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 Memories

photo (5)This summer we’re not taking a big vacation. After last year’s move from California to Oregon, a chaotic few weeks of loading up cats, kids, and boxes of books, driving, driving, and driving, and unloading a houseful of life while reacclimating, and helping acclimate two kids, to the Pacific Northwest it’s nice to know that we won’t go farther than the coast in these sunny days of July. That said, for the past few years I’ve always done a “Notes From the Road” series of posts, and I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane with three thoughts from summers past.

A trip to the Bay Area, winding up the coast on an extended car trip, led me to consider the importance of students participating actively in their education Prompted by my own kids enjoying Waffles in Pismo Beach, and my wise wife making the lesson clear to me, I was reminded that “students want to do, to actively participate in their own learning.”

Visiting the school where I had my first teaching job 25 years ago was both surreal and sentimental. Recounting “Goggle Day,” perhaps the first kooky thing I did as an educator, made me thankful for the experiences and people who have helped shaped me as a professional and for the sense of fun that is a part of what happens at the best schools.

It was in a Canadian forest that I spotted a traffic sign that summed up being a principal: Two Way Traffic / One Lane Road, just another instance of how getting out of our usual routine, opening our eyes to the world around us, and embracing new places and ideas can help to inform the work we do at our schools and in our professional lives.

For all my friends in education, I wish you a marvelous summer filled with adventures, new experiences, renewal, and some ideas to take back to school in the fall.

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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Internment

“Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of immigrant children wait in a series of cages…” -Associated Press, June 18, 2018

One of the most powerful conversations I ever had as a principal was with Tak Sugimoto, an alumnus of a high school where I worked, who had been interned as a boy in the 1940s. His family was of Japanese descent, and in the height of post Pearl Harbor fear they were taken from their homes in Encinitas, California and placed in custody in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. He described what education was like there: a makeshift school, students under terrific stress, and a system that punished families for simply being of a non-white heritage deemed threatening by the government.

Poston

A hearty nonagenarian, Tak brought a profound wisdom to the telling of his story, and an unexpected sense of peace that was decades in the making. The corrupt nature of Japanese internment, the systemic racism, and the nation’s cruelty had wounded him, but not broken him; he lived now a strong, balanced man. Experiences like those he described had destroyed other families, ruined childhoods, and been a high water mark for intolerance and governmental cruelty. When I talked with him two years ago, he was optimistic that his country had learned from those mistakes.

As Tak spoke, I thought back to my friend Doug Kamon, whose parents met in a different internment camp, The Gila River War Relocation Center in the middle of another Arizona desert. At the end of every year we worked together Doug would present his family’s story, providing our students his own familiar face, making the details of this tragic time even more immediate to them. As Doug talked about his young parents and his grandparents, not all of whom survived the camps, students sat silently, listening to this man they knew so well and his connection to a past some would choose to forget. Many students found it hard to believe that Poston or Gila River could really have happened in the United States. More than a few considered themselves lucky that they didn’t live in times like those.

Both Tak and Doug’s parents were interned with their families. They struggled under harsh conditions and did their best to survive a system that marginalized them for no reason other than their ethnicity. In school in the camps the kids from the Sugimoto and Kamon families did their best in an environment filled with stress and anxiety, and went home to parents who could hold them tight and reassure them that they had the strength to persevere. These were terrible times, but they were together.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about these stories, and imagined what it might be like for the kids who don’t have parents to comfort them in times of duress. As an educator I know the importance of supporting every student, both academically and when it comes to mental health. It’s common knowledge that students face very real challenges, wrestle with complicated emotions, and struggle to stay healthy in US schools. Most of these students have adults to go home to and a greater sense of certainty than those kids whose home life is so uncertain. For kids who are deprived of that support, the risk of both short and long term harm is profound.

There are times when I feel helpless in effecting change beyond the walls of my own school. Here I can get to know kids and families, I can encourage kindness, build systems that promote care, and potentially make a difference. Even with all that, sometimes it’s really difficult.

In the greater world, where I am a participant, not a leader, I feel even more challenged when faced with situations that put kids in harm’s way. I am not a lawmaker, and as much as I write them, I struggle sometimes to believe that my voice matters. I do my best to stay optimistic, but seeing tragedy rise unexpectedly and impact kids keeps me up at night. Literally.

Willa Cather captured my anxiety when she wrote:

When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.”

