Returning

Boxes fill the hallways, precarious
Expanses of cardboard, plastic, and wood
The unpacking apace; we know we should
Be hurrying to prepare for the fuss
Of school beginning, students in a rush
Of emotions and endorphins that would
Overwhelm older mortals (who once could
And maybe did, handle with curse and blush).
Teachers —gearing up for the start of school
Summer renewal still coursing through them
Like an August breeze off the ocean when
The sun is setting and the stars are near—
And we adults who also fill the school
Unpack and prepare ourselves for the year.

Traditionally Different

This year will look different, of course. Commencement, like everything else since March of 2020, isn’t the same as it always has been.

It will look different than last year too, when we had to do everything online, much to the disappointment of more than a few seniors.

Graduation for the class of 2021 will be a series of firsts for ACMA. The first outdoor ceremony. The first time we aren’t celebrating at our home on Center Street and the first time graduates will sit with their families (in socially distanced pods of chairs).

There will be a few things that feel the same. We’ll begin the ceremony with bagpipes and end with Joe Avery’s Second Line. The heart of the day will be student speakers and a thoughtful staff address, and we’ll livestream it all for relatives who can’t make it to campus.

We’re putting the finishing touches on the ceremony this week and as the principal, with the honor and the obligation of addressing the class, I’m working on what I’ll deliver as a speech.

In years past I’ve been unconventional (a poem by Cavafy, a video, a three word speech) but this year it feels like I ought to make a nod to something that looks more familiar. Now this doesn’t mean I’ll be quoting Dr. Seuss or riffing about the definition of the world commencement, but I do feel like the structure of a speech might need to feel more traditional.

I’ve toyed with a few ideas, and as the hours tick away before I need to send something to the ASL translators who will be working the event I think I’ve just about settled on something that (I hope) brings to the fore what is most important about our work: the people.

One of the lessons most brought home by this pandemic and the reshuffling we’ve had to do for the past many months is that it’s not the building or the classes that define our school, it’s not the performances or pieces of art we produce (though both of those things are important too), but it is the relationships shared by the people (adult and student) who make up our school. It’s those people and relationships that I’ll do my best to speak to on Saturday. It will take me more than three words, I don’t have a poem or a green screen, and…

It’s okay to be different, particularly this year.

Boxes Before Boats

June. Tomorrow. After the sun and rain and ups and downs of May we enter the final dozen days of the school year with the hurried shamble of a modern cinema zombie. Our seniors, a group of students who have felt profound impact on their education from this COVID experience, are preparing for graduation; our juniors, who tell me that they see a light at the end of this proverbial tunnel (“Next year will be a fresh start!” is a sentiment I’ve heard more than a few times this spring); and most of the rest seem ready to put 2020-2021 to rest and get about whatever the summer is all about. It’s easy to socially distance in a kayak.

But we have a lot packed into these last weeks, including (at our school) literal packing.

Right now everything we own is finding its way into boxes and before the end of June moving trucks will pull up at our temporary home and tote everything from easels to dance floors, books, boxes, and a ridiculously heavy pugger in the ceramics room over to our new campus. 

While all this packing is going on, our students and teachers are pushing hard toward the end of the semester. There are kilns to load, monologues to deliver, essays to write, and paintings to be shared with others. In a normal year this isn’t easy and this is not a normal year.

This year all of us have been physically separated in ways we never imagined before the pandemic. We’ve learned to adjust and adapt, to make do, to make peace, and to make our way in a way that feels strange and sometimes stressful. 

We’ve been learning remotely for more than a year, adding hybrid to the mix a few months ago, and slogging away as best we can. Along the way we still face responsibilities, obligations, and the opportunities to make a difference. Those opportunities aren’t easier in this environment and the results aren’t certain. And we keep going.

We engage, we create, we stumble to engage and create. We work hard, try harder, and sometimes find that our efforts and hard work aren’t quite enough. Sometimes they are, don’t get me wrong, but for many of us the past few months, and the past few weeks in particular have challenged us to the edge of our stress levels.

That’s just real, and the times we show and are shown grace make such a difference.

We can get this done. We’ll finish the school year. We’ll have a commencement ceremony. We’ll finish packing. We’ll move forward (and literally move as well).

And then, of course, we need to breathe.

Summer is a good time to take a breath. With a few fewer deadlines, the opportunity to turn off the alarm clock, and longer days that invite adventure, late June, July, and early August offer the space to move through the world at a different pace. This year more than ever that feels important.

Because in the fall we return to campus, a space new to us all and filled with more possibility than memories. We have a community to reconnect with, a batch of friends to be made or celebrated in person again, and a school year to start with aplomb.

