Commencement Address

In about three weeks our seniors will be graduating. They’ll gather in their black robes and square topped hats, march into the performing arts center (to the tune of a bagpipe, not pomp and circumstance; ACMA is a little less conventional than a more traditional high school), and sit down on stage for a ceremony that is part concert, part celebration, and part performance art.

One of the beautiful anomalies of the afternoon is seeing the whole graduating class, so wildly individual and creative, all together in their unifying commencement garb. Those funny tasseled caps and matching robes present our students in a serious and almost solemn way, beautifully juxtaposed with the spirit of creativity that defines our ceremony and lives within each of them.

There will be a jazz number, maybe two, a piece by our orchestra, and one from vocal music. Next week the seniors will vote on another entertainment for the ceremony that could be music, poetry, dance, or any other expression of art they’d  like to see that day. Those performances are some of the highlights of the ceremony, true reflections of our school and reminders of the power of art.

Our valedictorian will speak and a faculty member chosen by the graduating class. From these august voices the class of 2019 will receive inspiration and advice, and if I know our students and staff, we’ll laugh a bit and see our eyes moisten with emotion.

Two student speakers will take to the podium, stoking memories and offering perspective, giving the audience and their peers a window into the world of a student saying goodbye to a school she has known so intimately. I’m often moved and surprised by the depth of insight the senior speakers offer, heartfelt, honest, real. These speeches, interwoven with the musical performances, make our commencement a work of art.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 7.54.50 AM.pngAnd then…

Tradition dictates that as the principal I say a few words. It’s a job I’ve seen done a whole host of ways, from fatherly or motherly advice to attempts at wit, groaning acrostics, meandering and melodramatic monologues, and rafts of quotations tied together with dramatic pauses. I don’t want to do that.

Any advice I’d offer my graduates have already heard from me. I’ve given them the talk about the unifying and transformational power of art. Heck, they will have just seen it in their classmates’ performances.

If I’ve done my job, they’ve heard me talk about the importance of looking out for one another, taking care of friends and strangers, and making connections with those around them. They’ve listened when I’ve thanked or praised them for good work, both artistic and human. They’ve been told how important they are, how much they’ve meant to our school, and how much we’ll miss them when they leave. We really will.

The ones who need it have already gotten those extra promptings and pushes to realize their potential. Some got paternal talks in my office. Some heard me talk about my own failures along the way; we all stumble, they’ve heard me say, and they have the strength to get back up. I believe in them. I do.

So, my commencement address doesn’t need to be The Principal’s Greatest Hits Album.

And don’t let me quote Dr. Seuss.

But that’s not fair; Theodor Geisel has provided graduates with advice about the places they’ll go for years, and who am I to imagine that I’ve got the right answers to their unspoken questions.

I graduated up in the 1980s, when quotable advice showed up in movies like Teen Wolf:

There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.”

I’m not sure how that dagger line would go over at graduation. No, I guess I’m pretty sure.

So, no Teen Wolf this year, but there will be a moment in the ceremony where I’ll step to the mic, knowing it’s my turn to say something. People expect it. Tradition.

Last year I read a poem.

I’d taught a few English classes over the course of the year, including some poems by C.P. Cavafy. The experience had moved me deeply and it felt right to offer my graduates “Ithaca” before they set sail on their own journeys.

And… I’m not one to repeat myself, so this year, without Greeks or daggers, Seuss or sagacity, I’ve got it in my head to suggest just one idea, a final nod of advice from an adult who counts himself fortunate to have know this beautiful, creative, and kind senior class.

I’ll say no more right now; I have to have some element of surprise when I get up there to speak. Once the shindig is over, the mortarboards have hit the ground, and the seniors have walked out of the theater to a tune by our jazz band, I’ll reprint the speech here, nothing fancy, and far, far, far shorter than most will expect. My modest contribution to a celebration of our graduates.

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Into the Sunset

The mural had remained unfinished for 25 years, a panel of the film unspooling above the door of what had been the film room started but never completed. Few noticed it, or said anything if they did, but this year, as ACMA turned its collective attention to the history of our artsy school, conversation sprang up about the unfinished mural in the main hallway.

So rich with possibilities.

