“Fare Forward, Voyagers”

I’m thinking about a poem. We’re elbow deep in plans for graduation and a part of most ceremonies is the guy in a tie addressing the class. In my time as a principal, and on the pages of this collection of thoughts (tagged “graduation”), I’ve wrestled with what to say, weighed and reweighed the importance of the event, and relished the approach one deliciously iconoclastic school took to the commencement ceremony. This year, at the helm of a wildly creative school filled with wonderfully curious students, the prospect of a speech, and more specifically what words to offer these artistic souls, is heavy on my mind.

So on an April afternoon when I was reading Eliot’s Four Quartets I found myself moved by a passage that made me think about graduation. Sentimental by nature, and made even more so by the approach of the end of the school year, I found resonance in the lines:

When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.”

Our students are like those passengers on Eliot’s poetic train. They stay suspended in the moment of graduation, separated from their past years at a familiar school and the wide opening of the future before them. In these moments, as they listen to speeches, hear music made by peers, and sit in robes they’ll wear on only this one occasion, they are invited to consider the past and future with “equal mind.”

EliotAs I look out at them from the podium on stage I know I’ll think: “You are not the same people who left the station…” They are, in fact, pure possibility. They are our voyagers, embarking on new adventures, even as they have traveled so far together. They are faring forward.

I’m thinking about a poem.

Emily Dickinson, that poet of slanted light and buzzing flies, in a moment steeped with spring described:

Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—  
Then stepped straight through the Firmament  
And rested on a Beam—  
  
And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—  
Though never yet, in any Port—  
Their coming mentioned—be—  
  
If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—”

How like those butterflies our graduating students are, waltzing, resting, bearing away. As they prepare to step “straight through the Firmament” what more can we do than watch and wonder, hope and celebrate, and see in them the future?

I’m thinking about a poem.

That day of commencement, a day when I’ll step to the mic and after three or four other speakers, many of whom will have grand advice and relevant anecdotes for the graduates, it will be my turn. Any big ideas or semblance of wisdom I’ve wanted to pass on the students will have already heard.

My “Art unites us” speech? Check.

My “Three things matter in life: to be kind, to be kind, to be kind” speech? They’ve heard it.

My fatherly advice about being safe and looking out for one another? I’ve given them that too.

DickinsonSo I think about what I might add to a ceremony rich with student performances, pomp, and pageantry, and I keep coming back to the brevity, beauty, and power of verse.

I won’t go with TS Eliot, though his voyagers were the ones to first inspire the notion of a poem. I’ll leave Emily Dickinson for them to find on their own when they get to college. But I have something in mind that might just work, a short piece that captures the swell of emotions that typify graduations and offers the sort of advice an older generation should offer the young.

Who knows, maybe it says something right that graduation day sees the principal walk in with a volume of poetry tucked under his arm. We’ll see.

I can almost hear the whisper in my ear: “Not fare well,/ but fare forward, voyagers.”

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Spring Soccer

Reading TS Eliot outside
beneath a bright translucent sky
the April wind against my face
blows dark clouds and certain rain
toward the folding chair where I read
tall grass dancing around me
my daughter’s soccer team kicking and
laughing nearby
a thermos of tea
now brewed too dark
for a sunny day
but just about right for today’s storm
rests on the damp ground beside me
an umbrella
no match for the wind
beside it, and my son
sleeping in the warm car
just on the other side of the chain link fence.

Tom (and like so many I believe, honestly believe,
that my English degree qualifies me to call Eliot by his first name)
tells me that Midwinter Spring
is its own season
and as the drops begin
to hit my yellow legal pad
the ink melting beneath the rain
seems to prove his point.

This will be a good Oregon deluge
a fine day for soccer
a day made for poetry
and deep, dark, bitter tea.

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A Little World Made Cunningly

April, with with his shoures soote, is National Poetry Month, and in this increasingly complicated world that’s as good an excuse as any to spend some time away from the prose of contemporary events in the company of a little verse.

Whether it’s Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Ginsberg’s Howl, or Dickinson’s Final Harvest, there is room for everyone in the house of poetry, Plath and Hughes, Bishop, Pope, and even some Leonard Cohen.

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That 18th century philosopher (that some kids today know only as Mary Shelley’s mom) Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically.”

How I hope that isn’t true.

…but if it is, how nice that April, to some the cruelest month, has arrived with the inspiration to pick up a sonnet or ballad, a daring sestina or bit of free verse.

Across the US, librarians are sharing poems this month, English teachers are reciting poetry aloud, and a few of us who no longer fit either of these categories are making the time to dip into volumes of Stafford, Sexton, Rumi, and Walker. Some of us are looking for a new quotation from Mary Oliver, hoping for a little inspiration, or allowing ourselves an afternoon with old friends like Keats, Atwood, or Borges.

