Feathery thing


“Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul…” Emily Dickinson

I am blessed that I consistently receive reminders of  why I work in schools. Motivating young people is what I love the most about my work. I love school(I always have.) I love literature(I always have.)  The best part of my job is giving young people hope.

During Lent, I realized one of my students is an aspiring author. I thought it was important to let the student  know that the principal is an author too. The student was in need of motivation. To see a face light up? Que bonito! It was wonderful. When I saw the student again later in the day, I encouraged continued self-expression and to consider creating a blog. I talked about my favorite bloggers turned bestsellers, Luvvie Ajayi and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The student didn’t know who they were and was impressed by their successes. It was important for me to stop being the stuffy principal and share something about myself. I also offered to be available to discuss writing.

I’m working closely with a group of students who are disengaged and disconnected from school. Their attendance is poor. They are not in good standing but they all want to work part-time. I know that the rules about good standing. I’m a rule follower and a rule enforcer. I’m a principal. Rules are important. A few of my staff members are much more black and white about this issue;a few have even voiced criticism of my willingness to be flexible.  But I want to get these kids back in school. Internal motivation is the ideal. I will promote extrinsic rewards if it’s going to motivate kids to come back to school. I cannot withhold encouragement and hope. I could have easily said,“ you guys cut too much school“ and sent them away. My non-negotiables are fighting, defiance, and drug abuse. If a student promises to return to school if I help him or her find a job, how can I say no? What kind of teacher and leader shuts the door on students?  

Part of what I do is give hope. That is at the core of the work that I do. I give these young people opportunities following the example of my own stellar teachers and administrators. I wasn’t born a principal or a teacher.  Shoot I wasn’t even born an English speaker. It’s my turn now to be not only an adult or authority figure but a human being who wants young people to be successful . In the words of the inspiring Harvey Milk, “you have to give them hope.”  

Upside the head

“Just because you don’t believe that I want to dance…” The Gap Band
Nothing makes you more “woke” than a projectile launched at your head. It was a helluva year at work and no amount of running, samba dancing, concerts, books, film, and hugs from M can change that fact. With a few days left in my beloved vacation, I am reflecting on the year that was and the year to come. It will be my 21st year in high school education; despite the patronizing attitudes and perceptions of certain colleagues, I’m a grown ass educator.  There are times when I feel like not much has changed since I stepped straight off my college campus into the classroom. Thankfully, I have so much more experience, knowledge, and patience (one of these days, y’all gonna wear me out!) to stay committed. 
The projectile story illustrates some of the issues I consistently ponder.  See, what had happened was (you know it’s going to be a good story when I open with that phrase), we were having an ongoing issue with lunchroom fruit being launched against the walls.  Our school, like many public schools, does not always receive the care we would appreciate; it can sometimes look a mess.  So, we encourage our students to pick up after themselves to help maintain a clean campus.  
One overcast morning, I had said something along those lines to one of my students, A, as he exited the cafeteria with two apples, “I swear to God your auntie is going to get a call from me if either of those gets thrown today.”
“You won’t need to call her because you know I wouldn’t do that with you standing here watching me.” 
We laughed and he took his usual seat at one of the long tables in the quad.  Another student, B, approached A immediately and they engaged in a whispered conversation.  A shook his head and waved B away; he made sure I saw him do so. In the meantime, a group of students asked that I open our multi-purpose room so they could get out of the rain.  I opened the door and stood there so I could watch both groups simultaneously.  To my left, I noticed B grab one of the apples. I figured he would launch it at the wall in defiance of my earlier directive.  As the apple flew towards my face, I stepped away quickly. It struck the door with force. Pieces of fruit splashed onto my eyeglasses and face. The apple tumbled to the ground in chunks. Both the quad and multi-purpose rooms went silent.  I immediately called for B to approach me. Students began to use profanity as they expressed their disbelief at what they had witnessed.  I directed the apple-thrower to head to the office and used my phone to call his parent. I took photos of the ruined fruit and then continued with lunchtime supervision.  
This incident isn’t unusual on a high school campus.  Every day, a teacher or administrator faces incidents of defiance and disruptive behavior. Every day, students make choices that result in consequences that affect their academic progress.  Every day, parents are faced with the challenges of navigating adolescence with their children. Every day, I am called to treat each individual with respect and to remain calm in the face of volatile situations. Every day, I need to be ready to step aside for my own safety. 
There are two main reasons the apple-dodging incident strikes me as unusual.  One is that it was a first. I’ve been defied, ignored, cussed out. Once a student kicked my office trash can over. But I’ve never been physically threatened in two decades of physically breaking up fights and talking down angry students.  I can admit it shook me up for a day or two.  But that temporary anxiety does not compare to the trepidation I feel in working with certain persons.  I would rather field more flying fruit. That actually WASN’T the worst day in the work year; that is the unusual and somewhat sad reality.   After twenty years, the kids still aren’t the problem.  
Pretty much a daily task 
All this talk of rattlesnakes in pockets, el chamuco sitting up in that room for the exorcists to show up(Advice from The Exorcist) and finding my #innermongoose( #innermongoose) are extended metaphors, mi gente.  If you don’t know, now you know.  Y ahora que?  It’s time to woman up, get back in my heels and do what I do best: Lead.   

