Pirate Week at Twenty

photo 1 (2)Quietly passing next week, like a rowboat of buccaneers sneaking out of a hostile harbor, is the twentieth anniversary of something meaningful to me and maybe a few students I had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with: Pirate Week.

It started as a lark, a fellow English teacher and myself looking up at the gray winter sky and recognizing that everyone in the state seemed to be in a bad mood. It was January 1998 and we wondered what we could do to cheer up our school. Pirates, we thought. Everyone likes pirates. Right?

Ah, to be young and foolish.

We set the date of “Pirate Week” for the short week after President’s Day; four days seemed more manageable than five, and we had no idea what we’d do.

photo (43)I grew a beard. It came in an inspiring red; my last beard showed far too much gray.

My students found a long forgotten wooden replica cannon in the theater’s prop room and somehow managed to install it in the front of my classroom. They plotted costumes, devised activities, and planned adventures for the week ahead.

That first week was an experiment. A treasure hunt, the occasional raid of my fellow English teacher’s classroom, a bit of hardtack, and lots and lots of “ARRRRRing!” We ended the week exhausted.

…and folks seemed in a better mood.

tl doorPirate Week continued every other year after that (every year would be too much, so we added Space Week in 1999, another post for another time). It followed me to two new schools, at one my students put on a pirate themed craft day for a local elementary class, and at another an intrepid student painted my classroom door with a swashbuckling mural (with a winking nod to Space Week too).

One year a band of teachers joined me in a pirate choir who toured the school singing “A Pirate’s Life.” We were loud, if not too much in tune, and as with the first Pirate Week, shanties and such seemed to bring smiles to the midwinter blues.

Over time kids started bringing me pirate things: a flag, a cookie jar, a peg legged statuette, and when I transitioned from the classroom to being an administrator that buccaneering spirit continued on thank you notes, the occasional Halloween costume, and an amazing ceramic wall hanging given to me by my secretary.

Captain TeeInspired by Pirate Week, when my niece was young I even wrote a seafaring story, Pirates Plunder, that I could read aloud to her at bedtime, scribbling sketches in the margins to make her smile. She chuckled at the drawing of Captain Tee wearing a lei. I kept my day job.

My life as an administrator has contained a few fabulous piratical moments, no raids or singing, but more kindness than a flotilla of ships and a spirit of fun whose memory brings me joy.

And today, twenty years later, I look back at Pirate Week and think fondly of every eye-patched and hook-handed student I ever taught. I appreciate the teachers who joined me in some scurvy fun, and the administrators who put a second eye patch on long enough not to see the shenanigans happening on their ships. It was all in good fun, after all, and no one got hurt.

IMG_5848I keep a copy of Treasure Island near my desk these days, the bookmark a collection of photos from that faculty pirate choir. On my wall is that ceramic skull and crossbones, and on the back of the clipboard I carry around a sticker given to me by a student who had visited the Caribbean. This President’s Day week will go by more quietly than 1998’s, but with no less of a sense of adventure.

To all those kind souls who sailed with me during a Pirate Week, I say thanks. To them, and to any I haven’t met under a black flag, I wish a fair wind, a box of gold, and pinch of that pirate spirit every single day!

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For me it was pirates…

pirateEvery successful classroom contains laughter. It doesn’t have to be belly laughs or feel like a comedy club, but for students to learn a sense of humor has to lurk somewhere in the space students share with their teacher. Smiles need to be the rule rather than the exception.

Gifted teachers have a million different ways to bring this lightness to their work with kids. For me, a lifetime ago when I was in the classroom, laughter took on its most daring look when I cracked open a treasure chest and put on a sash, eye patch, and hoop earring.

The most fun I ever had in a classroom was Pirate Week.

Its origins were humble; one rainy winter when I was teaching at a little high school in Oregon, my best friend and I decided that we needed to do something to raise student and staff morale. It was January and had been gray and wet since October. It seemed the whole state was in a bad mood.

We kicked around some ideas to shake things up. What would everyone have fun with? What would be unexpected? Who didn’t like pirates?

Together we found some piratical short stories and nonfiction we could use in our English classes. We put together a few activities that would get the kids moving, taught our students the proper way to deliver a hearty pirate yell (one fist in the air, one fist forward, and a rousing “ARRRR!”), and learned the words of “A Pirate’s Life” so we could go caroling.

photoSome of my theatrical students located life sized wooden cannon in the prop closet behind the stage. Two boys brought in a recipe for hardtack. A group of girls decorated the room to look like something out of Treasure Island.

I grew a beard, starting far too early before the designated week and looking like a Russian poet for almost a month. Students plotted costumes, created props, and planned an elaborate treasure hunt.

Along the way we laughed.

Outside the weather stayed predictably inclimate; inside we sailed the sparkling waters of the Caribbean with Captain Blood. The week itself swashbuckled in. Hook hands flashed, hoop earrings appeared on unlikely lobes, and shanties filled the air. We ended the week exhausted, happy, and closer than we’d ever been.

Pirate Week taught me the value of big, fun, and unexpected events. I continued it every other year for more than a decade, and saw students and teachers add to it with beautiful ideas (inviting a third grade class to a day of crafts and games, a treasure hunt put on by ASB with a real bag of gold coins at the end, and the creation of a roving band of teachers who sang pirate songs to students at lunch).

Why every other year?

Even pirates could grow stale if they were always around. Plus, it opened the door for Space Week!

I foundphoto (43) that Pirate Week was much more than the five days we dressed like buccaneers. The smiling passion it engendered extended from the beginning of the year to the end.

In addition to the positive attitude and good humor we bring to work every day, it’s energizing to have something a little madcap to highlight the year. That Pirate Spirit, as I took to calling it, colored all we did together. We were a cohesive crew, not just a collection of strangers of a ship.

Together we laughed. Together we learned. And when I see a former student, the chances are great that they’ll begin their hello with a hearty “ARRRR!”