Perfect, with Obstructions

For more than a quarter century they made art in imperfect surroundings. Dancers danced in studios carved out of spaces designed as elementary school classrooms, musicians rehearsed in a low ceilinged portable, and actors performed in a Quonset Hut. Strikingly, the results were magical; talent, passion, and perseverance outweigh infrastructure. In the end art wins.

And then we tore it down. We didn’t, I guess, but the construction team did, reducing seventy years of wood, concrete, and plaster to dust and clearing the way for a new campus to open in the fall fo 2021. That building will be designed as an art school, a powerful gift for our kids. In the interim ACMA has taken up residence in the voluminous building that will eventually open as a middle school for more than a thousand students. With our 700 or so kids it feels a little like wearing dad’s suit.


But this bigness isn’t a bad thing, at least in the short term. Having packed our little art school into boxes and traipsed across town, it has been nice to have enough space for everything, and while we know there will be swaths of the building we don’t use, as a temporary home it’s a pretty terrific space.

I’ve been able to gauge reactions to our temporary campus from the handful of teachers, students, and parents who have stopped by over the summer for meetings. As I’ve taken them on impromptu tours, dodging in and out of boxes and furniture in the process of being assembled, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the comments and smiles inspired by the building and what we’re doing with it.

Some cheered at the large clean classrooms, others were wowed by the beautiful wood on the walls of the commons, and two students who walked around couldn’t get over how many bathrooms there are. “And they’re huge,” they added. I suppose they are.

This campus where we’ll spend two years will be nice for our creative ACMA family. With more than enough space, the compromises we’ve had to make (like two years without our performing arts center) seem to be working out (thanks to some good old fashioned creative problem solving), and the overall result is almost what one staff member called it, coming back from a tour: “For a rental, this is perfect!”

Ah, perfect.

That line reminded me of a documentary my film teacher recommended to me last year called The Five Obstructions. It’s a film about art and the creative process, and as I got to thinking about it this summer, it struck me as a nice analogy for what we’re about to do as an art school.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 7.49.58 AMThe Five Obstructions takes as its starting point another film, a 1967 short The Perfect Human by Jørgen Leth. The Perfect Human is an artsy meditation on …something. You can see the whole thing here if you like, and if you do you’ll recognize the work a confident artist working in a medium he knows and creating a polished piece that can be classified as art. Visual, creative, and more than a little quirky, there is a whiff of that ACMA spirit about The Perfect Human. It is the kind of film our students would dig.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 7.50.37 AMFilmmaker Lars von Trier certainly dug it, and in 2003 invited his mentor Leth to remake the short five times, each with a collection of “obstructions” that would challenge him to adjust and force him from his original plan as he pushed against the limitations von Trier imposed that blew up his comfortable and familiar way of working.

These obstructions are many and diverse: he must remake the film in Cuba, for example, with no shot lasting more than twelve frames; he must shoot the short in “the most miserable place on earth,” but not show that place on screen; he must turn The Perfect Human into a cartoon.

The results are delightful.

The process, however, Leth describes at one point as “demonic.” And… An oyster without sand under its shell doesn’t produce a pearl, so while Leth complains to von Trier that the constant cuts of the first obstruction (twelve frames is about half a second of screen time) “will be totally destructive,” once done with the film, he reports that “the twelve frames were like a gift.” For an artist, challenges are like that sand in an oyster. 

Now I don’t know what unexpected obstructions will come with our temporary (but perfect) home. In August I can anticipate a few: some of the classrooms won’t have the furniture we expected, using lockers for the first time in our school’s history will be different to say the least, that sort of thing. But for every expected obstruction, I’ll wager that there will be another dozen we can’t predict. Some of these will feel “demonic” and some will lead to artistic gifts.

So thinking about The Five Obstructions, I hope that our response to the obstructions we will face will be not to grouse and stamp our feet on the floor, but to embrace the challenges, look for creative solutions, and remake our approach to making art (and our approach to making meaning in the core academic classes) and use this as an opportunity to do something wildly creative.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 6.48.09 AMThe results? Heck, they could be all over the map. And that’s okay.

