Welcome, stranger…

I’ve read more than my fair share of fantasy during this pandemic, Tolkien of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and A Song of Fire and Ice (even though I’m the one person on the planet who hasn’t seen the TV show). I zipped through Three Hearts and Three Lions, a book I hadn’t ever read but had heard about from more than a few people; The Eaters of the Dead, inspiration to pick up Heaney’s translation of Beowulf; and most recently The Dragonbone Chair, which begins with a line that felt written for our present uncertain times: “Welcome, stranger. The paths are treacherous today.”

Around us all are opinions and realities, too often competing with each other and frequently piling wood on the fire of concern (about a host of topics including the pandemic, social justice, and mental health) that has been blazing now for more than a year. All the while we mask up, wait in line for the vaccine, and try to make sensible choices, and while there are days during which it feels like the flames are dying down, enough pops and sparks are coming from our metaphoric bonfire to keep us all feeling a little singed.

If this were a fantasy novel we’d be questing against the great threat. Our swords would flash, arrows would fly, and an elf would make a smart remark. We are, however, profoundly human. 

So we wash our hands and wipe down our shopping carts and there are days that feels pretty heroic. Sometimes.

Except…

It is in our human nature to want grander shades of heroism than any that involve hand sanitizer. We want to strap on that pack, sling a battleaxe over our shoulder, and head into the haunted forest to save the world.

Those fantasy authors understand that desire and package it between embossed covers. Whether it’s Middle Earth, Narnia, or Westeros, the worlds they imagine invite us to join their hero’s journey from the comfort of our own COVID bubble.

But then we close the book, wash our hands again, put on our mask and head out into a very different world. How to be heroic there?

I know the answer looks different to everyone. Sometimes the seemingly small acts of kindness bring more power than a wizard’s spell. Telling a grandparent you love them, helping a parent with dinner, reaching out to a friend who needs to hear your voice, any of those things can pack as profound a wallop as an ogre’s club.

As a principal I get to see both magic and epic challenges every day. I see sweeping emotions, gritty reality, and swashbuckling glee. And that’s just at student lunch.

The teachers, counselors, and staff, these are heroes.

They may not battle goblins (though have you ever seen middle schoolers running to the bus?), they don’t wear chainmail or carry magic swords, they simply bring to their work with students more than a little magic and heroic hearts.

As challenging as I know the final few weeks of the school year will be —and it would be naive to believe that they won’t pack in a dragon or two— as challenging as those weeks will be, because of these professionals I’m as optimistic as a hobbit at second breakfast.

My teachers, counselors, and staff members know that the greatest strength isn’t independence. The truth that they know, as any successful adventurer knows, is that the greatest attribute a hero can have is interdependence.

Frodo needed Sam who needed Aragorn who needed Gandalf who years before needed Bilbo who needed Frodo to pick up the ring and become heroic.

Whether we’re teachers or hobbits (or both) the next few weeks invite us to form a fellowship with those we know, those we love, and those we don’t know …yet. Having been away from our usual life for more than a year we are beginning to return to a wider world, a place still treacherous, but ripe for heroism if we approach it together, both friends and strangers (many of whom will be friends as this adventure continues).

As the road stretches out ahead I encourage us all to straighten our helmets, polish our shields, and look out for one another as if wights were circling the barrow. The day will come when we look back on this adventure and raise a glass with the friends we made through the strife, reminiscing about the dragons we overcame along the way.

Driving Home

In this age of imperfect analogies I offer my own.

Decades before I became a principal, years before I started teaching, back when I was a twenty year old sophomore in college I was driving through Montana on my way home to Oregon after a road trip with a roommate that ended with me dropping him off at his home in Lewistown. Even having grown up in Oregon, a state more rural than urban, Montana’s wide open spaces were of a different scale to me and midway through a particularly long stretch of driving I looked down and saw that my gas needle was on empty.

I had miles to go before the next town. All around me the landscape stretched out, brown rolling hills, a few ramshackle wooden fence posts strung with wire, mountains in the distance. Montana is known as “big sky country” and the enormity of the sky above was equaled only by the length of the two lane highway that stretched out for miles and miles and miles and the sinking feeling in my chest as I looked down at the gauge and wondered how I’d not noticed the gas level back at the last town. 

That town was miles behind me now and in this day before smartphones or google maps I could only look at my odometer and try to puzzle how far I still had to go before I got to the next gas station. A long way, I figured. I looked back at that needle on E.

