The Elephant in Moscow

Almost every year our jazz band packs up their instruments and drives to Idaho for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Wildly gifted musicians, these students are great ambassadors for ACMA, inspiration to a world hungry for art, and a truly fun bunch.

This year, ahead of the trip, they hosted a fundraising concert where they could shake off any nerves ahead of the big festival performances and fill a jar with enough money to help make the trip to Idaho a big success.

It was a fantastic concert, as they always are, and this one felt a little different.

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It began with some R&B, musicians I’d heard play Monk and Ellington, brought some unexpected funk, and the crowd of jazz aficionados loved it. After that came the usual suspects: Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, some with stories to be told, others introduced with a smile and a sense of urgency to get to the tune, so beautiful it would be. Off to the side, one of our English teachers and his wife danced. Even before a pianist pointed out their swing, I could tell the students dug having them enjoying the music so much. They played on, bass thumping, horns blaring, and piano dancing up and down the register. Drum solos, a Frank Sinatra tune, and the playful banter of musicians comfortable with each other and engaged with the music they were playing, this was an example of the profound power of art. The concert ended with a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that would have made Nina Simone proud.

IMG_0444Throughout the night, as students adjusted the bass or tinkered with tuning, our jazz director stepped to the front of the stage and charmed the audience. We were getting every bit of professionalism we paid for at this free concert, he told us, we were seeing the fruits of the students’ labor, and getting a window into their artistic souls.

Midway through the performance, with a little longer time to fill, he told us a story.

“I’ve taken the kids on this trip to Moscow, Idaho ten of my eleven years at ACMA,” he said to the assembled crowd. “Sometimes the weather is great, and sometimes it’s crazy. One time a few years back we had a lot of snow. We were on the bus driving toward town, and out into the road stepped a big moose. He looked at our bus coming down on him and froze. There was nothing we could do. The bus hit the moose, and the moose was annihilated. So was the bus. It ruined the whole side of the bus. Nobody got hurt.” He smiled. “And it was one of those moments when I thought to myself: Should I call the principal? I mean nothing happened. A split second, that’s all I hesitated,” he said, nodding in my direction. “And then I saw that a kid had texted home: ‘Mom, We just hit an elephant!’”

IMG_0450It was an example of those nutty and unexpected incidents that define what it’s like to be an educator. Once we knew the kids were all okay, we could laugh together.

That’s a feeling not unlike what happens when a play wraps or a dance show is over, when Art is My Voice closes or the last audience members have headed home from a literary event with a copy of The Ballpoint tucked beneath their arms. There is a surprising joy in art, and sometimes conflict too, but in the end art has the capacity to leave us feeling better about our world.

One joy of working at an art school is seeing students finding their voices and sharing their passions with an audience. It makes me proud to think of the students who are traveling to Lionel Hampton, and happy to imagine the inspiration they’ll bring to the audiences there. Here’s hoping they don’t meet an elephant on the way.

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Pirates and Thumbprints

My favorite yearbooks are the ones that veer completely from conventionality and make choices that are particularly bizarre. Yearbooks are the chronicles of a school, precious tomes that capture a whole year’s worth of memories between sturdy covers, they are records of a time that matters so dearly to students, books tucked away to be revisited decades later with a smile and blush of memory. So when yearbooks get kooky, some non sequitur on the cover or a bold and unexpected theme, I can’t help but admire the pluck of the editors and the willingness of the advisor to let her or his kids simply have fun.

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 8.52.08 AMEnter pirates.

Now for the casual reader, someone maybe not tied to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, I need to point out that our school does not have a mascot. We are not the Cougars or Mavericks or Vikings, we don’t shout “Go Mustangs!” at the big game (in part because there is no “big game” at ACMA, unless maybe you count the kids playing sharks and minnows at first lunch). So when I spotted the 2002-2003 ACMA yearbook I was struck by the jaunty fellow on the cover, peg legged, hook handed, with a parrot on the shoulder of his captain’s jacket.

Yes, anyone who knows me knows I dig pirates, but just as much I love creativity and the unexpected, and this yearbook offers both, as well as some nice nods to ACMA tradition and a sense of fun that shows up on every page.

