Friday, August 23, 2019

Love at All Ages

Usually I describe the beginning of school as putting my shoulder to the wheel of the year and pushing its heavy weight, straining to get it rolling. This year it was like a gentle nudge from my finger. Two days of meetings, three days with kids and it’s rolling and I’m loving the ride. First classes with 5-year-olds, 4thgrade, 6thgrade and 8thgrade and each one a jewel. The double pleasure of having yet again 4 wonderful Interns to witness, enjoy, participate and contribute. 

Today they asked me which was my favorite age and I said, as I often say, “3-year-olds and 8thgrade.” But then quickly added, “Well, I’ve really grown to love the 5-year-olds and 4thgrade is great and I enjoyed 6thgrade today and though I haven’t taught them in a while, I’ve always loved 1stand 3rd. And then there’s the 4-year-olds and 2nd and 5thgrade."  In short, I love them all. After all these years, I’ve finally figured out the kinds of things that hit them where they live and isn’t that part of the trick, to find the dignity and delight of each developmental stage? 

Musically as well as in other ways. Truth be told, we—the 5-year olds and I—composed a piece based on their names and it was as musically satisfying as the Bach Partita I started the day with. I did a similar name game with 4thgrade with percussion instruments and had to grab my camera to video a particular tasteful combination of rhythms and instruments. I got the 8thgrade grooving on my Boom Chick a Boom beginner’s jazz piece and 20-minutes into their first formal jazz experience with me, they were deep in the groove. And when an Intern and his friend pulled out their saxophones and started soloing over the top, the kids were as lifted up as I was—"Dang! 20 minutes and we sound great!!!!” 

Our first elementary singing time with 100 kids had many goose-bump moments and wasn’t it so joyful to be back at preschool singing? Yes, it was! And then ended the week as I do when I’m in the school rhythm—a glorious hour of music at the Jewish Home for the Aged where I’ve found the perfect things for that age. 

Truth be told, I’m having a little “buyer’s remorse” announcing my retirement in June. Why would I ever leave this? Should I reconsider? Well, one day at a time. Meanwhile, gratitude abounds. On to the weekend!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Life on the Mountain

We had another marvelous Opening Ceremony at The San Francisco School. One hour of song, ritual, speech and music. In the “Earth Day Rap” part, the 4thand 5thgrade teachers talked about stewardship of the planet, starting with the little things—"recycle, bicycle, don’t you drive by yourself.” Next up was a song called “Gonna Build Me a Mountain” (it’s on my Boom Chick a Boom CD if you’re curious!) and I gave this talk as a preface. The opening about the bicycle was picking up from the teacher talking about riding his bike to school. 

 If you ride your bike in San Francisco, you might notice there are a lot of hills. This is good! It’s hard to ride up them and that makes us strong. It’s also fun to ride down them, to feel the wind in our face, to coast without pedaling. But you can’t get to the downhill without the uphill. In biking and in life. And sometimes the road is just flat and that’s good too. Like here on Gaven Street. 

But don’t be fooled. There’s actually an enormous mountain here. Its address is 300 Gaven St. It’s a mountain that people have been building for 54 years. We’re standing on it today as a gift from the teachers, students and parents of the past, which includes as long ago as 1966 and as recently as last year. Anything that’s good about this most remarkable place came from the hard, hard work, the vision, the wise choices that those who came before us made. Also the foolish choices— we probably learned the most from them!

Standing here before you, I want to salute all of these people. Every single one. And I know almost all of them! I grew up with them and am still growing up with them. Kids who I taught are as old as 50+ and the results are in—we did good work. 

Our job is to keep building that mountain beyond what they were able to do. To work hard with clear vision so that people 50 years from now might thank and remember us. To savor and enjoy who we are now and consider who we are not yet. 

Martin Luther King said in one of his speeches that he had climbed to the top of the mountain and seen the Promised Land. That’s one of the benefits of mountain climbing. We can see further than what’s right at our feet and get a bigger perspective about who we are and why we’re here. And I can say that I also have climbed to the top of the mountain here on Gaven Street and I, too, have seen the Promised Land. It turns out that it’s not far away like some shining Oz, but right here, right now, right where we are and with all the people sitting next to you. This is Heaven. It really is. I’m here to testify that there is no heaven finer than this.

But Heaven is not a place, it’s not a noun. It is a verb, a work in progress, a place we make in our hearts by how we live and how we live together. And this is important to understand: There is no Heaven without Hell. We make Hell by all the ways we suffer when we misunderstand each other, disappoint each other, betray each other, treat each other less kindly that we should. And of course we will do all of that. We will wound and we will be wounded. We will hurt and we will be hurt. That’s just how things are in this life. No escaping that. 

How we react to those hurts and wounds is the key, the way to make Heaven from Hell. How we apologize, to ourselves and others, how we forgive, ourselves and others, is what can turn sorrow to joy. We can begin to heal those wounds every time we choose kindness over cruelty, knowledge over ignorance, caring over indifference, courageous conversation over malicious gossip. If we are to choose—and there’s always a choice—let’s go with our better selves. 

