My goal in sharing some Arts & Communication history has never been to write either a hagiography or exposé, but rather to capture a little bit of what the school was like in years gone by. That means digging into old boxes buried in storage, reaching out to former students and staff to ask questions, and following leads wherever they go in search of stories worth telling. It also means hearing voices that don’t only walk on the sunny side of the street. It means embracing our school’s identity as a place of artists and divergent thinkers (certainly) and also rebels and hippies and scruffy headed nerf herders.
The late 1990s saw big changes at our little school, and to do that time justice it’s important to look not only at the official history. After all, it was an ACMA grad who told me: “ ACMA taught me that history is propaganda.” Perhaps it is.
This modest collection of memories is far from comprehensive. For every story I’m able to share another hundred swirl in the collective memory of past students and staff. Some of those stories are far richer and more complete than any I’ve told or will tell, and I think that’s okay too.
It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep chasing stories, sharing those I can, and doing my best to be, as Shakespeare called it, “a cipher to this great accompt.” That said, I know I can’t do it alone.
Another former A&C student wrote to me to share his memories from the fall of 1999, prefacing his story with these words: “this is my experience, and an unspoken history that most don’t remember and if they do, they probably gloss it over. Here it is…”
And so, to my Masonites and ACMAaniacs, here is another view of our school, circa 1999…
Right now I see how quickly all of the things that have made C.E. so admirable are diminishing. There are moments when I walk down the hall and feel like a stranger at a school that I’ve felt at home in for four years. It’s as though the halls don’t want to keep me in their arms anymore, they only want to push me through. After all, it is not the halls that made our school what it is, but the incredible people inside them. Now many of those people are gone, and those still here are lagged down with the same feeling, and have little energy to hold on. This energy has been the life force behind our school from the beginning. Without it, it is doomed for failure, no matter what form it may take in the years to come. There is no question in my mind that the spirit of C.E. Mason is on its last legs. This friend that we all have grown so close to is dying.” -Ellen Greer, 1998-1999 Arts & Communication High School Yearbook.
Arts & Communication started as a big idea. Creativity, art, freedom, these were the watchwords of the founding mothers and fathers, the students and staff who took up residence in the sturdy building that had once been C.E. Mason Elementary. In these wainscoted hallways, in the Quonset Hut that had been a gym before it was a theatre, and in the converted classrooms that had once taught reading and writing to the postwar youth of Beaverton, this intrepid group of adventurers slashed a trail through the overgrown jungle of possibility.
Then, not yet ten years in, changes came to C.E. Mason that felt to some like clear cutting had come to the rainforest.
“Magnet Academy” got added to “Arts & Communication” and with it came policy changes about maintaining a specific grade point average, auditioning to get in, and more.
Some things looked the same; students still made music, wrote poetry, and shot and edited their own films. Sculpture, painting, and drawing mattered much, and if you were looking for the school with the most young novelists, A&C was the place, but the silly mug shots weren’t quite as silly as some years past, you’ll find no poetry or student cartoons in the 1998-1999 yearbook. At one point in the year the readerboard out in front of the school read: ARTS + COMMUNICATION = ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE.
One student from the time called it the “domestication” of Arts & Communication. Others chose words that wouldn’t be reprinted in a family newspaper.
There was still a spirit of iconoclasm in the students and some of the staff. Tim, who graduated in 1998 remembered his final day at A&C:
“As was tradition, light hearted pranks on favorite teachers occurred with regularity during this final week. We had been warned to keep it light and safe and to not damage the building or people, but very few of us heeded the warning. On our final day, a small band of A&C warriors hatched a plan to prank Orestes Yambouranis.”
“What had to have been a months’ worth of paper towels and toilet paper were pilfered from the custodian. The group then proceeded to TP the entirety of Yambo’s room. Every light fixture, every window, and surface that could be covered in paper…was. The effect was otherworldly, creating a disorienting effect with ropes of paper towels hanging like vines from the ceiling. I’ll never forget the reaction we got from Yambo. A momentary flash of shock, and then utter boyish glee “It’s better than snow!” he exclaimed as the whirled through the maze of paper screens pulling them down on top of himself.”
As Tim told me this fall, “this simple send off prank typifies my experience at A&C, with staff and students often experiencing moments of shock that quickly were replaced with glee.”
Some, it seems, stayed shocked.
Talking with students from the late 1990s is an experience in torn hearts and raw emotion. Even years later, for many their memories of school are complicated and understandably sad.
I had coffee with Peter, whose student film made it in an earlier post in this little history. He remembered the school-altering change that occurred when a new policy required all students to retain a 2.0 grade average or be told to leave the school. Students who fell below a 2.0 received a letter informing them that they were no longer allowed to stay at Arts & Communication High School. It was a sea change from the earliest days of A&C, a shift that left many reeling.
Peter captured his experience in his heartbreaking essay The Day I Crucified Myself, a reminder to any of us in education just how much our actions matter to those students who make up our schools.
And Peter wasn’t alone.
Lisa left A&C around the same time as Peter, on to pursuits of her own beyond the walls of C.E. Mason. Looking back now on the time now, a creative adult whose life has transcended any teenaged experience, there was a smile in her words as she told me “What a brilliant assembly of creative degenerates we were!”
When the school opened in 1992, as one early staff member said, the only students who were daring enough to come to A&C were kids who’d gotten Ds or Fs. Now they weren’t allowed to stay.
It reminded some of that Doors song:
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes again”
For some students, like Peter, the end was all too real. For some, like yearbook editor Ellen, the end came with graduation and the lingering fear that “all those like me who need a school like this” may “fail because they never had a chance to succeed.”
A couple of student filmmakers made a video eulogy, an Ode to C.E. Mason …to the tune of Johnny Cash’s San Quentin.
For a generation of C.E. Masonites, something special was over.