Traditionally Different

This year will look different, of course. Commencement, like everything else since March of 2020, isn’t the same as it always has been.

It will look different than last year too, when we had to do everything online, much to the disappointment of more than a few seniors.

Graduation for the class of 2021 will be a series of firsts for ACMA. The first outdoor ceremony. The first time we aren’t celebrating at our home on Center Street and the first time graduates will sit with their families (in socially distanced pods of chairs).

There will be a few things that feel the same. We’ll begin the ceremony with bagpipes and end with Joe Avery’s Second Line. The heart of the day will be student speakers and a thoughtful staff address, and we’ll livestream it all for relatives who can’t make it to campus.

We’re putting the finishing touches on the ceremony this week and as the principal, with the honor and the obligation of addressing the class, I’m working on what I’ll deliver as a speech.

In years past I’ve been unconventional (a poem by Cavafy, a video, a three word speech) but this year it feels like I ought to make a nod to something that looks more familiar. Now this doesn’t mean I’ll be quoting Dr. Seuss or riffing about the definition of the world commencement, but I do feel like the structure of a speech might need to feel more traditional.

I’ve toyed with a few ideas, and as the hours tick away before I need to send something to the ASL translators who will be working the event I think I’ve just about settled on something that (I hope) brings to the fore what is most important about our work: the people.

One of the lessons most brought home by this pandemic and the reshuffling we’ve had to do for the past many months is that it’s not the building or the classes that define our school, it’s not the performances or pieces of art we produce (though both of those things are important too), but it is the relationships shared by the people (adult and student) who make up our school. It’s those people and relationships that I’ll do my best to speak to on Saturday. It will take me more than three words, I don’t have a poem or a green screen, and…

It’s okay to be different, particularly this year.

This was supposed to be…

Commencement looked different this year. No bagpipes echoing in the performing arts center, no lines of graduates in robes, faculty packed shoulder to shoulder on stage, or flowers in front of a podium. With COVID-19 keeping us distanced from each other we had to find new ways of doing things: a drive through experience where graduates could decorate their cars and motor through the parking lot to the physically distanced cheers of the staff, delivering balloons to the valedictorian, and signs to every senior. But commencement… that’s a different story.

IMG_5304We planned for a drive-in experience, but the curve wouldn’t flatten and good sense meant we ought to put together a celebration of the Class of 2020 on film, which we did, complete with amazing student speakers, a heartfelt message from the teacher they’d chosen to address the class, and the obligatory few words from the principal.

I’ve made it through two years without giving a conventional speech at graduation. My first year at ACMA I read C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca” and last June I opted for a nine word address, well three words repeated three times. This year, with such uncertainty in the air, it felt like I ought to be reassuring, not too goofy, so I opted to record some remarks straight from the heart.

I started with a poem, nothing fancy, just a few lines I jotted out on a yellow legal pad as I thought about what my seniors had been through, and were still going through now.

I thought about them as people and as artists, as important members of our school community, and as a collective force for change. The poem I wrote to read to them this year went like this.

This was supposed to be
a graduation speech, but…

You’ve seen behind the curtain
and it’s different now.

You saw disarray.
You saw a stage
without room to dance
or make music
or maybe even read a poem.

So you looked around
and took a deep breath
and struck out to the world beyond
our little stage.

You’d probably gotten tired of the
over thirty crowd
telling you about “the real world”
you know you’ve already been living in
the real world.

So you stepped outside
our school and saw

Things were different there too.
Torn up.
Chaotic.
Changing
and…

You realized that there is still art to be made
films to shoot, songs to write, plays to perform.

And it’s up to you to do that.

I’ve often said “ACMA isn’t a building”
…boy the universe took me up on that one.

But I hope that ACMA can be a beacon,
a place of memories,
and of inspiration.

I hope ACMA can always be home.

Because you are ACMA,
and just because you’ve seen behind the curtain
to that world of chaos and disorder,
(or maybe because of it)
doesn’t mean you’ve been robbed;
it means you’ve been catapulted into a world
that needs you.

Needs you.

And you’re up to the task.

So go out and make art
make friends
and make a difference.

We’ll be here, wherever ACMA is, cheering you on.

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I filmed myself delivering the poem, using a green screen to toggle between our current campus (at an unused middle school while they’re building our new school building) and our established performing art center, a place that all of us miss very much.

I will miss the students who made up ACMA’s Class of 2020; in fact, I’ve been missing them since we left campus on March 13th. I know I’ll see many of them again, whether on campus or off, once all this is over, but that only goes part way in softening the blow of losing them too soon.

But I believe what I said to them in that video: they are up to the task of making art, making friends, and making a difference, and we here back at home will be cheering them on.

