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.


11. Treasure Hunting

April 2019

Students began arriving at my office, curious, asking to see the journal. We let them in, of course, and once when I was coming in from lunch duty I found my secretary and a half circle of students gathered around the table in my office peering down at Clement Arbuthnot’s messy scrawl.

But not everyone could make time to see the artifacts in person, so I posted images of the find on Instagram. This seemed the best way to get the story out to students without broadcasting on any of our official school social media. It also gave me the opportunity to measure out the story, a few pages a day, which (I hoped) added to the suspense. It might also give students more incentive to read closely (the English teacher I was will never die) I thought and buy time for my student artist to finish the map, which was not quite done. It was close, my young cartographer assured me, but not yet ready. I’d seen her work and knew it would be worth the wait.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 10.28.29 AMMr. Reed’s 8th grade science class dove in on the challenge together. He borrowed the journal and the copy of Walter Scott and projected them with a document camera for everyone to see. I wandered down to see how things were going, and found engaged students leaning in to decipher the handwriting, pouring through The Pirate, and talking about the riddle at hand.

“I’m letting them discover on their own,” Mr. Reed told me, smiling. He’d noticed the date the journal had been discovered and the date of the final entry. Clever fellow, he was in the know.

I hadn’t expected anyone to be so organized, or jump over my slow delivery of the journal. If they worked together they could have the location of the map before we had the map in that location. My watch told me they had 45 minutes left in class.

It was no time to panic; it was time to improvise.

Fifteen minutes after I’d left the room I heard the pack of them in the hallway, swaggering like pirates, giggling like 8th graders. They were on the right track, and our map wasn’t yet safely stowed.

I ducked into my office and fashioned a stopgap. Using the back of an old manilla envelope, I scratched out a message in braille, hoping the dots might confuse them long enough to buy some time.

My thought was that when they translated it, if they could before the end of the period, it would add another layer to the story, piquing their interest and extending the search.

IMG_1121Translated it read: “I moved Dad’s map to the new building”

That, I figured, might get them puzzling.

I stapled the note to the top of the eventual hiding place planned for the map, a nook beneath the lowest built in wooden shelf in the closet in the main office.

The murmur of the pirate horde faded away. Doppler effect. The bell rang to end the period. I figured the absence of the map had survived the day.

At lunch three girls asked if they could see inside the boiler room, one of the least altered corners of campus. They were exploring their school in a way they never had.

The next day at teacher who was in the know asked about the name. “Is it another clue?” she asked. I must have looked confused. “Arrr! But, not,” she said with a smile. How I wish I’d thought of that.

Lunchtime and study halls became times for investigation, and a steady stream of students made their way to my office to page through the journal and the copy of Scott. Some cross referenced historical information online as they came across names, places, and events mentioned by Clement Arbuthnot. This was not an assignment, but their curiosity had them researching.

I remembered Mr. Reed’s line: “I’m letting them discover.”

I also thought about how great it was to have students in my office for something fun. Too often a trip to the principal’s office is accompanied by a sinking feeling, tears, or anxiety. But these students brought anticipation, curiosity, and a sense of adventure. They were also learning that the principal’s office isn’t some sacrosanct retreat, but should be a place where students are welcome and can laugh, talk, and be themselves.

During one period, when five students were crowded around the table in my office bouncing ideas off one another, a girl straightened up, laughed aloud, and said to her friend: “Good thing we go to ACMA. If we didn’t, life would be so…” She paused, looking for the word, then relaxed her shoulders, smiled, and said: “…so different.”

I thought I knew what she meant.

Friday saw the final installment of the journal to Instagram and left students with a weekend to think through the story and the code. Throughout the week a few theories had been put forward: SWS was compass directions, SWS had something to do with streets. At least one group of students figured out that SWS could be Sir Walter Scott, and that the numbers afterward had something to do with pages, lines, and words.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 10.17.07 AM

They. Were. So. Close.

But the day ended without anyone discovering the map.

Mystery hung in the air over the weekend, and I like to believe that pirates, buried treasure, and school history worked their way into conversations around kitchen tables, on trips to the store, and maybe even on a date or two.

