Maybe This Year

Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time…”
TS Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

Spring is a time when cold winds warm. Rain remains, reminding us sporadically that summer is still weeks away. In the world of major league baseball, pitchers and catchers have been throwing baseballs since February, but now that all the players have reported to training camp in sunbaked towns with names like Clearwater and Jupiter, Surprise and Goodyear, the sense that winter is ending is becoming real.

photo-5

Hope springs eternal and baseball brings out the 10 year old in all of us.

Some would claim that professional baseball is a will-o-the-wisp, an empty distraction from a serious world, and while my rational brain couldn’t disagree, when I pull a ball cap over that same head my heart takes over and I find myself believing what Casey Stengel said so many years ago: “The trick is growing up without growing old.”

Baseball helps me do that.

This is important as an educator, where our work with students is made richer by the ability to think young. I’ll never be accused of being hip, my musical tastes tend toward Sinatra, and I know that my photo appears next to the dictionary entry for “Dad,” but the spirit of optimism and belief in a better future is one that serves me well as a principal. It’s a point of view nurtured by many things, particularly the day to day interactions I share with students, and one reinforced by being a baseball fan.

The last time my team won the world series was 1988.

I still start every spring with the thought: “maybe this year.”

Legend has it that Babe Ruth said: “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

School, a place where mistakes are opportunities and life stretches out before the majority of the people who make up a school, is in many ways the same.

For those of us who make our life’s work education, it’s renewing to know that every February that great American institution, baseball, is there to remind us to be optimistic, to celebrate the potential we see, and to truly believe that this year will be special.

That’s not a distraction; that’s hope.

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Baseball Caps

As a lifelong Dodgers fan who lived in the Bay Area for a decade I know a little about getting along with people who don’t share my point of view. During my time in a town that worshiped the Giants I worked as an assistant principal at a school that had to impose a strict dress code in response to gang activity. One of the forbidden items: blue LA Dodgers caps. Thanks, Sureños.

photo-3I saw the Dodgers play live in San Francisco on more than a few occasions, grimacing each time Barry Bonds hit another home run and everyone around me raised their voices to the sky. Once, after the coldest game I’d ever seen, a Dodger loss at AT&T Park, I shivered my way across the bay on the ferry trying not to explode at the toxic, and a little bit drunken, celebrating of the Giants fans heading home. It was so cold. I was so tired. Like it or not, I remember that night as if it was last weekend, not more than ten years ago.

That I would not give up an allegiance to a team that I’d followed since I was a kid in Oregon listening to Vin Scully describing the heroics of Garvey, Cey, Lopes, and Yeager, and that those around me would not surrender their own affection for the team of Willie Mays and Bobby Thompson meant that we all had to figure out a way to get along.

Their ball club was the winner, the home team, the local favorite. It was up to me, and a few fellow Dodgers fans, to navigate a world where our own choice wasn’t the majority voice. Comfortable? No. Reality? Yes.

So.

So I wasn’t a jerk, even on the few occasions when my bums bested their rivals. A history teacher who shared my point of view and I serenaded our classes with the 1962 Danny Kaye song “D-O-D-G-E-R-S,” but we did so with a smile and a touch of self deprecation. Neither of us could really carry a tune, so that last bit was easy.

I treated the Giants fans I knew well, seldom mentioning that incident with Juan Marichal and the bat, and letting Barry Bonds swell into a home run champion* without adding my voice to the conversation. That his fortune would implode was obvious to all but the truest believers; I needed only to wait for reality to catch up for some cold comfort.

Sometimes the Giants won. Sometimes they do.

I found, however, that the longer the San Francisco fans and I showed each other respect, acknowledged that baseball was only one of many, many ways we define ourselves, and were willing to see the faces underneath the ball caps, the less likely any of us were to resort to rudeness, envy, or gloating.

With time and familiarity we became more human.

The ill feelings between Giants and Dodgers fans date back to the 1880s. Some years they’re worse than others. From time to time the rivalry becomes ugly, violent, disheartening. In recent years aggression has reached out of the ballpark and caused destruction that makes fans on both sides of the rivalry cringe.