Leth’s series of remakes run the range of emotion, imagery, and innovation. His actors, including him as one of his actors, inhabit environments unfamiliar and evocative. Watching The Five Obstructions, and the remakes included within the documentary, is like pulling back the skull of an artist and peering inside.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 6.35.49 AMPushing an artist to work within constraints, limit him or herself to a particular palette, or respond to external complications outside him or herself could suggest that the process or the product would be compromised. And yet…

Looking back at the 1967 film that started it all, modern audiences might notice that the “perfect person” smokes a lot (a pipe for him; a cigar for her), is very white, and seems to embrace the trappings of the midcentury western bourgeois society. Given an opportunity to bring fresh perspective to this point of view, many of our students might come up with something innovative, very personal, and new.

How might that hold true for us as we are faced with the obstructions that come in any move? How might these challenges, and we know there will be surprises that challenge us, inspire in us innovation?

I have no doubt that this big yellow building can be a great home for us for two years. Perfect, even, with obstructions.


Summer is a season that invites reflection. Hiking through the woods, walking on the beach, watching a ballgame, in each of these is the time and inspiration to slow down and make connections. As a principal, July is a month with a bit more breathing room, a time when the emails don’t pile up quite so fast, and the decisions to be made have implications weeks away more often than in the moment. Summer means renewal, reflection, and (at its best) the improved perspective that only separation from the bustle of the school year can provide.


So, when I heard this exchange while sitting on a driftwood log on a beach in Lincoln City, I had the room to think: Our school is a little like the beach.

Mom: “People always look so happy when they’re at the beach.”
11 year old boy: “…except in Jaws.”
14 year old sister: “They’re being eaten.”

Our school is a little like the beach. Kids smile a lot, laughter and applause are common, and people seem happy …except when they’re not.

Because as magical as our school is—and don’t get me wrong, it is magical. I’ve been in this business for more than a quarter century and have never been at a place so creative, curious, and accepting—we’re still a part of the real world, a world with stress, struggle, and more than occasional challenge that tests our souls.

We cry a bit. We feel pressure. We need help, each other’s help.

I mean we’re not getting eaten by sharks, but….

The pre-teen and teenage years are tempestuous at best, both for the kids and the parents too. Few look back and say “I wish I could go back to middle school” and the angst that has been a part of high school since we’ve had high schools is as real today as ever. And we can add to that social media, the pressures of college admissions, navigating the sometimes stormy social waters, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

It’s why it’s so important to support each other, be kind, help.

That’s not just students. Parents, who care so deeply, and teachers and school staff, who have made their profession working with kids feel those pressures too, need care too, and have the potential to be a part of the solution.

It’s easy to feel hopeless or useless when the pressure of the world closes in on us, when people around us (or even we ourselves) make decisions that aren’t the right ones, and when we’re surprised by all it takes to be human. When we aren’t able to change things as quickly as we’d like, or even feel like we may never be able to improve them, for me it helps to remember that line from Dickens: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” 

The very real stress and challenges we face are opportunities to help and graciously accept the help of others. In the best of all worlds that help would come from family and those around us. It would be naive to believe it always does. And… though it may seem aspirational, I believe that is the ideal that should guide our work as a school community.

Being kind, checking in with one another, applauding when we see someone who needs applause, these are the building blocks of a foundation that can support our school.

We will all need that care and kindness at some point this year. We all have the capacity to provide that care and kindness to those in need.

So as we get ready to start school again my challenge to myself and my school community is to find ways to be that person who helps lighten the burden of others. We need each other and can make a profound and positive difference to one another. We need to. This is life. It’s not always a day at the beach.

Big Jake

Today I found myself watching the 1971 John Wayne western Big Jake with my dad. My folks were visiting from their home in California and my eleven year old son (knowing that “Papa likes westerns”) found the movie on demand to help fill a drizzly afternoon. 

