Outdoor Dance

I never wrote about the time
the parent called me
a punk ass bitch.

For the most part
my scribblings aim at a higher purpose
celebrating this or that
pondering thus and such
trying to make sense
cheer on hope
or notice something small and splendid
in the greater world.

But it’s been time enough now
since that night
when the woman in the bathrobe
holding a flashlight
in one hand
pointing with the other
feet wide apart, for balance,
breath rich with spirits
stood at the top of the steps
just outside the main office
staring at me with eyes
gone wild.

I was
ridiculously
wearing a cowboy hat
relieved that the western themed outdoor dance was over
the kids streaming down the stairs
heading home
laughing, still so young, and filled
with the music they’d been moving to
for hours now, dusk until dark.

At first I thought she was joking
appearing at a school
dressed for breakfast
smelling of happy hour
toting that flashlight like she was on a campout.

But she made it clear
that she was deadly serious
about how loud the music sounded
waving an arm toward the courtyard behind her
silent now
kids cleaning up
a few bales of straw, some streamers,
parent volunteers heading home
and while she did not live in the house
across the street
tonight she was staying there
sensibly, I thought

and because of us she could not sleep.

Students in cowboy hats
slid behind her and down the stairs
like rolling desert hills
outside a moving stagecoach.
My assistant principal
took up a position behind me
a security guard
nervous of the woman’s drunkenness
joined him
a posse of sorts.

I watched her tortured eyes
narrow
as she screamed
teeth showing
as she heard me
say nothing
giving time for the students to leave.

We stayed like that until
my silence was not enough
and the woman lurched forward
brought her palm hard against
the brim of my hat
causing the security guard to flinch
and my eyes to widen
and my assistant principal to swallow a laugh
as she found the words
she was looking for
spitting as best she could:
“Punk ass bitch.”

The kids were mostly gone by then
and our conversation seemed at a natural end
so, adjusting my hat
and understanding that she would probably not
accept the offer
I invited my date
to meet for coffee
in my office on Monday morning.

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Twain’s Undertaker

Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up, right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait- you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry- just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the pow-wow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then, in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided, and glided, around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.”

-from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There’s a spot in Huck Finn when the undertaker drifts out a funeral and takes care of a loud noise. When he returns he makes the marvelous choice to share what happened, information appreciated by our young protagonist and the rest of the assembled mourners.

As a principal, I do my best to emulate that thoughtful undertaker.

The information I have and the perspective my position affords me are precious, and I never take that for granted. If I’m able to communicate something, I do, and from time to time I’m told by students, parents, and staff that they appreciate it. Who doesn’t like to know? But there are times when the nature of what’s going on requires greater discretion and the tight lips of a sailor committed to keeping his navy afloat. There are times I can’t say anything.

undertakerIt’s in these times that the imperfect best I can muster is to listen to concerns, both the heartfelt and the accusatory, acknowledge the person across the table from me, say what I can, and hope that they can get from me some modest understanding that despite the silence, we share a vision for the best school ours can be, and a desire to support every student.

Sometimes that doesn’t come through.

There are those willing to say their point of view and then suspend disbelief long enough for me to do my quiet job behind the scenes. There are other times I take some punches.

It means that as a principal I need to have a clear vision of what’s right and a dedication to all students that guides all my work.

Like a compass in a tempest, clarity of purpose and commitment to kids can help weather the waves of emotion and lightning strikes of anger and frustration. The journey of a school, and every principal’s voyage too, isn’t measured by the outcome of an hour, but is judged by progress over time.

I trust that if I do what’s right by kids and strive to work toward a school that knows compassion, caring, and the value of hard work, then all will be well …even if there are times I can’t say everything about it.

…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.

Fine Young Cannibals

Art is about taking chances, learning from failure, and being willing to try something unexpected. In those ways it’s a lot like being a principal. The two pursuits converged this week when some intrepid student filmmakers asked me to be in their movie.

They guarded the script like it was a Star Wars film. I got my three pages without more context than I could put together from stage directions like:

The cannibal storms out of the room leaving behind her binder and the therapist grabs them and pulls out the sketches/drawings inside and looks through them, he fans them out and looks at each one until he comes to the last one, he holds it up so the camera can’t see it and it cuts to the next scene.