IMG_6437As a fellow who has made a professional life out of working with young people, I know the possibilities that exist if we can get past the prosaic hang ups of everyday life and, to steal a line from Blake, break free of our mind-forged manacles to see the world as it is, infinite. Young students can do this, particularly before they’ve been conditioned to “do school” adeptly, leaving learning as a kind of bonus.

So as April encourages each of us to wander lonely as a cloud, I hope that in addition to finding some poetry we might enjoy reading (Leaves of Grass, Nine Horses, or Where the Sidewalk Ends), we might also try our own hands at jotting out some well chosen words on a page. This doesn’t have to be Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queen; maybe it’s a haiku, one of those little ditties just three lines long.

Just five-seven-five
a haiku is as easy
as tapping out words”

…at least a simple one.

Or if that isn’t your answer, I’d challenge anyone still reading this post about poetry to defy the marvelous Mary Wollstonecraft and choose to use this month when “proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim/ Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing” as a catalyst to see and feel poetically.

One of my favorite Oregonian poets (not born here, but damp and moss covered in spirit …in a good way!) Floyd Skloot wrote:

Without speaking, moving together,
we power ourselves out of the calmer dark
and stroke hard for the water’s bright center
where the spring tide will carry us back upriver.”

Like the kayakers in Skloot’s poem, many of us leave winter a little downstream of where we’d like to be, and it is with April’s emerging sun, celebrated in the chorus of poets from across the ages, that we can dip our proverbial paddles into the water and find that magical balance and sense of hope that so often comes with spring.

…but…

I was returning from my successful search to find a student who had gone “wandering” on his way to the bathroom, hurrying back to my office to make a quick parent call and grab my coat before afternoon bus duty, when one of my middle schoolers passed me in the hallway and in return to my “hello” asked me: “Is it hard to be the principal?”

“No,” I answered. Huh? I thought. “It’s fun,” I told her, and she nodded and continued down the hall.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 3.40.13 PMThat exchange has stuck with me for a few days. I wish I’d have stopped to ask why she’d asked. Had I looked stressed out? It had been the afternoon of the Friday before spring break, so… Had she been holding on to the question for a while, or was it a spur of the moment kind of thing? I know that what I do is a bit of a mystery for some kids. Heck, I couldn’t have told you what my principal did when I was a student.

As I got back to the main office, I thought about my answer, unrehearsed and unfiltered, and felt good. Even if it isn’t quite true.

It is fun to be a principal. I love my work with and for the kids. I love supporting and celebrating teachers, and the opportunities I have to make a difference in the lives of those around me. I love the energy of a school, the feel of a classroom when learning is in full swing, and even the jostling of a busy hallway. At ACMA, I love that we start each day with music, have a lunchtime where students eat in the halls, play basketball at our single hoop outside, and are quick to burst into applause as they sit in groups laughing and talking with each other.

…but…

It is hard.

Principaling, to make it a verb, isn’t easy and shouldn’t be.

Poet Billy Collins captured the truth of it when, speaking of poetry, which is more like principaling than some might suspect, said: “There are interesting forms of difficulty, and there are unprofitable forms of difficulty.” Being a principal is certainly interesting.

The hard conversations, the problems to be solved, the opportunities to be meaningful, these aren’t easy or simple or fun. The nights out add up, and while I enjoy everything I get to attend (seriously, when I’m there I dig talking with kids and parents and seeing my students act, sing, dance, and show their true passions), more often than not those nights are nights I’m away from my wife and kids.

Being a principal means more time away, more stress, and more independence. It means the ability to help to chart the course you and your school will travel, and the time, stress, and responsibility are simply the cost of that journey.

To steal part of that line from Collins, being a principal is difficult in a way that is not unprofitable. It is a difficult that is worth it.

And like poetry, being a principal takes balance. Wearing a tie (or not, as the school demands) doesn’t require strict adherence to some artificial structure, but invites creativity; there are times to write a sonnet and times to live in free verse. Knowing when to do each, as a poet or a principal, matters much.

IMG_6359Years ago that necktie was a requirement for a principal, usually accompanied by a jacket and frown. The trappings of the office helped reinforce roles and responsibilities. Who could you lean on? The guy in the tie. Today that artificiality isn’t the case.

Knowing students, staff, and parents matters today in an indispensable way. We’re past road maps in this wildwood of education and need to lean on compasses. It’s in the care we show our schools, the respect we give those around us, and the relationships we grow that we can make a difference, particularly when the road ahead has so many corkscrew turns.

To return to Collins, whose thoughts on poetry might be stretched to cover the principal’s office:

The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it’s tone that establishes the poet’s authority. The first few lines keep giving birth to more and more lines. Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.”

I love that notion of discovery as it applies to my job as much as a poet’s and I work hard believing that I might, through my actions, my attempts, and tone help to create line by line “something of value.”

So I lie when I’m asked if it’s hard to be a principal, and I work hard to make a difference, and that’s the truth.

Words, Words, Words

IMG_5722“Are otters artists?”
“Our otters are artists.”
Words
Tongue twisting bursts
of shared creativity.

