Young at Heart

TEDxI like to believe that it’s because I’m seen as young at heart that I got the invitation to emcee TEDx Encinitas this April, though if I’m honest it’s just as likely that it’s because I have the ability to simply be immature.

The call came after a wonderfully talented student and I hosted San Dieguito’s Winter Assembly. We’d pulled out all the stops, dressing as each other, sporting Pikachu and Team Paradox costumes, and ending with a number from The Blues Brothers that literally had us singing and dancing. There’s no business like show business, I’m told, no business I know.

But the TEDx event was different; we were not the show; we were brought in to support the show. Daunting. Inspiring. It was a challenge we looked forward to.

photo 5TEDx Encinitas was designed to flip the traditional TED experience on its head. Rather than have a series of people with vast life experience talk to a students, a group of students, from ages 11 to 21, was gathered to present their stories to an all adult audience. Titled “Changing Voices,” the evening would give youth a chance to speak to adults, all kids on stage, all grown ups in the audience.

Except me. Young at heart. Maybe not quite mature enough to warrant a seat at the grown up’s table. Flattered to be given a chance to join an articulate, insightful, and passionate group of students on stage.

Rehearsal took place the night before, a great opportunity to see the young presenters, serious, focused, and filled with anticipation, preparing for the show. In addition, I got to watch scores of student volunteers helping behind the scenes, running lights, sound, cameras, managing the house, wrangling performers, and showing that maturity of ability that nestles side by side with youthful exuberance.

photo 4 (1)My eight year old son came by the theater and Austin, the senior who was my fellow emcee, took him on a tour of the tech booth and catwalks. My son has a new hero.

That ability to be inspired, however, isn’t limited by age. I have the great good fortune to see teenagers every day, and bear witness to the profound curiosity, passion, and kindness that so many show. Certainly the trials of youth are real; the existence of angst, arrogance, and anguish are just as true in 2017 as they were when I was in school, or my grandparents, or my grandparents’ grandparents, but those who focus on the negative behaviors of “kids today” are missing a message that informs everything educators like me do: the students filling our schools now have the capability of greatness.

The day of the event saw more than a dozen students step onto the red circle of carpet and speak from their hearts. They sang, and spoke, and sent the audience of adults into genuine laughter, lip thinning thoughtfulness, and swallowed tears. Their stories of making a difference, of caring, and of being true, resonated with the audience. Six hours in, none of us really wanted it to end.

photo 1 (2)How important it is for us as adults to value the perspective of our students. The adolescent speakers, so thoughtful and remarkable, had much to teach those of us who call ourselves adults. So too did the many hands that worked behind the scenes, teenagers who cared deeply about the messages that their peers presented and the idea that adults would take the time to listen to youth.

I’m blessed with an opportunity to work with amazing students every day, and I was proud to be a part of an event that allowed so many to share their voices with adults who don’t always see such profundity in person.

That today’s youth are promising stewards of our planet; that teenagers are capable, conscientious, and curious explorers of life; and that the future is more than promising was captured in the essence of these student presenters and performers, as well as in my partner in emceeing, whose quiet kindness to my son served as a reminder of the depth of empathy that exists in so many kids today.

photo 2 (1)All of us who were in the theater that Saturday have the potential to take some of these students’ spirit with us. All of us who heard what these kids had to say couldn’t help but be inspired.

For anyone who wasn’t able to attend the event, in the weeks ahead you will be able to see clips at the TEDx Encinitas site.

Until then, for anyone who wants a dose of inspiration, I’d encourage you to seek out some students you know and ask them to tell you their stories. Kids don’t need to stand on stage to have something to say. Adults don’t need to be in an audience to listen. So ask. Talk. Really pay attention.

At best you may be seen as young at heart; at worst being a little sophomoric isn’t bad at all.

Spring in the Air

photo-3-1There’s a shift in the school year when the time comes around for kids to start playing ball. Those gray days of winter still lurk nearby, and we all worry that water is pooling too much on the infield, but as the March sun punches through February’s clouds, drying the dirt and bringing life to the birds, there’s a palpable feeling that spring is in the air and summer is around the corner just waiting to be summoned with those two magical words: “Play ball!”

Spring sports at a high school are a high water mark for student participation. In addition to softball and baseball, lacrosse begins, the boys are playing tennis, golf and volleyball start up, and the largest team most schools ever see begins to jump, run, and shot put around the track and field.

513Those student athletes know that the difficult hours of practice they put in during the cool weather of March will pay off under the May sun, and their seasons starting up remind us all that graduation is closer than we think.