It took about thirty seconds to realize that as the building entered its final year we ought to finish this picture. Sure, it wouldn’t be as long lived as the rest of the murals on campus, and…

To lean into a little Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

I took to social media to ask if anyone wanted to pick up a paintbrush and finish the mural. An 8th grader was quick to say “yes.” We agreed that in keeping with that notion of art as experience, and underscoring the impermanence of art that our school is feeling collectively this year (as we prepare to move and see the 1949 building razed to make way for a new ACMA in 2021), we’d set the date for this completion in May.

As artists, we know that making art is where the magic lies, even if the physical life of that art is as impermanent as those first summer leaves. Sure, some of the big ones stick around, The Last Supper, the cave paintings at Lascaux, and such, but paint on a wall knows that its life is limited, and yet as humans we keep painting on walls.

Diego Rivera, the prolific Mexican muralist, recognized that “great art is like a tree, which grows in a particular place and has a trunk, leaves, blossoms, boughs, fruit, and roots of its own.” And while some redwoods tower above all others, other trees provide the wood from which humans have always built houses for shelter, ships for discovery, and the brushes, pencils, sculpting tools, sets, and stages that have given voice to art for eons and continue to do so today.

Rivera talked a lot about the importance of his work as it related to his culture, as true for him and Mexico as it is for us and ACMA. Enter that middle school artist with a box of paint and a ladder.

IMG_1616 (1)Hers would be the last mural at C.E. Mason Elementary, the longest running project in our school’s history, and a nod to art for the sake of art, not simply for longevity.

She decided, on the day she came in with a couple of friends to complete the painting, that she’d end the mural history of this building with a sunset.

“My friend told me ‘nothing gold can stay, Pony Boy,’” she explained to me with a smile, referencing the S.E. Hinton classic. That seemed right. “If you look closely you can see the two figures there watching the sun go down.”

Painting (and laughing and snacking and hanging out) took much of the day, as it had when the first artists pulled ladders to the wall back in 1994. Then, as now, making art at ACMA was both communal and filled with fun.

They even snuck a line from a My Chemical Romance song into another frame of the mural, a perfectly ACMA thing to do.

A quarter century later, that mural looks great, complete, ready for destruction when the school year ends. The destruction of the building, not the spirit of art. …and I like knowing that these same students will be juniors when we move to the new campus in 2021, ready to work on the first mural in the new ACMA. Stay gold, Pony Boy.

A Surreal and Welcome Luxury

Look back at the newspaper articles chronicling the opening of ACMA’s Performing Arts Center and you’ll find a sense of wonder and appreciation.

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The Oregonian reported on the PAC’s opening back in 2010, quoting ACMA Senior Nathan Avakian, who said: “For most of the ACMA students, it’s slightly overwhelming. It gives us something to work up to. When you walk in and you see the space — and it’s gigantic compared to what we’ve been working in — it makes you to want to do work that has that same size impact.”

That gigantic ambition to create has continued at ACMA for almost a decade.

But the journey to completion started much earlier, with a groundbreaking ceremony under the March sun where students talked about the excitement and anticipation that went along with such an impressive building. Until the late 2000s “new construction” at ACMA meant portables or 1958’s Quonset Hut; the PAC would be a huge step forward in the life of our little school.

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Brian Bertram, who has directed plays in both the PAC and Quonset Hut, described the Performing Arts Center as “a grand palace, filled with bells and whistles, begging us to play to our hearts’ content. We have our large proscenium auditorium, microphones, and high-tech lighting instruments (that can be programmed to move on their own!), a truly pre-professional space where students can learn how the larger theatres in the “real world” operate.” And… he added, “for a more intimate experience, students can be seen acting and teching in the Blue Box, a black box theatre that (for a piece of nostalgia) still runs with the light board from our cafeteria stage days!”

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The PAC has seen performances and art shows large and small, with Art is My Voice taking over the foyer gallery every spring, scores of Senior Capstones, dance shows, musicals, plays, and concerts. It’s in the PAC that we have movie nights, open mic nights, storytelling, and huge collaborations like this year’s ACMA Spectacular.

During the school day it also serves as a place where we come together as a student body for assemblies, to hear guest artists, and gather in those times we need to be together. The red interior was aptly described by former principal Michael Johnson as the color of a heart.

