One Letter at a Time

(The Thesis is in the Final Paragraph)

Advent – December

My piano is a laptop where I compose the music of my muses one letter at a time. Forever pleased that I paid attention during high school typing classes, I impress even myself that my fingers move almost as quickly as my thoughts. My mind seeks creativity among dense clouds and a gray sky. I view the landscape asymmetrically from my second- floor writing space where the window before me draws my eyes to trees stripped of their leaves, bare branches opening to a wider street where cars move persistently north and south. My hands linger above home row, seeking just the right words to capture autumn emotions on this cusp of winter. Just last year, I wrote from the Principal’s Office – newsletters filled with anecdotes of school.  Now, thousands of miles away, I take tentative steps in old shoes out of the comfortable breezeways of my career and walk cobbled streets of this colonial city that bears the burden of tangled politics and ever-evolving history.

These mornings, I have time to pour a second cup of coffee instead of rushing to work on time to unlock the front door. I am becoming accustomed to watching the Today Show and the beginning of Kelly and Ryanbefore moving to my desk and online tasks. Lately, my new routine has been interrupted by “breaking news.” I actually called my sister the other day and remarked that I must really be embracing retirement. After all, since when would I become annoyed that I missed the trivia question on my television show because the Speaker of the House had an important announcement? 

Of course, I always listen to the news. It’s in my DNA.

Years ago, during my first career as a journalist, I would have perched at the edge of my seat to hear a news update. Today, I switch between channels to analyze broadcasts interpreted to nurture the insistent opinions of those who share their diverse perceptions of the same reality. No one is right; no one is wrong.

I am not writing about politics – especially from this dynamic city that is now my temporary home. I love Washington, D.C. As a child living on the east coast many years ago, some of my best memories are born from visits to our nation’s capitol. Earlier this month, my husband and I went to Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – a beautiful basilica where my prayers subconsciously turned to daydreams and meandered to cherished memories of my young sisters and I nestled together with our parents on the polished pews. I thought back over the years and could still envision us in our Sears Roebuck dresses and saddle shoes. We wore lacy chapel caps on the crowns of our cropped haircuts. (We called them doilies and couldn’t wait to take them off after church!) My past and present selves sought to identify the saints in niches far above – a marbled reminder of something that is somehow static and dynamic all at the same time. No matter how much I have traveled, a part of me was raised in this city.

The liturgical year has ended just as fall is turning to winter. And just like that, we have lit the third candle on our Advent wreaths. The sun-starved days of this season lead us not only toward Christmas, but also the beginning of a new calendar year. I read somewhere that even as we grow older, the vision we have of ourselves doesn’t really age. So even though my physical body might be measured by nearly six decades, I still “feel” the way I did when I was six years old kneeling rather uncomfortably on the kneelers in the Basilica. Then, it was hard to see over the pew in front of me; now, my joints are grateful when it’s time to stand. However, I am still me and the faith born in my youth continues its journey in a timeless, ageless sort of way. I am reminded of this Bible verse: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

Defying all conventions of writing, my thesis is finally being revealed to me in this last paragraph of this composition. Such are those muses on an overcast day! Three years ago this month our father passed away. I pause at the end of this quiet reflection, comforted in knowing that today’s written song is dedicated to my mother, my sisters and all of our children. Wherever we are in our lives at this moment is exactly where we are supposed to be. There is an angel watching over us, casting true rays of God’s light through the grayest clouds, into the window, and onto the keyboard where I type…one letter at a time.

Playing School

Ordinary Time – August/September

Stuffed animals and little sisters are amazing students when you are six years old and completely engaged in an imaginary world where the laundry room becomes a class room and a portable chalkboard, magnetic letters, and waxy crayons serve as the tools of your trade. “Playing school” with my sisters during untethered summer afternoons of our childhood probably set the stage for the career I hadn’t even dreamed about at the time.

I think of those carefree days each year when the school cycle begins. Brimming with ideas germinated from the seeds of summer professional development and the freedom of hours simply to plan, it is exciting to welcome the faculty back as they decorate their rooms, discuss various teaching strategies, and share ideas on how to fully motivate and welcome their students.

But just like the precocious sister who decided she would rather go outside and enjoy the grassy playground of our backyard instead of doing endless addition problems, the reality of teaching imminently reminds us that playing school is very different than actually working at school! Expectations outlined in course syllabi quickly evolve into everyday routines to include bell work, note-taking, collaboration, role-playing, quadratic equations, chemical reactions, and Beowulf. For teachers, inspiration turns into papers to grade, lessons to plan (don’t forget all those Differentiated Instruction strategies we were all so excited to implement!), and lunchtime supervision.