Alone, still moving at sixty miles an hour, I continued west. I wasn’t sure how far I could drive on empty, but I couldn’t see an alternative (or a town or house or place to make a phone call) so I drove. Half an hour later, my eyes continually drawn down to the gas gauge, I did the only sensible thing, at least in the mind of a foolish twenty year old; I leaned my wallet up on the dashboard so I couldn’t see the needle pointing to empty.

I drove that way for a long time. The map on the passenger seat told me I was headed the right direction, youthful optimism told me all would be well, and the back of my black leather wallet didn’t tell me if the needle could actually slip below E. I kept driving.

Then, like a miracle, the town of Bozeman appeared.

I dropped down into Bozeman, pulled into a gas station, and removed my wallet. Filling the tank it was as if there had never been a threat. I refueled, closed the cap, stretched my legs, and got back into the car. No fuss.

I have remembered that nerve jangling drive vividly for more than half my life.

And this week, as the school where I am principal prepares to welcome students back into classrooms after more than a year away from campus, I thought of that ride again. The stress that so many of us have felt, the frustration in not being able to see students when their cameras are off in Zoom, of not being able to see why they’re struggling or pick them up when they stumble, all those things have made the past year so difficult. We have done our best to make progress, to teach and learn, and to support our students, but other than knowing that we are tired, we are struggling too, and that our tank is close to empty, there is little that some of us are sure of.

What will it be like when the students come back? How will it be to engage in hybrid instruction? How soon can we have everyone back and begin to refuel and continue our journey with confidence? Like that hidden gas gauge, we just don’t know.

I promised that this would be an imperfect analogy, and it is, but it seems to me that we are collectively not unlike that foolish young me who kept pressing on, hoping to make it, knowing I needed to fill my tank and not sure just how empty it was. We are driving in the right direction, keeping hope as best we can, and while we can’t be sure just how much we need to fill our tank we keep moving forward hoping for the relief of seeing the lights of town ahead. I think that relief will come. I believe that as empty as some of us feel right now we will be full again. I know that at the end of this we’ll come home.

Growth

One person I know learned how to play the accordion, another began roasting his own coffee beans, another wrote some poetry that looks to be published soon. I’ve heard stories of people building greenhouses, recording songs, and cataloguing vintage oscilloscopes during this time of staying at home during the pandemic.

I have done none of that.

Day to day I’ve simply done my imperfect best to help my school stay connected, my family stay healthy, and myself survive with some level of sanity during these strange, strange days. I’ve read a lot, exercised too little, and avoided growing a pandemic beard.

As we take our first halting steps toward “normal” I hope that those of us who didn’t learn a language or pick up a masters degree in the months of quarantine can allow ourselves to feel no guilt.

We’re okay too.

Next week my school will see the first students back on campus for classes since March 2020. Some folks are nervous, some are excited, some our trying to imagine what it will look like. As the principal, I’m a little bit of all three of those categories, though I have a visual in my office that helps me picture at least a part of what it will might be like: a money tree plant.

I got the plant several years ago, a small thing to decorate my office, and have repotted it twice since. I found a photo from when we were at our old campus and saw that at that time, just before we moved to the temporary campus where we’ve been for a little more than a year and a half, the money tree was about as tall as the student sitting next to it as a group of ACMA filmmakers used my office for a short they were working on. (For anyone puzzling at what I was doing in a tie, not my day to day attire, I’m told I was playing a 1950s private eye.) 

Production of that film was interrupted by the pandemic, all our performances relegated to what might have been. But the plant…

Today that plant towers over me, enjoying the sun from a nearby window and growing like a middle schooler over a long summer.

How many of our students may have done the same? I’ve mostly seen the kids from the neck up, Zooming into Open Mic Nights or class meetings. The times I’ve been able to see them in person, picking something up from in front of the school or walking through for one of our socially distanced events, I’ve marveled at how tall some have gotten. Young giraffes into young adults.

But growth isn’t only on the outside. All of our students, and the adults that work with them too, have grown and changed in the months we’ve been apart. Some of this growth has been hard earned, some influenced by stress beyond our control, some experienced with the pain that comes with any transformation.

While we take steps toward returning to campus we are different than we were last March. Some of us have learned a little more about ourselves and our world, some of us have learned to long for or appreciate what we took for granted a year ago, all of us have seen the world we knew changed around us.

