The Red Folder

Commencement. It’s a big deal for those of us in the education game, a day when we get to honor graduates and celebrate the accomplishment of students finishing more than a decade of learning. At some schools commencement is a solemn affair; other places it’s filled with silly string, flip flops, and decorated hats. A few universals seem to apply, and have for as long as most of us can remember: gowns and mortarboards, a podium for a speaker or two, and the promise of some kind of music.

My favorite ceremonies are those that bend expectations a bit, or even throw convention to the wind, smilingly of course. Here at ACMA those speeches, surprises, and smiles are gathered in a red folder on my desk.


For the past few weeks all the plans for our ceremony have been piling up, and I’ve dutifully tucked them into that folder, where they’ve been arranged and rearranged for the greatest effect. We’re an art school after all, so we know that presentation matters, and where you put the jazz number, composed by an ACMA student, matters as much as who speaks first, in the middle, and last.

I’ve been looking at that folder all week, knowing that inside is magic. This weekend what’s there in black and white will burst out in technicolor. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, everything becomes real.

At ACMA, real means leaving some expectations behind. You won’t find pomp and circumstance in the program, or a pronouncement by a board member. I’ve read the speeches, all free of quotations from Dr. Seuss or Winston Churchill. Heartfelt and relevant, these messages to graduates capture the true spirit of our school.

What is in that folder is a list of people and performances, of honors (“the burgundy cord represents…” etc.) and pathway endorsements. These matter much, and while a list is not a painting, a dance, or a film, they identify students who have made a lifetime of studying their passion.

Inside too there’s a copy of the program, where the names of graduates are lined up more systematically than our students have ever been in a fire drill. The painting of our PAC on the cover is lovely and professional, a far cry from the beloved Quonset Hut where the students will meet to put on their caps and gowns, but also an important reminder that as kooky as we sometimes can be, when we need to we can present ourselves in ways that will impress.

The formality of ACMA’s approach to commencement (I’ll wear a tie, the grads won’t decorate their caps) is reflected in the elegance of the program. That dichotomy is us as well; creative and professional, polished and bohemian.

In juxtaposition to that formality… the emotion of the day, the creative spirit of our school, and a couple of surprises (one for the teachers and one for the graduates) will shine through at our ceremony. For any imagining boredom, worry not: that human touch and artistic spirit that helps to define who we are as a school will more than make an appearance.

I’m excited about my first commencement ceremony as the principal of ACMA. I’ll miss the seniors very much in the days and years ahead, but to have this time to celebrate them with our ACMA family is precious beyond expression. We’ll bring all our hearts to that celebration, our songs, our poems, our sage advice too. And in the end I hope we leave our graduates with a sense of our appreciation, a measure of our love, and song in their hearts.

It’s all in that red folder right now. Saturday morning it will be on stage.

That’s a big deal.


“Fare Forward, Voyagers”

I’m thinking about a poem. We’re elbow deep in plans for graduation and a part of most ceremonies is the guy in a tie addressing the class. In my time as a principal, and on the pages of this collection of thoughts (tagged “graduation”), I’ve wrestled with what to say, weighed and reweighed the importance of the event, and relished the approach one deliciously iconoclastic school took to the commencement ceremony. This year, at the helm of a wildly creative school filled with wonderfully curious students, the prospect of a speech, and more specifically what words to offer these artistic souls, is heavy on my mind.

So on an April afternoon when I was reading Eliot’s Four Quartets I found myself moved by a passage that made me think about graduation. Sentimental by nature, and made even more so by the approach of the end of the school year, I found resonance in the lines:

When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.”

Our students are like those passengers on Eliot’s poetic train. They stay suspended in the moment of graduation, separated from their past years at a familiar school and the wide opening of the future before them. In these moments, as they listen to speeches, hear music made by peers, and sit in robes they’ll wear on only this one occasion, they are invited to consider the past and future with “equal mind.”

EliotAs I look out at them from the podium on stage I know I’ll think: “You are not the same people who left the station…” They are, in fact, pure possibility. They are our voyagers, embarking on new adventures, even as they have traveled so far together. They are faring forward.

I’m thinking about a poem.

Emily Dickinson, that poet of slanted light and buzzing flies, in a moment steeped with spring described:

Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—  
Then stepped straight through the Firmament  
And rested on a Beam—  
And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—  
Though never yet, in any Port—  
Their coming mentioned—be—  
If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—”

How like those butterflies our graduating students are, waltzing, resting, bearing away. As they prepare to step “straight through the Firmament” what more can we do than watch and wonder, hope and celebrate, and see in them the future?

I’m thinking about a poem.