One of those traditions is a page of Senior Thumbprints, signatures and stamped fingerprints for every graduate. This tradition, that honors diversity even as it includes everyone in an organized image, is a great example of that balance between individuality and cohesion that is ACMA at its best.

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The Senior Challenge is another tradition, now lost to time, that appears in this and other mid 2000s yearbooks. In 2002-2003 the challenge was to figure out long many metric feet long the class was. They didn’t quite make it. Senior Challenges haven’t been a part of more recent ACMA classes, but as we bid adieu to our C.E. Mason building, it strikes me as a good year to bring this one back.

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 9.49.57 AMOther traditions have evolved over time. In 2003, ACMA had a more traditional formal court. These days the court is less constrained by formality or gender specifications, but looking at the posed images from ACMA’s early 21st century royalty is a reminder of where we’ve been.

Less formal are the staff photos, a playful lot, including half a dozen smiling adults (well, alleged adults) who still prowl the hallways of ACMA today. Seeing them then is a reassurance that even as we face great change, there is a certain stability that should reassure us that the heart of ACMA isn’t our building; it is our people.

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Many of those people joined clubs, very much on display in that pirate yearbook. Some are familiar (Dance West, National Honor Society, and Theatre Ensemble), and some delightfully unexpected (Brain Bowl and the Cross Country Ski Team), populate the yearbook, smiling students doing what they love.

Playful candids, and the “so very ACMA” incongruity of Yoda showing up on page 49. It’s a pirate yearbook, sure, but …Yoda.

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It wouldn’t be a vintage ACMA yearbook without a few misspellings, but no matter how you spell “Congratulations” the yearbook shouts that ACMA truth that there is a place for everyone in this colorful world of jazz, art, and creativity.

…and there’s a page simply titled: Attack of the Russian Toilet Paper Princess. This is not Beaverton High School.

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 9.50.29 AMIt certainly was not. As 2004 grad Gretchen remembered, “We were the most random smattering of kids that could express ourselves uniquely and be different without judgment. We each had our own claimed part of the L hallway- my spot was this old heater near the stairs to sit, dance around, and eat at- I only ate in the “cafetorium”- as we called it once the hideous stage was built (hah), on brown bag lunch performance days… For me it seemed like the best collaborations started to be born post-2002 and Art is my Voice, when we all realized that coming together could make pretty inspiring projects.”

Inspiring they were, and inspiring they are. The memories artwork that still whisper through our hallways like happy spirits haunting a sacred space make ACMA a magical place. So a decade and a half later, it’s fun to raise our goblet to the playful souls of years past, and especially that swashbuckling crew who put together ACMA’s only pirate themed yearbook (so far). Cheers to Moments to Treasure, a rollicking good adventure and a perfect window into Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

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Join a Club

I’m not sure how much of this is true. Like any story told by a middle schooler, there is room for imagination, hyperbole, maybe even a stretch or two. And…

Jesus told parables. You’ll find fables in Zen Buddhism. In fact it seems to me that in every tradition pursuing truth, Hindu, Sikh, Islam, you’ll find storytelling as a way of talking about the big issues. So…

This winter, my daughter’s middle school banned cell phones. At first it was explained to the kids as a response to online bullying, but the students pointed out right away that behavior like that was probably as likely to happen outside the school day.

Some adults, hearing of the prohibition, praised the notion that the kids would be forced to interact, make eye contact, find ways to get together that didn’t involve a screen.

“We’ll see how long this lasts,” my daughter said with a shrug. “Kids won’t do it, and they won’t join a club just because they’re forbidden to bring a cell phone to school.” Insert middle school eye roll here.

We’ll find out later that she was wrong.

There was the expected petition. It failed, of course, to change the policy. Appeals to the administration fell short. One boy, she told me, was sent to the office to hand over his earbuds, not because they were attached to his phone, but because they could be attached to his phone.

“We can’t even have them at lunch,” my daughter reported. Tough policy, I thought.

Then today, as we were driving to the grocery store, my daughter gave me an update on how things were going. “A bunch of kids got in big trouble,” she explained. “One boy got suspended for two weeks, maybe more.”

screen shot 2019-01-30 at 10.55.28 am“Over a cell phone?” I asked.

