Beneath a Rainbow Mustang

Time is funny, and perception funnier still. I realized this as I stood in front of my amazing staff at our last get together, a lunchtime gathering in the second to last week of the year. I made it a point to project the image of a blue Mustang, the SDA mascot, galloping across a rainbow flag. It was the image I’d projected behind me in my opening staff meeting on my first day at San Dieguito, a touchstone for a culture that is inclusive, caring, and filled with creativity.


We’d muscled through a few directions for commencement, a review of check out procedures, and the results of the Dorkathalon, and reached a point I knew was inevitable: my time to say goodbye to a school I love.

…and I kept it short.

I had to. If I hadn’t, I know I would have teared up.

So I looked up at the crowd, and found that it felt as if I’d been friends with them for a long, long time. The faces I saw looking back at me were those of people with whom I’d shared coffee, traded places, and done so many things. These were amazing educators who I’d seen work with kids in ways that were creative, caring, and inspiring. Person by person, the smiles I saw, familiar and supportive, were those of kindred spirits with whom I have had the pleasure to strive alongside in this grand adventure that is education.


With that rainbow Mustang behind me, I had a flash of a feeling of the emotion I’d felt on my first day in front of my new school. And it felt like it had been a week since I had stood there for the first time.

That feeling lasted just a moment, but in that moment I remembered the nervousness I’d experienced, the hope that I could connect, the excitement to be starting something new.

And I thought…

I had connected.

I’m still excited.

The staff clapped and smiled. Some kind souls got me a pirate cake. It was a moment of profound emotion, leaving something to start something new.

I’ve tried to describe a bit of the magic of my experiences at San Dieguito in the posts on this modest blog, and know I’ve only captured a sliver of what it’s really like. I know this because at that moment, standing before my friends, remembering the feeling of newness, waves of those memories washed over me and time stood still.

The Last Month

photo (4)I am surrounded by boxes. Rows of cardboard holding my family’s life, or at least our pots and pans, toys and games, photo albums and framed art fill our garage, linger in corners, and wait half full, flaps agape, to close over the remaining odds and ends, legos, plates, knickknacks, and books.

Of books, if I’m honest, I’m down to fewer than a half dozen: a biography of Duke Ellington; a paperback mystery I’m saving for the plane ride up to Oregon in June to find a place to live, slim enough to fit in a pocket, just enough pages for two flights and a couple of nights in a hotel; a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, likely to be consumed and left at the library in Encinitas before the end of June; and Crow by Ted Hughes.

In just a few weeks my family and I will be unpacking those books and boxes in Beaverton, a reality still hard to wrap our heads around.

That every time we now do something (go to a Padres game or eat at our favorite burrito spot) is the last or nearly the last time we’ll do so is sobering. So too each of my final days at San Dieguito.

I’ve been to my last SDA games, a pair of lacrosse playoffs. My last coffee with the principal has come and gone, and how hard it was to say goodbye to those familiar and friendly faces, some of whom I’ve known for years. In a week I’ll go to my final play in the Clayton Liggett Theater, Picnic, a midcentury emotional potboiler. This Wednesday is my last Spring Concert. The Friday after that is the last assembly of the year.

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As emotional are the final visits to classrooms, those places where the truly important work happens at a school. Some of my favorite memories at SDA are from classrooms, where students and teachers work together to imagine, create, learn.

Along with these “lasts” come some unique to San Dieguito: our last Student Forum, our final Exhibition Day, and a graduation unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Leaving SDA means saying goodbye to so much, so many friends, so many special experiences, and…

…and after that last “last” event, when the mortarboards land and parents swarm the field to hug their kids, something else will start.

This July I begin life at ACMA, a creative place of new adventures, and there I’m eagerly looking forward to experiencing just as many…


San Dieguito Principals

There are seventeen of us, eighteen if you count Rizzi, who was principal twice. It’s not a crazy number for eighty years, not when you consider that in that time there have been fourteen US presidents, nine United Nations Secretary Generals, and a dozen Dr. Whos.

