Saturday, April 30, 2016


We’ve been working hard at my school getting ready for the party of the Half-Century! 50 years since The San Francisco School was founded! Amidst many jobs, I had the honor of giving the closing talk. Which I will exactly 10 hours from now. And here it is:

“Near the end of this gathering celebrating 50 years of an extraordinary community, my job is to ask the question: “What does it all mean? What are the details of this vision that has made us who we are? How did we do what we did? ”

So I turn to the three daughters of the Sofia, the Goddess of Wisdom. Faith. Hope. Charity.

FAITH: The first is faith in the beauty, dignity, delight and intelligence of children. Faith that they are worthy of love, that they are overflowing with possibility, that they have genius in every corner of human endeavor. But you can never just feel this general faith in children in an abstract way. You have to get to know each and every child.

And that’s one thing you can say with conviction about this school. We know our children. When I meet you alums, my first impulse is to tell you the story about you that I remember, the one that made you memorable, some of which I pass on to the kids I’m now teaching. Every kid knows that Phoebe Lockwood wrote the first two verses on the Casey Jones song-sheet and that Josh Russell didn’t like my Hound Dog song and that Michael Canaveral beat me in the Cookie Jar. I remember that Micky Walsh stepped on my new shoes to get them dirty and that Brittney Soracco reprimanded Laura in the middle of the play for stepping on her line,  that Trulise hiked Pt. Reyes chanting “James, my James” and 10,000 more stories. And some of these stories carried a key to unlocking a child’s character. 

There is in the soul of a child an impenetrable secret that is gradually revealed as it develops.— Maria Montessori

That’s the great excitement of being a teacher. To believe firmly in each child’s soul secret and set to work helping them discover it, helping to reveal it. Everyone is capable of rigorous thought and loving kindness, everyone is artistic and musical and athletic. Everyone. No exceptions. Our job? To help them discover precisely how they’re intelligent, to celebrate the particular nature of their genius.

That takes a lot of time and patience. Some kids come in in full bloom and stay fragrant their whole time. Some take 3 or 7 or all 11 years to finally burst into blossom. And some come to flower after they leave here. When it happens doesn’t matter. What matters is the faith that it will happen, a faith made real by constant care and watering. And look how it has paid off! Here you are, such beautiful, caring people raising the next generation that will carry the work forward.

Next is HOPE. We celebrate the kids for who they are and who they can become. We also celebrate the teachers in the same way. We let them teach to their passion in the way that fits who they are. We create jobs that fit their unique talent and interests, as we did for Solveig, our librarian/ naturalist. We create job shares that let James, Sofia and myself balance our teaching of kids with the teaching of teachers worldwide. We let Molly keep her job while spending a year and a half with her newborn child. You don’t have to go to Finland to find such humane practices, it’s happening right here.

And it pays off. You attract a passionate and dedicated staff, whose unspoken motto is “Whatever it takes” regardless of time, salary or job description. The number of staff who have stayed here for 20, 30, 40 years is remarkable. It makes for an inspiring place to work. It feeds one’s hope.

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.  –Vaclav Havel

That’s how we did what we did. We knew certain things felt right and stuck with our vision. We trusted our instincts about what made sense. And we were given the power to be at the dead center of important decision-making. It wasn’t always clean or efficient, but it was real and always with the needs of the children at heart. If we made a poor choice, it was our mistake and we knew how to fix it. We sat around the peanut table with our own agenda, talked while Karen knitted and Sally tapped her pencil and Terry jiggled a restless leg brimming with excitement.

We did so much knowing so little. We were the auctioneers, the mystery Walkathon runners, the fundraisers, the stage builders, the ditch-diggers, the bake-salers, the U-haul drivers, the curriculum creators, the ceremony inventors, the camping cookers and naturalists and hike leaders. We opened our doors to all ideas, but met each with a healthy skepticism. We didn’t need other schools to tell us what we should do or educational bureaucrats or lawyers or health inspectors. We gave the necessary coins to Caesar to keep the school open, but always knew where God was, our instincts about what children need and how to give it to them, our sense of what a healthy community looks and sounds and feels like. I think that trust in our own way of doing things is what has brought us here and what will carry us forward through the next 50 years.

Finally, CHARITY. I would like to rename this daughter, CARE. We are teaching the children to care. To care for materials, to care for themselves, to care for each other. And that’s where social change starts. By being the change you want to see in the world.

But that’s not where it stops. If these kids are worthy, then so are those kids. If these kids feel welcomed and like they belong, it can’t be complete until those kids feel the same. It’s the right of every child to be nurtured, celebrated, educated, loved, but we know that not all receive their due.

We always were a product of our time. While many were celebrating Desert Storm, we gathered in the music room and sang for peace. We gathered there again after 9/11 and made Tibetan prayer flags to hang all over the school. In the middle of a morning meeting, I ran into Terry’s office and wept in his arms when Bush was re-elected. We cried at Martin Luther King ceremonies. We cared and weren’t afraid to show it.

