Penny-wise

…I am not crying
on the inside. I am no brave faker
On the contrary, I am a simple laugh
-Donald Hall “The Clown”

I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s It at Powell’s on Valentine’s Day. 1500 miles from my wife, my nerves still jangling after a job interview in Oregon, I spotted the book while browsing in a book shop to try to relax.

As thick as an upended business card, its heft enthralled me. I’d owned a copy before, a paperback with a wonderfully lurid claw reaching up from a storm grate on the cover. Alone in the bookshop, I couldn’t help but plunk down $10, curious to revisit the novel on a rainy Portland night.

The last time I read Stephen King’s 1986 behemoth, a book I can’t think of without remembering a high school friend’s amazement that anyone could write a book so long, I lived in Oregon. I can’t recall the circumstances of that first reading; there was so much pop fiction in my young adulthood. I suppose it was at least in part read alone in a room to the sound of falling rain.

It coverThe differences of more than a quarter century struck me as I read the novel through the eyes of a dad, and husband, and high school principal. …and a fellow who has been away from his home state for a long, long time.

It’s not that I haven’t felt at home throughout my adult life, but seeing Mt. Hood as I drove from the airport to my interview I felt a wave of emotion not unlike Ulysses must have experienced when he stepped back onto Ithaca.

It saw me through the flight back to San Diego, and up and back to a second interview and then a third. As I turned the pages I found that while there was so much I didn’t remember, the story, or better put the stories; It is at its heart a collection of related tales about what it is like to be human, carried with it a feeling of familiarity.

Not unlike the Sunset Highway or the stacks at Powell’s, It felt like something I knew, and at the same time it felt a little surreal.

For any who haven’t cracked the book, It tells the story of a group of friends from the fictional town of Derry, Maine who confront the manifestation of evil, often in the guise of a demonic clown, as kids in the summer of 1958 and again in 1984. In the twenty some years between the two events all but one of the “Losers Club” as they dub themselves leave the state and create adult lives of their own.

Those adults return “home” different than when they left it. The decades between their moving away and coming back, roughly the same amount of time I’ve been away from Oregon, changed them, and they returned altered versions of the selves who had gone away.

This more than struck a chord.

The twenty something teacher I was when I moved to California has been replaced by the forty something principal I have become. Along the way I’ve had experiences good and bad that have matured me, humbled me, and inspired me. As I prepare to return to the Pacific Northwest I do so with a feeling of hope, expectation, and excitement.

Staying in California would have been, to use the old saying, “penny-wise and pound foolish.” My days at San Dieguito, surrounded by gifted educators and blessed to work with so many friends, have been a dream come true, but for life beyond being a principal, my life as a dad, and a husband, Oregon was the choice that was more than a pound wise. Foolish youth, replaced by something akin to maturity.

Stephen King captured the feeling those characters had looking homeward after so much time away, across the miles and years alike, and that understanding of leaving youth and becoming an adult.

It was no big deal; it didn’t go all at once, with a bang. And maybe … that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like on of that clown’s trick balloons … The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you.”

And now the grownup in my mirror, so different from the fellow who filled a U-Haul and drove from Forest Grove to Oakland, is packing boxes and cleaning the garage, preparing to drive back up I-5 in the company of cats and kids who were not yet born when we left Oregon so many years ago.

I’ve got no maniacal clown to fight or promise from youth to fulfill, but like those adults from King’s novel I’m preparing to go home to a place that has not stopped changing in my absence.

Both of us are different than we were, me and the state, and how we will find each other when we meet again in July carries a delightful, if a little unnerving, uncertainty that I’m ready to meet head on.

The spring sun makes it feel all that more real. The boxes piling in our garage, the seemingly endless decisions as to what we keep and what we give away, and the steady stream of work to be done, these realities of moving will end soon and I’ll find myself back in the Willamette Valley preparing for the next stage of life.

Has the kid in me “leaked out” slowly? Maybe some; I certainly see an adult in my mirror. But working with students does much to inspire a spirit of youth. It’s tough to be too adult when every week or so someone invites you to be silly.

So I hope that as I return to Oregon I do so with a little gray hair, a few more wrinkles, and a youthful heart. …and no clowns.

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Mud and Sand

stafford“It was all the clods at once become
Precious…”
-William Stafford

My kids don’t know about dirt clods.

The realization hit me this weekend as I read Learning to Live in the World, a posthumous collection from the Oregonian poet William Stafford. So many of Stafford’s poems brought me back to the untamed acre at the edge of the urban growth boundary where I grew up.