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As you’d expect, lining us up in black and white photos you see a mix of serious expressions and dark ties. You notice high foreheads and mostly conservative jackets. Some of us are smiling in our official portraits, though just about everyone looks as if he or she could lay down a detention if bad came to worse.

Being a principal brings doses of joy and stress. My own time in this office, the same office principals have occupied since Arthur Main in 1937, has shown me that I have a unique and wonderful seat from which to watch the parade of youth that marches through the breezeways at San Dieguito. And what a cavalcade it has been for the past eighty years.

photo 2 (5)Watching those students learn and teachers teach, shouldering the responsibility that comes with the job, and managing everything from construction to academics, the company I have the privilege to keep is an interesting bunch.

Arthur Main was the first principal at San Dieguito, opening the school in 1936 in rented tents and a borrowed elementary school. He was followed by Donovan Cartwright, the San Dieguito principal who looked most like Errol Flynn, and Tom Preece, who faced a polio epidemic at San Dieguito that delayed the start of school in 1948. These three faced the challenges of opening a school, and a district, and building the foundation on which the post war growth would build.

William Mace and Matthew Korwin were at the helm in the 1950s, joined by San Dieguito fixture David Davidson, the first San Dieguito superintendent who was not also the high school’s principal. As the scare of communism rose, they saw San Dieguito through challenging political times, a preview of what would happen when sometime a decade later all hell broke loose.

photo 1 (4)Don Crickmore, for whom the current baseball diamond is named, was principal to begin 1960, followed by John Clark, who saw San Dieguito leave the 1950s behind and embrace a spirit of freedom that challenged many and enlivened others. The serious expression Mr. Clark wears in his yearbook portrait was earned through stress both local and national. His ability to navigate the challenges of the job was great.

Leonard Morris and William Hershey guided San Dieguito through the 1970s, a time of freedom and creativity. Their smiling faces and substantial sideburns speak of a campus that had left the buttoned down 1950s far behind and was looking forward toward an independence of spirit that has never left the school.

photo 3 (4)The 1980s belonged to Sal Ramirez, whose eleven year tenure is the longest of any San Dieguito principal. Described by some as student centered and fair, Mr. Ramirez was an enigma to some, a hero to others, and a frustration to a few. In a word, he was a principal. So often those of us who put on a tie and do our best to lead a school find ourselves in situations that challenge our best decisions. To serve in one position for more than a decade speaks to a talent increasingly rare.

Penny Cooper Francisco followed Mr. Ramirez in 1993, inheriting a staff in need of some uniting. Indefatigable, a colleague told me “she didn’t expect anyone to work any harder than she did, but boy did she work!”  She listened, guided, and cared, and was remembered by staff as a natural-born leader who led with inspiration and a wonderful sense of humor.

Don Rizzi, who had served as an assistant principal at San Diegutio began his first tour of duty as principal in 1995, presiding over the division of the school into San Diegutio High School Academy and the new high school, La Costa Canyon. It wasn’t to be Mr. Rizzi’s last time in the office, nor his longest run as principal.

photo (1)When San Dieguito opened in the fall of 1996, Fran Fenical began her tenure as principal of the newly christened “academy.” With vision and purpose, Ms. Fenical helped to create and inspire the “funky” and inclusive culture that defines San Dieguito to this day. This school year, the 80th anniversary of San Dieguito and 20th anniversary of SDA, I’ve been able to witness first hand the love and respect the founding staff of San Diegtuito Academy have toward Fran. When she spoke to our current current body, wearing a tie dyed “Keep SDA Funky” shirt, she was a star.

Both the 12th and 14th principal at San Dieguito, Don Rizzi returned to the principal’s chair in 2002, bringing with him a smile and sense of good will. He served as principal until 2005 and in that time saw the school blossom, evolve, and continue to grow.

MG2Four of us fill the final dozen years of San Dieguito’s most recent history. Barbara Gauthier, Mike Grove, Tim Hornig, and I each took a turn in the wood paneled office overlooking the front of the school. Ours are memories still too fresh for history to digest, but each of us brought our best selves to the job and left with a bit of San Dieguito pixie dust still clinging to our suits.