Here is a hard truth. This school is a bit of a paradise, but it comes with a high price-tag. It’s a privilege to be independent of narrow bureaucracy and to get to choose the change we want to be. Instead of guilt, our charge is to use that privilege responsibly, on behalf of kids and people everywhere. That means actively moving outside of our little circle of community to help out and impact folks outside our gates and though there’s always so much more we can do, we have kept that charge alive the whole of the 50 years. Our commitment to social justice has never been so strong, so clear, so effective in helping kids see what an enormous task it is to care for the world and to take their first steps in a lifetime commitment.

Faith. Hope. Care. Worthy words to live by. But there’s a few more.

If we’re to really build a school around the way children really are, it has to be fun! It should be joyful and full of color and music and celebration. The first thing that should strike people when they walk through these gates is how happy the children are, busily doing things that are seriously fun. How much they enjoy their work and their play and how happy they are to do it together. (Here I show slides of happy, expressive, exuberant children at work and play.)

And what about the future? Of the country and the planet, there’s plenty to worry about. But of the school and what these kids can offer for hope and healing, well, look at these kids. Strong. Confident. Determined. Joyful.  (Another slide)

And that together part, that traveling along Side By Side, is the piece that completes the whole puzzle. How amazing it is to see each other again and feel the full beauty of who we are, who we’ve been and who we’ve yet to become. We’re not quite as ragged as we used to be, but I hope we’re still funny and happy to keep traveling this glorious path together, walking along long, dappled grass picking the silver and golden apples, side by side.”

(And that’s when we stand up and sing the old jazz standard, Side by Side.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kick-starter for Family Togetherness

Okay, there’s two ways we can do this.
1)    Some Silicon Valley millionaire/billionaire can just give me two million dollars.
2)    Two thousand people can each give me a thousand dollars.
My grandchildren spent a day with me at my school. Zadie (4 ½) joined in with the kindergarten class and sang all the songs with elementary school kids (including all the words to Chattanooga Choo Choo—proud Pop-Pop here!). Then she went outside and fed the goats, spent a little time with her Aunt Talia in 5th grade and grandma Karen in Art Class. Malik (10 months) shook and shimmied to the music, dismantled an Orff xylophone, rang a few bells and generally charmed all the kids with his winning personality.
I’ve had a family/work constellation far beyond the norm. 41 years working alongside my wife, 15 years with one or both of my children at my school, another five with the youngest as a teacher colleague at the school, two nephews who attended for awhile. That’s unusual. When we say that The San Francisco School has a family-friendly feeling, that is the literal truth of most of my time there.
But like all my fellow humans, I’m greedy. I want my grandkids to be with me there! So sweet to be Zadie’s teacher for a couple of classes and to make music with Malik in company with 100 kids! But there are two problems:
1)    They live in Portland, Oregon, because unlike San Francisco, it’s actually an affordable place for families to live.
2)    If they could afford to rent or buy a house here, there’s still the matter of school tuition, some 30 times higher that when I began in 1975.
Hence, my kick-starter campaign above. Of course, it’s obscene that both decent housing and education are so outrageously expensive in San Francisco that it literally would take close to two million dollars to realize. When I began teaching at school, I believe I could have bought a house for my kids and grandkids and paid for 11 years of their schooling for under $100,000. That’s a sobering fact.
Punchline? I loved being in school with my grandkids, I’m sad about the inflation and disturbed that this simple dream would require an economic privilege that I wouldn’t be proud of.

But still, don’t let that stop you from donating!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Give and Take

In this busiest of weeks in a busy year, I go home to my 10-month old grandson Malik. He gives me something— a sock, a ball, a shaker—and I give it back to him. He gives it to me and I take it. I give it to him and he takes it. That’s it until one of us gets tired. We like it.
It’s kind of like folk dancing. 8 steps to the right, 8 steps to the left and hey, this is just where we started! Not getting anywhere, but some pleasure in the journey. It’s simple. It’s clear. It’s the root of all economics, money-wise and relationship-wise.
If it was 2 takes to 1 give, the world would start to tilt off balance. 10 takes to 1 give and now it’s just plain greedy. 100 takes, 1 give and now we’ve entered the territory of the psychopathic personality. The kind we often admire in this country. It ruins the whole game.
Hey, Wall St.!! Spend a little time with the babies. They have something to teach you. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Banquet on Steroids

