Theatre is Beautiful

IMG_0096Remnants of memory still fill the walls of the storage area behind the cafeteria, words from across the years looking down on piles of plywood sets and platforms, scraps of faux brick, wooden boxes, swinging stage doors, and even a wooden shield or two. This was once “backstage,” though there wasn’t actually a connecting door that actors could open, when the stage at ACMA was the south end of the Quonset Hut. This was before the Performing Arts Center opened on campus in 2010 and it saw the genesis of theatre at ACMA.

“There wasn’t a shell or cyclorama to hide the wooden backstage structure” recalls Linda Bloom, who taught theatre and tech in that airplane hanger. “One year there was a technical theatre class. The first order of business was to paint the backstage area black. We also painted the stage black. Lots of black paint, many hours, several coats. It was starting to look like a real theatre space.”

Those early shows were adventures in ingenuity for clever directors, flexible performers, and Herculean stage managers. “Dressing Rooms? There were two locker rooms behind the stage area,” explained Linda Bloom. “The custodial staff used one for excess supplies/furniture. The other was for props and costumes, in bad need of organizing. Tech theatre began to hang costumes and label the prop boxes. Casts preferred to change in the school restrooms. This meant the building had to be opened during any type of performance because there were no self-contained restrooms in the food court facility, proper makeup lights were non-existent. The cast put on makeup and dressed in the restrooms, while the audience was also using them.” She laughed at the memory, grief softened by time gone by, and then described the ACMA production of Bullshot Drummond, a crime farce “with about three thousand props, each used barely once.”

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Those long tables of hats, and books, and coffee cups, stretched out in the “prop room,” which Linda explained “was also considered the ‘green room’ where the actors hung when they weren’t on stage. Of course they couldn’t hear the  show, and that meant they couldn’t hear their cues, so frequent visits to the backstage happened often, so as not to miss an entrance.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 9.03.03 AMACMA’s first musical was in that almost real looking space, The Apple Tree, in 2009. Brian Bertram remembers that “it sat roughly eighty people in very uncomfortable chairs. The ‘dressing rooms’ were on either side of the stage, and some overflow in the portables. Nevertheless, we had a two person live band (keyboards by Jodie DeHaven, all other instruments by Alex Milstead). The refrigerators that always had to stay plugged in would kick on in the middle of every performance, and they were SO loud! Performances always smelled like chicken nuggets, and we had little control over the heat. Rehearsals took place all over the school in any found space with a piano.”

That willingness and ability to stand by the old axiom the show must go on was just something ACMA theatre did. Our kids owned “our makeshift stage with pride, confidence, and a love of theatre that transcends the space,” remembers Brian Bertram, “making it a magical place, filled with passion and excitement.”

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The Apple Tree wasn’t the only show with that passion and excitement. Jon Albertson recalled a production of Much Ado About Nothing set as a 1960s Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon beach picture. The war was replaced by a surf contest, and he played the friar while his son played Leonato. “My most vivid memory is completely spacing my lines during the wedding scene,” he told me “and my son leaned over and cued me.”

Performers working together made the space work, sometimes magically.

From Gossip to Kahlo’s View, jazz concerts, dance shows, The Good Doctor, and Antigone, ACMA thespians, musicians, dancers, and other performers made the stage their own.

Even after those programs left the Quonset Hut, whispers of memory remain.

IMG_0102They can be heard with a visit into the rooms behind what was the stage today. On the walls, messages from theatre students (addressed to theatre students) talk about love, appreciation, and the importance of taking risks and making art.

Students who performed in this unique venue could tell you a thing or two about making creative magic.

IMG_1218Ovid’s Metamorphosis, for example, when Director David Sikking and his crew built a giant pond to serve as the stage. Actors were barefoot, and moved over and around the water as part of the show.

…and when they knew it was coming to an end as a performance space, creativity had one last surprise. For ACMA’s production of Alice in Wonderland, theatre techs cut trapdoors in the stage, knowing this was the final show. Fanciful, fabulous, and freeing, the “cafegymnatorium” had one final run to offer the performers.

No matter the space, the creativity that artists bring to their surroundings can be inspiring. As the back of a weathered metal door tucked in the back of what is now a storage room tells anyone willing to listen: “Theatre is Beautiful.”




