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.

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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.

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At the Bower Museum

photo 1 (2)Today I looked into the eyes of a two thousand year old man. His expression, serious and enigmatic, looked back at me from across centuries and I couldn’t help but think that in another two millennia I’ll be dust and that terra cotta figure from a Chinese tomb will still be gazing out at museum goers through an inch of protective glass.

The power of art never ceases to astound me. Whether a piece of music, a play, or poem, the products of creativity offer humble humans like us the opportunity to transcend time.

Some works -those chiseled in marble or carved into mountains- offer the illusion that they will outlive any others. Some -sculpted in movement or performed onstage- seem more transitory, their lives lived in those magical moments shared between artist and audience. But art scoffs at these distinctions. Remember “Ozymandias.”

…Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains…”

That recent archaeologists have dug up something they could link to Shelley’s description matters little; it is the words of the poem that people remember, not a statue. Thank art for another good reminder not to pin our ambitions on a single work, no matter how solid, but rather to revel in the act of creating.

The product of this creation matters far less than the action of imagination. A song can be forgotten, a canvas scraped clean to make way for another painter, a statue shattered. The feeling of writing, painting, dancing, or digging fingers into clay, however, stands a chance of being transformative.

What this transformation means could be far ranging: seeing the world through the eyes of another, maybe finding beauty in the unexpected, or inspiration in the struggle of life.

For students there may be no more important kind of lesson than art.

clayEncouraging students to make our, both in their comfort area and beyond it, is a privilege and challenge for all of us who make education our life’s work.

Arguing for science or math education is an easily justified endeavor. Statistics abound that show how a strong course of study in the hard sciences can lead students to careers that make a difference.

The humanities also matter much; good communicators with a sense of history and proportion are not only a vital component to our civil society, but sometimes are the only voices capable of helping us put into perspective the complicated world we live in.

photo 4 (2)Painting? Poetry? Dance?

Without veering into a speech from Dead Poet’s Society, I’ll simply argue that the students who make art create for themselves a richer world.

The same four year old who moves to “The Wheels on the Bus” may find a similar release at fourteen when she choreographs a dance to something by Branford Marsalis. The six year old so proud of his work with crayons and construction paper may find, at sixteen, that through oil on canvas or pen and ink scribblings in a sketchbook he is able to make sense of the strange and wonderful journey into adulthood.

photo-2-2Beyond these very personal relationships with creating art, students benefit from the process of goal setting, the productive struggle of bringing vision into being, and the focus required to make art.

I once worked with a gifted sculpture teacher who called these “soft skills,” though truth be told I don’t see anything soft about them. Successful artists, as well as successful humans, develop a vision, create a plan, and work extraordinarily hard to make this art take shape.

Ballet or ballad, triptych or tragedy, the product these young artists create and the process by which they create it as as important as anything they learn in a lab or a lecture hall.

Why art? Because it matters.

It matters to artists and to audiences.

Art makes a difference in individual lives and in the lives of communities. At its best it transforms spirits and might, just maybe, reach across generations and connect with a stranger, terra cotta eyes inspiring reflection.

Art, Angelic

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise”
John Donne

I sat in the darkened theater listening to the orchestra’s introductory suite, anticipating the actors preparing to step on stage. I’d been over to the theater earlier in the week, returning a wig and glasses those artistic souls had loaned me for my own performance at an assembly, and had seen the opulence of the set: a tree winding its way to the sky, arched windows in a wall of stone, and a throne resembling something out of Henry V.

addamsI’d watched a preview of the musical number that started the show, a witty tune complete with snapping, a light bulb, and a tango interlude. These were outrageously talented students and the evening was young.

Art has a way of elevating our human experience, and working at a school with a thriving artistic heart never ceases to inspire me.

I know that the intellectual underpinnings of what we do at school matter much, and watching a student lead her peers through a difficult math problem, or seeing a young scientist collaborate with others to learn how to do bone repair in a science class brings its own sense of hope for our world. Math, science, history, these all help to form our future; art transforms us.

photo-4-3I see this magical transformation when I walk into the student art gallery on campus and take the time to really look at the paintings and sculpture of our student curated shows. It’s there in the sounds of students playing guitars on the lawn as they make music together, some of it their own. I see the transformative nature of art in every senior tile on campus, a legacy of ceramic squares that reaches back for decades and reinforces to students that each of them contribute to this school and its history.

Just this week a new mural went up on the outside wall of our screen printing shop (itself a realm of wild creativity). Not only is this new piece of student work transformative, but it also transforms. The student artist incorporated living moss along with the painted image; it is a mural that will literally grow over time. How wonderful to know that there are places in this rational world where dreams can become reality, where flights of fancy take to the air, raising our collective spirit with them.

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Four centuries ago the British poet John Donne noticed (in verse) that while the globe was round, our human imaginations can transfigure “imagined corners” into something angelic. I see it every day on our campus, and felt it profoundly that night in the theater as trumpets not unlike those described by Donne finished the orchestral introduction, the curtains opened, and the winter musical began.

Great actors can elevate comedy into emotional resonance, and these students did. Songs soared, laughter burst from the audience, and for a couple of hours every soul in the theater was allowed to be a visitor to a world of artistic inspiration.