Imagine a banquet with all of your favorite dishes and drinks, all you can eat and more in the kitchen, all your favorite music on a playlist and in company with all of your favorite people in the world. Paradise, yes? Or not.
The week ahead is the banquet above on steroids. Just drove 5 hours round-trip to introduce some 20 new teachers to the wonders of Orff Schulwerk, work I love to do and am dedicated to do any time, any place I’m called. Came home and greeted my daughter and two grandchildren just arrived from Portland. They will stay with us the week, which ordinarily is like a double-scoop ice cream cone with your two favorite favors on a hot summer’s day. It got off to a hilarious start with 10-month-old Malik inventing a new sitting-bouncing- dance to my banjo playing and then a sweet session reading “The Red Balloon” to four-year old Zadie. But truth be told, I’m nervous about hosting them while trying to get through the rest of the week, coming home to toys on the floor and kids clamoring for attention and no private space. And why am I concerned?
Because this Saturday is the long-awaited 50th Anniversary party of The San Francisco School. I’m in charge of the ceremony, which means putting together slides from 1000 or so in our archives, unifying the speeches of the speakers, writing my own closing speech trying to tie the whole event together, as well as just talking with some 100 plus alums, helping lead a singing time, organize a samba group, write a song for my wife and practice with an alum. Because her retirement speech will be just before my closing one. And the night before will be an art show honoring her work.
That’s an enormous amount of work ahead of me. But meanwhile, I’m in school teaching my normal classes and preparing kids for the Spring Concert in three weeks. And playing jazz at The Palace Hotel on Wednesday night. And meeting with my colleagues to decide about next year’s Intern Program, Spring Concert repertoire, summer course issues.
Each thing alone is worthy and satisfying and pleasurable work, but the combination is—well, a banquet on steroids. I imagine this blog will be silent for a bit and if so, that’s why.
Wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

We Are Who We Honor

Yesterday we ended our trip and flew out from Birmingham’s Shuttlesworth Airport, named for that extraordinary preacher, Fred Shuttlesworth, who did so much to organize and sustain the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. The night before, we went to the King Memorial in Montgomery, a beautiful and artistically rendered tribute to 40 people killed between 1954 and 1968 while working for justice, mostly by the Klan and police, who sometimes were one and the same. Murderers, by the way, who mostly never got convicted for their crimes or served ridiculously light sentences for purposefully taking away human lives. Across the street from the Memorial is the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to suing hate groups in a building recently built to repel terrorists (the Christian Klan, not the Islam ISIS) with an armed guard standing watch 24/7.
Down the road is the State Capitol, where the Selma marchers ended the march on the steps where Governor George Wallace had stood and chanted, “Segregation now! Segregation forever!” Along the road were some plaques honoring the marchers.
But in front of the building is a statue and guess who it is? Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy (above left). And nearby is a statue of a physician named J. Marion Sims (above right). He was a renowned gynecologist who did experimental work on enslaved women without their consent and without anesthesia. And there is the statue to honor him, next to the same steps where Dr. King addressed the tired but jubilant marchers.
Old heroes die hard. (I’m still unhappy with the Columbus statue in front of San Francisco’s Coit Tower. Or if it has to be there, the plaque should read something about him initiating the Reign of Terror for the native inhabitants of North America.) We are who we honor, we become the stories we tell and a symbolic step in our evolution is to consciously choose the statues we put up, the faces we put on stamps or money, the people we name schools or airports after. (Alongside, Reagan Airport in Washington, Bush Airport in Houston, John Wayne Airport in Orange County are Shuttlesworth Airport in Birmingham, Medgar Evans Airport in Jackson, Mississippi and Kennedy Airport in New York.)
On one hand, you can casually say, “Different heroes for different folks. There’s room for all.” But when the heroes have clearly violated basic human rights and lived far below the standard of human decency, oppressing one group to protect the unearned privilege of another, continuing to honor them is affirming that it was okay and the others can aspire to be like them. The moral compass has a true north and we can’t navigate through the country of human health, happiness and freedom without a standard upheld in the way we publicly name Americans we consider worthy of honor. I suggest a doctor experimenting on enslaved women like they were laboratory animals not only violates the Hippocratic Oath, but disqualifies him from a statue in a public place. Don’t you think?
This is true in all corners of our country, but is particularly poignant in the American South. The cognitive dissonance of Jefferson Davis and J. Marion Sims next to the Civil Rights Memorial and the Southern Poverty Law Center evokes Matthew Arnold’s lines:
"…we are wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”
As this trip made clear in each story it told, it is time for the old stories of white supremacy, subjugation of fellow humans, terrorism, injustice, institutionalized fear and abuse, to die. And part of that story is dead. To sit on the couch as a white man watching integrated basketball with Simeon Wright (see last blog) is, as he noted, an extraordinary leap in culture that he never could have dreamed of as a kid. 

That world is dead. Or so we thought. Can you feel its heart still beating in the Trump and Cruz rallies? And the world of justice and compassion is far from wholly powerless to be born, is birthed in each story truly told from all sides and taken into the heart by hopeful children ready to take up where Dr. King and his successors left off. But as long as Davis and Sims stand in front of the Alabama State Capitol building, Columbus in front of Coit Tower, it can’t be wholly born either.

Take some time to notice these things around us. We are who we honor. Whether you start a campaign to create the Art Tatum library in Toledo, Ohio or the Dolores Huerta High School in Pueblo, Colorado, it can make a difference. Let’s get to work.

PS: I didn't expect such a quick response, but just read today that Harriet Tubman, that valiant woman helping enslaved people escape on the Underground Railroad, will replace Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner and oppressor of Native Americans, on the $20 bill. That's what I'm talking' about!!!