My daughter came up with the otters
and as we refined the couplet
laughing in our kitchen
the world felt good.

Words have the magic
of connecting
transforming

No new idea there, but
a simple appreciation
for the times poets spun
“morning morning’s minion”
“sibilant penumbra”
or “man’s first disobedience and the fruit…”

And for those instances
in kitchens
and in poems
when we ourselves
turn something
of an artistic otter.

 

Riffing with Cavafy

“It does not bother me if outside
winter spreads fog, clouds, and cold.
Spring is within me, true joy.”
          -CP Cavafy

Last week I got to teach.

It has long been a promise I’ve made to myself that every year of being a principal I will set aside time to step back into classrooms and embrace the reason I got into education in the first place: to teach. Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of working with middle schoolers and high schoolers, walking the foggy streets with Sherlock Holmes, talking hope with Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, and even teaching a little cartooning. This engagement with students is far more than magical; for me connecting with kids is a fundamental reminder of the reason I do what I do, the rationale behind my decisions as a principal, the “why” of my work.

Last week that work brought be to the plains of Troy and five classes of juniors and seniors who had just finished reading Homer’s Iliad. I’d taught the epic a lifetime ago, or at least large swaths of it, in a unit I called the ALIliad, a mashup of Homer’s heroes and Muhammad Ali. It was rollicking fun, perfect for spring term Senior English, and I had fond memories of those busted brain-pans and ancient heroes. For my return to Troy, however, I opted for something more …traditional: CP Cavafy.

Cavafy is an early 20th century Greek poet who lived and wrote in Alexandria. His work, seemingly simple and certainly powerful, captures ideas political, passionate, and personal, and his ability to discuss history and epic in very human ways suggested him as a nice follow up to the hard work the students had already done with Homer. Cavafy builds on the traditional as well as anyone, and I figured some of the students might dig making connections, juxtapositions, and discoveries between and about the two poets.

IMG_1359As rain battered the classroom windows, we started with a little music. To set up the notion of a modern artist riffing on something grand and established I’d given the students the homework of listening to “My Favorite Things,” first the recognizable Julie Andrews version from The Sound of Music film and then John Coltrane’s take on the tune in all its modal glory.

The students, particularly those ridiculously talented student musicians brought amazing perspective to a discussion of the two versions of the tune, juxtaposing Coltrane and the Rodgers and Hammerstein original like professional critics. They led us to where I’d hoped they would: the idea of an artist, to use Coltrane’s line, “looking back at the old things to see them in a new light” and creating something new, something different, something meaningful.

That ACMA is filled with passionate student artists made our discussion richer than I’d imagined.

We followed this Coltrane preface with two essential questions and dove into Cavafy with aplomb. After reading “Trojans” together, students broke into groups and wrestled with four of Cavafy’s poems: “The Horses of Achilles,” “The Funeral of Sarpedon,” “Night March of Priam,” and “When the Watchman Saw the Light.”

I wanted the students to see not only a different take on Homer, but also understand the humanizing Cavafy does to the familiar characters, even immortal ones, and dig how this more modern Greek poet looked “back at the old things and [saw] them in a new light.”

Discussion sparkled, creative students applying their intelligence and spirit to Cavafy’s texts. That they brought insight I hadn’t thought of when planning the lesson shouldn’t have come as a surprise; some of the best things about teaching are those moments when students startle you with an unexpected perspective and creative approach.

We talked about art and grief and love and beauty, and class after class I found myself more and more thankful for the opportunity to spend this time with the students. Classrooms truly are where the magic of education happens.

We ended with “Ithaca,” of course, because, well, Cavafy.

And in that poem of appreciation I heard echoes of last week’s teaching journey.

…do not hurry the voyage at all.
it is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way…”

Last week’s lessons were best when they were unhurried, a luxury limited to the first day and compromised on the second by a shortened schedule and looming assignment justifiably on the students’ minds. But even then, even when the minute hand pushed me forward like a Trojan into an Achaean spear, the experience of connecting with students is one that I am profoundly thankful for.

I walked out of the classroom tired, energized, and happy. For a principal to step back in front of a classroom is a reminder of what an exhausting and exhilarating job being a teacher really is. It is a reminder that the interaction between students and teachers is unique, magical, and (sometimes) profound.

It was raining outside, but my spirit was there on the plains of Troy with Homer, Cavafy, and some of the best students I’ve ever known.

Oregon October

The pewter skies
and perpetually wet blacktop
harbingers of fall
announce sweatshirt weather
cold ears
and clouds
of exhaled breath

Until an October sun
bright
unexpected
perhaps the most
wonderful possibility of the season
allows us to turn our faces to the sky
and feel
the taste of apples
rustle of leaves
and smell of the earliest fireplaces.

At school, students
grown accustomed to the rhythm of the year
daydream spring
textbooks whispering winter
summer so far away

And teachers too
hunkering toward December
right themselves from leaning into autumn

Dig hands into pockets
and smile up at the sun.

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