Chatting with Mr. Payne: A look into the principal’s first few weeks

Despite the brutal California sun, the principal’s office is surprisingly cool, likely the result of the open space and closed windows. The sweeping wooden desk stands in the center of the room, allowing more space for the entryway — the layout is almost a subtle “hello” to anyone visiting Principal Barnaby Payne.

The Tapatío bottle loitering in his office is especially peculiar. A few days ago, it was watching the quad on his windowsill; today, the bottle memorizes the calendar on his multiple computer monitors. Payne says its presence in the office is practical.

“I keep a bottle in my office because I put hot sauce on everything. I’m a lover of hot sauce,” Payne said.

Payne arrives at Redwood High School after three years as principal at Taiwan’s Kaohsiung American School. Among things like the Taipei 101 and invention of bubble tea, the island country is famous for its cuisine. After returning to San Francisco, his home before Taiwan, his affinity for spice makes him miss hot pot the most of any other food.

Payne reminisces on Taiwanese hot pot, a staple of Taiwanese cuisine. (Photo courtesy of Culture Trip)

“That’s not to say there’s not plenty of hot pot in the Bay Area. But here, it’s a little more like fine dining,” Payne said. “In Taiwan, it’s ubiquitous and it’s cheap. It’s an experience, and around every corner there’s a different hot pot restaurant.”

Payne fondly recalls a Taipei restaurant’s “heart attack rice”: rice infused with the fatty hot pot broth, something vastly different from what he consumes on his morning commute: a New Orleans style coffee, courtesy of the ferry building’s Blue Bottle store. Answering emails with music on the ferry, this morning ritual is quiet; the pace picks up when he arrives on campus. Bouncing from meeting to meeting, he makes time to watch the foot traffic in the main building or the literal traffic of the front parking lot. Administrative Assistant Dina Craft says Payne made a point to note these rush hours.

“One thing he wanted to know was when students would be outside, so I put them into his calendar with reminders,” Craft said. “He likes to be out there.”

His efforts to make himself visible are something Advanced Placement Art History (APAH) and photography teacher Susanne Maxwell picked up on. The first weeks of school, Maxwell invited Payne to her APAH class and found his presence supportive.

“You feel like he really wants to get to know all of us: the kids, the staff, the community,” Maxwell said. “I feel like he has a fresh set of eyes looking at the importance of alternative pathways for kids. He really struck me as a great fit for our school.”

Looking out onto the amphitheater, Payne enjoys his daily lap around campus during lunch.

Craft also noted Payne’s efforts to connect with students, citing his habit of verbalizing his amazement after speaking with a student.

“Most of the time, when the students walk out [of his office] … he will 99 percent of the time make some comment about how amazing each student he meets is,” Craft said. “And I’m not just talking about how many [Advanced Placement courses] you’re taking; it’s your demeanor and character. And he sees that.”

And with community members, Payne extends the same efforts, making them feel valued by giving them a voice. 

“He’s allowed opportunity for people in the community that have concerns about equity … [to speak]; he has made space for them,” Craft said. “I always think allowing people to be heard is so important. … Just like David [Sondheim] did, I think [Payne] is going to be leading by example.” 

That example, for Maxwell, is a personality that balances professionalism with fun — something already shown in Payne’s attire. 

“His personality shines through in the way he dresses, the way he talks, all of it,” Maxwell said. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but boy, you can rely on him if you need to get something done.”

Payne’s iconic red and white Air Jordan Lows.

From the iconic, red and white Air Jordan Lows to a blazer and floral shirt, for Payne, fashion means more than self-expression.

“I do think Redwood students and the Redwood community deserve [respect],” Payne said. “For me as principal, caring about how I present to the community is important. And that’s one way to show respect, is to bring a little bit of style.” 

Practicing respect extends to his email habits as well. Pressing matters aside, he keeps emails within school hours, considerate of educators’ bottomless inboxes and life balance.

“Sending an email [at 8 p.m.] sometimes comes with the assumption on the part of the recipient that they’re expected to be working at night,” Payne said. “I try to keep those emails within the work day, out of respect to everyone else’s work life balance. But no, I’m obsessively checking communication 24 hours a day.”

Despite constantly checking his inbox, given the close nature of their work, Craft still sees Payne as someone with a healthy life balance.

“I think [educators have] gone through so much [after the pandemic]; there’s a

sense of self preservation and taking care of oneself, mind and body, eating well and taking a moment to go for a walk,” Craft said. “I see that in him. And that’s something that I would like to take on myself.”

Payne reminisces