4. The Grail and the Cow

June 18, 2018

It boiled down to what would fit in the jar. We knew that we needed an object to pursue worthy of the hunt, and that if we stuck to our story of Clement Arbuthnot burying a mason jar filled with “treasure” we’d better make good on the promise. We also had no budget. And we’d said that whatever the object was it came from the 1700s.

For a few meetings we kicked around ideas about what we might “age” to work. Someone brought in a fantastic buckle that looked like it might work. It was too big for the mouth of the jar.

We brought in more jars, toyed with various ideas, and finally left for the weekend agreeing to ponder the possibilities. As I was packing up that Friday night I thought: we need something like the holy grail.

And then I remembered a gift given to me by a fabulous ceramics teacher from a lifetime ago. Tucked in a bookshelf in my office: a holy grail.

IMG_1524It was too big for the jar.

At the same time, one of my intrepid students was doing some legwork and asking our sculpture teacher for some ideas for objects that might work for a project she was working on. Without providing any real context (a big part of this scheme is keeping it as a surprise for staff and students alike), she was able to secure something fabulous: a cow puppet.

Our MacGuffin.

IMG_7448As many know, a MacGuffin is a plot device used to prompt characters into action. What the object itself is (the statue of a falcon, a childhood sled, old Luke) doesn’t really matter; the point is that our story gets going because of this catalyst for action.

How perfect then, this cow for our buried treasure, unexpected, quirky, “so very ACMA.”

…and created (in our reality) by and Arts & Communication student to boot. As this experience rolled on, we were finding the little synchronicities that collaborative artists sometimes enjoy. It was up to us to use them, and fashion something new.

Who would have put a cow in the jar? Why the cow? It’s up to our Treasure Group tell the story that ends there.

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3. Tearing Paper

June 14, 2018

Today I sat back and tore paper. As my Treasure Group (to use my secretary’s shorthand for them when she schedules them on my calendar) sat at the round table in my office, organizing themselves and discussing the story they would tell, my job for the day was to further weather the fabricated newspaper we’d use in the mason jar set to be buried.

They talked about the key and the door it would fit. The only candidate we had was the storage closet in the main office, its lock unaltered in more than sixty years. They discussed other objects that might make this feel more real, including a pair of pliers from 1949 that might be planted near the books.

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“We should keep track of our sources,” someone said, “so we can go back and reference them.” Chromebooks and laptops popped open and they created a shared Google Doc.

It was about this time —or maybe just after as the kids were debating calligraphy, deciding that perhaps Clarice turned pirate because she was repulsed by the slave trade, or researching vellum— that I thought to myself: they are not in class, they are not getting a grade for this, they have not been directed to research and collaborate on a complex piece of written and performance art, and yet…

Here were a group of students, from a mix of grades, artistic pathways, and interests, working together to develop a story that would serve as the basis of an experience their peers would enjoy (we hoped) almost a year from now. They were engaged, they listened respectfully to each other, they debated ideas. Creativity bound them together, and creativity made the group richer than any individual might be alone.

We were still a long way from a successful enterprise, a long way, but the interaction between these fantastic students was inspiring. When I think about the world we live in and look ahead to a time when our kids will be the adults who are making decisions that will impact us all, I’m optimistic because of students like these.

The planning session lasted about half an hour and then the students went on to classes and their daily lives. Clark Kents, I thought, at least to eyes of the world, but as planners, as poets, as pirates, pretty super.

2. The Lady with Red Hair

IMG_6989May 18, 2018

She found the newspaper stuffed in the walls of her house, a midcentury bungalow in Portland whose remodeling included a few surprises. Along with the newspaper from the 1940s she discovered a pistol. She took that to the police.

Unloading the bag of brittle newsprint on the table in my office, this marvelous history teacher offered that the newspaper might work for the mason jar we’d bury as part of our Arbuthnot project. Looking at the ads for movies like The Lady with Red Hair, the cartoons, and the photos from the 1940s, I knew she was right.