And as that old Washington Irving line goes: “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Bruised? Sure. Changed? Yes. Has the last year really been a bumpy stagecoach ride? Seems like it more often than not. And…

Even if you can’t see it on the outside, like that plant in my office we’ve grown. New shoots have stretched from the stalk, reaching toward the sun. If we nurture our growth, care for ourselves, and keep leaning into the light we may just be okay. 

Together, all of us, those who have done great things and those who have done our best to do our best, together we can start again. Changed. Bruised. Better again.

More than a year in…

We passed the one year anniversary of our last day on campus—Friday, March 13th, which feels so very, very, very long ago—remotely, only a few of us in our offices, most teachers working from home, and all students learning through their computers. Last March, when we waved goodbye to the buses pulling away from school, we weren’t sure how long it would be before the kids were back. Two weeks? Some asked. A month? A few daring folks wondered aloud if we’d be back before the start of the school year. 

The first official thought was that we’d need to extend spring break for a week or so, though many with level heads and logical minds doubted the pandemic would disappear that soon.

Then the separation got extended, all learning was pushed online, and the freefall of April through the end of the school year began with all the grace of a first time parachuter being pushed from a small plane.

Summer arrived, muted as it was by stay at home orders and uncertainty about school in the fall, and then August arrived with school still remote, still strange, still stressful.

Teachers innovated, students adapted, and schools like ours worked hard to stay as connected as we could. A few things worked; a few things didn’t. All of us looked forward to the day we’d be back on campus with students.

Vaccines arrived, plans evolved, and hope rose as winter 2020 turned into spring 2021.

And now we find ourselves here. April 2021, the sun shining as a write this post, rain promised off and on for the next few days, all the tumultuousness of spring weather echoes what so many of us are feeling as we start beginning to begin starting to start the beginning of the start of hybrid instruction.

It has some parallels to our move out of our old campus to our temporary home while construction got underway in the summer of 2019. Then, as now, we found ourselves in the midst of a big transition, we were about to start something new, and we were going to be teaching, learning, and making art somewhere other than our familiar home.

Then, as now, we were faced with change and the anxiety that so naturally accompanies a shift from the familiar to the unfamiliar. The move from one campus to another, however, was different from the move from one way of “doing school” to another. All of us had taught at a school building; none of us had taught 100% remotely; none of us has yet taught in the hybrid model we look to move into the week after next.

But we’re planning.

We’re working together to meet this most recent challenge. We’re spending the days we have before we step into this brave new world to ensure that we are as prepared as we can be, and knowing that even as we do our best we will be surprised by factors that we could never have anticipated.

This, I suppose, is normal now, at least normal at a distance wearing a mask over its mouth and nose. A year ago who would have thought it? A year from now what will it be like?

We can’t control a year from now and aren’t rewarded for lamenting a year ago, so what’s left is to band together, support one another, and embrace the idea that struggle and uncertainty are a part of this adventure of life. All will be well, we just don’t know exactly what that looks like right now.

Donning and Doffing

Before today the only thing I can ever remember doffing was my cap.

As a reminder that we live in a world of uncertainty and occasional chaos, I looked up from my work preparing for our return to campus in a hybrid model to see my school nurse standing in the doorway of my office and asking me if I was ready to be tested on “donning and doffing PPE.” The answer, of course, needed to be yes.

So I put aside the work that I’d need to hurry back to, ahead of another Zoom in half an hour, a tour of our new campus later in the afternoon, and a pair of Zooms after that, and followed her over to what will be our “Isolation Room” when students return to campus.

Fortunately, I passed my test.

There is much that we don’t know and more decisions to be made than we have answers to right now. Anxiety is high and stress higher. The questions coming in about hybrid learning from all quarters, on top of planning and preparing for next year, and for our school organizing a move from one campus to another this summer, can feel overwhelming at times, and they are all as relevant, important, and necessary as they are overwhelming.

So we marshal on.

The challenge, it seems, is keeping our collective heads as we face a daunting pile of work, a long list of difficult questions, and an ocean of uncertainty. We can’t solve every problem today, but if we breathe, work together, and believe we can find the best way forward we can at least address the problem nearest at hand. Then the next. Then the next. Then the next.

And like the clickety-clack of a train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next we may just move forward. I think we will.

Yes, we will be interrupted to don and doff this and that. We will be thrown unexpected surprises. The track will not be straight and may feel like more than one person is tied down on it by a person in a black cape twisting his mustache. …and we can handle this. Not without frustration, but we can handle this.