“Well…”

And now the story veers into something straddling the worlds of fable and karma. I have -and I’m more than comfortable with- only second hand reporting. The veracity of the account pales in my mind to the feelings the story inspires. As Ken Kesey told his audience in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” So…

“It was a fight club,” she said matter of factly.

“A fight club?”

“Yeah. This boy organized it and arranged fights between other kids. They had to pay to be in it. People would have to pay $10 to watch. The winner would get some of the money.”

“He’s like Don King.” I offered.

“Who?”

“Never mind. How’d you hear about it?”

“Everybody’s talking. When he got caught, the kid told the principal that since we can’t be on cell phones he had to figure out something else to do.”

Plucky.

Ridiculous, of course.

“No one ever actually fought,” she continued. “They just planned it and the one guy got in trouble for thinking it up.”

In her mind the general idiocy of middle school boys was on par with the cell phone ban alleged to have started it all.

And I thought to myself, these boys, ruffians to borrow a word from a time before cell phones, had certainly misbehaved and were fibbing at least a bit if they claimed it was because they’d lost their devices. But…

Jesus, or Buddha, or Ken Kesey might point out that what they had also done was interact, make eye contact, and get together in a way that didn’t involve a screen.

I’m not sure how long my daughter’s school will ban cell phones, perhaps as long as our parents’ generation prohibited gum or baseball caps or skirts above the knee.

But I do believe that while sensible parameters are important, when we start trying to control kids in ways they find unreasonable, they’ll find a way to prove us wrong, even if it’s by joining a club.

One More Try?

Why are you leaving,
You’re saying goodbye.
Why don’t you stay,
And give it one more try?
-Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantic 2003

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A student editorial in 2001 lamented the changing face of C.E. Mason: “I think this used to be a place worth fighting for, but I worry that if I stay here any longer the fight will die in me as well. I am emotional, I am sensitive, and I care. I don’t ever want to stop caring. Not about what’s really important in life. Not about my education. And definitely not about people and being a decent human being,” the editor wrote. “This school may have at one time been worth the down sides. You would never have been able to take advanced math, or get expensive art supplies, or have big dances, but there was something here that overcame all that so this wasn’t just a place to go to school. It was home away from home.”

Screen Shot 2019-02-12 at 4.40.05 PMHome.

It’s a word you hear used by alumni and current students and staff present and past to describe our little school. Masonites, ACMAniacs, just about everyone who has spent time here understands that there is something special about the place, something familial, unique, maybe even a little quirky.

This was true at the opening of the school and shows itself in today’s ACMA, the only school I know of where a student might walk by in horns and hooves, not as part of a dress up day, but just because; where students eat lunch in the hallways and a stroll from one end of the building to the other could include a violin concert, students practicing pirouettes, or playing ukulele; and where one of this October’s biggest hits was Drag Night.

Screen Shot 2019-02-12 at 3.40.53 PMIn the early part of the 21st century the changes coming to the school were seismic. New programs, new teachers, new focus on arts and academics changed the way the school walked through the world. It did not, however, change that creative spirit of the students. “Sensitive, caring,” as that newspaper editor described it, ACMA remained a place for creative souls, oddballs, and artists.

You can see the creative tension between the loose gambol of artists and the structured march of students completing a professional job in the two films that take a stab at answering the question: “What’s it like at ACMA?” There’s a certain cheeky truth to A Day in the Life of a Shadow absent from the more obviously sanctioned advertisement for Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Both do a great job of showing off campus circa 2002, but only one is obvious in capturing the pluck of the students of the time.

Screen Shot 2019-02-12 at 3.40.45 PMBoth films show, however, that creativity isn’t bound by rules, and even when they try, those in power can’t completely control the creativity that courses through the veins of students. Nor, I would add, should they try. Students will always find ways to have their voices heard.

What flowed through ACMA in the early 2000s was an artistic energy that motivated students to create. Sometimes it was silly, like The Lonely Cheeseburger. Sometimes it was exuberant, like performances on the Quonset Hut stage. Sometimes it was in service to others, like the production of A Fairy’s Tale that ACMA students took out to delight elementary schools.