Throughout our school’s eighty years San Dieguito has shown that it is greater than any individual, a strong school spirit constant even as the person in the principal’s chair changes. This sense of school is important, sustaining, and promises that whatever the next eighty years bring and whomever the next eighteen principals will be (Rizzi again?), San Dieguito will continue to be the special place so many call home.

A Nostalgic Streak

Every spring San Dieguito hosts a reunion for former faculty and staff. Guests from across the decades arrive to the library to socialize and share stories from their time on campus. The smiles and hugs are inspiring and the tales told are like something out of a surfer friendly Arabian Nights.

San Dieguito is unique, among other reasons, for its longstanding place in the local community. Eighty years of graduates have passed through its breezeways and many of those souls make the decision to stay close to home to raise their own kids. Lots of our current students are the second or even third generation to come through San Dieguito. This is their town; San Diegutio is their school.

That sense of ownership is true for faculty too. At this year’s Faculty and Staff Reunion I spotted two SDUHSD superintendents, three San Dieguito principals, and more former teachers than I could count.

staff 3Mary and Jay, two former San Dieguito teachers who spoke at the soiree, telling stories about the bus barn fire and the bank that was once on campus, also graduated from San Dieguito …in 1940 and 1942 respectively.

More recent graduates attended as well; alumni are always welcome. They listened as staff from across the school’s history told stories, laughed, and enjoyed the company of others with whom they shared the bond of working at this special school.

Toward the end of the night, as I was grabbing a last cookie and making my way toward the door, a graduate from 1974 stopped me. Pointing her finger at me she said: “Mr. Paige, I have a story.”

I leaned against a nearby table, curious. My time at San Dieguito has taught me the importance of stories in a school’s history. More than anything else, more than buildings or photographs or trophies or even art, it is the stories of those people who make up a school that matter most.

“Remember that post you wrote about the streakers?” she asked. I did. Bonnie Wren, San Dieguito’s Alumni Coordinator had been kind enough to reprint Buns, a post about some marvelous stories by Mike Koslowski, in the alumni newsletter.

“Those streakers weren’t all guys.” She smiled. “What Koz was talking about was me and my girls.”

I must have smiled back.

“You see we had it all planned and were getting ready at lunchtime,” she went on. “Our getaway driver was a fella. I won’t tell you his name. He’s pretty prominent in the community now. Anyway, we were up in the bathroom here by the library.” She motioned to a spot that is still a girls bathroom today. “He was at the far end of the parking lot. We all gave our clothes to another person, who took them out to the car. Then, as the lunch crowd was breaking up, we ran!”


I could picture the route she was talking about: down the “San Dieguito Ten Step,” past the door to the principal’s office, and out through the archway at the front of the school.

“You got away?” I asked, hopeful.

“Of course.” She smiled again. “Though the fella who was riding shotgun in the getaway car brings up the story at every reunion. It was a …memorable experience for him.”

To have a school that remembers its alumni and former staff, makes time for them to come together and reminisce, and honors their many and diverse experiences makes our school community stronger.

San Dieguito is a land of stories, some told with a smile and a streak of nostalgia.

The Girl in the Garden

I’m a bit of researcher. I love learning about things, cracking open history books, going exploring around my own school’s campus in search of stories, and talking with folks who were there then and are willing to share. And…

Sometimes the pinch of magic that comes from ambiguity is okay too.

It’s like that for me with regard to the girl in the garden. I noticed her during my first summer at San Dieguito, looking out from a corner of campus designated as the “SDHS Natural Habitat” by a wooden sign that looks like it came from decades ago. She is smiling, and looking off as high school students do toward a future only she can see.

photo-4Over time I’ve seen her move. No. I’ve seen her in different parts of the garden. Most often after such a relocation she stays for a bit. Still smiling. Watching our current students move from class to class as the seasons turn from fall to winter to spring to summer.