Here’s the truth. Everyone in this room is a beautiful, luminous being capable of loving and worthy of being loved. Everyone has the possibility to do great things, be they small or big. Everyone deserves a loving welcome and a sense of belonging. Everyone matters. Each of us have come to this earth as a question— how can we use our gifts to heal and help and give something the world needs?  Each of us is necessary. Let’s not forget that. 

Kids, you are so lucky to be surrounded by teachers who love you more than you can imagine. They love you before they even meet you and then they love you for real when they get to know you and find out what specifically there is to love. Please show them. Your teachers work so hard to bring out your genius, who stay up at night worrying about you and thinking how to make you happy by giving you the things you need. Not the things you think you want —like Gameboy or candy— but the things you deeply need. 

Kids, don’t waste a minute of your time here. You need to work hard to discover your genius. Pay attention. Listen to these teachers who work so hard for you. Step up to the challenge of each class and don’t make us teachers have to sing and dance to get your attention. Be respectful, to yourself, the teachers and your classmates and above all, be kind. It costs so little and the reward is so great. 

I confess that I was not a good student. I didn’t like school and it didn’t like me. Then I chose to be a teacher dedicated to making school more fun, more celebratory, more soulful. I wanted to help make a school like the one I wished I had gone to. And this is that place. As they say, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

So here on the first day of this new year, let’s resolve to build a mountain that we can look back on when we gather again in June and feel proud about what we did. Here’s the double truth: “Only one person can do it and that person is YOU!” and it’s most fun if we do it together, “Side by side.” Here’s the mountain you build by yourself (do motions to “mountain, mountain, build a mountain”)and here’s how you do it together (as above with partner).Let’s sing this song like we mean it and build a year that is worthy of the word Heaven. Off we go!! (Sing song: “Gonna Build Me a Mountain.”) 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

First Day of School

So as I’m about to start my first day of my last year at SF School, I thought it would be interesting to try to remember my first day at SF School when I first started teaching there. So I took out the old journal from that time, excited to re-read my thoughts. There were many entries from my 1975 summer travels to Guatemala, Belize, New Jersey and Ohio. On Aug. 24th, I flew back to San Francisco and wrote the following: 

“So this summer of constant traveling ends with the journey that is no journey. Having explored worlds within and without, renewed friendships and re-visited old homes, it is time to begin my new life in San Francisco. A new chance to create a life that feeds my spirit and serves others, ready to daily renew contact with the Source, expand in all directions musically, learn how to be with kids again, penetrate through relationship to the place that unites us, take responsibility for my human life. These are the tasks at hand. Infinitely refreshed by my travels, my heart is filled with gladness as the City appears over the wingtip. Thanks to all people and places, my this world which is one realize and manifest it’s inherent unity. “San Francisco, here I come. Right back where I started from.”

A bit flowery, but not too bad for a 24-year old kid. That list pretty much defined what I ended up doing. Now I was excited to read all about my first day of school. The next entry was:

8/25—A morning sitting (meditation) that left me radiant, meetings all day at school, eyes focused downward and all vibrating, receiving and outpouring energy. “Energy is eternal delight.” Good to be back at a school, felt fairly comfortable, thought overwhelmed by the task at hand, which includes moving to our new apartment. More later on people, places and platypuses. Karen and friend carousing in bed. I wish she’d cut off her bangs.”

Well, that doesn’t reveal much beyond “fairly comfortable” being at the school. I was ready to read on about the first actual day of teaching kids and hear all about my first impressions, my struggles, my successes and so on. I turned the page and there was:


WHAT?!!! Not a single entry for almost seven months!!!! And then my above entry was all about a trip to the desert. And so it went for the next two years. Some entries about summer travels and not a word about the first three years of my life at school. So my hopes to re-visit my first impressions of teaching at school were dashed. I remember a few things from those years and have some photos, but I definitely don’t remember anything about my first day of school. For any of those years! I know we didn’t have anything approaching the elaborate Opening Ceremony we now have, but I really wonder what we did? Just had the kids go straight to class? Aaargh! I’m angry with my former self.

Oh well. Footprints in the sand, washed away by the tides of time. I’m sure I’ll write something tomorrow about the opening day, as I probably have these last eight years of posting blogs and perhaps did in my later journals. In fact, I should check those out. I’ll get back to you. 

Or not.

A Light Step

My first day back at school meetings did not begin auspiciously. I arrive late for the first meeting, a presentation about anti-harassment. This is important to help people be safe and turn-around the too-casual tolerance of bullying, sexual abuse, micro-aggressive talk and such. But once things get in the hands of the law or a systematically correct way to be with your colleagues, the humor is the first to go and everyone’s walking on eggshells nervous they might offend someone. Luckily, while everyone was nodding their heads during the talk about not hugging without permission and such, afterwards there was the kind of humor that can come when people know each other well and can relax, with the caveat that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with a comment or a hug on any particular day, they’re free to express it and we all need to listen and take it seriously.