A long time back I was asked during a job interview what the hardest part of being a principal was. “Disappointing people I respect,” was the answer I gave. Sometimes the options we have are limited, sometimes the decisions that need to be made aren’t popular (or even “right” from a particular point of view), and sometimes what I have to communicate is going to let people down. The truth does on occasion. But just because we are disappointed doesn’t mean we don’t stay on that train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next and move in the direction of what’s best.

Are we ready to be tested on donning and doffing PPE (or whatever is next on that list of challenges)? The answer, of course, is yes.

Keep faith. Find joy. Make art.

I made a video last week, one of a series of short and somewhat silly attempts to keep a human face in front of my school community, a reminder that we’re all in this together and even separated by the pandemic our ACMA spirit is very much alive. It was, as nearly all my videos are, unscripted and unrehearsed. A friend of mine, Scott, a videographer in San Diego, used to kid me about my single takes and lack of notes. This short kept to that tradition.

And…

As a fellow who likes words, the more I thought about the message of that short message, the more I felt like I wanted to expand on it a little, flesh out my thoughts, add an example or two. That fleshing out is this, a post with the heartfelt, modest message: Keep faith, find joy, and make art.

Restrictions about social gatherings in person, and the fact that we have been away from school since last March have many of us feeling more isolated and apart than we’ve ever felt. One of my counselors compared what we’re experiencing with astronauts journeying out into space. “The difference,” she told me, “is that the astronauts know when they’re coming back to earth.”

So while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes, to look up from a day of Zoom meetings and just feel tired, to realize after a day or two that you haven’t left the house in a day or two … it’s important to keep faith. We not only will get through this, but we are getting through this. 

Right now, as difficult as it is to be separated from friends, to be away from school (for teachers as well as students), and to live with an uncertainty about when things will be a little less strange, we are doing our best. Every day we’re a day closer to students returning to classes. Every day we’re a day closer to welcoming friends and family into our homes. Every day we’re closer to vaccinations and celebrations. Every day.

There’s a line in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” And while the road has darkened in the past few months, our faith in a world improved need not disappear.

And while we work hard and do all we can to make the most of this imperfect present, it’s also important that we find joy. This could be as simple as petting our cat or dog, strumming a ukulele, or listening to music. It could be texting a friend, playing Minecraft, or going for a walk. I dig reading, others like reality TV, still others want to dance, sing, and write poetry. Yes. Yes. And Yes.

Because even as we understand that our world is not yet the world we would like it to be, and that challenges beyond the pandemic are there waiting for us to face them, it’s okay to take a deep breath and have a cup of hot chocolate. 

Finding joy will help to keep us buoyant enough to meet the hardships that we will face. Sharing joy, when we’re able, will help our world overcome those hardships.

Faith, joy, and art. It’s that third one that might really serve as a call to action right now. You see I work at an art school, filled to the brim with creative souls. I miss their smiles, their flair, their way of being in the world every day we’re not on campus, and…

I’m inspired to know that they are still making art. I see it when I visit classes, when I host open mic nights online, and when I walk into the foyer of the school and see the carts with clay, paint, and finished sculpture projects on them (dropped off by students and fired by our amazing ceramics teacher). I saw it in the shirt designed by one of my students, a vision of our school as a human, sensibly wearing a mask. And I feel the truth of a quotation by British novelist Iris Murdoch that I used to have hanging in my classroom:

“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”

Age has led me to believe that art might not be the only thing that matters, but I do believe that art and artists do change the world. Today, as I looked back on that little video I thought of the students, staff, and parents who make up my school family and I was filled with faith, joy, and the desire to make art.

Marionette

I have a friend who loves his wife very much and one year, nearly two decades ago, he wanted to surprise her with the perfect gift for her birthday. They hadn’t been married all that long and he wanted something unique and wonderful, like her, and being the researcher he is, he hunted high and low for an idea for something that would be a surprise she’d be delighted by. The result did surprise her. Delight? Well…

“She didn’t know what to say,” he told me and another friend the next week, shaking his head. “I thought I’d nailed it.” We laughed aloud, my other friend and I, and asked him to tell us again about …the marionette.

He explained that he’d found a puppeteer and craftsman who made custom marionettes. He’d commissioned one of his wife, fashioned from her photo, its hair realistic, its clothing similar to hers. “It wasn’t her hair, right?” my friend asked. “No,” my other friend answered. “It wasn’t even human hair.” That was a relief, anyway.