I believe that better days are ahead.

Years ago it was McCovey and Valenzuela, today Kershaw and Bumgarner, tomorrow players not yet old enough to hold a bat.

I can disagree with my friends wearing Giants gear, and even know that they’re wrong, at least in their choice of teams, but that doesn’t mean I have to treat them poorly or can’t enjoy a meal with them, a conversation, or maybe even a ballgame.

We’re all human, no matter what cap we choose to wear.

What’s the Score?

photo 3When the little league game is 24 to 13, the adults should stop keeping score.

To the kids, it’s still a game, even if spectators want to classify it as competition. Runs, hits, throws and catches are all part of the game; the score only happens when the need for some sort of outcome means more than the process of playing.

Playing.

Playing, which is different than winning or losing. Playing, which is what kids do.

A hundred years ago, when I dedicated the summers of my elementary school years to the art and science of wiffleball, my friends and I took the game seriously. I grew up on an untamed acre that had been an orchard before my parents bought the land and built a house. In the space between the back of house and a towering black cherry tree was enough room to build a ball field.

We scrounged bases, mowed foul lines into the tall weeds, and fashioned the remainder of a stout wooden fence post into a permanent ballplayer who stood in shallow right field, a mitt attached to the diagonal two by four we’d nailed there are arms. We pulled a cap over the top of the post, painted on a face, and took to calling him Cool Hand Luke.

My dad became a hero when he brought home a length of mesh fencing that we turned into an outfield wall and an actual home plate salvaged from the college where he worked.

It was a labor of love, and a stadium as grand in our minds as Wrigley Field.

All of us played little league as well, and loved baseball, but wiffleball was something different. This was ours.

No adults were ever involved in our wiffleball obsession, except when my mom would bring out snacks or occasionally pick up a bat while I honed my curveball and slider.

We certainly kept score, played tenaciously, and took what we were doing as seriously as Pete Rose did an all star game, but it was also a childhood world of “ghost runners” and quirky home field rules (hit Cool Hand Luke and you got a home run).

I know my memories of those summers are tinted with the sepia tones of nostalgia, but even so, it was wiffleball that I thought about when I sat at my son’s little league game last week and watched a parent from the opposing team assiduously keep score.

Earnest in her work, she tromped up to the scoreboard she’d brought with her every time a six or seven year old crossed home plate and flipped the plastic number to show the crowd the score.

The crowd, not the players. The players didn’t seem to care.

photo 2 (1)It reminded me, in its way, of a parent who once came up to me at a student award ceremony. She carried her son’s certificate and held it up to me as she made eye contact. “This doesn’t have a date on it,” she said. “Some of the other people’s do,” I assured her that it was okay; these were department and teacher awards, nothing overly formal. “But,” she frowned, “what about colleges?”

Her son, who had stayed behind, might have been happy to have his teacher recognize that he’d done some good work. She was keeping score, or worried that Stanford was.

I’m not bemoaning the world today, or suggesting that there was something uniquely magical about my own growing up. What does strike me, however, is the parallel between the parent keeping score in a lopsided little league game and the adult attitude that everything that can be measured, recorded, and put on a college resume should be.

Sometimes play is play.

Sometimes good work earns congratulations and nothing more.

Sometimes it’s the experiences of childhood that matter more than the accomplishments of childhood.

photo 1I’m certain that a week after the fact my son does not know whether it was his team that scored 24 or 13 runs, though I’ll bet he could describe what it felt like to hit the ball out of the infield.

As an educator and a dad, I celebrate the times when our kids -both youngsters like my son and high school students like those I work with- don’t keep score.

I love it when we adults get out of the way and allow them to play for play’s sake, learn for the love of learning, and experience life not because it will look good to a college admissions officer, but because those experiences are theirs.

I don’t fault the parent who brought the scoreboard to my son’s game, but a part to me wishes she could have stopped flipping numbers and enjoyed watching the kids play.

Wincing

DSC03887.JPGTwo strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, a runner on third and nothing I can do but watch. Being a dad of a softball and a baseball player is teaching me, pitch by pitch, the truth of the advice from Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult: “Develop a capacity to wince but not to pounce.”

