Thursday, February 14, 2019

List: Little Loves

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m thinking of all the people and things I love as well as those which may never receive valentines, but nevertheless warrant my recognition and affection.

Here’s my Little I Love You list:

1.  Mittens and pacifiers and stuffed animals, etc. dropped out of strollers but picked up by someone and hung in a noticeable spot (fencepost, bench) in hopes that the owner will discover and recover that lost and loved item.
2.  Little kids sporting backpacks of disproportionate size to their growing bodies and featuring numerous dangling thingamajigs from zippers, etc.
3.  Plants that grow in seams and cracks of brick walls, freeways, bridges and other seemingly uninhabitable spots.
4. The transportation workers who are installing spikes on our bay bridge to prevent people from dying by suicide.  I hope they feel as important as they are in saving lives.
5. Yarn bombers and Banksy and Shepard Fairey and other folks who spread messages of goodwill or needed change through visual magestry.
6.  The kid in the class who, in moments of teacher exasperation, makes meaningful eye contact to convey, Yeah, I feel you. And every other form of similar kinship that happens subtly out there when two people share an empathic moment, even strangers in a crowd, traffic, subway car, etc.
7. People who feel little disappointments every day—not being picked for the team, not winning the classroom raffle, not getting the top score ever, not being asked or invited to the group thing, but who pick up and dust off and show up everyday cheerfully nonetheless.
8.  Hummingbirds and butterflies.
9.  Hilarious (and harmless) people on the internet.
10.  Elderly people with walkers or canes who walk their dogs daily, even in the rain.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Friends and Stuff

Ornaments of 2001
I began cleaning up Christmas with the plan to sort, weed out, and reorganize our decorations. I hoped to resent the Post-Holiday Fer of 2019 less than I did the 2018 Me when I opened our haphazardly and hastily packed boxes of decorations and ornaments this season.  I imagined myself testing for sparks of joy a la Marie Kondo to determine which tchotchkes to keep and which to discard.  I pictured fewer bins of decor in the garage.  I visualized a minimalist Christmas this December.

I enlisted Middle Sis, Tootsie, and her cousin to de-ornament the tree and my grand plans were quickly abandoned when one by one, the ornaments some of my oldest friends sent to me back in 2001 were plopped in my lap. 

In 2001 my then-fiance/now-husband and I bought our first house.  Amidst counting pennies from our change jar and trying to believe we'd "grow into" our mortgage (as our broker cheerfully reassured us we would), we packed boxes and piled them in the carport for ferrying across the bridge to our new (old) house and neighborhood.  The rental house we were leaving opened onto an alley, as do numerous rentals in the town in which we grew up.  Alleys in Coronado have their own characters, stories, and rules to live by.  Everyone knows that furniture and discards placed along the alley are up for grabs.  And nothing abandoned in an alley lasts long.

But my boxes of Christmas ornaments were stacked temporarily at the top of our carport driveway, nestled against our storage space attached to the house (in lieu of a garage).  Inside those boxes were the ornaments my parents had given me each year of my 30, often with a theme matching a family trip or significant event.  It's safe to say that those ornaments were probably the first, second, or third items I would grab in the event of fire, along with photo albums and some sentimental jewelry.

Needless to spell out, during the short time I and my fiance were away from the house, those boxes were taken.  All my ornaments.  I was crushed.

But because those were the only boxes left there, I figured whoever took them was likely disappointed or at least not interested in the contents and might return or discard them after recognizing their sentimental value.  It was 2001, so I placed an ad in the local paper with a passionate plea for their return, to no avail.  I lamented their loss to everyone I knew.

My parents, it turned out, had some duplicates of our annual ornaments which they gave me.  Family friends and students presented me with new ornaments. 

And then my high school friend group organized to send me ornaments from their current homes across the US.  The dolphin from my friend's annual holiday Hawaii trip is missing its tail, but the significance of not only the ornament, but those annual family trips which don't happen as frequently, sustains.

I learned in 2001 that beloved ornaments, like so many other material things, are just "stuff."  And while seemingly irreplaceable, if those ornaments my buddies sent me 18 years ago were to disappear tomorrow, I'd know that my friends, who remain true and present today, would come through. Instead of new ornaments, their enduring friendship is all I really need.