“When kindness has left people…” What a terrible phrase. “When it has left a place where we have always found it…”

I want so much to believe that kindness can return, where we can all feel secure and not “drop into something malevolent and bottomless.”

Then I remember Tak and I hope.

I hope, and I wonder. Seventy years from now, who will be the alumnus who talks with a principal about her experience with internment? Will she have Tak’s wisdom or perspective? Will she share his strength? What will her story say about the the country that imagines itself to be a place where one can always find kindness?

A lack of kindness underscores the stories of Japanese internment that I know. There was a time when heartlessness toward others, describing them as something less than human, informed our country’s willingness to lock away the innocent. Tak was a kid, not a spy. Doug’s parents weren’t threats; they were people doing their best.

As an educator I need to believe that we learn, we all can learn, from our mistakes. I need to hold hope as a value, and live as if kindness is stronger than cruelty. In those shipwreck days I’m wise to look to survivors for inspiration, focus on nurturing kindness in every way I can, and be willing to reflect on what more can be done to help.

Reality is powerful. Optimists sometimes doubt. Internment of children is internment of children. Hope will win the day.

I hope.

Thoughtful Destruction

“Masters, be kind to the old house that must fall”
-Julia Randall

At the end of the road is a sparkling new building, good for students, a haven for learning, modern, marvelous, and built to be an art school. That road, however, is anything but smooth.

Winding, filled with potential potholes, and paved over sacred ground, the path to progress promises to try our souls.

In a little more than a year our current campus will swell with the sound of hammering, bulldozers, and a great moving of earth. Construction fencing will circle our school, and looking down at the commotion within those plywood and chain link walls, the birds that fly overhead will witness the destruction of our old and wonderful building and the construction of something new.

IMG_7105Our current home, formally CE Mason Elementary School and home to ACMA for the past quarter century, is covered with meaningful student art, regarded with well deserved affection, and packed with more vivid memories than a Terrence Malick film.

This June, as the last summer we’ll spend in this building arrives, feels like a time of calm before the emotional storm, a chance to take a deep breath before piloting this splendid old ship into the dock for the last time.

As we do, we’re in the opening stages of planning the new building. Our architects are presenting ideas to the staff, and meeting with teachers from programs in need of special infrastructure (where to put the kiln, what kind of acoustics we need in the recording studio, what we mean by a 21st century darkroom). Our Urban Design students have taken a field trip to the architects’ office, where they presented their own ideas about what our school needs. In a comic aside, I asked at our last meeting: “Did they include the place to stable the therapy llama?” and for a few seconds everyone at the table paused, considering that that might be something our ACMA students would suggest. It was marvelous.

And as the architects are capturing on paper as much creative vision as the budget will allow, we as a school community are doing our best to wrap our heads around the idea that in just over a year CE Mason will be gone.

IMG_3784If our building was only a building, that wouldn’t feel so wrenching, but CE Mason Elementary, home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, is more than a building; it’s home.

This building has seen decades of students pass through its doors, nervous sixth graders, confident graduates, extroverts, introverts, and an assortment of artists and those willing to see life artistically.

…and art students did to CE Mason what art students do: they filled it with art.

Art appears everywhere in our current building. Student murals from the twenty-six years ACMA has been in existence fill our hallways, peek around corners, and smile down on the students as they walk to classes.

IMG_6246Mona Lisa, in full ‘90s grunge uniform of flannel shirt and backward baseball cap, smiles enigmatically toward the north. A canine Mona Lisa looks south, her muzzle a doggy smile. And hidden in plain sight, a collection of images tucked brilliantly in a complicated corner near the main office provides a fantastic version of Da Vinci’s most famous portrait, a reminder that art can be as playful as it is refined, as clear as it is heartfelt.

Contemporary student art hangs alongside the installations from years past. Paintings, drawings, sculptures in wire and clay all turn our hallways into a living gallery. Without lockers interrupting sightlines, it’s possible to stroll from the library to the math classrooms on the far end of the building and see canvasses hung at eye level, untouched but never unappreciated, every day. It is astounding.

In a little more than a year, it will be gone.

And yet…

…it won’t.

IMG_3856You’ll hear some artists talk about the impermanence of art, Picasso’s line: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” and such, but truth be told, even if we admit that the comfort is cold. The images that fill ACMA’s hallways, whether they’ve been there for five years, ten, or twenty, are part of our collective soul, and aren’t easy to lose.