 

Real Seniors; Virtual School

They were a subdued bunch, my seniors, as we held an online meeting for the Class of 2020. Nearly all of them joined in, some asking follow up questions to the shared doc we’d started the week before when the governor sent out word that students would not be returning to campuses this school year and that seniors would receive grades of “Pass” rather than any particular letter.

They are an exceedingly talented group of young adults, creative, curious, and today, quiet.

When my dog, Luna, hopped onto my lap, caught a buzzing fly out of the air, ate it, and then licked my face, only a couple managed a chuckle. These are serious times.

Earlier in the day I’d gotten an email from a senior teacher. He told me that for his class he had “a discussion board up since the day after we were sent home. I asked for four thread responses from each participating student. The Senior thread has nearly 300 responses. This suggests that [nearly] the entire Sr class has responded.”

These are young people who want to be connected, and while state guidelines have now removed grades from senior transcripts, many of the students want to keep that tether to learning, classmates, teachers, and school. It’s not that all of them care about English or history or math or science (though many do), but many do want to stay a part of the larger community that is our school. 

Beyond classes, we know that staying connected is important.

A CNN article came out that same day suggesting that “in the time of coronavirus, traditional hallmarks of the high school experience have all but disappeared. And as everyone settles into new routines inside, at home, teens are feeling angry, anxious and reticent. Their identities are fracturing in isolation, and the people who love them, teach them and study them fear they’ll wear the effects of the pandemic for years to come.” 

We do worry about them, but that’s nothing new, and we understand the need to support all our students, particularly right now our seniors. 

The article goes on to say that “It’s hard enough being a teenager on a good day. But the conditions that accompany social distancing may exacerbate the painful parts of adolescence to the point of crisis. Adolescents typically have a heightened reactivity to stress, thought to be the result of hormonal fluctuations and changes in brain development.”

And these are times of stress.

We talked during that first senior meeting about some of the losses of the spring: prom, performances, and commencement. Particularly commencement.

With social distancing in place, a traditional graduation ceremony isn’t possible in June. We know that, we mourn it, and we have to find a way to carry on. As a district, a district determined to support our seniors, every high school originally agreed to do a virtual commencement in June and then some kind of senior celebration in July or early August, as soon as pandemic restrictions ease enough for us to get together in person. And…

The notion of graduating online was filled with frustration for many. Me included. We want so much to have that celebration together, and hearing it can’t happen in June is a rocket of disappointment in an already pockmarked battlefield of emotion.

A couple of follow up emails captured that emotion the next morning. They were passionate, honest, and thoughtful, and showed a maturity nestled in alongside the exuberance of youth. My response to one earnest message, as limited in comfort as it might be, was from the heart. I wrote:

I share your disappointment in not being able to have a traditional commencement ceremony in person in June. It feels frustrating that after all the class of 2020 has done to reach graduation we aren’t able to celebrate together …at least not yet. 

Our hope with the virtual commencement ceremony is not to replace an in person ceremony; we know we couldn’t. To do nothing, however, felt even more wrong, as it would deny seniors a chance to have some of the good things that come from a ceremony, like student performers, student speakers, and a message from one of the staff the class has chosen. That, I believe, is why every high school and option school in the district is committing to some online event for June, and then for some in person (or as in person as we are allowed by state social distancing rules) in July.

We have another senior meeting on 4/29 about how we can make an online event as positive as it can be, and if we know more about what the lay of the land might be in later summer we can talk about that as well. Pandemic allowing, July’s celebration of seniors might be one that can have more of a commencement feel, but right now, as you mentioned, it could be limited in how many could gather. As soon as we know more we’ll work with the seniors to develop what that in person activity could be.

And if July sees us all still at home, then we’ll figure out something for August. We want the students together on campus, we want to celebrate them robustly, and we are all a bit heartbroken right now as we see the semester and end of the year slip away from us without seeing their faces except through a computer screen.

I do appreciate you reaching out. I hope you and all your family are well. I’m sorry for the disappointment, and hope that it’s not an “or” but an “and” with regard to the end of the year celebrations: a virtual commencement as every other school is doing and a meaningful (and ACMA spirited) celebration as soon as we can all be back together.”

True, maybe, but even rereading it now, my response can only go so far in reassuring seniors in these strange days. 

Discussions continued at the district level; we have six big comprehensive high schools and four smaller options schools, like ACMA, and the desire was to have everyone on the same page. The merits of simply postponing  commencement to July were championed by more than a few: students want to be together, they want the experience of walking across the stage, they want that celebration that many of them have been thinking about since the realized what a graduation was all about.