I posted a “transcription” of Clement Arbuthnot’s journal online on Saturday night, giving everyone an even chance at connecting with the story. A few people downloaded the PDF, and I wondered what they might come to campus thinking.

That desire to know, to put together the clues and understand, so important to what we do as educators (no matter the subject we teach) was weaving through the collective conscious of our school in an unconventional way, and students seemed to be having fun.

It’s hard not to like a treasure hunt.

10. Clement’s Journal

April Fools Day 2019

The weathered journal found in that attic contained page after page of scribbled writing, punctuated with a few sketches and ending with a code to break. Coffee, tea, and even some greasy popcorn helped age the book, which switched between pen and pencil and did its best to masquerade as an authentic artifact from 1951.

It’s not a fancy story, but designed as a starting point for what was to be the real adventure, uncovering the story of Clement and his ancestor Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot (A.C.M.A.) or “Avenging Clarice,” if you prefer, still keeping the acronym that (coupled with the date of its discovery) was meant to tip off readers that they were part of a little installation art, not any kind of malicious hoax.

The pages are a bit tough to read, scratchy handwriting, almost 70 years old, but transcribed the story goes…


Journal of Clement Arbuthnot


I went to the doctor today and found out that if I don’t want this story lost, I need to write it down now. Not his week, maybe, or even this month, but by spring for sure. After that I won’t be here to write.

Mary is too young to read this, but I’ll put the story in this notebook and leave it for her. She’ll be clever, like her mother -not me- and at the end of it she can use the map to dig up her inheritance. With Stalin rattling his saber and the mess that’s brewing in Korea it’s probably safer in the ground than anywhere else.


Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot served honorably in the British Navy from 1681-1708. Then a series of decisions, only some his own, and a revelation that everyone agreed should have come about three decades earlier, ushered him into a short lived turn as a pirate.

My mother told me the story, as her mother had told her, and her mother before her, when she showed me the cup and what little was left of pirate Arbuthnot’s treasure. By then the trove was so whittled away by the generations that it could fit in a cardboard box.

Hard luck, that.

As a boy, Clarence took to sea in the furor of Ceylon brought about by Knox’s book. At thirteen he was too young to be a standard sailor and too old to be a novice cabin boy, so he stowed away on the Tonqueen Merchant, hoping to be discovered when far enough out to sea that a trip back to port would be seen as a waste of time.

Of course they could have tossed him overboard, but Clarence relied on that old adage: “One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”

He was not thrown into the sea.

Clarence sailed with Knox for a year, before finding the captain lacking the character he had suggested for himself in his book, and he jumped ship to join the navy, complete with reasonable skills as a sailor and the swagger of a boy older than he was.

He progressed through the ranks from 1683 to 1688, sailing mostly in the north sea and pausing, albeit briefly, after a devastating loss to the Dutch during the invasion that led the Prince of Orange to the throne of England.



I envy Clarence’s energy. At forty I shuffle along like an old man, hardly able to finish my route before it’s time for the students to go home. I’m tired by the time I’ve emptied the wastebaskets, washed the chalkboards, and mopped up the hallway. Mrs. Peer, as tough as she is, likes me, and I heard her tell the teachers that they needed to have the children do their part and pick up after themselves. I think she can see me breathing harder than I ought to.

Still, she hasn’t said a thing. For that I am thankful.

Yesterday Miss Moshofsky, the arts and crafts teacher, gave me a felt and paper mache puppet for Mary. She loved it, and laughed and laughed when I made the cow moo. I fear it means Miss Moshofsky can see I’m sick too. Still, no charity, only kindness.  



While William was king, Clarence lurked along the coastal shadows fishing and -according to family lore- writing poetry. Only scraps remain, and of those the only worth repeating is the snatch of verse I remember seeing cross stitched and framed above my grandmother’s fireplace.

Crabs scraping the sand
Are angels in disguise

When King Billy left the throne Clarence made his return to naval service. By now he had acquired tattoos on both arms and a scar that twisted down his left cheek from the corner of his eye to his chin. Those who knew him said he stayed clean shaven simply to show off that scar.