Hanging in the ether of expectancy
searching for a metaphor
to describe the
eagerness to begin
the disorienting roil of a new environment
a new state
a new school
where every acronym
is off by one letter

My faith is buoyed by
the kindness of
those who will be friends
when months have scrubbed the word
from my title

and a teacher
or parent
or student
walking into my office
doesn’t look around and notice
the differences
but sees in me
and the pictures on my walls
the bookshelves
the plants
the familiar

fish in water
what metaphor you will

And expectancy is replaced
by the feeling of home.



Why does it bring me such joy to hear “Come on Eileen” played at so many student events?

danceBefore assemblies, at lunch in the amphitheater, and at halftime of our homecoming flag football game when the students rushed onto the field for an impromptu dance party, that old 80s standard is as popular this year as any other song the kids pull up when the student body gathers.

It may be that even in a world so different than 1982, a world where culture is complicated and technology makes the Reagan years seem quaint, there is something somehow reassuring in the fact that teeangers still like dancing to Dexys Midnight Runners.


As a high school principal I’m an adult with a front row seat to contemporary adolescence. I may not listen to Bruno Mars, but I’d better know who he is. I’m not unlike a fellow on safari, my pith helmet an SDA ballcap, my jodhpurs a pair of khakis.

I see teenagers in the wild, surrounded by peers, which makes their love of “Come on Eileen” feel a little like catching an ape in the rain forest smoking a cigar.

But the kids aren’t wildlife (a fact that’s true even if you’ve chaperoned a dance) and I’m no explorer. A better analogy: I simply feel like everyone’s dad.

I see in my students a bright future. I wince when I see their pain, grit my teeth at their natural adolescent struggles, and every day do my best to figure out ways to help.

I suppose that’s the real reason why seeing them enjoy something familiar to my own youth is both comforting and hopeful.

Despite that look they show their parents in reply to sensible advice, the kids haven’t figured it out, just as my generation hadn’t when Boy George was talking about chameleons and Frankie was going to Hollywood. While we like to believe that we can make sense of it all (whatever “it all” is) as adults, the truth is that there is still much confusion in our world, uncertainty, and anxiety. There is also hope, and joy, and room for optimism. What better response than a rousing chorus of:

Come on, Eileen ta-loo-rye-ay
Come on, Eileen ta-loo-rye-ay!”

Time Capsule

334It smelled older than 2000.

Major construction unearthed a two foot by two foot metal cube in a spot on campus that had long been rumored to contain a time capsule. No one knew when it had been put into the ground, but the rust and grit encrusting it suggested age.

We pulled it from the ground and a forklift brought it to the library, where we put it on display through the winter with hopes it might generate some discussion and prompt some of our alumni to remember days gone by. Then we found out that nobody remembered burying the thing.

So we asked everyone we could find. Some alumni remembered burying a time capsule in the mid 1970s. Others suggested the 80s. Someone thought early 90s. No one knew for sure.

At our annual faculty and staff reunion former teachers and past graduates looked at the box and made guesses. None could actually remember the metal cube going underground, but they all agreed that it looked old.

723The day we finally opened it up the school gathered with expectation and a crowbar. Our metals teacher and some intrepid students loosened the bolts and pried open the top. It took some work, but finally the top opened and inside…

…smelled horrible.

Inside we found newspapers, magazines, letters, and a reminder that if one is to put together a time capsule waterproofing is really important.

Looking through the contents that survived sixteen years in the ground, I thought about the differences between 2000 and today.


After we opened it up a graduate brought in photos of students filling the time capsule in 2000

George Clooney looked younger.

Cassette tapes existed.

The students at San Dieguito at the turn of the millennium were still closer to their brethren of the 1980s than  students of today. Terms like “smart phones” and “instagram” weren’t part of their lives. Few knew of groups like al-Quaeda, the Department of Homeland Security, or Maroon 5. Charles Shultz was still writing Peanuts.

On San Dieguito’s campus students still listened to Blink-182, skated down the San Dieguito ten step, and learned physics from George Stimson. In addition to Mr. Stimson, fourteen other teachers here in 2017 were at SDA in the year 2000. Yet from boom boxes to break dancing, the world of 2000 feels farther away than seventeen years. Should it be strange then that the time capsule looked the part?