So sorry, Marie Kondo, this isn't the year for tossing ornaments.  And cheers to lifelong friends, true sparks of joy.

Monday, December 31, 2018


New Year's Eve is resolution-, family action plan-, and intention-making time but I'm thinking about what I learned and put into practice this past year, and am curious about what others would identify as epiphanies of 2018 as well.

As with so many years, memes and images of kicking 2018 to the curb are filling my feed, and not without cause, with illness, loss, tragedy, disasters, and injustice plaguing those we know and love and others we nevertheless care deeply about.

I'm grateful to myself for following my instincts in 2018 and making a significant career change from high school to elementary school administration.  I spent the summer mourning my workplace of 18 years and relearned that while I often welcome change and transition, I do not flow through it without turbulence.  Despite some self doubt and fear of failure, I trusted, though, that I was right about the need for evolution, renewal, recharge, and a fresh opportunity, and there have been numerous times this fall and winter when I've actively thanked myself and those who opened this door for me.

My family is benefiting from my less-fettered mind and schedule, as I marvel at what my kindergartener and I am learning (together!) and that I can focus attention on a few high schoolers and middle schoolers versus hundreds.

It feels like a tremendous privilege to be leading a school and learning so much at the same time at this point in my career.  It feels like I knew the right thing was not to take what most would predict as the logical next step--climbing a higher rung on a career ladder--but to venture out on a different limb of a familiar tree.  I am proud of myself for taking a less conventional path, and for knowing when to do it.

I expect that 2019 will be a lot about digging deeper into this new challenge and opportunity, while enjoying the fruits from seeds planted in 2018.

Happy New Year!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Commencement Speech 2018

Yesterday was likely the last time I'll deliver a high school graduation speech for a while! I am making elementary school my new professional home.

It was my honor to deliver the keynote address for the Class of 2018 last night:

Dear Class of 2018, thank you for inviting me to speak with you and our guests tonight.

We are going to start with a little experiment. I am going to say some words, and you are going to listen and pay attention to what you hear.  





Maybe you heard me say Laurel.  Maybe you heard Yanny.  I sneaked a Jenny in there too, in deference to the fact that many of you will start calling me that at about 9:00 tonight if you haven’t already.  

Recently, the internet introduced us to this Yanny/Laurel sound file, and mysteriously, most of us could only hear one of those words when it played.  This prompted an online debate reminiscent of the photo of the famous dress that circulated in 2015, which people declared to be either blue and black, or white and gold.  We now know that hearing Yanny or Laurel depends on the frequencies your particular ears hear, and the color of the dress is related to how your brain processes ambient light.

When I was a teenager I copied quotes from song lyrics I thought were deep or relevant or really spoke to the devastating romantic moment I was going through, and I would share them with my best friend who was like, you listen to the lyrics?  I listen to the guitars.  My mind was kind of blown.  To me songs were mostly about their meaning.  To her, they were about music.  We were both listening to Oingo Boingo and hearing different parts.  

So what I find fascinating about our reactions to these internet debates about words and dresses is our absolute certainty that what WE perceive is the THE RIGHT ANSWER:  “It’s Laurel, and the rest of you are crazy,” “the dress is blue.  There is no white.”  WHY is it  so shocking to be confronted with evidence that we see and hear things differently from one another?   After all, there are people who like pineapple on pizza and who enjoy the smell of gasoline, and who can even walk on burning rocks without flinching.  Some of us are warm tonight, and others are cold, and you cannot tell someone they’re not cold. We see, hear, taste, smell, and feel things differently.   We also find different things beautiful, and funny, and gross, and sad, as well as easy and difficult.  We believe differently too. 

Thank goodness, by the way.  I enjoy having friends with houses of different styles and colors and eating dishes other people cook and I’ve appreciated YOUR unique approaches to fashion and differing preferences and viewpoints and influences.   I’m urging us to move beyond it HAS to be Laurel, it’s ONLY EVER a white dress, Crocs are universally ugly, and peanut butter and pickle sandwiches can never be good.  How about a different approach, like OMG, you love crocs?  Please tell me more about this affection you have for wide plastic shoes!  And then, we listen intently instead of shaking our heads in an inability to understand and ACCEPT that some people enthusiastically rock crocs.  Last week my daughter asked me to put diced apples in her tuna sandwich and I was like ewww, okay.  And then I was hungry, and there was extra tuna, and I tried it.  You guys.  This could be a new thing, like chicken and waffles, or bacon with maple syrup.  