That day of commencement, a day when I’ll step to the mic and after three or four other speakers, many of whom will have grand advice and relevant anecdotes for the graduates, it will be my turn. Any big ideas or semblance of wisdom I’ve wanted to pass on the students will have already heard.

My “Art unites us” speech? Check.

My “Three things matter in life: to be kind, to be kind, to be kind” speech? They’ve heard it.

My fatherly advice about being safe and looking out for one another? I’ve given them that too.

DickinsonSo I think about what I might add to a ceremony rich with student performances, pomp, and pageantry, and I keep coming back to the brevity, beauty, and power of verse.

I won’t go with TS Eliot, though his voyagers were the ones to first inspire the notion of a poem. I’ll leave Emily Dickinson for them to find on their own when they get to college. But I have something in mind that might just work, a short piece that captures the swell of emotions that typify graduations and offers the sort of advice an older generation should offer the young.

Who knows, maybe it says something right that graduation day sees the principal walk in with a volume of poetry tucked under his arm. We’ll see.

I can almost hear the whisper in my ear: “Not fare well,/ but fare forward, voyagers.”


The tipping point is
Senior Awards
When the madcap rush toward graduation
Turns into a
Not to end until
The parents rush onto the field
To hug their graduates
Cry, take photos, and be proud.

This year, as much as most, it’s easy to feel the pace quicken
The students smiles speaking thoughts
Of summer
And the sunny future.

After Senior Awards the days shorten
Emotions lengthen
And that feeling of impermanence
(both real and as fleeting as a dream)
Tints every interaction with a touch of melancholy
Tempered only by the youthful exuberance of
For whom high school feels like it will last forever.

graduation b

Start With the End in Mind

It’s easy to get caught up in the bustle of the start of the school year, planning, preparing, and making sure that when students arrive on the first day of classes everything is ready to go. It was in that busy state of mind that I found myself attending our annual parent foundation planning retreat on Saturday, and it was in a moment of zen that I was reminded to pause and, like a good teacher planning a lesson, start with the end in mind.

SDA GraduatesOur foundation president had invited former San Dieguito parent, author, and speaker  Robert MacPhee in to do some work with the board. As he ended his portion of the morning he invited us to a guided meditation that took as its focus our graduation ceremony.

I realized, as I listened to Robert take us through the relaxation and visualization process, that as the principal the graduation I pictured looked a little different from everyone else.

At San Dieguito we do graduation in a way unlike I’ve seen before. Students sit in four quadrants of chairs on the field, standard enough in itself, but rather than simply read names and have them tromp across a stage, students each write twenty-five words that are read as they walk to the center of the field to receive their diploma. We don’t have a stage; it’s just me and a basket, and it’s in the unpredictability and realness of the simple act of getting that roll of paper that the magic happens.

Eyes closed, remembering June’s commencement, I realized just how special the experience was, and how much I wished every parent could see graduation through my eyes.

The perspective I’m blessed to have is seeing each student walk from her place in line across the ten yards or so up to the middle of the field. Without steps to mount or a row of hands to shake along the way, this short walk takes on an immediacy and otherworldliness.

graduation b

Time slows down, and as their principal, I feel a paternal pride. These are young adults on the doorstep of the great unknown.

Once they’ve shaken my hand and gotten their diploma they turn to the crowd and begin celebrating, but on those steps between their seat and center field, their last seconds of high school, their expressions are overwhelmingly filled with something like hope sweetened by uncertainty, not quite joy, not quite anxiety, but an emotional weightlessness that is difficult to describe.

Taking time to picture this moment that will end our school year helped me put into perspective the privilege and responsibility we have to these students, and the value of the work being done to prepare for the year ahead.

That short meditation brought me out of the busy moment and helped to renew my focus on the “why” of what we do. We have months to go and adventures innumerable before we get to that graduation ceremony, but every day we have opportunities to make our students’ school experience magical.

25 Words

This Friday at graduation I won’t give a speech. No one will, in fact, no ASB president, no valedictorian, no visiting dignitary. Instead, in a long running and well loved San Dieguito tradition, every one of our graduating seniors get to say a little something to the crowd.

Well, “say” isn’t exactly the right word; to do something like that would involve a lot of mic passing and run the risk of pushing the ceremony into the run time of a Harry Potter movie.

No one wants that.

Instead, each senior has the opportunity to write her own graduation message, the words that will be read as she picks up her diploma.

Twenty five words to be exact.

Last month seniors submitted their messages, along with phonetic spellings of their names, and that parcel of humor and heart is now collected on my secretary’s desk just waiting for commencement to begin.

The messages are wonderful.

…and unique.

Years past have seen everything from the expected appreciation of parents and teachers to heartfelt messages of love to family and friends. One year a group of students who followed each other in order each submitted twenty five words from the lyrics of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody …with the direction that the counselors sing the messages.