I was the kid who once struck out in T-ball, back in an age when they let kids do such things; today’s T-ball is a gentler game, probably for the better, sensibly focusing on skills rather than competition. The memory of that strikeout has stayed with me for forty years, and I can still taste the tears when I see my own kids try and miss.

Still, I know how valuable those small formative failures can be. They are lessons that transcend games and, coupled with the successes that are also part of every game, these experiences provide kids a perspective that can help them when they face the more substantial challenges of school, relationships, and life.

I also know how tough it can be to see my own kids cry.

DSC03881Beyond the ballpark things only get more complicated, and I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I suggested that the dad in me didn’t feel more strongly than the principal I am thinks about situations involving my own kids. It’s in these moments that I know I should reflect on the practice of wincing I’m cultivating from my seat behind the backstop.

Would that it were easy.

And yet as an educator I understand Lythcott-Haims’ argument that an “inability to cope -to sit with some discomfort, think about options, talk it through with someone, make a decision- can become a problem” for kids who haven’t been given the opportunity to fail.

The best schools are in the business of helping students learn the valuable skills  they’ll need to be successful beyond school. The experience of dissecting a frog or developing a Rube Goldberg machine isn’t valuable because we’re creating a generation of amphibian veterinarians or quirky tinkerers. Like learning how to take a photograph, compose a haiku, or balance an equation, the skills our students learn -often from the mistakes they make along the way- are meant to be transferable to the lives they’ll lead in a diverse and sometimes complicated world that changes dynamically every day.

Will they remember those strikeouts when they’re adults? I’m sure they will, though those early failures will not define who they will become as adults.

What will help them to define who they will become will be their responses to those challenges, their responses, not their parents’ responses. Our pouncing could help to define them too, but not in the way any of us would want them to be defined.

So I strive to wince and let my own kids learn. Two strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, and a runner on third? There’s a lesson there, for me and for my kids.

Baseball and Such

It doesn’t matter that I live in California and that the weather this February afternoon is hovering just under eighty degrees. Ever since I was a kid growing up in Oregon, where Februaries are reliably wet and grey, those three words of reassurance that spring is almost here have whispered from the desert: “Pitchers and catchers.”*

3452Anyone who as visited this online apothecary of odds and ends knows that I’m a baseball fan, and will indulge me, I hope, this post written on a yellow legal pad as I sit at a picnic table watching my son’s baseball practice, pausing as I do to watch him charge grounders, run bases, and slap a single to right field.

It’s a post only sort of about education (my usual bread and butter), though any words written about baseball are written about life, and my professional life has been about teaching and learning since the first Clinton administration. Like baseball, education is a thinking person’s game, success predicated on strategy, preparation, and the ability to think on your feet.

Baseball isn’t a sport some of us stop thinking about. The long season encourages commitment, a relationship with the game built over 162 regular season games each season, and seasons stretching back to the 1840s. Football fans are identified by the bumper stickers on their trucks, and basketball fans by the $100 jerseys they wear over t-shirts. You know a baseball fan’s team by the weather-beaten cap worn every weekend all the year round.

It’s like that for great teachers, and principals like me too; education is that constant in our lives, that faded cap we know we’ll still be wearing in twenty years.

Part of the appeal is the beauty of it all when the distinct elements come together. Players, like my son and daughter, practice hitting, fielding, and running the bases, but the sum total of the game transcends each individual part. So too, we talk about the standards for teaching, each valuable in and of themselves, but none so great as the magical whole of a day in the classroom when things just click.

That magic of watching a deft teacher turn a cynical student comment into the opening remark of a spirited class discussion, that spell cast by a veteran storyteller delighting her students with tales of Aphra Behn, or that sorcery performed in an introductory chemistry class when a witty teacher decides that amazing her students may be the best way to capture them for the term… and by that I mean capture their hearts forever, with the experience of a chemical reaction that delights and surprises them… these are moments akin to a catch by Willie Mays or a line drive from the bat of Ted Williams.

