The Doors

The End

In just a couple of weeks we’ll be walking out the door of ACMA, down the stairway beneath the circular portico, and away from a building that won’t exist when we begin school in the fall. It’s a weird feeling, knowing that this building we love won’t be standing by the start of school next year, and that makes it an emotional time for lots of us who have called the C.E. Mason Elementary School building home, some for decades. And…

It’s going to be okay. We know that the heart of our school isn’t in the walls (that would be asbestos and seventy year old plaster). The real ACMA is in the people who fill the school, kids and adults, and the history of creative souls who have called our school home over the years.

Riders on the Storm

Amid this emotional maelstrom, we spent some time this year honoring that history, and the results have been fabulous, including a fun alumni night in February, slide shows at lunch, and some fantastic documentaries by our film students.

In addition, we’re working to bring some of the distinctive ACMA wainscoting with us to serve as the front of the circulation desk in the library and the reception desk in the main office of the new campus, we’ve captured the murals that can’t be moved in photographs that will fill our temporary campus in the fall, and we have a deal with the movers that they’ll save all the painted doors on campus for us, which we’ll use as an installation art show in the fall of 2021.

And as we listened to students, staff, and alumni, we got to thinking, is there a way we could each take part of our school with us?

People are Strange

Those of us who know and love our school know that the exquisite strangeness of ACMA is something marvelous. Unconventional, creative, wildly iconoclastic, our school embraces looking at things divergently, and at their best the results can be fantastic.

That perspective led a few of us to start kicking around other ideas for how we might keep the spirit of C.E. Mason alive, and someone thought…

Hello, I Love You

We love our old building, and hate to see it go, and while we know we can’t save every corner, what if we kept that door of memory open by having something we could save, a little piece of at least, something to hold, something to take with us.

We looked around at what that something, or those somethings might be. Knowing that we have a talented group of stagecrafters, we headed out to the scene shop and ran an idea past some saw wielding techs.

Break on Through

We have these doors, we told them, robust, solid, and installed in the 1940s. What if we took a few of the doors that haven’t been made into canvases for our artists off their hinges and chopped them into cubes of ACMA that we could stamp and give away?

The students smiled and nodded to each other. “We could do that.”

IMG_1659

…and so I have two boxes of ACMA in my office.

Some pieces of ACMA were given out at our ACMA Spectacular, others will go to 2019 graduates, still others will find their way onto desks and bookshelves, atop coffee tables and into dorm rooms, little reminders of a school we love.

Advertisements

Today

I sometimes get asked what it’s like to work at ACMA. People know the school for our amazing performances, have been impressed by our students’ artwork, or maybe even visited campus to watch a senior capstone or volunteer at a dance or activity. They know that we’re a place of wild creativity, acceptance (even encouragement) for the unconventional, and a place where students can discover themselves as people as well as artists.

pencils

Are there really students who wear horns/stilts/tails/capes/youfillintheblank? some ask. Yeah, I answer. But we’re more than any fashion choice.

Do students really play music in the hallways, take dance for PE, and not have a mascot? Yep. But we’re more than these choices and exuberant expressions of art.

You were in a student’s film about cannibals? We’re more than any single strange decision by the principal. We’re ACMA.

A magical place.

As I reach the end of a long series of posts on Arts & Community Magnet Academy’s history, I wanted to pause long enough to share a handful of the pixie dust that is ACMA today.

These half dozen stories seem, from my perspective, to capture some of the magic that is our school. If you’re willing to click on the links, you’ll find a window into our world. They certainly can’t catch all the spirit of our little school, but taken as snapshots can give a sense of the family album.

Any ACMA album would include silly photos. Our yearbook, for instance, knows the value of a rainbow wig, false glasses, and giant doughnut.

Halloween at ACMA is a national holiday, and more than a good excuse for students (and staff) sharing their creativity in a playful and proudly public way. It is a great day to expect the unexpected and more fun than anyone should have at school.

Here we believe in the transformative power of art, including the possibility of creating a community welcoming to all and truly a haven for hope and justice.

That hope and justice extends beyond the community writ large, and shows itself in the little and profoundly meaningful interactions we see every day.

“So very ACMA.”

Yep. That’s us.

IMG_6890

Paper Dresses, Organized Chaos, and a Prayer

As the 2000s became the 2010s ACMA continued to evolve as an arts school. Students pursued traditional pathways like painting, drawing, dance, and theatre, and pushed the boundaries of art in ways as creative and diverse as the students themselves.