Whether students and their teachers look at it as work or as play, school certainly does demand bountiful energy!

Principal’s Ponderings

10,000 Steps – All in a Day’s Work

Before I try to impress you with my desire for physical fitness, let me honestly tell you that I was one of those students who pretty much got straight A’s in my academic subjects, but would often earn a C in physical education. I could not climb a rope to save my life, and the President’s Physical Fitness Test requirements to do chin-ups always reduced me to tears! 

Over time, our school moved from iPads to Chrome Books…sometimes we still use pencils and crayons!

However, I have grown to appreciate (if not enjoy) exercise, and for a while became a bit of a geek when it came to tracking my progress. I even joined in the craze of counting my steps over the period of a day. That being said, I thought it would be interesting to see how many steps I took on one particular day in the early part of the school year. After all, our campus offers five wings of classrooms, a lush grassy courtyard, expansive outlying fields, and a few sets of staircases. Imagine my self-proclaimed pat on the back when on the second day of school, I logged 11,163 steps – and that was just back and forth between the administration building and classrooms. To be fair, we had just implemented our 1:1 iPad program and I kept getting SOS calls for assistance with passwords and Wi-Fi. In between, my curiosity about the deployment kept me popping in and out of classes to make sure all was going as planned. Subconsciously, however, I wonder if on that particular day my underlying non-altruistic goal was to rack up as many steps as possible. All in all, I was pretty impressed and later granted myself the gift of a great excuse to NOT to go to the gym.

Since then, I honestly have lost my step counter (and the interest to count them)! So much for my elaborate explanation to simply say that I can’t stand always being in my office; it is much more exciting to roam the campus. 

Recently, I had the privilege of walking into several interesting scenarios. For example, as I ventured toward Wing 5, I heard what sounded like a live auction. Turns out, it was a live auction! The Economics teacher had given his senior students a stash of bills (Monopoly money) and they were bidding for prime seats in the classroom. Not that any of the seats are that bad, but the bartering was especially heated for the two special posts on the library’s couch.

Speaking of authentic lessons, later that same week, I ran into a group of freshmen winding their way among the trees, breezeways, and sprinklers. Each was holding a baggie filled with either peanuts or grapes or nothing at all. “We are hunters and gatherers,” they responded to my quizzical look.            

“I am going to eat, but the others are going to be hungry,” said one student as she showed off her stash of grapes. (I made a mental note to suggest that the theology teachers write up a lesson plan on the Works of Mercy to address that issue of feeding the hungry!)

I also stopped by the theater where our fine arts teacher led his Music Theory class. It was fascinating to watch the students at the white board noting and denoting musical scores. It was even more interesting to see them working on piano keyboards via their iPads. 

If the rest of the school year promised the energy of the first weeks, I knew we could anticipate a “high impact” subsequent 10 months. There are always thousands and thousands of steps to go!

A New School Year

I begin this new school term about 2,280 miles from the Principal’s office I called home for the past eight years. For the first time in two decades, my personal agenda will not follow the academic calendar; my work will not be completed within a school community. Instead, I find myself without a career title, without a defined role, and without a steady paycheck! Transitions never bring out the best in me, but I am able to reconcile this sacrifice of a predictable and comfortable role in lieu of the sacrament I received 36 years ago when I got married.  

Today, I am at peace with the decision to be with my husband in Washington, D.C. as he embarks on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in his own career.  While I will continue to work part-time as an educational consultant and mentor (have wi-fi, will travel!), I am testing the waters of life outside the bubble of “school.” Already, I have figured out how to read the metro map, met a gentleman who sells micro-greens at the farmers market, and re-connected with a dear friend. We live within blocks of the Potomac River, where winding paths beckon me to miles of exploration. And, I found a quirky coffee bar just around the corner from our apartment.

With some of the unstructured time I now have, I am determined to complete this blog which, as I have stated before, will be comprised of a liturgical year of essays and a selection of Principal’s Ponderings I have published in my school newsletter over the years. Once completed, I will have in essence written my second book – this one reflecting my time as a high school principal.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

A Leaky Sink & The Feast of the Assumption

Ordinary Time – August

Knowing that this would be one of our first school gatherings of the year, I made sure to wake up early with the intention of arriving at school with plenty of time to be ready to lead the students across the parking lot to the neighboring parish where we would attend the Feast of the Assumption Mass. However, when I reached under my kitchen sink for the dish soap to rinse my breakfast dishes, I found a puddle where puddles are not supposed to be!