A little research could probably tell me where she came from. A conversation with our ceramics teacher, perhaps, would let me know the student who created her or the year of her birth. I’m not sure I want to know.

Because I see in the girl in the garden the embodiment of San Dieguito.

She is quiet, but independent. Her very presence, and the fact that in all my time at San Dieguito she has never been damaged or toppled, speaks to the hundreds and hundreds of current students who see this fragile thing and choose to enjoy it, respect it, occasionally move it, and not make mischief.

She speaks to the desire to exist creatively. The garden was there before she was, but at some point a student artist looked at the space and thought: it needs her. Like Wallace Stevens “Jar in Tennessee” this piece of art sees the garden grow around her. She is the human drive for art manifested, not ostentatiously, but with a subtle smile.

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The girl in the garden moves me because I, like so many of us here at San Dieguito, embrace the spirit of creativity and the transformational quality of art. We are part of a school family that takes pleasure in the little kindnesses we see and contribute to the community of acceptance and unexpected generosity. That any of us are capable of being the genesis of the girl in the garden makes me thankful for the true artist and appreciative of the ambiguity that surrounds her creation.

This summer will see new construction in the part of San Dieguito where the garden is now. The girl in the garden will need a new home while bulldozers plow through and cranes build a structure that will house new art studios, ready to provide another generations of artists with the tools they need to create. That she will be back when the new building opens in 2019 I have no doubt. Ambiguity in her origin is a delight, as is certainty in the longevity of her inspiration.

Friday Night Lights

Two powerhouse football teams own the gridiron in my school district. Their clashes are legendary, twenty years of rivalry, sometimes civil, that help define the culture at both schools. Last Friday was the “Beach Bowl” between the two, the winner leaving with a painted surfboard, bragging rights for the year, and a score for the crowd to chant from the stands at the first rivalry basketball game.

I worked at one of these schools for five years, and I understand the fantastic energy behind the game, so as I was in my office preparing for our own homecoming football contest, the voice in my head kept wanting to drop in register to sound like a sports announcer and say: “meanwhile, across town…

photo-3San Dieguito gave up football in 1996, a bold decision at a school with a rich history of the sport that includes greats like Tom Dempsey and just last year received two “Golden Footballs” from the NFL to celebrate Mustang grads who have played in Superbowls.

But times and traditions change, and at the same time the NFL was determining that hits with the helmet would result in fines, San Dieguito was choosing a new course, honoring the past, but looking toward a different, funkier, future.

That future, which has become our present, takes the long established idea of “the big game” and riffs on it like a Miles Davis take of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

Our homecoming football game at San Dieguito doesn’t just celebrate eleven boys. Instead, nearly 500 students, male and female, freshmen through seniors, form teams and play in a flag football tournament that lasts all afternoon. Everyone is welcome to make goofy uniforms, connect with friends, and have fun.

At 7:00 PM the top four student teams play the staff.

photo-2I was having a conversation with a respected former principal from the county office of education last week and we talked about the things we do to put into practice the stated values of our schools. She mentioned that some schools review their mission and vision statements at every staff meeting, and that sometimes assemblies can focus on honoring academic achievements as well as athletics. I kept thinking: at San Dieguito we have the Dorkathalon, and the Student Forum, and the least conventional homecoming football game on the planet.

For those who haven’t yet attended “the big game” at San Dieguito in the last twenty years or so, imagine this…

Students sit along the sideline, many still wearing homemade flag football uniforms from the afternoon’s tournament. Some hold signs, many with puns, celebrating their friends, and all cheer from their spots so close to the action.

In the stands parents, students, and a few alumni watch the game, while threading through the crowd a teacher and a student pass wireless microphones to give fans a chance to shout out hellos and support (and occasional play calling advice) to their friends, players, and teachers on the field.

danceParents ref. A physics teacher in a kilt takes sideline photos. The staff team, wearing twenty year old Mustang football jerseys (last laundered, it seems, in 1996) prays to avoid injury; the last time  most of us played competitively none of these students had yet been born.