Still slaying in New 52 costume

A reader’s reflections

By Emily Dickinson
“We are all connected. You can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.” Mitch Albom
“To survive you must tell stories.” Umberto Eco
Tengo mucho que hacer and yet I always make time, somehow, when my alma mater comes calling. Every year, I read scholarship essays.  I may have to carve out time between mommy duties after busy workdays. It is time well spent.
My task is to read 25 scholarship applications in a week’s time. The applicants are asked to detail their extracurricular activities and respond to three short essay prompts. They are asked to discuss their lives, their leadership, and their goals. As a former English teacher and Upward Bound teacher, I have spent hours helping high school students tell their story to colleges in a way that is authentic and compelling.  It is no easy task. The scholarships for which I serve as a reader are earmarked for first-generation college students.  More often than not, these young people balance family caretaking and part-time jobs with their busy schedules of honors and AP classes, club meetings, practices, and volunteer work.  Their stories are worth hearing.
During my recent reading gig, I read stories that have made an impact on me.  While some applications were less than engaging, there were some who stood out. My heart ached for the student with a lifelong health challenge.  I felt teary-eyed for the young farmer whose reflections on love of land and animals were wise and poignant.  I pondered the limitless courage of the child who raised both parents while they battled addiction.  While I may never know whether or not these young people won the awards or admission, I did my small part to help.

I cannot lose sight of the opportunities I was given. I was one of those students.  Someone saw my potential and helped me.  I will not stop offering those opportunities to others.  In return, I am blessed with the gifts of inspiration and motivation.  I am reminded of my purpose. 
Image by Tom Grey

The first of many

My baby got into preschool!  Out of over 30 children for approximately 12 spots at a local Catholic preschool. I have experienced anxiety, worry, and doubt in the past two months of the application process.  We are thrilled and excited.

Can’t help but wonder how I will handle future admissions processes…

My latest echo poem

Alma Mater
An echo of “America”
Inspired, as always, by Allen Ginsberg

For Cliff and Nicole

Alma Mater I’ve given you my all and now I’m nothing.
Alma Mater, May 9th, 2007.
I can’t stand my tender heart.
Alma mater when will the drama end?
Go screw yourself with your tenacious grasp on my throat.
I’m over you don’t bother me.
I won’t write this poem till I’m in the right frame of mind.

Alma Mater when will you be whole again?
When will you rock me in your arms?
When will you shake the disease of ignorance?
When will you be worthy of your thousand scholars?
Alma Mater why is there blood on your blacktop?
Alma Mater when will you send the villains to Hell?
I’m sick of your weakness.
When can I come back and receive a loving welcome
without guilt or regret?
Alma Mater after all it is you and I who are the problem,
Not the powers that be.
Your neediness is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to make things right.
B is in heaven. He will never come back. It’s sad.
Are you sad or is this some sort of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
Alma Mater stop pushing. I know what I’m doing.
Alma Mater the stone fruit is ripening.
I haven’t prayed the rosary in months. Every day somebody gets murdered in the streets.
Alma Mater I feel sentimental about the kids by the trees.
Alma Mater I used to be a liar when I was a kid and I am sorry.
I talk trash every chance I get.
I sit on my couch sometimes and stare at the black and white photo of the Immaculate Conception statue from St. Joachim’s.
When I go to church I get distracted and never pray enough.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Dostoyevsky.
My therapist thinks I’m better.
I won’t say goodbye yet.
I have flashbacks and see ghosts.
Alma Mater I still haven’t told you what you did to that boy who overdosed on heroin.