We’d like that too, and…

I’d like to be 6’3 with a full head of hair. On a more serious note, I’d like to be saying good morning to my students every day at school. I’d like to be visiting classes, watching performances, hosting open mic nights, and all of the things that right now we just can’t do. This pandemic has brought disappointment to so many of us, as well as frustration, isolation, and a feeling of missing out.

We are missing out, and disappointment about that is natural and appropriate. So too is doing what we have to do to help protect those for whom disappointment is less a worry than falling ill to COVID-19. For the health care workers, the elderly, and people with compromising preexisting conditions, this pandemic is life threatening. Every day.

Social distancing measures aren’t meant to be an inconvenience; they are meant to save lives. As a school system, an organization where we see thousands of students shoulder to shoulder every day walking to classes, we know a thing or two about germs and viruses. We know too that as much as we’d like to be on campus together, the risks of that enterprise (right now) are great. So too, commencement. Right now.

And a reality, in these days when there seems to be no agreement on how or when social distancing will loosen, is that an in person commencement still might not be able to happen by July, or even August. Add to that that teachers aren’t working in July, and some (in what look to be difficult budget times) may not even be working in the district at all, and things get more complicated still. But challenges don’t define us as much as our response to them. This experience should help us understand that. So…

In the end a lot of discussion the district decision was to shift gears away from any virtual commencement and postpone graduation ceremonies until later in the summer, July or early August. There are lots of detail still to be figured out, but if we’re able the plan is that we’ll do something in person outside, under the summer sun.

When I told my seniors about that change at our meeting this week they seemed happy about the idea. Happy-ish, anyway. These are serious times.

They are such a great group and I want, like all of the adults at ACMA, to give them everything we can give them. Seeing their faces (so many of them on our video call) reminded me of how much these students mean to me, to our school, and how much they mean to each other.

Some of our performers even performed (bringing more smiles, even muted) than almost anything anyone who wasn’t in the Class of 2020 could have done.

These are unprecedented times and as a result the unsettled sense of uncertainty is great. And, to quote Robert Frost, we still have miles to go before we sleep, so…

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Over the next few weeks many of us adults at ACMA will do our best to connect with and support our seniors. Counselors are making calls now, teachers continue to reach out to students, and my admin team will host opportunities for the seniors to get together to talk.

We’ll collaborate with our seniors to make sense of a commencement of sorts, look ahead to the time we can be together again, and do our best to understand that it’s natural to be working through the stages of grief right now. 

We also have a few surprises we hope will bring them a smile, like the yard signs our staff delivered last week, and a senior awards not-quite-ceremony we’re plotting for June.

I wish I could give my seniors a prom in May, an in person graduation ceremony in June, and the normal joy of a normal spring. I can’t. And…

We will do what we can. We will do what we can together.

The conversation during our second senior class meeting suggests to me that “what we can” might just be really good.

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V on my desk at work. It may be the corny former English teacher in me, but I refer to it far more than you’d suspect, particularly when I need a pinch of leadership inspiration. After our senior meeting I turned to act three, scene six and the line:

We would not seek a battle, as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it”

None of us would have chosen to do school from our kitchen tables. None of us prefer to wrestle with the emotions of crisis without the human contact of friends and school. None of us particularly want to be facing the situation as we are, but as we are, we will not shy away from the challenges. Together we will find our voices, our community, and our laughter again.

Outside

We stood together in the February chill, rain threatening, clouds thick, the grass wet beneath our feet. From the expanse of field we regarded the east side of the school, a new building of sensible earth tone brick, and thought about the possibilities.

We’re living a new reality this year, our little art school hanging our collective hat (beret, fez, fedora, cat ears, horns, or beanie depending on the day) at a school without the big performance hall we’ll have when construction is done on our permanent campus and we return to Center Street in the fall of 2021. 

For the most part we’ve been able to adjust: our dance department turned an auxiliary gym into a fantastic performance venue, theater has chosen shows perfectly suited to our temporary home’s black box theater, and we’ve added monthly Open Mic Nights to fill the commons we’re in for these two years.

This flexibility and challenge to think beyond our usual venues or routines will translate to both a renewed appreciation of our Performing Arts Center (when we see it again) and a spirit of innovation that we’ll bring to our new campus.

And…

Graduation is too big for the black box, or aux gym, or the commons. It needs a grander venue than anything inside our temporary home, and is something intimate enough that we don’t want to just anywhere because it has enough seats.

So…

We got to thinking and began to entertain the notion of taking commencement outside.

Yes, I know, we live in Oregon, where a sunny day in June is as guaranteed as a first novel becoming a bestseller.