736Next month our current students will put their own time capsule into the earth not far from where the class of 2000 lowered theirs into the ground. What will the world look like years from now when students (perhaps not yet born) paw through the flotsam and jetsam of 2017? I assume George Clooney will still look good.

Time marches, here at San Dieguito with a bit of a skip in its step, and to try to freeze any moment in time is as foolish as it is tempting.

741The memories that our students are creating are real, just as were those of students from the year 2000, or the 1970s, or the 1950s, or the 1930s, and I’m sure that if a principal twenty years from now sets about chronicling San Dieguito for its hundredth anniversary the results will be moving and concrete remembrances of a school filled with creativity and caring.

A time capsule captures something different, merely facts and objects. That photograph we pulled from the rusty metal box isn’t as clear as the memories from any of the students in the picture. The world that emerged from that rusted metal box, mildewed as it was, is less vibrant that any story a graduate might tell.

As we reflect on San Dieguito’s eighty years as a school, I invite us all to gather not news clippings but people’s stories. I encourage anyone interested in the history of our school to find a graduate, a teacher or former teacher, and ask them what it was like when…

San Dieguito is more than a place; it is a collection of people, a collection of memories, and a collection of stories. These carry more weight than wet newsprint.


Developing Empathy

Next month our San Dieguito Book Club will gather to talk about Michele Borba’s book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. The book is divided into three parts: Developing, Practicing, and Living Empathy, and over the next few weeks I’ll do a post on each section as a teaser for our discussion, an invitation for folks to read the book, or maybe just food for our school community’s collective thought.

Empathy is a value close to our hearts here at San Dieguito, where we pride ourselves on a campus environment where students can be themselves and can learn from each other. I have the privilege of MCing a school assembly with a student this Friday, and at the end of the assembly we’re going to do our best to sing that last tune from The Blues Brothers. It’s introduced by Dan Ackroyd’s character, and the adapted monologue we’ll use will go like this: “We’re so glad to see so many of you lovely people here today. We certainly hope you all enjoyed the show. And remember, people, that no matter who you are and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there’re still some things that makes us all the same. You. Me. Them. Everybody. Everybody.” That’s when we launch into Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.

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I’m so thankful that San Dieguito strives to be that somebody to our students, staff, and families.

But how do we develop empathy? In Unselfie, Borba suggests that students can learn “emotional literacy” and that doing so matters much. “Before you can empathize,” she writes, “you have to be able to read someone else’s, or your own, emotions so you can tune in to their feelings.” How then, to do this important work?

Borba cites our “plugged in” culture as hampering our efforts to connect emotionally, as well as our differing gender expectations, but ultimately lands on the side of optimism, writing:

New science shows babies arrive hardwired to tune in to feelings. But parents must hold those simple, old-fashioned, back-and-forth chats with face to face-to-face connections to nurture their children’s capacity to care.”

Old fashioned conversation. Listening. Talking with those we care about.

Sounds like a book club.

Or good parenting, good teaching, and good friendship.

Borba goes on to lay out specific ideas for teaching empathy including playing with babies, caring for pets, tutoring children, and talking with older relatives. Her chapter about helping students “stop and tune in, look face to face, focus on feelings, and express the feelings” not only inspired me to think about how I parent, but also to think about how I interact with those around me.

But recognizing emotions in others, and even listening to their stories, isn’t the end of the story. In a culture in which Borba says “narcissism is an epidemic in the western world” and where “many schools are joining the ‘self-esteem bandwagon’” developing a “moral identity” that includes a work ethic, empathy, and altruism takes conscious effort.
This thoughtful and particular effort is a highlight of Borba’s second chapter, where she suggests that:

What we say about our children helps define who they are the type of people they believe themselves to be. Too much praise can make kids more self-centered, more competitive, and more prone to cut others down. Too little encouragement can erode self esteem. But the right words can help children see themselves as kids, considerate, caring people and want to act in a way that supports that image.”