I then got into a little tussle with my two “Dream-team” colleagues. Yes, that happens. But we said what we felt, it hung in the air for ten minutes and then cleared away like a good rainstorm that washes the air clean. We went on to meet about the hundreds of details in our intricately connected lives, from school to courses beyond to performances to publishing and made some progress whittling that long list down. I got to meet some new teachers, re-connected with the old, had a hard conversation with a parent upset about some things her child experienced in the school (not in my class, so easy to listen). So though it was far from a conflict-free day, I found myself walking with a light step and an irrepressible happiness down in my bones. 

I know I’ll soon have to stop blabbing about this being my last year and simply enjoy each day as if it was my first, but it both affirmed that indeed this place is still the right place for me to be and made my doubt whether I should leave! But knowing I can come back to sub or visit or partake in various ceremonies, I believe I’ll stick with my decision. I suspect much awaits me on the other side of that closed (not locked!) door and I’m eager to see what it is and enjoy it thoroughly. 

Small Town City

Waiting for the 44 bus to take me home after my flight from Chicago, two different cars with school alumni stopped and shouted their hellos to me. Yesterday, an alum was at the counter ready to sell me shoes in my neighborhood store. Another woman on the street corner soliciting funds for Responsible Hip-Hop looked in amazement when I asked if she knew a former student of mine who is a hip-hop artist. “This is his organization! He’s my main man!!” 

When you’ve taught for as long as I have, your former students are everywhere. I love running into them! Though sometimes I’ve been nervous that one might be a nurse at my next colonoscopy exam. Luckily, not yet. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Things to Do with the Grandchildren

Read Pippi Longstockings and Curious George. Play go-fish and supervise Solitaire. Swim in the lake. Go up the big “Sugarbowl” sand dune. Run down it. Teach chopsticks on the piano. Go to the Drive-In movie to see the Lion King. Play miniature golf before the movie while swatting mosquitoes. Play catch and paddleball down at the beach. Canoe and tip over. Rough-house. Chase them when they steal my glasses case from my front pocket. Videotape spontaneous songs. Teach songs. Hike in the woods and avoid poison ivy. Tell four fairy tales while hiking. Jump off of sand dunes. Run from the waves. Dig a hole in the sand. Teach body percussion. Walk to the Frankfort lighthouse. Bake cookies. Watch them draw. Cuddle. Watch “The Red Balloon” video. Play beanbag toss at a restaurant and challenge a couple. Play piano at the open mic there (me) while the kids danced. Play Concentration 64 in the 6 hour car ride to Chicago. Also Cookie Jar and Old Doc Jones. Listen to my “Boomchicka Boom CD.” Answer “when are we going to get there?” questions 55 times. Stop for ice cream. Eat at Appleby’s (way up) and Chilis (way down). Swim in the hotel pool. Sit in the hot tub. Talk to Aunt Talia on Facetime. Hug goodbye at 4 in the morning. Feel happy for the time we’ve had together. Feel sad that I won’t see them for another six weeks. 

If summer has to end, well, this has been the perfect way. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

School Dreams

Just about every year for the last 44, I’ve ended summer at a family cottage on Lake Michigan. That’s when the school dreams—or nightmares—begin to kick in. And so as I prepare my 45th—and last—year at The San Francisco School, the pattern holds. 

It began with realizing I had a 5thgrade class about to enter and had no idea what I was going to do. While I was frantically looking at my last year’s planning book, the class had entered and seated themselves in the room’s hallway in complete silence. I passed out cups for them to balance on their head and explained that if they talked or the cup dropped, they were out. Naturally, they started talking and the kids weren’t following the rules. So I made a new one that those out would be the judges to see who else was talking. While I was playing piano, one (who I will be teaching this year!) was shouting and trying to steal things from a refrigerator and I restrained her and she started punching me and I threatened to call her parents. Meanwhile, my colleague James had entered and let me know that he  was supposed to be teaching 5thgrade and he had his class all planned. I asked if I could finish it and on it went. 

Then the dream switched to packing up to leave a hotel. I was naked in the bathroom brushing my teeth when the maid came to clean the room and she just stood there waiting for me. I suggested she start by making the bed, got dressed and packed up. My wife and daughter and I rolled the suitcases outside and I was sitting with them on a busy street corner while they went to do something. An old friend passed by and I went to talk to him and when I turned around, all the suitcases were gone. Not a happy night of dreaming!

Meanwhile, the daydreams of the opening day of school have begun as I get ready to shoulder the heavy wheel of the school year to get it rolling. Only this year, everything will feel different knowing it’s my last. I can imagine each milestone—“My last Opening Ceremony! Last Halloween! Last Holiday Plays! Last St. George and the Dragon!" And so on.

Well, as they say, one day at a time. And this day, my last full day at the lake with my wife, daughter and two delightful grandchildren, is awaiting me.