Still, the idea of gathering under the sun and celebrating our seniors in a way that has never been done before at our little school sounded about right.

Different? Sure. Unconventional? Maybe. An opportunity for creativity? As they say around our community: “So very ACMA.”

Back to that February rain.

It was me, my astounding secretary, and an intrepid senior who took a wet walk outdoors to allow ourselves to imagine.IMG_3224

We talked about seating, and photos, and where to put the band. We allowed ourselves to imagine a day sunny enough to warrant some pop ups for our visiting grandparents who would need the shade. And as we paced and photographed, suggested and saw in our mind’s eye what the ceremony might be, the idea of commencement on the east long began to look fantastic.

We hurried inside and got out an invitation to the seniors to meet in early March to walk out and offer suggestions. We know that creativity can be inspired through collaboration, and we want the graduates to have a hand in designing their day.

Education has a place for dreaming and for doing, for many voices and shared interests imagining in February what the world can look like in spring.

Always Choose Kindness

The ceremony was, as it should be, about the kids. Four student acts provided the crowd with amazing music, from classical to Dave Brubeck to an acapella tune from the movie Once. Folks went to a concert and a graduation broke out.

ACMA Grads

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that we were one of the few commencements around that included “Blue Rondo Ala Turk.” So cool.

The student speakers were fantastic too. Three of them took the mic to remember their years at ACMA, thank staff and families, and look ahead to a creative future in which they can make a difference. As Jazanna inspired her peers, “We have already made our voices heard within our school, they are still echoing in the halls. Now it is time to step out and raise our voices even louder for the world to here. We owe it to ourselves, the ones around us, and those who came before to stand up for all we believe in. To speak loudly, even when our voices are shaky, and  to create art that will voice our opinions, inner thoughts and sincerity, while reflecting our society’s truths.”

That idea of change through art is a defining attribute of ACMA, where students who care deeply about making a difference develop the technique and find their voices to make that change. With sixth through twelfth grade on campus, that journey sometimes takes years.

Katlyn, who had played in the orchestra at commencements since she was in sixth grade, shared “nothing prepared me for the shock and realization of today. For the excitement, the sadness, and the fear. The fear that ACMA is no longer the place I will go to in the fall, no longer the place I leave for the summer, the fear of leaving after being here for so long. But this place, it will always be home.”

Home was a word that got used a lot that morning. It was the title of one of the musical pieces, an amazing orchestral cover of the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros tune, and worked its way into both speeches and the choral piece. None of that was an accident; for many, the quirky, artsy, rainbow hallways of ACMA are the first time school felt like home.

Isabel, our valedictorian, described coming to ACMA this way: “I was this twelve year-old with a terrible sense of fashion, who wore knee high socks, shorts over leggings, a side ponytail, and thought it looked amazing. But I was also someone who didn’t know where I belonged in the world, what I was meant to do, or who I was meant to be,” she told the crowd. “But I found this place. I found ACMA…”

There is a magic to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, a magic hard to communicate succinctly or in a way that is as clear as it should be. It’s a feeling when you walk on campus. The students, the staff, the atmosphere of the school is …technicolor in a world of black, white, and gray. We’re a collection of poetic souls, music makers, doodlers, dreamers, and dancers. At a more conventional place we’d be the outcasts or oddballs; if high school were an ‘80s movie, we’d be the Mary Stuart Masterson character. …and proud of it.

We’re human, and fallible as humans are, and yet ACMA is a place where the default setting is acceptance and our propensity is toward kindness, even if we need to be reminded of that once in a while.

Our faculty speaker caught the adult perspective on how staff contribute to this atmosphere when he turned to an analogy from the natural world and told the seniors: “Right now, I feel like a bird. Specifically, a bird parent. I’m guessing a lot of your teachers, a lot of us in this room feel like birds right now. We  through the years have put in a lot of work to prepare you for this point. You are going to leave this nest after we have spent years watching you grow. Think of your teachers, counselors, administrators and supporting staff as your bird-parents. We have been going out into the world and finding useful morsels, bringing them into the classroom (math equations, chemical reactions, elements of storytelling, basic manners, worms, insects) and lovingly vomiting them into your screaming mouths.  We have watched you break out of your shells and grow to be big and strong. And now you’re leaving.”

But before they left, we had some more music.

That Brubeck tune followed Mr. Kindblade’s speech, and with the audience’s collective toes still tapping it was my turn to speak. Now I know that the nadir of many commencement ceremonies is the old guy yapping at the youngsters, so I’d decided to keep my time brief and heartfelt. I’d already arranged with the quartet who’d be playing the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Night in Tunisia” that they’d be set up as I was walking to the podium and the bass player ready to start up when I finished the ninth and final word of my “Charge to the Graduates” as tradition calls it.