But first, packing, those final projects, and throwing mortar boards into the air …and paddling our kayaks out into the lake.

Seeds Under Earth

“Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.”   ― Alice Walker

We are certainly in a period of growth.

Two years ago our school packed up more than twenty years of memories (and dance costumes, and boxes of clay, and books, so many books, and tubes of paint) and moved across town as bulldozers razed a building we loved to make way for a new campus that was still a dream. Our initial thoughts were tinted with emotion. We wept a bit at the loss of a familiar home and leapt into a future uncertain of what it would feel like to learn somewhere else.

But we’re creative souls and over the first few months at our temporary building we adapted (and then adapted again when a leaky roof at a nearby K-5 school swelled our school with elementary students) and found that we could make art even in unfamiliar climes. Heck, in February we put on a three stage spectacular in the venues we’d made out of a gym converted into a dance studio, a commons made into a music stage, and a black box theater that had hosted the musical Cabaret. It was awesome, and less than a month later we found ourselves learning from home, campus empty as a result of a global pandemic.

We grew again over the months and months and months we were apart. As Alice Walker described it, “Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening.” We didn’t know what was happening, not from month to month, week to week, or sometimes day to day. And yet, like that seed in her description of growth, we pushed upward.

Sometimes the weight of learning (and teaching) alone was crushing. Sometimes we felt “hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical” and even as we looked around for something or someone to give us perspective we found little to reassure us. And yet, like that seed, we pushed upward.

The partial return to school has felt like a sliver of sunlight to some of us. It is not school as we knew it, but it is not school as we have known it for the past year or so. And the next year?

The next year we return to a campus we’ve never been on before. The new building stands on the same ground our school has occupied for as long as we’ve been a school. New construction connects with the established performing arts center that has been a part of our collective experience for more than a decade. Much about the new place will remind and reassure folks that our history and our traditions (and our art too) matter very much. Wainscoting from the old building has been salvaged and installed on the reception desk in the main office and the library circulation desk in the new building. Artwork from our permanent collection, some of which has been in storage for two years, will go back up on walls. Students, staff, and alumni should step into the new building and feel like they’re coming home.

But just as the building has changed, those students, staff, and alumni have changed too. The past two years have seen societal change and personal change in our world and in our hearts. The strange feeling of separation so many of us have felt, only now being chipped away at by coming to campus and seeing each other, well some of each other, again, has made those changes in ourselves and our world feel stranger still. And yet I want to believe Alice Walker when she says: “it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.” 

A few months from now my school will be in a new building, our third in four years, and while I don’t know what COVID restrictions will look like in the fall I imagine that as the months stretch on we’ll see more and more of each other. Performances will resume in person. Classes will be filled with students. Laughter will echo in the hallways and the piano in our commons will bring music back to the masses.

But Depeche Mode references aside, this growth has been confusing and frustrating and hard. And… we are strongest when we are here for one another. We are best able to grow and change for the better when we are each other’s support. As a school, as a community, as human beings, we can come out of these two years of change stronger, kinder, and more filled with hope. 

Put another way… “Hang on Little Tomato” by Pink Martini.

May the 4th

I heard R2 beeping before he rolled around the corner of my office followed close behind by the laughter of my bookkeeper, a counselor, and the custodian who was piloting the little robot. A few feet away in the main office, beneath a life sized inflatable stormtrooper and a cardboard cutout of Princess Leia a few students laughed with my receptionist and head secretary, hardly noticing the plexiglass that rose between them or the masks we all wore, focusing instead on the inflatable lightsabers and giant plush Yoda on the counter. We all needed that laughter.

Seeing our students on campus, all of our students, feels like it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

We laughed a lot together before the pandemic drove us off campus, applauded more than you’d expect, and were inclined to nuttiness. For a few months all three of those things have felt a little on hold. And today, May 4th, we got a glimpse of what it will be like again.

Throughout the months since we left campus we’ve tried to keep out students and staff connected beyond just academics. Early on we organized Zoom lunches, kept Open Mic Nights alive (as online Open Mic Mornings), and even put on a staff revue to entertain the kids (and, truth be told, ourselves).

As the weeks turned into months we found ways to see our students, at least from the masks up. A drive through senior celebration, a walkthrough ACMA Day, and then on Halloween a dress up party that was legitimately fun.

In late April some students returned to campus, just over half of our student body divided into two attendance groups that came in every other day. They’re dancing and sculpting, singing, reading, writing, and making art on campus again, and yet…

We still need that laughter, that fun, that sense of whimsy that inspires spontaneous applause.