Thanksgiving is close and mother and Mary are planning a big dinner, maybe even a goose. I’ll use the break to polish the wainscoting while the children are out of school. By the time the teachers and students return the school will glow. If I can I’ll touch up the trim in front, and get the big ladder to repaint the chips on the C.E. Mason letters above the front door before the weather turns for good and we’re all driven inside.


The newly returned Clarence Arbuthnot served as bos’n for only two years before getting a commission of his own. He’d re-entered the navy a true tarpaulin, hardened by his time as a subsistence fisherman and hungry to make his mark. By 1705, as the British naval world was evolving, he was given a ship, the Dolphin, and sent to keep peace in the North Sea.

It was here, in the heart of winter, that Captain Arbuthnot met a Dutch pirate, made his mark, and ensured his eventual downfall.

Captain Arbuthnot’s first mate was a sailor named Merton, a tall Welshman who had lost one ear in the Seven Years War. Merton had his eyes on a captaincy, and had sailed on the Dolphin before Arbuthnot arrived.

It was Merton who first spotted the Dutch ship just before fog covered the ocean and the waves rose lifting the Dolphin and the pirate ship up and down at the beginning of a storm. Captain Arbuthnot barked one order to his crew, a well practiced prompt to silence and industry as they reefed the sails and battened hatches, preparing to ride out the storm without being spotted by the pirates.

They were not so lucky.

As the wind rose and rain began, the Dolphin was hit with an enormous shock. The timbers cracked and sailors fell to the deck, jarred by the collision as the pirate ship rammed into their hull. It may have startled the pirates too, as the ships separated before grappling hooks flew into the Dolphin’s masts and pulled the two vessels together again.

A screaming hoard of pirates swung onto the Dolphin, met with force by Arbuthnot and his crew. The English were outnumbered, but better trained, led, and equipped.

Captain Arbuthnot, Merton at his side, battled the pirates and the deck ran red. Lightning joined the rain, the wind roared, and a mast pulled away from the Dolphin with a sickening splintering crack. Merton was trapped beneath it. Two pirates advanced toward him.

Pulling his sword from the chest of a pirate, Captain Arbuthnot hurried to his first mate, turning his back on the rest of the battle as he lopped the heads off both pirates in one stroke. A second later the captain’s shirt blossomed red as a pistol shot cut through his side and he lurched forward, landing on Merton.

Merton drew Arbuthnot’s pistol and shot back, ending the pirate’s life, then rolled Arbuthnot over on his back and ripped away his jacket and shirt to stop the flow of blood with the fabric. Arbuthnot struggled, but Merton succeeded in plugging the deep hole cut beside the captain’s ribs.

The captain stirred, sat up, covering himself with his jacket against the rain and gritting his teeth with pain. Two sailors freed Merton and hurried both him and Arbuthnot to the captain’s cabin while the English sailors finished off the remaining pirates.

The storm raged, and Arbuthnot ordered his men to board the pirate ship and empty its hold into their own before cutting the ships apart and sailing for home.

As the ship’s doctor stitched up Arbuthnot’s wound and set Merton’s broken leg, more than two hundred chests were transferred into the hold of the Dolphin. It was the richest prize ever taken in the North Sea.

For the next few hours the storm howled, the English sailors performed bravely as they transferred the pirate treasure, and Arbuthnot and Merton lay alone in the cabin, each wrestling with his own pain.

The story goes that Merton raged when the spirits the doctor had given him to dull the pain rendered him incapacitated and that his haunting words to the captain, words that he would repeat off the coast of Toulon, were simple and few. He shouted, heard only in the cabin, drowned out on deck by the growing storm, over and over: “I know.”



Found the perfect place for the map today, up and out of the way, behind a locked door. With the extra key I’ll tuck in this book, Mary will have no problem retrieving it when the time is right. I’ll tie it with a red string, so she can find it. I wish there was more in the jar, but I’ll imagine there is enough.