At halftime the students have a dance party in the middle of the field.

The game itself is competitive, filled with smiles, and fun. Rumor has it that in years past things got chippy, and local historians talk about bones broken in contests long past, but in my experience the game has always been “very SDA,” the only injuries pride, and the profound soreness of a forty-something on the day after an evening of playing a young person’s game.

We don’t have to beat the stuffing out of each other to have school pride. We don’t need to review our school’s vision statement at a meeting; we need to live it. Last Friday, at the best football game in our district, we did.


“I’m Batman.”

photoHalloween on a high school campus is a big deal. In a world where the majority of the individuals are still searching for their true identity, a chance to dress up in borrowed clothes, don a mask and a persona, and push the boundaries of taste and social norms (or at least mom’s comfort zone) is about as appealing as a bucket full of candy to an eight year old.

At some schools Halloween is a nightmare. As an assistant principal I knew that part of my day would be spent watching the sea of costumes for those whose taste ran afoul of the dress code or school rules. Pregnant nun? Maybe. Go-Go dancer? Hmmm. Texas Chainsaw Massacre? No.

Beyond the usual togas and superhero capes, past the expected ninjas and zombies, occasional inspiration rears its all hallows head.

photo-3-1Noticeable this year at San Dieguito were a towering inflatable Tyrannosaurus Rex, a delightfully steampunk angel, and a fellow in street clothes holding a sign that read “Nudist on Strike!” A costume contest at lunch saw a motorized mail truck, a truly impressive Cinderella and Prince Charming, and a ghost on rollerblades who looked like he might break his neck “floating” across the stage.

One teacher came as a frighteningly authentic Khal Drago, another in a vintage 1940s dress as a teacher from San Dieguito’s early years, and another enlisted her daughter to form a team of Madeline and Miss Clavel.

At San Dieguito even the adults get in on the fun.halloween-2016-1

Going with a superhero theme this year, our administrative team allowed our inner kids to spread their capes. Wonder Woman, Elasitgirl, and the Flash roamed the breezeways. During homeroom we handed out goodies as the kids trick or treated.

While most schools where I’ve worked actively discourage kids dressing up, or at least view it as a battle they need to prepare for, at San Dieguito out ASB rewards costumes, inviting students to travel from classroom to classroom trick or treating like they were eight again.

Education in its present incarnation does enough to put pressure on students, asking them to act grown up as they take on responsibilities and face pressure. At San Dieguito Halloween is a reminder to take time to have fun and laugh together.


As the principal, do I love every costume, even the naughty ones? No. But the students do, and as with so much, more often than not the kids make great choices. They have fun, they play, they get to pretend, and they celebrate this opportunity to come to their school and have some good clean fun.

That’s a good day.

Life is a Cabaret

cabaret-night-poster-2016Humbled to be included, I had the great pleasure of being invited onstage this weekend to play with our Comedy Sportz team. The eight ridiculously talented student comedians, a powerhouse of whimsy, did more than just call my name when it came time for a “volunteer” from the audience (“Is there anyone here named ‘Bjorn?’”); smiling and waving me forward, they made me feel welcome and showed a generosity of spirit that, at least for a few minutes, made this old man feel like the star I never was.

It all happened at Cabaret Night, a marvelous San Dieguito tradition that sees student performers fill an evening with entertainment and good will. It’s a mélange of music, dance, and acting, showcasing students from across our performing arts department.

With music from Hamilton and The Sound of Music, classic brassy horn tunes, and a rousing version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” the night highlighted musical theater, band, and that “very SDA” idea that adding an electric guitar has the potential to make any arrangement even better.

The evening saw a little Mancini and a lot of Stevie Wonder, a handbell choir performing Adele, and an amazingly brave and talented student performing a solo dance routine to Alabama Shakes.

photo-2-2Actors had the audience laughing with a skit from Monty Python, and when students sang “All of Me” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” it was as if Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were there on stage.

My invitation to join Comedy Sportz came in the second half of the night and followed a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” that had the crowd in a frenzy.