Screen Shot 2019-02-12 at 4.05.17 PMAs refined as some would say ACMA was becoming, it was still the only school around with Mona Lisa on the cover of the yearbook, and a set of ACMA Mona Lisas at that, one heavy metal hair band, another punk rocker, a third Flavor Flav, and Mona Lisa Madonna rounding out the quartet.

Creativity was whispered on the wind. It appeared in wild celebrations of art like Kahlo’s View and Art is My Voice. It showed up as electric guitars and accordions.

Talk with students who were here at the start of the 21st Century and you’ll hear stories of stealing picnic baskets from behind the principal and trying to fit the whole senior class into two cars. By 2003 student artwork had returned to the pages of the yearbook. By 2004 the silly photos were as silly as ever.

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Visual arts and creative writing swelled in the curriculum right beside those advanced math classes the student editor from 2001 thought would never happen, though her editorial ended with an optimism that feels very much like the spirit of our school. “Our school may be dead,” she wrote “but I think it’s in every one of us, teachers and students, new and old, to bring about a change. I believe you all have integrity and good hearts. Maybe C.E. Mason is just lying dormant. Maybe it’s just waiting for a time when it’s safe to return.”

If the art of the time was any indication, things were changing at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, evolving into a diverse array of creative expression. Alongside this artistic pursuit, a certain spirit held true, a spirit of good hearted mischief, care for each other, and belief in the power of art. Hindsight provides a clearer picture of these times, when creativity was shaking out of any perceived dormancy and stretching its wings to soar.

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February Falls

Like a blanket of snow not deep enough
To give schools the day off

Gray skies, cold mornings, wind with an edge
February is the two hour delay of the school year
Not a day off
Frustrating
Cold
So cold
Feeling somehow like a broken promise

Screen Shot 2019-02-09 at 9.03.49 AMIn parts of the world
Wet or icy
Where the sun hides for weeks at a time
And windshields need scraping on dark mornings
All too often
Frustration rises behind eyes
Coloring the world
Tin, not silver

February is a time when
Nice
Is harder to come by
Rare as the sun
Hidden behind clouds of
Fear
From and Of
The thousand winter worries
That spring
Eventual spring
Will erase

Even if in February
That feels like a lie.

Ultimately, February is a time for
Solving problems

Ducking chin to chest
Against the wind
Tugging on a wool cap
And getting to work

March will be better
April hardly cruel at all
And by May, a riot of green
Again
Before the mad dash toward July

But still
February

Slush, slipping,
A scowl on the heart
Two hours delayed.

The Elephant and the Dove

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 8.13.46 amThe ambitious project involved acting, dancing, and song, all in the service of celebrating the history of a visual artist, really two: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It was written and performed by ACMA staff and students, filmed by ACMA kids, and produced with images developed by ACMA artists. In 2002 Kahlo’s View captured the artistic energy of a school driven by creativity.

Kahlo’s View was a collaboration on the part of Theater and Dance and was the grand artistic expression at the end of that year’s “IT” (or Inter Thematic), which a teacher who was there at the time described as “what capstone was before it was capstone. It was a requirement, but of the whole school, the entire school participating with one theme at the center.”

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 1.28.42 pmSo when it came time for a spectacular spectacular, the production that would become Kahlo’s View was a natural culmination of a year’s creative study.

To watch Kahlo’s View today is to be wowed by the scope and aspiration of the project. The video of complete show, recovered from a single VHS tape tucked away in the dance office, shows a production hard to believe took place in a Quonset Hut.

Yet it did.

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 1.37.40 pmDreamy and deliberate, moving and as symbolic as a Kahlo painting, the show meanders in and out of Kahlo’s memories, strikes emotional highs, and fills the stage with feelings as deep as a great artist (or ACMA teenager) might feel. With drama, pathos, tears, art, wailing, and a gnashing of teeth, Kahlo’s View has everything you could want in a bio-pic, along with more than a few interpretive dance numbers and a couple of songs.

Kahlo’s View was was written and directed by Rebecca Singer, ACMA’s drama teacher, and choreographed by Dance West’s Julane Stites. “We had gotten together once to discuss ideas” Stites told me, “and really never rehearsed again until we put it together for the tech rehearsal. We were both blown away at how our work blended. It was as if we had had a million rehearsals together.”