I saw the doll only once, crumpled in the corner of a guest bedroom. It seems to have vanished in the years since. It did look startling like his wife, who despite this perfect gift is still his wife, and it has always held a place in my heart, linked forever with the discrepancy between perception and intent.

Things feel a little like that marionette right now in education. Teachers are working harder than ever to connect to students. They are innovating, putting in long hours, and striving to find ways to help students engage with the material, the class, and each other.

Students are working hard too, and without the comradery that comes from sitting in class with one another, able to lean over and whisper or talk across the table and connect. Separation from those thousand little interactions is profound, and we see the impact it has on kids in big and little ways.

Families are working hard, not just to support the kids, but also to balance the many pressures and obligations, all made more complicated by the pandemic and its impact on our world.

And principals like me are trying to find ways to keep our schools connected. We strive to develop opportunities for students and staff and parents to be active and together, and even as we all put in herculean efforts, lots of time, and all the creativity we can, well…

The results are far from perfect. As much care and craft as we have put in, as much time and thoughtfulness we dedicate to this experience, there are still times when each of us feels like a marionette crumpled in a corner. 


That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t get through this and have a long and happy relationship. Heck, my friend and his wife made it through the perfect gift together. And we will be back on campus together …sometime. Until then, we have our best chance at success, however we define that, if we allow ourselves to pause, take a deep breath (or maybe two or three), and show each other grace. Not every attempt is a success, not every effort yields the results we’d like, but we can do much to support one another, showing kindness even when we’re given a marionette.

One of my attempts at helping my school community stay centered is a series of “Fireside Chats” that I’ve been filming over the past few months. Sure they’re silly, just me and a green screen, but they’re as heartfelt as my friend’s marionette. The story for this post was the topic of my most recent chat, and you can chuckle at my buffoonery here:

Wind Tunnel

When I was young and foolish and in my second year of teaching high school English I decided that it would be a good idea to make a wind tunnel in my classroom.

We were midway through a unit on Pierre Boulle’s short 1963 novel Monkey Planet, a title that took on a life of its own when later translated into English as Planet of the Apes, and the class of juniors and seniors was rollicking good fun. We’d talked about satire (which Boulle’s book really is), animal rights (which Boulle’s book really isn’t about), and a handful of other topics, and I wanted to give them an experience to demonstrate how difficult it can be to find yourself in a culture you don’t understand. 

So, over a week or two I gathered as many fans as I could, borrowing from everyone I knew until I had a collection of box fans, oscillating fans, and odds and ends that would collectively create the windstorm I was looking for. I dug out a couple of candles, a CD player (this was the 90s) and the biggest roll of black butcher paper I could find.

After school I tipped all of the tables in my classroom on their ends, making a series of rectangles reaching toward the ceiling down the center of the room. Using the black paper I extended the wall, making sure to completely separate the two sides except for a small passageway between the two.

I set up the interior of the room, windowless, opposite from the door to the hallway, with all the fans poised and ready for me to flip the switch on a powerstrip. About six feet in front of the bank of wind machines I placed a candle on the floor, the only object on that side of the room other than the fans. I turned off the lights on that side of the room to make sure no light could get in through my makeshift wall. It couldn’t.

Once that was done I crawled through the narrow opening and pulled back the black butcher paper to seal off the dark side of the room. Here I added a couple of lamps I’d scrounged to make the room even brighter, set up the CD player with some upbeat 1960s jazz, and moved the rest of the furniture to the sides of the room to leave room for the students (on this side) to move around.

The next morning I greeted my class by randomly dividing them into two groups and handing each a fact sheet about the society they’d be a part of for the next hour or so. I’d stolen names from a philosopher I liked, and the students got to reading about the “Evets” and “Yoks,” two very different types of people.

The Evet culture was centered around silence, darkness, and their collective charge to always keep the sacred candle lit. They’d be challenged in this by occasional windstorms, but those would always be preceded by a loud noise, anathema to the Evets’ world. The Evets themselves had to remain silent, so to communicate and collaborate (as they’d need to in order to keep the candle burning) would require creativity. Their side of the room, their whole world, was dark except for the candle and quiet except for the warning noise before the wind. I encouraged them to stay as close to the ground as they could be, and make their movements as slow and deliberate as they could. It was an oddly serene world of darkness.