As kind as they were, when I called the plumbing company, they gave me a four-hour window of when they would be available. The next call was to school to let the office know I would be late. I made a resolution to be patient and told myself to believe that God tells us to slow down once in a while by making us wait. As the first half hour crept by, I logged into the Internet to answer email. I put a load of clothes in the washing machine. Only then did I realize I would miss Mass. 

I retrieved my iPad, pressed the Pope App, and virtually traveled across the technological “parking lot” to the Piazza della Liberta in Castel Gandolfo, Italy where Pope Francis was celebrating the holy day. Thanks to the amazing clarity of video, I was soon part of the large crowd fanning themselves in the village square as Mass began. Having lived in Italy, I immediately placed myself in the scene as I viewed the shops lining the streets, heard the unique harmony of European police sirens blending with the voices of the choir, and gazed at the ultra-blue sky. Men and women who had borrowed an hour away from work stood alongside groups of religious sisters, young children, housewives, and tourists.

My knowledge of the Italian language is passable, and although I did not comprehend every word, I understood. The beauty of the Mass is that in any language, the rituals are the same. What made this Mass even lovelier was that the Gospel was chanted. I could envision Mary as she spoke those beautiful words: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

I will never tire of listening to the Pope (in any language). He speaks with his heart, and his eyes light up as he proclaims his homilies. He made the crowd laugh when he asked them if they prayed the rosary. “Do you pray the rosary every day?” he asked. “But I’m not sure you do…really?”

He focused his homily on three key concepts: struggle, resurrection, and hope. As I listened, I realized that all of us struggle (be it a leaky faucet, a failed test, or much more serious issues like unemployment, ill health, and loss of loved ones). Yet we know resurrection because we experience it every time we share in the Eucharist. And without hope, Pope Francis said, “…we are not Christian.”

At that moment, my prayer turned toward the new school year, which had already begun a few days earlier with fresh energy. In Catholic schools, our calendar is driven in many ways by the Liturgical cycle. As always though, what begins in Ordinary Time often leads us on the most extraordinary paths. My prayer for this year – for all school years – is that we experience the grace to work through the struggles, live as a resurrected faith community, and strive always to hope. 

Principal’s Ponderings

Broken Lockers

Memories flooded back to me with physical force when one of our students came flying into the office on the first day of school flustered about his “broken” locker. This was the exact same locker that had functioned perfectly the day before when he had come to test it out. Now, a minute before his first class of the year, the locker seemed jammed. He assured the office staff that he had the right combination.

Calmly, our office manager scrutinized the master list and asked the student to recite his combination. Well…he wasn’t the only one to transpose a few numbers that morning! 

Nerves and anxiety sparked by a new school year attacked not only students, but also teachers, staff…and the principal! Just the other day, I nearly set off the school security alarm and had to yell for the facility director’s assistance. I had transposed only one number!

For as long as I can remember, my first days of school have been accompanied by strange dreams that weave experiences past and present in a surreal hodgepodge, stomachaches, restless sleep, and incessant talking (just ask my family)!

I believe that being at least a little nervous is a necessary and even healthy reaction to transitions. I never want to become so complacent that I take for granted that all situations will go perfectly. I believe in preparation, hard work, and perseverance. 

However, I recently discovered a quotation by tennis champion who said that some of the best advice she received about being nervous came from her sister: “She told me the other day that champions don’t get nervous in tight situations. That really helped me a lot. I decided I shouldn’t get nervous and just do the best I can.”

That is great advice. I spent some time during the first several hours of school walking around the breezeways and peering into classrooms. The looks on students’ faces spoke volumes ranging from, “I can’t wait to dig into this class,” to “How did I get myself into this?”

As the first couple of days passed, teachers began visiting me during spare moments. Their eyes also reflected the anticipation they were feeling about the months ahead. The best part was hearing the faculty talk about how they were enjoying getting to know our new scholars while reacquainting themselves with former students. Coaches shared the same excitement as they signed up our energetic athletes for this year’s extracurricular activities.

Already this week, our routines feel a bit more established, sleep seems less pestered by weird dreams, and hunger pangs have replaced unsettled stomachs.

We are ready to become champions.

