Internment

“Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of immigrant children wait in a series of cages…” -Associated Press, June 18, 2018

One of the most powerful conversations I ever had as a principal was with Tak Sugimoto, an alumnus of a high school where I worked, who had been interned as a boy in the 1940s. His family was of Japanese descent, and in the height of post Pearl Harbor fear they were taken from their homes in Encinitas, California and placed in custody in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. He described what education was like there: a makeshift school, students under terrific stress, and a system that punished families for simply being of a non-white heritage deemed threatening by the government.

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A hearty nonagenarian, Tak brought a profound wisdom to the telling of his story, and an unexpected sense of peace that was decades in the making. The corrupt nature of Japanese internment, the systemic racism, and the nation’s cruelty had wounded him, but not broken him; he lived now a strong, balanced man. Experiences like those he described had destroyed other families, ruined childhoods, and been a high water mark for intolerance and governmental cruelty. When I talked with him two years ago, he was optimistic that his country had learned from those mistakes.

As Tak spoke, I thought back to my friend Doug Kamon, whose parents met in a different internment camp, The Gila River War Relocation Center in the middle of another Arizona desert. At the end of every year we worked together Doug would present his family’s story, providing our students his own familiar face, making the details of this tragic time even more immediate to them. As Doug talked about his young parents and his grandparents, not all of whom survived the camps, students sat silently, listening to this man they knew so well and his connection to a past some would choose to forget. Many students found it hard to believe that Poston or Gila River could really have happened in the United States. More than a few considered themselves lucky that they didn’t live in times like those.

Both Tak and Doug’s parents were interned with their families. They struggled under harsh conditions and did their best to survive a system that marginalized them for no reason other than their ethnicity. In school in the camps the kids from the Sugimoto and Kamon families did their best in an environment filled with stress and anxiety, and went home to parents who could hold them tight and reassure them that they had the strength to persevere. These were terrible times, but they were together.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about these stories, and imagined what it might be like for the kids who don’t have parents to comfort them in times of duress. As an educator I know the importance of supporting every student, both academically and when it comes to mental health. It’s common knowledge that students face very real challenges, wrestle with complicated emotions, and struggle to stay healthy in US schools. Most of these students have adults to go home to and a greater sense of certainty than those kids whose home life is so uncertain. For kids who are deprived of that support, the risk of both short and long term harm is profound.

There are times when I feel helpless in effecting change beyond the walls of my own school. Here I can get to know kids and families, I can encourage kindness, build systems that promote care, and potentially make a difference. Even with all that, sometimes it’s really difficult.

In the greater world, where I am a participant, not a leader, I feel even more challenged when faced with situations that put kids in harm’s way. I am not a lawmaker, and as much as I write them, I struggle sometimes to believe that my voice matters. I do my best to stay optimistic, but seeing tragedy rise unexpectedly and impact kids keeps me up at night. Literally.

Willa Cather captured my anxiety when she wrote:

When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.”

“When kindness has left people…” What a terrible phrase. “When it has left a place where we have always found it…”

I want so much to believe that kindness can return, where we can all feel secure and not “drop into something malevolent and bottomless.”

Then I remember Tak and I hope.

I hope, and I wonder. Seventy years from now, who will be the alumnus who talks with a principal about her experience with internment? Will she have Tak’s wisdom or perspective? Will she share his strength? What will her story say about the the country that imagines itself to be a place where one can always find kindness?

A lack of kindness underscores the stories of Japanese internment that I know. There was a time when heartlessness toward others, describing them as something less than human, informed our country’s willingness to lock away the innocent. Tak was a kid, not a spy. Doug’s parents weren’t threats; they were people doing their best.

As an educator I need to believe that we learn, we all can learn, from our mistakes. I need to hold hope as a value, and live as if kindness is stronger than cruelty. In those shipwreck days I’m wise to look to survivors for inspiration, focus on nurturing kindness in every way I can, and be willing to reflect on what more can be done to help.

Reality is powerful. Optimists sometimes doubt. Internment of children is internment of children. Hope will win the day.

I hope.