Info Night

As ACMA’s Savant newspaper said in 2010: “With velvety red interior, harmonious acoustics, and plush folding chairs, stepping inside the new Performing Arts Center strikes any student as a surreal and welcome luxury.”

…the heart of our campus.

Springtime Foursquare

It’s the time of year where sweatshirts and cardigans are collecting on the coat tree in my office. Cold mornings and warm afternoons make wardrobe choice a moving target. Gray skies turning to sunny days mark the advent of Oregon spring. It is glorious.

IMG_1558Almost overnight the students are eating lunch outside again, picnicking on the lawn, lounging in the sun, and playing foursquare in the courtyard.

Yep, I said foursquare.

High schoolers.

Foursquare.

This is also glorious, and while I know that at the magically quirky school where I work one should expect the unexpected, I’ll admit that seeing these teenagers (so poised and passionate when they make art, so purposeful and professional in their academic classes) play, flat out play surprised me in the best possible way.

Our little school has a history of vigorous foursquare dating back to the 1940s when campus was occupied by CE Mason Elementary School. Look at old photos and you’ll see courts painted on the blacktop; today it’s sidewalk chalk that provides the playing space, and 6th-12th graders who provide the oo’s and ah’s of a fast-pitched game.

For any cynics out there who hold to the notion that “kids today” are fundamentally different than they were when Truman was president, or Kennedy, or Nixon, I offer first and second lunch at ACMA as Exhibit A to refute the claim. Students, even (or maybe especially) the most driven students, need the freedom to play.

photo (3)In his splendid book Play, Stuart Brown accurately notes  that “play, by its very nature is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” What better antidote to the sometimes stressful structure of school than a little foursquare?

Uninhibited play, accompanied by laughter -as uninhibited play almost always is- should be a part of the school day. Recess doesn’t need to stop in elementary school, and I’ll suggest that the cost of a couple of red rubber balls may be one of the best investments we’ve made this year.

As we rush into May, with June approaching like a child coasting downhill on a bicycle, there is a tendency to say that kids (and some adults) are getting restless. They are. That’s okay.

And maybe, just maybe, the answer isn’t only in blowing whistles at them or scolding them into straight rows. Maybe, just maybe, what we see as restlessness is really that very, very human need to play.

Sure they need to do math, and English, and science too. Yep, they should be completing their timelines in history class and portfolios in art, and…

IMG_1465Maybe they should have a chance to play foursquare, and shoot baskets, and laugh through a game of Sharks and Minnows. Maybe it’s good for the high schoolers to sneak in a game of wall ball between AP Calculus and Government class. Maybe laughter, and play, and both time and encouragement to be a kid is part of the answer for “kids today.”

The world has changed much since students first played foursquare in the courtyard, and I’m buoyed by the reality that one thing that hasn’t changed is the competitive joy kids throughout the decades have brought to that play. Things can be stressful, things can be gray, but like an Oregon spring, the sun comes out, whispering to us to leave that sweater inside and get out and play.

Theatre is Beautiful

IMG_0096Remnants of memory still fill the walls of the storage area behind the cafeteria, words from across the years looking down on piles of plywood sets and platforms, scraps of faux brick, wooden boxes, swinging stage doors, and even a wooden shield or two. This was once “backstage,” though there wasn’t actually a connecting door that actors could open, when the stage at ACMA was the south end of the Quonset Hut. This was before the Performing Arts Center opened on campus in 2010 and it saw the genesis of theatre at ACMA.

“There wasn’t a shell or cyclorama to hide the wooden backstage structure” recalls Linda Bloom, who taught theatre and tech in that airplane hanger. “One year there was a technical theatre class. The first order of business was to paint the backstage area black. We also painted the stage black. Lots of black paint, many hours, several coats. It was starting to look like a real theatre space.”

Those early shows were adventures in ingenuity for clever directors, flexible performers, and Herculean stage managers. “Dressing Rooms? There were two locker rooms behind the stage area,” explained Linda Bloom. “The custodial staff used one for excess supplies/furniture. The other was for props and costumes, in bad need of organizing. Tech theatre began to hang costumes and label the prop boxes. Casts preferred to change in the school restrooms. This meant the building had to be opened during any type of performance because there were no self-contained restrooms in the food court facility, proper makeup lights were non-existent. The cast put on makeup and dressed in the restrooms, while the audience was also using them.” She laughed at the memory, grief softened by time gone by, and then described the ACMA production of Bullshot Drummond, a crime farce “with about three thousand props, each used barely once.”