We could stop replaying the Yanny and Laurel loop in search of hidden syllables (or to prove ourselves so very right about what we hear), and instead seek to understand one another a little more--how others’ backgrounds, experiences, and influences affect THEIR RESPONSES to the world and how things makes them feel--so often differently from ourselves.  I believe that’s one of the valuable lessons from Anthony Bourdain, who found no cuisine, from a villager’s daily porridge to the most expensive dish at a high-end restaurant, unworthy of his exploration and our attention.  Similarly, he valued the stories of the people he met, both humble and famous, and championed the challenges and contributions of dishwashers and executive chefs alike--as all essential members of culinary teams who feed us.  

Ms. Bice and I talked recently about how critical it is for everyone, regardless of age and experience, to feel they have stories to tell worthy of others’ ears.  She and your teachers have obviously had the purpose of teaching you, but the essence of that purpose has been to prompt and elicit your OWN analyses and understandings of what you’ve heard, read, seen, and experienced.  Our jobs are made joyful by the fact that WE KNOW your stories already matter, and that they’re important and instructive.  

We have much to learn from generations before and after us, if we don’t condemn them for lack of relevance or experience.  We are watching the elders in our society grow in understanding that high school students can be the greatest experts on topics which affect them most acutely, and when they speak up and demand to be heard.  Millennials are teaching our parents and my generation that money is best spent on experiences vs. things.  It’s wise to to befriend and consult older folks, too, particularly as you cross thresholds of life--we elders can empathize and share our own experiences of self doubt, of loves lost, of career pivots, and generally make you feel like you can get through, too, as we have before you.  

Class of 2018, you’ve already demonstrated the depth of your awareness and ability to listen carefully and perceptively not only to each other, but to members of your community.  You’ve paid attention.  It’s  a quality of this class we admire and celebrate.  You’ve honored contributions of all types of people who’ve supported you through your recognitions and recent notes of gratitude to teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, tutors, office staff, security guards, administrators, and substitute teachers.  

And on this journey we’ve all shared together students, staff, and families, we’ve listened to one another debate, play, sing, shout, joke, lecture, present, recite, whine, plead, argue, laugh, cry, apologize, and congratulate.  These are all sounds of being human, recognizable no matter what frequencies our own ears hear.  I’m grateful you and I were human here at CHS together.  Graduates, keep your eyes and ears and minds and hearts open, seeking to understand more about this rich, diverse, and fascinating world you’ll help shape.  Thank you, and love you all. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Practice Pride

My high school hosts an annual awards ceremony for students in the top 5% of each discipline.  I was asked to make this year's keynote address.  Here are my words for students, their families, and staff:

Islander Awards 2018
Students, we are very proud of you.  Coronado High School is one of the top comprehensive public high schools in the County, and you are recognized as tops in your disciplines. Your names were offered by your teachers with admiration, and we are excited to celebrate you tonight.

You’ve learned, through your efforts, that you need to work harder in some classes than in others to earn similar grades.  It’s probable that you’ve had greater interest and motivation for certain subjects over others.  So you’ve balanced motivation and investment to earn your grades.  Life beyond school requires this, too, though with fewer report cards and award ceremonies.  As a recovering straight-A student, I would assert that achieving perfect marks in all areas of life or in “adulting,” is not only NOT a thing, it’s not even something healthy to aspire to.  With no official grades to measure living, maintaining BALANCE is the true aspiration, and understanding that balance will shift is important, as well.  

If I WERE issued a progress report for last week it would feature a variety of achievements as well as areas for improvement in categories like parenting, being a principal, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, staying organized, exercising, and being a wife, daughter, sister, and friend.  That often feels like a lot to balance!  And I’m just going to state strongly for the record that I would NEVER sign up for the equivalent of an honors or AP class in laundry, with my motivation seriously lacking in specifics such as ironing, turning things right side out, and properly folding fitted sheets.  I’d rather cook a complicated meal, or clean a bathroom.

