I work at a creative school filled with whimsical and imaginative people who make art, support each other, and like to dress up. Every October this means that we have an opportunity to unleash that creativity. At ACMA Halloween is a national holiday, and this year, separated by the pandemic, Halloween had to look different.
We decided on a pumpkin carving contest online, cobbling together a video of dancing students (filmed individually and spliced together by our intrepid film students), and… and we knew we wanted something else. We wanted to see if there was a way to be more together. The experience we needed, needed after weeks connecting only through computer screens, was to be on campus together. So…
We planned a Fall Fest, our usual name for ACMA’s October party, as a “walk through” event. Students would get dropped off on one end of campus, stroll along the wide sidewalk past parked staff cars, their trunks open and filled with candy, and circle around outside the building to dance, play, and laugh through their masks, and then exit out the other end of campus.
Walking along the sidewalk, at a safe social distance of course, I spotted a steampunk librarian, the Incredible Hulk, a couple of hobbits, and the inflatable robot from Big Hero 6 …and that was just the teachers. One dance instructor in a long blonde wig, a black cape and plastic teeth came up to me and asked: “Do you think the kids will recognize the vampire Lestat?” “No,” I answered. His costume was great, but did kids still read Anne Rice or watch horror movies from the 1990s? “How about if I say Tom Cruise?” “No.”
But maybe I was wrong, because ACMA students often surprise us. They surprise us with their wit, their perspective, and their creativity. On Halloween that creativity shines.
So we saw pirates, plague doctors, and a menagerie of animals. An impressive knight and his lady strolled through, making ACMA feel like Camelot. A flapper danced in, and when I asked her if she was reading Gatsby in English she answered: “I did last year and I’m bringing it back!” Some costumes were fantastical, like the astounding Queen of Hearts, and others subtle, like the student in a t-shrit that said “feminist” and a pair of glasses that made me ask: “Gloria Steinem?” The student smiled. “Yes.” Her costume was, as they say, so very ACMA. It was awesome.
Flights of Anime characters walked through campus, and I was happy to have recognized Totoro. Skeletons, cowpokes, and Wednesday from the Addams family filled ACMA with energy and from the werewolf who greeted students at the front gate to the ghostbuster near the exit, the positivity that everyone brought to the day was amazing.
The students were great, walking through the candy corridor, taking photos, dancing (with direction from a couple of our amazing ACMA dancers), and playing some outdoor games that allowed everyone to stay more than six feet apart. I couldn’t see the smiles behind the sensible facemasks, but I could tell they were there, and (true to ACMA form) just about every student said “Thank you” as they left the Fall Fest to get picked up on the other end of campus.
After more than a few days of stress, problems to be solved, challenges that tested our collective resolve, to see moments of joy was a rare and wonderful experience.
Then, as I spotted our bewigged Lestat laughing and chatting with the teacher who was dressed as a farmer and another whose striped red and white shirt and red beanie told me we’d found Waldo, I knew that today’s Fall Fest was as good for the adults at my school as as it was for the students. In this world of Zoom and email, separated from physical proximity and lonely for the best part of education, connecting, today was magical.
After the day was over a teacher who had been taking photos for the yearbook came up to me and told me that she heard a student tell a friend: “This is not the experience I thought I’d have, but it’s the experience I realize I needed.”
These days that statement is just about the highest praise we can aspire to. Because we need each other. We need to laugh, look into each other’s eyes, hear human voices without the help of a computer, dress up, have fun, and know that we are not alone. Today’s Fall Fest did that for many of us, students and staff alike.
It was the experience we needed, all of us.