Mine was a childhood of mud and tansy ragwort, of blackberries and tree sap. I remember a lot of digging as a boy, often with my hands, an upbringing that would appear feral to my own kids.

Careful not to sentimentalize, or at least not overly much, I made myself put the volume of Stafford down long enough to consider the opportunities my kids have that I didn’t.

My kids go to a great school, where they can learn coding, recreate “Gold Rush Days,” and go on field trips to museums. When I was in elementary school, student enrichment meant going to the music room once a week to sing “The Streets of Laredo.” We live ten minutes from the beach, and have weather that allows them to put on swimsuits almost all year round. Growing up in Oregon meant that when my folks said we were going to “the coast” I sensibly grabbed a sweater.

My kids know sand, but they don’t know dirt clods.

They don’t understand the unfettered joy of mud.

“The coast” is something they see in Irish movies, and rain is an anticipated event, not the moist reality of October through April.

…and maybe that’s overwhelming okay.

They are not me. Their lives are their own. Their childhood memories, so different from mine, are theirs, as mine are different from my mother’s Minnesotan youth or my dad’s childhood in Los Angeles.

It’s a reality that I’m wise to understand as a high school principal; these amazing students at my school are constructing their own high school experiences, independent of their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences. Or mine.

Every generation, every graduating class, has its own personality, its own memories, and its own impact on the world. The schools they return to visit on class reunions aren’t the same as the schools they attended, even if some of the buildings, or even teachers, haven’t changed.

704The world around us is constantly in flux, altering in little ways and large, at different rates and with differing results. I might return to a driveway where at ten I’d written my name in wet cement and find my initials still there but the house and yard around it changed past understanding.

Our memories may be able to hold a constancy, albeit romanticized, but time has no soft heart.

Still, I do.

And Stafford’s precious clods are my own, those moist, crumbling handfuls of childhood. That they do not belong to my kids sobers me, and challenges me to embrace that for them the most precious memories are their own.

Fallow Field

photo 1 (7)…I see the evergreen
looming on the next ridge.
I see them fade south
until they merge
with the morning sky.

-Floyd Skloot, “In the Coast Range”

My first thoughts returning to Oregon after an absence I understand now was far, far too long, was how much things had changed. After four days of hiking in the forests around the Columbia River Gorge I realize that while my initial reaction wasn’t untrue, it was also, like so many first reactions, incomplete.

Sure the area around Powell’s Books has been polished by the gentrifying brush of time, and yes, when my wife and I visited our alma mater they’d picked up and moved the historical chapel where we’d gotten married to make room for a new library, but at its core Powell’s still sells used books and the nostalgia of being on Pacific University’s campus with my wife still quickened my pulse.

Things change, and that’s a truth that we’re wise to accept, but it’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it the complete story.

Because at the same time buildings get fresh paint or even new locations, so very much of the world moves at a different speed. Oregon reminded me of that this week.

photoOn our first day in the Gorge we hiked through the verdant forests near Cascade Locks. I may have been fooling myself, fools like me sometimes do, but I swear I remember some of the same majestic trees and rock formations along the trail, their moss as familiar as it was when my wife and I lived in Hood River two decades ago and hiked these same trails religiously.

In the past twenty years, a geological blip, the landscape seemed to have inhaled once and exhaled once again, but not much more. In that time I’ve become a father, moved from teacher to principal, gained cats, lost hair, and only vaguely resemble the twenty five year old I was when I last hiked here.

Nature sees time differently, on its own terms. Always changing, it appears not to change. Fellows like me, not so.

This lesson in perspective was helpful for me as an educator; mine is a profession where the immediate can present itself as more important than the longer term. As a principal it’s all too easy to see how a simple appeasal might make for a smoother afternoon, though it could mean the mistake of ignoring the compass that will guide us where we need to go.

photo 4 (3)Tromping these trails, a speck beneath the soaring conifers, no more significant to Mt. Hood than a deer, or a squirrel, or a stone, reminded me that the most meaningful realities aren’t realized in a moment, or a day, or a year. Our decisions matter, and matter profoundly, but our strength comes from seeing our work in the broader scope.

For me this means thinking about what’s good for students now, students next year, and our school farther into the future.

It means building programs, nurturing culture, and planting the seeds of ideas with the resources of today and the vision for tomorrow.

The lesson isn’t new, or particular to education.