Summer Interlude & A Final Graduation

Ordinary Time – July

In my heart, I knew this year would mark my last graduation at St. Augustine Catholic High School. Our administrative team and I had waited until the very last moment to make that announcement. It had been my final request that the May commencement be focused on our seniors rather than the fact that their school principal would be retiring. I had already let a few people know that my husband had been offered a chance of a lifetime position that might ultimately stretch our home boundaries across the country to Washington, D.C. While our roots would remain solidly planted in the Arizona desert we call home, I could not stay in a position that I might have to leave over the next few months.

I bargained with God not to let me cry at every juncture of the goodbye process. He didn’t agree to my terms, and I felt like an emotional wreck by the time I drove out of my parking spot for the last time in mid-June.

Now it is July, and the bell will soon sound the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. For the first time in years, I will not be making the inaugural morning announcements. Already, the school’s website has changed to reflect the new faculty and staff. The handbooks have been updated, class rosters set in place, instructional resources ordered, and school policies refreshed. Even without me, those tasks have been accomplished.

This summer has been one of mixed emotions. For decades, this season has been defined by the end of one school year and the beginning of another with maybe a week or two of vacation squeezed in. As much as I determined that the success of the school was contingent on my being on “alert” 24/7, I am now experiencing what I have always known – no one is truly indispensable. Desperate as that sounds, it is also quite humbling. I may feel like I have lost my direction, but in reality, I am simply forcing myself to take a tentative step onto “my road less traveled.” Who knows what I will discover? It’s scary, but I think it might also be okay. 

My heart is beating an odd cadence as I try to put into words the feeling of being untethered to what has been my community for so long. I have avoided writing for the past few weeks because my thoughts are scattered, and my identity is obscured. This blog – my rough draft of a future book about being a secondary school principal – is out of order. I started it in Lent with the idea that I would chronicle a full academic year in the life of a high school principal. I would post essays throughout the months, rounding them out with articles I have written over the years for my school newsletters. I would do this until I reached Lent again. Then, in the editing process, I could gather all these posts, organize them into a school year, and publish (Still) Extraordinary Time, my second foray into authorship. But now, I find myself writing about retiring at a point when I should be writing about a new school year. I confuse myself.

One truth I have discovered is that it is often better to dive into the unknown rather than think about all the things that can go wrong. This post represents an interlude (and probably the last entry in the book when I finally get to that point!). I will continue to post to this blog the ponderings and essays that I have rightfully written over the years. After all, those experiences I am sharing were mine, are mine…and honestly, capture moments in the lives of so many of us involved in Catholic education – hence the reason I feel compelled to share them. (Really, who cares if this is out of order? I am not even sharing the blog with that many people anyway. And honestly, if I really lose focus, I could simply delete all of this and not concern myself with the order at all! WordPress is my playground.)

Whew! I feel better. I have been wrestling with my deflated muses for weeks.  Now, I have a direction. The next post will bring us into a new school year based on the experiences that many of us in education share. At some point in our lives, we are all first graders, high school students, and graduates. Change is part of the process.

Signing Yearbooks

Ascension and PentecostMay/June

We had one class period to go before graduation. I had already decided that my Advanced Placement students would revolt if I dared to give them a final exam just a day after they had completed the grueling four-hour marathon designed by College Board to test their year-long effort to learn everything there is to know about literature! Not able to bear their glazed countenances and complaints of cramped fingers, I resorted to what all good teachers do at the end of the year – snacks and a movie.

So as Robin Williams stood on his desk before his baffled students and asked them to rip out the preface to their textbooks in The Dead Poets Society, my own scholars munched on M&Ms. Honored to be asked, I spent the next 45 minutes signing their yearbooks.

It may have been the darkened room, the comfortable silence among a community of learners who had become friends, or my tendency toward the sentimental, but I struggled to pen just the right words for each of my students. These simple lines must carry enough weight to invoke memory years from now. My mind drifted to the poignant and powerful muses of my own last years of high school.

I was one of those students who flaunted her independence. I could walk among the put-together popular group and yet peripherally enjoy conversations with the counter-cultural students of the 70s who hung out in the parking lots. My best friends were those I made in my World Literature class, the ones who also were into creative writing, the ones who worked on the yearbook, the ones who hung on every word of our teacher and adviser – the omniscient Mrs. Doerfler. When we began to take ourselves too seriously or not seriously enough, Mrs. Doerfler would simply raise an eyebrow. That wordless look either grounded us or nudged us to shed high school inhibitions and release our collective energies. Mrs. Doerfler was the teacher I aspired to become. 