So as a school, both students and staff, we thought about what we might do this spring to just have fun (and maybe imagine ourselves in a galaxy different than our own for a while) and we came back with the two word answer: Star Wars.

The sensible choice for a date for the party was May the 4th, of course, so we planned, prepared, and ordered inflatable lightsabers. We dug the life sized cutouts of Leia and Darth Vader out of storage (we’re a school with such things in storage) and got about the business of good clean fun.

The morning of I sent a couple of photos to my staff from the day a few years back when we decided that it would be a good idea to hit each other with pool noodles made to look like lightsabers. The email prompted some revisionist history as to who won, more than a few happy responses, and the notion of a rematch between a couple of my intrepid Jedi.

Throughout the day I heard more laughter than I had any reason to suspect on a Tuesday in May during hybrid learning. 

Just before school let out our volunteer students gathered in their May the Fourth Be With You t-shirts and, accompanied by a stormtrooper or two, they hatched plans for the day. It looked like a friendlier version of that scene before the rebels go blow up the Death Star.

Two of those stormtroopers, whose blasters had been replaced with enormous flowers (much more in keeping with our school spirit) faced each other from across the main hall. Looking from one to another, their flowers speaking of romance, it appeared that the two might be our own Romeo and Juliet. The palpable longing of those two stormtroopers whispered a narrative of unrequited love. So very ACMA.

And then, after school, the party…

A constellation of activity stations spread out (socially distanced as they should be) across the lawn outside our building where young Jedi could pick up a lightsaber, visit a trading post, and get the training any youngling needs. Photos on the Millennium Falcon? You bet. Space age dance music? Sure. Time to laugh? You bet your sweet Jawa.

Some just wanted to play on the big grassy area, swinging their lightsabers or just walking and talking. Some wanted to try their hands at designing a paper spaceship. Some couldn’t stop smiling seeing their teachers dressed up like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and Princess Leia. 

Students did a nice job of following the COVID protocols in place. Everyone wore a mask, not only Darth Vader. They danced and laughed and did their best to stay at least one lightsaber apart. And while it all felt different than some of our prior pre-COVID spring celebrations, this May the 4th was a delight in its own way. 

So while some of us might be a little short to be a stormtrooper, we do know how to have fun, and in a world so thick with stress it helps a lot to hear the beep of R2D2.

Live!

The students were AMAZING, of course, funny, smart, and more creative than any teenager has any right to be. Zany, clever, and (in an unexpected turn) moving, our yearly comedy sketch show ACMA Live, rechristened ACMA (still a)Live this year, streamed into living rooms last week to the wild applause of students, staff, and families.

As the principal I suppose I ought to bring a sense of trepidation to the show; it’s satire after all, and one never knows where the performers will focus their gaze, but this year more than ever I was looking forward to the event, which came at the end of our first week of hybrid instruction.

It didn’t disappoint.

In addition to a witty student perspective on Zoom meetings, breakout rooms, and a year of online learning, the creative team welcomed in some not ready for primetime players in the over 30 age group: staff hams.

It was a delight. 

In addition to a fun skit about a teacher discovering Tik Tok and a master class on comedy starring a dance instructor as a teacher who didn’t know he wasn’t muted (two words: Squirrel Mafia), the kids even let the staff star in a Zoom roll call that I can say from experience was as fun to film as it was to watch.

And it was this last sketch, one in which I got to play “cosplay kid” (a good hearted homage to the inspiring ACMA students who were such a delight when we did our Halloween party last fall) that was my first indication that ACMA (still a)Live was going to be a needed balm after such a strange spring and summer and fall and winter and spring again. 

The filming of our roll call was filled with laughter and captured the goofiness that will help us all traverse this pandemic prompted wilderness and return to campus with smiles behind our masks. Laughter, humor, whimsy, all too easy to forget in times of stress, matter much.

ACMA (still a)Live reminded us of this.

As tradition would suggest, the show included some gentle roasting of a handful of neighborhood schools (along with self depreciation about ACMA’s limited skill in the area of sports), but this year added an oddly moving story about a ghost haunting our performing arts center and wondering where all the students went after new construction moved us to a temporary campus last year. Act one of “The PAC Ghost” was that tasty pinch of nostalgia that made the rest of the meal even more delicious.

The show ended with a fantastic “Quarantine” Song, blending music, video, and insight in a celebration of sorts of our school, our artists, and our ability to overcome this crazy year. ACMA is very much still alive, and our students (and staff) still know how to make us laugh.