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Those long tables of hats, and books, and coffee cups, stretched out in the “prop room,” which Linda explained “was also considered the ‘green room’ where the actors hung when they weren’t on stage. Of course they couldn’t hear the  show, and that meant they couldn’t hear their cues, so frequent visits to the backstage happened often, so as not to miss an entrance.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 9.03.03 AMACMA’s first musical was in that almost real looking space, The Apple Tree, in 2009. Brian Bertram remembers that “it sat roughly eighty people in very uncomfortable chairs. The ‘dressing rooms’ were on either side of the stage, and some overflow in the portables. Nevertheless, we had a two person live band (keyboards by Jodie DeHaven, all other instruments by Alex Milstead). The refrigerators that always had to stay plugged in would kick on in the middle of every performance, and they were SO loud! Performances always smelled like chicken nuggets, and we had little control over the heat. Rehearsals took place all over the school in any found space with a piano.”

That willingness and ability to stand by the old axiom the show must go on was just something ACMA theatre did. Our kids owned “our makeshift stage with pride, confidence, and a love of theatre that transcends the space,” remembers Brian Bertram, “making it a magical place, filled with passion and excitement.”

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The Apple Tree wasn’t the only show with that passion and excitement. Jon Albertson recalled a production of Much Ado About Nothing set as a 1960s Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon beach picture. The war was replaced by a surf contest, and he played the friar while his son played Leonato. “My most vivid memory is completely spacing my lines during the wedding scene,” he told me “and my son leaned over and cued me.”

Performers working together made the space work, sometimes magically.

From Gossip to Kahlo’s View, jazz concerts, dance shows, The Good Doctor, and Antigone, ACMA thespians, musicians, dancers, and other performers made the stage their own.

Even after those programs left the Quonset Hut, whispers of memory remain.

IMG_0102They can be heard with a visit into the rooms behind what was the stage today. On the walls, messages from theatre students (addressed to theatre students) talk about love, appreciation, and the importance of taking risks and making art.

Students who performed in this unique venue could tell you a thing or two about making creative magic.

IMG_1218Ovid’s Metamorphosis, for example, when Director David Sikking and his crew built a giant pond to serve as the stage. Actors were barefoot, and moved over and around the water as part of the show.

…and when they knew it was coming to an end as a performance space, creativity had one last surprise. For ACMA’s production of Alice in Wonderland, theatre techs cut trapdoors in the stage, knowing this was the final show. Fanciful, fabulous, and freeing, the “cafegymnatorium” had one final run to offer the performers.

No matter the space, the creativity that artists bring to their surroundings can be inspiring. As the back of a weathered metal door tucked in the back of what is now a storage room tells anyone willing to listen: “Theatre is Beautiful.”

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Breaking Fire Codes, Probably

“How many of you have never been in the principal’s office? Show of hands.”

A few perplexed looks. “Not for misbehavior,” I added, “just for any reason, you’ve never physically been in that particular room at the school.” A few more hands went up, fewer than I expected, which was marvelous.

We were finishing a Senior Ohana, where the class of 2019 was hearing about caps and gowns, how to audition for the senior speech, and getting my paternal advice about making good choices and the fact that the police see hijinks in a different way than they might.

We’d torn through the list of end of the year activities and responsibilities, nominated staff members to give a speech at graduation, and talked about the big breakfast on the last day of school. After all of that, I offered to them an opportunity for creativity and discomfort.

IMG_0259They were curious.

I asked for that show of hands.

And then, the invitation.

This May ACMA is staging the first ever ACMA Spectacular! It’s two evenings of performance and art that include every creative corner of our school. Students will sing, act, dance, make music, and make the audience applaud like they’ve never applauded before. There will be collaborations between artistic pathways, a slew of student art in the foyer (for sale to benefit the school), and some surprises thrown in to boot.

