A Difficult Quartet

We are humans. Even working at a school filled with creativity and joy, kindness, laughter, and a healthy sense of fun, it would be foolish or disingenuous to imagine that the professional life of any educator is free from the tragedy, heartbreak, and the fear that is a part of what it means to be alive.

I do my best to use my voice to celebrate the good things, sometimes talking about the hard work it takes to achieve those positive results, sometimes simply marveling at the good in the world. And…

That’s true, but only part of the story.

In addition to the joy that comes from working with students, the path of being an educator leads through some swamps and dark forests as well. This summer, as I’m comforted by the warm weather and long sunshiny days, I’ve made it a goal to finish four books that challenge me to engage with some of the more difficult aspects of my journey as a principal.

To be my best for the students, staff, and families I work with, I need to face the harder truths of being a human and being an educator. For me, bookish by nature, this means opening some volumes that don’t feature a detective in a deerstalker.

Four books in my backpack this summer include a case study on gun violence, a memoir about a brother’s suicide, a novel by one of my former students addressing the impact of domestic violence, and a book by a psychologist on grieving the loss of a child. This is not going to be easy reading; it is instead important reading.

As a principal I see students and families at their best, and I see students and families in their times of their greatest stress. The books on my list speak to that stress, and I hope will give me insight as I work with my school community to be the best support for them I can be. As summer ends I’ll fashion a post or two out of this summer reading and the ideas and implications that inform my own work. For anyone who might want to talk about these topics, and the books on my list, I’ll share titles and authors now.

Rampage CoverI started Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman this winter, prompted by the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School. Thorough and well researched, the book contains a pair of case studies and takes as its ambitious goal answering the question: “Why violence erupts in close-knit communities – and what can be done to stop it.” It’s sobering that this book was published in 2004. That said, there is no call greater than keeping our students safe, and while gun violence is rare in comparison to other dangers our kids face, the reality of life as a building principal has expanded since I got into education to include an understanding of this dark reality of our world.

100 tricks100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, a memoir by Oregon’s Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, carries the subtitle “How My Brother Disappeared.” Through stories and reflections, Stafford details his brother’s death from suicide and the life they shared before that tragic event. Suicide is a reality that frightens parents and educators, a spectre that students hear about, talk about, and sometimes consider. In one of my first years as an administrator I witnessed first hand what happened after a student took his own life, and the impact that had on family, friends, and our school community. Referrals for students with suicidal ideation are not uncommon, and with each I feel a pang of anxiety and a desire to make a difference. Stafford’s memoir has the courage to discuss this difficult topic, not because that discussion doesn’t hurt, but because, as he puts it, “the darkest things hurt more when they are not told.”

towellOregon author Gayle Towell wrestles with those “darkest things” as well in her 2015 novel Broken Parts. I’ve read her harrowing novella Blood Gravity, and through that moving and brutal work was introduced to brothers Jake and Ben, whose abuse at the hands of their father inform a struggle to cope with the past as they move forward, perhaps together. I don’t know exactly what to expect of Broken Parts, but I do know that Towell’s unflinching courage to deal directly with topics that many would hope to avoid promises a novel with lessons I need to learn as a person who works with young people.

lossThe Unspeakable Loss: How do you live after a child dies? by Nisha Zenoff, PhD was given to me by two parents who had found some comfort within its pages. As they explained it to me, The Unspeakable Loss “is a book that has practical tips to support grieving families and children.” The power and purpose I have witnessed in these parents is profound, and my wish is that as I read this book I will gain some understanding about what I can do to help as a principal and as a person.

I’d love never to need the perspective I may glean from these volumes, but I know that being informed and prepared for the most difficult situations is a part of my job, a responsibility of my calling, and a commitment I have to the students, staff, and families around me. This difficult quartet of books offers an opportunity to learn more. I hope to be ready to hear their truth.

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Outdoor Dance

I never wrote about the time
the parent called me
a punk ass bitch.