Then we picked it up and watched the paper crumble in our hands.

All along this project has been about more than the adventure of students following the trail in the winter and digging up the treasure in the spring. Creativity includes a healthy dose of problem solving. It means adjusting on the fly, finding solutions when things look like a dead end. Creativity means thinking differently.

“You know,” I offered, “It’s not about reality. It’s about the perception of reality.” She looked at me, game. “We can’t use this because it’s too old, but we have to use this because it’s so old. What if we…”

Improvise.

The images on the paper were perfect; the paper itself was not. So we walked down the the art studio and asked for some newsprint. The drawing teacher cut some for us without questions. We fiddled with the photocopier for a bit to get the right resolution and copied the yellowed newspapers onto the fresh gray newsprint. Over the next few days I tea stained each piece thinking this might work.

IMG_6990Two days later The Lady with Red Hair looked up at me from her sepia world of pliable newsprint.

As with any collaborative artists, the results of our efforts succeeded only because we were willing to embrace the challenge of something not working, find allies to help us, and then experiment in how we might solve the problem. We held on to the idea of the newspaper, mostly because it was fantastic and the story of its origin was as magical as we hoped this adventure would be, and we didn’t allow ourselves to give up when it became apparent that using the salvaged newspaper wouldn’t work. Not taking “no” as our starting point allowed us to pause, think creatively, and try something different.

I know the newspaper that is wrapped around our treasure is only a small part of our Arbuthnot adventure, but it’s one that delighted me as a synecdoche of the creative experience.

1. “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

March 22, 2018

We gathered on a rainy afternoon in March and I presented them with a story.

“What if,” I asked, “you knew that there was buried treasure here on campus?”

They looked at each other, nine students and two staff members chosen for this adventure because of their wild creativity and willingness to engage in something unexpected. An artist, a filmmaker, several writers, and a few students I knew were capable of marshaling a project through to completion, these were a cadre of kindred spirits I knew could present our school with something marvelous.

Huddling around a small table in my office, they listened as I described the custodian who, in 1951, buried a mason jar that contained an object handed down to him through generations, a piece of the plunder from his great-great grandfather Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot, who in the early 18th century turned pirate after a long and successful military career.

IMG_6323He left a diary, I told them, and onto the table slid a small journal, scuffed and stained, pages dogeared. A student opened it hungrily.

“It’s blank,” she said.

“Right now,” I answered.

Next I showed them a volume of Walter Scott containing Red Gauntlet and The Pirate. I’d picked up the book years ago, intrigued by how old it was. Inside, on one of the first yellowed pages, written in fountain pen read the script: Mrs. Mary St. More Christmas 1890. That inscription from more than 100 years ago looked back at us so rich with possibilities.

Finally, the map. As blank as the diary, the thick brown paper I unrolled was stained with age and ragged around the edges. Truth be told, I’ve been packing that roll of paper around for more than twenty years, knowing it would be a map, but never sure when the time would be right. This was the time.

We talked about the possibilities.

We threw out ideas, asked questions, and allowed ourselves to wonder.

I explained that February and March were some of the most difficult months of the year for many folks at school. With winter break far behind us and summer still miles away, it’s the time of year when tempers sometimes flare, sadness can creep in, and everyone has a tendency toward feeling low. The perfect time for an adventure. The perfect opportunity for a group of creative souls to come up with something that would delight our school community.

Someone asked if we were going to make the student body think this was real.

I said the only thing that made sense to me, quoting Ken Kesey’s unreliable narrator from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I answered: “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

Creative sparks began to fire, replacing the bemusement of the start of our gathering.

We talked about the challenges facing a group this big collaborating on something this complex, and I shared with them the bones on which we’ll hang our adventure.