Good Natured Dread

This has been a crazy year in education, as it has been a crazy year beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. It has been a year when the those schoolhouse walls have expanded to include every kitchen table in town, every student chromebook perched on a stack of pillows, and more than a few garages where a corner between the lawn mower and boxes of holiday decorations has been converted into a place to dance, paint, or play the clarinet.

Now, as the world seems to be turning in a different direction, with some students returning to campus (and a good many other students choosing to remain at home to learn) some of that external craziness is turning into heightened internal emotion. Those feelings, just as confused as the world around us, were described beautifully by one of the seniors at my school who when asked what she and her peers were feeling replied: “Dread. Good natured dread.”

Another adult who was in on the conversation followed up: “Do you mean at school?” She asked, “or in general?” The student paused and then said: “Yeah.”

I loved (and was not surprised by) the way the student phrased things. I work at a ridiculously creative school where iconoclasm is equaled by wit. “Good natured dread” captures both the weariness inspired by the past year or so and the pluck that I know can lift this current generation of students (and the fortunate adults who get to work with them) out of the mire. 

If our school was asked “Which Disney princess are you?” We’d answer “Mononoke.”

And her phrase stuck with me as I thought about how best to approach the final weeks of this unusual school year.

Acknowledge the dread, was my first takeaway. That our students and staff and families are feeling pressure, unprecedented stress, and worry is a real thing, and smiling and pretending that isn’t the case doesn’t do anyone any good. The causes of understandable anxiety are many and varied. Not all of us can understand exactly what it’s like to face them all, but as we begin the climb back up to more solid ground it is important that we recognize that the trauma that has helped to define our past year is real and the way through is long, may be complicated, and is best managed by all of us supporting one another.

That community, that sense of good will, that is what I hear in my student’s other two words. Sure there is a level of despair, but our engagement with those emotions can be on our terms, good natured. I quoted the stoic philosopher Epictetus a few posts back and will echo that again here: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.”

We can and should face the feelings that have grown over the past months, and it seems to me that we’d be wise to do so with the same strength and cheek of the student describing how she was feeling about school and life.

Back to that princess, hardly Disney, I mentioned earlier. In Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke a character named Osa, bandaged head to toe and wracked by leprosy, tells our hero: “Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”

Epictetus, Miyazaki, that ACMA senior, they each have something to teach us. We are not without stress, or justifiable anxiety, or disappointment, and… 

We don’t have to face these alone or without hope. Together it’s natural to bemoan a bit, empathize with one another, and maybe, just maybe, feel good natured dread. I’m convinced that months from now that good natured dread will fuel stories of resilience, shared strength, and the power of our human spirit.

Permission

Not long ago my staff and I shifted gears and set aside a chunk of our planned professional development to allow ourselves some time to connect. Once we were there (well, on the Zoom together anyway), people listened and I think heard the overwhelming truth that while we may be stressed, while we may hold on more to worry than we’d like, and while many of us (at least by a show of hands) aren’t sleeping as well as we wish we were, we are not alone.

Along with our stories we shared some laughter, hardly a surprise with our caring staff, and some ideas about how we can continue to adjust things as we start the new semester. Most of all it felt like the alchemy of this adjusted day made something better than gold out of our very raw and real emotions. I think many of us felt something almost akin to hope.

It was nice to have permission to feel that too.

Comprehensive distance learning has been hard. It’s been hard on students, on teachers, on staff, and on families. We try our best and work with purpose and professionalism, and sometimes the results are pretty great. Other times, well, comprehensive distance learning is hard.

So for that professional development, after listing a menu of options for a variety of topics I added one last option for my staff.

“Finally,” I wrote, “I’d like to add one more: permission. If you need to not attend one of these, if you need to go for a walk, snuggle with your pet, or call a friend, then please give yourself permission to do so. You matter so much, and taking care of yourself, showing yourself kindness, and giving yourself grace, all these are important too.”

As educators we are givers. We give to our students, our colleagues, and our school community. We give of our time, our hearts, and sometimes our pocketbooks. We give to everyone who needs us, except (all too often) ourselves.

Few staff members took me up on that final choice, though the responses I got to that PD email were as kind as they were heartfelt, and I like to imagine that the willingness to shift gears and focus on engaging with one another might have helped too.

And then I got an email from one of my amazing teachers who I’d asked for ideas about future PDs. She wrote some very kind words about including that final option and then offered some suggestions that made me smile:

“That’s a  long intro to some ideas,” she wrote, “and I don’t know what boxes you have to check so that site PD is indeed site PD, but….

“Permission to relax. Permission to laugh. Permission to learn from our mistakes and from each other without a heavy title/subject attached.

