Maybe This Year

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

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

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

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

Baseball helps me do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Light Gets In

It had been a long couple of weeks. October was in the rear view mirror, a month without holidays, and with it the exhaustion of Homecoming, the stress of hosting a slew of after hours meetings, and the craziness of Halloween. We’d just dealt with an unexpected fire alarm and evacuation of the student body to the field. When we tracked down the cause, it was, and I’m not exaggerating here, a heaping plate of sausage in the lunchroom of the adjoining transportation department. Early November hadn’t brought the piece of mind many expected. Everyone was a little grimmer than usual and Thanksgiving was still a week away.

And then, in one of those moments that provide inspiration, a student knocked on my office door. I smiled and she came in. Without a word she handed me a flower.

I thanked her as she left, a bundle of roses under her arm, and she smiled back before exiting, presumably bound for more deliveries.

Looking down, I read the note attached to the stem. On one side, printed neatly it said:

This world has forgotten what it’s like to be kind to one another. So what are YOU doing to change that? I challenge you to go out of your way this week to make someone smile.”

I hoped I was up to the challenge.

On the other side of the card, handwritten, it read: “Thank you for not giving up on your students.”

photo-3No, I thought. Thank you.

Leonard Cohen, another November loss, sang to the world the wise words that a friend once put before me when I was facing hard times. “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.”

That flower, and that student who brought it to my office, is the light that Leonard Cohen was singing about. She is hope, and grace, and the challenge to be better than we are. She is, put simply, the reason an educator like me remains more optimistic than some I know who don’t have the great good fortune to work with students.

A little asking told me that during a recent heat wave this same student used her own money to buy Gatorade for the construction workers building our new science and math classrooms. The rose in my office, and given to souls all across campus, was not an anomaly, but a way of life.

For any who doubt that the future is in good hands or who believe that “kids today” lack the empathy or initiative to make a lasting difference, I offer this example of what is right in our world. This care and act of kindness was exactly what I needed that November morning to know that the light gets in.

With Feathers

Teaching gives me hope. The smiles and interest of students, their energy and ability to surprise all make time in the classroom some of the richest imaginable.

As a middle school principal, I have lots of opportunities to see strong teaching and learning, though most of this is as an observer, visiting classrooms, staying to watch the great work, and going back to other responsibilities.

As April arrived this year, however, I took advantage of National Poetry Month and asked my kind English Department if they’d open their doors to me to teach a lesson to some of their classes. They were welcoming, as they had been in October when I taught a little Sherlock Holmes, and this week was my first of more than a half dozen opportunities to teach some Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and two poems about hope.

photo 4 (4)Knowing I’d be working with a range of students, both 7th and 8th grade, college prep and honors, I started with the question: “What is poetry?” The ideas the kids presented were creative and honest, and as I asked them to clarify what they meant by “strong language” and “emotional response” they were able to use details to make their points.

Next we talked about language and the importance of choosing the right words, and they tried their hands at creating some found poems. Taking pages from Call of the Wild as their starting point, they came up with some pretty fantastic adventures into poetic language.

From there we got to the heart of the lesson, two very different poetic perspectives on hope.

Emily Brontë, the reclusive author of Wuthering Heights, called Hope a “false guard, false watch keeping,” likely in the toughest times to “turn her face away.” It took the kids some work to unpack what Brontë was saying, and when they did, I’m not sure that many were happy with what was strewn on the table.

photo 2 (6)Emily Dickinson brought a much more popular perspective on that “thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/ and sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.” The students had to do some work to define a few words in the poem (using phones, Chromebooks, and good, old fashioned dictionaries) and then talk through how those words were being used. As they did I saw more than a few nods of satisfaction as they figured out that they kind of liked what this 19th century New Englander was saying.

As I walked around the room listening to the students discussing the two poems, pulling textual evidence to support their close reading, and arguing to what poem spoke to them most, I found myself inspired by the engagement and thoughtfulness these young people brought to their interactions with the poems and each other.

Those who question education would have their minds changed if they saw the quality of learning that takes place in classrooms every day. I sometimes hear critics express fear about the future, or doubt about what happens in schools, but an hour watching these kids wrestle with poetry would turn their world on its head.

As one student, smiling as she explained why Emily Dickinson resonated more with her than Emily Brontë, said: “There’s always room for hope.”

And inspiration.