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.

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Sock it to Me

I’ve seen “drives” before, canned food, toys, that sort of thing. Holiday sharing, as it’s sometimes called at a school, can be a positive part of our students’ experience, reinforcing kindness, teaching empathy, and helping remind us that as important as learning is, caring matters just as much.

This year at ACMA a spirited counselor took the reigns of a Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive, rallying students to bring in so many warm things that they filled my office. She made witty and wonderful announcements over the PA, stood in front of the school before dawn to collect donations as parents dropped off their kids, and even enlisted an intrepid board member, and ACMA kindred spirit, to join her one morning.

Day by day the sock pile grew. Hats and gloves filled my windowsills. Wool hung from my bookshelves, and every morning more warm clothing arrived.

Giving is something that comes naturally to students, and the generosity of our kids was matched only by the glee with which they presented their gifts.

The difference with ACMA’s Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive this December, subtle as it was, came in the way it reflected the spirit of our students and our school.

In addition to mountains of functional woolen gear were Star Wars socks, rainbow gloves, and hats with ears. Just because someone needs a helping hand doesn’t mean she can’t look fabulous. It was a fact lost on me at first, covered by the sheer quantity of clothing, but then one morning as I walked into my office I saw the pile of socks, hats, and gloves looking back at me!

sock hat

This, I thought, is ACMA.

Also ACMA is the expression of delight on the faces of the students who came by my office every morning to deliver their donations. Student after student, sixth grade through senior, ACMA kids brought smiles as wide as Christmas to my door, leaning in, laughing, and tossing the socks, hats, and gloves onto the ever growing pile.

Over time, and at the invitation of that marvelously mischievous counselor, students were encouraged to throw their stuff at me if I was sitting at my desk. We even made a couple of short videos to promote it, and the playful joy on the students’ faces moved me beyond words.

Then, this morning, the last day of the drive, a student, a huge handful of lavender socks in her hands, said: “I can really throw this at you?”

“Yes,” I answered, “but if I catch it, I get to throw it back at you!” She grinned, threw, and ducked. ACMA magic.

The socks, hats, and gloves will find feet, heads, and hands this winter, and I the warmth our students feel from giving will last for a long, long time.

A Great Hall of Reflection

“Art … is a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered.”
                                  -Iris Murdoch

Just about every morning I take a walk. At 7:30 my amazing assistant, Margaret, and I cue up a song, turn on the PA, and let music fill ACMA. For the next five minutes, as students hurry to classes to the sound of Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Jones or David Bowie, Mozart or Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, I walk.

coffeeA cup of coffee in hand, I navigate the front hall by the main office, zigging around the trophy case filled with ceramics, dodging kids wrapped in fleece blankets (a thing at ACMA during these cold winter months) and turn the corner by the door of the dance studio at the mouth of ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice.

Every morning I see teachers standing at doorways greeting students, I see kids carrying projects (a canvas, a sculpture, the makings of a robotic hand), and I find myself surrounded not just by art on every wall, but by the creative student artists who make our school the work of art that it is.

Ours is a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. We are a place that exudes the creative spirit, a place where students create their identities as well as their art. At ACMA we laugh often, dream big, and are comfortable being just a little bit different. Seeing this creativity made manifest every morning is an inspiration.

To walk down ACMA’s hallways first thing in the morning, The Clash, The Bangles, or The Beatles filling the air, is to see hope.

At 7:30 in the morning students are focused on what’s ahead. They’re not performing; they’re preparing. As these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians move together through the hallways, nodding hellos to one another, smiling, and toting instruments, cameras, and portfolios, they seem to me less a disconnected collection of individuals and more the cohesive colors of a creative rainbow. They share a desire to make art and a poetic way of seeing the world.

IMG_4637

My walk takes me to the end of the hallway, past paintings and wire sculpture, past displays about LBGTQ pride and announcements for upcoming productions, beneath student murals reaching back for decades and temporary installations on kindness, body image, and environmental issues.

Each step, to the strains of Mendelssohn or the bounce of Billie Holiday, takes me through a sea of anticipation. The day is about to begin. In the next hours together students will dance, and sing, and draw, and sculpt. They will write, and act, and make films. They will discuss literature and math, debate history, experiment in science (and maybe artistically too). They will support one another, encourage one another, and help each other be the best artists (and people) they can be.

Well, once they’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes; 7:30 am is awfully early for artists.

To help them wake up we may cue up some Prince or Buckshot LeFonque, Pink Martini or Johnny Cash. Whatever the soundtrack for the morning, the feeling is the same: gratitude for being at ACMA, excitement for the creative process, and a belief that today great things may happen.