If only the world were as simple as Mary’s joy in Miss Moshofsky’s cow. She now asks for a puppet show every night before bedtime. She is a joy.

I will never see her reach ten.


After another two years of distinguished service, and with the Dutch pirates’ treasure safely locked away in London, Clarence was given the title of admiral in 1707, though he retained his position aboard the Dolphin and seemed hungry for battle. With the French massing a Mediterranean fleet Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot sailed to Toulon to take part in what would turn into an English rout of the French. It would also be the beginning of his end.


The Dolphin joined a flotilla of ships to take the French fleet massing in the harbor of Toulon. Arbuthnot was impatient, as always, and frustrated by the English reluctance to skirmish in the harbor where more than fifty French warships anchored, preparing for battle.

That’s when Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot decided to do something daring, and maybe a little foolish.

With Captain Merton frowning at the plan, Arbuthnot commandeered a skiff and with two other sailors snuck into the harbor after dark. They slid up to a French warship, climbed aboard, and disabled the watch. Then, without rousing the crew, they blocked off the hatches leading below decks, effectively making the French crew prisoners on their own ship, raised a white flag of surrender, and prepared to sail out of the harbor.

That’s when a cannon shot from the Dolphin broke the silence of night and woke the French fleet.

Arbuthnot and his sailors hopped down to their skiff and sailed out of the harbor as the French came alive. They returned to the Dolphin, swearing at the rapscallion who had ruined their gambit, and as they topped the rail and stepped onto the deck were greeted by Captain Merton and a contingency of sailors who clapped them in irons and called them traitors. Merton, scowling at the admiral, let no one know he had been aware of Arbuthnot’s plan and instead said, for all the crew to hear: “Admiral Arbuthnot is a fraud!”



No such drama at Mason Elementary. The weather has turned and rain fills every day. The children are anxious to get back out on the playground, but the foursquare courts are puddles and the children have to stay indoors. The teachers feel the students’ pent up frustration and do their best to make lessons interesting, but yesterday I saw a pack of five boys running down the hallway whooping like a gang of Tarzans. I stepped in front of them and they stopped with a “Sorry, Mr. Arbuthnot,” but I suspect they laughed at their prematurely aging janitor as they walked away. Mine is not a life of adventure.


The French burned their fleet the next morning. Convinced they could not defeat the English, they sunk their ships to block the harbor and set about the ugly business of losing a fight.

Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot was left in the brig while his two sailors seemed to have disappeared overnight. Captain Merton convened a court martial and marched Arbuthnot to the highest point of the ship, the crew looking on as he paced in front of the admiral.

Now it is important to remember that naval life at this time was a strange and insular world. Men sailed ships and women stayed on shore. The navy was emerging as the great power it would become, moving from a more amateur affiliation of ships to the organized and relatively efficient machine it would be for the next several centuries. Any challenge to this order was met with force, and anything thought to question the established way of the world was viewed as a challenge to all the privileged class deemed right.

This forced the unconventional to mask themselves in ways that allowed them to follow their paths just outside the bright light of social rules. On the sea, where fewer questions were asked if a sailor did his job and followed the rules, individuals were judged mostly by merit, but even there some transgressions were beyond the pale.

Merton knew this as he paced back and forth behind Arbuthnot, who had been driven to his knees and waited, a bayonet to his head, for whatever would come next. Merton knew this as he raised his voice so everyone could hear as he addressed the crew. “This creature is a fraud, an abomination, an affront to nature.”

The captain grabbed Arbuthnot’s collar and with a theatrical gesture pulled his shirt up over the admiral’s head, buttons popping off against his chin. Her chin.

Arbuthnot made no effort to hide as Merton scowled at her and twisted looked wildly around the ship to make certain everyone had seen this revelation.

The sailor with the bayonet, who had not been warned that this would be part of the proceeding, backed away, shocked, and Arbuthnot stood quickly, punched Merton in the jaw, and dove over the side of the ship into the water.



After a day of scrubbing and painting, alone in this empty building, the boiler raging and filling the school with heat, I’ve retreated to my corner of the attic with a volume of Walter Scott, a thermos of coffee, and my map that is almost done. I’ll draw until I’m too tired, and then read until it’s time to go home. This is the closest I’ll ever get to being a buccaneer.