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 1.49.46 pmThe actors and dancers, students at ACMA who cared deeply about art, inhabited their roles completely. From words to movement, song to spectacle, they became the artists they were celebrating.

The Elephant and the Dove, as Kahlo called Rivera and herself, were the embodiment of the larger than life existence of unapologetically creative souls. They resonated with ACMA students and staff who saw in them two patron saints for the artistic life they were choosing for themselves.

At this point in its history ACMA was cementing its sense of self as a haven for artists of all kinds, a place that demanded artistic integrity, and a community that supported the creative enterprise. Students at ACMA had, were, and would think divergently, perform fearlessly, and live life with the hearts of artists. They were as powerful as elephants and as tender as doves.

What People Don’t Know

I’d had a day. Not a bad one, not exactly. Some really good things had happened that day: half a dozen great kids helped with a project to celebrate our school’s history, we played a song to start the day performed by a current student which was an unexpected delight, and an alum visited campus and gave me an exquisite two panel oil painting of a dead rat. But it was also a day when I got to meet some very nice paramedics, had a staff meeting with lots of honesty and an unexpected and gut-punching turn, and ended the evening with a couple of concerned emails from folks who had been given inaccurate information that led them to feeling more than a little frustrated. All in all, by the time I got home I felt a little like that rat.

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Sleep eluded me, and I found myself at my desk very, very, very early the next morning preparing what needed to be done for the day. Once the emails were returned, a plan was set for some work with students, and the day’s to-do list whittled down to items that couldn’t be accomplished alone in a predawn schoolhouse, I spotted a stack of papers from a turn I’d taken in a 6th grade classroom.

I do my best to teach a bit every year, mostly English (my bread and butter for a dozen years) or art (another subject I taught a bit), and to start this week I had an opportunity to step in front of a Wellness class in our 6th grade wheel. My usual topic with this group is community and kindness, and I led with those topics, but as the 90 minutes progressed, I wanted to get the kids thinking about our upcoming move (as the school is razed and rebuilt) and the things that they love about our school and want to be sure we work hard to keep alive, even as we’re off site for a couple of years.

For this part of the lesson I asked them to warm up by listing three words that describe our school.

Kind-Happy-Inspiring

Weird-Wonderful-Accepting

Artsy-Welcoming-Unique

Slow-Lunch-Line

The responses were wonderful.

…and not too unexpected.

I asked what students wanted to be sure to remember about our current building, a structure that was built as an elementary school in 1949 and has been the home to our school since its opening in 1992.

The beautiful artwork on the walls. It inspires me!

The cafeteria, because it’s a fun space.

The light up hallway. I don’t know why, but the strings of lights always make me joyful.

The library. Because, library.

I showed them some of the posters we’ve been making of the murals, talked about working with a couple of the original muralists to get new work, and the ways we were planning to keep that student art alive in our hallways. We discussed the things we could bring with us, and have again when we got back: the lights, the library, the hanging art.

An idea for a quilt of sorts came up, and by the end of the day we started the planning for it.

But as I sat at my desk, a cup of coffee (and a long day) in front of me, what caught my attention was the top sheet of paper and the student’s answer to my question: “What do people not know about your school?”

Written on an index card, this student had captured beautifully why we do what we do.

“What people don’t know about my school is that everyone is so nice to you. Instead of thinking of people as classmates or teachers, I think of them as family.”

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Family: imperfect, forgiving, kind, and worth working hard for.

The stressful meeting, the emails, the challenges to be overcome, those all eased a bit as I read her card. With a lot of stress in the world, there are times when “nice” is harder to come by than others, but like a family we do want the best for each other and are willing to invest the energy, emotion, and work into making it so.

I started reading through the other papers.

What people don’t know about my school is that there are counselors that help you.

What people don’t know about my school is that there are quite a few people here who are LGBTQ+ and they get treated like perfectly normal human beings.

What people don’t know about my school is that we have math every OTHER day.

What people don’t know about my school is that you can talk to anyone and feel liked by random strangers.

The list went on, and I found myself moved by the honesty and unexpected perspectives on our little school. We are not perfect; no place is, but we care deeply, we allow ourselves to feel emotions (good and bad), and in our hearts (and large those hearts are) we are committed to supporting one another as best we can.

What do people not know about my school? That we’re family.