Tucked away in Humboldt County on a 12-mile-long sand dune is the small town of Samoa, where you’ll find Peninsula Union School District. The district is home to one school: Peninsula School. Lark Doolan is the man tasked with running both the school and the district.
“This is among one of the smaller schools in the state,” Doolan said. “I didn’t know schools like this existed until I had been working in education for quite awhile.”
Doolan serves as both superintendent and principal at a school with just 41 students. But his responsibilities extend far beyond those roles.
“If we don’t get a substitute teacher, I’m in a classroom,” Doolan said. “Some days I show up and it turns out I’m teaching kindergarten that day, or our cook is out and I’m serving up breakfast. There’s a way at a small school — we all have our individual roles. But we’re all really beholden to the bigger picture of serving the students.”
The uniqueness of the job allows Doolan to spend more time with his students. It’s not uncommon to find him sitting down for tea with students in his office to help address their individual needs.
“I really appreciate getting to know people and meeting them where they’re at,” Doolan said. “Have them really know me well. And to get to know them really well.”
But to truly know the man, we must go back to his days being raised as a woman. Born in Berkeley, Doolan grew up in a town that valued diversity. But it still took time to navigate his path toward living an authentic life.
“Sometimes I describe my life pre-transition like a skipping record,” Doolan said. “I’d be going about my day and then I’d interact with someone and they would gender me as female. And I didn’t have the language for it. I had never heard a record play all the way through, metaphorically. I just always had the skips in the record so I didn’t realize what was possible to just be in the flow.”
Finding that flow would take some time. Doolan points out he got a later start than some kids today. After graduating college at Humboldt State University, he started trying out a new pronoun.
“It just felt really good when people would call me ‘he,’” Doolan said. “I had long hair. I looked very feminine in various ways. But when people called me ‘he,’ I would smile and I would just feel really good. And they would start to see me differently. And there’d be like a moment where they would flip. And they’d be like, ‘Oh. I get you now.’”
It was one thing coming out to friends and family. But coming out to your school community in a small town? That was unchartered territory.
“I don’t know if I had an expectation of what it would feel like to transition or what it would be like,” Doolan said. “I just knew that it was something I needed to do. It was a daunting thing to take on. Especially as a superintendent, it just seemed like there was a lot to lose. But the danger of being outed was also stressful. I live just a few miles away from the school and I’m fully out in that town. And then being at work and not being out, it wasn’t a sustainable model.”
In May 2017, Doolan told his staff, students and school board at Peninsula Union School District. In doing so, he became the first openly transgender public school superintendent in the country.
“It’s just been far more amazing than I could have imagined,” Doolan said. “I grew a lot as a person through my transition process. I learned a lot. I’m able to be myself more fully. I’m able to express myself more clearly. And that makes me a better educator.”
Doolan admits the transition was “much smoother” than he anticipated, thanks in large part to the reaction from his staff and students.
“I think Principal Doolan has addressed it in a good way,” said longtime Peninsula School teacher Linda Stewart. “It wasn’t a ‘head-to-head.’ It was ‘come meet me.’”
That’s not to say everything was perfect. The summer after Doolan’s transition, eight students left the school without any explanation, a big number given the small district. But 14 new students enrolled in the fall. Through it all, Doolan says he never regretted his decision to come out.
“I’m happy to be transgender,” he said. “The fact that I was raised and socialized to be a woman makes me a better man. I live my authentic truth and I celebrate other people living their authentic truth. For me, being transgender, that’s just part of who I am.”
Doolan knows there will be questions. He knows some people will still not understand. But he’s OK with that because he is finally living life as his truest self.
“Acknowledging that you don’t understand is the beginning of learning,” Doolan said. “For me, being transgender, it’s just about living my best life. I made a commitment a long time ago to be of service. And to live a life of service. And I find that my capacity to be of service to my fellow humans is increased when I’m living as a guy. And so this is my path.”
ACSA storyteller Michael Kelly also sat down with Doolan for an episode of the ACSA Speaker Series video podcast. That interview will be available starting June 11.