The counselors did.

This may sound goofy to some, or irreverent on a day meant to celebrate a serious accomplishment, and I suppose in a way it is both, but it’s also a great example of who we are as a school.

I’ve looked at this year’s messages and they continue this tradition of the silly and the sublime. That the two can nestle together and be filled with so much joy is a testament to our students and our school.

For anyone who hasn’t seen a graduation at San Dieguito, Friday’s commencement will prove a great opportunity to hear the diverse voices of our students. Taken together they form one unified voice for our special school.

“Murmurs of the infinite sea…”

photoJune, the season of graduates, can be bittersweet. The seniors, who some of us have know for so very long, stand in adolescent awe at the threshold of young adulthood. In a few short days they will be gone from our campus and from our everyday life.

We educators stay behind, memories of our former students alive in our hearts and in the photographs taped to the classroom walls, even as the students who made those memories are living their emerging lives just beyond our sight. For us, they are perpetually seventeen, at least until they return years later to startle us with their maturity.

Even then, when they walk away from our campus once again our memories of them revert to the scores of smiling faces pictured on our classroom walls.

In these emotional times, I turn to poetry for the kind of perspective not found in prose. Matthew Arnold got tonight’s nod, pulled from my bookshelf on the way out to my daughter’s softball practice.

While I know his 1852 poem “The Future” wasn’t written about graduation, it felt like he was whispering to me when he wrote:

A wanderer is man from his birth.
He was born in a ship
On the breast of the river of Time;
Brimming with wonder and joy
He spreads out his arms to the light”

As a principal, I’m inspired to see my wanderers embark on this next voyage. I see in their eyes the wonder and joy Arnold writes about, and I wish for them a grand adventure “on the river of Time.”

I’m certain that these students’ paths will not be straight, and for their sakes I’m happy for that. Who would rather be a soapbox derby car than a jeep exploring the winding roads of a mysterious land?

Arnold ends his poem with a beginning, watching his adventurers…

As the pale waste widens around them,
As the banks fade dimmer away,
As the stars come out, and the night-wind
Brings up the stream
Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.”

I like to think the same for the students leaving our school for lives of their own. Murmuring up our stream is the promise of an infinite sea, where they will live life, a life filled with wonder and joy, just past a horizon where we will be remembering them.

Early Graduation

This morning as I sat down to a cup of tea and the newspaper, two luxuries of a day off, I heard a familiar tune played with the exquisite slowness of a Jane Campion movie …or ten year old learning to play piano.

“Pomp and Circumstance,” a song relegated in my mind to sunny days in June, drifted in from the living room where my daughter, Ella, was experimenting with a new piano songbook. Tentatively poking the keys, the melody took on a feeling of otherworldliness. This was January, it looked like rain, nobody was graduating.

As with so many experiences in parenting, hearing my daughter’s practice on the piano provided an opportunity to look at something familiar from a different point of view.

Teachers plan with the end in mind, looking to the end of the unit or lesson at the outcomes they hope their students will achieve. Students look ahead too, grappling to find relevancy and see how they will apply new learning to their own lives.

As a principal, it’s easy to have my time dominated by the immediate. This week my accreditation report was due, I hosted a parent coffee and a prospective student tour, and had the opportunity to teach a lesson. I went to construction meetings, did final interviews for a track coach, and did my best to answer a couple of hundred emails. I didn’t think about the end; I thought about the now.

To a certain extent that’s okay. I need to be present as I talk with parents and students, visit classrooms, and complete the tasks of a site administrator. Hearing that graduation tune, however, reminded me to see my work in terms of the bigger picture. Everything we do should support students having the skills and knowledge, understanding, inspiration, and (at least a pinch of) wisdom to be confident and ready when they throw their mortarboards into the air in June.

Seniors do this. From the opening days of the school year through college application season, Homecoming, Winter Formal, and the senior activities of spring, they see the year through eyes of someone who knows she will not be back and wants to be able to soar.

A teacher I adore likes to say “I get older, but the kids in my class stay the same age.” I know what he means; some of the students on campus today have the same teachers their parents did a couple of decades ago. My daughter’s piano playing reminded me that we as educators do well to recognize that for each class of graduates this is something special and new.

By March Ella will be able to play the tune unhesitatingly; by May she’ll know the tune by heart.

Like her, seniors have an idea of what graduation will be like, understand even more mid-year, and really get it as the calendar turns to June.

When I hear “Pomp and Circumstance” in our stadium, my emotions will be bigger, but no deeper than they were this morning.

We all start as a fumbling individuals and end, together, as a class of exuberant scholars, marching toward the future to the proud music of a band.