IMG_5082One example of this exuberant innovation came when an unusual fashion show took to the main stage of the PAC: Paper Dresses.

Gail Heymann, who taught the book arts class behind the show, remembered groups led by seniors collaborating on designing and creating a “creative fashion made of paper.” They worked together to choose materials, much from the stacks and stacks “hoarded” in the back storage room. Then, using sheet music, recycled material, and patterned paper, they became fashion designers.

Dance instructors worked with the models on their runway struts, an audience of students filled the PAC, and with the jazz band playing behind them, paper dresses took to the stage.

Look at photos of the event and you’ll be inspired by the whimsy and artistry of the student designers. The dresses, vests, and hats are all made from paper, soaring expressions of creativity.

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 8.43.51 AM

The models look like they’re having a good time too.

As one graduate put it: “I always felt a little like a wizard, and when I came to ACMA I found my Hogwarts.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 7.20.04 AMDumbledore to that Hogwarts for thirteen years was Michael Johnson, who cared for  deeply about the arts and his student artists. In the spirit of ACMA, he answered the request of his graduates in 2014 with a song.

A student accompanied Mr. Johnson on piano when during the commencement ceremony the principal picked up a microphone and sang The Prayer, a song made popular by Celine Dion.

His voice filled the performing arts center with care and paternal affection as he sang:

Just like every child
Needs to find a place,
Guide us with your grace
Give us faith so we’ll be safe”

ACMA has been, is, and will continue to be that place of safety and grace, passion and purpose, acceptance and celebration. Its magic is hard to pin down, but no less tangible than a paper dress or a song.

What is ACMA? Ask a dozen ACMA students and you’ll get thirteen answers. None, I’ll wager, are better than this summation by current ACMA freshman Eli Merritt. “In jazz, everything is about making chaos orderly, whether it’s learning to solo calmly at an incredibly slow tempo behind a singer or playing some lick at lightning fast speeds. I believe that can be used to represent ACMA as a whole. We’re chaotic, but our chaos is the most organized thing about most of us. And that’s true for all of our art forms. Here at ACMA, we are more than just the artists, we are the art. We are more than individuals, we are a family.”

Commencement Address

In about three weeks our seniors will be graduating. They’ll gather in their black robes and square topped hats, march into the performing arts center (to the tune of a bagpipe, not pomp and circumstance; ACMA is a little less conventional than a more traditional high school), and sit down on stage for a ceremony that is part concert, part celebration, and part performance art.

One of the beautiful anomalies of the afternoon is seeing the whole graduating class, so wildly individual and creative, all together in their unifying commencement garb. Those funny tasseled caps and matching robes present our students in a serious and almost solemn way, beautifully juxtaposed with the spirit of creativity that defines our ceremony and lives within each of them.

There will be a jazz number, maybe two, a piece by our orchestra, and one from vocal music. Next week the seniors will vote on another entertainment for the ceremony that could be music, poetry, dance, or any other expression of art they’d  like to see that day. Those performances are some of the highlights of the ceremony, true reflections of our school and reminders of the power of art.

Our valedictorian will speak and a faculty member chosen by the graduating class. From these august voices the class of 2019 will receive inspiration and advice, and if I know our students and staff, we’ll laugh a bit and see our eyes moisten with emotion.

Two student speakers will take to the podium, stoking memories and offering perspective, giving the audience and their peers a window into the world of a student saying goodbye to a school she has known so intimately. I’m often moved and surprised by the depth of insight the senior speakers offer, heartfelt, honest, real. These speeches, interwoven with the musical performances, make our commencement a work of art.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 7.54.50 AM.pngAnd then…

Tradition dictates that as the principal I say a few words. It’s a job I’ve seen done a whole host of ways, from fatherly or motherly advice to attempts at wit, groaning acrostics, meandering and melodramatic monologues, and rafts of quotations tied together with dramatic pauses. I don’t want to do that.

Any advice I’d offer my graduates have already heard from me. I’ve given them the talk about the unifying and transformational power of art. Heck, they will have just seen it in their classmates’ performances.

If I’ve done my job, they’ve heard me talk about the importance of looking out for one another, taking care of friends and strangers, and making connections with those around them. They’ve listened when I’ve thanked or praised them for good work, both artistic and human. They’ve been told how important they are, how much they’ve meant to our school, and how much we’ll miss them when they leave. We really will.

The ones who need it have already gotten those extra promptings and pushes to realize their potential. Some got paternal talks in my office. Some heard me talk about my own failures along the way; we all stumble, they’ve heard me say, and they have the strength to get back up. I believe in them. I do.