As my 83 year old father dozed intermittently through the Duke’s gunslinging, my son and I watched the story unfold in 20th century technicolor; we were three generations finding some common connection.

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I was two in 1971, a world away from 2019 for both me and my dad. He was a vibrant 35 when Big Jake hit the theaters, more than a decade younger than I am now. My son thinks the 90s were forever ago; I can only imagine what he imagines when we say the 1970s. And here we were, watching this movie, a paean to one vision of fathers and sons, gathered together in the living room for a couple of hours.

Today my dad’s eyes mostly follow the sweeping vistas of the epic western, and he chuckles at John Wayne getting tossed in a mud puddle, but his once usual sharpness and focus are gone. His understanding of the plot waxes and wanes, nuance (such as it is) lost to the fog of age.

But Big Jake hangs on a simple premise, telling the story of a kidnapped grandson, about my son’s age, and the heroic grandfather who swoops in to save the day. My son didn’t know that when he pulled the movie up, but there it was, somehow poetically right.

My dad is struggling with dementia now, unable to remember the names of the cats or exactly how he got wherever he happens to be. Snatches of history are still vivid to him: his days working in the Parks and Rec department in Long Beach, his time as a serviceman in Germany, bits from when he and my mom were first married. He’s a fan of routine and right angles, happy with cowboy movies where the predictable hero solves the inevitable problem of bandits terrorizing the village/robbing the bank/making off with a young hostage. John Wayne will take care of things in the end, we all know that, and despite the dated tropes of such movies, for a fellow of my dad’s age and politics, The Duke is just about right.

But Big Jake feels a little different than many old westerns with the inclusion of motorcycles and Model Ts sweeping along the desert alongside horses. This turn of the 20th century new fangled technology baffles  the elder Jake of the movie, but delights his kids. A posse in a horseless carriage may chap Jake’s hide, but you should see the motorbike jump the canyon. I could imagine the 1971 audience applauding.

Cowboys in cars getting kidnappers. There’s a Netflix show in that maybe.

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It’s just one of the places the movie uses its 1909 setting to introduce some tension between the modern and traditional. John Wayne demurs on using an automobile, of course, drawling the line: “Me and my way’s old fashioned.” When the auto caravan gets ambushed, he’s proven predictably correct. My dad was awake for that exchange, and he smiled at the TV. His way, as best as he can recall it, is old fashioned too.

And yet, as my parents prepare to relocate back to Oregon, downsizing and moving to a place where they can get a little more help, I suspect that John Wayne isn’t quite right.

The rugged independence held in such high regard by most of the westerns I’ve seen stands in contrast to the dependence so many of us have on one another. We rely on kindness, we hope for support, and we benefit from looking out for one another.

There are those around us intent on preying on the elderly: the cable company that gouges my folks to include the Western Channel, the mobile phone company eager to take as much from them as it can. Left to their own devices, I worry about how the world treats my parents and others like them. In a simpler time, perhaps, when fewer technologies competed for our attention and dollars it might have been easier to navigate the online world. Today, when my parents who grew up without cable or cell phones or home computers look at the landscape around them it doesn’t matter how old fashioned they’d like to be; the world isn’t.

…and it’s not always bad. It was my mom getting an iPad that opened the door for video calls where she and my dad could see the grandkids on screen and talk face to face every week. My parents didn’t always have the built in camera exactly pointing at themselves, sometimes it looked up over their shoulders, but we did our best to on our end, and that meant my kids could connect with their grandparents in a way I never did.

IMG_4245I look back at those Facetime conversations with my folks and remember that hanging on the wall above them are two Remington prints of cowboys. I’d never thought of them as cowboy people, but an honest inventory of their home (that bronze of a bucking bronco, that painting of the wagon train in the den, that inexplicable horse collar mirror) suggests otherwise. Big Jake is a familiar guest in their home.