The yearbook I still keep front and center on one of our bookshelves at home is not my senior annual, but the book from my junior year, the one entitled Legend ’77 from Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, Wisconsin. The inside pages welcome students into the “Magic Theater,” an allusion to the house of mirrors in Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf. There, a person could go to find his past reflected in a series of images, and then explore the possibilities for change that would affect his present and future.

In 1976-1977, I lived for Yearbook (with a capital “Y”) as a member of the editorial staff. My task was to interact with the narrative that wove its way through the book. The introduction: “This book is a magic theater, a theater of the mysterious, playful, and tender moments, of the possibilities for change in our mutual and separate lives here at school; a magic theater for one year, for whatever value it may hold in our collective memory.”

That’s me (right), extending the metaphor of The Magic Theater, 1977

The end, written by our chief scribe Anne Hughes: “We lived at school and we lived our book. Perhaps most important, we lived our theme. We were and are changes in ourselves, constant metamorphoses, each of us half clown and half genius…we are all of us, and this book is each of us.”

Only when we are in high school are we allowed to be so pithy, so dramatic, so in love with possibility.

It is this possibility that I wish to impart as I sign my name to the messages I write to my students. During the last five minutes of class, I turn off the movie. I ask which of the novels and plays we read that they will “carry with them” when they leave AP Lit. Surprisingly, their responses are diverse. My romantics cite Pride and Prejudice,while those who enjoy the darker gothic side of literature noted Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein.One student mentioned Waiting for Godot,the existential play I saved for the end of the year when I knew students were focused more on questions than answers. 

Interestingly enough, Waiting for Godot, was the play that I most remember from high school. A large photo in Legends ’77 memorializes two of my classmates reading from Samuel Beckett’s script. Even better, the last page of my yearbook includes this tiny excerpt:

Gogo:  We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

Didi:   Yes yes, we’re magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget.”                                                                                  

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

I pray my students will forever remember not only the existence, but the essence of their high school years. I know I will.

Principal’s Ponderings

Graduation

Graduation celebrations have a way of tying all the loose ends of high school together in one very beautiful package. The beauty comes not from the celebration itself, but from the richness of the odyssey. In fact, Homer, the author credited for sharing the epic poetry found in The Iliad and The Odyssey, gives us this philosophical gem: “The journey is the thing.”

That “thing” is the culmination of hard work, of persistence, of failure, and of success. All of this is represented symbolically in the diplomas we frame and hang on our walls. One of our school’s recent graduation speakers noted that although a high school diploma is an important milestone, it really signals another new beginning. With that beginning comes the responsibility to work hard and to live and to love in the best way we can. To this generation of young adults, our speaker admonished that the best advice might be to put down the cell phones and get to work!

Each time we celebrate a graduation, I feel that everyone in attendance experiences a moment of completeness and transition. It is the students who receive final high school transcripts, but their accomplishments have been predicated not only on their individual hard work, but on the determination of others. Parents especially need to know they have had a part in earning the “credits” of their children. Teachers have the benefit of facilitating the learning process – and in the end, understand implicitly that they have imparted knowledge and more importantly, they have gained knowledge. 

Jokingly, I say that during the final weeks of school, the seniors make it easy to say goodbye. But that is not true.

Although they appear to barely keep their heads up as they plod through research papers for history classes, complete lengthy math study guides, and take one more science test, it seems to hit them all at once that high school is over. At that juncture, they also test the waters of rules they have been compelled to follow for the past years – defying the uniform code, “forgetting” to shave in the morning, and ignoring the tardy bells.

However, I can attest – as well as many of our teachers – that the seniors are quite reticent about saying goodbye. And so are we. “This time of year makes me very sentimental,” said one of our school’s math teachers, noting that after spending so much time with his seniors that it is very hard to let them go.

I agree. I remember one of the seniors who came by my office and started chatting about his high school experiences and his goals for the future. We spent more quality time talking in that 15 minutes than we had collectively during the past four years.

Another teacher, who had known and followed nearly a dozen of our seniors since they were in kindergarten, said one of her former students asked her what she would teach when she followed her to college!

Homer’s words hearken back to the 8th century B.C. His philosophies touched off discussions by his successors. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle…all of whom persisted in defining a meaning in life and purpose. We are destined to carry on the pursuit of learning, even in a world complicated by how we go about doing that monumental task. Today, our classes are held in rooms replete with wi-fi and smart boards as opposed to large columned amphitheaters on the hills of Greece. But just like those who came before us and will follow long after, we continue to search for that “thing.” It is time to place another yearbook on the bookshelf.