Internment

“Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of immigrant children wait in a series of cages…” -Associated Press, June 18, 2018

One of the most powerful conversations I ever had as a principal was with Tak Sugimoto, an alumnus of a high school where I worked, who had been interned as a boy in the 1940s. His family was of Japanese descent, and in the height of post Pearl Harbor fear they were taken from their homes in Encinitas, California and placed in custody in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. He described what education was like there: a makeshift school, students under terrific stress, and a system that punished families for simply being of a non-white heritage deemed threatening by the government.

Poston

A hearty nonagenarian, Tak brought a profound wisdom to the telling of his story, and an unexpected sense of peace that was decades in the making. The corrupt nature of Japanese internment, the systemic racism, and the nation’s cruelty had wounded him, but not broken him; he lived now a strong, balanced man. Experiences like those he described had destroyed other families, ruined childhoods, and been a high water mark for intolerance and governmental cruelty. When I talked with him two years ago, he was optimistic that his country had learned from those mistakes.

As Tak spoke, I thought back to my friend Doug Kamon, whose parents met in a different internment camp, The Gila River War Relocation Center in the middle of another Arizona desert. At the end of every year we worked together Doug would present his family’s story, providing our students his own familiar face, making the details of this tragic time even more immediate to them. As Doug talked about his young parents and his grandparents, not all of whom survived the camps, students sat silently, listening to this man they knew so well and his connection to a past some would choose to forget. Many students found it hard to believe that Poston or Gila River could really have happened in the United States. More than a few considered themselves lucky that they didn’t live in times like those.

Both Tak and Doug’s parents were interned with their families. They struggled under harsh conditions and did their best to survive a system that marginalized them for no reason other than their ethnicity. In school in the camps the kids from the Sugimoto and Kamon families did their best in an environment filled with stress and anxiety, and went home to parents who could hold them tight and reassure them that they had the strength to persevere. These were terrible times, but they were together.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about these stories, and imagined what it might be like for the kids who don’t have parents to comfort them in times of duress. As an educator I know the importance of supporting every student, both academically and when it comes to mental health. It’s common knowledge that students face very real challenges, wrestle with complicated emotions, and struggle to stay healthy in US schools. Most of these students have adults to go home to and a greater sense of certainty than those kids whose home life is so uncertain. For kids who are deprived of that support, the risk of both short and long term harm is profound.

There are times when I feel helpless in effecting change beyond the walls of my own school. Here I can get to know kids and families, I can encourage kindness, build systems that promote care, and potentially make a difference. Even with all that, sometimes it’s really difficult.

In the greater world, where I am a participant, not a leader, I feel even more challenged when faced with situations that put kids in harm’s way. I am not a lawmaker, and as much as I write them, I struggle sometimes to believe that my voice matters. I do my best to stay optimistic, but seeing tragedy rise unexpectedly and impact kids keeps me up at night. Literally.

Willa Cather captured my anxiety when she wrote:

When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.”

“When kindness has left people…” What a terrible phrase. “When it has left a place where we have always found it…”

I want so much to believe that kindness can return, where we can all feel secure and not “drop into something malevolent and bottomless.”

Then I remember Tak and I hope.

I hope, and I wonder. Seventy years from now, who will be the alumnus who talks with a principal about her experience with internment? Will she have Tak’s wisdom or perspective? Will she share his strength? What will her story say about the the country that imagines itself to be a place where one can always find kindness?

A lack of kindness underscores the stories of Japanese internment that I know. There was a time when heartlessness toward others, describing them as something less than human, informed our country’s willingness to lock away the innocent. Tak was a kid, not a spy. Doug’s parents weren’t threats; they were people doing their best.

As an educator I need to believe that we learn, we all can learn, from our mistakes. I need to hold hope as a value, and live as if kindness is stronger than cruelty. In those shipwreck days I’m wise to look to survivors for inspiration, focus on nurturing kindness in every way I can, and be willing to reflect on what more can be done to help.

Reality is powerful. Optimists sometimes doubt. Internment of children is internment of children. Hope will win the day.

I hope.

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Sometimes

We believe in things that will give us hope
Why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we?
                    -Mary Chapin Carpenter

Much of what I do as a principal is look for hope. I walk the halls, listen to students, ask questions of adults, and seek out those corners of the school where good gathers. When I find it, like a cat, I pounce.

Then I thank.
I share.
And I celebrate the hell out of it.

Because as much as I want to believe Emily Dickinson and cling to the notion of Hope as a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, the more prosaic world has taught me that as often Emily Brontë is right and…

Hope, whose whisper would have given
Balm to all my frenzied pain,
Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
Went, and ne’er returned again!”

That doesn’t mean you give up. As a principal it means you put on your walking shoes and go birding.

Today hope looked like this:

With just a week left in November, rain forecast every day for the next two weeks, and a mandatory fire drill hanging over our heads, my amazing secretary, intrepid AP, and I looked up at a break in the clouds and considered the possibility of evacuating and getting the kids back in the building before rain returned.

We needed to wait until the end of the period for the drill to count (requirements mandate a drill that takes place at least partly at lunch), so with an eye toward the clouds I sent an email to my staff:

RE: Blame it on the rain…
Hello all,
Put simply, it’s not going to get better, so we’re going to take advantage of what is supposed to be 18 minutes of not-rain to do our mandatory fire drill in just a few minutes. It will start at the end of this period and nudge into first lunch. We’ll get them out and back in as quickly as we can.
Margaret will ring the bell very soon.
Let’s do this,
Bjorn
PS: https://youtu.be/BI5IA8assfk

 

Principals always hope humor helps.

It started to rain, not hard, just enough. We looked from the sky to the clock. Another ten minutes before our drill.

Hope.

Five minutes later I put on my coat. I would not bring an umbrella. Not every teacher would have one for this unexpected drill and I’m a gentleman after all.

Clouds moved above me when I stepped outside. Rain fell, but not hard. The alarm rang and students flooded out.

I whistled a little Milli Vanilli. This might not be too bad.

Kids squinted up at the dark clouds blowing across the sky. Someone was barefoot. Someone else didn’t have a coat. A teacher, hood framing her face, looked at me and said “really?”

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

And then the rain stopped.

We all looked up.

A student said “look,” pointing, and my momentary relief at feeling the rain stop disappeared, replaced by the wonder inspired by the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen.

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It could just as easily have begun to pour.

But today it didn’t.

Today it didn’t.

As beautiful as that rainbow was, reaching over our students and reminding all of us of the artistic beauty of nature, tomorrow’s hope will be just as important. That found hope, seen in the kindness of a student, the caring of a teacher, or any of a thousand things there to be seen by someone looking for them, will have the power to inspire. If I can capture it, celebrate it, and remain thankful I will have done right by my school and those around me.

Life has the capacity and the inclination for greatness.

Sometimes it rains, sure, and sometimes there are rainbows.

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.

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.