I’m not an actor, just a principal, so the walk up to the stage had my heart in my throat. The last time I was in a play I was in third grade. I was a weasel in The Wind in the Willows, and during the weasel dance in Toad Hall the tail of my homemade costume, so thick as to be dangerous, knocked over scenery. I never acted again.

But not being an actor doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to play the fool, and as I stepped onto the stage the students helped me feel as comfortable as I could in this unscripted moment.

Their outstretched arms and easy smiles went a long way to erase the fact that I was unprepared, unshaven, and underdressed (in my usual Saturday outfit of shorts and a hooded sweatshirt). The students absorbed me into their line of comedians and the referee was patient as he included me in the performance.

I may have had more fun than the audience, and I know I jogged back to my seat happier than I’d been all week.

And then, as I settled back into my seat, a student stepped to the stage and delivered a heartbreakingly real cover of “Human” and the crowd wiped their tears to applaud.

photo-4The evening ended with some more horns and a medley from Chicago that brought down the house. For everyone who came to the show there was something to remember and a tune to hum all the way home.

Cabaret Night shows the heart and soul of San Dieguito, beautiful, funny, moving beyond belief, and always ready to welcome someone who is a little nervous, but willing to give it a try.


For a peek at the show, here’s a link to a few minutes of fun:



I love…

photo-5-1I love that San Dieguito is a school where the unexpected is expected, where school spirit is funky, and where people, students and adults, take the time to see past the outer masks we all wear and really listen to the content of each other’s character.

I love that at SDA students can find themselves, be themselves, and try and fail and succeed and know that they’re safe.

I love that right now you could walk up from this library to an art gallery on campus where you would see paintings and drawings by staff and alumni, and that if you made that same walk in a month you’d see student work that would astound you.

This is a place where students and teachers learn and laugh together.

10572004_10153277958182362_6097884111524666894_oIn just a few weeks our homecoming game will see hundreds of students, male and female, freshmen through seniors, playing flag football, and we’ll end the night with students playing a game with our staff. Last year at halftime the student body came out onto the field and danced.

I love that we have a campus that embraces events like Cabaret Night, the Dorkathon, and the Homeroom Olympics, a place where students in AP Art history just celebrated our school’s 1936 opening by holding class in tents on the anniversary of the first opening day, when construction wasn’t completed and kids had class in canvas classrooms.

photo-3-6We have construction now, but no fear of tents.

I love that yesterday, when I was subbing in a Senior English class and stretching time as the sub plans were being delivered, in a delightfully unscripted moment a student raised his hand and asked: “No offense, but what do you do during the day?”

I did my best to explain what a principal does, though I’m not entirely convinced I did.

And I love that later that night at Back to School Night, when I went over to thank some students for volunteering to help parents find classrooms, that same student was there, and as I thanked him too, he said: “I’m not part of ASB; I’m just here because of the good vibes.”

Me too.

photo-5And those good vibes are evident all over San Dieguito, at concerts, games, assemblies, dances, and performances. That spirit of SDA shows up in our Link Crew, students who help new students feel comfortable at our school; our PALS program, student listeners trained to help peers through challenging times, and the hundreds and hundreds of students who find quiet ways to make our school better every day.

These same students remind us to embrace life and be playful, passionate, and positive.

With every student I see in a cape or a costume, a Mustang jersey or a goofy hat, I’m reminded of why we all do what we do.

photo 1 (14)As educators, at our best, every decision we make is for the students.

“How will this help kids?” That is the question great teachers and principals, and all of us with a hand in education should ask ourselves every day.

I love that at SDA, where you can wear a Pikachu costume …or you don’t have to, we embrace respect, kindness, and a funky spirit that feels most like love.



This post is what I shared with our school board when I had my yearly opportunity to present a window into life at San Dieguito. It was too early in the year to catalog a bunch of successes and I didn’t want to simply talk about what we were going to do, so I opted to try to capture a little of the spirit of our amazing school.

Oh, and I wore a Pikachu costume.