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!


…on a chalkboard

On my final day on Diegueño’s campus I cut through a narrow storage room to deliver an apple fritter to my head custodian. More a hallway than a real room, it’s a place to store PE clothes and old files that aren’t confidential. A couple of TVs gather dust beneath the last remaining chalkboard on campus.

I’d been through here a hundred times, but on this morning, tinged with the emotions of leaving a school I care deeply about, I saw something that hadn’t been there before: a pirate.

photo 2 (2)For a couple of days, since finding out I’d be principal at San Dieguito High School Academy, I’d been wondering what, if any, my legacy might be at Diegueño.

I know that I am proudest of the people I helped to hire. The true positive difference I’ve contributed to at the school is the amazing teachers working with kids who came to the school on my watch.

But these educators’ legacies are their own, and my thoughts turned to what contributions I’d made in my year on campus. Certainly I’d done my best to nurture a sense of family within my staff and school, encouraging connections, valuing relationships, and celebrating kindness. The roots of community are deep, and I believe the tree will continue to grow, but as with so many things, I was just one gardener. The legacy of the Diegueño Family is its own.

I worked hard to have fun, and to bring an attitude of whistling at work to Diegueño. This meant playing badminton on the lawn with teachers and parents, bringing ice cream sandwiches to teachers in rooms without air conditioning, and teaching students how to draw a pirate. With a rumbling “Arrr!” that sketch on the chalkboard suggested some of it had stuck.

At least for a little while.

photo 1 (2)Ultimately Diegueño continues without me just as well as it had before me. My time as steward to the school changed me more than I changed it. For a few people: students, teachers, and parents, I hope I made a difference, an act of kindness or support, something that helped make their lives a little better. In the end it’s often those small and true acts that matter most.

Legacies are funny things. I don’t look to have my name on a plaque; I simply hope that I’m thought of, when I’m thought of, as a person who made a positive difference in someone’s life. I move through the world with the goal of helping, and if I’m remembered (with fondness or frustration) I’m at peace with the fact that many of those memories will disappear with time as surely as a pirate drawn in chalk.

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!”


Pirates, Squid, and Gratitude


For anyone who has been reading my recent posts, you know I had the opportunity to share a cartooning mini-lesson with our art classes, and that one of those same young artists surprised me by sketching a squid in our annual student art competition to design t-shirts for our big Diegueño Spirit Day.

Today a student delivered a present to my office that humbled and amazed me. Accompanied by a beautiful card signed by a bundle of art students was a coffee cup with my new favorite fictional mascot: The regal Diegueño Squid!

photo (6)It’s days like this that remind me how very fortunate I am to be the principal of Diegueño Middle School, and how much I appreciate all of the magical people around me.



photo 3 (2)Every once and a while an opportunity presents itself that is simply too good to be true. In these golden moments, when something we love collides with something we do, when we get to give back, even as we get to enjoy what we’re asked to do, magic happens. Last week that magic took the form of three intrepid art students who knocked on my office door and asked if I could help them draw a pirate.

My marvelous art teacher had warned me they were coming; she does short lessons each week to hone her students’ drawing skills, and after a few had mentioned to her that they’d seen me draw little cartoons on classroom whiteboards, she encouraged them to ask me to teach a mini-lesson that they could record and use in class.

So, with more than two decades of pirate cartooning in my history, I looked into the lens of the tablet they were using to record, and said: “Ahoy, young artists. I heard you might want to draw a pirate!”

photo 4 (2)And we were off and cartooning!

I mention all this because I wonder how we can do even more to provide experiences like this to our students and colleagues. I lit up when I got to share a skill that has been a part of me since I started teaching. It was renewing and fun to be able to share something I like doing with an audience who seemed interested, or at least seemed to have a good time watching their tie wearing principal put pen to paper and come up with a swashbuckling cartoon.

All around me I see teachers and students who have talents as hidden and even more wonderful than being able to draw a fellow with an eye patch, and I wonder how we might do more to bring these talents out, share them, and celebrate each other together.

Captain TeeThis post is less a pretty summary of something than the start of a brainstorming session. It’s something between an honest question and a call to action. It’s me, still smiling from my time with the art students, wishing we all had such an opportunity to share a part of who we are.

Can it happen in classes? Can it happen in clubs? Can it happen in activities at lunch or after school? Can it be celebrated on the walls or indoor marquee in our library? Can we blog, tweet, or put this on Facebook?

I’m not sure exactly what this looks like for everybody, but I know for me, at least last week, it wore an eye patch and had a peg leg.


photo 1 (9)The first two pirates just made me smile. Their eye patches, red vests, and black sashes bespoke adventure on the high seas …not that different from a middle school campus on Halloween.

The next buccaneer, with striped shirt and mischievous grin, should have been enough for me to notice a pattern, but I still hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee and wasn’t imagining what was going on.

As a teacher I’d loved pirates, growing a beard and slipping in a hoop earring to celebrate “Pirate Week” every other year with my students (there’s another post in that somewhere). As an administrator I keep a pirate flag in my office and the sketch of a salty sea rat on the notes of thanks I like to write. I may not be able to be quite as swashbuckling as a principal, but I like to think that I’ve kept that pirate spirit.

When the next pirate, a math teacher, walked past my office, her π-rate t-shirt accompanied by a scarlet sash and high leather boots, I realized there was something afoot. “Ahoy,” she said, waving. Another teacher popped up beside her, “Cap’n,” he added from beneath a skull and bones bandana. And it dawned on me that I was witnessing something magical.

photo 4 (3)There are moments we look back on over our professional lives, times when we experienced great kindness or profound emotion, and as I saw an instructional assistant walk past these pirates with a parrot on his shoulder, I realized that today was one of those events for me.

In my first year as principal of Diegueño Middle School I’ve worked hard to earn the respect of the amazing educators who make up our staff. From the first day of school they’ve treated me well, welcoming me into classrooms and helping me feel like a part of our great Diegueño family.

Today, as three-cornered hats and hoop earrings were more common than ID badges, and every face I saw had a smile and the twinkling eyes of someone who has just pulled off a delicious surprise (which they had), I was overwhelmed by the feeling of gratitude.

I am blessed to work with a band of pirates who know how to mix work and play, and who kept a collective secret that, unveiled, shivered my timbers.

I will never forget today, the smiles and eyepatches, the support and love. My first Halloween as principal of Diegueño goes down as one of those special life events, humbling, moving, and wearing an eyepatch.


photo (21)