Our writers and filmmakers, sculptors and storytellers, everyone will have a hand in putting on an event whose scale our little art school has never seen. Amid a busy May, it’s the biggest show in town, and I explained to my seniors that to talk about the ACMA Spectacular in my monthly video message I needed something more than my usual talking head. I needed something …spectacular!

So…

If you’ve ever wondered if fifty or so students can fit in the principal’s office at one time, some with horns and bass guitars, the answer is a resounding YES. If you wonder if a group like that will laugh a lot, be kind to each other, and make their principal the proudest educator in the world, another big affirmative.

ACMA’s class of 2019 is an astounding collection of creative, kind, and collaborative souls, and today I was blessed with their company, energy, and smiles. It was spectacular!

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Spectacular!

What if we got everyone together, all the performing arts: theater, dance, jazz, orchestra, vocal music; asked our writers to read their works and filmmakers to screen what they’ve been working on; filled the foyer with visual art, sculpture, and even included some of that in art in the show? What if we made something big, something that showed off every corner of ACMA, from our composers to choreographers, painters, poets, filmmakers and more? It would be, quite simply …spectacular.

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The conversation, which ran like a wildfire through our ACMA staff, was prompted by some creative thinking ACMA PTO members who were looking for something other than the traditional auction to support our kids. ACMA has never been conventional, and the idea of doing something that welcomed everyone, adults and families and put the focus squarely on the art just made sense. Beautiful, unconventional, ACMA sense.

So… rather than an evening where the star of the show is a stranger rapidly reciting numbers, this year we’ve given the emceeing to one of our ACMA family, we’ve broken out of the conventionality of of a dinner and series of speeches, and we’ve put together creative acts that the community will be talking about for years to come. More than a parade of items to bid on, this show will be a cavalcade of creativity. Rather than tell folks about what our students do, we’re excited to show them the astounding artistry ACMA artists are capable of. Jaws will drop.

One of the joys of being the principal at ACMA is having the opportunity to see student artists creating every day. In studios and classrooms, I see kids painting, animating, writing, singing, dancing, playing jazz, sculpting, drawing, taking photographs, making movies, designing sets and costumes, playing classical music, and more. To call that inspiring undervalues the word inspiring. Under one roof we have such a broad spectrum of art that not everyone gets to see. Until now.

This May ACMA is going to share its collective creativity with the world in our first ever ACMA Spectacular! It promises to live up to its name.

Our dancers will dance, our musicians will make music, our writers will read, our filmmakers have been working on films all year for this event. Anyone visiting the Performing Arts Center will see sculpture, drawing, and painting, all of it for sale to benefit our students. In addition to those pathway specific performances we’ll also have collaborations between departments, some never seen on stage before. Tickets for the two shows are on sale now, and are well worth the price of admission, all of which goes to supporting student artists at ACMA.

It’s that idea of supporting kids that is at the center of all of this, and celebrating art as we do so. Truth be told, I’ve had a good time at more than a few auctions over the years, but I’ve never looked forward to an auction the way I’m excited about this year’s adventure in art.

It will be the biggest collaboration ACMA has ever seen and every ticket purchased, every piece of art sold to an ACMA patron (and there will be so many at such a range of prices), will help to ensure that the arts can continue to thrive.

Today more than ever the importance of art looms large. As budgets constrict and the world turns its eyes toward less poetic matters, art, and the artists who make it, continue to be a source of hope.

Joining us for the ACMA Spectacular, either on Friday night, for a more streamlined show, perfect for families; Saturday, with every bell and whistle; or even Saturday’s VIP experience, for those patrons of ACMA arts who want to contribute in a big way (and will get a bonus pre-show historical tour, concert, and ACMA gift bag), joining us for any of those experiences is a great way to enjoy great art, cheer amazing artists, and contribute to the future of ACMA art yet to be created.

It should be really fun too.

And since this is the last year students are here at the present campus that opened as CE Mason Elementary School in 1949, we’ve put together some historical retrospectives that celebrate the entire life of our little school. Our audience will take a look into the past, revel in the artistry of the present, and join us in looking to a future that promises to be …Spectacular!

Tickets are on sale now for both shows at our PTO website
Family Friday, May 17 at 7:00 PM

Gala Saturday, May 18th at 7:00 PM