So, my commencement address doesn’t need to be The Principal’s Greatest Hits Album.

And don’t let me quote Dr. Seuss.

But that’s not fair; Theodor Geisel has provided graduates with advice about the places they’ll go for years, and who am I to imagine that I’ve got the right answers to their unspoken questions.

I graduated up in the 1980s, when quotable advice showed up in movies like Teen Wolf:

There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.”

I’m not sure how that dagger line would go over at graduation. No, I guess I’m pretty sure.

So, no Teen Wolf this year, but there will be a moment in the ceremony where I’ll step to the mic, knowing it’s my turn to say something. People expect it. Tradition.

Last year I read a poem.

I’d taught a few English classes over the course of the year, including some poems by C.P. Cavafy. The experience had moved me deeply and it felt right to offer my graduates “Ithaca” before they set sail on their own journeys.

And… I’m not one to repeat myself, so this year, without Greeks or daggers, Seuss or sagacity, I’ve got it in my head to suggest just one idea, a final nod of advice from an adult who counts himself fortunate to have know this beautiful, creative, and kind senior class.

I’ll say no more right now; I have to have some element of surprise when I get up there to speak. Once the shindig is over, the mortarboards have hit the ground, and the seniors have walked out of the theater to a tune by our jazz band, I’ll reprint the speech here, nothing fancy, and far, far, far shorter than most will expect. My modest contribution to a celebration of our graduates.

Into the Sunset

The mural had remained unfinished for 25 years, a panel of the film unspooling above the door of what had been the film room started but never completed. Few noticed it, or said anything if they did, but this year, as ACMA turned its collective attention to the history of our artsy school, conversation sprang up about the unfinished mural in the main hallway.

So rich with possibilities.

It took about thirty seconds to realize that as the building entered its final year we ought to finish this picture. Sure, it wouldn’t be as long lived as the rest of the murals on campus, and…

To lean into a little Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

I took to social media to ask if anyone wanted to pick up a paintbrush and finish the mural. An 8th grader was quick to say “yes.” We agreed that in keeping with that notion of art as experience, and underscoring the impermanence of art that our school is feeling collectively this year (as we prepare to move and see the 1949 building razed to make way for a new ACMA in 2021), we’d set the date for this completion in May.

As artists, we know that making art is where the magic lies, even if the physical life of that art is as impermanent as those first summer leaves. Sure, some of the big ones stick around, The Last Supper, the cave paintings at Lascaux, and such, but paint on a wall knows that its life is limited, and yet as humans we keep painting on walls.

Diego Rivera, the prolific Mexican muralist, recognized that “great art is like a tree, which grows in a particular place and has a trunk, leaves, blossoms, boughs, fruit, and roots of its own.” And while some redwoods tower above all others, other trees provide the wood from which humans have always built houses for shelter, ships for discovery, and the brushes, pencils, sculpting tools, sets, and stages that have given voice to art for eons and continue to do so today.

Rivera talked a lot about the importance of his work as it related to his culture, as true for him and Mexico as it is for us and ACMA. Enter that middle school artist with a box of paint and a ladder.

IMG_1616 (1)Hers would be the last mural at C.E. Mason Elementary, the longest running project in our school’s history, and a nod to art for the sake of art, not simply for longevity.

She decided, on the day she came in with a couple of friends to complete the painting, that she’d end the mural history of this building with a sunset.

“My friend told me ‘nothing gold can stay, Pony Boy,’” she explained to me with a smile, referencing the S.E. Hinton classic. That seemed right. “If you look closely you can see the two figures there watching the sun go down.”

Painting (and laughing and snacking and hanging out) took much of the day, as it had when the first artists pulled ladders to the wall back in 1994. Then, as now, making art at ACMA was both communal and filled with fun.

They even snuck a line from a My Chemical Romance song into another frame of the mural, a perfectly ACMA thing to do.

A quarter century later, that mural looks great, complete, ready for destruction when the school year ends. The destruction of the building, not the spirit of art. …and I like knowing that these same students will be juniors when we move to the new campus in 2021, ready to work on the first mural in the new ACMA. Stay gold, Pony Boy.

A Surreal and Welcome Luxury

Look back at the newspaper articles chronicling the opening of ACMA’s Performing Arts Center and you’ll find a sense of wonder and appreciation.

IMG_6194

The Oregonian reported on the PAC’s opening back in 2010, quoting ACMA Senior Nathan Avakian, who said: “For most of the ACMA students, it’s slightly overwhelming. It gives us something to work up to. When you walk in and you see the space — and it’s gigantic compared to what we’ve been working in — it makes you to want to do work that has that same size impact.”