Borba suggests strategies and specific ideas for how to find and use these “right words” and “age-by-age strategies” for helping students develop their own moral identities. Many of these ideas strike me as “those simple, old-fashioned, back-and-forth chats” that our world could use more of.

In addition, she gives educators much to think about with regard to challenging students, and gives administrators like me the important prompting to have discussions about the value of productive academic struggle in the process of learning, and the need to focus on learning, not just issuing high grades. In a world of supercharged college applications this can be easier said than done, but easy isn’t one of the promises of our work and doing the right thing sometimes takes more grit than taking the easier route.

cover-unselfie-by-michele-borba-500x750One route Borba suggests is vital for all students to take is “learning to walk in another’s shoes.” Much of the discussion in Unselfie around this issue focuses on parenting and how parents can help their kids see other points of view (even as they see their kids’ side of things), but her examples about a preschool teacher of firefighter’s students in San Diego and a German principal who worked with the sons and daughters of soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan resonated with me as paragons of adults showing empathy for their students and teaching those students how they could support each other and the adults in their own lives.

The former English teacher in me loved the final chapter in Borba’s first section on Developing Empathy: Reading to Cultivate Empathy. Long have I felt that to see another’s point of view one need only pick up a well written novel or piece of nonfiction that introduces another’s perspective. Seeing the world through the eyes of a character by Alice Walker or Amy Tan, or looking at a part of the country described by Jonathan Kozol or Torey Hayden can shake a student’s (or listening adult’s) world in a way that makes a lasting difference.

to-kill-a-mockingbirdBorba uses examples like Ramona the Pest and To Kill a Mockingbird to make her point that literature has the capacity to help build empathy, particularly in the hands of great teachers who are able to help students process their own emotions and the emotions of the characters in the stories they read.

Reading together and talking about what we read builds empathy, community, and connections.

If you’re game, I’d love to talk about a book we read together on February 6, 2017 at our San Dieguito Book Club, Unselfie by Michele Borba. See you at 6:00-8:00 in our library!


As a snapshot in history, yearbooks are a great way to see what was happening on campus in any particular year. Over the next few months I’ll choose a yearbook from each decade of San Dieguito’s history and share a few of the highlights, photos, and memories, doing my imperfect best to remind our 21st century audience what life at San Dieguito was like in years gone by.

photo-3-2After years of Mustangs galloping across the cover of San Dieguito’s Hoofprint, the student editorial staff of 1958 made the bold and incongruous decision to put a bonsai tree on the cover of their yearbook.

Breaking from expectation is a part of San Dieguito, where independence of spirit is embedded in the school’s DNA, and in 1958 that looked decidedly Asian.

Sputnik had reached orbit by 1958, and the duck-tail hair cuts and horn-rimmed glasses that look out from the pages of the Hoofprint speak to a time when the cold war was raging and Elvis was on every hi-fi, well, before he shipped out to Germany.

1958 was a busy year at San Dieguito, with a homecoming bonfire, a host of school activities, and a western themed Sadie Hawkins Dance.

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Athletics were big at San Dieguito in the 1950s, and from track to field hockey, smiling students show that representing the school brings pride and camaraderie. These athletes from half a century ago look so similar to the students of 2016; their determination, commitment to their sports, and sense of fun are familiar to those of us who cheer on Mustang athletes today.

photo-3-1Clubs abounded at San Dieguito in the middle part of the century, as they do now, though the clubs themselves were different in 1958, more focused on professional life after high school, including Future Farmers, Future Nurses, and a Rifle Club. Seeing students in military uniforms toting firearms in front of the school feels out of time today, but this was an age where fears about communism had Mr. Davidson, the superintendent, reminding the world that “The class of 1958 goes out into the world with one of the greatest privileges of freedom-the right to make choices.”

photo-5-1Formal photos fill the Hoofprint, as was usual for the first few decades of the school’s history, but 1958’s yearbook includes a few more candid pictures that show the smiles and laughter that filled San Dieguito’s campus. Students show up in fanciful hats, clowning in the quad, and a convertible filled with balloons.

Even the faculty, so often pictured in rigid poses and starched collars, is allowed some levity in the 1958 yearbook, and it’s a treat to see these adults in more relaxed poses smiling, clowning, and even laughing aloud. Life at San Dieguito has always included teachers who care, and these are folks who helped to shape the students’ San Dieguito memories.