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Thoughtful Destruction

“Masters, be kind to the old house that must fall”
-Julia Randall

At the end of the road is a sparkling new building, good for students, a haven for learning, modern, marvelous, and built to be an art school. That road, however, is anything but smooth.

Winding, filled with potential potholes, and paved over sacred ground, the path to progress promises to try our souls.

In a little more than a year our current campus will swell with the sound of hammering, bulldozers, and a great moving of earth. Construction fencing will circle our school, and looking down at the commotion within those plywood and chain link walls, the birds that fly overhead will witness the destruction of our old and wonderful building and the construction of something new.

IMG_7105Our current home, formally CE Mason Elementary School and home to ACMA for the past quarter century, is covered with meaningful student art, regarded with well deserved affection, and packed with more vivid memories than a Terrence Malick film.

This June, as the last summer we’ll spend in this building arrives, feels like a time of calm before the emotional storm, a chance to take a deep breath before piloting this splendid old ship into the dock for the last time.

As we do, we’re in the opening stages of planning the new building. Our architects are presenting ideas to the staff, and meeting with teachers from programs in need of special infrastructure (where to put the kiln, what kind of acoustics we need in the recording studio, what we mean by a 21st century darkroom). Our Urban Design students have taken a field trip to the architects’ office, where they presented their own ideas about what our school needs. In a comic aside, I asked at our last meeting: “Did they include the place to stable the therapy llama?” and for a few seconds everyone at the table paused, considering that that might be something our ACMA students would suggest. It was marvelous.

And as the architects are capturing on paper as much creative vision as the budget will allow, we as a school community are doing our best to wrap our heads around the idea that in just over a year CE Mason will be gone.

IMG_3784If our building was only a building, that wouldn’t feel so wrenching, but CE Mason Elementary, home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, is more than a building; it’s home.

This building has seen decades of students pass through its doors, nervous sixth graders, confident graduates, extroverts, introverts, and an assortment of artists and those willing to see life artistically.

…and art students did to CE Mason what art students do: they filled it with art.

Art appears everywhere in our current building. Student murals from the twenty-six years ACMA has been in existence fill our hallways, peek around corners, and smile down on the students as they walk to classes.

IMG_6246Mona Lisa, in full ‘90s grunge uniform of flannel shirt and backward baseball cap, smiles enigmatically toward the north. A canine Mona Lisa looks south, her muzzle a doggy smile. And hidden in plain sight, a collection of images tucked brilliantly in a complicated corner near the main office provides a fantastic version of Da Vinci’s most famous portrait, a reminder that art can be as playful as it is refined, as clear as it is heartfelt.

Contemporary student art hangs alongside the installations from years past. Paintings, drawings, sculptures in wire and clay all turn our hallways into a living gallery. Without lockers interrupting sightlines, it’s possible to stroll from the library to the math classrooms on the far end of the building and see canvasses hung at eye level, untouched but never unappreciated, every day. It is astounding.

In a little more than a year, it will be gone.

And yet…

…it won’t.

IMG_3856You’ll hear some artists talk about the impermanence of art, Picasso’s line: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” and such, but truth be told, even if we admit that the comfort is cold. The images that fill ACMA’s hallways, whether they’ve been there for five years, ten, or twenty, are part of our collective soul, and aren’t easy to lose.

But, painted on sixty year old plaster, the murals can’t be cut out or peeled off. While we’ll be able to save some three dimensional pieces, we’ve got to be more creative about the others. More than a year out, we’re already working on it.

We know that how we approach this opportunity will help define us …and believe in the idea of thoughtful destruction.

So, we will save what we can, we will capture what we can’t in creative ways (film, high resolution photographs that we can enlarge and display, and a couple of other creative solutions) that allow it to live on, and we will celebrate everything.

IMG_7350We will remember what James Baldwin said of life and art: “Nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”
And we will be those witnesses to our past, active participants in our present, and creators of our future. We will celebrate the history of ACMA’s first home and build on the creative spirit that defines our school as we continue to create.

I’ve said before that ACMA could be ACMA in a circus tent. We are the people who fill our school, the magic of creativity, and the commitment to making art. More than any building or campus, ACMA is a state of mind. So over the course of the next school year we will mourn, make art, move forward together, embracing the process with the hearts of artists.