For the most part
my scribblings aim at a higher purpose
celebrating this or that
pondering thus and such
trying to make sense
cheer on hope
or notice something small and splendid
in the greater world.

But it’s been time enough now
since that night
when the woman in the bathrobe
holding a flashlight
in one hand
pointing with the other
feet wide apart, for balance,
breath rich with spirits
stood at the top of the steps
just outside the main office
staring at me with eyes
gone wild.

I was
ridiculously
wearing a cowboy hat
relieved that the western themed outdoor dance was over
the kids streaming down the stairs
heading home
laughing, still so young, and filled
with the music they’d been moving to
for hours now, dusk until dark.

At first I thought she was joking
appearing at a school
dressed for breakfast
smelling of happy hour
toting that flashlight like she was on a campout.

But she made it clear
that she was deadly serious
about how loud the music sounded
waving an arm toward the courtyard behind her
silent now
kids cleaning up
a few bales of straw, some streamers,
parent volunteers heading home
and while she did not live in the house
across the street
tonight she was staying there
sensibly, I thought

and because of us she could not sleep.

Students in cowboy hats
slid behind her and down the stairs
like rolling desert hills
outside a moving stagecoach.
My assistant principal
took up a position behind me
a security guard
nervous of the woman’s drunkenness
joined him
a posse of sorts.

I watched her tortured eyes
narrow
as she screamed
teeth showing
as she heard me
say nothing
giving time for the students to leave.

We stayed like that until
my silence was not enough
and the woman lurched forward
brought her palm hard against
the brim of my hat
causing the security guard to flinch
and my eyes to widen
and my assistant principal to swallow a laugh
as she found the words
she was looking for
spitting as best she could:
“Punk ass bitch.”

The kids were mostly gone by then
and our conversation seemed at a natural end
so, adjusting my hat
and understanding that she would probably not
accept the offer
I invited my date
to meet for coffee
in my office on Monday morning.

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Twain’s Undertaker

Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up, right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait- you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry- just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the pow-wow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then, in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided, and glided, around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.”

-from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There’s a spot in Huck Finn when the undertaker drifts out a funeral and takes care of a loud noise. When he returns he makes the marvelous choice to share what happened, information appreciated by our young protagonist and the rest of the assembled mourners.

As a principal, I do my best to emulate that thoughtful undertaker.

The information I have and the perspective my position affords me are precious, and I never take that for granted. If I’m able to communicate something, I do, and from time to time I’m told by students, parents, and staff that they appreciate it. Who doesn’t like to know? But there are times when the nature of what’s going on requires greater discretion and the tight lips of a sailor committed to keeping his navy afloat. There are times I can’t say anything.

undertakerIt’s in these times that the imperfect best I can muster is to listen to concerns, both the heartfelt and the accusatory, acknowledge the person across the table from me, say what I can, and hope that they can get from me some modest understanding that despite the silence, we share a vision for the best school ours can be, and a desire to support every student.

Sometimes that doesn’t come through.

There are those willing to say their point of view and then suspend disbelief long enough for me to do my quiet job behind the scenes. There are other times I take some punches.

It means that as a principal I need to have a clear vision of what’s right and a dedication to all students that guides all my work.

Like a compass in a tempest, clarity of purpose and commitment to kids can help weather the waves of emotion and lightning strikes of anger and frustration. The journey of a school, and every principal’s voyage too, isn’t measured by the outcome of an hour, but is judged by progress over time.

I trust that if I do what’s right by kids and strive to work toward a school that knows compassion, caring, and the value of hard work, then all will be well …even if there are times I can’t say everything about it.

Summer Dinosaurs

Summer here, it’s time for some must needed renewal. Even for those of us who love what we do, education is a profession that demands energy. To do it well means not scrimping on engagement, taking time to do things right, and giving of ourselves in the service of something great. The pace, never slack, seems to pick up as the school year rolls on, bursting into an outright sprint by the time April turns into May.

