Always Choose Kindness

The ceremony was, as it should be, about the kids. Four student acts provided the crowd with amazing music, from classical to Dave Brubeck to an acapella tune from the movie Once. Folks went to a concert and a graduation broke out.

ACMA Grads

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that we were one of the few commencements around that included “Blue Rondo Ala Turk.” So cool.

The student speakers were fantastic too. Three of them took the mic to remember their years at ACMA, thank staff and families, and look ahead to a creative future in which they can make a difference. As Jazanna inspired her peers, “We have already made our voices heard within our school, they are still echoing in the halls. Now it is time to step out and raise our voices even louder for the world to here. We owe it to ourselves, the ones around us, and those who came before to stand up for all we believe in. To speak loudly, even when our voices are shaky, and  to create art that will voice our opinions, inner thoughts and sincerity, while reflecting our society’s truths.”

That idea of change through art is a defining attribute of ACMA, where students who care deeply about making a difference develop the technique and find their voices to make that change. With sixth through twelfth grade on campus, that journey sometimes takes years.

Katlyn, who had played in the orchestra at commencements since she was in sixth grade, shared “nothing prepared me for the shock and realization of today. For the excitement, the sadness, and the fear. The fear that ACMA is no longer the place I will go to in the fall, no longer the place I leave for the summer, the fear of leaving after being here for so long. But this place, it will always be home.”

Home was a word that got used a lot that morning. It was the title of one of the musical pieces, an amazing orchestral cover of the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros tune, and worked its way into both speeches and the choral piece. None of that was an accident; for many, the quirky, artsy, rainbow hallways of ACMA are the first time school felt like home.

Isabel, our valedictorian, described coming to ACMA this way: “I was this twelve year-old with a terrible sense of fashion, who wore knee high socks, shorts over leggings, a side ponytail, and thought it looked amazing. But I was also someone who didn’t know where I belonged in the world, what I was meant to do, or who I was meant to be,” she told the crowd. “But I found this place. I found ACMA…”

There is a magic to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, a magic hard to communicate succinctly or in a way that is as clear as it should be. It’s a feeling when you walk on campus. The students, the staff, the atmosphere of the school is …technicolor in a world of black, white, and gray. We’re a collection of poetic souls, music makers, doodlers, dreamers, and dancers. At a more conventional place we’d be the outcasts or oddballs; if high school were an ‘80s movie, we’d be the Mary Stuart Masterson character. …and proud of it.

We’re human, and fallible as humans are, and yet ACMA is a place where the default setting is acceptance and our propensity is toward kindness, even if we need to be reminded of that once in a while.

Our faculty speaker caught the adult perspective on how staff contribute to this atmosphere when he turned to an analogy from the natural world and told the seniors: “Right now, I feel like a bird. Specifically, a bird parent. I’m guessing a lot of your teachers, a lot of us in this room feel like birds right now. We  through the years have put in a lot of work to prepare you for this point. You are going to leave this nest after we have spent years watching you grow. Think of your teachers, counselors, administrators and supporting staff as your bird-parents. We have been going out into the world and finding useful morsels, bringing them into the classroom (math equations, chemical reactions, elements of storytelling, basic manners, worms, insects) and lovingly vomiting them into your screaming mouths.  We have watched you break out of your shells and grow to be big and strong. And now you’re leaving.”

But before they left, we had some more music.

That Brubeck tune followed Mr. Kindblade’s speech, and with the audience’s collective toes still tapping it was my turn to speak. Now I know that the nadir of many commencement ceremonies is the old guy yapping at the youngsters, so I’d decided to keep my time brief and heartfelt. I’d already arranged with the quartet who’d be playing the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Night in Tunisia” that they’d be set up as I was walking to the podium and the bass player ready to start up when I finished the ninth and final word of my “Charge to the Graduates” as tradition calls it.

Before I took to the podium I stepped out in front of the class, my back to the audience, bad theatrical form, but time for one last heartfelt message just to them.

It also gave the jazz musicians time to get in place.

If asked, I would have titled the speech “Three Words, Three Times,” and the text was just that. They’d heard everything they needed from me already, so this was just one last time to remind them, and all of us:

Always choose kindness.
Always choose kindness.
Always choose kindness.

Cue the bass. The piano and drums jumped in, and the singer raised her own mic, scatting to bring the crowd to applause. We were back to the good stuff. The kids. The art. What matters.

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