Strange

There is a park that is known
For the face it attracts
Colorful people whose hair
On one side is swept back
The smile on their faces
It speaks of profound inner peace
Ask where they’re going
They’ll tell you nowhere
They’ve taken a lifetime lease
On Paisley Park

-Prince, Paisley Park

While we don’t have a school fight song at ACMA, I like to think that if we did it would be Prince’s “Paisley Park.” Artistic, independent, and confessedly quirky, students and staff at our little art school recognize the importance of seeing the world through the kaleidoscopic eyes of an artist. We paint, sculpt, act, and dance. We make music and make films. We write poetry and write scripts. We write the possibilities of our own futures.

To some, this looks strange.

But while the workaday world might look twice at what some of us wear, the color of our hair, or the glitter on our faces, ACMA’s colorful people are about more than just appearances. Our artistic souls run deep, and our capacity for seeing life in a way that might make a difference is profound.

If we were a superhero, we’d be Dr. Strange.

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 7.53.18 AM

…because ACMA is a place for magic. It is a world of wonder and wild creativity. Faced with challenges, artistic, academic, or social, our students respond cleverly, compassionately, and creatively. Where there isn’t yet an answer, our students are ready to go about making their own.

A student once told me: “Nobody’s weird here at ACMA, because everyone’s weird here at ACMA.” She meant this in a good way.

Diverse interests, diverse backgrounds, diverse attitudes all come together at our school under the transformative and unifying power of art. Painters, poets, photographers; dancing, drawing, and daring to do great things, it’s not strange to see students from one artistic pathway supporting peers from another, and even trying their hand in different medium as well. Our actors write, our musicians draw, every one of our sixth graders has a chance to dance.

Strange? Maybe. Or maybe strange is just a point of view.

ACMA contains a world not everyone sees, not technical, not linear, not gritty or cosmic, but something else, something unique.

It’s here that…

…plush ears, horns, and tails are a regular part of what students wear every day

…Mona Lisa is painted on our hallway walls, as a dog, a grunge rocker, and a surprising collage you have to look at twice to see her

…we have Back to School Night before the first day of classes

…students and staff pose for silly photos in the yearbook

…Rojo the therapy llama is a part of our school family

…our athletic complex is a single basketball hoop at a ¾ angle in the courtyard

…we don’t have a school mascot

…our hallways are a living gallery, filled with contemporary student art, not hidden behind glass

…LGBTQ is celebrated, not just accepted

…our summer theater program mounts a full scale musical in just a month

…our students doodle

…it’s not unusual to see a student on stilts, or a student in a top hat, or a staff member in a kilt

…tie-dye is the unofficial school color

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 11.40.36 AM…we have students who take math up through AP Calculus

…Halloween is a national holiday

…a giant painting of David Bowie hangs outside the main office

…staff compete in a giant Rock-Paper-Scissors competition

…we laugh a lot, we cry easily, and we surprise some who don’t know us with our strength

…we have a “Bat Cave”

…we love applause, we embrace creativity, and we care for each other

ACMA is a special place, and for those of us who get to spend time here every day, a transformational one. It’s here that we learn, create, a embrace being a little different.

To quote an unconventional superhero: “If you ask me, it’d be an awfully boring life if nothing was ever weird. It’s the weird ones who change the world.”

The Red Folder

Commencement. It’s a big deal for those of us in the education game, a day when we get to honor graduates and celebrate the accomplishment of students finishing more than a decade of learning. At some schools commencement is a solemn affair; other places it’s filled with silly string, flip flops, and decorated hats. A few universals seem to apply, and have for as long as most of us can remember: gowns and mortarboards, a podium for a speaker or two, and the promise of some kind of music.

My favorite ceremonies are those that bend expectations a bit, or even throw convention to the wind, smilingly of course. Here at ACMA those speeches, surprises, and smiles are gathered in a red folder on my desk.

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For the past few weeks all the plans for our ceremony have been piling up, and I’ve dutifully tucked them into that folder, where they’ve been arranged and rearranged for the greatest effect. We’re an art school after all, so we know that presentation matters, and where you put the jazz number, composed by an ACMA student, matters as much as who speaks first, in the middle, and last.