In 1951 Clement Arbuthnot, who was a custodian at the newly opened CE Mason Elementary school, the building that became our current ACMA and will be torn down in the summer of 2019 to make way for a new ACMA building, buried a mason jar filled with treasure. That treasure had been passed down through generations of his family from Admiral (later pirate) Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot.

Oh, and Clarence, I told them, had been born Clarice, and like so many adventurous women of her day dressed in men’s clothing to pass as a male and became a sailor, and a successful one.

We know that Clement left a diary and a map. We know that somewhere along the line Mary St. More is significant. We know that the treasure is buried on the campus here at school.

The rest of the story, still unwritten, danced playfully on the inside of a dozen brains.

…and I thought: Next February or March could be inspiring, and hopefully pretty fun, for our little school. The months between then and now will be the real adventure.

Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot’s Grand Adventure

Gather round. Join me in the low light of an attic to hear a tale. Imagine it’s hot up here, stuffy even, in the low ceilinged space just beneath the roof of a wooden building constructed in the late 1940s.

It’s a long story, so take a deep breath, stretch a bit, and settle in. Brew a cup of tea. Put on some slippers. Stories like these, once lived, are best relished in the warm glow of nostalgia.

IMG_1446Over the next two weeks, through one post a day, I’ll tell the story of an adventure. There will be pirates, treasure, and a cow puppet. You’ll meet a dying custodian, a poetic old woman, and maybe (just maybe) find the holy grail.

Like “The Great Game” that Sherlockians play around the globe, Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot’s story is most fun when taken as true. And, sure we all know Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a living person, but…

My fourteen or so posts provide an alternative narrative about the origins of Arbuthnot’s tale, one about artists conspiring together to bring joy, but if you prefer, please think of my story as the fiction and Arbuthnot’s as real. Fiction, Nonfiction. Tah-may-to, Tah-mah-to. What you will.

This version started in the spring of 2018 with a group of students and a handful of adults crammed into my office. It ended on a gray day in April with beaming faces and buried treasure.

Like any story there are some high points and some low ones, and I hope I’ve been able to capture the spirit of hope, anticipation, and fun that this project brought out in so many of us.

Being a principal is the best job in the world. Working with students, especially in unexpected ways as we did here, is the best part of that best job.

So, intrepid reader, I invite you to two weeks of swashbuckling and daring do, to a fortnight of unconventional school spirit, and what some people might call good clean fun.

Want a peek inside that attic? Visit here for a short video, shot before the building was demolished.

A Mural in Progress

It’s the last week of school and I’m living in a yearbook. Around me on all sides are the scrawls and drawings, wisdom and vulgarity, cartoons and catchphrases, a cacophony of teenagers with sharpies. Near the Tom Marsh Gallery, a unicorn. By the dance studio, a rainbow handprint. And just outside my office, a cartoon of Thanos is snapping our current building away.

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That snap isn’t far from the truth. In just a few days rumbling machines will rip down the walls of the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has housed our campus since ACMA came into being. Gone will be the cherished murals. Gone will be the wooden wainscoting. Gone will be the gentle slope of the hallway outside the darkroom.

Knowing that this chapter in ACMA’s history was coming to a close, our graduating seniors took it upon themselves to paint the interior courtyard one night before graduation. We walked in the next morning to a kaleidoscope of color, birds, rainbows, and more than a few stenciled Mona Lisas. The substitute custodian that day walked up to me as I was coming onto campus. “Is this some kind of a mural?” He asked, “Or graffiti?” I looked around at the bright colors, creative images, and statements of love. “It’s ACMA,” I answered.

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The next day was a perfect storm. Literally.

Underclassmen were amazed when they saw the painting on the walls. Strolling around the courtyard, posing for photos, and laughing, they relished the seniors’ art. That afternoon we gave out yearbooks, and as we did the skies opened and a profound thunderstorm brought rain down in sheets and pushed students into the hallways. …sharpies for signing yearbooks in hand.