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your future be dictated by the machine?
I detest the machine.
It grinds good people into dust every week.
Its gears roll on like millstones, roll over good intentions.
I dream of the machine imploding some day.
It tells me about inadequacy. Administrators are inadequate. Teachers are inadequate. Everyone’s inadequate, especially me.
It occurs to me that I am Alma Mater.
I am always talking to myself.

Public opinion is rising against me.
I haven’t got a BP exec’s chance.
I’d better consider my natural resources.
My natural resources consist of two citrus fruit trees roomfuls of clutter three unpublished novels a mind that can go 200 miles an hour and 32000 hours of psychotherapy.
I say nothing about the parents I have failed to call nor the dozens of ungraded papers who live in piles on my desk under curriculum binders.
I have banned the snap of gum; chips are the next to go.
My ambition is to be famous despite the fact that I’m not photogenic.

Alma Mater how can I write a catalog poem, and an ode, in this gray mood?
I will continue like Steve Jobs my stanzas are as innovative as his iGadgets more so they’re all different gender identities.
Alma Mater I will sell you stanzas $10K a piece $1000 down on your old stanza.
Alma Mater remember Brett Haagenson
Alma Mater remember John Hilmer
Alma Mater we won that National Blue Ribbon School award
Alma Mater I am one of Kemo Sabe’s AP kids.
Alma Mater when I was fifteen my parents threw me a quinceanera but in our garage and I danced the waltz with all the Peruvian dads but none of my school friends showed and no one understood my secret pain the crying bouts in a dark closet the sting of an Exacto knife on wrist but you found me drew me out through words shook my hand put me on the front page of the Record.
Everyone was so proud.
Alma Mater you really don’t want to stop fighting.
Alma Mater it’s those with authority.
Authority power and money. And power.
Power wants to dissolve you. Power is power mad. It wants to rip our spines out of us as if we were fish.
Power wants to change us. Power wants us to be Stepford people. Power wants us to function like a copy machine factory. Power wants bureaucracy running our lives.
That won’t work. No. Power pretends we fails our kids. Power pretends we don’t respect black and brown families. Ha! Power makes us all work eighty hour work weeks. Help.
Alma Mater this is quite serious.
Alma Mater this is the impression I get from reading Facebook status updates.
Alma Mater is it true?
It’s true I didn’t want to work like the horse in Animal Farm or stand by passively, I’m short and mentally unstable anyway.
Alma Mater, I’m walking.

Not like a TV soap at all

Television, that great American medium, has made society unrealistic about relationships, sexuality, family life, work, practically every human sociological experience. Even the most ardent cultural critics(the great bell hooks comes to mind) have been influenced and inspired by the images portrayed on the magic box of dreams. I, like most people in the First World, have a mind full of meaningless TV trivia but also, more impactfully, images and motifs that have shaped and/or struck a chord with my real life. It didn’t take long for me to see that my new job is more real than any reality show and more dramatic than any soap opera.

Adolescents, like most subgroups of society, have been portrayed superficially on television. From All-American boy Wally Cleaver to cutesy girl from the block Moesha, teens are seen in that problematic angel/devil paradigm that plagues most media. The bad kids are drug-dealing gangsters from New York Undercover, lovestarved prostitutes on Boston Public, or promiscuous brats on The OC. Even the kids on Degrassi the Next Generation, which comes closest to reality, in my opinion, are still light years away from the youngsters I speak to in my office every day. Television has yet to truly capture the heartache of adolescence in the 21st century: absent parents, the long-term emotional and physical consequences of parental drug and alcohol use, harsh poverty, twisted sexuality, and the volatile allure of violence and crime. Television cannot adequately portray the many-layered difficulty of parenting this new generation which is technologically savvy but educationally underprivileged. As a rookie administrator, I have no fictional role models to follow. School leaders are powerful buffoons, like Degrassi’s Mr. Raditch, who did nothing to help bullying victim Rick from orchestrating a tragic school shooting, or sharp-suited meanies like Ms. Musso from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. On television, administrators are mostly irrelevant keepers of the law, often relegated to bit parts. This is why I actively seek out mentors and value the living leaders around me.

Ms. Hatzilakos from DNG: not quite a role model

In real life, high school has storylines that won’t wrap up in thirty minutes or an hour. There is no catchy theme music or sweeps season cliffhangers. Still, it is something worth watching and living.