Patient reader, I’m not sure what any of this really means, and certainly not how it connects to my usual bread and butter of education related miscellany. If you’re still reading, I’ll just say that I appreciate your kindness and willingness to listen to a son doing his best. Aging parents is a reality that so many face, and I’m still finding examples of people who do it well. This trail is rough and filled with as many rattlesnakes as it has fresh springs or warm campfires.

Sometimes an afternoon movie is a welcome respite.

So Big Jake rode on, deep into Mexico in search of his grandson and the bandits who stole him. His sons rode with him, exchanging barbs and banter along the way to getting to know each other better. It was quieter on our couch. My son and my dad built a couple of lego spaceships (a decidedly modern pursuit, I thought to myself). I brought tea and snacks from the kitchen. Outside our living room rain fell, quiet and steady.

I’d be foolish to imagine that I have years more of these afternoons with my son and my dad, one on the edge of adolescence, one decidedly in Shakespeare’s sixth age “of lean and slipper’d pantaloon.” 

We ride on, in pursuit of what we will, none of us sure about what might be over the next hill.

Screen Shot 2019-07-10 at 12.38.51 PMThe crescendo of the film came for Big Jake: a double-cross, a gunfight, a pitchfork impaling one of the worst of the bandits. The bad guys get it in the end. The grandson is rescued. The tension between modern and traditional, between old and new generations fades behind the swelling score and Big Jake and his boys go home. 

Would that life were as tidy. 

But today… today it was John Wayne. We knew who was going to win. Today my dad, my son, and I watched a grandfather connect with his sons and save his grandson. It was a good day.


The New Place

This summer our little art school is packing up and moving eleven minutes up the road to a temporary home in a yet to be opened middle school. We’ll be there two years, as bulldozers raze the CE Mason Elementary School building that has been ACMA’s home since the school opened in 1992, and crews begin building our new campus, which will open in the fall of 2021. It will be amazing.

Main Entry

Looking ahead to the new place, it’s exciting to know that for the first time in our school’s history we’ll be making art, making music, and making meaning in a building constructed for our school and its unique focus. Gone will be the elementary classrooms converted in to ceramics studios, dance rooms, and science labs. Gone will the the portables out back, sagging with age, but still (miraculously) places from which film, music, and dance students have created professional level art for years. Gone too will be the need to use the library as a classroom, hold choir class in the house of the auditorium, or watch students eat lunch in a Quonset Hut without running water.

Truth be told, it has been fun saying we have a campus with a Quonset Hut, but that doesn’t mean we’ll miss it all that much day to day.

Our arts and communication programs will finally have the facilities they need and deserve. A new painting and drawing studio, a new design lab for animation and design classes, and a new ceramics studio will anchor the building on the main level of a two story building. Facing out onto a large commons, with a stage built perfectly for open mic nights and impromptu concerts, these three visual art rooms will be built to be studios, not converted elementary classrooms. To know that our students will have these spaces to create is inspiring, and, to introduce a clunky metaphor, it feels like the road has finally caught up with the cars.

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Just south of the visual arts rooms, a new film complex will take the place of the portable we’ve used for years. Inside will be editing equipment, three separate film studios, and enough room for screening films for a class full of students. Located centrally, this film area will be a place where students can learn their craft with the technology and infrastructure they need, and have access to campus without having to pass by every classroom in session.

Also on the main floor, tucked between a new kitchen, the library, and the existing PAC, is a new music wing. With two large rooms, a recording studio, and practice rooms, this addition to ACMA replaces a low ceilinged portable and a white board rolled into the Blue Box theatre as the home of music at ACMA. Adjacent to the performing arts center, which will be connected to the main building by two interior hallways, these rooms give ACMA musicians the upgrade they need to continue making music -jazz, orchestral, and choral- a cornerstone of our arts program.