Intriguing.

My two short scenes, two voice overs, and single costume change set me up as the straight man, a mercifully unimportant and plausibly vegetarian character in a film titled Meat (An American Cannibal Film).

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As they set up the camera and lights in my office. The director, a senior whose easy smile helped put his two actors -me and a student whose artistic focus is drawing and painting- at ease, chatted with his sound man about verisimilitude and budget.

“It’s set in 1996,” he explained. “So I got an almost working answering machine at Goodwill for $9.” “Your budget for this is $9?” “Well, I spent $22 on fake blood.”

This was sounding increasingly like something I might regret more than my turn at Carpool Karaoke or the time I dressed up as one of the Blues Brothers and sang in front of the student body. Still…

These were great students. This mattered to them. My scene was relatively tame, a therapist and his patient. All that, along with some gentle reassurance from my film teacher who had seen the rough cuts, let me stay true to one of the tenets of my philosophy of being a principal: When students ask me to participate in something that is meaningful to them, even (or especially) if it is nutty, I do my best to say “yes.”

We shot after school on a Friday, a three person crew, the actor playing the cannibal, and me, filling my office for an hour or so, laughing, talking about art, and books, and movies between takes. That conversation, that opportunity to connect with some fantastic young people, was worth any embarrassment about my clunky acting abilities.

Because it isn’t really about my acting; it’s about being present for my students, participating in what is important to them, and allowing myself to play (and sometimes play the fool) in service of a spirit of fun that is important at a school, and indeed in life.

Our schools are stronger, safer, and better for all when students and adults are able to learn, laugh, and play together.

A willingness to start with “yes” has led to some of my favorite experiences and most meaningful connections with students, and I firmly believe that nurturing this more playful side helps to make me a better principal when the stressful realities of the work require gravitas, a clear head, and a commitment to doing right. Silly, serious, sanguine, it’s about making students the priority.

So my first entry in IMDB will read “Dr. Monroe” in Meat (An American Cannibal Film). It may turn out to be this generation’s Night of the Living Dead or a silly footnote to the illustrious director’s future fame, but whatever shows up on screen I’ll carry with me fond memories of a great afternoon shared with artists and creative souls, fine young cannibals.

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No Philosopher King

The looks I get when teachers and students hear that I have a degree in philosophy range from bemused to noddingly impressed. What was he thinking? Some seem to be wondering. What a great foundation to be a leader! I imagine others thinking to themselves. Well, I imagine it anyway.

I’m a high school principal, hardly Plato’s philosopher king, and as kooky as it sounds, in my workaday world of running a school I consistently lean on the background and perspective my philosophy major provided to me.

A part of that perspective, of course, is critical thinking and the ability to logically parse out arguments, two skills that serve me well as I work in a profession filled with decisions to be made and answers to be found. Inundated with data and opinions, provided a range of “facts” that don’t add up, evaluating situations for validity is a part of what I do every day. Years with Carnap and Quine taught me to be careful with my thinking and left me confident in my ability to put my mind to problems and be able to see the clearest way.

IMG_5346But education, and particularly the role of principal, isn’t always clear or logical, and I’m also thankful for the ability to suspend disbelief and hold various and contradicting points of view that comes from my study of philosophy. So often the right choice comes only after walking a labyrinth, a task made easier by some comfort in the world of the unknown. Paradox may be too strong a word for some of what I see, but as I work to find solutions to the puzzles of my work an understanding that sometimes Zeno’s arrow is staying in the air for a while helps put things in perspective.

Also helping with perspective are the ethical arguments I learned studying philosophy. More often than one might expect issues in education are issues of equity, fairness, and justice. Beyond those logicians or playful puzzlers, social philosophers like Rousseau and Foucault, who helped to inform my professional self, also provide a certain perspective that I use to help navigate the turbulent waters of educational policy. I’m not saying that I break out Aristotle when I need to decide if a kid should get a free bus pass or we ought to suspend a student for smoking in the bathroom, but I do believe my time as a philosophy major helped me lay a foundation from which I’ve built the approach I take to my work.

