Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.” – JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
We’re moving this year. Every program, every classroom, every teacher, every student, we’ll spend the winter going through old things, the spring packing, and the summer relocating eleven minutes up the road to our temporary digs in an enormous middle school building that has served as a home to a series of schools under construction and has yet to open itself. That’s a role our own campus played back in the 1970s, and as we cash in that good karma some folks are a little nervous.
Like Bilbo in Tolkien’s epic, we’re challenged to lift our little swords, allow our hearts to pitter patter, and go forward. But read that opening quotation again and you’ll notice that as he does, that intrepid Hobbit keeps one hand on the wall, feeling his way through the darkness with the help of a familiar support.
For us, that familiar wall is the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has been home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, and Arts & Communication High School before that, ever since our school has been in existence.
Over the past quarter century students have been making art and making meaning in the same classrooms, making friends and making mischief in the same hallways, and making a difference in a thousand different ways after graduating from our little school.
The memories that saturate our walls are as much a part of the building as the murals students have painted on the plaster over the years. The wainscoting hums with stories; the gallery of Mona Lisas look down with enigmatic smiles; and in the courtyard the echoes of decades old laughter mingle with the shouts of our current students and their almost daily games of Sharks and Minnows.
Even as the wrecking balls roll onto campus this summer, we’re keeping some of the wainscoting to use for our reception area in the front office of the new building and the circulation desk in the new library. The murals invite a variety of approaches, as we capture images of the paintings that we can take with us and devise ways to honor their spirit, even as 1940s building materials mean we can’t pull the walls out intact. And as we trundle our traditions into the metaphoric bindlestiff we’ll sling over our shoulder in July, we’re also wise to keep a space (both physically and spiritually) for the murals still to be painted on the walls of a building that doesn’t yet exist.
Michelle Young, Saul Roberts, and all the many names signed beneath the student artwork from years gone by will be joined in our school’s history by new names, some current students, some newborns today who will be painting on the walls of an ACMA campus when they graduate in 2037.
That campus hasn’t yet been built, but it will be, and when it is those walls will hold stories as rich as the memories already made in our current home.
Memories from former students like…
Kristen, who told me about the weekend of the junior/senior prom when her Ohana spent the night in the school. “Our group of about twelve people met up at an Italian restaurant in Beaverton — Giovanni’s. From there, those of us with cars headed to the high school (some people walked), with Mr. Yambouranis chaperoning us. The boys were to stay in the library; the girls in the Ohana classroom, which was the one at the far end of the building, across from the drinking fountain that had a mural of tiles and the office. Of course, no one really followed those rules! We used the TVs and Laserdiscs to watch a bunch of film, including The Goonies, Rock & Roll High School, and the “new” episodes of “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” that aired on Fox. Yambo retired for the night in the nurse’s office near midnight.” I can see the smile on her face as she recalled the adventure: “Several of us did some exploring.”
Spencer, who remembered “Mr. Sikking feverishly describing philosophy and the hero’s journey as he asked questions and then ran to overhead to underline the point 3 or 4 times.” And once, “after we had reached some sort of fundraising goal for the school, Mr. Sikking performed Santa Baby in a sexy Mrs. Claus neglige on stage for the whole school.” It was, he remembered, “one of the most ACMA things that comes to mind.”
And Lily, who, when talking about things being so “very ACMA,” told the audience at her graduation that it would be impossible to look back on “Cooper and Will’s concert lightshow or Brock’s amazing film about cannibalism without feeling like this place is at least a little bit different. I remember hanging cellos up on the curtain rail in Mr. Brandau’s room, scream singing “Africa” by Toto at karaoke night, and making a film about a plastic lawn coyote.” So very much in keeping with the spirit of our school.
These stories won’t disappear when the bulldozers arrive in July. As the Quonset Hut that has served as gym and cafeteria, and performance hall is knocked to the ground; the basement that has been a cafeteria, counseling office, day care, and television studio is filled in; and the portables that have been the epicenter of more art, movies, music, and dance than any portables in the history of the world are carted away, the memories will be as alive as they have always been.
Our school is magical not because of the walls we touch as we lift our little swords and move forward; our school is magical because of the people who inhabit it: those whose daily life on campus was years ago, those who call it home today, and those whose paths will lead our way in the decades to come.
A friend who recently retired from ACMA had told me that she isn’t sure if the new building will ever feel to her like home. It’s an honest response to a big transition, and one that I know is echoed in other hearts as well. “I’m willing to keep an open mind,” she tells me, “but…”
There is a world of worry in that ellipses.
There is also an opportunity. I keep her, and all those creative, sensitive, and fantastic souls of students and staff no longer on campus in mind as I do my best to honor the spirit of our school as we embark on this transition. Knowing that to go back is “No good at all!” To “Go sideways? Impossible!” Going forward is the only thing to do, and we will do so mindfully, courageously, and with a clear sense of who we are.
Bilbo Baggins was not defined by his time in the Shire; he left for adventures, whether he thought himself ready or not, and while he brought himself and his history to every step along the path, he returned to his home in the hill richer and more creative than he could have imagined.
Our school is no less than that adventurous Hobbit.
I believe that my retired friend will step into the new building that opens in the fall of 2021 and know that this is home, not because of the wainscoting repurposed for the front desk or familiar student artwork in the hallways, but because of the spirit of our school —creative, kind, and accepting— that is as true on our current campus as it would be if we held classes in a circus tent, on a cruise ship, or at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We’ll be no place as exotic for the next two years, but the creativity and curiosity we bring with us to that big empty building on 118th Street will make it feel as if it were.
And then, in August of 2021, we’ll move back. Back to building constructed to be an art school, a structure that honors our school’s past while looking toward its future. There will be familiar faces (Mona Lisa, David Bowie, Leonidas), and plenty of new faces as well. And as we start making art and making meaning, making friends and maybe a little mischief, our new space will (over time) begin feeling simply like our space.
Some will say it’s an aspirational sentiment, but I honestly believe that the next few years will be an adventure that can share the same subtitle as Tolkien’s Hobbit, living up to the reassuring and very real words: “There and back again.”