Our education system values facts and formulas and figuring things out, and it should. But just as we want our students to be able to navigate the globe, so too how important it is that they can find their way through art to the earth’s imagined corners.

The Girl in the Garden

I’m a bit of researcher. I love learning about things, cracking open history books, going exploring around my own school’s campus in search of stories, and talking with folks who were there then and are willing to share. And…

Sometimes the pinch of magic that comes from ambiguity is okay too.

It’s like that for me with regard to the girl in the garden. I noticed her during my first summer at San Dieguito, looking out from a corner of campus designated as the “SDHS Natural Habitat” by a wooden sign that looks like it came from decades ago. She is smiling, and looking off as high school students do toward a future only she can see.

photo-4Over time I’ve seen her move. No. I’ve seen her in different parts of the garden. Most often after such a relocation she stays for a bit. Still smiling. Watching our current students move from class to class as the seasons turn from fall to winter to spring to summer.

A little research could probably tell me where she came from. A conversation with our ceramics teacher, perhaps, would let me know the student who created her or the year of her birth. I’m not sure I want to know.

Because I see in the girl in the garden the embodiment of San Dieguito.

She is quiet, but independent. Her very presence, and the fact that in all my time at San Dieguito she has never been damaged or toppled, speaks to the hundreds and hundreds of current students who see this fragile thing and choose to enjoy it, respect it, occasionally move it, and not make mischief.

She speaks to the desire to exist creatively. The garden was there before she was, but at some point a student artist looked at the space and thought: it needs her. Like Wallace Stevens “Jar in Tennessee” this piece of art sees the garden grow around her. She is the human drive for art manifested, not ostentatiously, but with a subtle smile.

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The girl in the garden moves me because I, like so many of us here at San Dieguito, embrace the spirit of creativity and the transformational quality of art. We are part of a school family that takes pleasure in the little kindnesses we see and contribute to the community of acceptance and unexpected generosity. That any of us are capable of being the genesis of the girl in the garden makes me thankful for the true artist and appreciative of the ambiguity that surrounds her creation.

This summer will see new construction in the part of San Dieguito where the garden is now. The girl in the garden will need a new home while bulldozers plow through and cranes build a structure that will house new art studios, ready to provide another generations of artists with the tools they need to create. That she will be back when the new building opens in 2019 I have no doubt. Ambiguity in her origin is a delight, as is certainty in the longevity of her inspiration.

Window Boxes

photoWhen the structural steel went up, so high it peeked over the wing of classrooms built in 1936, everyone on campus paused and exhaled a collective “oh.”

The newest classroom building, an inch less high than the city will allow, will bring state of the art science labs to a school whose chem room was built when Einstein was still alive. Knowing the decades of labs students will perform in the years ahead is enough to make anyone excited about the idea of the new building, but it was seeing that enormous metal skeleton rise up in the center of campus that shook all of us past the idea and held the reality of the thing up for us to marvel at.

New construction brings with it a mix of anticipation, annoyance, and awe. Our new building, so impressive now, spent months in the dirt. Before any resemblance to an actual building came planning, digging, and the construction of retaining walls. To see it rise from that dirt now, as loud as some of the steel work may be, is inspiring. Helping our school community admire that progress is one of the best decisions I’ve seen around a high school construction site: windows.

photo 4Knowing the curiosity of students (and teachers too), we asked our construction team if, when they put up the extensive plywood fencing around the big dig, they’d add a couple of plexiglass windows so we could see what was going on. Better than “a couple,” they cut a row of windows along two sides of the project and the result has been nothing less than amazing.

Windows in a wooden wall invite spectators, and those views of our school’s future provide our students and staff with a clear understanding of progress, an unimpeded glimpse of scale, and a total lack of mystery in what can sometimes feel like a less than transparent process.

photo 5They also provide an opportunity for creativity.

Around the windows, teams of student artists have painted murals that include the windows as focal points and show that whimsy and heavy machinery can coexist as long as both wear a smile.

…and then our ASB students added window boxes.

We have another twelve months before classes begin in the labs and classrooms of our new building, but as we watch the steel grow, the feeling on campus is one of excitement. You can see it through the windows.

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Switch-a-Roo

As educators, we talk a lot about taking chances, attempting the unexpected, and stepping out of our comfort zones. Polite, students listen, the boldest of them following our advice, others holding back and waiting to see how things turn out for those who take a chance. There’s no fault in that. Sensible, I suppose some would say.

Here at San Dieguito, we have seldom been accused of being sensible.

What we have been called, and proudly own up to being, is student centered, a little iconoclastic, and game to try something new.

Enter Cartooning.

photo 1 (1)When I became a principal I made the promise to myself that I would teach every year. It’s important, I think, for students (and teachers too) to see me as more than a bureaucrat; I got into this business to teach, and I think it’s healthy that kids at my school see me (at least a little bit) as a teacher. This week, I had the opportunity to step into an art class and in a marvelous San Dieguito twist, Jeremy Wright, our cartooning teacher, put on a tie and jacket and set up shop behind my desk.