I never take that morning walk for granted. Never. It’s a time to connect with students and staff, absorb the inspiration of our vibrant school, and witness first hand the profound power of creativity.

Let’s Dance

Three cats,” he confirmed, looking up at me from across the ancient front desk of the motor lodge in Yreka.

“Yep.”

Tired from a full day’s drive that had started before sunrise, I hoped I didn’t sound rude. He nodded, squinted past me toward where I’d parked in the shade of the lobby overhang. “Twenty one dollars more.”

I smiled (as much as one can after twelve hours of driving) and got out my credit card wondering again how exactly they’d come up with $7 per cat. $7?

photoThe cats hadn’t been thrilled at the start of the drive when, needing to keep myself awake and inspired by the ACMA senior painting I’d seen when I visited campus in June, the soundtrack for our journey began with David Bowie.

This shapeshifting singer, always changing, always true to his artistic spirit, struck me as a nice image for coming to ACMA, a place of creativity, artistic daring, and openness, a school community where Ziggy Stardust is as welcome as the fellow in the suit who sang “Modern Love.”

So with “Let’s Dance” filling the car, the cats and I pulled out of the driveway and into the night. Driving north beneath the serious moonlight, I thought about what was waiting at the other end of I-5.

Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, soon to start its 26th year, is a place vibrating with creativity. On my visit in June I’d been struck by the student art filling the hallways, the energy in the sculpture studio, and the discussion in classrooms. I was moved by the light in the eyes of the students who showed me the garden on campus, wowed by the passion of the filmmakers I talked with, and amazed by the talent of the dancers who made the spring recital so engaging that my nine year old son, mesmerized by what he saw on stage, surprised me when he wanted to stay well past intermission.

The teachers and staff I met, friendly, funny, and student focused, were marvelous too, and I could tell from our conversations, the give and take with students I saw in classrooms, and their questions when we all got together after school that this was a group of professionals who took their work seriously and themselves a little less so. Kindred spirits. I was eager to join this professional family, working side by side, learning together, and supporting kids.

And what kids.

The students I got to talk with were creative, clever, and kind. They struck me from the start as curious and comfortable in their own skins. We talked about art, and Pikachu, and even cats. I faced the age old question: “Dogs for arms or arms for dogs?” My answer, the sensible choice, sounded as ridiculous as it should have as I said it.

bowieAnd I got to witness the students’ creativity.

In addition to jawdroppingly great dance, I watched students mold clay, make music, and collectively paint the David Bowie portrait now hanging outside the office at ACMA, the same painting that inspired my song choice on the drive north.

From the Hall of Hope and Justice to the classrooms and studios filled with passion and purpose, the spirit of ACMA is a beautiful tune of acceptance and artistry. I’m so excited to heed the call of that patron saint, answering yes when I hear that invitation: “Let’s Dance.”

The Last Month

photo (4)I am surrounded by boxes. Rows of cardboard holding my family’s life, or at least our pots and pans, toys and games, photo albums and framed art fill our garage, linger in corners, and wait half full, flaps agape, to close over the remaining odds and ends, legos, plates, knickknacks, and books.

Of books, if I’m honest, I’m down to fewer than a half dozen: a biography of Duke Ellington; a paperback mystery I’m saving for the plane ride up to Oregon in June to find a place to live, slim enough to fit in a pocket, just enough pages for two flights and a couple of nights in a hotel; a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, likely to be consumed and left at the library in Encinitas before the end of June; and Crow by Ted Hughes.

In just a few weeks my family and I will be unpacking those books and boxes in Beaverton, a reality still hard to wrap our heads around.

That every time we now do something (go to a Padres game or eat at our favorite burrito spot) is the last or nearly the last time we’ll do so is sobering. So too each of my final days at San Dieguito.

I’ve been to my last SDA games, a pair of lacrosse playoffs. My last coffee with the principal has come and gone, and how hard it was to say goodbye to those familiar and friendly faces, some of whom I’ve known for years. In a week I’ll go to my final play in the Clayton Liggett Theater, Picnic, a midcentury emotional potboiler. This Wednesday is my last Spring Concert. The Friday after that is the last assembly of the year.

photo 2 (3)

As emotional are the final visits to classrooms, those places where the truly important work happens at a school. Some of my favorite memories at SDA are from classrooms, where students and teachers work together to imagine, create, learn.

Along with these “lasts” come some unique to San Dieguito: our last Student Forum, our final Exhibition Day, and a graduation unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Leaving SDA means saying goodbye to so much, so many friends, so many special experiences, and…

…and after that last “last” event, when the mortarboards land and parents swarm the field to hug their kids, something else will start.

This July I begin life at ACMA, a creative place of new adventures, and there I’m eagerly looking forward to experiencing just as many…

…firsts.