But, painted on sixty year old plaster, the murals can’t be cut out or peeled off. While we’ll be able to save some three dimensional pieces, we’ve got to be more creative about the others. More than a year out, we’re already working on it.

We know that how we approach this opportunity will help define us …and believe in the idea of thoughtful destruction.

So, we will save what we can, we will capture what we can’t in creative ways (film, high resolution photographs that we can enlarge and display, and a couple of other creative solutions) that allow it to live on, and we will celebrate everything.

IMG_7350We will remember what James Baldwin said of life and art: “Nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”
And we will be those witnesses to our past, active participants in our present, and creators of our future. We will celebrate the history of ACMA’s first home and build on the creative spirit that defines our school as we continue to create.

I’ve said before that ACMA could be ACMA in a circus tent. We are the people who fill our school, the magic of creativity, and the commitment to making art. More than any building or campus, ACMA is a state of mind. So over the course of the next school year we will mourn, make art, move forward together, embracing the process with the hearts of artists.

Strange

There is a park that is known
For the face it attracts
Colorful people whose hair
On one side is swept back
The smile on their faces
It speaks of profound inner peace
Ask where they’re going
They’ll tell you nowhere
They’ve taken a lifetime lease
On Paisley Park

-Prince, Paisley Park

While we don’t have a school fight song at ACMA, I like to think that if we did it would be Prince’s “Paisley Park.” Artistic, independent, and confessedly quirky, students and staff at our little art school recognize the importance of seeing the world through the kaleidoscopic eyes of an artist. We paint, sculpt, act, and dance. We make music and make films. We write poetry and write scripts. We write the possibilities of our own futures.

To some, this looks strange.

But while the workaday world might look twice at what some of us wear, the color of our hair, or the glitter on our faces, ACMA’s colorful people are about more than just appearances. Our artistic souls run deep, and our capacity for seeing life in a way that might make a difference is profound.

If we were a superhero, we’d be Dr. Strange.

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…because ACMA is a place for magic. It is a world of wonder and wild creativity. Faced with challenges, artistic, academic, or social, our students respond cleverly, compassionately, and creatively. Where there isn’t yet an answer, our students are ready to go about making their own.

A student once told me: “Nobody’s weird here at ACMA, because everyone’s weird here at ACMA.” She meant this in a good way.

Diverse interests, diverse backgrounds, diverse attitudes all come together at our school under the transformative and unifying power of art. Painters, poets, photographers; dancing, drawing, and daring to do great things, it’s not strange to see students from one artistic pathway supporting peers from another, and even trying their hand in different medium as well. Our actors write, our musicians draw, every one of our sixth graders has a chance to dance.

Strange? Maybe. Or maybe strange is just a point of view.

ACMA contains a world not everyone sees, not technical, not linear, not gritty or cosmic, but something else, something unique.

It’s here that…

…plush ears, horns, and tails are a regular part of what students wear every day

…Mona Lisa is painted on our hallway walls, as a dog, a grunge rocker, and a surprising collage you have to look at twice to see her

…we have Back to School Night before the first day of classes

…students and staff pose for silly photos in the yearbook

…Rojo the therapy llama is a part of our school family

…our athletic complex is a single basketball hoop at a ¾ angle in the courtyard

…we don’t have a school mascot

…our hallways are a living gallery, filled with contemporary student art, not hidden behind glass

…LGBTQ is celebrated, not just accepted

…our summer theater program mounts a full scale musical in just a month

…our students doodle

…it’s not unusual to see a student on stilts, or a student in a top hat, or a staff member in a kilt

…tie-dye is the unofficial school color

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 11.40.36 AM…we have students who take math up through AP Calculus

…Halloween is a national holiday

…a giant painting of David Bowie hangs outside the main office

…staff compete in a giant Rock-Paper-Scissors competition

…we laugh a lot, we cry easily, and we surprise some who don’t know us with our strength

…we have a “Bat Cave”

…we love applause, we embrace creativity, and we care for each other

ACMA is a special place, and for those of us who get to spend time here every day, a transformational one. It’s here that we learn, create, a embrace being a little different.

To quote an unconventional superhero: “If you ask me, it’d be an awfully boring life if nothing was ever weird. It’s the weird ones who change the world.”