Piracy was a dangerous enterprise by the time Clarice Morgan Arbuthnot hoisted the black flag, and her run as an outlaw was expectedly short. “Avenging Clarice” the sailors called her, and she was driven by vengeance.

Family legend has it that after Clarice dove from the Dolphin she swam to a small fishing boat anchored off the coast and forced the old man who was casting nets to take her back to Toulon. There she dropped him off 50 yards from shore, turned the small boat around, and sailed south until after dark, when she met a fishing sloop.

Armed only with the old man’s cleaning knife, she took the sloop, tossing overboard anyone unwilling to follow her orders, commandeering the crew, and sailing on in search of greater prizes.

Clarice Arbuthnot, born to a poor family and unwilling to accept the path her gender and social standing laid out before her, shaved her hair, rubbed dirt on her face, and took to the sea as a means of escape as much as adventure. Her time as a sailor, inhabiting the role of a boy and growing into the life of a man, had taught her that society knew about as much about appropriate destiny as a codfish does geometry. She took this certainty and a daring few would acknowledge in a woman her age to everything she did, from the navy to piracy.

Her ascent went on for weeks, trading the sloop for a cutter, the cutter for a carrack, and finally the carrack for the Miranda, the ship she would sail until she left the sea.


That pirate spirit has run through many in my family, though I suspect that it skipped a generation in me. The closest I’ve come to any kind of buccaneering is my name -I’m told inspired by Scott’s story, a favorite of my grandmother, whose copy of the book sits next to me now in the makeshift hideaway I’ve carved for myself here above the stage. That, and the day I buried treasure out back.

But for so many in my family tree the spirit of adventure loomed large. That spirit led my family from England to the Hebrides, from there to Nova Scotia, and then across Canada until my great grandmother decided to come south to the plains of the United States.

But Kansas was no home for a lineage as tied to the sea as mine, and my grandmother, Mary St. More, the most swashbuckling of them all, trundled up my mother and her sisters and took the train from Topeka to Cascade Locks, where she disembarked and made a home, cooking meals for the men of the Burlington Northern Railroad.

Grandma Mary, a widow who remarried a fisherman from Astoria named August St. More, was the genesis of my own name, Clement, inspired by a character from Walter Scott’s The Pirate. She read and reread Scott, and was the first to tell me about Admiral, then pirate, Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot riding the same waves off Shetland, and the first to broaden my eyes with Clarence’s transformation into Avenging Clarice Morgan Arbuthnot, a pirate hero with a career too brief to make it into any of the histories.


As short as it was, the life of Avenging Clarice was filled with luck, daring, and profound profit.

My mother and grandmother told me more stories of the Miranda than I could fit in this journal, stories of Clarice sailing around the horn of Africa, winning prizes in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Tatar Strait. Legends have her traveling to Australia, pirating off the coast of Tasmania, and returning to the British Isles heavy with treasure.

Among those stories, and keeping with the moniker attached to her name, Clarice found vengeance when she met again Captain Merton and the Dolphin.

The story is short. Sighting her former ship, Clarice sailed close, aimed every cannon at the Dolphin, and sank her without bothering to board. It was unusual for a pirate not to want plunder, but for Clarice revenge was treasure enough.



The new year brings no relief to my broken insides or my worry about the future. My only hope is that when she is old enough Mary will find this journal, follow it to the map, and dig up enough to see her through. I’ll be long dead by then, buried deeper than that mason jar, and she will have long outgrown her cow puppet. I wonder if she’ll keep it and remember me.



Clarice retired to Beàrnaraigh, a place as remote as her heart had become. Alone after the wreck of the Miranda, a story I will not record here, she wanted nothing more than to be alone with her cats, grow herbs and vegetables, and write occasional verse. Family legend describes her retiring to the island and being thought of as something of a witch. Her jewels, coins, and trinkets must have purchased her some forgiveness from the locals.

