The Experience We Needed

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.

Something To Look Forward To

I was talking with one of our school counselors yesterday and as we discussed the pandemic, the upcoming election, distance learning, and the thousand stresses on our kids, staff, and families she shook her head and said “we just need something to look forward to.” Boy do we.

Then today it happened, an outpouring of exuberance, an hour of performance, and enough applause and positive encouragement to lift my spirits (and everyone’s on the Zoom meeting) higher than they’d been in weeks: Open Mic Night.

When we’re in the building, ACMA’s Open Mic Night is a monthly affair where students have an opportunity to perform for peers, parents, and friends in a low pressure/high applause setting. From its first imaginings Open Mic has been a place where we acknowledge the courage it takes for a teenager to stand up in front of an audience and sing a song, read a poem, or share a story, and at the same time we flex our good audience muscles and approach the event as an opportunity to celebrate that courage and creativity with cheers to raise the roof. These days the roof isn’t something we share; my roof is separate from yours, yours is in a different building than mine, and we all have to work a little harder to come together to make art. But we do.

And today we did. A lineup of students (with a couple of younger siblings thrown in the mix) delighted our audience of fellow students, ACMA staff, parents, and grandparents with acts as diverse as a song in ASL, an a capella rendition of “You’ll be Back” from Hamilton, a rowdy piano pounding out “Maple Leaf Rag,” and the cover of tune by Tom Petty.

It was glorious.

…and a lot of just good clean fun. Listening to our students sing, some so talented that I noticed the affirmations that were showing up in the chat switching TO ALL CAPS! AND STAYING THERE COMMENT AFTER COMMENT AFTER COMMENT, RECOGNIZING THE RIDICULOUS TALENT OF THESE PERFORMERS!

I feel a boost of adrenaline just writing about it.

Because, just like that counselor said, we need something to look forward to. We need voices raised in song, we need to laugh, we need to fawn over babies and pets as they appear on screen, we need art, and most of all we need each other.

Today was a simple affair: kids singing songs, an audience cheering them on, everything over the computer and all done in less than an hour, and… 

…and today was more than just a simple affair. It was something to look forward to.

Shared Strength

I worry too, about the kids, so separated and spending so much time in front of computer screens; about families, facing challenges greater than any could have expected and uncertainty like none of us have ever known; about my teachers and staff, working so hard to help students, but asked to do work in a way unlike any they’d prepared for or ever imagined. Around us all the world spins, emotions high, anxiety real, all of us knowing how much we don’t know and many of us just trying hard not to imagine the worst.

As a principal I get calls and read emails from students, parents, and teachers, all of whom seem to be feeling the pressure and are looking for ways to make things better.

I’m not usually one for inspirational quotes, but the other day I spotted a post by an assistant principal at a school where I once worked. We’ve never met, but I enjoy her window into a world I’m happy exists and still count myself fortunate to have been a small part of. The quotation she shared was a line from Titilayo Tinubu Ali that read: “Let’s normalize needing support and start calling it shared strength.”

Shared strength. What a great way of looking at this possibility, this need, this call to action.

Because we need each other. To find answers to the isolation so easy to feel in this time of pandemic, we need each other. To combat systemic racism and change the world around us to treat everyone fairly and well, we need each other. To face the sadness that the news prompts every time we turn it on, to turn anger and frustration into hope and a belief that things will get better, we need each other.

Together we have the capacity to provide the support we need, and I hope, as that quotation suggests, we can allow ourselves to ask for (and offer without asking) each other that support. Alone we do not have all the answers; together we won’t have all the answers, but we will have more of them. That shared strength will allow us to come through these difficult times together.

It reminds me of one of the most precious memories I have from that school now in the hands of that assistant principal I have never met. A senior and I were asked to emcee an all school assembly and we ended the show by singing the Blues Brother’s tune “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”

I’ve written about it before (here, where you can even see a couple of photos) and I honestly believe that the spirit of the song’s lyrics are what we all need to hear today.

“We do sincerely hope you’ll all enjoy the show, and please remember people, that no matter who you are, and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there are still some things that make us all the same. You, me, them, everybody, everybody.”

For the shared strength that will help all of us live, thrive, and survive right now, and we need the support of one another (you, you, you), we need to know that strength comes from all of us together.

The Gray Wolf

When I was a first year teacher in Hood River, Oregon, my wife and I lived in a converted basement apartment. It was a snug Hobbit hole of a place, dark but comfortable, built into the slope of earth reaching down toward the river on the north side of town. From our front room we had a view of a large green hillside across the Columbia that looked like it belonged in a Tolkien novel and beyond that the rounded snow clad peak of Mt. Adams. From the back of the house we saw …well, nothing; there were no windows in the subterranean laundry room we shared with the other apartments in the converted house.

We were young and foolish and figuring out how to be adults, and a natural part of that was thinking about getting our first pet. Midway through our first spring in Hood River one of my students let me know that her cat had given birth to a parcel of kittens. She ticked off the names, all standard fare and lost to memory these many years later with one exception. Along with Boots and Mittens and Spot and Snowball was the one kitten I knew we needed to have: The Gray Wolf.

Why she’s given this particular kitten such a regal and odd name (and the others such mundane monikers) I didn’t ask and didn’t know. All I was certain of was that The Gray Wolf would be a perfect first pet. I went home and told my wife we were getting a cat.

She and I have been together more than thirty years now, and back then, even though we’d been married less than five years, her kindness and patience allowed her to smile, and then with a level head remind me of a fact I should have started with: “We’ll need to ask our landlord.”

My heart sank, filled with the gloom so many renters feel when they have a sense that they have to ask a question for which they might hear an answer they don’t want to hear. “Yeah,” I agreed. “I guess.”

The next day we were driving up the mountain to the apple orchard where our German landlords lived. Hood River may possibly be the most beautiful place on earth, and their rambling farmhouse had a view of the best of it all. We pulled into the long driveway, drove up to the house, and met our elderly landlords out front.

I don’t remember the specifics. I pleaded my case, of course, doing my best to explain why The Gray Wolf was a natural and important part of our young lives. I was a teacher, we were a nice young couple, this would be perfect. They, of course, said “no.”

It would be another ten years before we got our first pet, well pets: three shelter cats, Tess, Trout, and Chester. This spring Chester and Trout died just a few weeks apart, like an old married couple, at the cat ages of twenty and twenty-one. Tess stayed with us another few months, passing on just last week at a grandmotherly nineteen years old.

But even with these three special animals in our lives, over the decades I have often thought about The Gray Wolf.

And then, this month, still smarting over the loss of our original cats and not long after my wife and I bought our first house, we got a kitten. Two actually.

Maple and Sammy are not gray, so there was never a chance they’d pick up the name of that missed kitten from so long ago. My kids wouldn’t get it anyway if their foolish father offered something as exotic as The Gray Wolf in lieu of simpler catlike names. And that’s okay. Maybe best.

The Gray Wolf lives on in my memory, the idea of him anyway, and is a reminder of the time in my life when I had even less control than I do today.

So many of us have times when we’re told no, when our hopes are answered with a resounding response that sends us away with the same disappointment I felt on that drive down the hill from the orchard and back to our basement apartment without a cat.

If we’re lucky that changes over time. We earn more, we advance in our careers, we work hard and get breaks and find ourselves able to take that trip, go out to eat at that restaurant, or welcome that pet into our lives without asking permission.

When we do, if we do, how fortunate some of us are to have a reminder to help keep perspective, live thankfully, and do our best to say yes when we’re asked about gray wolves.