This wild rumpus is amazing, filled with adventure and often the unexpected. But sometimes, as emotions run high and the rush of the world makes it difficult to keep perspective, those adventures take us to places where the opportunities to make a difference feel more like climbing a mountain than walking on the beach.

Lost WorldSummer means beaches.

For me, in addition to the literal visit to the coast, renewal comes from familiar quarters. Family. Good books. Time in nature.

A recent trip to Lincoln City provided just that renewal. Poking around a little used bookstore I happened upon a book that had dodged my reading life for decades. I’m a confessed Sherlock Holmes fanatic; from my easy chair I’ve enjoyed hours on the moors with Arthur Conan Doyle tracking the footprints of a gigantic hound, but I realized that I’d never formally met Professor Challenger, the hero of his 1912 potboiler about a plateau in South America where the Jurassic Period never ended, The Lost World.

It was time to chase some dinosaurs.

Now pterodactyl pursuit is not an activity for the school year. Too many pulls on time and real life stresses vie for attention. The real world gets in the way of many a ripping good yarn.

Being a principal means finding a way to display fortitude while discovering renewal in little gulps. The long days and daily responsibilities, as positive as they can be and as filled with possibility as they often are, demand attention, and the reality of knowing that at any minute the phone might ring with news from campus or our school community. This could cut short a night out, or turn a weekend into a workday.

But, ah, summer.

Summer is a time for dinosaurs.

So I put aside planning for a long afternoon, left off the work that I’ll be better able to tackle with the fresh perspective that comes from a little time away, and left the bookstore with a paperback of The Lost World.

Back on the beach I read Doyle’s epigraph:

I have wrought my simple plan
    If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
    Or the man who’s half a boy.”

How important it is for those of us who work with kids to allow ourselves to revisit the feeling of youth. Taking care of ourselves is not always something we educators do best, though to be our best selves it’s something we need to do.

Sometimes that’s time with family, a hike, or paddling a kayak. Sometimes it’s allowing ourselves to follow footprints in the sand that might belong to a gigantic hound …or maybe a dinosaur.

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August Opinions and May Truths

I’ll confess to being one of those people who read more than one book at a time. Some books read faster than others, you see, so that collection of Raymond Carver short stories came and went from my nightstand faster than Conan Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown, and a few slim volumes of poetry hurried through April, outpacing a book about John Milton I started back at the end of summer. I picked up that biography this week, opened it to find my page, and discovered that the bookmark was a business card, the same rectangle of card stock on which I’d written the notes for my opening speech at back to school night.

IMG_6921At ACMA we do back to school night on the week before students start classes. It’s an unconventional approach in keeping with the creative spirit of our school. Students are encouraged to join parents and guardians as they meet the teachers and see the classrooms where they’ll learn in the year ahead. It’s earlier than early, and it provides us all with a chance to connect before we start the wild rumpus that is a school year.

The principal’s welcoming remarks to the evening follow right after an ice cream social. “So very ACMA,” some might say. They’d be right.

So naturally I paused from my biography and read through my notes for the welcome speech. I’ve long been a person who would rather speak from the heart than be tethered to a script, but this had been my first speech at ACMA, and I remember scribbling out ideas I didn’t want to miss.

“Happy New Year,” the card read, and “Thanks.”

The start of a school year does warrant that celebratory exclamation, and one can never go wrong opening with an appreciation.

This was especially true for me this August, as I stepped into a school new to me, hoping to earn the respect and live up to the kindness ACMA’s school community had already shown me. In May that “Thanks” is heartfelt, said with real appreciation for an almost completed school year that has been filled with creativity, kindness, and more than a few surprises.

IMG_6918Present too were the to be expected challenges of being a part of something greater than oneself, participating in a community of diverse opinions, powerful perspectives, and creative souls.

“Challenges,” the card read beneath “Renewal” and “Fresh Start,” but “Challenges faced together.” I’ve long held that we should not try to avoid the difficult choice or crucial conversation, we should not hide from what is difficult, but face it collectively. Thinking about the hard work that has been a part of this school year, and of the amazing staff, students, and parents I get to work with, those three words carry a truth I’m proud to be a part of.