This was a stretch for both of us, and one that taught us as many lessons as we taught the students.

I asked Jeremy about his day in the big chair and he penned a few paragraphs more eloquent than anything I could retell. He wrote:

Today I got out of my comfort zone.  I put on a suit and tie.

Earlier this school year, our principal Bjorn Paige, who was new to our school this year, and I had a discussion about doing a switch-a-roo with our usual roles.  He had taught cartooning lessons back when he was a teacher before becoming a principal, and I, well…, have never principal’ed before.  So today was the day Mr. Paige put on an apron and a fedora and took over my cartooning class for a period, and I put on a suit and tie.

I was not about to make parent phone calls, meet with lawyers,  discuss new campus construction, or have lunch with district office board members – or whatever principals do.  I was going to take this short time as interim principal and reflect back on a story that I heard about of a principal doing something unusual.  I do not know his name or what school, but the story of his simple gesture impressed me.  One at a time, he called in the students who were labeled the “trouble-makers”, “rough kids”, and “squirrels”.  He  sat them down, let them pick out a donut from the box of donuts, poured them a glass of milk, and simply asked them, “how are you doing?”  

So that’s what I did today.  

Five young men came through the principal’s door today on my watch – one at a time.  I only knew one of them as a previous student, but the others I did not.  In the short ten minutes that I had with each of them, we talked about everything from road trips and traveling abroad, girlfriends and marriage, skateboarding and friends, and passions or lack thereof.  Yes, maybe I said something that was wise and profound – passing on wisdom like an old sage, but today, this simple gesture from an unknown principal taught me a lesson.  Slow down, sit down, and listen.  

I was humbled and little embarrassed that I do not do this more often with my students.  I do ask my students everyday how they are doing and genuinely care for them, but usually it is in passing while I am carrying a box of clay or next to them while we clean brushes.  It is easy for all of us to get swept away in our usual roles.  I play the teacher, they play the student.  But how powerful it was today to change up our usual roles and be just two people sharing a glass of milk and a donut.”

12764477_852430308216166_3935090668140446905_o“Slow down, sit down, and listen.”

…and enjoy a doughnut.

Powerful advice that I’d be wise to follow. How different would education be if we all took that thoughtful approach even a few times more each week than we are prone to do?

On the other side of campus, in the studio I shared with my budding cartoonists, the renewing energy of interacting with students buzzed through the room. Just as Jeremy had taken on the administrative uniform of coat and tie, I borrowed a paint smeared apron and dug a chapeau out of my closet.

It’s too easy as a principal to get consumed by the rattle and hum of the duties and obligations that fill our days. Just as Jeremy recognized the value of consciously putting ourselves in the moment, teaching reminded me of what really matters in education. Initiatives are great. Programs can make a difference. Missions matter. But it’s kids who are at the heart of all we do.

Laughing, learning, and connecting with students as their teacher was a reminder I wish every principal could have. As I told Jeremy later that afternoon, teaching that cartooning class this week will make me a better principal, and probably a better human.

Whistling my way back to my office when the lesson was done, I thought about that scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ character stands on his desk and invites his prep school students to see the world from a different perspective, telling them “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” 

FullSizeRenderToday we did. Me. Jeremy. The art students. The students who got a doughnut with the (very) interim principal.

I know that I’ll continue to look for opportunities to switch up my perspective and show students the value of taking chances and looking at the world from a new or different point of view. Showing, not just telling, might be the difference that moves us beyond sensible and into the realm of transformational.

An Escaping Octopus

Here’s to whimsy. Here’s to unexpected and unnecessary creativity. Here’s to art that no one asked for and poems written on the cement in chalk.

It was an octopus that got me thinking about creativity yesterday, as it peered up at me from a wooden crate, two tentacles reaching out from between the splintered slats.

…honestly, it was a painting, a bit of public art on a metal breaker box in an alley behind an ice cream shop near the Oceanside Marina.

photo 5 (3)What struck me when I spotted the clever painting was that this was an example of an artist bringing to life something that had before only existed in her mind’s eye. Others had seen the metal box, used it, ignored it, but it took someone thinking differently and having the daring and ability to make what she could imagine into a reality.

Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th century thinker whose daughter, Mary Shelley, did her own bit of imaginative creation when she penned Frankenstein (as a teenager), wrote: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically.” I’ve always loved Wollstonecraft, but as a middle school principal, I don’t know that what she’s saying is exactly true …certainly not for the twelve and thirteen year olds I know.

Given the opportunity and encouragement, the middle schoolers I see every day think creatively and have the capacity to bring to life dreams no less whimsical than Victor Frankenstein’s creature.

It’s important that schools nurture this poetic thinking and unbridled creativity, particularly as angsty adolescence approaches with the threat of clouding everything in its path in emotional shadows.

Nurturing whimsy now, celebrating the creative spirit, and allowing flights of fancy may not stave off the broken hearts or tortured emotions of lunchtime at high school, but it might just provide the kids with enough optimism to stay alive inside until prom is over and mortarboards are in the air. Then, when life beyond school opens up before them, that sense of spontaneous creation, that whimsy and hope just might escape again, like an octopus from a painted crate.