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But, as always, school is about the kids, and the kids in this mid-century San Dieguito with their poodle skirts and plaid shirts, their letter sweaters and lopsided grins, occupy the pages of the Hoofprint with an attitude of school pride that is bold and courageous and looks ready to try something new, maybe even planting a bonsai tree.


“Mr. Main?”

The small group of students walked into the hangar that had been converted into a schoolhouse in the middle of the Arizona desert. They were hundreds of miles from their home in Encinitas, forcibly “relocated” with their families simply because their heritage was Japanese. Hundreds of miles behind them they’d left the new buildings of San Dieguito Union High School, not even a decade old, teachers who cared for them, and an school cooled by breezes fresh off the Pacific. Poston, Arizona enjoyed no such breezes.

They arrived for the first day of classes uncertain of so many things, and to their surprise one of the first faces they encountered knew them by name. They knew him too, Mr. Main.

photo 4 (4)San Dieguito’s isn’t a simple story of black and white, but a rich kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, the colors of reality. It’s messy, like life, and infinitely more interesting than it appears on first blush. San Dieguito’s story also extends beyond the stuccoed breezeways, sometimes into the Arizona desert.

In an earlier post I mentioned that Arthur Main, San Dieguito’s first principal, spent four years in his post before leaving after some controversy around his manner with the staff. He was seen as stern, at least with the adults on campus, and that manner led some to push back against him as the school’s leader. He exited, not completely of his own choosing, with the simple distinction of being San Dieguito’s first principal. It would have been easy to call that the end of his San Dieguito story, but it wouldn’t quite be true.

Mr. Main left San Dieguito in the spring of 1940 and by 1943 had taken a principalship at the Poston Internment Camp in Arizona. It was not an easy task to lead a school without adequate resources or facilities, in a fenced community of displaced families. Students came to him and his school with more stress than many of us can imagine, the reality of being prisoners of war in their own country added to the usual challenges of simply being teenagers.

Those young faces that arrived at Poston’s school had few comforts beyond the immediate strength of their families, but I like to think that the teenagers who were forced from San Dieguito in 1943 found some little relief in seeing their principal was their principal. In that moment of recognition, that instant of familiarity, I want to believe that for a few of the students a small measure familiarity split the pressure of their lives.

Looking back at the records of the camp, it’s easy to see how some of the students’ frustration boiled over in behavior that forced Mr. Main to respond.

In his first year at Poston, Main described an incident when a student he’d suspended from athletics “cussed daylight out of me” and “rushed the principal as if he was going to strike him.” Later “that evening,” Main wrote, “as I work till late in the evenings in my office, the boy came to me in my office and apologized to me. He said he was too excited and lost his head and was sorry. I accepted his apology and shook hands. I also reinstated him to the team.” I don’t know if that student ever attended San Dieguito, but I see in Arthur Main’s response to him a touch of the Mustang spirit I know. “Now the boy is all right; he is behaving well,” Main reported later. “He says ‘Hello’ to me whenever he sees me.”


Mr. Main struggled at times in Poston, as did so many who found themselves in this parched corner of American history. Reading of his experiences, so familiar to a principal like me (graffiti in the bathroom, students in conflict with other students, stressed parents worried about their kids) fills me with empathy and reminds me of the profound lessons in kindness I am learning in my time at San Dieguito.

There’s a line in that old song “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” about the people we meet in our lives: “Some are bad, and some are good, and some have done the best they could.”

photo-1I never met Arthur Main, a man who was younger than I am when he was in the principal’s office at San Dieguito, the same office I sit in today. By all accounts, I see in him the third part of that song lyric; faced with challenges, he did the best he could.

What more could be asked of any of us?

And whether we call it fate or providence, or even just coincidence, I believe that in his position as principal in the middle of an internment camp in the middle of that Arizona desert, at least for a moment he brought ease to the troubled minds of San Dieguito students so far from home.


On Friday our San Dieguito Alumni Association will celebrate San Dieguito’s long history with the next installment of bricks around our bell tower. Among the bricks, sponsored by one of his students, will be a brick for Mr. Arthur Main.