And here, I suppose my family’s story should end. This old woman in a stone hut on the edge of the world is hardly a likely wellspring for a line of Arbuthnots, and yet she was.

My mother, and her mother, and her mother before her tell the story that the turning point came in late 1730 when Clarice, alone and avenged, was visited by a cousin from London who had been looking after Peter the Wild Boy, a failed pursuit, and was traveling Scotland following a series of deaths in his family and inner circle.

Family stories don’t say much about Dr. Arbuthnot, but it’s after his visit to Beàrnaraigh that Clarice was seen in the company of a young boy who she raised as her own. It is from Clarice’s boy that my own last name has been handed down, and with it the waning treasures of Avenging Clarice.



It’s cold today, almost too cold to write. I battled the boiler in the morning, but by nine o’clock Mrs. Peer sent the children home before leaving herself, and now I’m alone in a big school uncertain if I’ll see February, let alone spring.

My stomach hurts again, worse than it has, and I’ve stopped going to the doctor. He doesn’t have any answers anyway.

But I need to finish Clarice’s story, at least the part of it I know, even the crazy part, and leave it and the map for my Mary.

I’ll stay snug here in my attic for a while. Too tired to write much more today, I’ll read my grandmother’s copy of The Pirate and imagine that I could breathe in the fresh air of the Scottish coast. There are worse ways to spend a snowy Oregon day.



The strangest part of Clarice’s story, and one of many curious incidents to be sure, is the grail.

It may not be a true story, tales from so long ago so often aren’t, but as it was told to me, and from Arbuthnot to Arbuthnot over the years, Clarice was sailing the Miranda off the coast of Spain when she met a ship sailing under no flag. A saggy sloop, barnacles on its hull, sails frayed, it slugged through the Bay of Biscay as if a thousand years old.

At first she doubted the value of boarding the ancient vessel, it looked so poor, but her sailors were restless, and a good captain knows the value of busy hands, so she created an adventure with a cry of havoc, a flashing of her sword, and the promise that the first to spot gold on the rickety tub would have the captain’s share of chocolate, a delicacy they’d plundered from a French trader the fortnight before.

The pirates were surprised by the reception they received when they swung over to the ship. A bevy of blunderbuss spat nails and metal scraps at them, and two dozen men dressed in flowing black rushed at them with curved swords. The battle was fierce and the crew of the Miranda cut in half, but experienced pirates, they won in the end.

Clarice, bleeding from a wounded ear and scowling through her bloodied mouth, now missing teeth, bent over the captain of the sloop. Her crew saw the captain, an old man with an enormous white beard now stained with blood, prone on the deck, stretch his face near hers and whisper something that widened her eyes.

She squinted at him. Spat blood, And promptly ordered her men to throw him into the sea.

She then told her sailors to empty the hold, ordered her cabin boy to prepare to torch the sloop, and strode into the captain’s cabin alone. When she emerged, a canvas sack in her hand, she nodded to a pair of pirates to clear the cabin of anything of value, tucked the bag in her belt, and returned to the Miranda.

She described her prize from the captain’s cabin as “the cup,” and as it was passed down from generation to generation every mother noticed that it resembled nothing more than the depictions of Waugh or Rossetti of the holy grail.

Every baby born to an Arbuthnot had her or his first sip from the cup. No one could prove that they lived any longer or healthier lives because of it, but Clarice is rumored to have seen her 110th birthday, and with me as the exception, Arbuthnots through history have lived robustly into old age.

Is this cup I’ll leave for Mary the one from Christian legend? Cleverer than I am, she may find out when she digs it up with the mason jar of treasure I put into the ground in the fall.



The sun came out today, welcome relief after a February of snow and rain. Spring isn’t here, but it’s close, and the children are bustling with energy and happy to be outside under the sun once again.

One, a boy of six or seven, caught me today after classes let out and asked if I’d unlock the music room so he could practice his trumpet. It’s against the rules, of course, but Mr. Gillmore had gone home, and I could see what it meant to the boy. “Morton,” I told him, “someday your music will move the world.” He smiled at my innocent fib.