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Hanging in our living room is a painting by an Oregonian artist, Beverly Hallberg. Titled “Fallow Field,” the image shows a landscape familiar to the rural sensibility of my youth. We bought the painting a lifetime ago, moved by the colors and feeling, and the painting’s ability to capture the spirit of a particular time and place. In that painting is a reminder that wise farmer’s knew that managing their land meant leaving fields fallow for a season, creating the opportunity for a richer harvest in the long term.

Where to plant and where to allow a fallow field is a part of every principal’s work, a lesson brought home by this week of spending so much time in nature. I’ll think about that perspective as I return to my office in the next few days, the memory of hiking amid the trees “looming on the next ridge” fresh in my mind. And in the hurly burly of the school year, I’ll strive to balance the moment’s immediate needs with the greater, grander perspective.

Middle Earth

photo 1 (4)There were snacks and an end in mind, and like Lewis and Clark, my wife and two kids and I plunged into a forest so primeval that the kids were expecting to meet Hobbits.

The day before had been a bust. Well, it had been fantastic for about thirty switch-backing, Cascade Mountain Range tromping minutes before my eight year old son realized that so far this hike had been 100% uphill and the woods were getting darker. Even if his parents were too dim to remember every fairy tale ever, he did, and he was done walking deeper into the forest. So then, were we.

Today, however, was better planned: a snack pouch, a fancy flavored water, the promise of a hidden lake at the end of the walk, and hints (if our trek was successful) of real Hood River huckleberry pie.

photo 5The planning was my wife’s, brilliant as always, and amazingly effective. If I were half as good as a principal as she is as a mom I’d win awards.

I’m just a few days from the end of my summer, and as I begin to start to begin starting to begin to start beginning to plan for what I hope is an great year, I know that the difference between a meltdown and Middle Earth is preparation, a positive attitude, and a clear vision for the goal of the journey.

Snacks help too, and maybe pie at the end.

I won’t draw out the inevitable analogy here; anyone reading this post is clever enough to see how the parallels might go. Instead I’ll admit that the absolute sense of wonder I felt as we hiked along the Pacific Crest Trail was unlike anything I’ve experienced in nature in years.

Towering fir trees.

Mossy stones from time out of mind.

Ripe blackberries, sweeping vistas, and even the surprising appearance of a pair of wild turkey as we neared the lake.

…all with people I love.

I can hardly wait for the school year to begin.

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Every Attempt

One of the best things about traveling is getting to see a different perspective on the world (here they eat what we see as pets; here they hold sacred an animal we eat) and to see, in the end, just how similar we really are to one another.

This summer I did not go on an exotic journey to Ulaanbaatar or Istanbul, but instead took a trip “home” to the state I grew up in, Oregon. Even so, it was fun to show my kids the fossils of my young adulthood: the college where my wife and I met, the chapel where we got married, and the first town we lived in together.

It was also a kind of wonderful to see that some of the challenges we face at the sunny Southern California high school where I work aren’t all that different than those that exist in the beaver state, where the attitude toward finding a solution has the down to earth, Oregonian tone that I remember from my youth.

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In the bathroom of a bookshop on Hawthorne Boulevard, in a neighborhood of Portland smelling of boiled wool and (recently legalized) recreational cannabis, a place familiar to neo-hippies and hipsters alike, I spotted a sign that perfectly captured the realistic attitude principals like me might bring to concerns of graffiti or students littering on campus.

Placed above the sink, not far from a garbage can plastered with stickers and paint, the sign read:

Every attempt is being made
to keep this restroom clean.

If you see something that needs attention,
Please contact an employee.

Thank you.

Simple. Honest.

The sign acknowledged hard work and a commitment to addressing the challenge, but didn’t suggest that things wouldn’t go sideways from time to time.

At the beginning of the school year I told my staff that I knew that the year would bring us challenges, every year does, but that I was optimistic because I knew that together we were up to any challenge we would face together.

This sign, in its eloquent, Oregonian way, seemed to say the same. There’s a whisper of resignation in the first line, but a willingness in the second sentence to roll up sleeves and get the job done. There will be challenges, it says, and we’ll do our best to fix them.

And I believed both.

It’s easy to get frustrated when folks complain about the challenging things that happen, though things will, because things do.

I hope that in the work I do with my school community I reflect the same honesty I saw in that bookshop bathroom, and that people can find reassurance in the truth that while we can’t stop all the ills of the world, we’ll always do all we can to put things right.

Meeting Matt at Powell’s

It’s amazing how much places can change over time, and how much friendships can stay the same. On our first day of a family trip to Oregon, the state my wife and I both grew up in before moving to the Bay Area in 1999, we met a friend I’ve known since he and I were in seventh grade.