IMG_2088You can see where this is going.

What happened next was a window into our school’s collective soul.

But we are an arts school, and the faces that looked out from the walls, the animals who galloped, scurried, and flew over the plaster, and the wild colors that covered the eggshell white were incredible.

Bathroom graffiti seldom includes portraits of Frida Kahlo. Ours did.

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We saw examples of cubism, cartoons, and clever creativity. Scattered between, above and beyond were names, messages, and quotations.

The students chose to write and draw on surfaces they knew would be torn down as part of the major construction beginning in July. They stayed away from the portables that will be sold off and honored the established student art that has been up on the walls since the school began. So many used the opportunity as a way to make their artistic mark on a school they care about. It was overwhelming.

…and…

We had to close one of the bathrooms because of some naughty pictures and inappropriate words. And while the students didn’t mess with any of our murals, they did color outside the proverbial lines, both in terms of location and content. Some comments were vulgar, others simply mean.

In terms of quantity, the positive outweighed the negative like elephants to mice, but that didn’t make any of the negative less jarring.

IMG_2092We are a school that aspires to kindness, acceptance, and caring; we are a school made up of humans, fallible, clumsy, sometimes careless humans.

So we adults painted over a few words that weren’t meant for school, and the next day I got on the PA to share a message with my kids:

We’re ACMA; we’re artists. We’re creative, interesting, and have the ability to be thoughtful, to choose to be kind, and to make good decisions.

This week, following our seniors’ decorations of the courtyard, many of us took up the pens we were using to sign yearbooks and added our marks to the walls of this old building. I get it. It’s a human need to want to connect and belong. Overwhelmingly those little pieces of art have been positive and showed the creativity within us. Some weren’t.

So I wanted to reach out to you now with three things:

First, honor each other, the murals that are on our walls, and who we aspire to be at ACMA. Please do not write things on the wall that are vulgar or crass, that insult anyone, or would embarrass your grandmother.

Second, please do not make any marks on the wood, doors or wainscoting; we are salvaging some of this wood to be incorporated in our new building, and we want to have enough wood to be able to do that.

Third, be kind. Treat our venerable building well. It has served as a home for ACMA for decades and we do right when we show it, and the people who take care of it, respect. We have just three more days together on this campus; let’s finish strong. Together.”

After that, more of the same. Meaning a few of the bad words and inappropriate images, but even more of the colorful drawings, scores of them, notes of appreciation for our school, and even a quote from Hamlet.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

IMG_2093And my frustration at what some would rightly consider vandalism began to shift. Yes, I did my best to monitor what students were writing, and yes I joined our patient custodian in covering the naughtiest of the words, but I recognized that for a principal who values feedback, this living yearbook was providing a roadmap of what to celebrate, what to question, and what to change moving forward.

Some of the uglier graffiti, tucked in bathroom stalls and the corners where peers couldn’t see them draw it, told me that we still have work to do with regard to treating others with respect. We put energy into fostering positive interpersonal relationships, and we’ve got to do more to help this be a universal value. That these types of comments weren’t front and center like the more artistic offerings told me that even those who wrote them recognize that they’re not something in keeping with our school community.

IMG_2098Some of the graffiti made me question what more I can do to involve students in more of the decision making that happens on campus. Their thoughtful remarks about the end of this era, saying goodbye to a building they obviously love, and the transformative power of art reinforced that “the kids” (or at least some of them) are mature beyond their years. Harnessing this passion will be a challenge that, done right, can be a powerful force for good at ACMA.

And image after image, comment after comment, this installation piece that our school became provided those of us willing to slow down and really look with much to celebrate.

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The seniors, who started the whole shebang, left messages of love, affirmation, and acceptance. From the Freddie Mercury stencils to the rainbows, hearts, and expressions of love, they demonstrated in glowing color the values that make art the universal language of hope.

