drugs, how we might support a student whose family was moving to the Persian Gulf, and a stressful conversation about a discipline issue. To dodge one to do the other was never an option, and while the frivolity of lunch seemed at odds with the gravitas of the rest of the day, I would argue that both were important to my school.

Being able to talk seriously about the issues that challenge us means that we can make progress toward solving the problems that vex our school community. Keeping a lightness in our collective hearts gives us the strength to make those solutions happen.

I once had a student ask me, with curiosity, not snark, “What do you do as the principal?”

My answer, given honestly, would look different every day.

Last Friday I had to give letters to all my temporary teachers letting them know that they would have to re-interview for their current jobs, I visited a “Senior Java” where the 12th grade class got together for bagels and conversation in the quad, I hosted a graduation planning meeting, met with some history teachers about master scheduling, and was slated to go to a robotics tournament in the evening.

Monday I met with parents about how to support kids in classes, parking tickets, and a contested suspension. A little later in the day two teachers from Japan visited to discuss an exchange program, I spent some time preparing for a parent Foundation meeting, and I visited classrooms.

Pie 2Tuesday, today, my assistant poked her head in my office and said with a smile “looking at the stressful day you have ahead of you, it’s fun to see ‘pie in the face’ on your calendar!” It is. It certainly is.

Perhaps the best answer to that student’s question would have been: “Every day I do my best to help our school.” That’s not a poetic answer, but it is a true one.

Today that work involved tears and whipped cream. Tomorrow, who knows. Whatever it is I welcome the work with a heart open to hope and a mind prepared to listen. And if the kids ask me to sing Carpool Karaoke, I’ll say “yes.”

Late February

photo-2Rain falling outside
students tucked into classes
the clock assuring me
that we still have another hour
before lunch and
the attendant chaos,
a rehearsal for spring,
that comes with the ringing of the bell

My jacket drips from a hook
on my office door
victim of the rain
and a long walk
out to the hinterlands of campus
rooms so far away
from my office
and yet the center of the world
for all the students learning there
of Euclid
Shakespeare
Virginia Woolf
all these names on today’s agenda
in the classes I visited
on my wet walk.

There is a certain calm
to February
on a high school campus
as students, now so much at home,
scribble and jot, type, draw, and discuss
subjects not altogether unfamiliar.

Nothing really seems unfamiliar in February
we’ve spent so long together
and yet
have miles yet to go
before the sunshine of June.

Today we listen to the rain
warm up
and peek out windows
looking for spring.