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Upstairs three dance studios jut out from the eastern wall, roofs raised and windows ample for light. These practice spaces, larger than our current facilities, are next to two changing rooms with lockers inside for dancers’ gear. That our dancers will no longer have to change clothes in a bathroom is as welcome as it is overdue. Add to that the fact that all three studios will be inside the building, better for supervision and safety, and our dance program will find itself in a professional space worthy of its caliber.

Across the hall from the dance rooms, separated by an open gallery and collaboration space, is a photo room, much larger than the smaller CE Mason space, complete with darkroom. Most places don’t still teach with actual film, focusing exclusively on digital photography, but ACMA is not most places. Here we recognize that there is something magical about photos, negatives, and working in the darkroom. Our photography students graduate from ACMA with a richer foundation and more comprehensive understanding, and the darkroom that will be a part of our new construction continues that tradition we’re proud to hold onto.

In addition to the upgraded arts facilities, the new library, full kitchen, and the commons area, the new building will have two high school science labs as nice as any in the district, as well as two middle school science labs, a first in our school’s history. The two middle school labs are part of the additional four teaching spaces that will be a part of the new campus, and we shouldn’t need to use the library as a classroom.

Those classrooms get upgrades too. While the current campus has portables with classrooms of less than 600 square feet, classrooms in the new building will average more than 900 square feet, come equipped with projectors or large screens that can connect to computers, and new furniture. We’ll make them our own, with classroom libraries for the English rooms and that sort of thing, but they’ll all rise in quality to meet the district specs that guide all new construction.

I’m even told they’ll warm up in the winter, heated by a 21st century system, not a boiler older than most of our teachers.

Outside students will find the familiar, and much loved, single basketball hoop, behind it not the breakable windows of the science lab (Mr. Kraxberger will be happy), but a mural wall (blank when we move in, but not for long), outdoor seating for lunch, and space enough for a class to meet outside or a play to be performed al fresco.

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A walking path and student garden will live in the grassy area north of the building, with enough open space for students to play, as they do now in the interior courtyard and outside the portables. It should also give us enough space for an amazing putt-putt golf tournament on the last day of school.

Traditions like putt-putt golf will go with us to our temporary home as well, and it’s important to know that when we move back into our permanent campus in 2021 we will bring to that space the ACMA spirit that has grown in our current building over the past quarter century. At ACMA we love murals, music in the mornings, and our Hallway of Hope and Justice; holding on to those traditions and eccentricities that help to define us as a school will help to make our new construction feel like home.

To that end we’re planning to recycle some of the wainscoting from the hallway for our circulation desk in the library and reception area in the front office. The art we can save we will, and the art painted on plaster that can’t be removed we’re making large, high qualities photos of to serve as our first art show. They’re pretty cool and will be going with us to the new building.


All that said, it’s still an emotional time at ACMA. Many teachers have been here for years, and some for nearly all of their careers, and to lose this gem is heart-wrenching. Add to that the uncertainty of moving into a building we haven’t seen, one still on architects’ drawings, small boxes hardly able to represent the living, breathing spaces that will house learning two and a half years from today. There is no vibrancy in a printed map like what we’ll experience once we move home, and in the absence of that understanding it’s easy for concern to grow.

But vibrant we are and vibrant we will be. For the next two years we will bring our artistic exuberance to our “rental” and then in the fall of 2021 we will host an opening night like no one has ever seen as we bring up the curtain on our new building.

We are not a comprehensive high school, nor built to be; we are Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, and the new campus will be designed and built for students to learn and create for the next 75 years, if not beyond.

14. Crabs and Angels

Crabs scraping the sand
Are angels in disguise
-Clarice Arbuthnot

The ingredients for this adventure were really nothing more than a blank journal, an old book, a piece of blotter paper, and a cow puppet. Simple objects, mostly, that needed only a pinch of magic to transform into something special.

I’m sticking to the story that it was the addition of imagination that elevated our enterprise from crabs to angels.

And why?