As a principal, this time of year is busy with preparation: for next year’s master schedule, giving tours to prospective students and families, and making sure that our ducks are in the proverbial row for state testing, senior activities, and ultimately that final day when mortarboards take to the air. Along the way there are retirements to commemorate, student awards to celebrate, and teachers to hire.

But this can also be a “tired time” as my former superintendent used to call it, a long stretch between winter and spring break. It’s a part of the year where we do well to try to be more patient with each other, smile a little more, and allow those around us, and ourselves, a little more room to breathe.

photo 1 (2)This is a time to embrace the efforts of others to keep our spirits up: ASB’s Spring Spirit Week, the math department’s “Pi Day,” and (here at SDA) the Dorkathalon.

Cheering on those spring athletes, the embodiment of youth, and spring, and hope, can be inspiring too. Today, if the rain holds off,  I’m going to head out and watch a softball game, and I know that the time spent in the stands promises renewal. Kids playing under the sun has a way of helping put life into perspective.

Art, Angelic

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise”
John Donne

I sat in the darkened theater listening to the orchestra’s introductory suite, anticipating the actors preparing to step on stage. I’d been over to the theater earlier in the week, returning a wig and glasses those artistic souls had loaned me for my own performance at an assembly, and had seen the opulence of the set: a tree winding its way to the sky, arched windows in a wall of stone, and a throne resembling something out of Henry V.

addamsI’d watched a preview of the musical number that started the show, a witty tune complete with snapping, a light bulb, and a tango interlude. These were outrageously talented students and the evening was young.

Art has a way of elevating our human experience, and working at a school with a thriving artistic heart never ceases to inspire me.

I know that the intellectual underpinnings of what we do at school matter much, and watching a student lead her peers through a difficult math problem, or seeing a young scientist collaborate with others to learn how to do bone repair in a science class brings its own sense of hope for our world. Math, science, history, these all help to form our future; art transforms us.

photo-4-3I see this magical transformation when I walk into the student art gallery on campus and take the time to really look at the paintings and sculpture of our student curated shows. It’s there in the sounds of students playing guitars on the lawn as they make music together, some of it their own. I see the transformative nature of art in every senior tile on campus, a legacy of ceramic squares that reaches back for decades and reinforces to students that each of them contribute to this school and its history.

Just this week a new mural went up on the outside wall of our screen printing shop (itself a realm of wild creativity). Not only is this new piece of student work transformative, but it also transforms. The student artist incorporated living moss along with the painted image; it is a mural that will literally grow over time. How wonderful to know that there are places in this rational world where dreams can become reality, where flights of fancy take to the air, raising our collective spirit with them.

stephanie-rivera-mural

Four centuries ago the British poet John Donne noticed (in verse) that while the globe was round, our human imaginations can transfigure “imagined corners” into something angelic. I see it every day on our campus, and felt it profoundly that night in the theater as trumpets not unlike those described by Donne finished the orchestral introduction, the curtains opened, and the winter musical began.

Great actors can elevate comedy into emotional resonance, and these students did. Songs soared, laughter burst from the audience, and for a couple of hours every soul in the theater was allowed to be a visitor to a world of artistic inspiration.

Our education system values facts and formulas and figuring things out, and it should. But just as we want our students to be able to navigate the globe, so too how important it is that they can find their way through art to the earth’s imagined corners.

Expectedly Unexpected

poeThey read Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” and discussed the math behind the swinging of the titular blade. It was math class, after all.

Math class at SDA.

Things at San Dieguito feel different than they do at some other high schools. Some folks say the students are nicer. Some talk about the kindness of the teachers. Others notice that it’s not unusual to see a student walking around in a onesie Pikachu costume or wearing a cape.

Those are all true observations, but as a proud principal, I’d add that one of the things so special about our school is a willingness to try something different.

This could be casting bronze in art class, choosing to do a winter concert without any holiday songs, or staging an evening of student-written one acts early in the fall.

degas

Trying something different might look like physics classes presenting portfolios to community members about both what and how they learned this term, our alumni raising money to reinstall the Metal Mustang in the front of our school, or the AP Art History class staging art flash mobs during homeroom. Degas? Surprise!

It’s not unusual to see something delightfully non-sequitur here at San Dieguito.

We’re a school of poetry slams, musical theater, and a student art gallery.

At SDA “different” is part of our DNA.

Trying something different might be ASB students hanging window boxes from the plywood walls around the construction site of our new classroom building, our fans bringing a sign promoting veganism to a basketball game, or our instrumental music class deciding to put on a concert for the public during finals week.