It was my grandmother Mary who moved our family to Oregon, where she raised my mother and her three sisters. Aunt Molly is dead now, Aunt Beatrice locked up in Salem, and Aunt Maggie is somewhere far, far away, living in a country where the sun always shines. That’s all my mother will say about Aunt Maggie, but I imagine that my Mary will want to know more, and once I’m gone I know mother will tell her.

Spring is almost here. My coughing is getting worse.


The map. I’ve been working on it since before I started this journal. I’d thought to leave it here for Mary, or maybe even stow it at our house, but houses change hands and schools are forever, so instead I’ve put it here on campus where she can find it when the time is right.



I went back to Dr. Boersema yesterday hoping he would tell me something that I knew he could not. What he said instead was that I needed to tell Mrs. Peer that I was leaving work, set right my affairs, and prepare to say goodbye to Mary and my mother.



I tried drinking from the cup when I got home yesterday. It didn’t work, of course. Perhaps I don’t have the magic words. Perhaps there aren’t any.

What is real is the mason jar of gold coins and gems and such that I buried before the ground froze back in December. When Mary finds that, as small as it is in comparison to Avenging Clarice Morgan Arbuthnot’s treasure, she can buy something nice, or go somewhere warm.



Finished The Pirate. I guess that means I can go soon.


Avenging Clarice is in my dreams. Her life ended on her terms, comfortably ensconced in a warm hut by the sea on the edge of Scotland, visited often by the boy who was her son and later by his children, my ancestors.

I wonder if Mary will have memories of me, maybe playing with her and her cow puppet.



For Mary.

Maybe it’s Walter Scott in my head, or grandma Mary’s stories, or the reminder that my name comes from The Pirate, but as I finish these pages -and my own story- I leave one last adventure for her on her way to the map. She is a girl of adventure, my Mary. I can see that in her now, even as young as she is. She is the great granddaughter of another Mary, whose spirit I see in her.

How then I hope she’ll appreciate this challenge, knowing at the end is her reward.




9. “…to the day!”

April 1, 2019, of course

As set as the plan was, it needed a pinch of spontaneity, so as I gathered two students who had been doing some research on the history of our school, awesome kids who had the background to really appreciate a trip upstairs, I walked out to the film room to see if anyone would be willing to record what we were seeing.

IMG_1414An intrepid young filmmaker was walking up the stairs as I got there, still carrying his camera from a project he was working on in the PAC. He agreed to join our expedition, explained to him as reconnaissance to measure some large wooden beams we would try to salvage for our new building. (There really are some great old beams upstairs and we do hope to be able to make benches out of them and bring them to our new construction in 2021.)

Together we climbed through a hatch in the ceiling of the library, up another wooden ladder, and into the attic. After a dusty, cramped crawl, we found ourselves crouching beneath the wooden roof, looking up to see the nails poking through the wood, squinting into the darkness to find a way to measure the long beams.


Working together, the students stretched out the tape measure and began plotting lengths, and then the call:

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.38.22 PMThere’s a book up here!”
“There’s two of them!”

Tucked between the slanted roof and a smaller support beam was the journal and the copy of Walter Scott. Covered with dust it looked like they’d been there for decades.

They pulled them to the floor and dug into the books, startled when a key slid out of the journal, and then noticed the date on the final entry.

“Oh my god. April 1st, 1952!”



IMG_1048They read through the final entry, Clement leaving a message about his daughter, calling out that it was sixty seven years ago “to the day.”

Adrenaline took over and for the next quarter of an hour they poured over the journal, discussing the story, piecing together who was who, and beginning to think about how the key might fit into what they had found. They leafed through the copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, and took a detective’s eyes to the entire trove.

Crouched in the darkness, reading by the glow of a flashlight, they reminded me of my fondest memories of the Hardy Boys, intrepid sleuths discovering something strange and unaccounted for. Their energy and curiosity were astounding, and I will always cherish the excitement of discovery with which they filled the attic. These young detectives were standing in a part of the school I’ll wager no student had ever visited before, and they had collectively set into motion a treasure hunt for the entire school.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.41.04 PM