It was like waking up from a 20-year nap.
Stuart MacKay, principal of West Sacramento's River City High School, said he felt like Washington Irving's most famous character when he returned to campus this week, more than four months after he was badly injured breaking up a fight.
It was like a Rip Van Winkle experience," MacKay said in his native Scottish brogue. "It was strange."
A doctor cleared him Friday to return to school. After months of quietly recuperating at home from head and neck injuries, MacKay said coming back to the energetic, sprawling campus Monday was both wonderful and jarring.
Van Winkle awoke to a world where he was shunned and few remembered him; MacKay's experience was just the opposite.
As he visited classrooms this week, students greeted MacKay with cheers and applause. He teared up and quickly walked out.
He'd hardly left his office Tuesday when a student called out a greeting and gave him a hug.
"There have been quite a few hugs," MacKay said.
MacKay, a burly man with silver hair, is known for roaming campus and wandering into classrooms. He did so Monday and Tuesday, letting everyone know he was back.
As he walked into band practice, one of his favorite spots to relax, students cheered. He greeted saxophone players and trombonists and smiled through a jazzy version of "Lover Come Back To Me."
When he headed for the door, teacher Felicia Greenwood said: "Hey guys, can we give a big welcome back to Dr. MacKay?" The room erupted into applause and whistles.
MacKay ducked out quickly, his emotions too close to the surface.
"I'm really excited to have him back," said Koriann Einsel, a 15-year-old sophomore who greeted MacKay in the midday sunshine. "Everyone loves him here."
Linda Garcia, 15, said students seek out MacKay for advice. "He's the go-to guy with problems," she said.
SybBella Conto, 17, said she sent MacKay a Christmas card, encouraging him to return.
"Don't let ignorant children keep you away because they're the ones who need you most," she said she wrote.
MacKay was sidelined in late October with serious head, neck and neurological injuries after he was knocked down, and possibly struck on purpose, breaking up a lunchtime brawl.
Weeks afterward, MacKay described being unable to recall words and said he had memory loss.
An investigation by West Sacramento police led to the arrest in December of a 15-year-old boy suspected of punching MacKay in the back of the head. He was booked into Yolo County juvenile hall on a felony charge of battery with serious bodily injury,
Yolo County prosecutors said Tuesday that a criminal case is pending. Officials have not identified him because he is a juvenile.
Four students, including the boy, were expelled.
MacKay said he remembers trying to break up the fight, and going to the ground, but doesn't know how he was injured.
He said he doubts it was intentional. The principal said he has broken up numerous fights and teens often are out of control with anger.
"This young man was still trying to retaliate" against the students he was fighting, MacKay said.
The principal said he doesn't hold a grudge but believes students have to learn to obey authority figures who order them to stop fighting – for their own safety and the safety of others.
Since the incident, he said River City has been relatively peaceful.
MacKay said there were times when he wasn't sure he'd ever return. But he said he's glad to have made it.
"It's good to be back," the principal said. "My mind is working again. The longer I'm back, the better it is."
Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.