It’s not realistic to expect yourself to put equal effort into every sector of your life all the time, nor can you demand exceptional performance from yourself across the board, though many of you attempt to do that now.  I encourage you, instead, to apply sincere effort, and to focus on balancing what needs your attention and what motivates you to work hard.  During life, seasons change and priorities shift.  There will be times when excelling at your job is a primary focus.  Times when studying is. Times for taking risks. If you have children, parenting will often be a main priority.  And inevitably, as many of you have experienced, tending to your own or someone else’s health will take precedence.  So it’s important to give yourselves grace when you can’t be and do everything you wish.
Practitioners of mindfulness and meditation will tell you that with training, most people can overcome stress and provide themselves with calm and well-being using only their breath.  Deep, conscious breathing makes a difference in outlook on life--and the wonder of it is that you only need yourself, wherever you are.  Wouldn’t it be useful to develop a similar reliance on yourself for your sense of accomplishment, without extrinsic rewards or recognition?  It’s a good time to practice being proud of yourself. Yes, it’s a practice, and it’s not about grades or achievements others may notice.  We are born with a beautiful predisposition to appreciate ourselves.  Have you ever seen the look on a toddler’s face when she learns to walk?  Or to jump? And clap or talk? I mean, most humans reach these milestones, but generation after generation, children continue to be SO IMPRESSED with themselves.  My four-year-old regularly announces her pride in her singing and her outfits and her ideas. Toddlers aren’t likely to compare milestones with their friends in daycare, as we do when we discuss GPAs and sports stats and scroll through social media feeling subpar.

Practice impressing yourself in new, simple ways.  Be proud when you don’t give up despite setbacks. When you share.  When you stand up for someone or something. When you save money. Last week, after straining my hamstring in a soccer game, I set out for run/walk, with a goal of a making it a couple of miles.  I surprised myself by jogging, albeit slowly, the entire time, and exceeding my goal by a mile.  No one watching me or checking my time and mileage would be impressed (not even my Nike app offered me a new “achievement unlocked,”)--but I was proud of myself and in a great mood all day.  I find pride in myself when I don’t procrastinate. I’m proud when I give someone my full attention and participate in a meaningful conversation.  I’m proud when I volunteer, and when I parallel park my van, and when I keep calm instead of freaking out. I feel gratitude for myself when I apologize for something I need to take accountability for.  And hey, I appreciate myself when I finish folding a basket of laundry. No award ceremonies for that!   So I’m glad I have myself to high five.

Regularly appreciating yourself, and forgiving your own shortcomings, creates an inward glow and an outward patience and generosity that helps you focus in the right ways on others.  Sure that driver cut you off in traffic, but there’s another who paused to let you in.  Take note of the daily commitments of people around you and the ways they invest in their jobs and in their relationships without expectations for recognition, and appreciate them.  There are so many almost invisible people facilitating our paths through daily life.  I recently made a customer service call to Amazon to reorder a tag for my dog that was lost during delivery, and I expected to speak to a robot.  Instead I encountered an incredibly friendly and patient person who talked me through the reordering process. It felt good to tell her at the end of the call, you know what, thank you for the time you spent on my issue--and for helping me avoid losing my dog.  Connecting to other humans matters. We are learning from social media and from perpetrators of violence on school campuses that connecting meaningfully with others may matter most for our survival.  And we have opportunities to connect every day.

You’ve earned the award you receive this evening by connecting meaningfully with your subject, your teacher, and your school.  As you go forward, continue to recognize the meaningful things, however small or big, which you accomplish for yourself and others.  Reward YOURSELF with a life of appreciation and gratitude.  And know that you, along with your teachers and the support staff of CHS, have been the meaning of this job to me.  Thank you.  

Monday, January 8, 2018

13 Ways of Looking at 16

In advance of their daughter's sixteenth birthday, friends of ours asked family members and friends to write her letters including memories, advice, and inspiration.  Here's my contribution (and my favorite is #VII):

Dear Tess,

Wallace Stevens wrote his poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and it occurs to me that it’s like a little Instagram account (whereas William Carlos Williams’ poem “Red Wheelbarrow” is like one Insta post, and “This is Just to Say,” also by Williams, is more like an apologetic message on a friend’s FB wall—oh hey, we could compare poems to social media moments! But I digress). So here’s a moment in time, your sixteenth birthday, for which we are creating snapshots, reflections, messages on your “wall,” so to speak. I am offering you “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Sixteen.”