“Challenges
Faced Together”

And then a reason why, an articulation on the back of that business card of who we are as a school community. I knew, even in those first nervous notes, that ACMA is here to:

“Support our kids
Artistically
Academically
and as people.”

We do. We have. We will.

I closed that first speech by pointing to the heroes. Back to school nights are not about the principal’s welcome; they are about the professionals who have the greatest impact on our students’ lives: the teachers.

I remember standing there in August, in front of the ACMA community for the first time, and looking out at the parents and students, some still finishing their ice cream, and seeing teachers scattered throughout the crowd wearing their staff shirts, smiling. They were, and are, inspirations to me as much as they are to the kids.

That night I ended my remarks by glancing down at that wrinkled business card, now a bookmark, and saying proudly what I know was the most important part of the night. The teachers, who play a huge role in our students’ lives, are here, I said.

“Tonight you’ll meet them.”

Those teachers, so passionate and purposeful about the work they do with students, are more than just the best part of back to school night. Looking back at my notes scribbled on the back of that card, I recognize that anything I am as a principal is empty without all those truths behind it. The front of my metaphoric business card may be professional, but it matters because of the truths written behind it:

The optimism of “Happy New Year.”
The appreciation of “Thanks.”
The valuing of “Renewal” and “Fresh Starts.”
The acknowledgement that Challenges must be Faced Together.
The focus of Supporting our Kids in all ways.
And the understanding of the importance of those I work with every day.

It feels even truer now than it did in August.

Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.

Bustling Ducks

Spring in Oregon means that it was sunny and 89° when I took my daughter to soccer practice on Thursday afternoon and a rainy 57° when she played in her game on Saturday morning. The blossoms are on the trees, the grass is growing at a rapid rate, and the world around campus feels like it’s speeding up as we rush headlong through April showers and May flowers toward graduation in early June.

It means that students are hurrying to keep (or get) their grades where they want them, teachers are rushing to get in the lessons they want to before the end of the year, and everyone is thinking about what needs to get done before mortarboards take to the air and the bustle of spring is replaced by the quiet drone of a bee in summer.

At an art school like ours, spring also means performances, exhibitions, and celebrations of creativity. In the past four weeks alone, our performing arts center has played host to a musical, a visiting German piano quartet, a story slam, dance recital, jazz and classical performance, and huge art exhibition. We’ll add a choir concert, film night, and another dance show before the month is out, and cap it all off with commencement in June rich in student performances.

But we are a school that likes applause, and as crazy busy as the last few weeks have been, I don’t think there is one of us who would want it any less so.

It was against the backdrop of this frenzied springtime that Mother Nature provided us a moment of pause and reflection. On a warm Thursday morning, ahead of a hot afternoon, I got a call on my radio that I needed to go to the courtyard near the rear of the PAC. I was still on my first cup of coffee, but thought I heard the word “visitors,” which in the nomenclature of school walkie-talkies means trouble as often as it announces welcome guests.

I grabbed my sunglasses (springtime invites optimism) and headed out, hurrying past students who seemed to be drifting eagerly toward the alley between the performing arts center and the Quonset Hut that serves as our cafeteria.

I picked up my pace, doing my best to keep that sense of calm a good principal should as I turned the corner and saw them.

My head custodian had arrived first, so our guest was hissing a him as students watched and a few took video with their phones.

But he kept his cool, gesturing the smiling kids back and whispering loudly to give the mother and her ducklings room to waddle out of the student walkway and onto the neighboring grass.

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For an instant we were, all of us, caught up in the lives of these ducklings. And I thought that no matter what character in this story that we are in the moment: fuzzy youth, hissing mama duck, or shepherding custodian, for us spring is a season of surprises, action, and (as when those ducklings stepped onto the green, green grass) applause.