School stories, like baseball stories, grow to legend with retelling. Our favorite teachers, like our favorite baseball players, become myth over years of remembrance.

…and it happens year after year after year.

photo (4)My daughter is playing softball this season, and my heart finds my throat every time she faces a full count. My son is deciding to be a switch hitter, and I’m just waiting for the right time to introduce him to Eddie Murray. At eleven and seven, they have scores of teachers ahead of them. The stories they will remember from a lifetime of school are still being written.

They have so many more at bats.

The ups and downs that will come from those experiences, as they do for all of us, the triples and the strikeouts, the A’s and the F’s, the tragedy and the joy… these are the stuff of life. I appreciate that baseball, and school too, helps us all prepare for the adventures that are to come.

There are times we choke and there are times we choke up.

Today, however, is a time to revel in those three words that remind me that there’s always another chance, another season, another fresh start, another spring. Today, from Peoria to Sarasota, it’s pitchers and catchers!

Play ball.

 

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* My wife, who is not a baseball fan, would let me know that for a great many readers, particularly those lured in with promises of a high school principal’s perspective on contemporary education, affection for the grand game isn’t a given. “Pitchers and catchers?” she’d ask sensibly. “What are you talking about?” Prosaically, the answer is that on February 18th, major league ballplayers who pitch and catch arrive at spring training, a couple of days before the rest of the team. Poetically, and that’s the way God intended baseball to be experienced (if she hadn’t, God wouldn’t have made the game so beautiful) the words “pitchers and catchers” mean anticipation, unlimited potential, hope, and spring.

 

 

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

photo 3 (2)My wife shakes her head at the whole thing. We’ve been together since college, and even then she knew that part of who I am inside is a twelve year old boy, a baseball fan, happy when I’m wearing a Dodgers cap and eating peanuts out of the shell.

Now, as our six year old son’s eyes were opened by the glossy foil of a pack of baseball cards, I see her smilingly resigning herself to the realization that there are now two of us.

The beauty of baseball has been articulated by better pens than mine, Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer and Jane Leavy’s biography of Sandy Koufax to name just two. Even Ken Burns’ documentary on the game begins with a quotation about baseball by Walt Whitman.

As an educator who writes a bit, baseball has helped me in my role of middle school principal in unexpected ways.

photo (1)In the fall it was an easy connection with students and staff, both the few who rooted for my favorite team, and the overwhelming majority here in San Diego County who pull for the Padres. I lived a decade in the Bay Area as a Dodger fan, honing my banter to simultaneously stand up for my bums and not offend the local culture. This isn’t to say that I don’t talk theater with my acting students or riddles, books, or music, but my blue LA cap is like a magnet for conversation, especially with adolescent boys (who sometimes need an excuse to talk with adults).

It’s not just the kids.

Larry Tye’s great biography of Satchel Paige led to some fantastic conversations with my head custodian, and even prompted my assistant principal to share a song called “Satchel Paige” by a local band he knows. A debate about Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider has carried on for weeks between my campus supervisor, a veteran PE teacher, and me. Willie Mays was not mentioned. It’s me and a couple of Yankee fans.

Baseball invites conversation, sometimes not even about baseball.

photo 2 (1)I can honestly say that one of the most interesting and renewing professional conversations I’ve had this year was with a friend and fellow site administrator as we watched Mike Trout’s Angels play in the beautiful “Big A.”

As the game progressed, and on our drive to and from the ballpark, we talked about everything from restorative practices to managing high school athletic supervision. We saw a rookie second baseman get two hits in his first game in the majors, and discussed how we help students new to our schools become part of the team. By the time the night was over I’d set up a time to visit his school to watch a student led forum that I’d like to import to my own school next year.

photo 1 (2)Learning from failure, working together for a common cause, believing in something greater than ourselves… all these things can be learned from more than just baseball, but for me, a Dodger fan in a sea of Padres, a principal at a site with only one other administrator, this common ground has been beautiful.

Now, as spring inches toward summer and the kids are beginning to play ball on the diamond adjacent to our school, I’m the fellow who finds himself walking across campus whistling “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”