I’ve been looking at that folder all week, knowing that inside is magic. This weekend what’s there in black and white will burst out in technicolor. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, everything becomes real.

At ACMA, real means leaving some expectations behind. You won’t find pomp and circumstance in the program, or a pronouncement by a board member. I’ve read the speeches, all free of quotations from Dr. Seuss or Winston Churchill. Heartfelt and relevant, these messages to graduates capture the true spirit of our school.

What is in that folder is a list of people and performances, of honors (“the burgundy cord represents…” etc.) and pathway endorsements. These matter much, and while a list is not a painting, a dance, or a film, they identify students who have made a lifetime of studying their passion.

Inside too there’s a copy of the program, where the names of graduates are lined up more systematically than our students have ever been in a fire drill. The painting of our PAC on the cover is lovely and professional, a far cry from the beloved Quonset Hut where the students will meet to put on their caps and gowns, but also an important reminder that as kooky as we sometimes can be, when we need to we can present ourselves in ways that will impress.

The formality of ACMA’s approach to commencement (I’ll wear a tie, the grads won’t decorate their caps) is reflected in the elegance of the program. That dichotomy is us as well; creative and professional, polished and bohemian.

In juxtaposition to that formality… the emotion of the day, the creative spirit of our school, and a couple of surprises (one for the teachers and one for the graduates) will shine through at our ceremony. For any imagining boredom, worry not: that human touch and artistic spirit that helps to define who we are as a school will more than make an appearance.

I’m excited about my first commencement ceremony as the principal of ACMA. I’ll miss the seniors very much in the days and years ahead, but to have this time to celebrate them with our ACMA family is precious beyond expression. We’ll bring all our hearts to that celebration, our songs, our poems, our sage advice too. And in the end I hope we leave our graduates with a sense of our appreciation, a measure of our love, and song in their hearts.

It’s all in that red folder right now. Saturday morning it will be on stage.

That’s a big deal.

Striking the Set

This summer, before classes began at ACMA, I watched students who were part of a summer theater program building sets for the full musical being staged in the performing arts center. Back in August I described it as:

Over my first weeks on the job I watched them move from planning to preparation to putting nails into boards. The ideas that they’d bandied about at the start of July manifested themselves in a nearly completed set within a few weeks, a set that was ready for actors to inhabit by August. Bit by bit they built the world on which the action of the production would take place. Their mindful work literally set the stage for the great things to come.”

techsI hoped then that my work as a principal might parallel theirs, these smiling students filled with ideas, hope, and energy.

Now, it’s June. The show has opened, had a terrific run, and over the next few weeks we will take our final bows of 2017-2018, pull the curtains, and strike the set.

To stretch this metaphor, it’s been a production of action and adventure, comedy, drama, improv and well rehearsed dialogue. Along the way many of us have flubbed a few lines, dropped a prop or two, and adapted as the reality of performing live provided us with surprises. We nailed some scenes too. We’ve grown into our characters, learned the give and take of actors sharing a stage, and done our best to practice that old theatrical idea of answering “yes …and” whenever possible.

Then, walking in to school this morning I spotted evidence of this passage of time behind the theater, remnants from that first set constructed for the summer musical. So alone there by the scene shop, that L of wood, colors faded some, but less than you’d expect, stood as a reminder of how far we’ve come.

IMG_7097Every June it’s tough to see the school year end, the seniors leave, and campus go dark between shows. For me at least, a bit of melancholy tints the sense of completion that comes with the end of the year. I know that whatever magic we experienced from August to June is going, never to be exactly the same. I know I’ll miss our graduates and the folks retiring from education. I’ll miss the parents of seniors, who I’ve come to adore and who I’ll see less starting in the fall. Each school year has its own personality, and as I see the teachers and students packing up props and costumes, I know that this run is coming to a close.

…and…

In the play that is education, opening night is never far away.

We’ll have a little cast party soon, we’ll take a few weeks off under the summer sun, and tuck the memories of this year into the pockets of our mind where we can find them in the times we need them. Then, we’ll take a deep breath, and return before the leaves turn red this fall to plan, prepare, and begin putting together the sets for a new run that promises to be filled with a music of its own.