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.44.13 PMBecause the world needs magic, and wonder, and the possibility of the unexpected. Because coming to school and knowing that there might be buried treasure in the ground makes coming to school a little better. It’s that dash of salt, that splash of picante, that changes the stew. Ours is already a school where the unexpected is to be expected, and where a pirate adventure might seem a little more plausible than at a more conventional place.

But it doesn’t take something so big or so complicated to make a creative difference, and it isn’t only at quirky art schools where adventures can take place. I see a similar magic in classrooms every week: the English teacher who gives students freedom to share their love and understanding of a book through art, or music, or film; the science teacher who inspires students to learn more about biology by adopting rats, and then inspires the design class to research rodent behavior and then make “rat parks” that those rats can explore; and the math teacher who lets students apply what they’re learning to guitar frets and music theory.

The creativity (and whimsy) of our Arbuthnot adventure is similar to those sphero lessons in history, the most engaging skits in health, and the relevant online sleuthing of a technology lesson. It may pale in comparison to students mounting their own plays, composing their own music, or developing their own immersive art, but it shares a desire to elevate life through creativity. To bring light to the dark attic of school, making it a starting point for exploration, not a place that collects dusty facts.

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In each of these cases it’s the earnest effort to connect with students that separates the mundane from the magical. Teachers who bring innovative, student focused approaches to their work aren’t just some foolish principal crawling around in the attic, and they don’t need to be. They are examples of the profound power that comes from the care that we bring to our interactions, the hope that we nurture in each other, the creativity we hope to inspire. These very human ambitions, to make a difference, to inspire, to delight, these have the power to transform the places we work and learn.

IMG_7687Bringing a sense of fun to our work, celebrating imagination, and working together creatively does more than transform the moment; at its best, valuing these things can transform our school culture.

There are lots of little and big choices we can make every day, in class, at lunch, in our own lives, to provide those around us with unexpected moments of joy, and whether it’s an impromptu concert in the foyer, a group of students dancing outside the office, or a student painting a mural in the hallway, the profound power of creativity makes our school a better place.

IMG_1292The two weeks during which we met Clarice Arbuthnot, Mary, Clement, and the rest were filled with the laughter of kids planning, kids discovering, kids searching, and kids finding. For a fortnight there was a little something unknown in the air, something to pique curiosity and encourage a smile. There was an energy in the hallways, even for those not actively joining in the hunt, and the slowly spreading smiles as more and more came into the know.

Those things make a difference.

And next time…

Of course there will be a next time. Not a weathered journal, maybe, not an old key or antiquated volume of Walter Scott, but something, some unexpected adventure that offers my school an opportunity to have fun, imagine, and nurture their creative spirits.

Next time I’ll figure out how to include more students in the great game. Next time that rush of pursuit, that puzzling over clues, that creative, collaborative, curious energy will fill even more of our community. Next time, not too long from now …maybe.

Until then, I hope the students at my school will keep their eyes open for clues to adventure, hearts filled with that pirate spirit, and minds open wide to the possibility of the unexpected.


13. Can You Dig It?

April 10, 2019

IMG_1241They did not wait for tomorrow.

After school the treasure hunters got a shovel from the student garden out behind the school and began pacing off the map and digging. And digging. And digging.

At the end of the day there were holes, but no treasure.

They came back on Wednesday ready to try again.

This time they succeeded.

It was overcast at lunchtime and threatening rain, but a hearty band of students headed to the green space behind the school, a shovel in hand.

Taking turns, they turned earth, laughing, taking pictures, hoping.

IMG_1269The hole grew in diameter. The rain held off, but barely.

A crowd grew, laughing and leaning in to see what was happening. The shovel cut into the earth, scoop after scoop searching for treasure.

And then …clink.

Their shovel, miraculously, did not break the glass jar they saw peeking through the damp dirt. They excavated, the crowd pushing in, different students taking turns with the shovel, and finally the mason jar emerging intact.

They opened the lid and pulled out the yellowed newspaper. Someone shouted: “The cow puppet!” Mary’s, from Miss Moshofsky.