Before I took to the podium I stepped out in front of the class, my back to the audience, bad theatrical form, but time for one last heartfelt message just to them.

It also gave the jazz musicians time to get in place.

If asked, I would have titled the speech “Three Words, Three Times,” and the text was just that. They’d heard everything they needed from me already, so this was just one last time to remind them, and all of us:

Always choose kindness.
Always choose kindness.
Always choose kindness.

Cue the bass. The piano and drums jumped in, and the singer raised her own mic, scatting to bring the crowd to applause. We were back to the good stuff. The kids. The art. What matters.

Commencement Address

In about three weeks our seniors will be graduating. They’ll gather in their black robes and square topped hats, march into the performing arts center (to the tune of a bagpipe, not pomp and circumstance; ACMA is a little less conventional than a more traditional high school), and sit down on stage for a ceremony that is part concert, part celebration, and part performance art.

One of the beautiful anomalies of the afternoon is seeing the whole graduating class, so wildly individual and creative, all together in their unifying commencement garb. Those funny tasseled caps and matching robes present our students in a serious and almost solemn way, beautifully juxtaposed with the spirit of creativity that defines our ceremony and lives within each of them.

There will be a jazz number, maybe two, a piece by our orchestra, and one from vocal music. Next week the seniors will vote on another entertainment for the ceremony that could be music, poetry, dance, or any other expression of art they’d  like to see that day. Those performances are some of the highlights of the ceremony, true reflections of our school and reminders of the power of art.

Our valedictorian will speak and a faculty member chosen by the graduating class. From these august voices the class of 2019 will receive inspiration and advice, and if I know our students and staff, we’ll laugh a bit and see our eyes moisten with emotion.

Two student speakers will take to the podium, stoking memories and offering perspective, giving the audience and their peers a window into the world of a student saying goodbye to a school she has known so intimately. I’m often moved and surprised by the depth of insight the senior speakers offer, heartfelt, honest, real. These speeches, interwoven with the musical performances, make our commencement a work of art.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 7.54.50 AM.pngAnd then…

Tradition dictates that as the principal I say a few words. It’s a job I’ve seen done a whole host of ways, from fatherly or motherly advice to attempts at wit, groaning acrostics, meandering and melodramatic monologues, and rafts of quotations tied together with dramatic pauses. I don’t want to do that.

Any advice I’d offer my graduates have already heard from me. I’ve given them the talk about the unifying and transformational power of art. Heck, they will have just seen it in their classmates’ performances.

If I’ve done my job, they’ve heard me talk about the importance of looking out for one another, taking care of friends and strangers, and making connections with those around them. They’ve listened when I’ve thanked or praised them for good work, both artistic and human. They’ve been told how important they are, how much they’ve meant to our school, and how much we’ll miss them when they leave. We really will.

The ones who need it have already gotten those extra promptings and pushes to realize their potential. Some got paternal talks in my office. Some heard me talk about my own failures along the way; we all stumble, they’ve heard me say, and they have the strength to get back up. I believe in them. I do.

So, my commencement address doesn’t need to be The Principal’s Greatest Hits Album.

And don’t let me quote Dr. Seuss.

But that’s not fair; Theodor Geisel has provided graduates with advice about the places they’ll go for years, and who am I to imagine that I’ve got the right answers to their unspoken questions.

I graduated up in the 1980s, when quotable advice showed up in movies like Teen Wolf:

There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.”

I’m not sure how that dagger line would go over at graduation. No, I guess I’m pretty sure.

So, no Teen Wolf this year, but there will be a moment in the ceremony where I’ll step to the mic, knowing it’s my turn to say something. People expect it. Tradition.

Last year I read a poem.

I’d taught a few English classes over the course of the year, including some poems by C.P. Cavafy. The experience had moved me deeply and it felt right to offer my graduates “Ithaca” before they set sail on their own journeys.

And… I’m not one to repeat myself, so this year, without Greeks or daggers, Seuss or sagacity, I’ve got it in my head to suggest just one idea, a final nod of advice from an adult who counts himself fortunate to have know this beautiful, creative, and kind senior class.

I’ll say no more right now; I have to have some element of surprise when I get up there to speak. Once the shindig is over, the mortarboards have hit the ground, and the seniors have walked out of the theater to a tune by our jazz band, I’ll reprint the speech here, nothing fancy, and far, far, far shorter than most will expect. My modest contribution to a celebration of our graduates.

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.

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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.”

June

The tipping point is
Senior Awards
When the madcap rush toward graduation
Turns into a
Delightful
Freefall
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
College
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
Students
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.