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.

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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.

IMG_4452

Spring Break

I’m going to read a paperback
John LeCarre
maybe
King or Mankell

roller coaster
Take my kids to Knott’s Berry Farm
and scream
as I rush downward on a rollercoaster
that makes my daughter laugh

I’m hoping to sleep in
exercise
and get some balance back
finding my feet again after a busy winter
as I pause
in the eye of the storm
that is Spring Break
and look forward to a busy May and busier June.

photo (2)
My kids and I will go to a ballgame
to Grandma and Papa’s
to the beach
maybe get a doughnut

While all the while
I’ll keep a weather eye on Oregon
a count of the boxes accumulating in our garage
and a list of the things to be done
some over this week off
some soon thereafter
all before the last day of June
when the sweet relief of Spring Break
is replaced
by the wild anticipation of July.

Late February

photo-2Rain falling outside
students tucked into classes
the clock assuring me
that we still have another hour
before lunch and
the attendant chaos,
a rehearsal for spring,
that comes with the ringing of the bell

My jacket drips from a hook
on my office door
victim of the rain
and a long walk
out to the hinterlands of campus
rooms so far away
from my office
and yet the center of the world
for all the students learning there
of Euclid
Shakespeare
Virginia Woolf
all these names on today’s agenda
in the classes I visited
on my wet walk.

There is a certain calm
to February
on a high school campus
as students, now so much at home,
scribble and jot, type, draw, and discuss
subjects not altogether unfamiliar.

Nothing really seems unfamiliar in February
we’ve spent so long together
and yet
have miles yet to go
before the sunshine of June.

Today we listen to the rain
warm up
and peek out windows
looking for spring.

 

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.

 

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.

June, almost July

Summer begins
with a stack of books
a recipe to try
and a long promised trip to a rollercoaster
that does a loop-de-loop

July,
with its trips to the beach
late lazy nights, and
indulgent
freedom from an alarm clock,
waits just a weekend away
for us to clear our heads
of the bells and busy thundering
toward graduation
that has held us
like a mesmerist
since April

712From our hammocks
or chaise lounges
or air conditioned recliners
From our towels on the sand
or inner tubes
or dugout benches
From our picnic blankets
or patio chairs
(ice rattling in our lemonade)
or that shady spot beneath the elm
sometime in July
or the earliest light of August
when summer still owns the calendar
the thought will flutter through our brains
like that dove in the neglected pergola
…I can hardly wait for the first day of school

And in that moment
we’ll look up at the cloudless sky
close our eyes
and think
…soon
…but not too soon
remembering March and April and May
and June
at least the start of June

And we’ll breathe in deeply
the warm air
renewing ourselves with summer
before returning to campus
…not to soon
and changing the world.