That gigantic ambition to create has continued at ACMA for almost a decade.

But the journey to completion started much earlier, with a groundbreaking ceremony under the March sun where students talked about the excitement and anticipation that went along with such an impressive building. Until the late 2000s “new construction” at ACMA meant portables or 1958’s Quonset Hut; the PAC would be a huge step forward in the life of our little school.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 1.43.01 PM

Brian Bertram, who has directed plays in both the PAC and Quonset Hut, described the Performing Arts Center as “a grand palace, filled with bells and whistles, begging us to play to our hearts’ content. We have our large proscenium auditorium, microphones, and high-tech lighting instruments (that can be programmed to move on their own!), a truly pre-professional space where students can learn how the larger theatres in the “real world” operate.” And… he added, “for a more intimate experience, students can be seen acting and teching in the Blue Box, a black box theatre that (for a piece of nostalgia) still runs with the light board from our cafeteria stage days!”

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 7.03.50 AM

The PAC has seen performances and art shows large and small, with Art is My Voice taking over the foyer gallery every spring, scores of Senior Capstones, dance shows, musicals, plays, and concerts. It’s in the PAC that we have movie nights, open mic nights, storytelling, and huge collaborations like this year’s ACMA Spectacular.

During the school day it also serves as a place where we come together as a student body for assemblies, to hear guest artists, and gather in those times we need to be together. The red interior was aptly described by former principal Michael Johnson as the color of a heart.

Info Night

As ACMA’s Savant newspaper said in 2010: “With velvety red interior, harmonious acoustics, and plush folding chairs, stepping inside the new Performing Arts Center strikes any student as a surreal and welcome luxury.”

…the heart of our campus.

Springtime Foursquare

It’s the time of year where sweatshirts and cardigans are collecting on the coat tree in my office. Cold mornings and warm afternoons make wardrobe choice a moving target. Gray skies turning to sunny days mark the advent of Oregon spring. It is glorious.

IMG_1558Almost overnight the students are eating lunch outside again, picnicking on the lawn, lounging in the sun, and playing foursquare in the courtyard.

Yep, I said foursquare.

High schoolers.

Foursquare.

This is also glorious, and while I know that at the magically quirky school where I work one should expect the unexpected, I’ll admit that seeing these teenagers (so poised and passionate when they make art, so purposeful and professional in their academic classes) play, flat out play surprised me in the best possible way.

Our little school has a history of vigorous foursquare dating back to the 1940s when campus was occupied by CE Mason Elementary School. Look at old photos and you’ll see courts painted on the blacktop; today it’s sidewalk chalk that provides the playing space, and 6th-12th graders who provide the oo’s and ah’s of a fast-pitched game.

For any cynics out there who hold to the notion that “kids today” are fundamentally different than they were when Truman was president, or Kennedy, or Nixon, I offer first and second lunch at ACMA as Exhibit A to refute the claim. Students, even (or maybe especially) the most driven students, need the freedom to play.

photo (3)In his splendid book Play, Stuart Brown accurately notes  that “play, by its very nature is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” What better antidote to the sometimes stressful structure of school than a little foursquare?

Uninhibited play, accompanied by laughter -as uninhibited play almost always is- should be a part of the school day. Recess doesn’t need to stop in elementary school, and I’ll suggest that the cost of a couple of red rubber balls may be one of the best investments we’ve made this year.

As we rush into May, with June approaching like a child coasting downhill on a bicycle, there is a tendency to say that kids (and some adults) are getting restless. They are. That’s okay.

And maybe, just maybe, the answer isn’t only in blowing whistles at them or scolding them into straight rows. Maybe, just maybe, what we see as restlessness is really that very, very human need to play.

Sure they need to do math, and English, and science too. Yep, they should be completing their timelines in history class and portfolios in art, and…

IMG_1465Maybe they should have a chance to play foursquare, and shoot baskets, and laugh through a game of Sharks and Minnows. Maybe it’s good for the high schoolers to sneak in a game of wall ball between AP Calculus and Government class. Maybe laughter, and play, and both time and encouragement to be a kid is part of the answer for “kids today.”

The world has changed much since students first played foursquare in the courtyard, and I’m buoyed by the reality that one thing that hasn’t changed is the competitive joy kids throughout the decades have brought to that play. Things can be stressful, things can be gray, but like an Oregon spring, the sun comes out, whispering to us to leave that sweater inside and get out and play.