The others, who joined in with the emerging voices of sixth through eleventh graders, added to that youthful exuberance with their own perspectives, mostly positive, about the world they are creating, on a canvas they love that is being destroyed.

I can honestly say that I hope to never have this experience again in my professional life, and…

IMG_2102I have learned to appreciate the gift that graffiti offered me, an opportunity to see what’s happening in the hearts and heads of my students. …and what we saw was overwhelmingly good.

Our students are hungry for opportunities to share their creativity, their thoughts, and their passions. This doesn’t have to be through visual art or yearbook style quotations, though it can be. It might also look like open mic nights, literary publications, and chances online to share a little bit of who they are.

While I can’t say I’ll miss it, not at all, post-snap I can say that I will think about it, and doing so I will look for ways my students can have their voices heard throughout the year, not just on walls.

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Playing Catch

I bought a mitt today.

The last time I did that I was thirteen, and if I’m honest it was my mom who bought me the baseball glove, a Larry Hisle model that lasted me more than three decades.

Larry-hisle-baseball-cardBy the end there wasn’t much left, just some well worn leather and more than a handful of memories of being a kid.

That mitt saw me through the ups and downs of little league, lay in a trunk for a spell, and then reemerged to see action in staff vs. student softball games, my coaching stint of my son’s t-ball team, and hours of catch when my daughter started playing softball.

Sometime over this last wet winter it disappeared, probably tucked away in a forgotten corner of the garage, and certainly not available to say “put me in coach.” I searched for it a time or two, but with snow on the ground those efforts lacked urgency. Spring rains further slowed the priority of my search. Had I left it in the trunk of the car? No. Up by the suitcases? No again.

Then, over the weekend, on a trip to the beach, I was tossing around a tennis ball with my kids. It was a perfect night. The sun was setting, my wife sat by our fire on the sand, and the little green ball flew through the dusk in a big familial triangle. This was one of those moments I’ll tell my grandkids about, a memory I hope will be as rich for my own kids.

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The next day my wife reminded me that I was missing my mitt.

I told her that I’d noticed Larry Hisle’s absence a few weeks earlier, but the bustle of life got in the way and it was so easy to forget searching or running to the store for a replacement.

She’d noticed it too, but had the presence of mind to also know how important it was. “Henry is ten,” she reminded me. “How much longer do you think he’ll be excited to play catch?”

Forever? I wanted to answer, knowing it was a lie.

As a principal, as an educator, it’s easy to find ourselves caught up in the current of “must-be-dones.” In May and early June that number of required tasks swells. Nights out pile up, and working every weekend and every evening still doesn’t guarantee that all the items will come off the to do list. It can feel overwhelming.

For those of us who strive to be productive and responsible the pressure of doing it all has the power to blot out better perspective. Planning, preparing, finishing, writing, signing, answering, diffusing, solving, responding… the list is endless. Life will feel different in July, but in the mad scramble from spring break to graduation the world of a school is more frantic and filled with obligations than most of us like to admit. It’s easy to lose perspective.

And when we do, what’s left?

I’ve long celebrated the notion, shared with my by a teacher who had it right: “The best teachers teach from a full life.”

But I’ll admin that as a principal I was certainly not embracing a “full life.” Caught up in the sturm und drang of late spring, I had allowed myself to focus on one thing at a time: my job, sure, something I care deeply about, too easily all consuming.

Until my wise wife caught me after that weekend at the beach.

I won’t go into our conversation that morning, other than to say there is a reason she is the best part of my life. Then today I bought a mitt.

I’m not so foolish or filled with hubris to imagine that I’ll never struggle with balance again. Looking back at this little collection of posts that have piled up over the past six years I see more than a couple of times I’ve acknowledged being out of balance. But today, as the summer sun peeks over the trees and makes it easier to imagine that I can life the “full life” that teacher talked about, I’m seeing as clearly as I have in a while.

When I get home from work today I hope to go to the park with both my kids and have a catch.

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