So much love,


Thirteen Ways of Looking at Sixteen

Among the people at dinner that night,
The most memorable ideas, references, and insights
Issued from the sixteen-year-old.

I was of three minds,
Like a sixteen-year-old
In which resides child, teen, adult.

She, sixteen, danced in the sand, arms thrown wildly to wind and sky.
It was one movement in the choreography of her life.

A man and a woman
had one.
A man and a woman and a sixteen-year-old
Are one.

They are all evidence of her,
Words, actions, body
And her slept-in bed, clothing, and acquisitions:
The sixteen-year-old’s being
As well as her props.

Music from the turntable filled the room
With sounds like.
The limbs of the sixteen-year-old
Crossed and curled and extended along the couch.
Her mood
Represented in her postures:
Shifting landscape.

O old folks of society,
Why do you imagine hoodlums?
Do you not see how the sixteen-year-old
Walks the world in feet
That become yours?

I know great minds
And inventions, accomplishments, triumphs, and talents realized over lifetimes;
But I feel, too,
That sixteen-year-olds influence
What I know and believe and love.

When the sixteen-year-old drove out of sight,
It marked one edge
Of the polygon of independence.

At the sight of sixteen-year-olds
Delighting in their own company,
Even the most cynical observers
Gaze with longing and approval.

I dreamed I was late to class
And dashing without progress.
Many times, fear grips my slumber,
When I am convinced
I’ve forgotten my chemistry homework
At sixteen.

Time is flowing.
The sixteen-year-old is thriving.

She was young and she was old.
She was child and she was adult.
The sixteen-year-old was
Nevertheless always Tess.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Commencement Speech 2017

Class of 2017

I had the privilege of teaching a poetry lesson in some of your English classes in the fall.  We read a poem by William Carlos Williams, called "The Red Wheelbarrow":  
It reads, simply:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

We talked about how perhaps this was the first Instagram poem--a simple image, zoom on the rain drops, with a filter that highlights the white chickens. I’m thinking this particular poem would attract a lot of likes, as well as what the hecks.

But we discussed that maybe this poem wasn't truly about the dependability of a wheelbarrow, or how important rain water is to a farm, or about chickens laying eggs for breakfast.  Maybe this poem was just about a moment.  A moment as beautiful and momentous in its own way as a graduation, a birth, a marriage.  Made memorable, perhaps, because the poet stopped to notice, downloading the image to memory and then translating it into verse.

It's tempting, students, to proclaim that the last four years were a blur, and for you, parents, to feel like it was only yesterday you were holding their hands to cross the street.  But our lives are series of wheelbarrow moments punctuated by momentous events, like tonight.  In class that day I asked you to recall a moment in your recent lives upon which so much seemed to depend.  One of you described driving over the bridge to school that morning with your sister.  It was sunny, and you were having a great conversation, getting along.  I think we all found that moment relatable.   You'll surely remember tonight, but the sweetest memories are likely similar episodes of connections, deep talks with loved ones, random trips with friends.   Most wheelbarrow moments are times we are in the company of people we adore or the wonder of nature.   

My toddler actually stops to smell the roses when she and I take the dog for a walk.   To her, so much depends on the things she notices and celebrates and points out--spikes on a cactus, a colorful rock, the snail painstakingly crossing the path.  She stops to look at me and say, I love spending time with you, Mom.  No selfie properly captures that wheelbarrow moment, and there's a chance I could miss it if I’m too busy to go for a walk or looking at my phone.  Paying attention to her is what makes it different.  

So I’m suggesting we more often swap selfies for "sensies"--times you observe keenly, listen carefully, feel deeply, taste mindfully, and breathe in the smells.  Exalt in the moments and the characters sharing them with you—recognize the sonder, if you will.  In just a few of my wheelbarrow moments with you, so much depended upon pancakes from a George Foreman grill, 185 doctors walking into a bar, Jamaican curry recipes, seafoam perfectly captured in a painting, and sitting the bench in the faculty basketball game. 

Before you fly away from this place you’ve shared, reflect on some of those wonderful moments together. 

Thank you, Class of 2017, for all the moments culminating in this graduation.