For the Yoks life centered around light and loudness, movement and talkative exuberance. While they could only say the word “Yok” (analogous to the character of Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy) they said it often and with great inflection. They moved around the room, music swinging, and the only charge they had was staying active and energized. 

I let the cultures find their centers for about ten minutes, or the time it took for a couple of flicks of the wind switch. My Evets’ candle survived those, but just barely. And then…

I opened the doorway and moved one student from each side to the other.

What happened next was wonderful. The students, who love to play, played. They were earnest in their inhabiting of our imaginary cultures and held to character as this new addition stepped into their world. Curiosity, attempts at understanding, more than a little misunderstanding, the range of experiences were a ball.

We kept up this artificial cultural exchange for half an hour or so, and the results were as fun as they were informative to the discussion that followed the final windstorm of the day. What that all looked like, however, isn’t the topic of this post; this modest entry is about the fact that right now no goofy ideas like this can happen in our classrooms. Our teachers are creative and our students still love to play, but right now, right now, the pandemic has us hoping our students just turn on their cameras and wondering if they have the bandwidth to connect in real time.

Classes that rely on interaction and proximity, particularly subjects like dance and theater, music and sculpture, are striving to find new ways to keep their programs moving forward and their students engaged, and…

Truth be told it’s really hard.

Comprehensive Distance Learning, as it’s called in my corner of the world, is as unlike anything we’re used to as the Evets’ world and the Yoks’.

So much of what we used to do, what has always worked so well, what we and our students love …so much of that simply doesn’t work right now, or at least not as well or in the same way. This is really stressful for our teachers and our students. Our parents feel it too; they see their kids every day and have a front row seat to the stress of remote learning.

We’re doing our best to navigate this unfamiliar landscape, but even as we try to figure out how to do our work in this very different world the worry and stress our educators are feeling shouldn’t be ignored. 

Unable to step into another teacher’s classroom, or gather in person for lunch, or walk to the copy room together, it’s easy to feel isolated. Unable to catch a colleague after a staff meeting or easily meet for coffee to talk about a challenge we’re facing, it’s easy to feel alone.

The results are sobering. As great as much of the work is, as hard as the teachers are working to make their classrooms inviting, engaging, and challenging to every student, the results don’t always match the efforts. Sometimes it’s the students being unable to connect online (bandwidth, home circumstances, and mental health compromised by stressors beyond the school all can get in the way). Sometimes it’s the feeling of overwhelm that our kids report they’re experiencing, not only a result of school, but also of their own sense of disequilibrium that the current state of the world is pushing on them). Sometimes we simply don’t know why the student’s camera is off, why they’re not participating, or even if they are why they’re not able to engage in the same way they would if we were on campus together.

That lack of knowing is another challenge. We as educators are good at solving problems, but right now it feels like we’re working in the dark, our collaboration compromised by the sensible and prudent rules imposed by the pandemic. We’re used to creating a world of laughter, learning, and light, and right now we’re simply doing our best to keep the candle of learning burning in the wind tunnel in which we find ourselves.

As a principal I wish I had the answers to these challenges that my school needs right now. I don’t. Instead I’m working with my staff to develop ideas that might help. None of us can do this alone, but together we have a chance to better adapt and maybe even end up with a better experience than those human astronauts landing on a planet of talking apes. And…

We don’t have to throw our hands in the air and let Dr. Zaius rule the world. We can work together to make some kind of difference.

Just like those students from my second year of teaching, who are now in their 40s, many with kids of their own, we arrived at school this year and were presented with something unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable. It’s disorienting to find ourselves in a different world, but I remain tenaciously optimistic that we can adjust, work together (despite the challenges), and make our way forward, even when the winds blow the hardest.

How Much — How Little

Emotions are high. Tears, anger, frustration, arguments, hurt feelings, and a feeling of failure have all been on my computer desktop this week, through emails, Zoom meetings, and snippets of social media. It’s been weeks since we started school, such as it is, not together on a campus, but remotely through keyboards and computer screens across town, and few days go by when, as the principal of an amazing school, I don’t see tears and shaking heads as part of my working day.

Emily Dickinson caught the emotion of it all in her short, short poem:

In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much—how little—is
Within our power

It’s in those last two lines that I suspect at least some of the emotions originate. It’s easy to feel that much, very, very much to be honest, is not within our power.

A counselor I work with made the comparison between our pandemic prompted separation and being an astronaut. Astronauts, she said, know when they’re coming back to earth. We don’t.

