When I first visited the school on the hill, summer heat baked the dead grass covering much of the open space there. A windowed and white concrete block —the school building — shoved itself into the hillside as a misfit among the rocks, broken glass, discarded sofas, and random car parts.
In my work shoes and blue jeans, I crunched my way across a goat trail that wound through the weeds and debris. I found the hill’s highest point, became still, and then got touched by a spirit that must have lived in this place. Current shot up through my feet so that even in the heat, I felt a chill.
Oh my God!
I mouthed these words through dry lips as I looked toward the bay, the old shipyards, the freeway, and the crumbling parts of the city. I knew folks in the neighborhoods there who told tales of hard times and mean streets. In the opposite direction, if I leaned just so, I could see across the flats toward the distant bridge and the gateway to the ocean. Storms, fog, wind, and the setting sun came from that side.
The school here was to be my school.
My family and I came back a week later with a huge bag of poppy seeds. We had this idea to seed the entire hill so that it would explode in orange come springtime. We all took big hands full and cast seeds everywhere. I predicted that when the flowers bloomed, so would the school. I remember seeing three boys that day, ebony skinned, hair breeze-bobbing, wirey and naked to the waist. They were maybe seven or eight years old, free to run among the stalks of dried grass, no grown up in sight. In spite of terrain pocked with glass and metal shards, none of these boys wore shoes.
They looked at me looking at them and then they dashed out of site. See you soon. . .
As it turned out, I got my prophecy backward. Months later, after rains, some poppies did bloom, but I knew by then that I had just started to understand how I stood when I stood on that hill. To call it magical came close. Stories surfaced each day, bits and pieces that wiggled up from the gravel, the school walls or the playground grit. I learned that first, before the talking, I had to listen. What came before my time to bring this school to this place? How did I fit in?
The playground made only one command: Write down and do not edit what I tell you. The rest will take care of itself. And my life as a school principal took a new direction born of this place — one that could not have come from anywhere else. Love, hate, spite, joy, sugar and salt. All of it mixing. All of it coming on in a tumult each day.
Poppies grow all over the hillside now. This kind of change takes years and not months. I find I have been turned inside out and then outside in again. The playground helped me lose my old self. I found a new self ready to step up. That’s how it goes up here. Like an ancient rhythm, that’s the way it was meant to be.