“Kemba-led-yoga

“Mark-led drawing

“Remote Teaching BINGO (have had a silly autocorrect in Zoom chat, have typed an angry email that you didn’t send, cried during Zoom, cried after Zoom, stopped everything mid-Zoom and pivoted because it clearly wasn’t working, is feeling your eyesight go downhill because of all this screen time)

“An option to read/listen to/watch all these lovely “we’re not alone/here’s someone who loves teachers giving you advice” articles, clips, etc. that staff members share and I, for one, would love to read/listen to/watch, but honestly… when? If you TOLD me to pick one, sit back and watch it? I would.

“Break out rooms to share something that you’ve been doing that’s totally unrelated to remote teaching. Something human that brings some joy and reminds us that we’re all still living lives that are rich and don’t include a screen. 

“Having said all this, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re ALWAYS ON A SCREEN. It’s simply exhausting. And it’s always there. Before, during, and after class… grading, planning, meetings. All of it. For many of us, the only thing stronger than our desire to be with our co-workers and friends is our desire to watch screen time die a quick death. If you could get us all hazmat suits and/or accelerate the vaccine so we could mingle on the blacktop… that’d be great!”

I can’t afford hazmat suits, and I doubt Risk Management would smile on that anyway, but I can weave some of her ideas into future PD. If working with my amazing staff has taught me anything during this strange, strange, strange time, it’s the importance of laughter, of love, and the importance of allowing ourselves permission.

Keep faith. Find joy. Make art.

I made a video last week, one of a series of short and somewhat silly attempts to keep a human face in front of my school community, a reminder that we’re all in this together and even separated by the pandemic our ACMA spirit is very much alive. It was, as nearly all my videos are, unscripted and unrehearsed. A friend of mine, Scott, a videographer in San Diego, used to kid me about my single takes and lack of notes. This short kept to that tradition.

And…

As a fellow who likes words, the more I thought about the message of that short message, the more I felt like I wanted to expand on it a little, flesh out my thoughts, add an example or two. That fleshing out is this, a post with the heartfelt, modest message: Keep faith, find joy, and make art.

Restrictions about social gatherings in person, and the fact that we have been away from school since last March have many of us feeling more isolated and apart than we’ve ever felt. One of my counselors compared what we’re experiencing with astronauts journeying out into space. “The difference,” she told me, “is that the astronauts know when they’re coming back to earth.”

So while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes, to look up from a day of Zoom meetings and just feel tired, to realize after a day or two that you haven’t left the house in a day or two … it’s important to keep faith. We not only will get through this, but we are getting through this. 

Right now, as difficult as it is to be separated from friends, to be away from school (for teachers as well as students), and to live with an uncertainty about when things will be a little less strange, we are doing our best. Every day we’re a day closer to students returning to classes. Every day we’re a day closer to welcoming friends and family into our homes. Every day we’re closer to vaccinations and celebrations. Every day.

There’s a line in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” And while the road has darkened in the past few months, our faith in a world improved need not disappear.

And while we work hard and do all we can to make the most of this imperfect present, it’s also important that we find joy. This could be as simple as petting our cat or dog, strumming a ukulele, or listening to music. It could be texting a friend, playing Minecraft, or going for a walk. I dig reading, others like reality TV, still others want to dance, sing, and write poetry. Yes. Yes. And Yes.

Because even as we understand that our world is not yet the world we would like it to be, and that challenges beyond the pandemic are there waiting for us to face them, it’s okay to take a deep breath and have a cup of hot chocolate. 

Finding joy will help to keep us buoyant enough to meet the hardships that we will face. Sharing joy, when we’re able, will help our world overcome those hardships.

Faith, joy, and art. It’s that third one that might really serve as a call to action right now. You see I work at an art school, filled to the brim with creative souls. I miss their smiles, their flair, their way of being in the world every day we’re not on campus, and…

I’m inspired to know that they are still making art. I see it when I visit classes, when I host open mic nights online, and when I walk into the foyer of the school and see the carts with clay, paint, and finished sculpture projects on them (dropped off by students and fired by our amazing ceramics teacher). I saw it in the shirt designed by one of my students, a vision of our school as a human, sensibly wearing a mask. And I feel the truth of a quotation by British novelist Iris Murdoch that I used to have hanging in my classroom:

“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”

Age has led me to believe that art might not be the only thing that matters, but I do believe that art and artists do change the world. Today, as I looked back on that little video I thought of the students, staff, and parents who make up my school family and I was filled with faith, joy, and the desire to make art.

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.