And so… as a high school principal I see small things turning big ones for many of the students and families I work with: that mis-marked absence, that grade on a quiz, that inability to see anyone beyond an inch wide square in a video conference. Day after day, week after week, those small things add up and can feel big.

When it’s not in our power to chat with a friend in the hallway, stay after class to ask the teacher a question (discreetly), or stop by the counseling office without an appointment, we start wondering what is within our power.

For some the answer is disheartening, unhealthy, or worse. The pain I see in the eyes of my staff, students, and parents is real. And…

In another, more well known poem Emily Dickinson reminds us that:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

“Chillest land” and “strangest sea” sound about right, at least on some days, and the hope that Emily Dickinson writes about, resilient, consistent, and quietly powerful, is appealing. We all want to believe that the stress we feel can be overcome. We need to hope and hold on to hope, and Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” is a nice reminder of that need.

Nice, of course, but… right now this present gale does seem to be “abashing the little bird” and, for me at least, that familiar poem isn’t the only place I’ve found some comfort and inspiration from the Belle of Amherst, and it might not even be the best.

One poem that struck me as apt for today was a lesser known piece (at least to me) from early in Dickinson’s poetic life.

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –

A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod” –
And Mr. Thomson’s “sheaves.”

Still, is the bustle in the Brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –

Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!

This poem, which I didn’t remember as I was reading it out of the big book of Emily Dickinson poems I brought out during the summer, reminds me that while there is much not in our power (the coming of fall, for one thing, and its attendant chill), we can control our view of it. We can choose to notice “the eyes of many elves” where others might see only gray days and frost on the ground) and look inside ourselves for peace and “a sunny mind” to see us through the winds we bear.

I like that, a sunny mind against the winds. How much is within our power.

Or maybe it’s just time to go watch Elton John sing “I’m Still Standing.”

I think if she were alive today even Emily Dickinson would smile at that.

The Summer of our Discontent

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk, an inspiration for those days when I need to turn to an idealized vision of a leader boldly striking forth while keeping a human heart. I’ve written about it before, but maybe failed to mention that alongside that little tome sits a matching volume of Richard III, a reference work for days when leadership isn’t quite so noble (Shakespeare’s Richard was a scoundrel, for all you non-English majors).

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I taught English for more than a dozen years, and my most memorable time with Richard III came when a friend of mine and I were the two person English department at a small high school in rural Oregon. We taught a lot of Shakespeare, and the year after I left the school (to move south to California) I flew up one day in the spring and surprised my former students.

My friend was in the midst of a unit on Shakespeare with kids who were seniors and had studied Richard III with me the year before. He had a stage set up in his room, and before class started I hid behind the curtain wearing a gas mask (quiet homage to the Ian McKellen Richard III film). Once the students had filed in I pushed out from behind the curtain and launched into Richard’s opening speech, ripping the mask off as I got to the final line:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings”

Ah, “merry meetings.”

I thought about that long ago morning this week as we got word that we’d be starting the school year 100% remotely. It has been months since I’ve seen my current students face to face and in person, not just through a computer screen. Right now we are living through the “clouds lour’d upon our house” and the notion of hanging up our bruised arms feels miles away. And…

This will end. The time will come when our “stern alarums” will be replaced by something else. We will return to school when safety allows, and that will be a time of merry meetings indeed. Until then, well…

The uncertainty of the fall is heavy on all our hearts. We know that we want to be at school, but that the “at school” we have in mind doesn’t exist right now. The stress we feel is real. The isolation from friends, and as much from the bustle and hum of those around us at school who are all potential friends, is palpable. The worry about what we are missing makes sense. We are, all of us, doing our best to do our best. We are trying to understand a situation that none of us has faced before, and move through it with as much grace as we’re able. It isn’t easy.

It is the summer of our discontent, but seasons change.

And as we move into a fall of adaptation, where we are asked to face our uncertainty and move toward some kind of temporary normal that looks different than anything we’ve know, it helps to know that sometime in the future the seasons will change yet again and we will be able to look back at 2020 as a time that tested us, challenged our system, and a time that we emerged from changed, but whole.

Yehuda Amichai, a more modern poet than Shakespeare, said it well:

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.”

We are living in a world “dug up” right now, but it’s from plowed ground that flowers grow. We’ll make it, together (at a physical distance, for a while), and sometime soon we’ll rip off the gas mask, smile with the joy of recognition that only comes from long absence, and enjoy together a merry meeting.