Back in 1981, we ran the 4×100 relay on a cinder track at Parrish Junior High, and over the years we forged a friendship rich with pizza, fun, and Monty Python. He played classical guitar at my wedding twenty five years ago, and was one of the first friends to visit us when we were in Oakland. And…

photo 1 (3)I’m old enough now to understand the sad reality that it’s easy to let far, far too much time pass between visits with good friends, and as I tallied up the years I realized that an embarrassingly large number separated today from the last time we’d seen each other.

The truth is that with raising kids and building careers, my wife and I hadn’t visited Oregon for more than a decade and our kids, eight and eleven, had never seen the state.

When we got on a plane to Portland this summer, I was prepared for there to be differences; what surprised me was that those differences were largely cosmetic and that the heart of my memories and friendships remained so much the same.

Matt and I agreed to meet at Powell’s Books, a holy site of my undergraduate years, in downtown Portland. We’d met there a hundred times before; in the 1990s Powell’s was a great place to kill an hour or two …or a full day, amid the towering stacks of used books that made up the dimly lit labyrinth that stretched out over a full city block. It was like something out of a Borges story.

Driving up on the west side of the store, a place that had been a grimy industrial Valhalla a lifetime ago, I didn’t recognize Powell’s.

There, where the seedy car repair shop had been was an Anthropologie. A formally abandoned warehouse was now a towering glass apartment building. The streets were clean and the windows of the surrounding buildings unbroken.

Kitty corner to what had been Powell’s front entrance a pizza place still stood, but it’s changes were as great as the bookshop itself. It had become a place I couldn’t imagine having a grease fire.

I know that there is nothing wrong with any of these changes. Who wants broken windows or grease fires? There’s nothing inherently wrong with boutique clothiers or an urban Noodles and Co. It’s just that after all my time away, this didn’t feel exactly like my Powell’s or my Portland.

This was clean and inviting. This wasn’t an undiscovered or uncut gem. Not any more. My wife helped me be at peace with it. Something about the value of memories that don’t have to change. She has always been far, far wiser than me.

photo 3And it was my wife who poked me in the ribs as we stepped inside and pointed as she spotted my friend across the clean, well lit lobby of Powell’s.

He looked up as we called his name.

We hugged, had lunch …at a brewpub that hadn’t existed when I’d left Oregon, but was a thoroughly wonderful addition to the city… and by the time we were halfway through our quinoa burgers it felt as if we hadn’t seen each other for about a month, not a decade and a half. Sure we were both a little different, with a collection of individual experiences and a larger foreheads than when we’d seen each other last, but the friendship we’d shared since the time we were in junior high felt just as easy and unforced as it ever had. The laughter we shared made my angsty reaction to a gentrified section of Portland feel insignificant.

I thought about this a lot on the flight back to San Diego. I’m coming back to a campus under major construction in the same year we’re celebrating our school’s 80th anniversary. This year we’re hoping to invite lots of alumni back to campus to celebrate the rich history of San Dieguito, and I know that parts of the school many remember exist now only in their memories.

Alumni returning this year will see a track and performing arts center new to anyone older than thirty. Those who graduated before the 1990s will be awed by the abundance of student artwork, including years of senior tiles, and even our most recent graduates will have their world jolted by the enormous construction of a two story science and math building in the center of campus.

photo 2That the result of the construction will be good for students won’t necessarily cushion the shock of seeing cranes and bulldozers crawling across the places where they formally ate lunch.

Before my trip to Oregon this caused me some anxiety. I love San Dieguito and understand my role as steward to this special place of spirit and traditions. Even as we make the changes that will provide current and future students with the campus they need in a rapidly changing world, I want to be sure to honor the history and memories of the thousands of students who have called San Dieguito home since 1936.

What helped me was the realization, there in the unfamiliar bookstore I’d spent so much time in so very long ago, as I talked with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, that what matters most isn’t necessarily where any particular building is or whether there is now a tree or a walkway in the spot where I created memories with my friends. What really counts in the bigger picture are those friends and those memories.

I’m not saying I wasn’t disappointed when I realized that my dim, cluttered Powell’s no longer exists as it had in my memory, and I know that some of the changes on San Dieguito’s campus may hit some in the same way, but I hope that just as they did for me in Portland, memory and friendship overshadow new paint and new buildings. Places change over time, but the things that matter most, those things that live in our hearts, are timeless.