The puppet found its way onto one of the most dedicated sleuth’s hands, they took photos, gave high fives, and the group fell into satisfied conversation. Two weeks of treasure hunting had ended with success. They were ready for their next adventure.


12. Finding the Map

April 9, 2019

Monday morning the map arrived, our final piece in the puzzle leading to the buried treasure. Like any good pirate cartography, it gave steps from a landmark, the northernmost doors of the school, and ended with a large X.

IMG_1200Ducking into the supply closet in the main office, I removed the stopgap note and replaced it with the map, rolled tight and tied with red string (well, a string that I’d colored red with a marker that morning). For some reason that the map had been tied up in red was a little detail that had stuck with more than a few of the students seeking the map.

Those students continued to visit my office, a half dozen by lunchtime, and more and more they were beginning to understand that the numbers at the end of the journal were a book cipher. If SWS stood for Sir Walter Scott, author of the copy of Red Gauntlet and The Pirate that was with the journal, then the numbers gave them a path to find the message that might lead them to the map. By going to the page, then counting down the number of lines and over the number of words, several came up with a coherent message.

But what did it mean?

Students scoured the school. An observant filmmaker spotted my holy grail behind some books on a bookshelf in my office. “Is this yours?” he asked. I nodded. “Made for my by Kajsa Medak, a teacher I knew,” I told him. He hmmmmm’ed. “It looks just like the picture in the journal,” he said. “Like a holy grail,” I answered, feeling a little like the French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail taunting King Arthur with “He’s already got one!”

That filmmaker, who had puzzled over the mystery since the first day, was on a field trip on the day when they found the map, but I captured a sliver of video of the event. Two intrepid sleuths had been tearing through campus for the better part of the week, finally understanding that all the searching wouldn’t work unless they figured out a solid touchstone.

IMG_1530It all boiled down to the key.

On my first day at ACMA, Michael Johnson, who had been the principal here for thirteen years, gave me several gifts, one of the most treasured a master key from the original 1949 locks of CE Mason Elementary. So many years later it fit exactly one lock on campus, the storage closet in the main office. The key, a beautiful example of mid century craftsmanship, had been passed down since the time of Esther Peer, CE Mason’s first principal. I will give it to the person who follows me in this office …years and years and years and years from now.

That key had been on my bookshelf for more than a year, hungry, I thought, to be part of the action, and happy to be included in this little adventure.

With an interested teacher in tow, the two girls who would eventually find the map came to the main office at the start of lunch. They had an idea, they said. Could they borrow the key?

They hurried out into the hallway toward the library, one question on their minds: Which door?

IMG_1225The answer was twenty feet from my office.

A few minutes later they were back, a bevy of students in their wake. They put the key in the lock of the closet and it fit. One girl hurried in and started hunting inside. The other, checking to see if the key turned, shut the door and twisted the bow. A theatrically loud CLICK locked her friend in the closet.

Curiosity piqued, the crowd watched as she unlocked the door and joined her partner in crime inside. They moved boxes, looked high and then low, and finally rewarded the assembling crowd with a whoop of success.

Unrolling the map was an adventure in anticipation. Students crowded around, peering over shoulders and scrutinizing the drawings inside. They trooped out into the hallway, turning the map this way and that, pointing in the directions they thought they might go.


They found the north end of the school and began striding off paces. Their initial work took them to the fence. This couldn’t be correct.

They noticed that portables had been dropped (years after the map was meant to have been drawn) right in their way. It was a fact my gleeful mapmaker had used as a challenge. “The portables make it hard,” one told me. “They seem to,” I answered.

Someone realized that they were taking long strides instead of steps, and wondered if that was throwing them off. They returned to the doors of the school, doors that had been part of campus for more almost seventy years. They were steps away from buried treasure. They could feel it. And…

The bell rang ending lunch. They looked at each other, then to their teacher. “Class,” he said with a smile. A student rolled the map tightly and handed it to her teacher. “Tomorrow,” she said.