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