Finally, and as important as any of the other impacts I’ve mentioned, I find that studying philosophy inspired in me a profound curiosity, a desire to keep learning, to question, and to always strive to know more. This pursuit of knowing and love of learning help to define who I am as a principal and an educator. They’re qualities I hope I model for my students and school community.

While those students may or may not know what to make of my degree in philosophy, it’s a part of who I am, and that, I think, makes a difference they can feel.

18 for 18

No, not eighteen New Year’s resolutions; that would be silly. But, being a goal setter presented with a brand new year, I’ll set out these three things that I’d like to accomplish in 2018.

pencilsEighteen meaningful classroom visits every week. I know that’s a lot, if they’re more than poking my head in the door, and I also know that as a principal I’m at my best when I’m chin deep in the hurly burly of school, not at my desk.

No more than eighteen minutes in a row in my office during the school day. Sure I’ll have meetings that go longer than that, and I’ll take them, but from the start of school until bus duty at the end of the day I’m shooting for less time away from students, teachers, and staff.

Eighteen calls home to celebrate students before the end of the year. As a teacher I was good about this, often meeting my goal of calling home with a positive message to a third of my kids before back to school night. It’s different as a principal, but if I can share positive messages home with more parents and guardians I think it can make a positive difference in the world of my students.

So welcome 2018 and a renewed focus on spending time with the most important part of education: the people who share this grand adventure.

Sometimes

We believe in things that will give us hope
Why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we?
                    -Mary Chapin Carpenter

Much of what I do as a principal is look for hope. I walk the halls, listen to students, ask questions of adults, and seek out those corners of the school where good gathers. When I find it, like a cat, I pounce.

Then I thank.
I share.
And I celebrate the hell out of it.

Because as much as I want to believe Emily Dickinson and cling to the notion of Hope as a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, the more prosaic world has taught me that as often Emily Brontë is right and…

Hope, whose whisper would have given
Balm to all my frenzied pain,
Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
Went, and ne’er returned again!”

That doesn’t mean you give up. As a principal it means you put on your walking shoes and go birding.

Today hope looked like this:

With just a week left in November, rain forecast every day for the next two weeks, and a mandatory fire drill hanging over our heads, my amazing secretary, intrepid AP, and I looked up at a break in the clouds and considered the possibility of evacuating and getting the kids back in the building before rain returned.

We needed to wait until the end of the period for the drill to count (requirements mandate a drill that takes place at least partly at lunch), so with an eye toward the clouds I sent an email to my staff:

RE: Blame it on the rain…
Hello all,
Put simply, it’s not going to get better, so we’re going to take advantage of what is supposed to be 18 minutes of not-rain to do our mandatory fire drill in just a few minutes. It will start at the end of this period and nudge into first lunch. We’ll get them out and back in as quickly as we can.
Margaret will ring the bell very soon.
Let’s do this,
Bjorn
PS: https://youtu.be/BI5IA8assfk

 

Principals always hope humor helps.

It started to rain, not hard, just enough. We looked from the sky to the clock. Another ten minutes before our drill.

Hope.

Five minutes later I put on my coat. I would not bring an umbrella. Not every teacher would have one for this unexpected drill and I’m a gentleman after all.

Clouds moved above me when I stepped outside. Rain fell, but not hard. The alarm rang and students flooded out.

I whistled a little Milli Vanilli. This might not be too bad.

Kids squinted up at the dark clouds blowing across the sky. Someone was barefoot. Someone else didn’t have a coat. A teacher, hood framing her face, looked at me and said “really?”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -“

And then the rain stopped.

We all looked up.

A student said “look,” pointing, and my momentary relief at feeling the rain stop disappeared, replaced by the wonder inspired by the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen.

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It could just as easily have begun to pour.

But today it didn’t.

Today it didn’t.

As beautiful as that rainbow was, reaching over our students and reminding all of us of the artistic beauty of nature, tomorrow’s hope will be just as important. That found hope, seen in the kindness of a student, the caring of a teacher, or any of a thousand things there to be seen by someone looking for them, will have the power to inspire. If I can capture it, celebrate it, and remain thankful I will have done right by my school and those around me.

Life has the capacity and the inclination for greatness.

Sometimes it rains, sure, and sometimes there are rainbows.