A rallying cry at San Dieguito is “Keep SDA Funky.”

photo-2We do.

And today, the final day of the first term, when I looked out my office window I saw that sometimes San Dieguito’s funky spirit extends beyond our campus borders.

That math teacher who read Edgar Allan Poe with his class did more than talk about the mathematics of a pendulum. After discussing arcs and differentials, he made a phone call. To the fire department.

I like to imagine that it was the excitement in that teacher’s voice that prompted the firefighter on the other line to say “yes” when asked if there was any way they could come out and help the class create a real life thirty foot pendulum to try out their equations.

Maybe the firefighter was a San Diegutio grad.

So it was a surprise, but not surprising when I stepped out of my office and walked up to see a hook and ladder truck next to our bell tower, a student wearing a red helmet suspended and swinging, and a line of students timing the swing of the pendulum …and smiling.

photo 1 (4).JPG

“I Need You.”

bluesThe last time I wore the black suit I was a pallbearer. Today I got to wear it to play.

Well, maybe play the fool.

And that’s perfectly okay.

The occasion was our school’s winter assembly, a chance to celebrate students, promote the upcoming winter formal, and have some fun. My task was to co-host the show with an intrepid student who shares my sense of adventure. We brainstormed a couple of costumes that we thought the students might find funny (me dressed as him, us both in mascot costumes) and a final number that would see us joining a band to belt out “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” while dressed as Jake and Elwood Blues.

The song, as fun as it is, wasn’t a random choice. In The Blues Brothers movie the tune is prefaced by a monologue that embraces the audience with the simple truth captured in the title of the song. Dan Ackroyd, as Elwood, tells the audience:

We’re so glad to see so many of you lovely people here tonight, and we would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois’ Law Enforcement Community who have chosen to join us here in the Palace Hotel Ballroom at this time. We do sincerely hope you’ll all enjoy the show, and please remember people, that no matter who you are, and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there are still some things that make us all the same. You, me, them, everybody, everybody.”

There are some things that make us all the same, and as an educator who has the privilege to work with students and parents, staff and community members of all points of view that reality really resonates with me. Schools are cauldrons of opinion, spiced with dashes of immaturity and angst, and occasionally stirred by that adolescent love of controversy.

That said, no matter who we are, or what we do to live, thrive and survive (and there are days we strive for each), we do share an underlying need for something more, for connection, for belonging, for (as Jake and Elwood would tell us) love.

bb2What this can look like at a school is manifold. Sometimes it’s a student being part of a team, learning life lessons during the hours of practice and competition. Sometimes a club or an activity can foster this sense of self and community. Sometimes it comes through the kindness of teachers, peers, and parents.

Here at San Dieguito building a campus culture means purposefully designing opportunities to celebrate kindness, generosity of spirit, and an atmosphere of acceptance. We hope to reflect these attitudes in the way we comport ourselves, the decisions we make about how we live and learn together, and even the ways we put on assemblies.

That today saw two videos celebrating all aspects of student life from Comedy Sportz to Girls Water Polo, that students and staff played together on teams competing in goofy events, and that the crowd smiled even when their buffoonish principal growled through a blues song, all underscored the good that we do our best to cultivate every day.

About halfway through “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” Elwood gets a second soliloquy. He pauses, and with the band humming behind him he adds:

You know people when you do find that somebody, hold that woman, hold that man. Love him, please him, squeeze her, please her. Hold, squeeze and please that person, give ’em all your love. Signify your feelings with every gentle caress, because it’s so important to have that special somebody to hold, kiss, miss, squeeze and please.”

bb1This is school, so let’s take the spirit of the lines rather than the specifics, but it’s in these words that we see another simple truth. We do well when we appreciate those who are important to us, who we care about and who care about us. We are at our best when we strive to be someone others can love, and when we acknowledge that we are more together than we are as individuals.

As my fellow blues brother and I danced around the gym pointing to the crowd there was real meaning to the line we repeated. With trumpets blazing behind us and the steady thrum of the bass, we gave voice to a refrain that the angels of our better nature know to be true: “I need you, you, you. I need you, you, you. I need you.”

We need each other.

At some point in the future our black suits will be worn by pallbearers; today let’s sing together and dance.

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.

11

img_5958Late November
just in time
with a few days away from campus,
a wet rain
after the drought of October
and before the flood
of the holidays
(lower case now)
engulfs us all
with waves of
time
enough to reflect
on the busy winter
and spring to come.

But now it is November
and in this time
between high school sports seasons
we breathe
as much as we’re able
and give thanks.